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The Asian Equation 

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April 8, 2013 5:35 am

The Asian Equation: What's at Stake?


Michael Street

A look at what five Asian imports have to prove this season.

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.

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Which Asian stars will shine in the WBC'and maybe one day in MLB?

In the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), Asian teams have consistently outperformed their foreign counterparts. Japan won both the 2006 and 2009 tournaments, and Korea’s 12-4 record is the best of any country. Korea won a bronze in 2006 and a silver medal in 2009’s extra-inning, all-Asian final against Japan. There are several reasons for this apparent dominance, mainly arising from how much more seriously the Asian teams view the tournament than their Western counterparts.

Major-league players and managers see the tournament as an extended spring training, or an exhibition akin to an All-Star Game. Players are substituted not for strategic purposes but to ensure that everyone “gets their work in.” Instead of using an active manager, the U.S. team has been coached by two managers—Buck Martinez and Davey Johnson—who hadn’t worked in several seasons, making rapport with players more difficult. Additionally, many major-league players declined to participate, leaving the best players off the rosters of Western teams.

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September 20, 2011 10:41 pm

The Asian Equation: The Future of the NPB Import Market


Michael Street

Michael ends his look at Japanese imports with some conclusions and a look at the future of the transpacific player market.

In the Asian Equation series, I’ve traced the history of the current posting system that imports players from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese major leagues) and how the success of Ichiro Suzuki has affected it, from the position players who arrived in his wake to the pricey disappointments among starting pitchers and the marginally successful relievers. In this final column, I’ll take a look back to draw conclusions from this history and see what we can expect from the NPB market in the future. As with my previous columns, Patrick Newman’s advice and ideas were very helpful, as is his website, NPB Tracker.

The simplest, broadest conclusion concerns the players themselves, where we must draw an important distinction between talent and skills. As Craig Brown wrote in the comments section of his article on Tsuyoshi Nishioka, “. . . comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Japan is like comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Delaware.” Just because they’re from Japan doesn’t mean we can draw specific conclusions about individual ballplayers, their talents, or their ability to succeed in Major League Baseball. This goes double for Ichiro, whose skills are idiosyncratic on either side of the Pacific. Throwing money at Japanese players expecting them to be slap hitters with weird batting stances and an uncanny ability to find defensive holes is as foolish as thinking every Venezuelan shortstop will field (and endure) like Omar Vizquel. We can’t expect specific players to have certain inherent talents just because they were born in Japan.

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August 4, 2011 12:17 am

The Asian Equation: Finding Relief from NPB


Michael Street

In his fifth Asian Equation column, Michael looks at the relievers who have enjoyed modest success--and failure--making the move from Japan to America.

The last group in my analysis of the player’s who have migrated to MLB from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) are the relievers, the least appreciated members of a successful baseball team. Yet, of all NPB imports, they have been the most numerous (explaining the length of this article, for which I apologize in advance) and the cheapest. Diminished quality is the most obvious reason for these extremes, since starters who don’t meet MLB standards get shifted to the bullpen, and lesser talents also keep salaries down. Additionally, the typical NPB pitcher’s arsenal matches well with an MLB reliever’s skillset.

As I discussed in my last Asian Equation article, NPB is a breaking ball league, which translates better to relief than starting. A good breaking ball might fool major league hitters the first or second time they see it in a game, but it probably won’t the third or fourth time. As an illustration, here’s how batter OPS rises against two of the biggest NPB starting-pitcher busts as compared with three current MLB pitchers: the best, the most mediocre, and an old junkballer. While MLB batters’ performance improves against each pitcher the more times they see him in a game, the change is far more dramatic with Matsuzaka and Kawakami.

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July 7, 2011 9:00 am

The Asian Equation: The Decline of NPB Pitching Imports


Michael Street

In his fourth column in the Asian Equation series, Michael looks at the starting pitchers who have crossed the Pacific, in which many failures are punctuated with a few very notable successes.

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.

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June 8, 2011 9:00 am

The Asian Equation: The Futile Quest for the Next Ichiro


Michael Street

In his third column on Japanese-American player movement, Michael looks at the position players who followed in the wake of the unique Ichiro Suzuki.

Thus far in the Asian Equation series, I’ve explained the early history of Japanese-American baseball traffic which lead to the posting system and the signing of Ichiro Suzuki, who is among the most idiosyncratic players in either league. As we discussed in the comments section, the success of one unique player from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) doesn’t mean that all of them can succeed, a logical fallacy that has eluded many baseball executives.

Although the feeding frenzy has declined lately, the last decade was marked by many teams gambling on the next Eastern import, hoping for another Ichiro to take them to the next level. A few players have succeeded, collecting World Series rings and postseason acclaim, but many of them have simply survived—a dream for any player, but not what the general managers were laying out serious cash for.

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