Category > mlb prospects

Fujinami’s Most Egui Pitch

» 07 May 2014 » In mlb prospects, npb » Comments Off

Today’s Japanese word of the day is egui (エグい), which in a baseball context refers to a particularly “nasty” or “sick” pitch.

Hanshin sophomore Shintaro Fujinami’s hard splitter/sinker/shuuto is as about as egui as you’ll find in NPB.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out these gifs that I’ve gleefully borrowed from 2ch:

fujinami2

fujinami1

150 km/h is about 93.2 mph, 147 km/h is 91.3 mph.

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Maeda, Through the Lens of His Predecessors

» 24 February 2014 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 8 Comments

In recent weeks, I’ve written about some of the better MLB prospects who are currently active in Japan, and looked back at some of skills that have translated well from NPB to MLB. Now we’ll see how Japan’s Next Top Pitcher, Kenta Maeda, stacks up against his most recent predecessors.

Maeda let the cat out of the bag during his 2014 contract negotiations that he wants to play in MLB in the future, leading to widespread speculation that he’ll be posted following this season. Let’s assume, for the sake of this article, that he enjoys another Maeda-esque season in 2014 and is indeed posted after the season. What will he bring to the MLB negotiating table? Here’s my breakdown of his strengths and weaknesses:

Maeda’s strengths:

  • A fastball that won’t be a liability at the MLB level.
  • An ability to locate at least two breaking pitches, a slider and a changeup.
  • He gets his curve into the strike zone as well.
  • An ability to suppress hits. Maeda has allowed just 7.51 per 9IP over his 1116.1 inning career. In 2013, he allowed just 6.61 hits per 9IP.
  • Health and durability. Maeda has never had a serious injury, and has topped 175 IP in each of the last five seasons.
  • Consistency. Maeda’s WHIPs over the last four years: 0.98, 1.02, 0.99, 0.99.

Maeda’s weaknesses:

  • Overall his stuff is just not as whiff-inducing as Yu Darvish’s or Masahiro Tanaka’s.
  • He has lacked the eye-popping K:BB ratios of guys like Tanaka, Koji Uehara or Colby Lewis, though he is no slouch at about 5:1.
  • I’ve noticed he can nibble a bit.
  • On my list, Maeda’s build and stuff resemble’s Kenshin Kawakami’s more than anyone else.

I started off being pretty lukewarm on Maeda, but I’ve warmed up quite a bit. He doesn’t measure up to Darvish or Tanaka, but that’s setting the bar pretty impossibly high. Kawakami might be the best comparable among NPB starters who have made it to MLB in the last five years, but Maeda is younger, healthier and more consistent than Kawakami was. And let’s also remember that Kawakami was something like an average National League starter in his first MLB season. My guess is that Maeda can hack it in MLB, though he’s probably a mid-rotation guy.

Of course, the 2014 season hasn’t yet begun, and anything can happen. But I don’t really expect Maeda to deviate much from the consistent performance he’s shown over the last five years.

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Who’s Next?

» 15 February 2014 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » 15 Comments

Within minutes of Masahiro Tanaka signing with the Yankees, I started getting questions on Twitter about the next star out of Japan.

The short answer is that there’s no one of Tanaka’s caliber that we’ll see in MLB in the next few years.The longer answer is that there are a number of interesting pitchers currently active in Japan who could eventually wind up in North America. Here are the ones I’m watching most closely.

Kenta Maeda RHP starter, Hiroshima Carp: Maeda is Tanaka’s heir apparent as Japan’s best pitcher, but he grades well below Ma-Kun as an MLB prospect, both on pure stuff and statistical dominance. On this list, he compares most closely to Kenshin Kawakami, but with the advantages of youth and health. A reasonable expectation is that he’ll be a viable mid/back rotation starter for someone. Maeda is expected to be posted following the 2014 season, so we should see him in MLB in 2015.

