December 1, 2003

Coming to America

One of the things that fascinates me most about the current state of baseball is that there are All-Star-level players and possibly even some Hall of Fame-level players playing somewhere other than in the United States of America right now.

I suspect that, had I been around sixty years ago, I would have been fascinated by the idea that so many great players were playing in the Negro Leagues. All you need to do is look at the leaderboards for this year to see what an extraordinary impact African-American players have had on Major League Baseball. At the same time, similar impacts have been made by players from other countries, such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, just to name a few.

But still, even with all the integration and immigration that has gone on in baseball over the last half-century and even with all the great players from other countries who are starring in the American major leagues right now, there are countless others out there yet to arrive. Whether in Japan or Cuba or other countries such as China, Korea and who knows where else, I don't think it is a stretch to say that there are dozens of great players who have yet to play a single game in the American major leagues.

For some reason that idea is incredibly intriguing to me. The great players who have come from places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are undeniable. But even the impact from a country like Japan, from which only a limited number of players have come to America to play, is pretty remarkable. Ichiro!, Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Tomo Ohka, Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Irabu, Masato Yoshii, Tsuyoshi Shinjo - it is a short but relatively impressive list.

Sure, not every Japanese import is a star. But neither is every guy who comes here from the Dominican Republic. Yet, even with the few players who have come here from Japan, a large number of them (Ichiro!, Nomo, Matsui, Hasegawa and Sasaki) have already been All-Stars.

That has come with just a couple of players coming here from Japan every year or so. Can you imagine what would happen if the floodgates really opened? How many new All-Stars from Japan would there be? How many new .300-hitters? How many new starting pitchers? How many new closers? I think it is incredible to imagine.

And that is just with regard to Japan, one of many largely "untapped" resources for Major League Baseball. I sometimes think about how many Hall of Fame players never got a chance to play baseball in the American major leagues. 1? 3? 10? 100? I really have no idea, but I bet it's more than most people would think.

Forget Hall of Famers or even All-Stars, how many simply "good" players from other countries never got a chance to play? How many fourth-outfielders and fifth-starters and backup catchers? How many setup-men and utility infielders?

And today, how many dozens of good, major league-caliber baseball players are out there, playing in other countries? I suspect a lot of people would call this sort of thinking silly. And probably even some of you reading this right now think I am exaggerating the amount of great players playing in other places right now. But wouldn't you have said the same thing decades ago? Before the incredible amount of great African-American players started playing in the majors? What about before the floodgates finally started to open for Latin American countries?

Fortunately, with each passing year, I think more and more great players from other countries will make the trip to the United States to test their skills against the best of the best. And that is nothing but incredibly good for Major League Baseball.

This off-season, the biggest name coming to America is Kazuo Matsui, a star shortstop from Japan. "Little Matsui" will follow Ichiro! and Hideki Matsui as established, veteran, star players coming to play Major League Baseball after years of dominating in Japan.

From everything I have read about him, Kaz Matsui sounds like a mix of Ichiro!'s speed and Hideki Matsui's power, all wrapped up into an outstanding defensive shortstop. As you might guess from that description, I have seen rumors that no less than a dozen teams are interested in signing him.

Still, the big question with any player who has yet to play in the American minor leagues, let alone the American major leagues, is how he will adjust to the new competition. I think it is a given that a player coming from another country, whether it is Japan or somewhere else, is expected to experience a drop-off in production. It is the same thing that is expected of American minor league players when they first make it to the majors. The competition is simply better than they have ever faced before.

The key is how much of a drop-off. It would be nice to be able to say with confidence that a player coming from Japan should be 85% as productive in America, but it isn't that simple. Even with the outstanding work that has been done in trying to project Japanese performance, it is still somewhat a mystery. The projections for Ichiro! were fairly accurate, whereas the projections for Hideki Matsui were significantly off-the-mark.

To try to get a feel for what we might be able to expect from Kaz Matsui's rookie season in America, let's first take a look at how other Japanese hitters have faired in their first seasons here, compared to their final seasons in Japan.


