The MLB should be receiving a new crop of far eastern talent in the next year or two, which means it is worth reacquainting ourselves with the standouts and talent levels of these leagues — specifically the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and Japan’s Nippon Pro Baseball league (NPB).
Let’s start with Korea and Pittsburgh’s potential new infielder, Jeong-ho Kang:
NOTE: I am using wOBA+ here, which is merely my shorthand for wRC+ without park factors and using MLB linear weights. So the numbers are not perfect, but they’re better than OPS or OPS+.
The KBO is a hitter’s league. That is the refrain we hear most often whenever Kang’s surfaces. He slashed a filthy .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers in 2014, and his career stats suggest he’s a middle infielder who hits like he’s from the corner. But how good is he with respect to the league?
Answer: He’s the best. But a wide margin.
Or at least he was in 2014. In 5 of the last 6 seasons, he’s been among the best hitters in Korea. The most consistently best might be Byung-ho Park — he clapped 52 homers in 2014. But Park plays first base, and Kang can handle at least 2B.
The light blue guys give us a feel of the quality of hitters in the KBO. Eric Thames was one of the best hitters in the KBO (131 wOBA+). If we’re feeling frisky, we can pretend he’s a decent proxy for an MLB hitter (he’s not; no one man is). And Thames crushed Triple-A pitching (think 140 wRC+ range) but was average (about 100 wRC+) in limited MLB time. So if he took a 30-point production hit, and for whatever crazy reason we conclude Kang will take the same exact hit, then he should hit around league average or a touch above average in good years.
Also: Jorge Cantu is a cool dude. I’m glad to see him doing well.
On the pitching side of the KBO, a plethora of former MLB farmhands dot the leaderboards. Andy Van Hekken and Rick van den Hurk have both carved out nice KBO career careers after their MLB careers failed to stick. With both of them on the gray side of thirty, a return to the MLB or MiLB seems unlikely — especially given that they are aces in Korea.
Hard-throwing lefty Gwang-Hyun Kim (or Kwang-Hyun Kim) might make for an interesting MLB prospect, but his control issues look serious to me. He’s only 26 in 2015, so he has time to figure some biz out.
Meanwhile, Hyeon-jong Yang — who sports a 4.33 ERA through 866.2 KBO innings — attempted to cross the ocean this winter only to have his team turn down the posting bid. He is probably one of the best homegrown pitchers in the KBO, and the ERA mark is no doubt muddied by the league’s run environment, but Yang is like a 27-year-old pitcher doing well in High-A. Few teams would be willing to break the bank him.
For comparison: Hyun-Jin Ryu had a 2.80 ERA in over a thousand KBO innings. His success in the majors is a testament to his personal talent, not necessarily an indication of the KBO’s untapped pitching talent.
Itoi is a gold-gloving outfielder who is probably past his fielding prime, but much like Norichika Aoki, he could bring a multi-faceted toolset necessary for big league success. He’s entering his age-33 season with a career .395 OBP — in a league averaging a .310 to .330 OBP. He steals a lot of bases and hits a few homers. He has played both center and right, but I doubt Itoi gets much of a look at center in the MLB.
Takashi Toritani is more of an iron-man infielder with no one great asset. He’s light on power, but has good plate discipline; he plays shortstop well and should be capable at second in the MLB; and he has like zero injuries ever. I have difficulty seeing Toritani as a starter in the MLB, but if Munenori Kawasaki — who was always a better fielder and baserunner but a worse hitter — can hang around the MLB and Triple-A, then a bench role for Toritani is well within possibility. He could maybe even be a fringe starter for some teams.
Nakata is the young one in the bunch. His offense has not wowed just yet, but he is only entering his age-26 season. The Mariners had interest in him before he went pro, and his success at the NPB level (106 HR in just 2507 PA, so about 25 HR per 600 PA) has probably done little to hurt his prospect status. Nakata is still about 3 years younger than his league, and if he gets posted soon (probably not this offseason), he would probably still need to season in Triple-A — barring a breakout between now and his posting.
He has played primarily left field, but I have no idea what kind of defender he is there. He is certainly no speedster, though, having stolen only 10 bases in four full seasons. He also legs out fewer doubles than we might expect for a guy with steady power. The quality of his defense could very well determine whether or not teams are willing to take a chance on him. If they see him as a 1B or just a DH, he will need a serious revelation with his bat before anyone bids on him.
A word should be said here about Wladimir Balentien. Writing for the Hardball Times Annual in 2014, I found a decent rule of thumb that hitters will lose about 20 points of wOBA+ transitioning to MLB lineups (whereas pitchers get stung by only about 10 points of FIP-). That means hitting success in the NPB needs to be notorious or it needs to be a complement to other skills.
Balentien’s hitting has become notorious. He set Japan’s HR record at 60 last year, and he continued to dominate the league in 2014. If we slice 20 points off his wOBA+, we get a 29-year-old corner outfielder with a 115 wOBA+ in 2014. That’s good enough to start on many MLB teams. If he ever chooses to come back to the Americas, he’ll no doubt have a chance to start, but it’s unlikely he’d be the annual All-Star he has become in Japan.
Kaneko and Maeda are two righties with sub-3.00 career ERAs in Japan. Kaneko is coming off a career year, but is already entering his age-31 season. He just re-signed with the Orix Buffaloes, but there is a real chance he will not finish that four-year deal without getting posted at some point. He has established himself as a reliable (even though unspectacular stuff-wise) pitcher, and the typically lame Bison of Hy?go Prefecture may choose to cash in on Kaneko’s talent if the 2015 or 2016 seasons turn awry.
Kaneko’s interest in the MLB appears tepid, so there’s always a chance he stays in Japan and has a happy, long career in the NPB. But if he continues to experience this level of success, I imagine he gets restless like Yu Darvish and crosses the ocean in search of better hitters to make look foolish.
Maeda is the big name from Japan this year. As the above link notes, though, his team decided against posting him. Maeda appears eager to reach the MLB, and since he is entering his age-27 season with a career 2.44 ERA, I think he will accomplish that aim.
Last February, FanGraphs alumnus Patrick Newman named several additional NPB prospects, but I’d like to focus on perhaps the one furthest from reaching the majors: Two-way star Shohei Otani. He is entering his age-20 season and he is already the 2nd-best starting pitcher in Japan. He has a 3.07 ERA through 217 career NPB innings — oh, and he had a 117 wOBA+ in 234 PA this last season. We might be inclined to think Otani is just one of many two-way stars in Japan’s talent-hungry league, but no. Otani is the first since 1968, according to Newman.
If the Fighters post Otani, he would almost certainly go for the maximum bid, but with the new, low ceiling for posting bids, the Fighters may not want to post Otani. Ever. He is a capable right fielder who throws 100-mph and isn’t even old enough to drink in the US. If and when MLB teams get a chance to sign him, it will be a feeding frenzy.
Here is a copy of the stats used in this post, if’n you’re okay with downloading Excel files from strangers on the internet.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.