If there’s one group of free agents that, over the last five years, has been the most consistently undervalued by the market, it is clearly position players from Japan. Take a look at the following players who have come over, how much their teams paid them per season (posting fee included if applicable), and their average WPA/LI during the contract.
Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners – 2001 to 2003, $9 million – 2.0 WPA/LI per season
Kenji Johjima, Seattle Mariners – 2006 to 2008, $5 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season
Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees – 2003 to 2005, $7 million – 2.1 WPA/LI per season
Tadahito Iguchi, Chicago White Sox – 2005 to 2007, $2.75 million – 1.1 WPA/LI per season
Akinori Iwamura, Tampa Bay Rays – 2007 to 2009, $4 million – -0.1 WPA/LI per season
So Taguchi, St. Louis Cardinals – 2002 to 2004, $1 million – 0.0 WPA/LI per season
Kazuo Matsui, New York Mets – 2004 to 2006, $7 million – -0.2 WPA/LI per season
Kosuke Fukodome, Chicago Cubs – 2008 to 2011, $12 million – -0.3 WPA/LI per season
Obviously, WPA/LI doesn’t adjust for position or defense, but the conclusion is still obvious – as a group, these guys have been a massive success. The original contracts for Ichiro, Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura, and Johjima especially were ridiculous bargains. Not one of them cost their team more than $10 million per season, and all of them were above average players, including Ichiro and Matsui proving to be all-star caliber players. Even the so called busts, such as Kaz Matsui, were reasonably productive players at a not ridiculous price.
Maybe Fukodome’s contract from last winter signaled a shift in how teams view Japanese position players, and they’ll be fairly valued going forward, but there was a huge undervaluation of Japanese players for six solid years, and it’s hard to imagine that it all disappeared in a single winter. While I’ll leave the specific names of potential bargains to those who know NPB ball better than myself, it seems wise that teams looking for a good bargain would target that segment of potential free agents as an opportunity to find a quality player at a lower than expected cost.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.