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July 7, 2011
The Asian Equation
The Decline of NPB Pitching Imports
In the flood of players coming from Japan, the majority (34 of 43) have been pitchers. Unlike the pursuit of the next Ichiro I described in my previous column, this has less to do with the success of Hideo Nomo than it does with the pitching market–pitching is a difficult commodity to find in any league. What has doomed many NPB starters in MLB, however, has been both talent and adjustment to a different pitching philosophy. To understand and explain the differences between the two, I’ve drawn not only on my own expertise, but relied on Japanese pitching expert Patrick Newman at NPB Tracker for additional insight.
Pitching differences reflect a deeper philosophical difference between Japanese and American baseball. As I discussed in my first Asian Equation column, Japanese culture appreciates baseball’s emphasis on discipline, sacrifice, and the dramatic showdown between pitcher and batter. Instead of putting a batter away quickly, NPB pitchers build tension by indiscriminately filling counts before a perfectly placed strike three resolves the battle. These aren’t seen as “wasted” pitches, instead reflecting the samurai-like virtues of endurance and dramatic battles.
Japanese pitchers have no inning limits or pitch counts at any level, and high-school games are incredibly popular, leading to absurd abuse on young arms like the 38 innings and 500-plus pitches Daisuke Matsuzaka threw over a four-day stretch at the 1998 Koshien high-school tournament. This continues in NPB; as Patrick points out, NPB pitchers go deeper into games with more rest days in between and with more rigorous off-day workouts. That creates different physiological impacts on the bodies of Japanese pitchers, one that may lead to health problems in MLB.
NPB pitchers also rely more on the breaking ball, either because they lack power arms or because the form-obsessed Japanese appreciate the pinpoint precision of a perfectly placed breaking ball over the sheer force of a blazing fastball. Their pitchers often master five-to-six pitches, like Hideaki Wakui, whom Patrick has charted with seven different offerings.
After filling the count, NPB pitchers will often use one of these breaking pitches on a 3-2 count, a stratagem that’s helped by more subjective umpiring. NPB umps are given a few weeks’ training and don’t have a system like QuesTec or PITCHf/x to rate them or a strong player union to demand excellence. Instead, angry NPB players often berate them, even making physical contact, leading umps to favor big-name pitchers or top teams to a much greater degree than in MLB.
The combination of these factors creates several adjustment problems for NPB pitchers making the switch to the majors. Those who succeed as starters typically pitch aggressively, have good fastballs, and adjust to the conditioning and workout schedule without incurring injury—the same tools any MLB pitcher would need. The disproportionate number of high-profile flameouts among NPB starters (or pitching prospects anywhere) shows how hard this is, although there have been some notable successes; relievers have been more successful, a subject I’ll cover in my next column.
As with the position players, I’m ranking the starters on their per-WARP dollar return. For comparison purposes, I’ll again cite the Baseball Nerd study that showed teams averaged $2.2M per WARP in 2007-8. Shifting markets and inflation makes this as good a measure as any, though it’s a slightly crude comparison.
Career Earnings: $7.3M
Per-WARP Cost: $.8M
I have often offered Kuroda as the most effective NPB starter, and this cost analysis bears that out. He’s also the only contemporary pitcher this high on the list, meaning his value isn’t increased by comparing dollars from different decades. His success has come despite a modest NPB career when he accumulated a 103-89 record with a 3.69 ERA and 1,257 strikeouts in 1700 innings, most notably leading the Central League in complete games five out of six seasons between 2000 and 2005.
Kuroda was the Dodgers’ most consistent starter in his first three seasons thanks to excellent control and ground ball rates, leading to a very strong SIERA (ranking among pitchers with more than 100 IP in parenthesis):
Those fantastically low walk rates also help his 6.6 K/9, which is low despite a good low-nineties fastball. He’s also avoided major injury, hitting the disabled list three times, only once for arm-related issues. Kuroda typifies the successful NPB import: low walk rates, a good (albeit not dominant) fastball to complement his splitter and curve, and good health.
Tomokazu Ohka 12.2 WARP
Career Earnings: $12.3M
Per-WARP Cost: $1.0M
Ohka is a surprise to be ranked this high with a value coming from low cost and longevity, not top-notch performance. The Red Sox purchased Ohka from the Yokohama BayStars in 1998, though a gift makes more sense, since Ohka sported a 5.65 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 57.1 innings over four NPB seasons. Ohka’s minor-league performances suggested more, including Pawtucket’s first no-hitter in 1999 and the International League’s third perfect game ever in 2000. He couldn’t translate this success to the majors with Boston, though, logging a 4.61 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP, whiffing 5.7 while walking 3.4 per nine in 2000.