Chihiro Kaneko RHP starter, Orix Buffaloes: Kaneko is pretty good, but for whatever reason, frequently overlooked in discussions about Japan’s best pitchers. He’s a bit less consistent than Maeda, but has more breaking stuff and generates a few more whiffs. Kaneko is eligible for domestic, NPB-only free agency after the 2014 season, and there are already rumors that Yomiuri is going to go after him. If he wants to play in MLB it likely wouldn’t be until 2016 at the soonest.

Seung-Hwan Oh RHP closer, Hanshin Tigers: 2014 will be Oh’s first year in NPB, having spent his career to this point in Korea. He was expected to move to MLB this past offseason, but wound up signing a two-year deal with Hanshin instead. The thought is that he could move on to MLB at the conclusion of his contract, so that would be 2016. I haven’t seen Oh yet so I haven’t formed an opinion of him as a prospect.

Hideaki Wakui, RHP starter, Chiba Lotte Marines: A few years ago, Wakui would have ranked among Japan’s better MLB prospects, but now he’s a bit of a question mark. He hit his peak in 2009, winning the Sawamura Award, but overuse, a contentious relationship with his team, girl trouble, and possible conditioning problems has resulted in several steps backward. I’ve been hearing for years that Wakui wants to move to MLB; he signed a two-year contract with Lotte this offseason where he could rebuild value.

Takuya Asao, RHP reliever, Chunichi Dragons: Asao was so dominant in 2011 that won the 2011 Central League MVP Award, despite pitching in middle relief. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been the same since, suffering from shoulder discomfort and pitching 30 and 30.2 in 2012 and 2013 respectively. If he’s healthy, there’s no doubt his stuff — mid-90s fastball, hard splitter, funky palmball — is good enough for MLB. He’s a few years away from free agency so we’ll see what happens.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP starter, Seibu Lions: Kikuchi made waves in 2009 for considering forgoing NPB to sign with an MLB club. He ultimately remained in Japan, and was drafted by Seibu. In 2013, Kikuchi was in the midst of making good on the potential that made him such a hot commodity as a high school prospect when he was stricken with shoulder inflammation and lost for the season. It obviously remains to be seen how he’ll fare when he returns, but so far he’s at least show that he can turn his ability in to results. Kikuchi is at least six years away from free agency.

Shohei Ohtani RHP starter/OF, Nippon Ham Fighters: Here’s where it gets interesting. Like Kikuchi, Ohtani also showed an interest in jumping right to MLB out of high school. Unlike Kikuchi, he seemed intent on actually doing it, but Nippon Ham drafted him anyway and eventually convinced him to sign. Despite flashing 100mph heat in high school, Ohtani opened the 2013 season as Nippon Ham’s starting right fielder. A few months later, he made his ichi-gun debut on the mound, and pitched 61.2 innings, becoming the first nitouryu (double-bladed) player since Yozo Nagabuchi in 1968. Ohtani’s offseason training centered on pitching, but he’ll reportedly continue to play both positions this season. Nippon Ham has been publicly supportive of sending Ohtani to MLB after a few years of seasoning, but of course that was before this posting system nonsense took place.

Shintaro Fujinami RHP starter, Hanshin Tigers: Ohtani’s 2013 rookie brethren Fujinami might not be as flashy, but he’s a lot more polished. Fujinami opened the 2013 as Hanshin’s third starter, and essentially stuck in the rotation for the duration of the season, an impressive feat for an 18 year-old. At this point, Fujinami probably has the best potential of any pitcher on this list. He already shows polish and pitchability, and he’s extremely lanky 6’7. As he fills out and adds strength, it’s reasonable to expect that he could develop a bit more fastball velocity, and handle more innings pitched. At age 19 he’s a long way away from free agency and MLB, but if 2013 is any indication fans on both sides of the Pacific have a lot to look forward to.

Tomohiro Anraku RHP starter Saibi High School: Anraku’s still a high school student, but he’s an interesting prospect. Clearly the top player in last year’s spring Koshien Sembatsu tournament, he was famously pitched into the ground by his manager. The bodily wear he sustained from the effort led to worse performances later in the year, and his stock as an NPB draft prospect has dropped. We don’t know what 2014 holds, but it’s conceivable that he could follow in Kikuchi and Ohtani’s footsteps as a player who tests the MLB waters out of high school.