                               AVG      OBP      SLG

Last season in Japan          .387     .460     .539

First season in U.S.          .350     .381     .457

                               AVG      OBP      SLG

Last season in Japan          .334     .461     .692

First season in U.S.          .287     .353     .435

                               AVG      OBP      SLG

Last season in Japan          .278     .320     .491

First season in U.S.          .268     .320     .405

There are all kinds of sample-size problems with using just three players and a total of six seasons, but there are still some interesting things to be taken from this stuff.

Just to make things a little easier, let's put all the numbers into one table and show the changes each player experienced in his first season in America (shown as +/- percentages)...

               AVG        OBP        SLG       ISOP       ISOD        GPA

Ichiro!      - 9.6      -17.2      -15.2      -29.6      -57.5      -16.4

Matsui       -14.1      -23.4      -37.1      -58.6      -48.0      -29.4

Shinjo       - 3.6        0.0      -17.5      -35.7      + 2.4      - 8.2

The six stats shown above are:

- Batting average (AVG)

- On-base percentage (OBP)

- Slugging percentage (SLG)

- Isolated Power (ISOP)

- Isolated Discipline (ISOD)

- Gleeman Production Average (GPA)

You almost certainly know all about the first three stats (AVG, OBP, SLG). "Isolated Power" is slugging percentage minus batting average. In other words, how much "raw" power does someone have. "Isolated Discipline" is a name I made up, but the stat is the same as Isolated Power, except it measures someone's "raw" plate discipline, by taking their on-base percentage and subtracting batting average. Finally, "Gleeman Production Average" is a stat I introduced here last week. The formula is [(OBP*1.8) + SLG] / 4 and I think it is a good measure of someone's overall offensive effectiveness.

Okay, so what do all those numbers show?

First of all, each player saw his overall offensive production drop quite a bit. Using GPA as the judge, their offense dropped by 16.4, 29.4 and 8.2 percent, respectively.

But how did their offense drop? Was it because of losses in batting averages? Homers? Walks? Well, let's take a look...

The smallest drop-off among the six stats is batting average. While Ichiro!, Matsui and Shinjo all saw their averages fall, they didn't fall all that much compared to the other categories - "only" 9.6, 14.1 and 3.6 percent.

The most interesting thing to me is the Isolated Power and Isolated Discipline numbers. All three players saw their power drop off a cliff, with declines of 29.6, 58.6 and 35.7 percent. This seems to agree with the general opinion, which is that Japanese ballparks are much smaller than U.S. ballparks and thus easier to hit for power in. On top of that, Ichiro! (Safeco Field) and Shinjo (Shea Stadium) played their rookie seasons in particularly tough ballparks for power-hitting.

In regard to Isolated Discipline, it is the only area in which there was actually an improvement by someone upon coming to America. Tsuyoshi Shinjo saw his ISOD go up 2.4% in his first season here. Making that even more interesting is the fact that the other two guys saw their Isolated Disciplines go down by incredible amounts - 57.5% and 48.0%.

Believe it or not, I have what I think is a pretty good reason for that. I think that much of both Ichiro! and Matsui's Isolated Discipline in Japan was based on pitchers and managers fearing them. I don't have the actual numbers, but I would guess that they were each intentionally walked quite a bit while in Japan. And, even when they weren't intentionally walked, they were almost certainly pitched around many times.

But in the U.S. they were not feared nearly as much as rookies. Matsui was not the guy who hit 50 homers in Japan once he got to the Yankees, he was just another guy in his first MLB season. He was intentionally walked just five times last season and he walked a total of just 63 times, after walking 100+ in each of his final three seasons in Japan (while playing fewer games).

Same thing goes for Ichiro!'s rookie year. He wasn't the feared .353 career hitter that he was in Japan. He was just another rookie who pitchers went after. He was intentionally walked 10 times in his first MLB season and he walked a total of just 30 times in 738 plate appearances.

