Monday, August 29, 2016

The Greatest Japanese Exports (Part II--Pitchers)


Nicknamed "The Tornado," Nomo is the leader among Japanese pitchers in wins, strikeouts, shutouts and complete games. He was a major star with the Kintetsu Buffaloes before exploiting a loophole in his contract and defecting to the majors. He became immensely popular in his '95 Los Angeles debut, capturing Rookie of the Year honors with a 13-6 record and a league-leading 236 strikeouts. His windup included a series of quirky stops and starts that resembled stretching exercises. The right-handed Nomo won 123 games for seven teams during his career, which spanned portions of twelve seasons. He is one of a handful of pitchers to toss multiple no-hitters. They were the only no-hitters thrown at Coors Field and Camden Yards. Nomo has been widely credited for opening the door for dozens of Japanese players who followed.


Saito has the lowest ERA among Japanese pitchers with at least 100 appearances. He enjoyed his peak seasons with the Dodgers between 2006 and 2008, when he saved 81 games and averaged 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Had he not been thirty-six years old when he arrived in the majors, he might have had a longer, more fruitful career. His finest season came in 2007, when he posted a 1.40 ERA while allowing just 33 hits in 64.1 innings primarily as a closer. He picked up a career-high 39 saves and made the NL All-Star team. After falling from the major league ranks at the age of forty-two, he returned to Japan, where he had two more decent seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.


The right-handed Kuroda established himself as one of Japan's best pitchers before he signed with the Dodgers prior to the 2008 campaign. A frequent victim of poor run support, he spent four seasons in Los Angeles and compiled a 41-46 record despite a cumulative ERA of 3.45. In 2011, he posted the best mark of his career at 3.07, but ended up losing 16 games. Traded to the Yankees in 2012, he spent the final three seasons of his big league career in the Bronx--going 38-33. Kuroda appeared in five postseason series with New York. Four of his five outings were quality starts. With a highly effective splitter and sinker, he induced a lot of ground ball outs during his career. In 2015, he returned to Japan for one more season with the team he had left--the Hiroshima Carp.


Sasaki is the all-time leader in saves and closing appearances among Japanese-born players. His nickname "Daimajin," was derived from a series of 1960s movies in which a giant statue bearing that name repeatedly saves a village in response to the prayers of inhabitants. Injured often during his career, Sasaki picked up 252 saves in Nippon pro baseball and 129 more in major league play. His brief big league career lasted just four seasons and ended in 2004, when he decided to stay in Japan. He was Rookie of the Year in 2000 and an All-Star in the next two campaigns.


Nicknamed "Shiggy," Hasegwa spent five seasons with the Angels and four more with Seattle. He served in nearly every capacity during his career--as a spot starter, middle reliever, closer and set-up man. He had compiled a cumulative 30-27 record in the majors before injuring his rotator cuff in 2001. He bounced right back with Seattle in 2002 then posted a career-best 1.48 ERA the following year, earning his only All-Star selection. His appearance in the Midsummer Classic was a disaster as he was charged with 4 runs and a blown save. To date, no Japanese pitcher has matched Hasegawa's total of 517 appearances.

Matsuzaka was one of the most acclaimed players in Japan. Before the 2007 season, several major league teams engaged in a bidding war for his services. In the end, the Red Sox won out with a $51.1 million offer. Matsuzaka got off to a strong start in his major league debut with a 15-12 record. He went 2-1 in the postseason, helping the Red Sox win the World Series. In 2008, Matsuzaka enjoyed his finest campaign, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. His won-loss percentage was second to Cliff Lee of the Indians. Only two AL pitchers posted a lower ERA that year as Matsuzaka placed fourth in Cy Young voting. The rest of his career was marred by injuries and ineffectiveness. The Red Sox finally gave up on him in 2012, when he went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA. He finished his big league career in the Mets bullpen.


