Tag Archive > Koji Uehara

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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Starting Pitcher Skills

» 01 February 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about Masahiro Tanaka and how he might perform in year one of his newly-minted mega deal.

My theory is that observable skills are a better predictor of MLB success than statistics. As an example, a pitcher with good control of an obvious out pitch is a better bet than a pitcher who is good all around, but lacks a dominant skill. This might sound obvious, but the media and casual baseball conversation centers around Tanaka’s 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA, rather than his ability to suppress walks and home runs.

So, I took a look back on the group of starters that have moved from NPB to MLB on Major League contracts since I began writing in mid-2008.

1st MLB Season Pitcher Strengths Weaknesses MLB fWAR
2014 Masahiro Tanaka suppressed walks, great splitter, good slider, healthy not quite Darvish ?
2012 Yu Darvish dominant in every way year after year The legacy of Daisuke Matsuzaka 9.8
2012 Hisashi Iwakuma great splitter, groundball machine, limited home runs injured in 2011, didn’t look like himself 4.8
2012 Wei-Yin Chen lefty who at one time showed electric stuff, dominant in 2009 had regressed quite a bit by 2011 4.3
2012 Tsuyoshi Wada decent control, decent changeup undersized; poor fastball velocity; looked spent at the end of 2011 0
2010 Colby Lewis phenomenal K:BB ratio, good arm was improvement in control due to him or the league? 9.6 (post return)
2009 Kenshin Kawakami great cutter, innings eater not much upside beyond #3 starter 2.4
2009 Koji Uehara phenomenal K:BB ratio, great splitter injury history, could he handle starting? 8.8 (mostly in relief)

My first reaction is that this is pretty good group. Wada was a bit of a bust, but he was injured. Kawakami comes the closest to being evidence of my theory, as he didn’t really dominate any statistical category, but I think he could have shown more if the Braves hadn’t buried him. The rest of these pitchers have either met or exceeded expectations since moving to MLB.

This seems to bode pretty well for Tanaka, as he shows two above average pitches and dominated a number of statistical categories in NPB. We’ll see how it bodes for the pitchers who are currently active in Japan in a follow up article in the next couple of days, assuming the writing gods smile upon me.

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Giants Win, Giants Win

» 03 November 2012 » In nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

So, baseball in 2012 has come to an end (aside from the winter leagues and whatever daigaku yakyu remains this autumn). Both MLB’s and NPB’s Giants came out on top, with Yomiuri’s Kyojin-gun closing out the Nippon Series against the Nippon Ham Fighters on the 3rd. The San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers last week.

Normally I would write something about the Nippon Series around this time of year. I watched it this year but was too frequently disrupted to generate any decent level of insight into the series. So, I point you to the very capable Jason Coskrey and his article on how the series wrapped up.

In lieu of deep analysis, today I turn to trivia. This year was the first time that the Giants on both sides of the Pacific won their league championships, but it’s not the first time they’ve played for titles in the same season. Of course, Yomiuri is in the Nippon Series often enough that that’s not much of a coincidence. And here they are:

  • 2002: San Francisco lost 4-3 to Anaheim; Yomiuri swept Seibu. San Francisco’s Tsuyoshi Shinjo became the first Japanese player to appear in a World Series, while Yomiuri’s winner featured future MLBers Hideki Matsui, Koji Uehara and Hisanori Takahashi.
  • 1989: In a World Series remembered mainly for being disrupted by the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco was swept by their Bay Area rival Oakland A’s. On the other side of the Pacific, Kintetsu took Yomiuri to seven games, but the Giants ultimately prevailed. Incidentally, former Pittsburgh Pirate Masumi Kuwata was in the prime of his career with Yomiuri at this point.
  • 1951: The New York Giants’ 1951 are probably best remembered for Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World which got them in to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees 4-2 in Joe Dimaggio’s final Series appearance. Meanwhile in Japan, Yomiuri played the old Nankai Hawks in the second Nippon Series ever stage. Yomiuri won in five games, their first of 22 Nippon Series wins.

 

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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.

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Weighing in on the Darvish Rumors

» 05 September 2011 » In nichibei, npb » 18 Comments

Since well before I started this site in 2008, there have been persistent rumors in both the Japanese and North American media to the effect of “Yu Darvish will move to MLB this offseason FOR SURE.”

My role in this particular rumor mill over the last three years can be summarized with the below image:

To reiterate my position of the last few years, I’ve consistently predicted against Darvish moving to Major League Baseball, citing the following observations:

  1. Darvish had a pattern of adamantly disavowing any interest in playing in the Majors. This runs counter to other NPB stars like Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami, who openly talked about wanting to play in MLB years before they moved across the Pacific.
  2. Darvish will not be an international free agent until after the 2014 season. It doesn’t make sense financially or competitively for Nippon Ham to post Darvish until it’s clear that they have to.

