Wang Po-Jung’s Disappointing First Year in NPB

Posted October 12, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, CPBL, NPB

After all the hype and the significant three-year deal the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters gave Taiwanese outfielder Wang Po-Jung to leave the CPBL for Japan’s greener pastures, Wang’s actual rookie season in NPB was a major disappointment.

After a slow start, Wang began to hit and even had a five hit game in early June.  As late as late June, he was still hitting around .290, which was in the top 10 or 15 in NPB’s Pacific League.  However, he hit his third and final home run of the season on June 14, 2019 and didn’t hit many more doubles (13 on the season) after that point either.

Wang missed 11 games to injury in early May and then lost another month after injuring his right shoulder in early July.   He wasn’t the same when he returned in August and didn’t play much in the season’s final month, either because he was still not 100% or simply because he had stopped hitting.

Wang finished the season with a .255/.321/.327 slash line in 88 games and 340 plate appearances.  He had a total of only sixteen extra base hits for the season.  He didn’t contribute much on defense either, as he frequently served as a designated hitter.  Despite reaching 1B at least 93 times during the season, he stole exactly one base in one attempt.  In short, except for his 5-for-5 game on June 2nd, it was an entirely forgettable and disappointing season for Wang.

Where does Wang go from here?  Well, if’s he fully healthy in 2020, he’ll almost certainly play better than he did in 2019, particularly now that he has most of a season of NPB play under his belt.  Wang hit well in 10 games for the Fighters’ minor league club, but he wasn’t given much time there to build up his confidence and his power stroke, most likely because of the big salary he was receiving.

Wang will be 26 next season, so he’s still young enough to make the roughly $3.5 million guarantee the Fighters gave him for the 2019 through 2021 seasons a reasonable investment.  However, it could just as well be a major bust if Wang does not hit significantly better in 2020 than he did this season.  We’ll find out next season.

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MLB Qualifying Offer Down to $17.8 Million This Off-Season

Posted October 11, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Baseball History

The Qualifying Offer is down $100,000 from last year’s $17.9M.  That’s not a good sign for labor peace.

Here’s mlbtraderumors.com’s post with more details.  The salient ones are that this is the first time the QO has ever gone down, after six consecutive annual increases since the inception of the Qualifying Offer system in the 2012-2013 off-season at $13.3M.

Maybe it’s just a one-year blip, caused by the way existing multi-year player contracts are structured and the fact that teams can no longer make more than one QO to any individual player only starting with the 2017-2021 collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  If the QO makes a typical increase next off-season, then things will die down, at least to the extent that a strike is a whole lot less likely.  But if next off-season the QO is down again, there’s going to be strife between the Player’s Association and the Owners during the next CBA negotiations, IMHO.

Top MLB Prospects in South Korea’s KBO 2019/2020

Posted October 10, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Arizona Diamond Backs, Baseball Abroad, KBO, NPB, Pittsburg Pirates, Seattle Mariners

As was the case last off-season, there aren’t many 2019 KBO players likely to join MLB in 2020.  We had a flurry of hitters a few years ago who got their shots at MLB, but they have mostly returned to the KBO and are too old to be reasonably likely to return to the States.

The best starter in the KBO for the second year in a row was foreigner Josh Lindblom.  He went 20-3 with a 2.50 ERA and 189 Ks in 194.2 IP.  He led the KBO in wins, winning percentage, innings pitched, and strikeouts and finished 2nd in ERA.

Given Merrill Kelly‘s success with the Diamondbacks in 2019, it’s certainly possible that an MLB team will offer Lindblom a similar two-year $5.5M contract.  However, Lindblom is going into his age 33 season in 2020, so he may already be too old to interest an MLB team, in spite of the fact that he enjoyed some MLB success before he went to South Korea a few years ago.

I’m also kind of hoping Lindblom signs the first two-year guaranteed deal for a foreigner in KBO history this off-season, maybe $3.5M guaranteed and another $500,000 in possible performance incentives.  KBO attendance was down in 2019, but Lindblom’s team, the Doosan Bears, is the one KBO team that could readily afford the risk of a two-year deal.

Kim Kwang-hyun and Yang Hyun-jong continued to be the KBO’s two best domestic starters in 2019, but their windows for moving up to MLB appears to have passed.

Cho Sang-Wo (26) reportedly has the KBO’s best fastball, which touched 97.7 mph early in the 2019 season.  He had a 2.66 ERA as a reliever in 2019 and has struck out 283 batters in 281.1 career KBO IP.  Shim Chang-min (27) has a live arm (474 Ks in 409.2 career KBO IP) and plenty of KBO service time, but not the level of KBO success to suggest MLB teams would be particularly interested in him.

