Lack of success by Japanese stars opens debate about next wave
When the Boston Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year contract beginning in 2007 -- a $103 million investment including a $51 million posting fee to acquire his rights -- they worried about the Third-Year Wall. Research by the Boston quantitative analysts showed that most pitchers from Nippon Pro Ball suffered a sharp decline in performance about three years into their transition to Major League Baseball.
The Red Sox were acutely aware of the strain of pitching more often (every fifth day, rather than every sixth or seventh day) over a longer season against deeper lineups with more power, to say nothing of different baseballs, ballparks, training regimens, cities, travel demands and cultures.
So the Red Sox did everything they could to pamper Matsuzaka. They gave him a no-trade clause, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, an interpreter, a media liaison, eight first-class airline tickets per year between Boston and Japan, a housing allowance of $100,000 per year, a car service, box seats at Fenway Park and uniform number 18, a traditional number for an ace in Japan. They also gave him rest whenever they could. Of the 61 games he started in 2007 and '08, Matsuzaka pitched on the sixth or seventh day 35 times, or 57 percent of the time.
And despite all those preventive methods, Matsuzaka crashed into The Wall.
Over his first two seasons, Matsuzaka was 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA. But starting with Year Three, Matsuzaka has been 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA while suffering shoulder, hip and elbow injuries. He is not expected to pitch again until the second half of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
How players from NPB translate to the majors -- as well as putting an economic value on that bet -- figures to once again be a key part of baseball's free agent season this year. A half dozen or more players from Japan will be available to major league clubs either as free agents or through the posting system in which a player's negotiating rights are put up for a blind auction. The standout of the crop is expected to be 25-year-old Nippon Ham Fighters righthander Yu Darvish, if indeed his club makes him available through the posting process.
Said Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."
It has been 16 years since Hideo Nomo debuted in the major leagues, touching off the first generation of players who wanted to leave Nippon Pro Baseball for the majors. Forty-three players have followed Nomo's route. Only three have been named to more than one All-Star team (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Sasaski) and only 11 are active big leaguers, including Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a .226 hitter with no home runs who became the latest of several players to struggle with the transition.
Nomo himself hit the Third-Year Wall. He was 29-17 with a 2.90 ERA in his first two seasons, but posted a 4.25 ERA in Year Three, was traded in Year Four and released in Year Five. He became a journeyman with the occasional comeback season. His ERA after hitting The Wall was 4.61.
Including Nomo, since 1995 there have been nine pitchers from NPB that have made 40 starts in the big leagues. Except for Hiroki Kuroda (3.45), a free-agent who has pitched all four of his major league seasons for the Dodgers, they have posted career ERAs between 4.24 and 5.72 -- and that doesn't include busts such as Kei Igawa and Junichi Tazawa who have not made that many starts.
"You have some great examples of players who came here and starred," said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, "and some who came here and were average at best and some who were below average. Like it is with any prospect, it's always something you have to look at on a case-by-case basis. One thing we do know is that the grind of our schedule is different, therefore there are different dynamics for a position player and for a pitcher."
Colletti believes that part of Kuroda's success occurred because the pitcher devoted himself fully to the cultural change. Kuroda immediately established a year-round home for his family in Southern California and enrolled his children in English-speaking schools.
"There was an adjustment period early on for him," Colletti said. "If there was a chance to get him an extra day [of rest] we took advantage of that.
"We've done work in Asia for a long time. And we know the support system you have alongside the player is important. Kuroda came here and was both a little excited and anxious to know what it was going to be like. He was coming here not just to pitch but to set up his family in a new country. It took not only his willingness, but also his family's willingness.
"What you try to do is kind of manage the transition. You have to understand that it is a transition if you're willing to take it as a process. You have to see if he gets overextended, for example, and adapt. You just can't take a player making that transition and just throw him in there. If you had a minor leaguer coming up you'd have to give him time to make the transition. This is similar. So we've been respectful of that transition from the beginning."
Colletti said that after Kuroda's first year the Dodgers began to seek a blend of the training methods he used in Japan and what would be considered standard for the majors. For instance, Kuroda used to begin his winter workouts "very late in the winter, but those workouts start earlier now."
Levine agreed that making a full cultural transition might increase the chance of success on the field in the majors.
