One of my first posts, when I began this blog at the start of the 2009 season, compared what every Japanese hitter who has played significantly in both Japan and MLB hit there as opposed to here through the end of the 2008 season. Here’s a link to that post. My reason for doing producing this survey was that I thought it would be useful as a means of predicting what Japanese hitters will likely hit in MLB, based on what they previously hit in Japan.
Another season is in the books, and I think it would be a good idea to update last year’s study to see if there were any significant changes.
Unfortunately, no new Japanese hitters came to the U.S. for the 2009 season. As a result, we are limited to the same (and only) nine Japanese players who have had a least 500 at-bats in Japan and 500 ABs in MLB: Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, Tad Iguchi, Kenji Johjima, So Taguchi, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kosuke Fukudome.
Please note that I have not included any North American players going from the U.S. to Japan, mainly because most such players either played little in MLB before going to try their luck in Japan or were in the last years of their professional careers when they went to Japan. The Japanese players coming here, on the other hand, tend to still be in their primes when they leave Japan.
There have been a few North American players who had substantial major league careers and went to Japan while still in their prime years — Warren Cromartie and Leron Lee are two who readily come to mind — but they were from a different generation and don’t necessarily tell us as much about how Japanese baseball (NPB) compares to MLB when it comes to hitting today.
Of the nine players listed above, Shinjo is retired (his last year was 2006) and So Taguchi spent most of the season in American AAA ball, accumulating only eleven major league at-bats. The other seven played regularly or semi-regularly in 2009: Ichiro, the Matsuis, Iwamura, Johjima and Fukudome in the U.S. and Tad Iguchi back in Japan.
I looked at five statistics: homeruns per 100 at-bats (HR rate), batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Here are these numbers for each player in Japan and the U.S.:
Ichiro Suzuki: In Japan (age 18-26) 118 HRs, 3.26 HRs/100 AB, .353 BA, .421 OBP, .522 SLG, .943 OPS; in the U.S. (27-35) 84 HRs, 1.38 HRs/100 AB, .333 BA, .378 OBP, .434 SLG, .812 OPS.
Hideki Matsui: In Japan (19-28) 332 HRs, 7.26 HRs/100 AB, .304 BA, .413 OBP, .582 SLG, .995 OPS; in the U.S. (29-35) 140 HRs, 4.18 HRs/100 AB, .292 BA, .370 OBP, .482 SLG, .852 OPS.
Kazuo Matsui: In Japan (19-27) 150 HRs, 3.23 HRs/100 AB, .309 BA, .361 OBP, . 486 SLG, .847 OPS; in the U.S. (28-33) 32 HRs, 1.43 HRs/100 AB, .271 BA, .325 OBP, .387 SLG, .712 OPS.
Akinori Iwamura: In Japan (19-27) 188 HRs, 5.25 HRs/100 ABs, .300 BA, .366 OBP, .519 SLG, .885 OPS; in the U.S. (28-30) 14 HRs, 1.04 HRs/100 AB, .281 BA, .354 OBP, .393 SLG, .747 OPS.
Tad Iguchi: In Japan (22-29, 34) 168 HRs, 4.64 HRs/100 AB, .272 BA, .350 OBP, .472 SLG, .822 OPS; in the U.S. (30-33) 44 HRs, 2.39 HRs/100 ABs, .268 BA, .338 OBP, .401 SLG, .739 OPS.
Kenji Johjima: In Japan (19-29) 211 HRs, 5.23 HRs/100 AB, .299 BA, .360 OBP, .517 SLG, .877 OPS; in the U.S. (30-33) 48 HRs, 2.98 HRs/100 ABs, .268 BA, .310 OBP, .411 SLG, .721 OPS.
So Taguchi: In Japan (22-31) 67 HRs, 1.64 HRs/100 ABs, .277 BA, .333 OBP, .387 SLG, .720 OPS; in the U.S. (32-39) 19 HRs, 1.39 HRs/100 AB, .279 BA, .332 OBP, .385 SLG, .717 OPS.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo: In Japan (19-28, 32-34) 205 HRs, 3.97 HRs/100 AB, .254 BA, .305 OBP, .432 SLG, .737 OPS; in the U.S. (29-31) 20 HRs, 2.28 HRs/100 AB, .245 BA, .299 OBP, .370 SLG, .669 OPS.
Kosuke Fukudome: In Japan (22-30) 192 HRs, 4.98 HRs/100 AB, .305 BA, .397 OBP, .543 SLG, .940 OPS; in the U.S. (31-32) 21 HRs, 2.10 HRs/100 ABs, .258 BA, .367 OBP, .400 SLG, .767 OPS.