Youngsters Ko Woo-seok (21) and Koo Chang-Moo (23) look very promising.  In his age 20 season, Ko posted a 1.52 ERA and 35 saves, while striking out 76 batters in 71 IP.  As a 22 year old starter, Koo went 10-7 with a 3.20 ERA and 114 Ks in 107 IP.  Both are many seasons away from being posted, however.

Among position players/hitters, no KBOer is jumping to MLB for at least a couple of years, but there are three very promising youngsters.

After a tremendous age 19 season, Kang Baek-ho (20) looks like the best hitting prospect since Lee Dae-ho or Kang Jung-ho.  Kang Baek-ho slashed .336/.419/.495, giving him the 10-team circuit’s 5th best batting average, 2nd best OBP, and 8th best SLG.  Extremely impressive for an age 19 season.  He’s listed at 6’0″ and 215 lbs and does not appear to be particularly fast, so there may be some question regarding how well he runs when it’s time for him to be posted.

It also does not appear that young Kang has performed his two years of required military service, which could be an issue later on.  The two years of mandatory military service in South Korea is a real killer when it comes to South Korean KBO players making the jump to MLB.

In his third KBO season, Lee Jung-hoo (22) slashed .336/.388/.456.  While that is down from his 2018 numbers, league offense was down even more, so 2019 probably represented continued incremental improvement.   In particular, he showed greater power potential this year. Both Lee and young Kang are corner outfielders, so they’ll have to hit to reach the MLB majors some day.

SS Kim Ha-seong (24) slashed .307/.394/.491 in 2019, a definite improvement from 2018, not taking into account the KBO’s drop in offense due to less resilient baseballs introduced in 2019.  Kim has five years of KBO service through his age 23 season, so if he can play MLB average defense at SS, 2B or even 3B, he should be an MLB major league player two or three years from now.

Catcher Yoo Kang-nam (27) has five years of KBO service time through his age 26 season.  If his defense is good, he has a chance to be an MLB major leaguer, also in two or three years’ time.

Yet Another Example That Short Rest in the Post Season Is Usually a Mistake

Posted October 9, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays

The Astros started Justin Verlander on (for him) historically short rest.  He gave up three runs in the 1st and allowed four in 3.2 IP total, after allowing the Rays one hit over 7 innings in Game 1.  I’d have gone with Wade Miley and everyone else in the Astros’ pitching staff except Verlander and Gerrit Cole, so those last two could be saved for proper rest at home in Houston for Game 5.

Now the Astros have to start Cole on short rest, when he might potentially have been a perfect two or three inning reliever, as and if necessary, in Game 5.

If Cole wins tomorrow, no harm done, except that the rotation will be screwed up in terms of when Verlander pitches in the series against the Yankees.

Managers start their aces on short rest because it’s the safe move to make.  You rely on your ace, and your ace lets you down.  Who can blame the manager.  It probably makes more sense to have your ace fully rested pitching at home in Game 5.

I’ll admit that it would have been braver for me to write this post before today’s game started, since I knew the Astros would be starting Verlander.  However, I wrote back on September 11th, that I expected Miley to get exactly one start in most of the Astros’ post-season series, because he was the obvious choice for a No. 4 starter needed to keep the team’s three aces fresh.

Now it’s all up to Gerrit Cole on short rest at home to make A.J. Hinch look like he knows what he’s doing.

The Best “Foreign” Pitchers in NPB History

Posted October 9, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Denver Rockies, KBO, New York Yankees, NPB

This is the post-2019 season update on a topic I’ve been writing about and updating for the last few years, as the all-time leader boards I’ve compiled change. The post lists the best “foreign” pitchers (see discussion below) to have pitched in Japan’s NPB in terms of career NPB wins, ERA (800 innings pitched minimum), Strike Outs and Saves.

WINS

1. Tadashi Wakabayaski 237-144

2. Taigen Kaku (Tai-yuan Kuo) 117-68

3.  Genji Kaku (Yuen-chih Kuo) 106-106

4.  Gene Bacque 100-80

4. Joe Stanka 100-72

6. Randy Messenger 98-84

7. Jason Standridge 75-68

8. Nate Minchey 74-70

9. Jeremy Powell 69-65

10. Seth Greisinger 64-42

11. D. J. Houlton 63-39

One of the things you learn when blogging is that the answers to seemingly simple questions often aren’t simple at all.  Who exactly qualifies as a “foreign” player for NPB purposes?  For some players, it is an extremely complicated question.

