Could The Twins Have Foreseen Nishioka’s Struggles?

When it was announced that the Twins had won the bid for Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, I’m sure most people were excited. I certainly was, as the Twins had not had a Japanese-born player since Micheal Nakamura, though he wasn’t like your typical Far East import. Micheal, along with having an English-sounding first name and odd, Jhonny Peralta-like misspelling, had an Australian mother and actually moved to the Land Down Under when he was only 3 years old.

However, our collective excitement over Nishioka has quickly waned. The fear was that being a middle infielder, he may turn into a disappointment like Kaz Matsui, who played for the Astros, Rockies, and Mets. In actuality, Matsui was a fairly decent big leaguer, but he didn’t live up to expectations, thus the perception of him being a disappointment. His defense was shaky despite winning 4 Nippon Pro Baseball Gold Gloves and his power disappeared even though he had a 36 HR season under his belt in Japan, and he was just barely an above-average position player in 5 of his 7 seasons.

Twins fans thought they were getting an intriguing Asian import, and yet Nishioka has looked more like Norihiro Nakamura than Kazuo Matsui. Who? you may ask. Don’t worry, the quizzical look on your face is well justified. I’ll get to Norihiro later.

Now that we’ve seen the poor play from Nishioka this season, along with the disappointment of Kaz Matsui, I started wondering if there’s been a trend among Japanese-born players that could possibly alert MLB teams before they consider bringing a player over from the NPB. More specifically, I had two hypotheses:

1. Japanese-born outfielders have performed better than infielders in MLB.

2. Japanese-born pitchers have performed better than position players in MLB.

The reason for these two hypotheses is simple. On the infield side, we have Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Akinori Iwamura. All three had their moments, but weren’t exactly anything special. As for the outfielders, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui immediately jump to mind; two guys that have had long careers since coming over to America. Secondly, the pitchers seem to be more memorable* than the position players to me, save for Ichiro. Today, there’s Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, and Koji Uehara. You go back a little further and you see Hideo Nomo and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

* I feel like I’m trying to justify a Hall of Fame vote for Jack Morris over Bert Blyleven. “You just had to be there.”

I’m going to be using two main measures to check my hypotheses. The first one is obvious, which is by comparing the statistics* among the infielders and outfielders, and the pitchers versus the position players. However, therein lies a problem, as it’s not easy to compare pitchers to position players. I could compare them to the major league average and see which group was better, but every ballplayer was in the majors for a different era (steroid era, post-steroid, and then there’s Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese-born player to ever play in an MLB game, who pitched back in the 1960s) and thus I’d have to compare every player to the average player during his tenure or compare to the average player over the entire time frame for every player, then sum and/or average everyone together, and that just makes things complicated.

* All data for current players will have been collected from games up to the completion of August 25th.

Instead, I’ll look at the average of games played per season for each group, and compare that to what we would expect out of a major league player for his position. My thinking here is that a player had to have been given or taken away playing time for a reason. Some, like Norihiro Nakamura, only appeared in 17 games because he hit worse than Drew Butera despite being a 3rd baseman. The flip side has Ichiro, who seems to have been around forever now.

Here’s what I found. As I predicted, the outfielders have had more major league success than the infielders, and they’ve also lasted in the major leagues for much longer.

Infielders: .266/.326/.386, .712 OPS, 98.6 games/season

Outfielders: .300/.361/.427, .788 OPS, 125.8 games/season

Note: While Norihiro Nakamura’s 17 games seems to skew the infield data a bit, removing it only increased the infielders’ game/season to around 103.

The outfielders do appear to reap the benefits of including Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, as removing them reduces the outfield games/season to 101, but that’s not the only reason why I don’t think this is really conclusive. After all, I’m comparing 5 infielders and a catcher to 5 outfielders. It’s like comparing one team’s infielders to another team’s outfielders.

Now let’s look at the pitchers. Pitting them against the hitters, we have:

Hitters: .289/.350/.414, .763 OPS

Pitchers: 4.21 ERA, .254 AVG, 7.20 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9, 1.36 WHIP

Looking at these numbers, they all look rather… well, average. The hitters do have a good batting average and OBP, but the low SLG makes the OPS look pedestrian. It’s a similar story with the pitchers, as none of the numbers above seem to really jump out.

Just for fun, I decided I would compare the starters with relievers to see if there was any differences as well.

Starters: 4.36 ERA, .259 AVG, 7.04 K/9, 3.61 BB/9, 1.14 HR/9, 1.39 WHIP

Relievers: 3.87 ERA, .244 AVG, 7.57 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 1.29 WHIP

Yep, the relievers have done much better than the starters, but I think we can all agree that this would be expected, similar to the outfielders vs. infielders above. Relievers are allowed to face certain hitters and are typically used in more optimal situations. Well, Takashi Saito, Uehara, Akinori Otsuka, and Yoshinori Tateyama help the relief corp a little as well.

Something to note is that some pitchers made appearances both as a starter and reliever. For instance, Daisuke Matsuzaka made an appearance as a reliever earlier this season, but every other game he’s pitched in during his career has been as a starter. I was going to combine both of these and then just treat Dice-K as a starter, and do the same with other pitchers that had similar situations, but the data didn’t vary by any more than 0.08 in any statistic, and it was common for the stats to change by less than a hundredth of a point.

In conclusion, it appears as though Hypothesis #1 was correct, while Hypothesis #2 should probably be called either inconclusive or wrong. Also, I discovered that Japanese-born relief pitchers have pitched better than the starters, though this finding isn’t surprising at all considering relievers have typically performed better than starters throughout all of MLB. Despite all of this research, this shouldn’t be used to predict the outcome of a career for future Japanese-born MLB players. Every player is unique, and anything can happen. So while it may seem like the Twins could have foreseen Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s struggles in the United States, he still has a chance of turning everything around. When you’re batting .217/.257/.241, your numbers can really only go up. Well, unless you’re Norihiro Nakamura.

If you have any complaints with my methodology, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll respond with the data compiled in the manner that you would prefer. In case you’re interested, here is a complete list of all Japanese-born MLB players.

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