The differentials between stats in Japan and stats in the U.S. obtained in last year’s survey didn’t change a whole lot this year. 2009 was a good homerun year (relatively speaking) for Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Kaz Matsui and Kenji Johjima, and upon his return to Japan, Tad Iguchi’s 2009 homerun total was down from seasons immediately before he left for the U.S.
As a result, the homerun rates for these players in the U.S. compared to Japan improved slightly over last year’s results. On average, these Japanese hitters have now hit 50.8% as many homeruns in the U.S. as they hit in Japan in the same number of at-bats (last year, it was 49.4%). The mean was also up to 51.5%, compared to 50.9% last year.
In other words, the numbers still suggest it is roughly twice as hard to hit homeruns in MLB as it is in NPB.
The other numbers changed even less. On average, these nine hitters hit 20 points lower in the U.S. than in Japan, on-base percentages dropped 25 to 30 points, slugging percentages dropped about 90 points and OPS numbers dropped roughly 120 points.
The same results lead to the same conclusions: Japanese players lose a lot more of their power coming to America than they do their ability to get on base. As a result, MLB teams should be looking for Japanese hitters with high on-base percentages more than guys who have 30-40 per season homerun power in Japan.
The drop-off in power also means that with the exception of exceptional players like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, most Japanese hitters do not have the power to play 1B or the corner outfield positions regularly in the U.S. Instead, catchers, middle infielders and centerfielders are the Japanese hitters most likely to be stars in the U.S.
I’m surprised that no more Japanese hitters came across the Pacific in 2009 and don’t appear to be coming in 2010 either. There are several reasons for this, I suspect. MLB teams have realized that most Japanese hitters don’t have the power MLB teams want or will pay big bucks for. Also, the Cubs were pretty badly burned by the four-year $48 million contract they gave Fukudome two years ago, and all the U.S. teams are now gun-shy.
Adding to these factors, the dollar is much weaker against the yen now than it was two years ago, which makes it relatively harder to buy the rights to Japanese players from the their current teams or to give Japanese players the contracts they want to leave Japan.
Yet another factor is that the NPB leagues (the Pacifc and the Central) were pitchers’ leagues in 2009, which makes the hitters in the Japanese leagues look weaker than they really are. In 2009, only seven players on the twelve NPB teams had OPS numbers of .900 or higher, with only two above .930. By comparison 27 players on the 30 MLB teams had .900 or better OPS numbers, with 16 of those above .930.
The upshot is that the MLB tendency to overvalue Japanese pitchers and undervalue Japanese hitters is exacerbated by the current, relative lack of offense in the Japanese game.
All of that being said, two Japanese hitters who right now look like ideal candidates for an enterprising MLB team are Tokyo Yakult Swallows centerfielder Norichicka Aoki and Saitama Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.
Aoki will be 28 years old in 2010. He has a career batting average of .331 and a career OBP of .401. He also has a career .463 slugging percentage and has stolen 137 bases in his five NPB seasons with a 75.6% success rate. I don’t know anything about his centerfield defense, but I have to assume that if it’s not MLB-caliber, he would be a better than average defensive corner outfielder.
Nakajima will be 27 in 2010. He has a career batting average of .300 with a .369 OBP and a .477 slugging percentage. He also runs well, having stolen 98 bases in his Japanese major league career with a 75.4% success rate. Again, if he isn’t an MLB-caliber defensive shortstop, one would think he could move to second like Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura.
Would their Japanese teams post them if MLB teams came calling? Both the Swallows and the Lions were .500 teams last year, although the Swallows managed to sneak into the Central League play-offs as the team with the third best record in the six-team circuit. Traditionally, the Swallows have been a poor team that has had difficulty holding onto its best players, although I don’t know if that’s still the case.
The Seibu Lions have been the powerhouse team in the Pacific League for some time, at least until this past season. However, they were the team that sold off Diasuke Matsuzaka to the Red Sox in 2006, because they needed the $50+ million they received to remodel their stadium, which is (or was) by most accounts the worst ballpark in NPB.
Assuming that the Lions don’t need more money to finance the stadium renovations, I would be surprised if they let go of Nakajima. I doubt that a position player could command the kind of posting price that Dice-K generated, so I expect Nakajima will remain in Japan at least until he becomes a free agent, most likely after the 2012 season.
** According to this NY Times article, the renovations on the Seibu Dome were completed by the start of the 2009 season.