The next season, Boston traded him to Montreal, where Ohka had his two best seasons in 2002 and 2003. He compensated for a pedestrian 5.4 K/9 with a good 2.1 BB/9, leading to WARPs of 3.2 (38th in MLB) in 2002 and 3.5 (36th) in 2003. In 2004, his strikeout rate slipped to 4.0 in his first 82 innings before Carlos Beltran broke his arm with a line drive, ending Ohka’s season. A 2005 incident when Ohka turned his back on Frank Robinson led to a trade to Milwaukee and the beginning of the end for Ohka.
Whether due to the arm injury or diminishing skills, his offspeed pitches no longer fooled batters or found the strike zone, driving his strikeout rate down and his walk rate up. But for a brief spell, Ohka had combined aggressiveness, health, and a good mixture of pitches to achieve MLB success, earning his spot as a decent NPB import.
Hideo Nomo 27.8 WARP
Career Earnings: $40.0M
Per-WARP Cost: $1.4M
Like Ohka, Nomo’s value is derived from longevity, but Nomo also ranks highly because he was paid in 1990’s dollars in his peak years. Still, he often finished among the leaders in strikeouts during that peak, enabling him to overcome elevated walk rates. In his rookie year, Nomo led the league in strikeouts (236), K/9 (11.1), shutouts (3), H/9 (5.8), and wild pitches (19) while ranking fifth in complete games (5); second in ERA (2.54), walks (78), and WHIP (1.06); and tenth in WARP (3.9).
He would never have such a dominant season again, but his WARP ranks show six more strong years: 1996 (4.5, 18th), 1997 (3.8, 26th), 1999 (3.1, 47th), 2000 (3.0, 41st), 2001 (3.3, 35th), and 2003 (3.2, 48th). During 2001, he again led the league in strikeouts (220), strikeouts per nine (10.0), and walks (96) while throwing his second no-hitter in his Red Sox debut. His first no-no came in 1996, in pre-humidor Coors Field, still the only one ever thrown in that park or by a Japanese pitcher.
Nomo’s strikeout dominance (he never registered fewer than 8.2 K/9 from 1995 through 2001) offset his high walk rates, which fell below 4.0 BB/9 only in his first two seasons. Other than this tendency, however, Nomo offered a good NPB skillset. His fastball and forkball, augmented by his tornado delivery, made a dominant pitch combination. He was also durable, averaging 199 innings per season between 1995 and 2003. This and his relatively low price (his highest salary was $9M in 2004) place him deservedly high on this list.
Career Earnings: $7.9M
Per-WARP Cost: $1.5M
Yoshii spent three years as the closer for the Kintetsu Buffaloes before converting to starting for the 1993 Yakult Swallows. The team won a Japan Championship in 1997, thanks in part to Yoshii’s 13-6, 2.99 ERA season. A moderate bidding war ensued, and (after an encouraging phone call from Hideo Nomo) the normally unassuming Yoshii surprised everyone by signing with the Mets for just $200,000, a fraction of the $9M offered by the mighty Yomiuri Giants.
Yoshii reeled off seven quality starts in his first nine appearances in 1998, including a one-hitter against Cincinnati. Later that season, Nomo joined the Mets, marking the first time two Japanese pitchers appeared in the same MLB rotation. Yoshii finished the season with a 6-8 record, 3.93 ERA, and 1.28 WHIP–thanks to a career-best 6.1 K/9 that made his 2.8 BB/9 tolerable–combining for a 1.6 WARP–also his best ever.
Yoshii parlayed this debut into a more lucrative two-year deal before beginning a slow decline. In 1999, his K/9 diminished to 5.4 and his BB/9 rose to 3.0, but he reeled off nine straight quality starts to end the season and helped the Mets reach the playoffs. That completed Yoshii’s brief peak, and he was traded to the Rockies and then to the Expos, remaining fungible by decreasing his walk rates to around two per nine. He couldn’t put batters away, though, and his hit and home run rates swelled until 2002 shoulder surgery spelled the end. His moderate paychecks and brief peak rank him high on this list; that peak came courtesy of good control, but he lacked a dominant pitch and health to ensure long-term success.
