Tag Archive > Kazuo Matsui

Rakuten’s Championship Roster

» 21 January 2014 » In npb » 3 Comments

In 2004, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles didn’t exist. The Kintetsu Buffaloes did, and after years in the red, the Kintetsu corporation decided to divest itself of it’s baseball operation. When no buyer could be found, Kintetsu’s management opted to merge with the neighboring Orix Blue Wave franchise, resulting in the contraction of the Kintetsu organization. Both the Osaka-based Kintetsu and the Kobe-based Orix were minnows in terms of fan base compared to the region’s beloved Hanshin Tigers, so some market contraction actually made sense.

But no one liked the idea of league contraction. The Orix-Kintetsu merger would leave an 11-team NPB, and there were talks of contracting another team and doing away with the two-league format. Fans held protests, Livedoor.com founder Takafumi Horie stepped in with an offer to buy the Buffaloes, and late in the season the players union held the first, and so far, only, strike in its history, refusing to play weekend games. It worked, and the owners agreed to allow an expansion franchise. By this time, Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani had gotten involved, and a hearing was held to decide whether Livedoor or Rakuten would be awarded the new franchise. The hearing panel chose Rakuten, citing its more stable business and ownership of the Vissel Kobe J-League soccer team. The Orix-Kintetsu merger proceeded as planned, with the resulting team to be known as the Orix Buffaloes.

And so the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were born, to begin play in 2005, based in Sendai in Japan’s Tohoku region (northern Honshu). The team would play in Miyagi Stadium, the 1970’s home of the Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines).

Eight years later, in 2013, the Eagles won their first NPB championship. So how’d they get there?

Rakuten started out with a roster of zero, and there was to be a surplus of players from the Orix-Kintetsu merger, so NPB held a dispersal draft of sorts. All of the players from the previous Orix and Kintetsu teams were placed into a pool, then the new Orix team was allowed to select 25 players all at once, in the first “round”. Then Rakuten could choose 20 players from the remainder of the pool. The Orix could choose another 20, and so on until all the players were assigned to a new team.

While the initial draft process was stacked in favor of Orix, it did yield two players who played in game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series for Rakuten: outfielders Toshiya Nakashima (from Orix) and Akihisa Makita (from Kintetsu). More notably, Kintetsu ace Hisashi Iwakuma refused to play for the merged team, and demanded a trade to Rakuten. The Eagles started off as kind of a literal embodiment of the common sports radio topic “if you had one player to start a franchise with, who would it be?”

From there, Rakuten set about building their team the traditional way, mostly building through the draft. There are enough words in this already, so let’s fast forward to 2013 and look at where the Eagles’ primary contributors came from (2013 acquisitions bolded):

Position Player Acquired
C Motohiro Shima 2006 draft, 3rd round
1B Ginji 2005 draft (high school), 3rd round
2B Kazuya Fujita 2012 mid-season trade from Baystars (Kensuke Uchimura)
3B Casey McGehee* 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
SS Kazuo Matsui 2010-2011 offseason MLB free agent
IF Tatsuro Iwasaki 2012-2013 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)
OF/C Takero Okajima 2011 draft, 4th round
OF/DH Andruw Jones 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
OF Ryo Hijirsawa 2007 draft, 4th round
OF Shintaro Masuda 2005 draft (high school), 3rd round
OF Teppei** 2005-2006 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)
SP Masahiro Tanaka*** 2006 draft (high school), 1st round
SP Takahiro Norimoto 2012 draft, 2nd round
SP Manabu Mima 2010 draft, 2nd round
SP Brandon Duckworth 2012 midseason acquisition from Red Sox
SP Kenji Tomura 2009 draft, 1st round
SP Wataru Karashima 2008 draft, 6th round
SP Satoshi Nagai 2006 draft, 1st round
RP Koji Aoyama 2005 draft, 3rd round
RP Darrell Rasner 2008-2009 offseason acquisition from Yankees (cash)
RP Takashi Saito 2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent
RP Kohei Hasebe 2007 draft, 1st round
RP Kenny Ray 2013 midseason acquisition from Mexican League
RP Norihito Kaneto 2012-2013 offseason trade from Yomiuri (cash)
RP Hiroshi Katayama 2005 draft (high school), 1st round
* Signed with the Marlins for 2014
** Traded to Orix for 2014
*** Has been posted to MLB for 2014 but not yet signed with a new team

The first thing that jumps out is the obvious divide between position players and pitchers Rakuten’s drafts. Rakuten has never used a first round pick on a position player, and has never developed a home-grown offensive star. 65 of the Eagles’ 97 home runs were provided by MLB free agent signees McGehee, Jones, and Matsui. The home-grown players are on-base types, at best.

