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January 20, 2009

Over There, Over There

Cuban and Japanese Imports

by Clay Davenport

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In the past month, two Japanese pitchers have been signed by major league teams-Kenshin Kawakami, now with the Braves, and Koji Uehara, signed up by the Orioles. We've also heard of major league interest in some recent Cuban émigrés-Yadel Marti and Yasser Gomez, as well as Dayan Viciedo, who signed with the White Sox in November. Let's focus a translational microscope on each of these players, with an eye towards giving you an idea of what's in store.

Kenshin Kawakami
DOB: 6/22/75 (33)
Height/Weight: 5-10/200
Bats/Throws: R/R
Team: Chunichi Dragons, Central League, NPB


Real
Year  G  IP    H  ER HR BB  K  DERA  W  L SV  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 26 145.0 153 61 12 36 127 4.09  6 10  0  9.5  0.7  2.2 7.9 4.09 4.28  11  22  32
2002 27 187.7 170 54 13 34 149 2.95 12  6  0  8.2  0.6  1.6 7.1 2.95 3.52  -3  23  56
2003  8  53.7  60 22  2 14  37 3.62  4  3  0 10.1  0.3  2.3 6.2 3.62 4.31   5  14  13
2004 27 192.3 173 72 27 38 176 3.19 17  7  0  8.1  1.3  1.8 8.2 3.19 3.13 -14  20  55
2005 25 180.3 186 75 20 28 138 3.79 11  8  0  9.3  1.0  1.4 6.9 3.79 3.88  -7  14  39
2006 29 215.0 166 74 22 39 194 3.40 17  7  0  6.9  0.9  1.6 8.1 3.40 2.70 -23  21  58
2007 26 167.3 175 72 18 23 145 4.13 12  8  0  9.4  1.0  1.2 7.8 4.13 3.83  -6  19  33
2008 20 117.3  99 33 11 25 112 2.78  9  5  0  7.6  0.8  1.9 8.6 2.78 3.08 -10  27  37
Avg  23 155.5 145 57 15 29 133 3.48 10  6  0  8.5  0.9  1.7 7.7 3.48 3.49  -6  20  40

Translated Performance
Year  G  IP    H  ER HR BB  K  DERA  W  L SV  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 26 136.7 149 71 13 32 100 4.68  7  8  0  9.8  0.9  2.1 6.6 4.68 4.58  13  16  24
2002 27 172.0 170 69 14 41 104 3.63 12  7  0  8.9  0.7  2.1 5.4 3.63 4.01  -1  17  40
2003  8  50.0  58 24  2 16  26 4.28  3  3  0 10.4  0.4  2.9 4.7 4.28 4.90   7   8   9
2004 27 178.7 161 74 21 40 124 3.71 12  8  0  8.1  1.1  2.0 6.2 3.71 3.76 -12  15  42
2005 25 173.3 172 86 19 29 100 4.45 10  9  0  8.9  1.0  1.5 5.2 4.45 4.03  -5   9  34
2006 29 205.3 175 93 25 46 148 4.08 13 10  0  7.7  1.1  2.0 6.5 4.08 3.52 -21  15  47
2007 26 167.3 164 88 20 25 111 4.73  9 10  0  8.8  1.1  1.3 6.0 4.73 3.95  -3  13  33
2008 20 114.0  98 42 13 29  89 3.31  8  5  0  7.7  1.0  2.3 7.0 3.31 3.61  -8  20  30
Avg  29 182.0 165 81 21 38 129 3.97 11  9  0  8.2  1.0  1.9 6.4 3.97 3.74 -10  16  41

Kawakami has been one of Japan's better pitchers over the last decade, with a string of honors that include an NPB Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award (in 2004), and a Sawamura Award (roughly the equivalent of our Cy Young Award). The scouting reports say that while his fastball is just average, he earns high marks for his cutter, his slow curveball, and his control. I can't say I'm fond of the up-and-down pattern of his career, particularly since his three-year contract with the Braves is set to land on two of the down seasons were the pattern to persist.

There is a second reason for concern, however. Chunichi is regarded as a good pitchers' park, and the translation process may not be doing an adequate job of rendering this. The pitchers who have pitched in both Chunichi and in the US since 2003 have a combined translated ERA of 5.15 in Chunichi, and 5.98 elsewhere. On the other hand, that stat comes from just five pitchers, only one of whom-Luis Martinez-pitched more than 80 innings in Chunichi. The translation makes Kawakami roughly as good a pitcher as Jair Jurrjens was for the Braves last year; I don't think he'll do quite that well, but he ought to be better than an average National League pitcher.