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Pitching: Here, There, Everywhere

» 20 December 2013 » In mlb, mlb prospects, npb » 5 Comments

Every time an NPB pitcher transitions to MLB, we see a number of projectsions for he might perform statistically. For me these projections are always a bit of a shot in the dark — there is just too much variance among too many factors to make a linear statistical project realistic.

The big, obvious difference for pitchers is simply that MLB hitters are better than NPB hitters. The best MLB hitters are better than the best NPB hitters, and the average MLB hitter is better than the average NPB hitter. But beyond that, there are a number of more subtle factors that make projections difficult. Here are the ones I can think of, from the perspective of NPB:

  • There are fewer legitimate power threats in Japan. Every lineup has at least couple of regulars who just don’t hit home runs.
  • On the other hand, there are rather few strikeout machines like Adam Dunn and Pedro Alvarez.
  • Japanese managers are still in the habit of regularly throwing away outs with sacrifice bunts.
  • Most Japanese ballparks have massive foul ground.
  • The NPB ball is slightly smaller and lighter than the MLB ball. I’ve also heard that it is a bit tackier than the MLB ball and easier for some pitchers to command.
  • Japanese starters, at least the good ones, go a bit deeper into games. 120 pitch starts are on the high end in MLB, but are not uncommon in Japan. Yu Darvish was no stranger to pitch counts in the 140’s in his NPB days.
  • NPB starters normally get six days between starts, which includes a weekly off day. Pitchers sometimes get in a rhythme of pitching on the same day each week. The most famous example of this was Lotte ace Choji Murata, who was nicknamed “Sunday Choji”.
  • NPB starters also stay home the day before their scheduled starts.
  • Playing in Japan requires less travel. All of Japan is in one time zone, and five of the 12 NPB teams are based in the vicinity of Tokyo.
  • NPB has 12 teams total, six in each league. Normally a starter will face each team in the opposite league once during interlegue play, and see the other five teams in his own league four of five times each. Most MLB starters will see a bigger variesty of lineups.

Stats are good, they just need to get filtered through all this stuff, plus whatever else I didn’t think to include. Ultimately the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that skills are translatable, but stats less so.

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Re-run: Player Profile: Chang Yong Lim

» 12 December 2012 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

This post originally ran in 2009, when it appeared that Chang Yong Lim might move to MLB as a free agent. At the time this post was published, Lim was under contract with the Yakult Swallows until the end of 2010. After 2010, he re-signed with Yakult for two years covering 2011 and 2012, and an option year for 2013. He was injured early last season, and Yakult declined their option on him. Today he agreed to a deal with the Cubs. His velocity charts are available at NPB Tracker Data.


A pair of Asian-born NPB pitchers are getting some attention from MLB teams. Today I’ll take a look at South Korean relief ace Chang Yong Lim.

Lim is best known among international fans for giving up the eventual game-winning hit to Ichiro in this year’s WBC Final. By day, however, Lim is the closer for the Yakult Swallows, and he’s been lights-out this year. Through 29.2 innings, he has yet to allow an earned run for the surprising Swallows, who at 36-22 are 2nd in the Central League.

Lim is a fastball/sinker/slider pitcher who relies on a rather unsual combination of velocity and a side-arm delivery. He pitches off his fastball, which usually sits in the 90-93mph range, but will reach 96/97mph. There were reports earlier in the year that he hit the magical 160kmph (100mph) mark on the gun, but I don’t buy it. Other reports put that pitch at 155kmph (97mph), which is more believable and still very good. You can get a sense of his mechanics from these clips of his 17th and 18th saves from this season, or this clip of him striking out a couple of Chunichi Dragons last year.