Rakuten’s pitching staff was primarily acquired through the draft as well, mostly with earlier round picks. The Eagles mostly hit singles and doubles with their picks, but connected for a home run with Norimoto, and launched an epic grand slam with Tanaka. Beyond those two picks, the pitchers in this list are a bunch of singles and doubles. Hasebe finally broke out a bit in 2013, but still only provided 34.1 innings of relief work, and that’s the first sign he’s shown of coming anywhere close to his 1st round billing.

So does Rakuten have another championship-caliber roster in 2014? Maybe. Signing Kevin Youklis to replace the departing McGehee was a gutsy move, but Youk’ll have to be healthy to fill Casey’s shoes. And key offensive cogs Jones and Matsui are another year older.

The bigger departure, obviously, is Tanaka. Filling his shoes is obviously going to be impossible, but the Eagles might be able to claw back some of his competitive value with improved depth. Rakuten’s three and four starters were pretty mediocre (Mima, 4.12 ERA in 98.1 IP; Duckworth, 4.31 in 87.2). Maybe Travis Blackley shows up and pitches 150 innings of 3.50 ball. Maybe Satoshi Nagai bounces back toward his 2010 form (182.2 IP, 3.74). Perhaps lefty Takahiro Shiomi, who missed all of 2013, recovers and provides 100 IP. Or maybe wakawashi like Yoshinao Kamata and Yudai Mori chip in some value.

Or, even if none of that happens in 2014, at least the Eagles get to play the season as defending NPB champions. In their 55 years of existence, the Kintetsu Buffaloes never did.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Spring Training Story Lines

» 03 February 2013 » In npb » 2 Comments

Spring has arrived in Okinawa, and NPB camps are underway. As with every new season, there are a number of stories developing. Here are a few to look out for:

  • How long before Nippon Ham settles on a position for Shohei Ohtani?

Part of Nippon Ham’s pitch to Ohtani was letting him pitch and hit. Ohtani has the physique and high school track record to make this a very interesting idea, but I suspect that reality will eventually settle in and he’ll wind up sticking to his best role. That said, here’s hoping he pulls it off. I’d love to see him come in from right field to close a game.

  • How will top draftee Shintaro Fujinami adapt to life as a pro?

There is no such positional debate about the other high school prize of last year’s draft, Hanshin pitcher Fujinami. The sentiment echoed throughout the Japanese media following the draft was the question of whether Hanshin has the ability to develop a pitcher with the potential of “Mount Fuji”; now we begin to find out.

  • How will Yomiuri draftee Tomoyuki Sugano perform after a year away from competition?

Sugano took a year off in 2012, after his rights were won by the Nippon Ham Fighters in the 2011 draft. Undeterred, the Giants grabbed him uncontested in the first round of the 2012 draft, and he immediately signed. If he’s some approximation of this, the Giants will be quite happy he was insistent on playing for them.

  • Which of the bari bari Major Leaguers will sink and which will swim?

Andruw Jones, Bryan LaHair, Casey McGehee, Jose Lopez, Vincente Padilla and Nyjer Morgan are among this year’s NPB imports. It’s always hard to predict who will do well in Japan, but I’m particularly pessimistic about Padilla and Morgan.

  • Who will step in to Hiroyuki Nakajima’s shoes for Seibu?

History repeats itself. 10 years ago, Nakajima stepped forward as the replacement for star shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who had departed for the Majors. Now Seibu finds itself needing a replacement for Nakajima. It looked like Hideto Asamura could emerge as a successor, but he failed to impress last season. A return to form from speedster Yasuyuki Kataoka would be welcome, and perhaps Esteban German could see time at shortstop.

  • Who is Eddy Rivera?

Billed a “mystery” player, Rivera is in camp with the Chunichi Dragons on a trial basis (“testo sei“). Rivera has Dominican Summer League experience with academy affiliates of the Cardinals and Padres, but hasn’t appeared in a game since 2010.

Rivera stepped off his flight from the Dominican and immediately impressed with his velocity. Chunichi has found Latin American bargains such as Tony Blanco and Enyelbert Soto in recent years, we’ll see if lightning strikes again.