Tadashi Wakabayashi was a Japanese American born in Hawaii. He played in NPB from 1936 until 1953. He originally held duel citizenship but renounced his Japanese citizenship in 1928, but then renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1941 and became a Japanese citizen again, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

On the other hand, Victor Starrfin, who went 303-176 as one of NPB’s all-time great aces, while being born in Russia, emigrated to Japan after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when he was a small boy. He grew up in Japan and went through Japan’s education and baseball systems, before becoming NPB’s first 300 game winner.  And what about NPB’s all-time wins leader, Masaichi Kaneda (born Kim Kyung-hong), a Korean citizen born and raised in Japan who was not allowed to become a citizen?

Wally Yonamine, another great Nisei star of NPB, clearly seems more “foreign” to me for NPB purposes than Wakabayashi because Yonamine had a professional sports in the U.S. before going to Japan, and he died in Hawaii as well as being born there.

Wakabayashi played high school ball in Hawaii and then went on a playing tour in Japan, where his pitching earned him a scholarship at a top Japanese University (Hosei University). That certainly makes Wakabayashi less “foreign” than Yonamine — even today foreign players who play at Japanese Universities for four years before going pro are not considered “foreign” for NPB roster-limit purposes.

Is Wakabayashi more foreign than Micheal Nakamura, mentioned below, who was born in Japan, but graduated from high school in Australia, played college ball in the U.S. and then had a long U.S. minor league career before joining NPB?  A comment to the original post said that Nakamura was treated as “Japanese” for NPB roster-limit purposes, presumably due to his Japanese birth.

Ultimately, I have decided to continue treating Wakabayashi as a “foreign” player, because he was born and raised in the United States.  But I have left Starffin and Kaneda off my lists because, they were products of Japan’s baseball system, even if they were denied equal treatment due to their ethnicities.  I have left it up to you, gentle reader, to make your own determination on this perhaps not very significant question.

Tai-yuan Kuo and Yuen-chih Kuo, known in Japan as Taigen Kaku and Gengi Kaku, respectively, were Taiwanese pitchers both of whom starred in NPB in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The two Kuos/Kakus were the best pitchers to come out of Taiwan prior to Chien-Ming Wang breaking through to have MLB success in 2005.

Gene Bacque and Joe Stanka were two Americans whose Japanese careers roughly overlapped in the early and mid-1960’s.  Stanka was a marginal major leaguer of the type typical among players from the Americas who try to make a go of it in NPB.  He pitched in two games for the Chicago White Sox in 1959 at the age of 27, and apparently realized he had little chance of future major league success, and somehow got a job with the Nankai Hawks (now the Softbank Hawks) in 1960.

Gene Bacque was a mediocre minor league pitcher who got cut by the Hawaii Islanders of the AAA Pacific Coast League after only two relief appearances early in the 1962 season.  What he had going for him was the fact that he was still only 24 years old and apparently the physical proximity to Japan when his minor league career ended.  Japanese Hall of Famer and Hanshin Tigers teammate Masaaki Koyama taught Bacque how to throw a slider, and he also improved his knuckleball and became a star.

Bacque and Stanka both had their best NPB seasons in 1964.  Bacque went 29-9 with a 1.88 ERA and 200 Ks in 353.1 innings pitched, while Stanka went 26-7 with a 2.40 ERA and 172 Ks in 277.2 IP.  Bacque was awarded the Eiji Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award, becoming the only foreign player ever to win that honor.

Bacque and Stanka faced off against each other in the sixth game of the Japan Series that season, which Stanka won, throwing a complete game shutout.  Stanka’s team, the Hawks, won the series in seven games, and Stanka was named the Series MVP.

I was sad that Randy Messenger, the most successful foreign starter of his generation in career terms, wasn’t able to win his 100th NPB in this his final season.  He went 3-7 to finish at 98 NPB career wins, although he did add to his all-time strike out record for a foreign pitcher, as indicated below.  Messenger lasted long enough in NPB to earn his domestic free agent option with eight full seasons of NPB service, which is a tough feat to accomplish.  However, he had previously stated his intent to retire as a Hanshin Tiger, and that’s what he did.

ERA (800+ IP)

1. Tadashi Wakabayashi 1.99

2.  Gene Bacque 2.34

3.  Glenn Mickens 2.55

4.  Joe Stanka 3.03

5. Randy Messenger 3.13

6. Seth Greisigner 3.16

7.  Taigen Kaku 3.16

8.  Genji Kaku  3.22

9.  Jason Standridge 3.31

Messenger finished his NPB career with 1,475 Ks, making him foreign strikeout king, at least so long as I don’t consider Masaichi Kaneda (4,490) and Victor Starffin (1,960) as “foreign” pitchers.

