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November 26, 2012
The Art of NPB Scouting
In November of 2010, the Twins bid $5 million for the privilege of negotiating with Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who had been posted by his NPB team, the Chiba Lotte Marines. The 26-year-old was coming off a season in which he’d hit .346/.423/.482, leading Japan’s Pacific League in batting average, hits, runs, and total bases. Nishioka had won three Japanese Gold Gloves, and the Twins, whose astute scouting had led them to six division titles in the previous 10 seasons, envisioned him as their starting shortstop. After winning the bidding, they spent an additional $9 million to lock up Nishioka for the next three seasons.
Last December, the Brewers submitted a winning bid of $2.5 million—half of what the Twins had bid for Nishioka—to negotiate with Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki. It took $2.5 million more to secure his services for the next two seasons. The 29-year-old Aoki had posted a much more modest .292/.358/.360 line with just four home runs in his final Japanese season.
Compare the two players’ posting fees, contracts, and prior-season statistics, and you’d conclude that Nishioka was clearly the superior player. But we know what happened next. Nishioka flopped, hitting just .215/.267/.236 in 71 games and 254 plate appearances in the majors across two seasons and spending most of the second year in Triple-A (where he continued to hit poorly). His .021 Isolated Power for the Twins was the lowest of any hitter with at least 250 career plate appearances since World War II. Mercifully, he decided to return to Japan rather than stay in Minnesota for another season, taking the Twins off the hook for the third year.
Aoki, on the other hand, was a surprise success, boasting the best offensive season of any Japanese rookie since Ichiro Suzuki. He hit .288/.355/.433 with 10 homers and 30 steals, ranking fourth among NL rookies with 2.5 WARP and finishing fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He was also the first Japanese position player to see his home run total rise in is first season stateside.
Nishioka was coming off a BABIP-based career year, while Aoki had just completed his worst-ever effort, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock that both players weren’t quite what their most recent seasons suggested. Still, even well-informed analysts felt that Nishioka could help a team like the Twins. His struggles, and those of other disappointing imports who preceded him, have taught major-league teams that NPB stardom doesn’t always translate into MLB success. However, the tantalizing talent on display in Japan motivates major-league clubs to separate the players whose skill sets are well suited to the majors from those who would be hard-pressed to sustain their success in the U.S.
One of the top NPB players angling for a move to the majors this winter is Seibu Lions infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima, whom the Diamondbacks reportedly see as a potential solution at shortstop. The 30-year-old Nakajima hit .311/.382/.451—not far off from his career line—for the Lions last year, falling short of the Pacific League batting title by one point and ranking second in the league in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging. He’s a free agent, so Arizona (or any other team) can make him an offer without going through the posting process (last year, the Yankees won the rights to negotiate with Nakajima with a $2 million bid but couldn’t come to an agreement). But how can the Diamondbacks decide whether Nakajima is another Aoki or the next Nishioka?
Nationality aside, no player’s performance is completely predictable; promoting a prospect from the upper minors or even signing an established free agent comes with considerable risk. However, when projecting the performance of a Japanese player, teams have to try to anticipate not only how well he’ll handle a higher level of competition, but also a different style of competition and, crucially, the culture shock that comes with living and playing on a new continent.
Former Dodgers general manager (and current Baseball Prospectus columnist) Dan Evans signed both Kazuhisa Ishii and Hideo Nomo before the 2002 season and has scouted extensively in Japan, so he’s well aware of the evaluation problems posed by NPB players. The league’s introduction of a standardized, MLB-like ball in 2011 removed one complication, but Evans can still pinpoint several factors that make it more difficult to assess how a Japanese player might fare in the majors, including different playing surfaces and pitcher workloads, “conservative” team tactics, and approaches at the plate designed to combat pitchers who lead with their breaking balls to exploit the league’s larger strike zones.
