Archive for May, 2005

A tale of two imports

It has become an annual ritual. Every winter, the wealthy teams enter into a bidding war for the latest Japanese import destined to be a superstar.

In the 1990s, the ritual centered around pitchers. Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu led the Japanese migration to the big leagues. Some players lived up to their potential while others burned out.

Then, in 2001, Ichiro’s wildly successful Major League debut opened up the doors for position players to cross the Pacific. By then, Japanese pitchers had become a common sight in the Bigs. But Ichiro’s success led to an outfield migration. Tsuyoshi Shinjo arrived in the States in 2001. So Taguchi came in 2002. Hideki Matsui came in 2003.

While pitchers such as Akinori Otsuka and Shingo Takatsu now make their marks as late-inning specialists, the eyes of Major League scouts have shifted to the infield with decidedly mixed results. Last year, the Mets won the services of Kazuo Matsui. This season, the White Sox landed Tadahito Iguchi.

Kazuo Matsui and Iguchi provide an interesting look into the lives of Japanese players giving it a go in America. The two are both middle infielders, and they have enjoyed vastly different levels of success. Matsui, for all his hype, has been an utter failure for the Mets so far while in Chicago, Iguchi has been an integral part of the White Sox’s successes this year. A comparison of the two reveals the ambiguous nature of bringing Japanese players to America and the importance of good scouting reports.

Matsui’s career in New York has been abysmal, and the Queens faithful are ready to say sayonara to their floundering second baseman. In 603 at-bats – the equivalent of one full season – Matsui has hit .265 with a .321 on-base percentage and a .343 slugging. This year, he’s at .243/.284/.340, and Mets fans are ready for Miguel Cairo to assume everyday duties up the middle. Matsui has hit just 10 home runs, and he has struck out 121 times in those 603 at-bats.

To make matters worse, he has been downright awful in the field. In 110 games at short – his natural position – Matsui has committed 23 errors. At second base, in just 39 games, he has made 6 errors, including a few last weekend that cost the Mets the Subway Series. All in all, this has been a disaster. But is this so surprising?

A closer look at Matsui’s Japanese numbers reveal that he may have been set up to fail in the United States. In Japan, he hit .309/.361/.486 in over 4600 at-bats. He struck out 751 times, including a career-high 124 in his last season in Japan. Only recently had he developed power, and his stolen bases had declined from a high of 62 in 1997 to a low of 13 in 2003. In the field, he was okay. He has a career fielding percentage in Japan of .978 and had committed 17 errors in 137 games in 2003.

Considering that Matsui’s strike out numbers were on the rise, his OBP and slugging had declined from 2002 to 2003, and his fielding was no sure thing, it seems now that the Mets may have been oversold on Matsui. The oft-proclaimed struggles of the Mets’ overpaid Japanese import are not as big as surprised when you consider the big picture.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the White Sox have the makings of a solid player emerging in the persona of Tadahito Iguchi. This second baseman is hitting a solid .302/.347/.440 out of the two hole. He has seven stolen bases and has made three errors. These numbers wouldn’t blow anyone away, but for $2 million a year, Iguchi is making a significant contribution.

His numbers and trends in Japan reveal a better option at second base than the one Matsui represented. Long a power hitter in Japan, Iguchi developed into a hitting machine following the 2002 campaign. His average went from .259 in 2002 to .340 in 2003 to .333 in an injury-plagued 2004. His slugging and on-base percentage were on the rise as well. He was particularly appealing the field as well as he was among the top two in fielding at second base every year since he switched from short to second in 2001.

The differences between Iguchi who is endearing himself to Chicago fans and Matsui who gets little support from the Shea fans are telling. Success in Japan does not translate easily into America. Matsui and Iguchi, two big power hitters, have seen a precipitous drop in their performances upon arriving the States. Is that because of the different approaches to pitching found in the Major Leagues as compared to the Japanese Leagues? The answer is probably yes.

Fielding-wise, it seems to me as though Matsui’s failures at the plate have affected his fielding. Iguchi, on the other hand, has done a much better job adjusting to the league.

