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A Poor Year for Asian Imports

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
October 30, 2008

During the Division Series, the Chicago Tribune published an article about how the Japanese media had stopped following Kosuke Fukudome after the Chicago Cubs benched him in September.  Indeed, the Wrigley field lunchroom even began to phase out the sushi option on their menu as the media followed Fukudome less and less frequently as the summer wore on.  The article went on to say that they had stopped following Fukudome in favor of following Akinori Iwamura.  That is akin to selling off your Coke II stock to buy up the Jaminator franchise in the early 1990s.

While Iwamura was indeed having a fantastic division series against the other team from Chicago while Fukudome was being publicly called out by his manager for his futile play, the outfielder arguably had as unproductive of a regular season as the infielder did.  Fukudome had an OBP 10 points higher than Iwamura (a leadoff hitter) did, and stole more bases at a better rate.  Iwamura also had the worst revised zone rating of any AL second baseman who qualified and the second worst in the majors while Fukudome's RZR was third best among qualifying major league right fielders.  Fukudome also made 24 more outs outside of his designated zone than did Iwamura.

Iwamura would go on to play poorly in the ALCS win and disastrously in the World Series loss.  The Japanese media would have done better to send reinforcements to follow Hiroki Kuroda and Diasuke Matsuzaka.  Both of those hurlers pitched well into the second round of the playoffs, and they were easily the two best Asian players in the majors during the regular season.  Even Matsuzaka's success was somewhat misleading, however.  He went from 15-12, 4.40 last season to 18-3, 2.90 this season despite matching his 2007 WHIP of 1.3241 down to the fourth decimal place.  In fact, only Armando Galarraga had a larger difference between his actual ERA and his fielding independent ERA this season, making Matsuzaka a terrific candidate for most disappointing player of 2009.

Chien-Ming Wang is generally one of my picks for disappointing player of the year due to the solid results he tends to obtain despite ridiculously low strikeout totals.   His strikeout rates have actually been improving slightly, but his walk rates have subsequently deteriorated.  His disappointing 2008 season was far more health-based than performance-based, but don't be surprised if the bad foot and bad peripherals combine to give him an ERA in the high 4s next year.

While we're on the subject of standard preseason predictions, when was the last time someone didn't pick Ichiro Suzuki to lead the AL in hits?  The prediction had become as obvious as Barry bonds leading the NL in on-base percentage was a few years back.   Well, Ichiro did finish with the AL lead in hits, recovering nicely from his .252 April batting average.  Still, Ichiro did finish with career-lows or near career-lows in every offensive stat except stolen bases and even made an uncharacteristically high five errors in the outfield.  While his Hall of Fame candidacy likely isn't in jeopardy, the $17 million per season that he will be making through the 2012 season suddenly seems like another huge liability for the financially clueless Seattle Mariners front office.

Teammate Kenji Johjima's three-year, $24 million extension through the 2011 season seems like a relative bargain on the surface.  Unless, of course, the Mariners had designs on playing a catcher who reached base at least 28% of the time or playing Jeff Clement, who has supposedly been their best prospect since he was drafted third overall in 2005.  Tadahito Iguchi endured the same problems getting on base as Johjima did, but failed to display the traces of power that the backstop flashed.  Both players did well defensively, at least.

Injuries made it nearly impossible for Hideki Matsui to help out defensively.  He did contribute decently on offense as a designated hitter, but even that was less than the Yankees have come to expect from Godzilla.  Similarly, Takashi Saito pitched pretty well when healthy, but wasn't healthy for most of the season, including when the Dodgers needed him the most.  Kazuo Matsui actually overcame a gruesome anal fissure injury to have the best season of his major league career, although his shoddy defense and $5 million salary might still have some Astros fans considering him a disappointment.

So is this poor showing of Asian talent an aberration, or is it indicative of something else?  I personally think it's important to remember that most Japanese imports come to the major leagues in their late 20s or early 30s.  Therefore, after a few years of big league success, they generally either fall prey to decline, injuries, or the rest of the league adjusting to them.  Even Kuroda - the man with the 10th-best fielding independent ERA in the NL this season and the greatest 2008 success story from the East - will turn 34 years old in February.  That isn't to say that he will necessarily falter as soon as next season, but it certainly isn't someone who should be counted on for sustained success in the States.

No, the future of Asian players making their mark on the major leagues will be those Easterners who travel west at an early age.  26-year old Shin-Soo Choo boasted a .946 OPS playing for near the major league minimum, and is one of the main reasons that the Cleveland Indians are the early favorites to win the AL Central next year.  He has been playing in the States since the age of 18, beginning in that esteemed Seattle Mariners organization, which cleverly exchanged him for Ben Broussard.

The Choos of the world, not whoever the next $100 million Japanese pitcher is - will be the ones to prevent 2009 from being another disappointing year for Asians in Major League Baseball.




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com or found at the Baseball Evolution Forum

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