There are at least five active Japanese pitchers who are making a name for themselves in the majors. Since the Major League season is much longer, most of them are beginning to show signs of wear. Rangers' right-hander Yu Darvish was off to a 39-25 start in his career before injuries shut him down for the entire 2015 campaign. He has made just 11 appearances so far in 2016. Highly priced Yankee hurler Masahiro Tanaka had a lifetime record of 36-16 at the time of this writing, but has been struck by injuries multiple times. Dodger rookie Kenta Maeda is 13-7 so far this year with a 3.37 ERA for the Dodgers. To preserve his effectiveness, manager Dave Roberts has given him additional rest between starts on several occasions. Koji Uehara--a right-handed reliever--is serving in his eighth major league season. Uehara was 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA in 73 appearances during the 2013 slate. The forty-one year old hurler averages close to 11 strikeouts per 9 innings and is currently second among Japanese-born players in saves. Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners, currently in his fifth season, is poised to win 15 games for the second time in his career. He is on a short list of Japanese hurlers to toss more than 200 innings in a single campaign.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Greatest Japanese Exports (Part I--Positional Players)

Contrary to what many casual fans might believe, Hideo Nomo was not the first Japanese-born player in the major leagues. Left-handed pitcher Masanori Murakami was twenty years old when he made his debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1964. After injuring his arm with the Nankai Hawks, Murakami was sent to the Giants with a pair of other non-prospects. The Giants and Hawks had signed a development deal prior to Murakami's arrival. To the astonishment of nearly everyone in the Nankai front office, Murakami went 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA in the San Francisco farm system. Called to San Francisco in September, he became a hero and cultural icon when he logged eight consecutive scoreless appearances. Commenting on his success, Murakami said: "In Japan, players only swing at strikes. Here, they try to hit everything out and don't care if you throw a strike or not." The Hawks wanted Murakami back for the '65 slate, but the Giants retained him after a contract dispute. Murakami's second season was not as successful, though he did average 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Murakami's experiences didn't open the floodgates for Japanese players right away. In fact, there wouldn't be another Japanese prospect in the majors until Bobby Fenwick arrived in 1972. Fenwick, who was born in Okinawa, was of mixed Asian ancestry. He lasted through portions of two seasons with Houston and St. Louis. Since then, Japan has sent more than fifty players to "The Show."  The best of them will be discussed in my next two posts. Let's start with positional players.


There is little doubt that Ichiro is the greatest Japanese-born player the major leagues have ever seen. Including his nine-year stint with the Orix Blue Wave of Japan's Pacific League, he collected well over 4,000 hits. More than 3,000 came in major league action, putting him on a trajectory for the Hall of Fame. If a combination of 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases doesn't justify his enshrinement at Cooperstown, his ten consecutive Gold Gloves will serve as a definitive argument settler. Ichiro was know to literally climb walls to rob opposing hitters of home runs. Only Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were more decorated in the outfield. As of this writing, Ichiro was padding his lifetime hit totals with the Marlins at the age of forty-two.


In Japan, Matsui carried the nickname "Godzilla" for his prodigious home run power. When he played for the Yomiuri Giants, he was given the #55 representing Sadaharu Oh's single-season record for homers. Matsui never broke that record, but he did hit 50 in 2002--his final season in Japan. He was so popular in his native country that his likeness actually appeared on commercial airline jets. The Yankees paid big money to acquire Matsui and, though his home run output dropped considerably in major league play, his RBI production did not. When Matsui fractured his wrist diving for a ball in left field during the 2006 slate, he ended  streak of 1,768 consecutive games that had begun in Japan. He reached the century mark in RBIs during each of his first four full seasons and helped the Yankees to six playoff appearances. His performance in the 2009 Fall Classic netted him Series MVP honors. He was a lifetime .312 hitter in postseason action. Among Japanese-born players who have reached the majors, he is the all time leader in doubles, homers, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.