Koji Uehara
DOB: 4/3/75 (34)
Height/Weight: 6-2/190
Bats/Throws: R/R
Team: Yomiuri Giants, Central League, Japan


Real
Year  G  IP    H  ER HR BB  K  DERA  W  L SV H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 24 138.7 133 66 18 28 108 4.63 10  7  0 8.6  1.2  1.8 7.0 4.63 3.85 -11  10  21
2002 26 204.0 173 65 18 23 182 3.26 17  5  0 7.6  0.8  1.0 8.0 3.26 3.01  -7  26  60
2003 27 207.3 190 76 28 23 194 3.24 16  5  0 8.2  1.2  1.0 8.4 3.24 3.16 -20  24  58
2004 22 163.0 135 54 24 23 153 2.82 13  5  0 7.5  1.3  1.3 8.4 2.82 2.68 -27  24  50
2005 27 187.3 164 73 24 22 145 3.55  9 12  0 7.9  1.2  1.1 7.0 3.55 3.01 -33  15  44
2006 24 168.3 157 67 24 21 151 3.93  8  9  0 8.4  1.3  1.1 8.1 3.93 3.48  -9  11  38
2007 55  62.0  47 12  4  4  66 1.86  4  3 32 6.8  0.6  0.6 9.6 1.86 1.90  -5  28  26
2008 26  89.7  90 43 11 16  72 4.74  6  5  1 9.0  1.1  1.6 7.2 4.74 3.82  -2   1  14
Avg  23 121.3 108 45 15 15 106 3.53  8  5  3 8.0  1.1  1.2 7.9 3.53 3.15 -11  18  31

Translated
Year  G  IP    H  ER HR BB  K  DERA  W  L SV H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 24 131.3 124 74 19 25  84 5.09  7  8  0 8.5  1.3  1.7 5.8 5.09 4.04  -9   4  21
2002 26 187.0 177 80 18 28 128 3.87 12  9  0 8.5  0.9  1.3 6.2 3.87 3.64  -5  20  46
2003 27 199.3 173 83 24 28 141 3.76 13  9  0 7.8  1.1  1.3 6.4 3.76 3.37 -18  18  51
2004 22 154.3 118 58 19 24 108 3.40 11  6  0 6.9  1.1  1.4 6.3 3.40 2.91 -26  19  44
2005 27 181.3 147 82 23 23 105 4.09 11  9  0 7.3  1.1  1.1 5.2 4.09 3.10 -32  10  44
2006 24 162.7 159 81 27 25 115 4.46  9  9  0 8.8  1.5  1.4 6.4 4.46 4.19  -8   5  29
2007 55  61.0  49 17  5  5  51 2.54  5  2 23 7.2  0.7  0.7 7.5 2.54 2.58  -4  23  22
2008 26  87.0  91 54 13 19  57 5.55  4  6  0 9.4  1.3  2.0 5.9 5.55 4.63   0  -6  10
Avg  37 116.0 109 58 15 19  79 4.52  6  6 13 8.5  1.2  1.5 6.2 4.52 3.92  -6   5  22

Uehara's pedigree is similar to Kawakami's-one of the country's better pitchers, with two Sawamura Awards to his credit. They know each other well, and actually taught each other some of their pitches. Uehara's best days appear to be further behind him then they are for Kawakami, though he was very impressive in relief in 2007; he began the year there while recovering from a leg injury, and he did so well that management didn't want to make any changes. His control is outstanding, virtually the standard of performance: it seems a common description of other pitchers is "good control, but not as good as Uehara." That will be a nice thing for the Orioles, who led all of professional baseball in walks last year. His best pitches are a slider and a forkball, both of which are best when he's ahead in the count and can make the hitters chase. Yomiuri pitchers have translated relatively well, though Okajima was much better than expected. He should be roughly around average, and more likely on the low side than the high.

Dayan Viciedo
DOB: 3/10/89 (20)
Height/Weight: 6-0/225
Bats/Throws: R/R
Team: Villa Clara, Cuba


Real
Year  AB   H 2B 3B HR BB  SO  R RBI SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  EqA EqR BABIP WARP MLV
2005 186  44  5  4  1  9  44 14  16  0  1 .237 .278 .323 .202  13 .305  -1.2 -23
2006 323 109 16  4 14 21  44 54  58  3  4 .337 .394 .542 .290  51 .358   3.9  20
2007 301  76 14  3  8 49  52 39  35  2  4 .252 .377 .399 .270  45 .282   1.5   0
2008 177  52  5  1 10 28  27 41  38  2  1 .294 .403 .503 .280  27 .300   2.2  16
Avg  586 167 24  7 20 64  99 88  87  4  6 .285 .370 .450 .267  80 .315   3.8   3