According to Jason Coskrey, who covers baseball for the Japan Times, major-league teams attempt to limit risk by targeting a particular type of position player. “Guys who can consistently handle an MLB fastball are the sort of hitters who can thrive,” Coskrey says. “Leg-kicks are prevalent [in Japan], but they can elongate a swing. [Major-league hitters] have to deal with pitchers with better stuff pounding the strike zone.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to tell which players can handle major-league fastballs without actually seeing them stand in against big-league pitching. Teams can draw some conclusions from performance in international competition, against the hardest-throwing Japanese pitchers, or even in private workouts, but forecasting a full season’s stats requires teams to extrapolate from a player’s swing and approach at the plate. That makes it all the more important for teams to do their homework before committing to an NPB player. As Evans warns, “You need to get a lot of looks on these guys to have the best chance of getting the player right.”
As the relative size of the Nishioka and Aoki bids (and the regrettable fees for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa in late 2006) suggest, posting fees are an imprecise predictor of big-league success. However, a player’s position can offer some hints about how he might respond to relocating.
Evans believes that the transition is toughest on middle infielders and starting pitchers.
“Middle infielders suddenly play on different infield composition, as instead of mostly all-dirt or artificial turf infields, they are playing on infields that include a lot of grass and different dirt composites,” Evans says. He likens the challenge to “taking a golfer out of Florida and asking him to putt on California’s greens for the first time,” which could explain why a player like Kazuo Matsui, who won four Gold Gloves in Japan, lasted only one error-filled season at shortstop in the majors.
Starters, meanwhile, must learn to take regular turns in five-man rotations after years of pitching with six or seven days of rest. As Evans acknowledges, that “can be a difficult adjustment, as it involves teaching your body to respond to a different throwing routine and also getting used to working on a different calendar entirely.”
Some Japanese infielders and starters have made it in the majors—it helps to be Yu Darvish—but it’s probably not a coincidence that the most successful position player imports have been outfielders (Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Aoki), while a number of infielders (Kaz Matsui, Nishioka) and starting pitchers (Hideki Irabu, Matsuzaka, Igawa) have been notable NPB busts.
However, Nakajima may have one factor in his favor that is as vital to a transplant’s success as it is difficult to identify: good makeup.
The stats suggest that the level of play in NPB, while inferior to that of the majors, is more advanced than that of Triple-A: players who move from Triple-A to NPB tend to see their performance suffer (after adjusting for run environment). However, most Japanese signees, unlike other foreign players, go directly to the majors, leaving them little time to acclimate to their new surroundings. That means making quick adjustments to circumstances that are impossible to simulate, including a new language and a new mode of travel (planes instead of trains). Those off-the-field challenges could contribute to an effect Davenport dubbed the “homesickness factor,” a detectable difference between how players do in their first and second seasons overseas.
These peripheral pressures don’t affect all imports equally: the size of the market matters, as does the level of support a team is prepared to provide. According to Evans, one of the worst things a team can do to a player attempting to make the transition is add to the burden by “getting rigid” and “drastically altering his game and/or routine.”
“If the player was a star in the NPB game,” Evans argues, “chances are he is pretty good at preparing himself and also understands how to compete using his skills.” Thus, Evans advocates letting players who’ve become accustomed to preparing in a particular way continue to do so unless their routines are so radical that they distract their teammates. And while it’s hard to say with certainty how a player will handle the demands of a move from NPB to the majors, Evans believes that “a personality that allows for adaptation and change in major elements of their daily routine” is a crucial quality.
Coskrey calls that quality “the mental strength to adjust.”
“Not even all U.S. players can adjust to the MLB culture and the increase in level of play,” he observes. “Now try that while being in most cases the only person in the organization that speaks the language you do, or has had the same experiences, or is as far away from his family, or can’t find small things like the food he likes…Now make that adjustment when even things on the field, which is the place you feel most comfortable, are also a little foreign to you.”
According to Coskrey, Nakajima “has the mental makeup to do well. He’s a guy who’s really open to new things, really open to being coached, and the type of player I think won’t really have too much trouble adjusting to the lifestyle.” Coskrey believes that while Nakajima might not be Aoki’s offensive equal, he’s both a better hitter and better prepared for the mental strains of the move than Nishioka was. To carve out a career beyond the NPB, he’ll have to be.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .