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Coming From Japan: Overseas Baseball Primer: Japan

Patrick Newman

Patrick Newman

Newman writes extensively about baseball in Japan on his blog, NPBTracker.com. He's lived in Japan and now works in Silicon Valley.

A steady flow of talent from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) continues to make an impact in MLB. While it’s been several years since a superstar has come over from Japan, there have been plenty of fantasy surprises (Colby Lewis) and productive arms. And we may be only one season away from several superstars coming over to the U.S.

COMING THIS YEAR

Tsuyoshi Nishioka - Minnesota Twins

Formerly of the Chiba LotteMarines (2002-2010)
Throws Right, Bats Both
Born July 27, 1984

The prize of this season’s NPB import class is infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He earns that distinction by default, but more on that later.

Nishioka comes to MLB from the Chiba Lotte Marines by way of the Posting System the first player to do so since 2007, when Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura and Kei Igawa all made the jump. The Twins won his negotiating rights with a reported $5.3 million bid and signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract. The Twins then opened a spot for him in their starting infield by trading J.J. Hardy.

The Twins are getting a speedy contact hitter, who at 26 should still have some upside left. Nishioka is coming off a great year in Japan, one that saw him post a robust .346/.423/.482 slash line, rack up 206 hits (second most in a season in the Pacific League, after Ichiro’s 210 in 1994), and finish third in the Pacific League MVP voting. Last season was also the first year of his career that Nishioka was consistently healthy, and his 692 plate appearances easily beat his previous best of 559.

The other side of the coin is that prior to 2010, Nishioka was merely a solid player. His career slash line, which includes 2010, is .293/.364/.423. Despite his speed, Nishioka actually isn’t an elite base stealer. His best season on the base paths was 2005, when he swiped 41 bases in 50 attempts. Since then, he hasn’t been quite as good; over the last few years he’s hovered around 22-23 steals at about a 66 percent success rate. And although Nishioka’s power has been on the rise over the last three seasons, most Japanese batters that come over slug less in MLB than they do in NPB.

Assuming he stays healthy, it’s reasonable to expect Nishioka to provide some offense from a middle infield position. Don’t expect much in the way of power, but he’ll contribute a solid batting average and score a few runs. His base stealing could improve with better coaching in MLB, but that probably won’t happen in year one.


Hiroyuki Kobayashi - MLB free agent
Formerly of the Chiba Lotte Marines (1998-2010)
Throws Right, Bats Right
Born June 4, 1978

Hiroyuki Kobayashi will join his longtime teammate Nishioka on the other side of the Pacific in 2011, but at the time of writing he had not yet found an MLB home. Kobayashi spent most of the last decade in the middle of Chiba Lotte’s rotation, but moved into the closer role in 2010 after back-to-back rough seasons as a starter. He figures to pitch in middle relief in MLB.

Kobayashi was outstanding as a closer in 2010, collecting saves in 29 of his 57 appearances backed by a 2.21 ERA, 1.066 WHIP, 7.8 K/9IP and a 3.79 K:BB ratio. He has a deep arsenal for a reliever: a slider, a splitter and a changeup to go with an 88-91 mph fastball. Of his breaking pitches, his slider and splitter were the most effective last season. It’s not uncommon for Japanese pitchers to struggle to throw splitters with the MLB ball, so that will be something to watch for.

Given that Kobayashi projects as a middle reliever, his fantasy value is mostly contingent on his ability to get strikeouts. Fantasy owners should take note of the bullpen situation of the team he winds up with when considering him.


Yoshinori Tateyama - Texas Rangers
Formerly of the Nippon Ham Fighters (1999-2010)
Throws Right, Bats Right
Born December 26, 1975

The other righty coming over this year is Nippon Ham Fighters veteran Yoshinori
Tateyama. Tateyama joins Texas on a split contract that will pay him $200,000 in the minors and $800,000 in the majors, and figures to be in the mix for a spot in the Rangers’ bullpen.

Unlike Kobayashi, Tateyama has been primarily a middle reliever over the course of his career. And by many measures, 2010 was his most successful campaign: in 58 games, he posted a 1.80 ERA, 0.982 WHIP, 9.65 K/9IP and 5.36 K:BB ratio. The secret to his success in 2010 was his dominance against right-handed hitters. Of the 202 hitters he faced, 140 were righties, and he held them to a .186 batting average, with 44 strikeouts against only five walks. The 62 lefties he saw hit a more respectable .274, with a 15:6 K:BB ratio. Tateyama hadn’t seen such a split in recent memory, in terms of usage or results. Tateyama throws from a side-arm slot and features a 88-91 fastball and a slider.

Only an injury would unseat Neftali Feliz from the closer’s chair in Texas, so Tateyama’s fantasy value will be tied to strikeouts and quality innings.


Hishashi Iwakuma - Rakuten Golden Eagles

Had he successfully made the jump, this year’s NPB import class would have been headed by Hisashi Iwakuma. He was made available via the posting system by his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and Oakland won his negotiating rights with a bid reportedly in the $19 million range. After an apparently contentious series of negotiations, the two sides were unable to work out a deal, so Iwakuma will remain with Rakuten and the A’s got their money back. Iwakuma is the first posted player to fail to agree to a contract with his bid-winning MLB team.

