Tag Archive > Yu Darvish

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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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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Looking at Player Movement Rules

» 17 December 2012 » In nichibei, npb » 2 Comments

This offseason, I’ve come across three proposals to change the rules governing player personnel. At first glance, it didn’t seem that these ideas are thematically linked, but after giving it some thought, I think they are reflective of a league that is living less in the shadow of a dominant team, the Yomiuri Giants, and more in the shadow of Major League baseball. These ideas seem to be more aimed at retaining talent league-wide than deferring to the local top dog.

  • Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino has suggested that NPB do away with it’s first-round lottery/drawing process and change to a complete waiver process, in which teams select in reverse order of their records.

NPB has experimented a lot with it’s draft procedures over the years, but a concept that’s mostly stuck around is the first round nyusatsu chusen (bid and drawing) system. Under this format, rather than selecting in order, each team chooses the player it wants, and if multiple teams pick the same player, the teams draw cards for his rights. After the first round, the rest of the draft continues with the teams choosing in the order of their records, last to first in even-numbered rounds and first to last in odd-numbered rounds. Hoshino thinks it would be better for competitive balance to have the teams choose in reverse order of their records in all the rounds.

The more rational side of my brain agrees with Hoshino. Assuming the bad teams aren’t bad because of poor talent evaluation, the worst teams would be have a uncontested path to the best amateurs and likely be able to rebuild faster. And I’ve always assumed that the drawing method was used to allow Yomiuri to have a chance at drafting the top amateurs, and that’s always felt kind of unethical. So far I’m with Hoshino.

The more strategic part of my brain, though, kind of likes the idea of introducing an artificial inefficiency into the process. It changes the risk/reward equation. Teams will sometimes go straight to the mid-first-round talent, avoiding the drawings for the consensus top players in an effort to be assured a prospect. Occaisionally teams will go all in and gamble their picks on signability challenges, as Nippon Ham has notably done in each of the last two years.

Overall though, it probably doesn’t matter. The NPB draft is a roll of the dice, and the more successful pros come out of the later rounds (Ichiro was a 4th round pick). Still, the top consensus picks are usually the best prospects, and frequently gate attractions as well. My recommendation would be to keep the drawing, but weighting it so that the teams with the worse records have better odds of securing the contested player.

NPB instituted this rule as a deterrent for players looking to following in the footsteps of Junichi Tazawa, who skipped out on the NPB draft to sign with the Red Sox in 2008. The idea on the table is to give the drafting NPB priority on signing the player if he goes to MLB and later wants to come back to Japan. So if Shohei Ohtani had spurned Nippon Ham and followed through on his intent to play in MLB, and then later wanted to come back, Nippon Ham would have the first crack at him.

My preference, and what I think will eventually happen, is to do away with the rule completely. This rule is just an idle threat anyway; if Tazawa wanted to play in NPB and he could fill stadiums (both moot points currently), I’m sure the NPB brass would let him in.

Pretty much everyone seems to hate the Posting System. The lone exception is a majority bloc of NPB owners, who voted to keep it unchanged in 2010, when Rakuten proposed giving the top three MLB bidders negotiating rights to posted player. For all it’s flaws, the Posting System has pumped approximately $165m in revenue in to NPB over the last dozen years, though the majority has come from three postings: Daisuke Matsuzaka (Seibu), Kei Igawa (Hanshin) and Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham).

Despite the lopsided largesse of it, I think the NPB owners designed the Posting System as more of a deterrent to make it harder for top players to leave than a source of revenue. Players rightfully dislike it because of the limitations it places on them, MLB owners don’t like the expense of it, and some NPB owners feel it makes the league weaker by allowing stars to leave.

So what would be better? Well, let’s focus on the positives of the Posting System, of which I see a couple: it allows NPB teams to get some compensation for players they are going to lose as free agents anyway; it shortens NPB players’ paths to lucrative MLB careers, though at the expense of leverage; it gives MLB clubs full pre-free agency rights to the players.

