This is a guest post from our friends at NEIFI.co, who have built a projection system and systematic evaluation methodology about which you can read more at their site. They also tweet @NEIFIco and have started their own blog as well.
Back in November, we contributed a post about Japanese superstar Shohei Otani, noting that the 22-year-old hurler already projected as one of the best pitchers on the planet, and would be one of the most coveted international imports in baseball history if his NPB team, Nippon Ham, decided to make him available to MLB clubs. Since that time, Otani’s 2016 season has only expanded his legend.
On the mound, Otani has had another great year, allowing a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts and racking up 140 strikeouts in 116 innings. But his real coming out party has been at the plate, as he’s forced his way into the lineup on a regular basis, becoming a legitimate two-way player. In 301 plate appearances, he’s hitting .333/.435/.631, which means he leads the league in OPS. With all due respect to Madison Bumgarner and the #PitchersWhoRake hashtag, Otani looks like something the likes of which we don’t currently have in MLB.
That brings up the obvious question: do we have any relevant comparisons for Shohei Otani?
This question leads straight to MLEs, and translating Otani’s NPB performance record into MLB terms. That’s an endeavor we at NEIFI enjoy dearly, although it’s not terribly helpful or interesting for this setting. Talks along these lines immediately descend into the technical and theoretical details of foreign-league translations, and the basis for anyone’s confidence in the outputs depends entirely upon their confidence in the validity of the underlying process which produced them, down to minute detail.
There is perhaps a way we can circumvent this obstacle, a more direct question which might help us to contextualize Otani’s talent in a manner we can actually grasp and digest: what is Otani’s talent relative to the talent of his peers in NPB? And what stateside players sit at a similar place within the MLB talent spectrum? For example: is Otani as superlative relative to the average NPB starter as Clayton Kershaw is relative to the average MLB starter? Also, with respect to his age: are there stateside starting pitchers (SP) in their early 20s who are nearly as exceptional to the domestic-talent pool as Otani is relative to NPB? These are questions we can approach and understand, without entering the realm of international translations.
We’d be interested to know this for both Otani the pitcher and Otani the hitter, of course. Well, let’s take a look.
To establish a starting point, here is a plot showing all SP in affiliated pro baseball currently projecting at or above a talent level of 4.75 (where we’re using the ERA scale, such that 4.00 is the league average of all pitching, which makes the average of all SP 4.13):
You immediately know who the lower-most datapoint is. The size of the gap between Kershaw and the second best per-inning SP in the game (Jose Fernandez, 2.81, at the age-24 mark) is almost comical at 0.41 expected runs per nine innings, particularly given that Fernandez is as strong as he is.
It seems to be accepted as a given that Otani is the best starter in NPB. But according to NEIFI’s talent estimates, does Otani match Kershaw’s relative dominance?
Yes and no.
The size of the gap between Otani and the next-best SP (Tomoyuki Sugano) is 0.55 expected runs/9, actually larger than the gap between Kershaw and Fernandez. And for the range in question, both leagues show the exact same standard deviation (StDev), despite the different sizes of each population (0.499 in each case).
Although, and importantly, neither Otani or Sugano are as exceptional relative to the NPB average as Kershaw and Fernandez are relative to the domestic-talent pool.
Overlaying the two plots, for comparative purposes:
What about on the offensive side? Otani is considered a dominant NPB hitter, though he’s not unanimously considered a singularity, as he is on the pitching side. We’ll leave defense (and therefore WAR as a position player) aside for now, and focus on offense alone. First, again, the stateside pro distribution. We’ve placed runs per PA on the batting-average scale for presentation purposes — .263 is league-average (pitchers removed):
As with the pitching, we immediately recognize the name of the most aggressive outlier. Mike Trout has a head, neck, and shoulders above his MLB/MiLB peers. The magnitude of his dominance never fails to inspire awe, and this view provides yet another exhibition.
Can Otani possibly match this?
Well, no, he can’t. However:
Meet Tetsuto Yamada. A player for whom the phrase “the Mike Trout of Japan” would astoundingly sell him short. And if anything, the additional details make Yamada even more relatively extraordinary. A point of amazement in Trout’s story is that he’s only very recently turned 25 (on August 7th). Yamada is actually 11 months younger, having played most of this season at age 23. Further, while some question Trout’s current defensive value as a CF, it seems highly likely that Yamada brings positive defensive value to the table, as he plays second base, has made just three errors in 111 starts this year, and clearly possesses speed and/or quickness, as Yamada currently leads the Central League with 29 steals while only being caught twice.
The story of Yamada may get even more interesting in the future, if there’s ever an opportunity for him to be posted. Namely this: he’s listed as 5’10” and 163 pounds. Yamada would present an enlightening test case as an MLB free agent, in respect to how teams view talent that doesn’t entirely jibe with our archetypes. We’ve seen something similar on the pitching side; many of the Asian pitchers who’ve come to the states are sufficiently atypical (via stuff, style, and more) that teams view their NPB dominance with large open questions. A future Yamada posting would force teams to directly face this challenge — extremely positive results in a highly non-typical form — at very high stakes.
As per Otani, he currently ranks as NPB’s fourth-best hitter. In terms of distance from the mean, that suggests Otani is something like the Edwin Encarnacion or Anthony Rizzo of NPB: clearly not the best hitter in the talent pool, although clearly in the conversation of the upper-most edifice.
With the NPB reliance on “gaijin” for offense, it’s interesting to note that none of the five most talented offensive players at current are foreign-born. Wladimir Balentien is narrowly missing that arbitrary cut (sixth). He’s mounting an impressive-enough 2016 campaign, but 2015 was a lost season and his current production is a meaningful come-down from his 2014 (and yes, differing league levels of offense are being considered in such a statement, although for the years of 2014 and 2016, it so happens offensive environments are highly similar anyhow).
Finally, while we’d generally avoid the topic of translations for the reasons discussed, it would be a shame to at least not provide some food for thought.
Taking a long-term forecast for Otani, until his theoretical offensive and pitching peaks, and translating that expectation to MLB… where would we estimate peak-Otani would lie within the MLB talent spectrum, given the information and performance data we have to date?
We’ll translate his peak projection to MLB terms, and map that onto the current MLB offensive and SP talent spectrums shown above.
First, on offense:
And as a starter:
It does not seem out of line to suggest Otani could be an MLB All-Star on both sides of the ball. This is more distinctly true on the pitching side than it is as a position player, where he could legitimately be a frontline starter. But Otani now also looks like he could be one of the best hitters in baseball if he focused his energy on that side of the ball. Of course, the more interesting question is what he could do in the big leagues if he didn’t have to choose, and whether he might really be a potential two-way superstar in MLB. Based on what he’s doing this year, the question isn’t as absurd as it might sound.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.