Although Iwakuma will remain in Japan in 2011, he will be a free agent following the season and has already announced his intent to pursue an MLB move at that time. We don’t know what 2011 will bring, but Iwakuma has an established track record as an effective starter in Japan. His primary skill is limiting the home run ball, which he did to the tune of an 0.49 HR/9IP rate in 2010. He gets it done with a strong groundball arsenal, which features an extremely effective splitter.

Iwakuma is considered to be Japan’s best pitching prospect behind Yu Darvish, so he’s one to keep an eye for 2012.


WHAT IS THE POSTING SYSTEM?

Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox gave the the posting system a moment of infamy when the Sox paid over $51 million for the right to negotiate with him. For those who haven’t heard of it, if an NPB player wishes to move to MLB prior to reaching free agency, his only option is convince his team to post him. If his team agrees, they will submit his name to the MLB commissioner’s office, who will then allow each of the MLB teams to submit bids in a blind, four-day process. The NPB team is then informed of the highest bid, and has four days to decide whether or not to accept it. If they do, the bid is paid, and the high bidder is awarded the rights to negotiate with the player for a period of 30 days. If the MLB team and player do not agree on a contract, the posting fee is returned to the MLB team.

FOREIGN PLAYERS

Last year a former MLB player, Colby Lewis, made the biggest impact of any player moving from NPB to MLB in 2010. While there’s no Lewis available this year, there are a number of foreign players in Japan who could return to MLB in the future.

1. Matt Murton (Hanshin Tigers) Topped Ichiro’s NPB single season hits record with 214 in 2010; hit .249 with 17 home runs while manning center and right field.

2. Brian Falkenborg (Softbank Hawks) Dominated in 2010: 83:8 K:BB ratio, 1.02 ERA, 0.74 WHIP in 62 innings of work. It’s worth noting that Lewis posted a similarly great K:BB ratio in Japan.

3. Mike Schultz (Hiroshima Carp) Injuries limited Schultz to 10.1 IP in 2010, but the three-year Carp veteran has a 2.73 ERA and 1.157 WHIP in 138.1 career innings.

4. Tony Blanco (Chunichi Dragons) Blanco didn’t play much beyond Double-A in the US, but has slugged 71 home runs with a .270/.358/.518 career line over two seasons in Japan.

5. Juan Morillo (Rakuten Golden Eagles)
Morillo only saw 6.2 innings in 2010, but will return to Rakuten for 2011. He still showed his upper-90s velocity last year; if he can learn how to harness it, he’ll be dangerous.


Future Prospects

1. Yu Darvish - HOKKAIDO NIPPON HAM FIGHTERS; MLB ETA 2013

Darvish was his usual dominant self in 2010, becoming the third NPB pitcher to post four consecutive sub- 2.00 ERA seasons (and the other two played in the 1950’s dead ball era). Amazingly, his 1.015WHIPwas actually his worst since 2006.MLB transfer rumors were in overdrive until October, when he announced he would stay in Japan in 2011. In general Darvish has always been adamant about not wanting to move to MLB, but 2010 saw him soften his stance on the idea a bit. He still has four years of service time to go before qualifying for international free agency, and Nippon Ham will want keep him around for as long as possible. As such it’s difficult to predict when he might make the jump. In light of Iwakuma’s difficultly with the posting system, we’ll move our ETA up to 2013—two seasons before he’s due to hit free agency.

2. NORIHICHIKA AOKI - TOKYO YAKULT SWALLOWS; MLB ETA 2013
Aoki had another great season in 2010, setting a new career high in batting average at .359 and falling just short of Ichiro’s old NPB record with 209 hits. Aoki also set a new career best with 44 doubles, and slugged at a .509 clip. Aoki has about three years of service time left before free agency; our ETA has him being posted one year sooner.

3. Hisashi Iwakuma - TOHOKU RAKUTEN GOLDEN EALGES; MLB ETA 2012
Iwakuma will meet the service time requirements for international free agency early in 2011, and has already announced plans to move over to MLB. The ground baler had a very good year in 2010: 2.82 ERA, 1.095WHIP in 201 IP.

4.WEI-YIN CHEN - CHUNICHI DRAGONS; MLB ETA 2012
Chen regressed a little from his breakout 2009 season, but set a new career high with 188 IP, and posted solid rates including a 2.87 ERA and a 1.144WHIP. But beyond numbers, Chen is a 24-year-old left-hander with an electric arm, and a valuable prospect. Chen is Taiwanese and joined Chunichi after high school, but unlike most foreign players in Japan he doesn’t have contractual provisions that allow him to become a free agent if he chooses, and is subject to the more restrictive rules governing drafted Japanese players. Chen and his representation are trying to negotiate an opt-out clause into his contract. If they are successful, we’ll probably see him in MLB soon. If not, he is still about six years away from free agency.

5. KYUJI FUJIKAWA - HANSHIN TIGERS; MLB ETA 2013
Our No. 2 prospect last year, Fujikawa slips down to No. 5 this year after a dominant, but not historically dominant, season in 2010. Fujikawa’s ERA climbed to 2.01and his WHIP to 1.69in 2010, enough to rank among the top closers in Japan, but somewhat off his established norms. For comparison, his worst WHIP figure over the previous five seasons was 0.857, and he had sub-1.00 ERA season in 2006 and 2008. Fujikawa is projected to qualify for free agency during the 2012 season, and Hanshin seems committed to keeping him until then.

Newman is the publisher of NPBTracker.com and contributes to RotoWire.com