  • Has Orix improved?

Orix recently grabbed headlines for acquiring star outfielder Yoshio Itoi in a trade with Nippon Ham, but has made a couple other interesting moves this offseason. The Buffaloes signed 2B Keiichi Hirano, picked up starter Shun Tono in a trade with Yomiuri, and snagged closer Takahiro Mahara as compensation for losing free agent starter Hayato Terahara. On the negative side of the ledger, the B’s parted ways with talented, but health-challenged starters Terahara Hiroshi Kisanuki, as well as Alfredo Figaro. Orix is still on the outside looking in at a top-3 finish, but if everything goes absolutely right for them, they could make things interesting.

  • Has Yokohama DeNA improved?

DeNA’s offseason largely consisted of poaching Tony Blanco, Jorge Sosa and Enyelbert Soto from Chunichi, getting OF Hitoshi Tamura back from Softbank, and signing Nyjer Morgan. All of these moves, with the probable exception of Morgan, improve the Baystars, but none really addresses the team’s main weaknesses of the starting rotation and middle infield. The real step forward will have to be lead by the ‘Stars young players: 3B Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, C Shuto Takajo, pitchers Yuki Kuniyoshi and Kisho Kagami, and 2012 draftees IF Hiroyuki Shirasaki and pitcher Kazuki Mishima.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Grains of Salt

» 03 December 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » 11 Comments

So unsurprisingly, I’m getting questions this offseason about how guys like Tsuyoshi Wada, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Wei Yin Chen project as MLB prospects. Truth be told, trying project established guys from NPB to MLB always makes me a little nervous. I don’t feel like I’m that great at it, so I decided to go back and look at my public track record, to give you the chance to decide if I’m worth listening to.

Here’s what I found:

  • Koji Uehara — I was bullish on him when he moved across the Pacific; injury history had me questioning whether he could start; he was one of my favorite guys to watch in Japan and I’m glad he’s done well.
  • Kenshin Kawakami – My synopsis was “mid-rotation guy you can win with“. In retrospect that was a little aggressive; he was more like a competent #4 guy before the Braves decided to bury him.
  • Hitoki Iwase – I thought his stuff would translate to MLB, particularly after watching Scott Downs pitch; he obviously never moved to MLB.
  • Junichi Tazawa — I really liked his stuff, but also expected him to hit a wall somewhere. He reached the majors before hitting a wall, which really impressed me.
  • Ken Takahashi – I predicted “a little bit of an uphill battle” for Tak1, but also thought he could be a useful pitcher. He basically was for his year in the Mets organization, though his career ended immediately after returning to Hiroshima.
  • Ken Kadokura – Remember when he signed with the Cubs? I felt like he had something left in the tank, but he wound up getting dropped by the Cubs at the end of spring training and went on to have a few good years in Korea.
  • Hisanori Takahashi – I liked Tak2 a lot better as a reliever than a starter; that one turned out to be true.
  • Ryota Igarashi — I don’t think I made an explicit prediction for Igarashi, but I thought he would do okay. He didn’t seem to trust his stuff in his first year, and though he did better in year two, he went from “effectively wild” in NPB to just “wild” with the Mets.
  • Chang-Yong Lim – Like Igarashi I don’t know that I really made an explicit prediction for him, though I really liked his stuff. I still do. Lim is still with Yakult and not a free agent, and I doubt we’ll ever see him in MLB.
  • Colby Lewis – I found reasons to be optimistic about Lewis in his return to the Rangers, but he certainly has exceeded my expectations.
  • Tsuyoshi Nishioka – Over at Fangraphs, I called Nishioka a “Chone Figgins/Ryan Theriot type”. What I meant by that was that he could be an infielder who would get on base but have minimal power, and play decent defense. I didn’t see him flaming out in year one the way he did.
  • Hisashi Iwakuma — Also at Fangraphs, I put Iwakuma’s upside at mid-rotation, noting he has to keep his forkball and he will probably regress some in innings pitched. I still mostly think this is the case, assuming he’s healthy. We’ll find out next year.
  • Yoshinori Tateyama – I never published much of anything about Tateyama, though I have an unfinished draft still sitting on Fangraphs, where I intended to make the case that he could be an MLB ROOGY/righty specialist. There was little original thought there, as he was dominant against righties in 2010 for Nippon Ham. In 2011 he exhibited a similar split for the Rangers, with a 2.04 against righties, versus 7.71 against lefties.