Translated
Year  AB   H 2B 3B HR BB  SO  R RBI SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  EqA EqR BABIP WARP MLV
2005 189  37  6  4  1  8  54 12  14  0  1 .196 .231 .291 .168   9 .269  -2.3 -34
2006 336  91  5  3 15 17  66 44  49  3  2 .271 .310 .467 .263  45 .298   0.9  -6
2007 321  70 15  2 12 40  79 38  36  2  2 .218 .313 .389 .245  38 .252  -0.2 -15
2008 188  44  5  1 10 22  40 33  32  2  1 .234 .319 .436 .259  25 .246   0.4  -8
Avg  595 139 23  5 24 55 136 78  79  4  3 .234 .305 .410 .247  70 .265  -0.6 -16

Viciedo is a third baseman, very young, and very strong. If his age is accurate-a pretty big assumption to make, unfortunately, with Cuban players-then he has been playing in Cuba's Serie Nacional since he was 16. The translation scheme in place is rating the Cuban league as being just a little below the typical rating for our Double-A leagues, which is substantially higher than I rated them several years ago. I would credit the improvement to the showings of Yuniesky Betancourt and Alexei Ramirez, who have driven the current ratings by performing better than expected. One thing that is different about these two-besides their success-is the limited amount of time they spent "out of baseball" after leaving Cuba. Look at some of the Cuban washouts from whom more was expected-players like Michel Abreu, Alay Soler, or Barbaro Canizares-and you'll see that they had layoffs of two years or more between their last Cuban game and their first professional game in the US. I'm thinking that the layoff was a significant, unaccounted-for drag on their skills, making the Cuban league look worse by comparison. Teams now appear to be able to get the more recent émigrés signed and playing before that skill erosion takes place, so I'm expecting Viciedo to retain a larger share of his success than I would have thought a year or two ago. His batting profile is fairly similar to Nationals' prospect Mike Burgess, who spent most of last year in the South Atlantic League-he displays a good deal of power at a young age, strikes out a bit too much, delivers low batting averages, and there are some concerns about his size that make you wonder if there's any further power left to develop. The translations are those of a good major league third baseman, but not those of a major star-in part because his EqAs have remained the same at ages where you'd expect them to move up significantly.

Yadel Marti
DOB: 7/22/79 (28)
Height/Weight: 5-10/
Bats/Throws: R/R
Team: Metropolitanos (2001); Industriales (2002-2008), Cuba


Real
Year  G   IP    H ER HR BB   K DERA  W  L SV  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 30  56.0  65 29  8 22  37 3.73  2  2 11 10.4  1.3  3.5 5.9 3.73 4.50   0   8  12
2002 30 114.3  97 36  4 22  66 2.41 12  3  2  7.6  0.3  1.7 5.2 2.41 2.31 -18  37  42
2003 16 108.3 106 45  6 36  76 2.90 10  2  1  8.8  0.5  3.0 6.3 2.90 3.10   2  35  36
2004 16  90.7  97 46  8 33  68 4.12  3 10  0  9.6  0.8  3.3 6.8 4.12 4.10   9  15  20
2005 17 117.0  95 29  5 31  79 2.07 11  2  0  7.3  0.4  2.4 6.1 2.07 2.57  -8  34  45
2006 17 117.0 111 43  6 23  85 2.72  9  5  1  8.5  0.5  1.8 6.5 2.72 5.15   0  42  32
2007 13  72.3  69 31  4 26  30 3.88  4  6  0  8.6  0.5  3.2 3.7 3.88 6.96   0   2   8
2008 15  66.3  66 28  4 21  36 3.03  4  2  1  9.0  0.5  2.8 4.9 3.03 5.79  -2  17  14
Avg  30 149.0 141 58  9 42  95 2.98 11  6  3  8.6  0.5  2.6 5.8 2.98 4.06  -3  27  41

Translated
Year  G   IP    H ER HR BB   K DERA  W  L SV  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 NERA PERA DLH STF RAR
2001 30  53.3  67 32 11 24  26 5.38  2  4 15 11.3  1.9  4.1 4.4 5.38 6.66   3 -11  -1
2002 30 109.3  93 44  8 26  53 3.61  7  5  1  7.7  0.7  2.1 4.4 3.61 3.36 -14  15  27
2003 16 101.0 113 50 10 37  63 4.48  6  5  0 10.1  0.9  3.3 5.6 4.48 5.14   8   9  14
2004 16  81.7 109 57 15 38  55 6.31  3  6  0 12.0  1.7  4.2 6.1 6.31 6.90  16 -14  -2
2005 17 107.0 106 42 11 34  64 3.54  7  5  0  8.9  0.9  2.9 5.4 3.54 4.39  -2  10  22
2006 17 111.0 118 50 12 25  79 4.08  7  5  0  9.6  1.0  2.0 6.4 4.08 4.46   7  17  22
2007 13  64.3  80 39 11 26  26 5.51  3  4  0 11.2  1.5  3.6 3.6 5.51 6.37   4 -22   1
2008 15  62.3  68 31  7 20  31 4.49  4  3  0  9.8  1.0  2.9 4.5 4.49 4.99   1  -6   8
Avg  35 171.0 190 87 21 55  91 4.60 10  8  9 10.1  1.1  2.9 4.8 4.60 5.19   7  -3  21

