At around 4 pm today, Fox Sports North will air the Tsuyoshi Nishioka press conference. For just about all of us, it will be the first time that we have ever seen Nishioka on something that isn’t a picture or a YouTube video. I’m not sure if he will get a chance to speak during the press conference, but if he does, I’m sure we’ll hear through his interpreter that he’s excited to join a winning team. The Twins and us fans are certainly excited to see him also, as he will be the first Japanese player (excluding Micheal Nakamura) the Twins have ever had.
Although there is plenty of excitement surrounding him, I have a feeling that many fans are setting themselves up for disappointment. We’ve heard plenty of times that he hit .346 last season, but that was by far a career best for him and his career batting average is .293. That isn’t to say he’s not a good hitter though, since he’s now hit .300 or better for three of the past four years, it’s just that last year should be treated as an outlier.
Another thing is that Japanese position players tend to struggle a bit in their first MLB season, and in some cases for a significant portion of their MLB career. Kaz Matsui has become the poster child for Japanese players struggling, and since he is also an infielder, it’s been rare for Nishioka to be mentioned without adding in Matsui.
Because of these struggles, I wouldn’t be surprised if Twins fans are upset when Nishioka fails to hit .280 or steal 20+ bases. That wouldn’t be fair to him, partially because he should be given a grace period to adjust to major league pitching, and also because many of us have a distorted view of offensive production from middle infielders. I’m going to play the notorious “Guess who these players are?” game. Highlight the blanks to reveal the players’ names.
Player 1: .268/.320/.394, 6 HR, 38 RBI (2010 for J.J. Hardy)
Player 2: .267/.321/.380, 7 HR, 45 RBI (career numbers, with HR and RBI as his career averages over a 550 plate appearance season for Kaz Matsui).
Player 3: .268/.338/.372, 6 HR, 37 RBI (2010 for Orlando Hudson)
These three players all hit relatively similar to each other (granted, I took Matsui’s career line instead of picking a single season), but it shows that perception causes many of us to treat them as being very different. Bloggers and fans are split on Hardy, as most bloggers argued that his great defense and relatively good production for a shortstop were positives, while many fans claimed that his production was still rather meager (which is not true). Hudson was well-liked by many, and it seemed like only his personality was the reason why the Twins didn’t consider re-signing him for 2011. Finally, as I said before, Matsui is the symbol for Japanese position players struggling in the major leagues.
However, I think the perception of Matsui would change for one simple reason: the money spent to acquire him. The New York Mets signed him to a 3-year, $20.1 million contract* during the ’03-’04 offseason, which is more than Nishioka’s 3-year, $9 million contract (though there is a 4th-year option for $4 million and the Twins bid of $5.3 million) simply because Matsui was a more accomplished hitter in NPB. That and his injury problems combined to plague Matsui with the label of being a bust.
* I can’t find any evidence that the Mets had to go through the posting process to acquire Matsui.
This may seem outrageous, but I would be happy if Nishioka can match Matsui’s (or Hardy’s or Hudson’s) production that I mentioned above. It would be a bit below average overall, but we need to remember that middle infielders are not usually skilled with the bat and even “average” offensive production from Nishioka would be above average when compared with other middle infielders. Plus, he’s only being paid $3 million in 2011. If he struggles a bit, don’t be livid. He would still have 2 more years to justify the contract, and it doesn’t take a lot to produce $3 million of value anyway. Of course I would like him to blow us away, but I’ll be happy if Nishioka hits .270/.330/.380 next year, and I think you should be, too.