I kind of set out to prove that I’m not that great at these predictions, so I was surprised that the results here actually weren’t too bad. I seemed to do all right with Uehara, Tak1 and Tak2, while I probably underestimated Lewis and over-predicted Nishioka. The Nishioka flop makes me worry that I don’t know how to project position players. I think overall though, it’s pretty clear that I tend to see the glass as half-full with these guys as prospects. I also noticed here was that I seem to look at specific skills and how they might translate, rather than trying to project specific stats. Maybe I’m more of a scout than a numbers guy at heart.

That said, there are plenty of things I’ve been wrong about, I just haven’t always had a platform like this to assert my wrongness. If NPB Tracker had been around, however, I would have told you that…

  • …of the two Matsuis, Kazuo was the far better MLB prospect. I was a huge fan of Kazuo’s; I saw him as a five-tool player.
  • Kei Igawa’s changeup was going to be a good MLB pitch.
  • Nagisa Arakaki was Japan’s next great pitcher.
  • So Taguchi wouldn’t have anything to offer to and MLB club.

…and so on.

So you might see me make a few statements on how I think the 2012 NPB imports may perform after they cross the Pacific. I’ll let you decide the appropriate measure of salt to take them with.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Game Notes: Baseball Returns to Sendai

» 28 April 2011 » In npb » 2 Comments

Summary: I decided to finish up my lingering notes from a game I watched a couple days ago. Rakuten beat Orix 3-1

Last Friday, pro yakyu returned to the Tohoku region, with the Rakuten Golden Eagles playing their first home game of the season in Sendai. The timing was actually not bad, as the game coincided with the opening of the Golden Week holidays. I guess that probably wasn’t unintentional. Anyway, a pretty good crowd was on hand for the game, and they were treated to a brisk, well-pitched match, and a Rakuten win.

The final score was 3-1, but the game could have gone either way. Rakuten starter Masahiro Tanaka went the distance, and was sharp the whole way through. He didn’t get into any remotely threatening situations until his third trip through the Buffaloes lineup. He didn’t have to look back to see a runner on second base until the 7th inning, and it took a Kazuo Matsui throwing error in the 8th for Orix to get a run in.

As good as Tanaka was, I thought Chan Ho Park was a little better. Park was a groundball machine against the Eagles. I didn’t see him elevate a single pitch in the innings I watched, and only a couple balls hit in the air reached the outfield. The only blemish, for me, was that he didn’t generate many swinging strikes.

Rakuten has a fairly punchless lineup so it’ll be interesting to see how Park fares against some of Japan’s better offenses, after the league has had a look at him.

Here are some other miscellaneous observations from my notes the game:

  • Mike Hessman made his first appearance since April 12, pinch hitting for catcher Fumihito Suzuki in the 7th. He waved at a couple sliders before making contact with a fastball, popping it to short center.
  • This was the first time in a couple weeks that I saw Akinori Iwamura, who’s struggled this year with a sub-.200 batting average. The one noticeable adjustment that he had made was that he’s moved closer to the plate. Earlier in the year, he was way off it.
  • T-Okada is an interesting hitter to watch. It’s hard to see from the normal TV angle, but he’s a front-leg hitter. He’s got a way of compressing his strength on his back leg as the pitch is being delivered, then springing forward with this swing and unloading all that energy. It worked pretty well in the 4th, when there was no one on base and he wasn’t trying to do too much, but in the 7th, when he was trying to hit a home run, he struck out.
  • It looked like most of the seats in the stadium were occupied, but there was one section on the first base side that was weirdly completely empty. I wonder if that section is closed due to post-quake safety issues.
  • One notable attendee was US ambassador to Japan John Roos.

 

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , ,

2011 Season Predictions: Pacific League

» 10 April 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

The Pacific League is balanced. In fact, this is probably the first time I can say that I think that every team in the league has a chance to finish first. That makes it difficult to pick winners this year, so I’m going to try something different. I’ve got the teams ranked not by where I think they’ll finish, but by how likely I think they are to finish first.