Career Earnings (est.): $4.8M
Per-WARP Cost: $2.4M
Suzuki became the first Japanese-born player to come straight to MLB after getting suspended from his high school team, effectively ending his Japanese career. Suzuki’s 95 mph fastball attracted the Seattle Mariners’ attention, where he signed a one-year, $1.75M deal in 1994, but he never amounted to much for the Mariners—or the Royals, Rockies, or Brewers. Shoulder injuries and control problems prevented him from realizing his fastball’s promise, as evidenced by his career 6.3 K/9 and 5.1 BB/9. His contract details weren’t often reported, so I’ve estimated his earnings at the major-league minimum when I couldn’t find them. Either way, his value is largely a function of low cost.
Career Earnings: $15.5M
Per-WARP Cost: $2.6M
Yankees fans may be shocked to see the infamous Fat Pussy Toad ranked relatively low, but Irabu’s perceived lack of value comes from elevated expectations and deflated late-1990 dollars. He delivered a smidge of value for both the Yanks and the Expos while contributing to the establishment of the current posting system.
Irabu’s inconsistent career led pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to say that Irabu could look like the best—and worst—pitcher he’d ever seen. In his debut season, Irabu finished with a 7.09 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP explained not by his strong 9.5 K/9 but by his 3.4 BB/9, 2.5 HR/9, and a .351 BABIP. Those last numbers come not from luck, but from his tendency to groove a pitch after falling behind.
In 1998, Irabu’s primary stats improved to 13-9 with a 4.06 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, but his peripherals slipped badly to 6.6 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9. He still became the first Japanese-born player to win a World Series ring, despite not appearing in the postseason. Irabu’s ERA and WHIP slipped in 1999, but he posted a career-best 3.0 WARP after halving his walk rate to 2.4 while boosting his whiffs to 7.1 per nine. He gave the Yanks one miserable postseason start but still got another ring.
Steinbrenner then unloaded his Japanese albatross on the Montreal Expos, where injury and attitude problems led to a 6.69 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in just 71.1 innings over two years despite improved peripherals of 2.1 BB/9 and 7.6 K/9. Though he found control, Irabu’s inconsistency, poor health, and bad attitude led to weak results. He brought enough value to avoid the lowest spot on this list, beginning a parade of busts that could doom the future of NPB veteran starters in MLB.
Kazuhisa Ishii 3.3 WARP
Career Earnings: $23.6M
Per-WARP Cost: $7.2M
Ishii’s NPB career was marked by wildness, inconsistency, and makeup problems. To go along with three sub-3.00 ERA seasons, Ishii had four years with an ERA over 4.00, and while he was the second-fastest player to accumulate 1,000 strikeouts, he frequently led the league in walks and wild pitches. He was known for indifferent workout habits, leading to frequent (and sometimes dubious) injuries, and for taking himself out of a game after throwing 100 pitches, tantamount to cowardice in Japan.
But Ishii was a lefty with a fastball in the mid-nineties and a knee-buckling curve, and the Dodgers thought he was the next Hideo Nomo. So they paid the Yakult Swallows his $11.2M posting fee, signing Ishii to an ill-advised $12.3M, four-year contract. Ishii repaid them with two decent seasons, 2003 and 2004, accumulating a 2.5 WARP, 4.32 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, and a woeful 5.6 BB/9. His extreme control problems, underwhelming strikeout numbers, and morose attitude make him a bad deal even without the posting fee, which would have cost the Dodgers $3.8M per WARP. The most memorable moment of Ishii’s career had to be the Brian Hunter line drive he took off his forehead in 2002, which resembled the self-administered dope slap the Dodgers gave themselves over this deal.
Career Earnings: $23M
Per-WARP Cost: $7.2M
Kawakami signed a three-year, $23M contract with the Atlanta Braves in 2008 after an eleven-year NPB career loaded with accolades, from a Rookie of the Year award to his 2007 Chunichi Dragons winning their first Japan Series crown in over fifty years. Patrick’s got a great scouting report on Kawakami, indicating that he succeeded not by blowing away hitters but with precise location; witness his 1328 career strikeouts against just 351 walks in 1642.1 innings.
That didn’t translate to Atlanta, though, where he couldn’t find the strike zone, and when he did, the results were often disastrous. After nibbling, he’d give batters a cookie, and they gobbled it up. His primary stats in 2009 were pretty decent (3.86 ERA, 1.35 WHIP), but his 3.3 BB/9 were a good sign that he was playing with fire. That fire became an inferno in 2010 when he put up nearly identical walk and strikeout rates, but an uptick in line-drive rate and a 21-point rise in BABIP indicated that major-league hitters were on to him. He’s currently in Double-A, where he was on the disabled list for a shoulder strain earlier this season, perhaps giving him the trifecta of NPB doom: no putaway pitch, elevated walk rates, and injury. Not the worst pitcher on the list, Kawakami nonetheless qualifies as a high-profile disappointment.
