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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