6. Orix Buffaloes (offseason summary)

High-risk, high-reward rotation; new suketto question marks; counting on lots of guys who had their first success in 2010; thin bullpen; Chihiro Kaneko injured

5. Chiba Lotte Marines (offseason summary)

Absence of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hiroyuki Kobayashi; lineup is due for some regression; not quite sold on starters not named Naruse or Karakawa

4. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (offseason summary)

Strong front rotation; better lineup with the additions of Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura; lots of righty bullpen options; new manager

3. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (offseason summary)

Yu Darvish; steady rotation; great defense; a few break-out candidates; good 2nd half in 2010; Darvish

2. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (offseason summary)

Additions of Alex Cabrera and Seiichi Uchikawa; strong lineup 1-9; good 1-2 starters; lights-out bullpen; backed into 2010 title; emerging starters; lots of injury-prone players

1. Saitama Seibu Lions (offseason summary)

Productive lineup; talented core; interesting young pitchers — Yusei Kikuchi, Tatsuya Oishi, Kazuhisa Makita; stalwart ace in Hideaki Wakui

It was tough putting Orix last, since I’m such a big fan of their approach, but everything needs to go right for them to win. Similarly it’s hard having Lotte fifth after a Nippon Series win, but I think their lineup is likely to fall back to earth in 2011. Rakuten in fourth is a bit of a leap of faith for me; last year Chunichi won with four good hitters and a good group of pitchers. Rakuten has the starters (but not the bullpen) and with their additions they might have the offense they need to contend. As for the other three… well, it came down to a toss up between Softbank and Seibu for first. I think I just have a preference for Seibu’s lineup, and more confidence in their ability to remain healthy.

The point is, any one of these teams can win in 2011. It should be a great season.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Offseason Changes: Rakuten Golden Eagles

» 04 February 2011 » In npb » 4 Comments

Coming: Akinori Iwamura, Kazuo Matsui, Shinjya Okamoto, Kelvin Jimenez, Byung-Hyun Kim, manager Senichi Hoshino

Going: Kazuo Fukumori, Norihiro Nakamura, Makoto Kosaka, Ryuji Miyade, Todd Linden, Andy Phillips, Naoto Watanabe, Keiichi Yabu, manager Marty Brown

Staying: Hisashi Iwakuma, Darrell Rasner, Randy Ruiz, Juan Morillo

Summary: Rakuten’s 2011 offseason was headlined by two big events: the unsuccessful posting of ace Hisashi Iwakuma, and the hiring of accomplished manager Senichi Hoshino. Hoshino inherits a team that finished sixth last year, and is facing with losing its ace again.

I shared a few observations about the Iwakuma posting, and why in retrospect it was destined to fail, over at FanGraphs last month, so I won’t rehash that. From an on-the-field perspective, the Eagles are certainly more competitive with him than without him. He and heir apparent Masahiro Tanaka will lead a rotation that goes four deep; five if Kelvin Jimenez’s KBO success translates to Japan. Coincidentally, Rakuten’s two notable bullpen acquisitions came via Korea last year: Shinya Okamoto spent last season with the LG Twins, and the other is Byung-Hyun Kim. Those two along with the returning Juan Morillo give Hoshino a couple more relief options, which will help as Rakuten’s bullpen wasn’t particularly strong in 2010. But overall pitching was not really Rakuten’s problem last season. The Eagles allowed 635 runs and a 3.98 ERA, which was right in line with the all the Pacific League teams that don’t have Yu Darvish.

Rakuten’s problem in 2010 was an anemic offense. Only Nippon Ham hit fewer home runs than Rakuten’s 95, but the Fighters’ contact-hitting lineup still scored 36 more runs than the Eagles. Rakuten finished last or next to last in the Pacific League in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, steals, and intentional walks. This poor performance can mostly be attributed to four players: imports Todd Linden and Andy Phillips didn’t show up last year, and veteran sluggers Norihiro Nakamura and Takeshi Yamasaki experienced declines. Linden, Phillips and Nakamura are all gone this year, replaced in the lineup by a full season of Randy Ruiz and NPB returnees Akinori Iwamura and Kazuo Matsui. That group should outperform the guys who left, though Kazuo is a bit of a question mark for me. Yamasaki is getting old, but his 28 home runs and .749 OPS in 2010 were a respectable contribution. After that, the Eagles have perhaps Japan’s unheralded offensive star, Teppei, who despite his talent only gets a passing mention in this article. So the offense should be better, but even in the best case scenario it’s hard to see it being more than middle of the road in the Pacific League.