STRIKE OUTS

1.  Randy Messenger 1,475

2.  Genji Kaku 1,415

3.  Taigen Kaku 1,069

4.  Tadashi Wakabayashi 1,000

5.  Joe Stanka 887

6.  Jeremy Powell 858

7. Jason Standridge 844

8.  Gene Bacque 825

SAVES

1. Dennis Sarfate  234

2.  Marc Kroon 177

3.  Chang-yong Lim 128

4.  Eddie Gaillard 120

5.  Rod Pedroza 117

6.  Genji Kaku 116

7.  Micheal Nakamura* 104

8.  Dong-yeol Sun 98

9. Tony Barnette 97

Foreign relief pitchers have had quite a bit of success in Japan, going back to the late 1980’s, starting with Genji Kaku who both started and closed at different times in his NPB career.  Marc Kroon was an American with a high 90’s fastball, who didn’t throw enough strikes in the U.S. to have MLB success, but was dominating in NPB.

Dennis Sarfate broke Marc Kroon’s career saves record and NPB’s single-season save record (among everyone) in 2017.  His 54 saves broke the old record by seven.  Unfortunately, Sarfate hurt himself badly a month into the 2018 season, tearing something in his right hip requiring surgery, and he didn’t pitch again in 2018 or at all in 2019.  He may still have one year left on his multi-year deal with SoftBank, so it’s at least possible, if unlikely, that he could pitch again in 2020.

Dong-yeol Sun and Chang-yong Lim, like Seung-hwan Oh who saved 80 games in NPB in 2014-2015 before jumping to MLB, are products of South Korea’s KBO.  Sun and Lim were probably good enough to be successful MLB pitchers, but ended up starring in NPB instead.

Kris Johnson (57 wins, 2.54 ERA in 752.1 NPB innings pitched), Rafael Dolis (96 saves) and Brandon Dickson (career 3.32 ERA in 800+ NPB IP) should or could be added to my lists a year from now.  With the lists as currently compiled, no one gets on the lists without topping somebody already there.

The Best Hitting Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2019/2020

Posted October 8, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, NPB

Offense and particularly home runs have been way up in Japan’s NPB the last two seasons, as it appears “launch angles” defensive shifts and a “three true outcomes” mentally have taken over in Japan also.  I’m not sure that these developments it will make it easier for NPB hitters to make the jump to MLB, however.

Here are the best position player prospects for MLB entering the 2019-2020 off-season as I see it:

Tetsuto Yamada (27 years old in 2020; MLB ETA 2020-2021).  After a disappointing 2017, Yamada bounced back in both 2018 and 2019, although his batting average dropped down to .271 this season after batting .315 the year before.  Yamada ended up slashing .271/.401/.560.  He drew 110 walks, a career high and his second consecutive season over 105, and hit 35 HRs, one more than in 2018.

Yamada plays a key defensive position (2B), and he runs extremely well, stealing 33 bases in 36 attempts, a year after stealing 33 bases in 37 attempts.  The only thing not to like about his game or his chances as an MLB prospect is the fact that he strikes out a lot.

After more than 4,000 NPB plate appearances, Yamada has a career slash line of .297/.401/.533.  On-base percentage translates much more fully from NPB to MLB than power does, because NPB parks are smaller.  A middle infielder who gets on base, hits and hits for power in Japan has a good chance of success in MLB.

No word yet on whether the small-market Yakult Swallows will post Yamada this off-season.  However, going into his age 27 season, this would be the point at which his value to MLB (and thus the pay-out to Yakult) would be greatest.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (28, 2020).  According to mlbtraderumors.com earlier today, the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars will be posting Tsutsugo this winter.  He’s an NPB power hitter with a career slash line in exactly 4,000 plate appearances of .285/.382/.528.  The knocks on Tsutsugo are that power numbers don’t translate well from NPB to MLB, he’s slow (no stolen base attempts and only one triple in 270 games played the last two seasons), and he’s a left-handed hitting LF/1B/DH type with no defensive value.

Tsutsugo has an MLB sized body (6’1″, 213 lbs), and he gets on base, having drawn at least 80 BBs each of the last four seasons.  Those are his main selling points to an MLB team.

My guess is that at least one MLB team will make him a two-year $5 million guaranteed offer with two more affordable team-option years (like $4.5M and $5.5M).  I don’t think he’s a great MLB prospect, but he’s worth risking $5M on for four years of what could turn out to be a real bargain.