Okay, so that explains some of the huge ISOD drops that Matsui and Ichiro! experienced, but how does it explain the gain in ISOD that Shinjo had? Well, Shinjo was not a very good hitter in Japan, so pitchers there most likely didn't pitch around him or intentionally walk him. So, his OBP wasn't boosted by that. And then, when he got to America, pitchers continued to not pitch around him. I think the gain of 3.4% could just have easily been a loss of 3.4%, because basically he was pitched to the exact same way in both places.

The question in how this all relates to Kaz Matsui is whether or not pitchers in Japan have been pitching around him, whether or not they have feared him to the same degree they feared Hideki Matsui and Ichiro!. Again, like with the other three Japanese players, I don't have intentional-walk numbers for Kaz Matsui. That said, in looking at his overall walk-totals, I would guess that he was pitched to a lot more than either Hideki Matsui or Ichiro! was.

Kaz Matsui walked just 46, 53 and 55 times over the last three years, while playing 140 games per season. Pro-rated to 155 games played, that works out to an average of 55 walks per year. Meanwhile, Hideki Matsui walked an average of 126 times per 155 games during his final three seasons in Japan. Even Ichiro!, who has proven himself to be one of the most extreme free-swingers in baseball since coming to America, was walked an average of 65 times per 155 games played.

Just from looking at the data from Ichiro!, Matsui and Shinjo, here are my guesses for what will happen to Kaz Matsui's numbers next year...

- His batting average will fall, but because he has incredible speed, it won't fall as much as Hideki Matsui's did (14.1%). Ichiro!'s average fell 9.6% during his first year, so I'll say Kaz Matsui's drops an even 10%.

- His Isolated Power will plummet, just like it did for the other three guys. I don't think it will take as big a hit as Hideki Matsui (58.6%), but I think it'll be right around Ichiro!'s drop (29.6%) and Shinjo's drop (35.7%). Let's say an even 30%.

- With Isolated Discipline, there just isn't that far to drop in the first place. Matsui barely walks as it is, even less so than Ichiro! did in Japan. Let's say his ISOD drops 20%.

Okay, with projections for AVG, ISOP and ISOD, we can form an actual projected stat-line for Kaz Matsui based on his 2003 Japanese League numbers (.305/.368/.549)...

               Year      AVG      OBP      SLG

Kaz Matsui     2004     .275     .325     .445

I think that looks like a pretty decent projection.

A .275/.325/.445 performance would equal a .258 GPA, which would be a 14.9% drop from his GPA in Japan last season. Ichiro!, Matsui and Shinjo had GPA drops of 16.4, 29.4 and 8.2 percent in their first MLB seasons. Of course, the .275/.325/.445 projection is subject to change, depending on which team he ends up signing with and which ballpark he ends up playing his home games in.

A check of "The GPA Quick Reference Guide (2003)" shows that a .275/.325/.445 performance with a .258 GPA would have ranked Matsui 10th among MLB shortstops with 350+ plate appearances last year.

Alex Rodriguez           .328

Edgar Renteria           .297

Derek Jeter              .289

Nomar Garciaparra        .286

Alex Cintron             .282

Orlando Cabrera          .271

Miguel Tejada            .269

Rafael Furcal            .268

Angel Berroa             .262


Kaz Matsui               .258


Carlos Guillen           .258

Jose Valentin            .255

If you knock Berroa's totals down a bit because of his home ballpark being a great place to hit, his Rookie of the Year season is pretty much the same as Matsui's projection.

For those of you who are fans of teams currently rumored to be hot after Matsui, you may be a little disappointed with that .275/.325/.445 projection. The projection is based on Matsui's 2003 season in Japan, which was very good, but also a step below his 2002 season in which he hit .332/.389/.617.

If you do a similar projection (subtracting 10% in AVG, 30% in ISOP and 20% in ISOD) using his 2002 numbers, you get a new projection of .299/.345/.499, which would be good for a .280 GPA. That would have ranked him sixth among MLB shortstops last year.

So, will it be .275/.325/.445, .299/.345/.499 or something totally different? Honestly, who knows? We'll just have to wait to find out. If nothing else, it will give us a new data point to look at when trying to project the next Japanese star!
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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