But in the end, none of this is all that surprising. Had the Mets scouts studied the trends in Matsui’s statistics, they may have been able to anticipate a decline. As with any player looking to make it in the Majors, positive trends are a good indication of success while negative trends may call for future failure. That’s been the case with Matsui and Iguchi. As more Japanese position players look to jump the ocean, it will be interesting to see if teams can cut through the hype of past success to study how their possible additions would do in the future.

Making that jump is no easy feat; just ask Kazuo Matsui. But with some insightful scouting, teams could have a better idea of what awaits them from their high-priced investments.

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World Baseball Classic should stay a nice idea

As part of Major League Baseball’s effort to expand its international horizons, the 2006 Spring Training will play home to the first World Baseball Classic.

This World Cup-style tournament, announced last week, will feature teams from 16 nations across the globe. The tournament, according to MLB.com, is tentatively schedule to run from March 4 through March 20. These dates would clearly overlap with the first two and a half weeks of Sprig Training games, and opinions on this World Baseball Classic are decided mixed.

On face value, this tournament would be a boom for Major League Baseball. It would mark the first event of its kind to feature Major Leaguers. The Olympic tournament – long a contest for amateurs – has only recently allowed professional, non-Major Leaguers to play.

It would certainly attract tons of international attention. Fans in the Asian countries – notably Taiwan and Japan – would rabidly follow a tournament of this ilk. The Netherlands and Italy with their vibrant baseball leagues would finally garner international attention. These games may even draw out the Cuba National Team, pending Fidel Castro’s and State Department approval.

The fans would eat up these games, too. In the competitive Asian market, the early round games between Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan would bring out sets of fans who are vehemently loyal and proud of their teams. The games in America – especially those between Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the United States and Venezuela – would be All-Star spectacles. Imagine a Roger Clemens-Johan Santana show down or an outfield with Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

But once you get beyond the fantasy of these games, reality sets in, and I’ve been wondering over the last few days if the World Baseball Classic really such a great idea. My first thoughts were about Spring Training and the Classic’s timing. I and millions of other like-minded fans have made trips down to Spring Training for years. Spring Training is a great time of year. It’s the time to see your favorite players emerge from the dark days of the off-season. It’s a time to start over. It’s a time to let the young kids get their cuts in.

All of that would change with a World Baseball Classic. Instead of a fan-friendly atmosphere at relaxed baseball games, Spring Training would get overshadowed by nationalistic, ultra-hyped baseball games. Sure, they would be popular, but if the stars – and seeing them up close is the real drawing power of Spring Training – are off playing for the Classic, Spring Training loses some of its luster. That’s not something Major League Baseball should actively encourage.

From the teams’ points of view, many owners, general managers and coaching staffs would not be too keen on watching their guys out on the field going all out for their teams. Imagine a fierce competitor such as Roger Clemens trying to go six or seven innings in early March so the United States’ team can advance to the semifinals. I bet Phil Garner and Tim Purpura wouldn’t be too keen to see that.

Now, during Spring Training, pitchers normally throw only 40-50 pitches during the early going. Seeing World Baseball Classic games with Santana and Tim Hudson pitching three innings would hardly be compelling baseball. Convincing teams to allow their aces to pitch longer so early in the season is something that just won’t happen. As Baseball America reported last week, the final guidelines due in July will contain specific information on how many pitches are permissible and how much rest pitchers need so early in the season.

If this World Baseball Classic were to demand early preparation from those players selected to participate, a late-season tail-off could be expected as well. By the end of the season, players are beat up and bruised. The marathon of the regular season takes its tool on these guys. If a whole bunch of players upon which teams will rely to carry them into October have already been playing for three or four extra weeks in February, then they’ll fade that much more in September. It’s tough to justify potentially messing around with pennant races just to hold what amounts to an exhibition tournament in March.

Then, there’s always the issue of an injury. The Angels wouldn’t want to face missing Vlad for three months if he were to go down with an injury during the Classic. And, in fact, George Steinbrenner has made some public comments stating he wouldn’t allow his high-priced players to risk their regular-season health by playing in this tournament. I can’t say I really blame him.

The World Baseball Classic is a great idea, but maybe it should stay just that. If those in charge start tinkering with the schedule to make those games in March actually count for something, it could have an effect on those games in September or April that really do matter in the standings.


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