Japanese Players in the Major Leagues

[The following is an article I posted on http://www.japanesebaseball.com months ago, to which I received NO responses.  I thought it was a shame because I thought it was fairly interesting. Sorry about the formatting: I haven't figured out how to convert it to a style that reads well on-line yet.]

It seems to me that at the end of the 2008 season, we have had enough seasons from Japanese hitters who have played regularly in the U.S. major leagues to crunch the numbers and see how their performance in the U.S. compares with their performance in Japan. The following are each Japanese player who has played regularly in the U.S. with his career Japanese numbers first, followed by his major league numbers. The statistical categories provided are as follows:

(Age)  ABs Hits HRs HR/100AB BA OBP SLG OPS

HR %    +/-BA   +/-OBP  +/-SLG  +/-OPS

Ichiro Suzuki

(18-26) 3619 1278 118 3.26 .353 .421 .522 .943

(27-34) 5460 1805 73 1.34 .331 .377 .430 .807

41.0% -.024 -.044 -.092 -.136

Hideki Matsui

(19-28) 4572 1390 332 7.26 .304 .413   .582 .995

(29-34) 2892 852 112 3.87 .295 .371 .478 .849

53.3% -.009  -.042 -.104 -.146

Kazuo Matsui

(19-27) 4638 1433 150 3.23 .309 .361 .486 .847

(28-32) 1755 486 23 1.31 .277 .331 .395 .727

40.5%  -.032 -.030 -.091 -.120

Akinori Iwamura

(19-27) 3580 1073 188 5.25 .300 .366  .519 .885

(28-29) 1118 312 13 1.16 .279 .353 .394 .747

22.1%  -.021 -.013 -.125 -.138

Tad Iguchi

(22-29) 3175 860 149 4.69 .271 .349 .471 .820

(30-33) 1841 494 44 2.39 .268 .338 .401 .739

50.9% -.003 -.011 -.070 -.081

Kenji Johjima

(19-29) 4031 1206 211 5.23 .299   .360  .517 .877

(30-32) 1370 372 39 2.85 .272 .313 .412 .725

54.4%   -.027 -.047  -.105 -.152

So Taguchi

(22-31) 4094 1134 67 1.64 .277   .333   .387 .720

(32-38) 1358 379 19 1.40 .279 .332 .385 .717

85.5% .002 -.001 -.002 -.003

(Taguchi has an almost equal number of AB’s against right-handers and lefthanders in the U.S., and his BA, OBP, SLG and OPS are all within a few points of each other, which makes his performance in the U.S. especially surprising since he has apparently not benefited from more platoon play in the U.S.)

Tsuyoshi Shinjo

(19-28, 32-34) 5163 1309   205 3.97 .254    .305   .432 .737

(29-31) 876 215 20 2.28 .245 .299 .370 .669

57.5% -.009  -.006 -.062 -.068

Kosuke Fukudome

(22-30) 3852 1175   192 4.98        .305   .397   .543 .940

(31) 501 129 10 2.00       .257 .359 .379 .738

40.0%   -.048  -.038 -.164 -.202

Here are lists of the differences between U.S. and Japan for all the players by category

HR% BA                              OBP

Taguchi 85.5% Taguchi +.00 2 Taguchi -.001

Shinjo 57.5% Iguchi -.003 Shinjo -.006

Johjima 54.4% Shinjo -.009 Iguchi -.011

H. Matsui 53.3% H. Matsui -.009 Iwamura -.013

Iguchi 50.9% Iwamura -.021 K. Matsui -.030

Ichiro 41.0% Ichiro -.024 Fukudome -.038

K. Matsui 40.5% Johjima -.027 H. Matsui -.042

Fukudome 40.0% K. Matsui -.032 Ichiro -.044

Iwamura 22.1% Fukudome -.048 Johjima -.047

Ave. 49.4% Ave. -.019 Ave. -.026

Mean 50.9% Mean -.021 Mean -.030

SLG OPS

Taguchi -.002 Taguchi -.003

Shinjo -.062 Shinjo -.068

Iguchi -.070 Iguchi -.081

K. Matsui -.091 K. Matsui -.120

Ichiro -.092 Ichiro -.136

H. Matsui -.104 Iwamura -.138

Johjima -.105 H. Matsui -.146

Iwamura -.125 Johjima -.152

Fukudome -.164 Fukudome -.202

Ave. -.091 Ave. -.116

Mean -.092 Mean -.136

Let’s look at the totals:

AB H HR HR% BA OBP SLG OPS

Japan 36,724 10,858 1,612 4.39 .296 .367 .494 .861

U.S. 17,171 5,044 353 2.06 .294 .356 .416 .772

46.8% -.002 -.011 -.078 -.089

Without Icharo (who by himself has had 32% of all U.S. at-bats by Japanese players)

AB H HR HR      BA OBP SBG OPS

Japan 33,105 9,580 1,494 4.51 .289 .361 .491 .852

U.S. 11,711 3,239 280 2.39 .277 .346 .410 .756

53.0% -.012 -.015 -.081 -.096

The total-of-all-players numbers are a bit skewed and probably are less meaningful than the lists of each player above. For example, Shinjo’s .305 OBP in 5,163 NPB at-bats makes the difference in OBP between Japan and the U.S. a lot smaller than it really is.

So what conclusions can we draw from what is obviously a small, but not entirely insignificant, data set?

For one, Japanese players drop a LOT of power when they come to the U.S., but they maintain much more of their ability to get on base. This means that unless the Japanese player has Godzilla power, Japanese power hitters are likely to disappoint in the majors. It is worth noting that power and on base percentage are skills that tend to increase as a player gets older, while speed and batting average tend to decline. Since the Japanese players coming to the U.S. tend to be in the latter half of their careers (the median age for their first years in the U.S. of these nine players is 29.33), the obvious conclusion is that it is probably twice as hard to hit homeruns in the majors as it is in NPB.

The decline in on-base percentage is much less substantial, with an average drop-off of probably 25 or 30 points. This means that a Japanese player with a career .400 OBP in Japan could reasonably be expected to have an OBP in the U.S. in the neighborhood of .370, which is still excellent. It seems likely then that a high OBP should be a prerequisite for a major league team considering whether to sign a Japanese hitter.

One thing I noticed in preparing this piece, which is not shown in the numbers above, is that the Japanese players, like their career major league counterparts, decline significantly as a group starting with the year they are 32. For example, after fine years at ages 30 and 31, Tad Iguchi and Kenji Johjima both hit very poorly at age 32. The upshot is that I do not expect Kosuke Fukudome, who will be 32 in 2009, to justify his large contract over the next three years. He was a great player in Japan, but it looks like he came to the U.S. about two years too late to become a great player in the U.S.

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One Comment on “Japanese Players in the Major Leagues”


  1. [...] over two years and a $2.5 million posting fee. Even if there’s a sizeable dropoff in power, as with most former NPB Japanese hitters, we’re talking about a guy with .467 slugging over the last five seasons. I’d take something [...]


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