Marti is one of the top pitchers from Cuba and a veteran of various national teams, including the first WBC. He's won 10 games three times in the past eight years, a noteworthy achievement in a league with just a 90-game schedule, and he's done it largely on the strength of a devastating slider. The short seasons make it more difficult to get a good read; we're faced with some very good seasons, a couple of real stinkers, and an overall total that reads a little below league average. His translated statistics are better than those of any other pitcher who's left Cuba since 2000, with the exceptions of Jose Contreras (whose translated ERA was 4.20) and Alay Soler (3.72, but missed two full years before entering the US system). A guy who's half a run worse than Contreras is a legitimate major league pitcher, if not a particularly notable one. He has a pretty funky pause in his delivery, one that I'm thinking will give him a larger-than-usual advantage the first time a hitter sees him. At the risk of overthinking it, let's say he'll exceed expectations early, but the league will catch up with him.

Yasser Gomez
DOB: 4/1/80 (28)
Height/Weight: 5-9/170
Bats/Throws: L/L
Team: Industriales,Cuba


Real
Year  AB  H  2B 3B HR BB  SO  R RBI SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  EqA EqR BABIP WARP MLV
2001 200  76 11  3  1 35  18 45  28  8  5 .380 .477 .480 .303  34 .414  3.3   35
2002 282 103 19  3  4 25  30 52  33  3  5 .365 .423 .496 .297  46 .399  3.5   23
2003  93  23  0  0  0  6   8 13   7  0  0 .247 .298 .247 .183   5 .271 -0.7  -30
2004 342 103  8  2  0 31  16 42  40  1  3 .301 .369 .336 .246  37 .316  0.3  -11
2005 309 102 15  0  2 43  23 55  37  2  1 .330 .417 .398 .296  51 .352  2.6    9
2006 159  64 13  0  0 18  18 35  22  0  0 .403 .476 .484 .318  28 .454  2.2   31
2007 309 102 12  3  0 58  32 43  31  2  0 .330 .436 .388 .301  54 .368  3.2   14
2008 231  91 17  2  2 41   8 41  54  2  2 .394 .481 .511 .319  44 .403  4.6   39
Avg  573 198 28  4  3 77  46 97  75  5  5 .345 .427 .422 .290  89 .372  5.6   14

Translated
Year  AB   H 2B 3B HR BB  SO  R RBI SB CS   BA  OBP  SLG  EqA EqR BABIP WARP MLV
2001 209  60 12  2  1 31  23 35  22  6  3 .287 .379 .378 .273  30 .319  1.0  -1
2002 290  85 20  2  5 23  40 45  29  3  3 .293 .346 .428 .268  40 .327  1.1  -4
2003  96  19  0  0  0  5  11 10   5  0  0 .198 .240 .198 .141   3 .224 -1.5 -49
2004 349  93  8  2  0 29  22 37  35  2  2 .266 .326 .301 .224  31 .284 -1.4 -27
2005 319  96 10  0  5 38  31 50  37  2  1 .301 .375 .382 .270  43 .322  1.3  -2
2006 167  53 12  0  1 15  27 28  18  0  0 .317 .376 .407 .278  24 .374  0.7   1
2007 325  91 16  3  1 47  49 40  29  2  0 .280 .369 .357 .264  42 .327  0.9  -5
2008 245  79 18  2  2 32  12 34  45  2  1 .322 .394 .437 .295  42 .333  2.2  11
Avg  581 172 30  3  4 69  60 80  71  4  2 .295 .368 .380 .269  79 .324  1.3  -7

Gomez holds one of the highest career batting averages in Cuban history-and that's very close to representing his entire resume. He's a contact hitter, plain and simple, with no power at all, a highly regarded center fielder, and he is regularly described as fast despite the complete lack of stolen bases; it's not as if stolen bases are a rarity in Cuba, since four of his 2007 Industriales teammates stole 15 or more. That makes me suspect that he doesn't really have much speed at all, which also calls into question just how good a fielder he could be. He does look like he could be a good leadoff man to me, albeit not in the typical BP style.

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