The last factor to discuss is the addition of Hoshino as manager. I see a few parallels with the last team he took over, the 2002 Hanshin Tigers. Hoshino is again inheriting a team coming off a last-place finish, succeeding Katsuya Nomura (though Nomura passed the Rakuten baton to Marty Brown for a season), with some some added veteran talent*. Hoshino got his Tigers off to a fast start in 2002, and though the team cooled off and eventually finished fourth, the improvement was real. The Tigers won the Central League handily in 2003 and have basically been competitive ever since. Hoshino will have less to work with in Sendai, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his tenure with Rakuten take a similar path. He’ll be eager to exorcise any remaining demons from his stint managing Japan’s 2008 Olympic entry, a performance so disappointing it inspired a fan to set up a site protesting his involvement in the 2009 WBC. Rakuten definitely has the talent to compete for wins in 2011, though they probably won’t be in the mix for the Pacific League title. If they can take a step forward this season and build from there, Hoshino has a shot at wrapping up his distinguished managerial career on a high note.

*The 2002 Tigers brought in Atsushi Kataoka and George Arias. Tomoaki Kanemoto and Hideki Irabu joined in 2003.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

NPB Bullet Points: Late Contracts, New Uniforms

» 30 January 2011 » In npb » 4 Comments

We interrupt our series of 2011 offseason reviews to bring you a bullet list of news items from around NPB. All links in Japanese.

  • Beom-Ho Lee has left the Softbank Hawks and will join the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. Lee hit .205 in 132 at-bats last year, and was well-down the Hawks’ depth chart for this season. He had said that he would go back to Korea if he couldn’t stick at third base, so I give him credit for sticking to his words.
  • In other Hawks news, Hitoshi Tamura finally signed for 2011, agreeing to a one-year deal that will pay a JPY 180m salary. Softbank had offered a multi-year deal but he wanted a one-year deal, saying that he can perform better.
  • Hiroyuki Nakajima was another late signing, agreeing to a JPY 280m salary for 2011. He’ll gun for MLB again next offseason.
  • Craig Brazell has arrived in Japan, and from the looks of things he came straight from the golf course.
  • The Nippon Ham Fighters have unveiled their new uniforms
  • Wladimir Balentien brought his PlayStation 3 to camp, with the idea that he could get to know his teammates over a couple of auto racing games during the spring. He impressed the author of the linked Sponichi article by arriving in Okinawa early and working out on consecutive days.
  • Hideaki Wakui had his salary dispute with Seibu settled in a rare NPB arbitration case, reports Naoko Toyakoshi of Nikkan Sports. Wakui will see his salary rise to JPY 253m, a little short of the JPY 270m he had requested.
  • Meanwhile, Hanshin ace Yasutomo Kubo has yet to renew for 2011 and could wind up paying his own way to camp.
  • Rakuten items: Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura modeled their Eagles uniforms at K-Sta; later new manager Senichi Hoshino led his team to a pre-camp shrine visit on a snowy day in Sendai; Byung-Hyun Kim was also introduced in the snow.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Kazuo Matsui and Tsuyoshi Nishioka

» 22 December 2010 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

This caught my eye: Kazuo Matsui offered up some advice for Tsuyoshi Nishioka publicly in Sanspo. I’ve translated it here:

(1) The effect natural grass has on defense at second base is small. Don’t have negative preconceptions. (2) Be careful about getting spiked during double plays (3) Gather data on batters with speed.

(1)二塁守備に天然芝の影響は少ない。悪い先入観を持つな (2)併殺時の足下を狙うスライディングに要注意 (3)俊足打者のデータ収集

Interesting. Especially that first point. Kazuo is generally thought to have made a poor transition to grass infields, but according FanGraphs he hovered around league average after he got out of New York. Then again, he did specifically mention second, so maybe he’s implying the effect is bigger at shortstop. Or maybe I’m over-thinking it.

I’ve been asked several times this offseason if Nishioka is the next Kazuo Matsui. In each instance, my answer has been the same: Nishioka is not another Kazuo; Kazuo had a significantly better record of success than Nishioka has had. If I had been asked in 2002, I would have said that of the two Matsuis, “Little” had the edge on Godzilla as the better MLB prospect. Both Matsuis really were phenomenal in 2002: Kazuo hit .332/.389/.617 with 88 extra base hits, and Hideki nearly won the Triple Crown with 50 HR, 107 RBI and a .334 BA (Kosuke Fukudome overtook him in September and finished at .343). Personally I thought Kazuo’s athleticism and all-around game would translate better than Hideki’s Yomiuri slugging. MLB expectations were justifiably high for both players, which is why Kazuo’s lack of success Stateside was such a disappointment.