What prompted me to write about Lim now was the recent revelation that he’s looking for a US-based agent, first published in Japanese tabloid Nikkan Gendai and repeated in the Japanese edition of the JoongAng Ilbo, where I found it. However, the soonest we’re likely to see him Stateside is 2011, as Yakult holds an option on his services for next year, which they’ve reportedly already decided to excercise. While it’s unclear how much the option year is worth, he’s been an absolute bargain for the Swallows so far. He earned just $300k last year, and is making $500k this season. By comparison, bullpenmate Ryota Igarashi is making about $840k this season.

Lim’s interest in playing internationally dates back to 2002. According ot his Japanese Wikipedia entry, his KBO club Samsung posted in him to MLB in 2002, but ultimately didn’t get a bid they were happy with. Lim again attempted a move abroad in 2004, negotiating with Rakuten in Japan and, reportedly, several MLB clubs before resigning with Samsung.

Next time I’ll take a look at Chunichi lefty Wei Yin Chen.

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2013 Free Agents

» 29 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » Comments Off

All right, here we go. 2013 free agents.

This year, 85 players (18 domestic, 67 international) qualify for free agency. In practice, only a small minority will file and change teams. I will highlight the interesting ones; here’s the full list in Japanese (Google Translate may work all right for that).

International Free Agents

Players who have accumulated nine years of service time are eligible to move overseas.

  • Kyuji Fujikawa, relief pitcher, Hanshin Tigers

This year’s FA class is undoubtedly headed by Hanshin closer Fujikawa, NPB’s most dominant reliever over the last several years. Kyuji has been on the nichibei scene for years; he was actually the first player I profiled way back in 2008 and has since made a perennial habit of asking Hanshin to post him and being turned down. Now as a free agent he’ll finally get his shot. Kyuji isn’t the same guy as he was in 2006, but he still get’s plenty of swinging strikes with the usual vertical movement on his fastball and splitters in the dirt (more data here). His K rate in 2012 was 10.95 per 9, which is great but actually down a bit from his usual 12-14 range. He’ll certainly command an MLB contract, but it seems likely that he’ll begin his MLB career in a middle relief role.

  • Hiroyuki Nakajima, shortstop/infield, Saitama Seibu Lions

If Nakajima’s name sounds familiar, that’s probably because he was posted last offseason, and his negotiating rights were won by the Yankees. Nakaji and the Bombers failed to agree to a contract, so he hopped in his Ferrari and headed back to the Lions for another year, putting up a healthy .311/.382/.451 slash line. His batting average might have led the Pacific League had Lotte not gutlessly pitched around him on the last day of the season, but instead ended up a single point behind Katsuya Kakunaka. His OBP ranked second in the Pacific League, and his slugging pct was fourth, and well ahead of the next middle infielder. In the field he seems to make the play he gets to, but has lost some range, and the consensus is that he’s probably not a full-time MLB shortstop.

Anyway, now Nakajima is back on the market as a free agent. I was a big fan of the idea of Nakaji in New York, acclimatizing himself to MLB while getting 300 or so at-bats spelling Derek Jeter at SS and Alex Rodriguez at 3B, but obviously that didn’t come to fruition. There were other MLB teams interested in Nakajima last time around, so I think there is little doubt he’ll find an MLB deal this year, but it will remain to be seen what kind of role he winds up in.

  • Takashi Toritani, shortstop/infield, Hanshin Tigers

There are a number of things to like about Toritani: he’s played every game since 2005, he led NPB in walks by a wide margin in 2012, defensively he inspires a bit more confidence at shortstop than Nakajima. On the flip side, his power evaporated with the introduction of the new ball in 2011, we have yet to see an NPB shortstop move to MLB and stick, and the most observers seem to agree that he’d be better off remaining in Japan. If his defense and plate discipline hold up, his skill set sounds Oakland A’s-ish, but that’s hardly a given and Hanshin will make a big play to keep him. His best financial offer will certainly come from Japan and I think he’ll probably stay put.

  • Kensuke Tanaka, 2b/infield, Nippon Ham Fighters

Tanaka has been on the free agency market before, but he signed a multi-year contract with Nippon Ham that included an opt-out that allows him to pursue an MLB deal. He is expected to exercise that right. The book on Tanaka is that of a small-ball player: he’s a rangy second baseman who hits for average and draws walks, gets bunts down and steals bases, but offers minimal power. As such, of the infielders listed here he most obviously profiles as a utility guy, though his glove is probably the best of the three. Reporting out of Japan indicates that he seems willing to take a minor league contract, and if that’s the case someone will give him a chance to win a job. Incidentally, he may have kind of a roundabout advantage in that having been a teammate of Yu Darvish for several years, MLB scouts should already be pretty familiar with him.

  • Hideki Okajima, relief pitcher, Softbank Hawks

You guys remember Okajima. After the Yankees terminated his contract last year (that’s two nearly-Yankees Jima’s this list), Okie signed with Softbank and had a strong year, not allowing an earned run until August. He’s angling for an MLB return this offseason.

Posting Candiates

There are no significant posting candidates this offseason.

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Report: Nippon Ham Intends to Draft Otani

» 24 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb draft » 22 Comments

Update: Nippon Ham did indeed draft Otani, and Ben Badler has confirmed that that won’t legally stop him from signing with an MLB team. I had implied that it would, at least until the negotiation period ends, and I was incorrect about that.

Aaaaaaaaaaaand we have our first bit of drama in Shohei Otani‘s journey to MLB. Quoted in Sanspo, Nippon Ham Fighters GM Masao Yamada has declared his intent to select Otani with his first pick in today’s (JST time) draft.

“Regarding Otani-kun, he’s made comments saying like to go to a Major League team, but as a ball club we will follow through with our intent to select the strongest player with our first pick. We plan to select Otani-kun.”

 

「大谷君に関しましてはメジャー球団に行きたいというコメントがありましたが、球団としましては一番力のある選手を1位指名するという方針を貫きます。大谷君を1位指名するつもりです」

note: the “kun”  suffix is a name identifier; kind of like “san” for young men.

If Nippon Ham (or any other NPB team) drafts Otani, they will have the right to sign him until the end of March 2013. The MLB and NPB working agreement prohibits one league from signing players who are under contract with a team from the other league, so at a minimum being selected in the draft would delay Otani signing with an MLB club for several months.

Why would Yamada pick Otani, despite his intent to sign with an MLB club? Well, he’s within his rights to do so, since Otani announced his MLB plans after declaring eligible for the NPB draft. Yamada must feel that Otani’s upside is worth the signability risk. Maybe he thinks he can talk him into signing. This move is not unprecedented; last year Yamada selected Tomoyuki Sugano, the consensus top college arm in the draft, who had let it be known that he would not sign with anyone other than the Yomiuri Giants. Sugano didn’t even negotiate with Nippon Ham and is back in the draft this year.

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Who Is Shohei Otani?

» 18 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb draft » 4 Comments

Okay, so the cat is out of the bag about high school pitching prospect Shohei Otani. Here’s everything I know about him.

I first found out about Otani about a year ago, when Yakyu Kozoh had a story on potential successors to Yu Darvish. Otani caught my eye because he graded a perfect 5/5 “Darvishes” and, at 17, he was the youngest pitcher profiled. Every tall, young righty elicits some kind of comparison to Darvish from the Japanese media, so Otani is not unique in that regard. What is a little more unique is that in terms of physique and ability, the comparison stands up reasonably well. At 193 cm (6’4) and 86 kg (189 lbs), Otani measures similarly to Darvish, though a little shorter and perhaps a little heavier than Darvish was at 18. Otani also has a similarly live arm, though with a little more velocity and a lot less polish than Darvish exhibited as a high schooler.

I’ve only seen one Otani pitch one full game, his appearance in this spring’s Koshien Senbatsu tournament against fellow draft phenom Shintaro Fujinami. It was a frustrating game to watch, as the raw quality of Otani’s stuff was evident, but his command was non-existent. He featured a fastball ranging from about 145-152 km/h (90-95 mph), a slider around 132-136 km/h (82-84 mph) and curve around 125 km/h (77 mph). Everything had movement, and his wildness was of the effective variety until the 6th inning, when he and his defense faltered, before melting down (video) in the 7th. For the day, Otani struck out 11, walked 11 and gave up nine runs (five earned) while taking the loss. That looks bad, but Otani was facing a quality lineup with aluminum bats on a big stage, and his manager left him out for 173 pitches. The raw talent is there, but it was clearly just that in that game – raw.