Seiya Suzuki (25, 2022-2023).  Suzuki is the most promising young NPB hitter right now.  He slashed .335/.453/.565, leading all of NPB (12 teams) in batting average and on-base percentage and finishing 2nd in slugging.  He plays right field and does not run as well as Tetsuto Yamada.  He’s also still a couple of years away from a possible posting to MLB.

Kensuke Kondo (26, 2020-2021).  Kondo is a former catcher who now plays the corner outfield positions.  He has no power but sure knows how to get on base.  He lead NPB’s Pacific League with a .422 on-base percentage in 2019, although that was 22 points higher than his slugging percentage, even though he batted .302.  He has played regularly since his age 20 season, so that also makes him a prospect.

Tomoya Mori (24, 2022-2023).  Moyi is a small catcher (5’7″, 176 lbs) who slashed .329/.413/.529 this season, leading the Pacific League in batting average.  Very little to dislike in those numbers from a hitter so young.  If he can stay healthy at catcher, he could be an MLB player when the time comes.

Haruki Nishikawa (28, 2020-2021).  A centerfielder who runs great (245 NPB career stolen bases at an 87% success rate) and gets on base (.392 OBP over the last two seasons).  If the Nippon-Ham Fighters post him and his center field defense is good, he might be worth an MLB contract.

Matsutaka Yoshida (26, 2024-2025).  A really fine young player (he slashed .322/.413/.543 at age 25), he’ll probably never play in MLB due to age and service time considerations.

Munetaka Mirakami (20, 2026-2027).  As a 19 year old rookie, the big 1Bman set an NPB record with 36 HRs, the most by a player in a season under the age of 20.  Alas, he batted only .231 and struck out a whopping 184 times in 593 plate appearances.  He did walk 74 times, however.  Mirakami has a long way to go before he’ll be posted and signifant portions of his game to work on in the meantime.  Still, he’s very young and clearly has some serious talent.

One of the reasons NPB is able to produce some truly outstanding MLB players, at least one every season or two, is that a lot of MLB-level talents stay in Japan.  Hideto Asamura, Yoshihiro Maru, Dayan Viciedo, Yuki Yanigita, Hayato Sakamoto and Shogo Akiyama  are all players who could have potentially been MLB stars in 2019, but we’ll never get to see them in the U.S.  Age and the nine year service requirement for true free agency locks some players into NPB.  Also, it’s pretty great to be a star on the Yomiuri Giants.  The salaries aren’t as great, but the endorsement deals are, and the adulation Yomiuri stars receive is second to none.

I don’t think that any NPB position player once he reaches his age 32 season is worth being signed by an MLB team, unless he’s willing to play for less guaranteed money than he’d make staying in NPB.  Hitters, in particular, are on the decline once they reach their age 32 seasons, and almost all NPB players with the talent to make the jump to MLB successfully do so in their by their age 27 to 29 seasons.

Minnesota Twins Start Randy Dobnak with Predictable Results

Posted October 6, 2019 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees

What were the Twinkies thinking?  They had nobody better than Randy Dobnak to start Game Two of the ALDS against the Yankees?

Dobnak may or may not go on to have a great major league career.  His 2018 and 2019 minor league campaigns certainly don’t suggest he’s going to be the next Johan Santana, but he’s young enough that anything is possible.

What I am dead certain of, however, is that it is unquestionably foolish and almost unforgivable to start a rookie with 28.1 major league innings pitched, a rookie pitcher who had not pitched above the full-season Class-A level before this season, in the second game of a play-off series in which your team is already down 0-1.  No rookie deserves to be thrown into that much pressure after only 28.1 major league innings pitched.

As Earl Weaver once said, the best place for a rookie pitcher is middle relief.  Sometimes, injuries make that impossible.  However, the Twins won their division by eight games.  There is no way they couldn’t have prepared their rotation to have somebody other than Dobnak start Game 2.  Maybe if Dobnak had shut down the Bombers in one of his five regular season starts, but no way if he’d never faced them before, which he hadn’t.

Presumably Rocco Baldelli was playing a hunch, but it wasn’t a good one.  He would have looked like a genius if Dobnak had pitched even reasonably well, but, of course, Dobnak didn’t, and now Baldelli looks like the rookie manager he is.  In fact, it feels like an admission that Baldelli thinks there’s no way his starting rotation can hold back the Yankees’ line-up.

After today’s pasting, it’s going to take some serious stones from Jake Odorizzi, even pitching at home, to prevent this from being a three-game sweep.  It’s worth noting here that in 18 career games against the Yankees, Odorizzi has held the Bombers to a manageable .235/.289./.446 in 418 plate appearances — only the home run ball has been a real threat.