So what does that mean for Nishioka? For me, it doesn’t mean anything. Nishioka is joining a good team, in a less demanding home market, and won’t have a top prospect pushing him like Kazuo did with Jose Reyes. So he’ll be in a position to focus on his main competencies of playing good defense and getting on base. If he can stay healthy and do those two things, he won’t be a disappointment.

Continue reading...

Tags: , ,

Re-Run: The Effects of NPB Players Leaving for MLB, part 4

» 27 August 2010 » In mlb, mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

I’ve spent most of my writing time this week over at FanGraphs, profiling some of Japan’s better players. In researching that set of articles, I came across this post I wrote in early 2009, before Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami had signed with MLB clubs. Looking back at this, I don’t think I’d change the set of conclusions that I originally drew, but I will add the observation that this trend has hurt the overall depth of the league. Another interesting thing to note is that 11 of the 26 players listed here have returned to NPB, several since this article was written: Johjima, Iguchi, Kobayashi, Yabuta, Taguchi, Yabu and Fukumori.


Time to close out this series with some conclusions. I fear that I may be oversimplifying this a bit, but I’m looking for macro trends with this. These are casual observations, I didn’t do any hard research.

Check the three previous installments here: 1, 2, 3.

1. Most of the teams that lost a star to MLB took some kind of a hit in the standings. With the exception of Hiroshima, the teams losing the top 10 players listed below took years to replace the production they lost, and some still haven’t. It’s also important to remember that none of these departures happened in a vacuum; there were other things that affected the performance of each team, but overall the lose of these players has hurt their former teams competitively.

2. The only team that really took a popularity hit after losing a star to MLB was the Giants after losing Matsui. I bought walk-up tickets to a Giants game in 2005, which would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Of course, while the Giants were down, the Tigers and Dragons were both up and have enjoyed competitive success and popularity since the early part of the decade. SoftBank has been less competitive since losing Johjima, but has not suffered at the gate. The team is actually adding 6000 seats to the Yahoo Dome for next season to help meet demand.

3. Signing foreign talent to replace departed stars doesn’t seem to work. Teams will often sign foreign players to fill the holes left by departed stars, but when the do so, they’re losing the opportunity to add depth at other positions with those roster spots. I can’t think of an example where a foreign star was a long-term replacement for an MLB bound star. Colby Lewis was great as Hiroki Kuroda’s replacement in 2008, but so was Kevin Hodges a few years ago and he flamed out after a single season.

4. Losing talent to MLB has a trickle-down impact on the smaller market teams. As an example, Hanshin may have been content with their outfield had Shinjo stuck around, but two years after he left they signed Tomoaki Kanemoto away from the Carp to play left field. Kanemoto has gone on to become a legend for the Tigers while the Carp have only recently begun to show signs of life. Hanshin and Yomiuri can spend to fill their holes, while smaller market teams like Hiroshima cannot.

5. On the positive side, stars moving to MLB has opened up (or could potentially open) spots for younger players, in a league where there is no rule 5 draft and blocked prospects and depth guys are seldom traded. We haven’t seen too many cases of prospects jumping in and filling the shoes of the top 10 guys I’ve listed below, but others have stepped in for 11-26.

Overall, I don’t think this trend is killing NPB. Attendance is stable, and Japan Series television ratings were up this year (mostly because the Giants played in it). Many of the players who have made the leap to MLB have actually been pretty successful, which has greatly improved the credibility of NPB overseas. On the downside, the loss of star players has hurt the competitive depth of the affected teams, and led many to question the viability of the league. I seeing the loss of these star players as an “Oakland A’s-ing” of the league — the A’s have gotten by with smart management, an ability to exploit market inefficiencies and a willingness to continually reinvent the team on the field. The A’s style doesn’t translate to the Japanese game completely, but the underlying principles of thrift and creativity are important for a group of teams that generally is not going to compete with MLB financially.

Below is a list of all the players I looked at, ranked in order of how much I think their departure affected their previous team and the league. For me, there are really about three or four classes: Matsui and Johjima, Iwamura through Iguchi, and everyone else. You can possibly put Matsui, Kobayashi and Yabuta in their own class as well, as guys who were quickly replaced but did leave a gap in their absences.

