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February 26, 2009
While it may seem like a wave of Japanese players have come across the Pacific to the US, the numbers aren't so large when you start isolating them by position. There have only been three pitchers in the last 10 years who came from Japan to the US to pitch at least 120 innings in a major league season. Those three: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kazuhisa Ishii. Another notable Japanese starter-Kei Igawa-came to the US with the intention of starting, but he failed to make the grade. This year, though, we have two more Japanese starters here to try their luck: Kenshin Kawakami with the Braves, and Koji Uehara with the Orioles.
Translating statistics between different leagues is a difficult enough task under the best of circumstances; translating across different cultures is even harder. A funny thing happened as I was researching this piece and zeroed in on Japanese starting pitchers-I came to the conclusion that there is a substantial difference in the performance of relief pitchers who worked in both Japan and the US, and the performance of starting pitchers.
In a typical year, once you correct for the differences in league averages, there is about a 10 percent drop-off in performance for the same pitcher in the US; if an average pitcher in Japan had a 4.50 ERA, you'd expect him to be about 4.95 stateside (i.e., he's allowing 10 percent more runs). When I re-ran the numbers, though, restricting it to starting pitchers only, I came up with a penalty of about 20 percent. Keep in mind that there aren't enough Japanese pitchers to analyze; you have to consider all of the American pitchers who go to Japan before you have enough of a sample to start realizing the extent of the problem. It isn't entirely clear why there should be a difference between starters and relievers; most of the changes should affect starters and relievers equally. It could be that there are more starter-to-reliever conversions going in the Japan-to-US direction; most pitchers benefit from being in relief. Another, more speculative possibility, is that all the starters in Japan benefit from a somewhat more spread-out schedule than in the US. In the NPB, most pitchers go on five, or even six days' rest between starts; our current standard of four days between starts is short by Japanese standards.
Taking that into account, of the four recent would-be starters, all have nearly matched these revised expectations. Consider the following tables; the pitchers' stats are averaged and translated to a common standard (where 4.50 ERA equals a perfectly average major league pitcher):
Kazuhisa Ishii IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 Japan 1999-2001 157 5.07 9.0 1.2 4.6 7.5 US, 2002-2005 137 5.13 8.7 1.1 5.1 6.4 Hiroki Kuroda IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 Japan 2005-2007 176 4.13 9.3 1.0 2.2 4.4 US, 2008 187 4.19 8.4 0.6 1.7 5.0 Daisuke Matsuzaka IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 Japan 2004-2006 167 4.15 8.7 0.9 2.8 6.4 US 2007-2008 182 3.94 8.0 0.9 3.8 7.9
All three performed very close to their established, translated Japanese levels. Translating Igawa's performance by this new method, it's little or no surprise that he failed for the Yankees:
Kei Igawa IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 Japan 2004-2006 177 5.55 10.1 1.3 3.4 5.8 US 2007-2008 36 5.27 10.8 1.9 4.1 6.0
That's only looking at the majors; Igawa's minor league translations lead to a perfectly consistent 5.42 ERA over the past two years, or someone who you probably don't want in your regular rotation, especially if you hope to contend.
What does this mean for Uehara and Kawakami? Let's start by pointing out that both of them have had excellent Japanese careers. Kawakami has a Sawamura Award (essentially, the Japanese leagues' equivalent to our Cy Young Award), an MVP award, and a Rookie of the Year award. Uehara picked up two Sawamura awards. Both are right-handed, they'll both turn 34 this year, they each rely on a somewhat exotic main pitch-Uehara throws a splitter/forkball, Kawakami a cutter-both have excellent control, and both have relatively average fastballs that can be readily hit.
But there are differences. Let's start with Uehara, whose last three years translates like this:
Uehara IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 2006 157 5.39 9.8 1.8 1.7 5.4 2007 59 3.05 8.1 0.9 0.9 6.6 2008 84 6.67 10.4 1.7 2.4 4.9
He had leg injuries in 2007, and he was forced to start the year in the bullpen; he performed so well there that the Giants never moved him back to the rotation that season, and he wound up setting a team saves record. In 2008 he started off so badly that he was sent to the minors. He eventually got straightened out right around the time that the Olympics started, and he then starred in Beijing, following that up by pitching well in the second half. Maybe you could say he had more injuries in the first half, though no one has made an official claim that was the case. This certainly looks like a pitcher who is spiraling toward the end of his career; the stats say he still has skills, but limited stamina. The Orioles want him to start, however, and indeed, they need him to start, because their bullpen is full, while their rotation is a set of question marks. Unfortunately for them, as a starter he's just another one.
On the other hand, Kawakami gives the Braves a more hopeful case, though still not without cause for some doubt:
Kawakami IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 2006 198 4.90 8.5 1.4 2.4 5.5 2007 162 5.68 9.8 1.3 1.7 5.1 2008 110 4.01 8.7 1.3 2.7 6.1
For two of the last three years, Kawakami has not pitched at the level of an above-average major league pitcher, though he did turn it around last year. If he struggles in the US, it will probably be because of his home-run tendencies (considering that the HR/9 column is set so that 1.0 is average). That's a product of trying to get ahead in the count with an unimpressive fastball-hitters will have their chances to tee off on it. He's been healthier than Uehara, but he did miss time with a back injury last season, as well as winding up spending some time with the Olympic team last summer.
A third Japanese pitcher with some notoriety this offseason is Junichi Tazawa, an amateur who signed with the Boston Red Sox after a noisy bidding war. He's more or less the same as a draft pick; the corporate leagues he was playing in there don't exist here, but are more comparable to Division I college baseball than anything else. Like most American draft picks, he isn't considered to be anywhere near ready for the majors, so the money invested in him needs to be treated as such, where there are no guarantees.