Daisuke Matsuzaka 6.5 WARP
Career Earnings: $93.1M
Per-WARP Cost: $14.3M
Virtually the poster child for NPB failure, Dice-K’s $100M price tag brought high expectations, and he ended up exhibiting all three markers of poor NPB pitching performance. A high-school star, Matsuzaka dazzled with the Seibu Lions, a Rookie of the Year who helped them to their first championship in fourteen years, and he was typically among the league leaders in strikeouts, innings, wins, walks, and ERA.
Reputed to have a mythical gyroball to complement a two-seamer, four-seamer, curve, slider, and forkball, Dice-K’s best pitches in MLB have been his curve, slider, and two-seamer, but his placement has been spotty. As in Japan, Dice-K has been unafraid of walking batters, and even in 2007, his best season in that regard, he posted a 3.5 BB/9, which his strikeout ability (8.2 K/9 career average) couldn’t overcome.
His 14-12, 4.40 ERA debut in 2007 was his best season, posting a 3.2 WARP. His 2008 primary statistics, however, also make him the poster child for pitching luck. With an 18-3 record and a 2.90 ERA, it looked like vast improvement, but his 5.1 BB/9 showed a sharp dropoff in control, and his 8.3 K/9 was lower than his 8.8 K/9 in 2007, the first of four straight years of falling strikeout rates. Accounting for the difference was his .258 BABIP (41 points lower than the season before) and his 80.6 percent left on base percentage, both of which showed a huge assist from luck and sequencing.
2008 also saw the first of five disabled list stints in three years, four of them arm-related, leading to this season’s Tommy John surgery. Speculation points to his conditioning as the reason behind this, and his falling strikeout rates suggested injury, but Dice-K’s long history of arm abuse may have made this inevitable. His insane price tag would have put him low on this list, even with league-leading WARP levels, and removing his posting fee puts his $6.5 per-WARP cost just below Irabu. Regardless, he’s been a spectacular letdown thanks to injury, diminishing dominance, and lack of control and could be the one man most responsible for the decline in transpacific traffic, if not the complete shutdown of the NPB market.
Career Earnings: $2.8M
Per-WARP Cost: $28M
Tazawa made history by dodging the NPB draft, leading to a change in NPB rules to prevent further defections. His cost is so high because he spent so little time in the majors before undergoing TJS in 2010, and it’s hard to judge his 2009 season without factoring in the arm fatigue that ended it early. He’s working his way up through the minors right now with just 22 innings under his belt. He could redeem himself with a return to adequacy with the Sox, though, as his price tag is fairly low. Despite failing in the injury department, Tazawa doesn’t deserve to be so far down this list just yet, and his draft-dodging ways could be the wave of the future for NPB imports.
Career Earnings: $42M
Per-WARP Cost: $210M
If Yankees fans need to forget Irabu, they can always complain about Igawa, who fully merits placement as the biggest bust of NPB starters in MLB. Like the Dodgers did with Ishii, the Yanks salivated at the prospect of a hard-throwing lefty without looking at his NPB inconsistency. Despite strong strikeout numbers for the Hanshin Tigers, Igawa only gave them six full seasons, and two of the last three were relatively weak. But the Yankees threw $26M at Hanshin in 2006 anyway and a four-year, $20M deal at Igawa.
Igawa has pitched fairly well in the minors, with a cumulative 36-25 record, 3.81 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, but his strikeout numbers have dropped from a 9.4 K/9 peak in 2007 to 5.8 this season, a span when his walk rate has risen from 2.1 to 4.4. He’s been even worse in the majors, accumulating an appropriate 6.66 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 71.2 innings. While the 6.7 K/9 could work for him, the 4.6 BB/9 shows that he’s got the lack of control that has doomed many other NPB pitchers.
BP 2008 noted his inability to hit the plate as well as his generosity with the home run ball, reasons the Yanks dropped him from the 40-man in 2009. Despite avoiding injury, Igawa never displayed the dominance or control that are the essential parts of any pitcher’s arsenal. Even discounting his posting fee, he still comes in at $80M per WARP, lodging him firmly at the bottom of this list, perhaps providing the final blow that seals the fate of future high-priced NPB pitchers.