Rank Player Team Year Record Before Record After Impact
1 Hideki Matsui Yomiuri 2003 86-52-2 71-66-3 High
2 Kenji Johjima Daiei/SoftBank 2006 89-45-2 75-56-5 High
3 Akinori Iwamura Yakult 2007 70-73-3 60-84-0 High
4 Kosuke Fukudome Chunichi 2008 78-64-2 71-68-5 High
5 Daisuke Matsuzaka Seibu 2007 80-54-2 66-76-2 Medium
6 Ichiro Orix 2001 64-67-4 70-66-4 Medium
7 Hiroki Kuroda Hiroshima 2008 60-82-2 69-70-5 Medium
8 Kei Igawa Hanshin 2007 84-58-4 74-66-4 Medium
9 Kazuhisa Ishii Yakult 2002 78-56-6 72-64-2 Medium
10 Tadahito Iguchi Daiei/Softbank 2005 77-52-4 89-45-2 Medium
11 Kazuo Matsui Seibu 2004 77-61-2 74-58-1 Low
12 Masahide Kobayashi Lotte 2008 76-61-7 73-70-1 Low
13 Yasuhiko Yabuta Lotte 2008 76-61-7 73-70-1 Low
14 Takashi Saito Yokohama 2006 69-70-7 58-84-4 Low
15 Hideki Okajima Nippon Ham 2007 82-54-0 79-60-5 Low
16 Akinori Otsuka Chunichi 2004 73-66-1 79-56-3 Low
17 Shingo Takatsu Yakult 2004 71-66-3 72-62-2 Low
18 Tsuyoshi Shinjyo Hanshin 2001 57-78-1 57-80-3 Low
19 Keiichi Yabu Hanshin 2005 66-70-2 87-54-5 Low
20 So Taguchi Orix 2002 70-66-4 50-87-3 Low
21 Satoru Komiyama Yokohama 2002 69-67-4 49-86-5 Low
22 Kazuo Fukumori Rakuten 2008 67-75-2 65-76-3 Low
23 Norihiro Nakamura Kintetsu 2005 61-70-2 62-70-4 Low
24 Shinji Mori* Seibu 2006 67-69-0 80-54-2 Low
25 Yusaku Iriki* Nippon Ham 2006 62-71-3 82-54-0 Low
26 Masumi Kuwata Yomiuri 2007 65-79-2 80-63-1 Low

* I forgot about both these guys when compiling the original lists. Mori was successfully posted and signed with Tampa Bay, but got hurt in his first spring training and was never heard from again. Iriki played in the Mets and Blue Jays organizations, but got busted for PED usage and never reached the Majors. He resurfaced with Yokohama in 2008, but retired after the season.

** I left out Yukinaga Maeda as well.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hanshin Reps to Visit the States

» 09 August 2010 » In mlb, nichibei » 6 Comments

Alright, here we go. Multiple reports have Hanshin sending their international guy, Toshihiko Yamanaka, over to the US to gather information on Japanese major leaguers and new imports for next season. Sanspo and Nikkan Sports are speculating on a couple names that Hanshin could be after. I didn’t bother to write about this earlier in the season when rumors about Hanshin being interested in Hideki Matsui again cropped up, but this time I’ll bite.

Pointing to last year’s signing of Kenji Johjima, Sanspo speculates that Kosuke Fukudome and Kenshin Kawakami could be acquisition candidates. While both players have fallen out of favor with their current employers, both are under contract for next season and I would expect them to find MLB takers. It’s worth noting that Hanshin was reportedly interested in Kawakami when he was a free agent following the 2008 season, and supposedly willing to offer him 600m yen ($6m give or take) per season. They may have been talking tall as I don’t think such an offer ever materialized. In any event, as my FanGraphs bud Dave Cameron points out, Kawakami hasn’t been as bad as his superficial numbers indicate and deserves a shot at regular MLB work. Fukudome would be a great fit for Hanshin, with 42 year-old star leftfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto a shadow of his former self, but I just don’t see it happening.

Meanwhile, Nikkan Sports offers somewhat more reasonable speculative names: Hiroki Kuroda and Koji Uehara. Both have contracts expiring after this year, and I would guess they have clauses requiring their teams to release them if they can’t work out deals, which would get them out of their arbitration years and into free agency. I don’t see either as a realistic target for Hanshin though; I think the Dodgers will hang on to Kuroda, and Uehara talked openly about wanting to play in MLB to give up this quickly.

Two guys that weren’t mentioned are Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura, who are both in 3A and candidates to head back to the Far East. Neither fits with the current Hanshin speculation, but either one could help Yakult, for example, who badly wanted Kaz after he was released by Houston.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , ,