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April 8, 2013

The Asian Equation

What's at Stake?

by Michael Street

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Even though Japanese players first came to the major leagues almost 50 years ago (and attempts to sign them to an MLB team date back nearly 80 years), the Asian import market is still fairly new. Aside from Hideo Nomo’s dominant debut in 1995 and Ichiro Suzuki’s spectacular arrival in 2001, only a handful of Asian imports have consistently succeeded in MLB, mostly relievers, along with a few starting pitchers and position players.

That gives each new Eastern import something to prove, whether it’s the value of a different Asian league, a new way to reach MLB, or just that he’s the next Asian star. Today, I’ll look at what five prominent Asian imports have to prove—and whether they can prove it.

Hyun-jin Ryu | P | Los Angeles Dodgers
: The first pitcher ever to come to MLB from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) via the posting system, Ryu has an impressive KBO resume. As a 19-year-old rookie, Ryu posted an 18-6 record and led the league with 204 strikeouts in 201 innings, becoming the first KBO pitcher to be named Rookie of the Year and MVP. Ryu led the KBO in strikeouts four more times over the next six years, accumulating a 98-52 record with a 2.80 ERA. He was the winning pitcher when Team Korea took gold at the 2008 Olympics, and he helped South Korea win silver at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

What’s at Stake? Ryu bears the future of KBO imports on his (rather substantial) shoulders. If he goes all Dice-K on the Dodgers, it will be a while before we see another KBO pitcher posted to MLB.

Prognosis: There are plenty of caveats in the KBO plaudits above. KBO has just eight teams comprised of mostly minor-league talent, making it much easier to dominate. Ryu didn’t face MLB-caliber opposition in the Olympics, either. At the 2009 WBC, two other Korean pitchers (Suk-min Yoon and former major leaguer Jung Bong) put up better numbers than Ryu. Ryu wasn’t as dominant in the KBO as Yu Darvish had been in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), and Darvish was good but not great last year in the majors.

On the plus side, Ryu has a friendly home park, where he managed a decent debut, relying mostly in his fastball and change. Though he gave up 10 hits, Ryu kept the ball down, so all 10 were only singles. Best of all, he fanned five while walking none, showing none of the control problems of other Asian starters. I expect modest success from Ryu this year, but I don’t expect him to go Gangnam Style and throw the door wide open to fellow KBO hurlers.  

Junichi Tazawa | P | Boston Red Sox
History: The only way for a Japanese-born player to dodge the shackles of the posting system is to skip the league’s amateur draft. Prior to 2008, only Mac Suzuki and Kazuhito Tadano bypassed it, but neither did so voluntarily: youthful indiscretions made them undraftable by image-conscious NPB teams. Suzuki was expelled from high school, while Tadano appeared in a gay porn film in college.

Junichi Tazawa had no such blots on his record, but he chose to skip the NPB draft in 2008, a move that led to a rule barring future NPB draft dodgers from returning to the league for three years after leaving MLB. Boston ultimately signed Tazawa, and he lived up to the hype by reaching the majors in his first pro season. But Tazawa didn’t pitch too well when he was there, putting up an ugly 5.59 FIP and 5.75 FRA in 25.1 innings. He missed parts of the next two seasons to Tommy John surgery, but pitched impressively out of the bullpen upon his return, logging a 1.77 FIP and 2.61 FRA in 44 innings last season.

What’s at Stake? If Tazawa can stick in MLB, other players may follow, leading to serious changes to the posting system. Shohei Otani, another highly regarded young Japanese pitcher with triple-digit heat, almost skipped last season’s NPB draft. If Tazawa had succeeded sooner, Otani might have chosen differently.

Prognosis: Tazawa improved in many areas last season, as his fastball went from a pitch that touched the low 90s to one that regularly reached the mid-90s, setting up his splitter even better. He upped his strike percentage from 61 to 70 and his swinging-strike percentage from 8 to 22. About the only warning sign comes from his 86.9 percent strand rate, which suggests that Lady Luck was on Tazawa’s side. As BP 2013 notes, Tazawa should throw plenty of high-leverage innings for Boston and could be a closer somewhere down the line. If he does, expect many more NPB draft dodgers in our future.

Hiroyuki Nakajima | SS | Oakland Athletics
: Nakajima was posted in 2011 after hitting over .300 for seven of 10 seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions, making the All-Star game eight times and winning three Gold Gloves. The Yankees won the bidding, but couldn’t come to terms with him—hardly surprising, since they had no place to put him in the lineup. Adding the $2.5 million posting fee to Nakajima’s salary might have made the price too steep for a utility infielder, even for the Yankees. So Nakajima returned to NPB in 2012, earning his free agency and eliminating the need for a posting fee. Oakland signed Nakajima to a two-year deal (with an option for a third) before this season, giving them a potential starting shortstop or even a second baseman if Jemile Weeks couldn’t rebound from his weak .221/.305/.304 line.

What’s at Stake? Nakajima needs to show that the NPB can produce a starting-caliber MLB shortstop. Only two Japanese shortstops have played the position in the majors: Kazuo Matsui had to shift to second, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka played only part of his first season before washing out and returning to Japan.