I argued for an open auction after the failed Hisashi Iwakuma posting a couple years ago, but I think I’ll change my preference to a completely open system, where NPB teams can negotiate openly for transfer fees with MLB clubs. I’d also like to see MLB clubs pay some token compensation (maybe $200k) for signing NPB free agents to Major League deals.

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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 Midsummer Night’s Blog Post

» 18 August 2012 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 2 Comments

While my baseball consumption has not returned to it’s previous levels, my itch to write has returned, so tonight I’m taking a hiatus from my hiatus to share a few thoughts on the season so far.

  • After years of anticipation, Yu Darvish, has made his Major League debut. The results have been mixed — lots of strikeouts, lots of walks. The walks are a surprise to me; the mid-season struggles are not. I must admit that fate has conspired against me, and I haven’t seen a single Darvish start all the way through this year.
  • Nippon Ham has carried on without Darvish, currently leading the Pacific League by a game over Seibu. 24 year-old lefty Mitsuo Yoshikawa took advantage of the hole left by Darvish, and is enjoyed a breakout season. While he lacks Darvish’s eye-popping dominance, a 10-4 record with a 1.91 ERA isn’t too shabby.
  • I never thought I’d see Ichiro traded, but last month it happened. It felt more like Ichiro was on the path to retirement this season, but his bat has woken up a bit with the Yankees. Perhaps playing for a winning time will revive his career.
  • The Japanese Players Association is threatening to sit out next year’s World Baseball Classic if WBC Inc doesn’t give them a bigger share of the revenue. So far neither side is willing to budge. I hope they can work out some sort of agreement because a Japanese boycott would be bad for both sides.
  • I didn’t get to finish my predictions this spring, but every year I think that Chunichi is going to stumble and that Seibu is going to be good. And, every year I’m wrong, at least about the Chunichi side of the prediction. This year was no exception. I thought Chunichi was set for a big step backwards, but they’re comfortably in second place in the Central, and had been in the hunt for first until Yomiuri started to pull away. Seibu got off to a rough start and appeared to be headed for a disappointing season, but has righted the ship and is now in the hunt for a league title.
  • I was going to write something about Brad Penny here but I don’t think I’ll bother.
  • Softbank veteran Hiroki Kokubo announced his retirement last week. Otsukare-sama.
  • Yomiuri veteran and personal favorite Yoshinobu Takahashi slugged his 300th career home run last week. Jason Coskrey has more.
  • The two young players I’ve enjoyed watching the most this year? Hiroshima’s Yusuke Nomura and Yokohama DeNA’s Sho Aranami.
  • While it doesn’t stack up to MLB’s three perfect games this season, NPB has seen a pair of no-hitters this year: Toshiya Sugiuchi’s against Rakuten on May 30, and Kenta Maeda’s against DeNA on April 6. Although, I did not witness either of these games, I did catch a pair of near no-hitters. Another personal favorite, Daisuke Miura, took a no-no into the 9th against Hanshin on May 12, but pinch-hitter Shinjiro Hiyama put up a veteran at-bat, working a full count before finally hitting a long single. Hanshin eventually scored and Miura lost his shutout, but won the game. The other was another Sugiuchi gem, thrown on May 4 against Hanshin. The only solid contact I recall Sugiuchi surrendering happened to be the only hit Hanshin managed, a sharp single, hit mid-game by Takashi Toritani. The game lacked the drama of a late-innings no-hit bid, but was a dominant performance nonetheless.

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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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How Would You Translate This?

» 08 March 2012 » In nichibei » 5 Comments

Time for a little scrutiny.

Following his spring debut, Yu Darvish made the following comment about the double he surrendered to Padres outfielder Will Venable:

 --二回に大きな当たりを打たれた。

「乾燥も風もある。普通より伸びているが、そんなに捉えられたという感じはしなかった」

Note that that comment is in Japanese.

The hit in question was a long double, which Venable hit off the center field batter’s background at the Padres facility in Peoria. I didn’t see the game, but have been to that stadium and that would have been a well-hit ball. Here’s the official translation.

