Perhaps the most anticipated free agent of the 2007 class is Chunichi Dragons outfielder Kosuke Fukudome (Koh-skay * foo-koo-DOH-may). What’s his background? What kind of player is he? What has he accomplished in his Japanese career?

My enduring image of Kosuke Fukudome comes from a pivotal moment in the inaugural World Baseball Classic–a moment perhaps more responsible for Japan’s championship than any other in the course of the tournament. Having lost to rival Korea by one run in each of its two previous encounters in the tournament, Japan found itself in another low-scoring pitcher’s duel. Koji Uehara and Jae Seo had put zeroes on the board late into the contest, when Japan managed to put a runner on to lead off the 7th against reliever Byung Doo Jun. Byung-Hyun Kim was brought into the game to face Fukudome, who was pinch-hitting. The Chunichi center fielder had struggled in the WBC, and was on the bench for this semi-final contest with Korea. Showing a flair for the big moment, and adding to the embarrassing career lowlight reel of Kim, Fukudome launched a two-run homer into the right field stands to break the scoreless tie and open the floodgates for Japan; they would score a total of five runs in that inning, and go on to win the game 6-0.

In the championship game against Cuba, Fukudome once again found himself on the bench to start the game, and once again provided an important hit in the late innings to seal a victory. With a 6-5 lead entering the ninth inning, Japan managed to mount an attack featuring an RBI single by Ichiro Suzuki, and then punctuated by a bases-loaded, pinch-hit single by Fukudome that scored two, putting the game out of reach. Although he didn’t start either the semi-finals or the championship contest in San Diego, Fukudome managed to shake off his early tournament struggles to go 2-for-3 with a home run and four RBI, helping Japan to the title.

Many Major League fans got their first glimpse of Daisuke Matsuzaka via the WBC, and we may end up going back to examine that tournament again more closely, especially as some of the stars find their way to the USA to play in the major leagues. However, Kosuke Fukudome is at the forefront of the next wave of players from that group to potentially join a Major League club in 2008, along with fellow Japanese standout Koji Uehara. Where did it begin for Fukudome, and what is he about?

Fukudome was born in 1977 in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. As a high school student, Fukudome chose to attend Osaka’s famed PL Gakuen High School, recently named as Japan’s most successful high school program. It is the school that produced, among others, Kazuo Matsui, current Pirates reliever Masumi Kuwata, and Japanese legends Hideji Kato and Kazuhiro Kiyohara. At PL Gakuen, the young Fukudome was a flashy shortstop with a quick bat and decent range. Despite hiss power displays at Koshien (the Japanese high school baseball tournament), PL Gakuen was unable to capture a title during his time there. He graduated without a Koshien crown.

Unlike many obedient and tradition-bound Japanese youth, Fukudome wanted to dictate his professional future. Showing a willingness to pressure the system into a perfect situation, Fukudome announced that he would play in Japan’s industrial leagues should anyone other than Chunichi or Yomiuri select him in the amateur draft. As it turned out, the Kintetsu Buffaloes won the rights to young Kosuke, forcing his hand. The weight of Japanese baseball tradition did not break the young man, as he promptly signed to play with Nippon Seimei (Japan Life Insurance, or “Nissay”) of the industrial league.

While with this semi-pro club, Kosuke was the youngest player ever selected for the honor of representing Japan, joining the national team in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics. There, at the relatively tender age of 21, Fukudome found himself among some of the greatest players in the game in Atlanta. Among his teammates, familiar names to Americans may be former Triple Crown winner Nobuhiko Matsunaka, and certainly Tadahito Iguchi. As an infielder hitting ninth, Fukudome made a very good account of himself while helping Japan claim the silver medal. Playing at Fulton County Stadium, he managed a batting line of .281/.324/.469 with two home runs in nine games.

Playing three seasons with the “Nissay” baseball club, Fukudome was again looking for an opportunity to enter the ranks of the Japanese Major Leagues. Unlike many stars of his stature, Fukudome spent the equivalent of a minor league developmental stint with his industrial league experience. As a result, he was much further along as a pro when he was finally drafted by Chunichi in the 1998 industrial and university draft. As a rookie, Fukudome played short and appeared in 132 games for the Dragons. His initial foray into NPB competition was a mild success: Fukudome balanced a decent .284/.359/.451 batting line, with an unimpressive 121 strikeouts and 19 errors on the year.