Taguchi is probably best remembered for his clutch ninth inning homer against the Mets in Game 2 of the 2006 NLCS, which broke a 6-6 tie and held up as the game winner for the Cardinals. In three plate appearances during that series, he was 3-for-3 with 3 RBIs. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Taguchi was in his thirties when he reached the majors and his career was relatively brief. In Japan, he was an All-Star, Gold-Glover and Best Nine Award recipient (a prestigious honor given to the top players at each position). In the majors, he hit his peak between 2004 and 2007, appearing as one of St. Louis's regular outfielders. His batting averages ranged from .266 to .291 in that span and he spent more than 100 games at each outfield station. He captured a World Series ring with Cardinals in 2006.


Fukudome was one of the Japan Central League's most powerful hitters, winning the MVP Award in 2006. Injured the following year, the Cubs decided to take a chance on him, shelling out $48 million to obtain his contract. Great things were expected of Fukudome and, though he didn't exactly tear up the National League, he was one of Chicago's more reliable hitters for three-plus seasons. After finishing among the top ten in Rookie of the Year voting, he had his best season in 2009, reaching career-high (major league) marks in extra-base hits (54) and on-base percentage (.375). Fukudome was a patient hitter, drawing 60 or more walks in four straight seasons. He was solid in right field as well, posting the third highest fielding percentage during the 2010 slate. After a .171 showing at the plate in 2012, he returned to Japan.


Iguchi was thirty years old when he made his debut with the White Sox in 2005. Before then, he was a reliable infielder with moderate power for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan's Pacific League. Iguchi had three decent offensive campaigns in the majors before suffering a statistical collapse in 2008. He was a key member of Chicago's World Series winning squad in 2005. He contributed 9 postseason hits to the White Sox cause that year, scoring 7 runs while driving in 5. He returned to Japan in 2009 and became the fifth player to get 2,000 hits in combined Japanese and major league play. 


For two seasons, Johjima was among the best catchers in the American League. After spending eleven seasons in the Japan Pacific League, he signed with the Mariners. He was the first Japanese catcher in the majors. In his 2006 debut, he slugged 18 homers and drove-in 76 runs while hitting .291. The performance earned him Rookie of the Year consideration. After another highly successful season in 2007, he slumped both offensively and defensively. He opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Mariners before the 2010 campaign and returned to Japan. He had one more great season with the Hanshin Tigers before his inability to hit limited him to second string status. 


Another short-lived Japanese success story, Iwamura left Japan's Central League after the 2006 campaign to join the Devil Rays. He was coming off of his third consecutive season with 30 or more homers before making his major league debut. He hit just 7 long balls with Tampa Bay in 2007, but his 10 triples were second in the league to Curtis Granderson of the Tigers. Iwamura also led AL third basemen in fielding percentage that year. In his 2008 follow-up, he finished third in triples. He also placed among the top ten in putouts, double plays and assists. A knee injury in 2009 limited him to 69 games, but he posted a highly respectable .290 batting average. Traded to Pittsburgh before the 2010 slate, he became the Pirates' highest paid player. He fared poorly that year and never returned to the majors. He continued playing in Japan through 2014.  


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Is the Yankee Front Office Out of Its Collective Mind?

The Yankees seem determined to break the mold used by George Steinbrenner when he assembled eleven pennant-winning squads over the course of three decades. "The Boss" had a habit of sacrificing his top prospects to bring established stars to the Bronx. At the trade deadline this year, the new Yankee regime did exactly the opposite, parting with four cornerstone veterans to acquire a slew of untested players. GM Brian Cashman claims that the Yankees are trying to assemble an "uber team" resembling the one that attained dynastic status in the late-'90s. He also commented that the flurry of activity at the deadline is not a "white flag" for the 2016 campaign. But with most of the latest acquisitions being so far removed from major league action, it's hard to perceive it as anything else. 

A breakdown of the transactions is as follows:


Thirty-nine year old CARLOS BELTRAN is having one of his best seasons in ages. He was leading the team in multiple offensive categories and was on pace for a 30 homer/ 100 RBI campaign before he was dealt to the Rangers.