If I do say so myself, I’ve been right about this so far.

But this year I’m changing my tune a bit. For the first time, I can see him getting posted in this immediately upcoming offseason. Here’s why:

  1. Darvish softened his stance on playing in MLB last year. It does seem that the Japanese media has mostly shied away from directly asking him about an MLB move though.
  2. Last year he admitted to having contact with big-name MLB agents. Last month MLBTR confirmed that he is represented by Arn Tellem and Don Nomura.
  3. He’s in the middle of his fifth straight crushingly dominant season, and is obviously unchallenged by NPB competition.
  4. He’s bulked up from 90kg to 100kg. In Imperial that’s 198 lbs to 220 lbs.
  5. He’s consistently working in the upper end of his velocity range, around 150-156kmph (93-97mph) and seems to challenging hitters more. I wonder if he’s putting on a show for the scouts, since he has shown that he is perfectly capable of dominating with lower fastball velocity.
  6. The number of scouts present at his games continues to increase. Logic suggests that at some point this is likely to become a distraction.
  7. He’s got three full years to go prior to free agency. If Nippon Ham or Darvish can’t get the right deal, they can call it off and try again next year.

There are probably others as well, but I’ll stop with those. I don’t think any one of those single things jumps up and screams “he’s getting posted!” but they all add up to hint that it’s possible. So I can see it happening.

Based on the information we have, I’d also say there’s a chance that Darvish won’t be posted this offseason. In the Japanese press, only the sleaziest gossip tabloids seem to really delve into the details of what might be behind a Darvish move; the more mainstream sports papers usually just report on the scouts that watch him. One of the tabloids, Shukan Playboy, actually did a pretty good job piecing together different bits of the story. Their main objective seemed to be gathering evidence in support of speculation that Darvish would wind up with the Yankees, but perhaps inadvertently, they included a point that seldom comes up in the North American media. An unnamed sports writer quoted in the article said “the possibility that Farsa (Darvish’s father), who is seeking the optimal business chance, could decide ‘the the time is not right’ is not zero.” I take anonymous writers quoted in Shukan Playboy with an appropriate measure of salt, but it’s an interesting counterpoint to most of the English language reporting we get on this topic.

So I could see it happening. I could see it not happening. I don’t think I’ll be surprised either way.

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MLB Updates: Spring Training Winds Down

» 25 March 2011 » In mlb » 1 Comment

A few updates from Japan as MLB players are finishing up spring training and preparing for Opening Day.

  • For those who haven’t been following the Twins this spring, MLB rookie Tsuyoshi Nishioka has hit in 12 straight spring training games. “It’s important (for me) to get used to being tired,” Nishioka told reporters following his first day game after a night game. He will also start on the 25th against the Orioles.
  • Kenshin Kawakami, a trade candidate for what seems like ages, will try to impress in his last spring training appearance for the Braves on March 27th. Kawakami allowed 3 runs (1 earned) in 3 innings in his first spring start this week.
  • Meanwhile in Arizona, the Dodgers’ Hiroku Kuroda says he’s not bothered by his spring training results. “I’ve come this far without getting hurt, and that’s the most important thing.” Kuroda, who has been working on a curve ball this spring and currently sports a 5.78 ERA, will make his first regular season start against the Giants on April 3rd.
  • Koji Uehara returned to action earlier this week in a minor league game, pitching a scoreless inning with one strikeout. Uehara has battled elbow issues this spring but remains upbeat. “As long as my elbow and my face are in good shape, I’m okay.” The Orioles’ reliever was clocked at 88 mph in his minor league appearance, but assured reporters he was only throwing “at 70 or 80 percent…I feel great.”
  • Hisanori Takahashi continues to dazzle, having allowed no runs over 11 innings in relief. He’ll be the lefty set up man in the Angels’ bullpen to start the year. Regarding the start of the regular season, Takahashi says, “I don’t need to change anything.”
  • Hideki Matsui‘s statement on Thursday that, “My job is the DH. More than defending, I’ve got to hit,” reinforces the fact that he is no longer a reliable outfield option. Despite a spring batting average that has sunk to .125, Matsui told reporters, “It’s no problem. Everyone starts out hitting .000 on opening day.”

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MLB Updates: Matsui, Matsuzaka, Uehara

» 16 March 2011 » In mlb » 1 Comment

Editors note: most of this was drafted last week, prior to the earthquake and tsunami.

With MLB spring training in full swing, here are updates on some notable Japanese names.