Helpfully, the Koko Yakyu site live-blogged this game in English, so it is available for your perusal.

I didn’t see the July 19 prefectural tournament game that Otani has since become known for, when he hit 160 km/h (99 mph) on the scoreboard gun, but I did Tweet about it when it happened. I’ve since found about 14 minutes worth of Otani footage from that game (skip to the 7:58 mark if you want to see the 160 km/h fastball). Obviously the 14 minutes we have are biased, but Otani appears to be a lot more confident with his stuff than he was in the Senbatsu game, and accordingly his command is much better. Grains of salt apply; he was facing weaker competition and the stadium gun was hot, as the scouts in attendance had his velocity a bit lower. Still, an even more limited set of highlights from his appearance in the IBAF 18U tournament implies that he’s capable of better command than he showed in the spring.

So Otani is a prospect, and an excellent one at that. If his command was better I might call him the best high school pitching prospect I’ve seen in the 12 years or so that I’ve been paying attention, but for now I think that distinction will remain with Hayato Terahara. My preferred print publications Shukan Baseball and Yakyu Kozoh have him at the top of this year’s draft class, and NPB Prospect Watch ranks him third, noting his command issues but also his excellent track record as a batter. Draft Reports has a long list of comments from scouts on him, too many to translate individually but unanimously in praise of his potential. A couple of notable comments were from the Dodgers’ Logan White, who said that he went to Japan just to see Otani, and the Rays’ Tim Ireland, who compared him to Felix Hernandez.

What happens now? The NPB draft will take place on October 25, and Otani has declared eligible. As of September he was 50/50 on NPB vs MLB, but some Japanese media outlets seem convinced that he’s headed to MLB. I’m not sure if I find those reports credible just yet. Otani has met with the Dodgers, Red Sox and Rangers, and had a meeting with the Orioles that he couldn’t get on to his schedule. Otani will not meet with any more MLB clubs. One wrinkle that Otani will have to consider is that if he signs with an MLB club, he’ll be barred from joining an NPB team for a period of three years after he leaves MLB, under a rule enacted after Junichi Tazawa signed with Boston.

Coincidently, Otani attends Hanamaki Higashi high school in Iwate Prefecture, the school that produced lefty Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi was a similarly hot prospect back in 2009, and went through his own dramatic NPB/MLB decision in which he was publicly courted by all 12 NPB teams and eight MLB teams before choosing to remain in Japan. The Otani situation has not developed in to the same kind of media frenzy that the Kikuchi situation did, which is good  because the stress clearly took it’s toll on Kikuchi. Perhaps Hanamaki manager Hiroshi Sasaki is applying the experience he had with Kikuchi to this year’s edition.

We should know which way Otani is headed in the next week or so. Wherever he winds up it’ll be fun to see how he develops.

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A Brief Commercial Break

» 09 March 2012 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

For the third consecutive year, my friends at Rotowire invited me to contribute to their annual Fantasy Baseball Guide. Given my schedule constraints over the offseason, my Rotowire article wound up being the most complete analysis of all the Japanese MLB newcomers for this season.

Of the three articles I’ve contributed to Rotowire, I think this one is the best, so I hope you’ll check it out. Rotowire’s 2012 Fantasy Baseball guide is on newsstands across the US now, or can be purchased online.

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NPB in English: Policy Shifts, Player Movements, KBO

» 26 February 2012 » In kbo, mlb prospects, npb » 7 Comments

There’s plenty of excellent English-language content being authored on Japanese and Asian baseball. Here are links to a few examples.

I’m always on the lookout for new blogs and sources of content on Japanese baseball. If you know of any that I don’t link to, let me know.

 

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