For some time, my attitude about the level of play in Japan’s NPB is that if on a scale from one to ten, MLB is 10 and AAA is 1, then NPB is about at 4. The thing that makes it difficult to make relative comparisons is that relatively few Japanese players join MLB in any given off-season.
A lot of 4-A players go to Japan. Some succeed there, and some don’t. The guys with the most talent — the guys who seemingly should have succeeded in MLB, but for some reason didn’t, or true late bloomers who aged out of MLB before establishing themselves — tend to do the best, but for some players adapting to playing and living in Japan is too much for them.
What has me wondering if NPB is getting better relative to MLB is the success of this year’s NPB-to-MLB cross-overs. I’m not surprised that Kenta Maeda is pitching the way he is for the Dodgers. His career in Japan and the fact that Dodgers Stadium is a strong pitchers park led me to expect roughly what Maeda has accomplished so far.
I find the two South Koreans Dae-ho Lee and Seung-hwan Oh‘s MLB performance much more surprising. Don’t get me wrong — I thought both of these guys were fine players. I just had my doubts about how they’d make a transition to MLB.
Dae-ho Lee is a world-class hitter, but his numbers in Japan (four seasons with OPS numbers between .816 and .892) just were not impressive enough to expect him to succeed in MLB, given the kinds of numbers NPB hitters have needed to put up to succeed in MLB in the past. Add to that that at age 34, he is almost certainly the slowest non-catcher in MLB. He hasn’t hit a triple in almost four years and hasn’t stolen a base in nearly five.
I thought superb MLB defense would rob him of too many hits for him to be a successful major league hitter, not to mention the drop-off in power that would come from facing better pitchers in bigger ball parks. Needless to say, in late June the jury is hardly out. He has only walked eight times in 151 MLB plate appearances, which is well below his career norms.
If I had to guess, Lee is getting challenged with a lot fastballs out over the plate early in the count, which is what MLB pitchers often do with first year MLB hitters, and he’s smoking them because Lee can hit the fastball. We’ll see what happens when MLB pitchers have more of an idea of how to pitch to him, and there’s more MLB data on where to position the fielders.
Oh was truly a fine pitcher in South Korea’s KBO and NPB, but I thought he was getting kind of old, and he had a 2015 season in Japan that suggested he might be due for a drop-off.
Oh was an old 32 last year (his birthday is July 15th) and his ERA was nearly a run higher than the year before. He didn’t pitch an unreasonable number of regular season innings in 2014 or 2015, but was worked very hard in NPB’s post-season.
In short, I thought the odds were good that he might well just be an adequate middle reliever in MLB in 2016. Clearly, I was wrong — he’s been great, and is poised to become the Cardinals’ closer, as it has been Trevor Rosenthal who has fallen on his face in 2016.
Oh clearly knows how to pitch, and his 2014, 2015 and 2016 (so far) seasons may have a lot to do with hitters’ familiarity with him. In 2014, NPB hitters had never seen him before, and Oh dominated them. In 2015, NPB hitters had a much better idea of what to expect, and while Oh was still good, he wasn’t the same pitcher he was the year before.
In 2016, MLB have never seen Oh before, and we see how that’s going. I don’t expect him to do as well next year, but, of course, Oh will also be another year past 30 in 2017.
At any rate, it’s been a good year so far for NPB transplants, and MLB teams will be more eager to sign NPB players going forward. Unfortunately, there aren’t many premium NPB players in the pipeline for a 2017 start to their MLB careers. There are some really good ones in NPB, but they won’t get posted for a few years yet. I’ve suggested a sensible way for NPB stars to get posted sooner rather than later, but I doubt anyone is listening.