The biggest transformation forced upon Fukudome as a young man was the transition from shortstop to third base to the outfield. A gifted athlete as a young player, he was not nearly as agile among the professional ranks as he was against inferior competition. Most minor leaguers will tell you that the biggest difference between levels is the speed with which everything happens in the big leagues. Fukudome learned this while being thrown into the fire in Nagoya. He struggled with his bat until 2002: between 1999 and the end of the 2001 season, Fukudome had produced three seasons as an infielder in which he batted a combined .265/.350/.446 in 349 games.

Finally, in 2002, and playing as a full-time outfielder, the young man broke out. Freed from the worries of playing the left side of the infield, Fukudome hit .343/.406/.537 with an astounding 42 doubles in 140 games played. He also recorded 14 outfield assists, showing a cannon arm and savvy instincts for his new position. In short, a star was born.

As an Olympian in 2004, Fukudome helped to lead a group of gifted professionals (including Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kenji Johjima, Koji Uehara, and Michihiro Ogasawara to Sydney), where they were upset by the host country in the semi-finals. A 27-year old seasoned veteran, Kosuke hit leadoff and produced a .316/.386/.605 line for the tournament, mashing three home runs in nine games. Returning to the Dragons in late August, Fukudome helped to lead the club to the Japan Series, where they eventually lost to the Seibu Lions.

Last season was Fukudome’s best yet, as 2006 saw the young veteran win the Central League MVP award with a .351/.438/.653 line, 47 doubles, five triples, and 31 home runs. Another shot at the Japan Series went awry, though, as the Nippon Ham Fighters stormed to victory behind superior pitching by Yu Darvish and company. In a postseason interview, when asked about the prospect of heading to the major leagues after 2007, Fukudome indicated interest, and hinted strongly that he would be US-bound.

That brings us to today. The Dragons are close behind the resurgent Yomiuri Giants in the Central in mid-July. Fukudome is a rock in the middle of the lineup, batting .292 with a .440 OBP, recording 22 doubles and 13 home runs. Compared to recent years, the batting average is a bit down, a product of a mid-May slump, but the plate discipline is still there. Perhaps the Dragons will get another crack at the Japan Series this season, but they will face the prospect of being without their best player–and the cornerstone of their franchise for the last decade–once the final out is recorded in 2007.

Most important among his skills is his batting approach, which relies on patience and a level left-handed swing. At roughly 6’0″ and 190 pounds, Fukudome isn’t a classic slugger. There is power in his bat, but it’s of the line-drive variety. Looking at his numbers over the years, it is noteworthy that he has challenged the single-season doubles record in Japan–52 by Yoshitomo Tani in 2001–on several occasions. Last season’s 47 doubles is the highest total ever by a Central League player.

At the plate, Fukudome holds a quiet bat, cocked initially at a little more than 45 degrees behind his head. His feet are set apart just a hair wider than shoulder width, and he appears to be standing completely upright. As the pitch is delivered, Fukudome drops down, knees slightly bent, and his front foot raises off the ground as a timing mechanism. His hands go back and the bat wraps briefly behind his head, partially exposing the number on his back, before he drives his hips and whips the bat through the zone. His hands are quick and he handles the inside pitch very well. As I’ve watched Kosuke over the years, the few weaknesses I’ve noticed come against soft throwers, who like to go away, or down and away, against Fukudome. He’ll chase high and inside on occasion, but looks worst when flailing at an offspeed pitch tailing low and outside.

On defense, Fukudome is a very good right fielder. His right arm is a gun, and has helped him to earn four Gold Gloves in Japan. Although he bats left-handed, Fukudome is a natural right-hander. Japanese baserunners, even of the speediest variety, have learned to run conservatively against the Dragons. The bonus to Fukudome’s arm strength is the accuracy with which he strikes. Honed by years of play at shortstop, you will rarely see a Fukudome throw from right field to third or home go off-line. Where his lack of lateral quickness hurt him as an infielder, Kosuke’s good athletic ability and fast legs are assets to him in tracking down balls. Generally, he gets good reads off the bat and reacts quickly to get into solid, fundamental position to make a catch and throw. On those occasions when the spectacular is needed to prevent a run from scoring on a ball hit to the gap, I have seen Fukudome pull out a few plays from the Jim Edmonds book of diving catches.

Whatever means you chose to evaluate Fukudome, he has a chance to be the next quality Japanese regular to cross the ocean. Where Ichiro’s genius ends, perhaps Fukudome’s will begin. A high-average hitter with greater power and a more patient approach at the plate, Kosuke Fukudome may break new ground by adding some more punch to the image of the Japanese hitter.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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