Prognosis: The Athletics’ trade for Jed Lowrie gave Nakajima a vote of no-confidence before spring training even began, and once it did, Nakajima failed to impress, hitting .167/.286/.190 and leading to reports that he might begin the season in the minors. Ultimately, Oakland resolved their infield dilemma by placing Nakajima on the disabled list, and he’ll start 2012 in Triple-A on a rehab assignment. While it’s unlikely that Oakland will let their $6.5 million shortstop fester in the minors, he faces an uphill climb to return to the club’s active roster. Given the history of Japanese shortstops and this poor beginning, we may have to wait for someone else to prove that NPB imports can stick as MLB shortstops.

Ichiro Suzuki | RF | New York Yankees
History: As the most idiosyncratic player on either side of the Pacific, Ichiro has been largely responsible for the flood of position players to jump from NPB to MLB. In his seven seasons in Japan, Ichiro set nine NPB records for (among other things) hits in a season (210, set in his rookie year in a 130-game season), consecutive games reaching base (26), and consecutive at-bats without striking out (216). Ichiro finished his NPB career with a .353/.434/.522 line, including 1278 hits and 199 stolen bases in 3619 at-bats, but he wasn’t finished with baseball.

The only MLB player other than Fred Lynn to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, Ichiro amassed the most hits from 2000-2010, despite starting his MLB career in 2001. He became the first Japanese player (and second-fastest player ever) to collect 2,000 MLB hits, not long after reaching 3,000 total hits in both NPB and MLB. He set a new MLB record with 10 straight seasons with at least 200 hits, and he tied Lou Gehrig’s record of eight seasons with at least 200 hits and 100 runs scored, doing so in eight consecutive seasons, which Gehrig never did. Since 2010, the last year Ichiro reached that 200-hit plateau, he has failed to hit .300 or approach that 200-hit mark again.

What’s at Stake? For a chance at a World Series ring, Ichiro will need to rejuvenate himself with the injury-hobbled Yanks. But if he can play well enough to get 400 more hits and reach the hallowed 3,000 mark, he would virtually ensure himself a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Prognosis: After being traded to the Yankees last season, Ichiro hit 62 points higher in pinstripes and boosted his ISO by 40 points. I expect him to sustain some of his bounceback (if only because of the ballpark), but we can’t put too much stock into those final 240 plate appearances. It doesn’t take a BP writer to tell you that it would require a superhuman effort from both Ichiro and the other Yankees to overcome their injuries and win a championship.

As for the 3,000-hit mark: predicting Ichiro has long been a challenge at Baseball Prospectus, but PECOTA’s 50th-percentile projection gives him 171 hits for 2013, with 201 in his 90th percentile. He’d have to beat that ceiling in his age-39 and age 40-seasons, plus play at least part of another season, to reach 3,000 hits. As a Yankee, he’s also hit lower in the order, costing him chances to amass more hits.

However, Ichiro has defied expectations his whole career, and he’s proven to be amazingly resilient, too. His only DL stint came in 2009, for a bleeding ulcer, and he’s missed only nine other games to injury in his career, eight of those coming at the end of that rough 2009 season. He should stay healthy enough to reach the 3K mark, if he wants, though it won’t happen during his current contract with New York.

Norichika Aoki | RF | Milwaukee Brewers
With NPB’s Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Aoki was named Rookie of the Year in 2005, setting Central League records with 202 hits and 169 singles while taking the Central League batting title with  a .344 average. He won two more batting championships and six Gold Gloves as the Swallows’ center fielder, hitting .329 along the way. Aoki hit over .300 for six of his seven seasons, offering modest power (82 home runs) and speed (118 stolen bases from 2005-2008), although he stole only 45 bags in the three seasons that followed.

Last year, Mat Gamel’s ACL injury pushed Corey Hart to first base and opened up a spot in the Brewers’ outfield for Aoki, who took the opportunity and ran with it. He finished the season with a .288/.355/.433 triple-slash, 30 steals, 10 homers, and 81 runs in 588 plate appearances. It was good enough for only fourth place in 2012 ROY voting, but in the context of Asian imports, he did quite well. Aoki’s debut was the best rookie performance by any Japanese outfielder not named Ichiro, and his 10 longballs represented the first time any Japanese import increased his home run total in MLB (not hard to do, given that he hit just four in his final NPB season).

What’s at Stake? Aoki could leverage his leadoff skills to join Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki as the only NPB outfielders who have stuck as MLB regulars.

Prognosis: Aoki’s numbers in the leadoff spot compared well to both MLB leadoff hitters last season and Ichiro’s career numbers (93 percent of which came as in the leadoff spot).







Aoki 2013






Ichiro career average






MLB leadoff hitter average






Aoki couldn’t quite match Ichiro’s average-driven OBP, but he certainly topped the MLB field. It would be too much to expect Aoki (or anyone) to equal his countryman in swipes or stolen-base percentage. Ichiro averaged an 85.0 percent steal rate between 2005 and 2011, including 2006’s incredible 45-for-47, the best-ever rate for anyone with at least 40 steals. Aoki’s below-average patience is still better than Ichiro’s, but Aoki is more powerful than either Ichiro or the average leadoff man by a fair stretch.

Overall, there was little in Aoki’s statistical line to suggest that 2012 was an anomaly, from his .304 BABIP to his 88.4 percent contact rate and his 7.9 percent home run rate. He’s unlikely to become the all-around player that Ichiro was, but he’s definitely well above average offensively from the leadoff spot. I expect Aoki to build on his gains and establish himself as a valuable Asian import and leadoff hitter with a good blend of speed, power, and patience.

Related Content:  Korea,  Japan,  Asia

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