  • Hideki Matsui is unfazed by his slow spring training start. Following an 0-3 showing against the Royals last Thursday, the Athletics’ DH is now just 1-17 this spring. Matsui commented, “It’s not too bad for practice. But there’s still a difference between practice and a real game.” After the game, Matsui is reported to have spent an extra 30 minutes doing soft toss batting practice.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka isn’t taking things so lightly, though. “If you can’t put what you do in practice into a game, it’s meaningless. We’re still in spring training so I wouldn’t worry that much, but I don’t feel good.” Matsuzaka gave up 5 hits and 5 runs last week against the Rays, but bounced back with five scoreless innings in his latest start.
  • After receiving a cortisone injection in his right elbow last week, Orioles reliever Koji Uehara is set to begin light throwing today. To be ready for the regular season, Uehara says he “needs 5 or 6 games, either in spring training or in the minors.”

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NPB Bullet Points: Ouen-dan, Wakui, Darvish, Orix Uniforms

» 08 January 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb, npb draft, NPB Tracker » 10 Comments

Before I get caught up on my more analytical pieces, here’s about a week’s worth of news items:

  • The Yomiuri Giants have broken up the Tokyo Yomiuri Kyojin-gun Ouen-dan (Tokyo Yomiuri Giants Cheering Club) over “improper re-sale of game tickets”.
  • Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui is having a hard time reaching an agreement with the Lions on his 2011 salary. It’s reportedly possible that he won’t have a contract signed by the time camp opens, and thus have to pay his way there.
  • Chiba Marine Stadium has been rechristened QVC Marine Field. Yes, that’s QVC, the television shopping network.
  • Sponichi points out that, in addition to being the son of former Chunichi Dragon Mark Ryal, Rusty Ryal was also the guy that hit a line drive off Hiroki Kuroda’s head back in 2009.
  • The Yukan Fuji paper published an article about Bill James projections found at my other haunt, Fangraphs.com. The headline was James’ projection that Koji Uehara would save 31 games with a 2.81 ERA for the Orioles this upcoming season.
  • According to Sankei News, the Chiba Lotte Marines took in 8bn yen in revenue in 2010, the highest figure in team history. While the club finished 2bn yen in the red, they lost 1.3bn yen less than the previous year, and the 8bn yen represents a quadrupling in revenue since 2004. Winning the Nippon Series and posting Tsuyoshi Nishioka helped boost Lotte’s income.
  • Despite being in great shape, former Yokohama and Orix player Katsuaki Furuki got his face bashed in his fighting debut.
  • Yu Darvish’s New Year’s Resolutions are to read two books per month, and watch movies that he doesn’t typically like. His intent is to “refine his sensitivity” (“感性を磨けるかなって理由です(^^)”).
  • Darvish’s Nippon Ham teammate, incoming rookie Yuki Saito, wants to play until he’s 50.
  • Here’s a great pic of Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda working out with a medicine ball.
  • Lotte managed to sign their 6th-round draft pick, USC right Shuhei Fujiya. Fujiya gets Johnny Kuroki’s number 54.
  • Orix has unveiled their new uniforms. I’m a little disappointed, I thought they would change them more. I think they should have brought back the old Kintetsu Buffaloes logo, at least on an arm patch or something.
  • And finally, one in English: speaking to ESPN, Matt Murton called going to Japan “100 percent the best decision I made.”

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NPB Bullet Points: Player Personnel

» 31 August 2010 » In nichibei, npb » 7 Comments

A roundup of player acquisition notes from around the ‘net.

  • Yomiuri is extending the tryout of their mystery player by another week or two.
  • Sponichi reports that SoftBank is going to drop injured ace Kazumi Saito to ikusei status after this season. Saito hasn’t pitched in an ichi-gun game since 2007.
  • It’s no surprise that Koji Uehara wants to continue playing in MLB, but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in NPB rumors. Hanshin and Yokohama are reportedly interested.
  • Hideki Matsui has ruled out a return to Japan. A quote from Sponichi: “[it’s not an option]. Please think it through. How would I play on artificial turf with my knees? Even if I want to go back I wouldn’t be able to play. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible.”
  • It looks like Orix manager Akinobu Okada is trying to recruit retired Hanshin speedster Norihiro Akahoshi out of retirement. Post-retirement comebacks are rare in Japan, Hanshin would have to release their rights to him, and he’d have to prove that he’s medically fit to play, so there are significant hurdles here.
  • Former Carp ace Colby Lewis did an interview with Chunichi Sports. The whole thing is worth translating, but for now I’ll just do his answer to the inevitable question about Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma: “I think Darvish is a player who should come to the majors as soon as he can. No one knows what he’ll be like or in what role he’ll be used in if he waits until he’s 26 or 27. I think Japan should change the service time requirements of it’s free agency system. I think Iwakuma would also succeed in the majors. If pitchers can show velocity it’s easy to if how they make it in the majors.” (note: this is a translation of a translation)
  • And finally, one in English: Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Examiner has a report on some of the 3A Isotopes players’ brushes with Japan, including former NPB’ers Scott Dohmann and Michael Restovich, and NPB hopefully John Lindsey.

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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.

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