“The air is dry in Arizona and the wind was blowing out, so no, I don’t think he hit it squarely.”

This raised an eyebrow or two, including Venable’s.

It’s easy for me to say how I would have translated that, because I’m sitting here in front of a laptop thinking about it. I’m not sure if I would have come up with the right thing to say on the spot, in front of 150 reporters. Actually it’s totally reasonable to assume I would have made numerous mistakes in that situation.

Nonetheless, I’ll provide my translation later on when I have a little more time. But for the Nihongo-inclined out there, how would you have translated Darvish’s statement?

Edit: My translation would be…

“The air is dry and there’s the wind. The ball flies farther than normal, but it didn’t feel like he got me that badly.”

I don’t envy the job of Darvish’s translator.

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Darvish to Debut on the 7th

» 27 February 2012 » In mlb » 3 Comments

According to Sanspo, Yu Darvish will make his Texas Rangers spring debut on March 7, against the Padres in Peoria. The plan is for Darvish start the game and to throw up to two innings.

Alas, I won’t be in Arizona for spring training this year, so I won’t be able to attend.

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Darvish’s Japanese Press Conference

» 09 February 2012 » In mlb, mlb prospects, nichibei » Comments Off

Yu Darvish’s farewell press conference took place about two weeks ago. I really wanted to translate this while it was still fresh, but I didn’t manage to find the time or motivation until today. It’s been long enough that the link that I got this text from is expired. It looks like Nikkan Sports has a better transcription, but we’ll go with this for now.

So, here we have it, my unofficial translation of Darvish’s farewell press conference. The original Japanese text follows below.

–the reason he decided to move to MLB

 

“The number one reason was that before games, I would hear from my opponents ‘don’t throw that pitch’, ‘I can’t hit that’, and eventually the thought that ‘I’m not having fair matchups’ stuck. The environment in Japan suits me the best. I was really torn about it, but I felt that I had to move to play baseball at a higher level.”

 

–his goal

 

“I want to become a pitcher that anyone in the world can call number one.”

 

–his impression of the Rangers

 

“Starting with the front office, the manager and players, and the fans are all tremendous warm, and I think it’s a team that resembles Nippon Ham.”

 

–on his enthusiasm for the Rangers’ drive to another World Series appearance

 

“I don’t know how the games progress in the Majors, so I can’t just say we’ll win, but if I do what I have to do and put up my best results, I’ll be happy.”

 

–message to the (Nippon Ham) fans

 

“When I joined the team in 2005, I immediately did that thing (the underaged smoking incident during his camp in his rookie season) but the fans welcomed m warmly, and I renewed my efforts. I’m grateful to have had your constant support for seven years. If it wasn’t for everyone I wouldn’t be here today. I’ll never forget these seven years, and do my best, and I’ll be happy if I can come back here in the end.”

And here’s the original text, in case I made any translation mistakes.

--メジャー挑戦を決めた理由は。

◆一番の要因は、相手から試合前に「この球投げないでよ」「もう打てない」と聞いて、だんだん「フェアな対戦をしていないのではないか」と引っかかった。日本の環境は一番合ってる。だいぶ悩んだが、野球をやる上で場所は変えなきゃいけないと思った。

--目指す投手は。

◆世界中の誰もにナンバーワンと言ってもらえる投手になりたい。

--レンジャーズの印象は。

◆フロントの方をはじめ、監督や選手、ファンの方々もすごく温かくて、日本ハムに似ているチームだと思った。

--悲願のワールドシリーズ制覇への意気込みは。

◆メジャーの試合がどう進んでいくかもわからないので簡単に優勝とは言えないが、やることをやって一番いい結果になればうれしい。

--ファンにメッセージは。

◆2005年に入団して、いきなりやっちゃいまして(1年目のキャンプで未成年ながら喫煙が発覚)、温かく迎えてくれたことで頑張りに変えられた。7年間、支えられっぱなしでありがたい限り。皆さんがいなければ今日僕はここにいない。この7年間を忘れず頑張って、最終的にここに戻って来られたらうれしい。

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