 A thirty-one year old veteran, ANDREW MILLER has quietly become one of the best relievers in baseball. Versatile and easygoing, he has filled multiple bullpen roles over the course of his career. His 1.39 ERA in 44 appearances with the Yankees earned him his first All-Star selection this year. He was averaging over 15 strikeouts per nine innings when the Yankees sent him to Cleveland.

 Personal issues aside, AROLDIS CHAPMAN is one of the premier closers in the majors. Regularly hitting 100 mph on the radar gun, he has been clocked as high as 105. With the Yankees this year, he converted 20 save opportunities and posted an ERA of 2.01 in 31 appearances. He is now property of the Cubs.  

 Right-hander IVAN NOVA has been an inconsistent and enigmatic performer for the Yankees. When he is good, he is very good. But at times, he has looked flustered and unfocused on the mound. He began the 2016 season in the bullpen, but was promoted to a starting role due to injuries and ineffectiveness in the Yankee rotation. He managed just 4 quality starts in 15 outings. In spite of that fact, he was one of the Yankees' most versatile hurlers. He will presumably finish out the 2016 slate with the Pirates.

In a trade that was little more than a back story, the Yankees also parted with pitching prospect VICENTE CAMPOS, who was sent to Arizona. A veteran of seven minor league seasons, the big right-hander (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) has played for four clubs so far this year, posting a 10-3 record with a 3.07 ERA. He currently resides at the Double-A level.


 In exchange for CHAPMAN, the Cubs sent veteran pitcher Adam Warren to New York along with  minor league prospects Gleyber Torres (a shortstop), Billy McKinley (an outfielder) and Rashad Crawford (an outfielder). Born in Venezuela, Torres was considered to be the Cubs' hottest prospect with a rating of #28. Prior to 2016, McKinley had a rating of #88. He is off to a .186 start at the plate this year. Crawford has some speed and covers a lot of ground defensively, but has a lot of growing to do. Warren compiled a dismal 5.91 ERA in 29 games with the Cubs. 

For BELTRAN, the Yankees added a trio of minor league pitching prospects to their farm system. Right-hander Dillon Tate was a first round pick in 2015. He is having a rough year in the South Atlantic League with a 3-3 record and 5.12 ERA. Right-hander Erik Swanson was the Rangers' eighth round pick in 2014. He is progressing nicely in the low-minors so far. Twenty-one year old Nick Green is still several years away from throwing his first major league pitch (assuming he ever gets there).  

For MILLER, the Yankees picked up four minor league prospects.One of them, a twenty-one year old outfielder named Clint Frazier, has been described as "an outgoing and fun young man from a good Georgia family." Assigned to Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, he may be ready for a call-up in September. The other three prospects are pitchers. Left-hander Justus Sheffield was the Indians' first round pick in 2014. In three minor league seasons, he has averaged close to 10 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter. Right-hander Ben Heller ascended to the Triple-A level in his fourth professional season. A reliever, he has compiled a 1.64 ERA so far this year. Another right-handed reliever, J.P. Feyereisen has assembled an 8-4 record with a 1.77 earned run average in 95 minor league games so far. He is currently at the Double-A level. 

For Nova, the Yankees will receive two players to be named later.

For Campos, the Yankees got reliever Tyler Clippard. Originally drafted by the Yankees in 2003, he has a pair of All-Star appearances on his resume. He has served as a closer, set-up man and middle reliever. 


Anyone who follows the careers of minor leaguers knows that most of them don't pan out. A 2013 Baseball America article claimed that only 17 percent of all draft picks make it to the majors. Of those, less than half have long and successful major league careers. Using those numbers as a guide post, the Yankees can reasonably expect two or maybe three of their latest acquisitions to become significant contributors in the Bronx. Neither Clippard nor Warren are high impact players so--on the surface at least--the Yankees' trade deadline moves seem desperate and ill-advised. With a revitalized farm system, however, the Bombers now have the luxury of bartering their top prospects for a crop of marquis veterans in the tradition of George Steinbrenner. Perhaps that's what they had in mind all along.     

Only time will tell.