"Now we've had four pitchers [from Japan] we've had to work with," Levine said. "The guys that seem to have success seem to make more of an attempt to assimilate into the clubhouse culture. The guys who make a little more effort with learning the language and move away from the entourages seem to have more success.
"In general, the decline is pretty precipitous [for starting pitchers]. It's almost like relief pitchers in general. You can carve up their career in three-year cycles: good ones for two or three years and then they're almost done. It seems only the guys with an elite pitch are able to extend beyond that two or three year window."
Major league teams don't seem to be having better success projecting NPB players despite working with more information. When the Yankees signed Kei Igawa after the 2006 season, for instance, they relied on very few first-hand evaluations. Now the Yankees invest more time and resources in making sure they get multiple looks at NPB players.
"We've started sending more scouts over there to scout these guys," said Yankees assistant GM Damon Oppenheimer. "I think that's probably a result of what they have become at the major league level -- and sometimes not even contributing at the major league level. There's probably a little more caution."
Asked why NPB pitchers specifically have had difficulty maintaining success in the majors, Oppenheimer said, "I don't know the answer to it. I've gone over and seen guys with major league quality stuff. They throw it over the plate and for quality strikes. I don't know if their strike zone is any bigger but it doesn't seem like it is on a consistent basis. I really don't see the big difference. That's the problem. I don't see the difference in stuff and I don't see it in command. Maybe it's the time between starts, the bullpen sessions, too much wear and tear . . . I don't know the answer."
In addition to Darvish, other players expected to be available include Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki, a lefthanded slash hitter who turns 30 in January and has won three batting titles, righthanded pitcher Hisaski Iwakuma, whose posting rights were awarded to Oakland last year for $19.1 million but did not sign, righthander Shinobu Fukuhara, a 34-year-old free agent, and Yei-Wing Chen, a 26-year-old lefthander.
Aoki has drawn some comparisons to Suzuki for his style of play, though he has not been that kind of impact player. Other than Suzuki and Matsui, many position players from NPB have been less than advertised as major leaguers despite major financial investments, including infielder Kaz Matsui ($20.1 million for three years), catcher Kenji Johjima ($24 million, three years), outfielder Kosuke Fukudome ($48 million, four years) and Nishioka ($9.25 million, three years).
One talent evaluator said the track record of such players has been so poor that his club devalues NPB players at least one level from their established level in Japan, saying, "If you're looking at everyday position players you probably think of them as fourth outfielders or utility players for the most part. Whatever role they had there, we downgrade and then see if that's a fit for us."
Said Oppenheimer, "The elite of the elite over there are still good. Ichiro played as good as anybody. Matsui, you couldn't ask anything more from him. Physically, he just got beat up over time. Those guys were the best over there, and played really well here."
What does the 16-year history of transitions from Japan to the states mean for Darvish's market? Not as much as you might think. One executive evaluated Darvish as a No. 2 starter. Another described him as "a middle- to top-of-the rotation starter now. He has the size, strength and age to overcome some of the transition problems. And if he does come out this year, there [are] not a whole lot of starting pitchers on the market, so that works in his favor."
Darvish, a long-strider with a three-quarters arm slot, throws a fastball in the mid-90s, a hard-breaking slider or cutter, curveball and changeup, has exceptional command, strikes out more than a batter per inning and rarely gives up home runs. He throws with a slight "wrist wrap" as he takes the ball behind his body, adding to the impression that his pitching style evokes a taller version of David Cone. Like many Japanese aces, he often runs up big pitch counts with extra days of rest in between. In 2010 alone he threw 140 pitches or more in a game nine times -- more than every major league pitcher combined over the past nine years. This year he hit 140 just once, but still reached 120 pitches 15 times. No major league pitcher has thrown 15 120-pitch games in a season since 2005, when Livan Hernandez did so.
Darvish figures to command a posting fee between Iwakuma's $19.1 million and Matsuzaka's $51 million -- and closer to Dice-K territory.
When another executive was asked if the checkered history of other NPB pitchers would depress Darvish's value, he replied, "Remarkably, no. In the landscape of a competitive market, people turn a blind eye to history or believe this is the one guy who is the exception to the rule -- that somehow this one guy is more capable than all the others we know about. It happens with all free agents. We establish two values for a player now: what we call his fair market value -- what his true worth is -- and what we think he might get on the open market. Those tend to be two very different numbers."