Reassessing NPB Talent Levels

Here are the four rookie position players above 3.0 WAR in the 2012 season:

Name Team PA BB% K% BABIP wOBA wRC+ Fld BsR WAR
Mike Trout Angels 639 10.5% 21.8% .383 .422 175 13.3 6.8 10.4
Bryce Harper Nationals 597 9.4% 20.1% .310 .353 122 8.9 -0.3 4.8
Yoenis Cespedes Athletics 540 8.0% 18.9% .326 .370 138 -9.6 0.1 3.1
Norichika Aoki Brewers 588 7.3% 9.4% .304 .348 118 0.1 -1.4 3.1

Two of these players are foreign imports — veterans of other leagues. And two of the top 10 pitching rookies (No. 1 and No. 10) hail from abroad as well:

Yu Darvish Rangers 29 191.1 10.4 4.19 0.66 0.295 3.90 3.29 3.55 5.1
Wei-Yin Chen Orioles 32 192.2 7.19 2.66 1.35 0.274 4.02 4.42 4.14 2.2

With the likes of Junichi Tazawa, Hisashi Iwakuma and even Munenori Kawasaki providing value across the league, it is time to reconsider the the levels of professional and amateur talent in East Asia, and more importantly, reconsider how those talents might translate into the MLB.

One of the key elements in reassessing the talent available in Japan is the new NPB baseball. Like, their new literal baseball. In the 2011 offseason, the league switched from stadium specific balls to a standardized, more MLB-like ball.

In my May 31st article wherein I advocated Norichika Aoki deserved a starting job (and under-predicted his offensive ability), a commentor by the name of Nate offered a great glimpse as to why the new baseball could make NPB statistics much more useful:

[The new NPB ball] was designed to imitate the MLB ball, which is used in international tourneys like the WBC. The smaller, slicker one was one of the more common ones used before the switch…at least from what I read. I’m interested to see if this switch leads to being able to make more accurate predictions about NPB players before they come over to MLB.

The first and most obvious effect of the new ball was a depression of run scoring across the league. Here is a look at runs per game since 2006:

The league went from averaging about 4 runs per game to just a tick above 3 runs. For years now, sluggers in Japan — Hideki Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome and the like — have come to the MLB and had their power numbers take a discount. The new ball might help correct for that, and if it does, it will remove or lessen one key difficulty in translating NPB numbers to MLB numbers.

The 2012 batch of NPB vets / MLB rookies were the first to post a season in the majors after using the new ball. If we look at a 5-4-3 weighted comparison of their 2009 through 2011 NPB numbers, we see there is the beginnings of a relationship — at least among the pitchers:

NOTE: The NPB numbers are league-adjusted, but not park adjusted. That is why I refer to them has wOBA+ instead of wRC+.

Kawasaki, who only had a handful of PA, was the only player to perform at a rate significantly far from his 2009 through 2011 numbers in Japan. But Kawasaki had only 115 PA and a .233 BABIP — whereas in Japan he averaged BABIPs over .300 as well as a 103 to 120 BABIP-plus over the last five seasons.

Darvish is also considerably further from his NPB production, but he also had 221 strikeouts in under 200 innings — not to mentions his 5.1 WAR — and would have joined the game’s most exclusive club if he matched his NPB numbers over 150+ innings.

If we limit our scope to just the 2011 season, the “new ball” season, as it were, we see Aoki actually performed better in America than in Japan; Chen performed closer to league average in Japan using the new ball; and Iwakuma and Darvish looked better with the new ball:

Here is where I would like to add a caveat concerning Iwakuma. The long-time starter began the season in the Mariners bullpen, where he pitched 30.1 innings with 6 homers, 15 walks and 23 strikeouts. That 5.73 FIP, 4.23 xFIP smoothed out to a 3.91 FIP, 3.61 xFIP once he joined the rotation. His went from an 18.1% K-rate to a 19.9% K-rate, and his 11.8% walk-rate dropped to a respectable 7.1% walk-rate.

I think in the case of Iwakuma, he may very well have had trouble learning the ropes of pitching out of the bullpen. I am confident, had the Mariners left him in the ‘pen, he would have done quite well there, but since he has been starting since age 20, it will require a period of transition first.

In other words, I would not be surprised to see Iwakuma post numbers in the 85 to 95 FIP-minus range in 2013, depending on his role in 2013 (Note: He actually had a 91 xFIP-minus in 2012).

So where does that leave us? Well, first of all, it appears Aoki’s number from Japan almost perfectly matched his MLB numbers. That is not only surprising, it is unprecedented. Only time will tell if the new ball has helped him — and potentially other elite NPB hitters — transition, or if he is merely a special case.

Meanwhile, the pitchers all took a different degree of a hit in their numbers when transitioning to the MLB. Part of that may be due to diminishing returns (Darvish), aging and peaking (Iwakuma and Chen) or maybe even just problems adjusting to new roles (Iwakuma and Kawasaki) or matters of luck (any of them).

But, as the regression line in the initial regression shows, the formula for converting pitchers may be as simple as, well, adding 20 FIP-minus points. Which is great news for the likes of Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujukawa, who has been posting 40 to 50 FIP-minus season in Japan for almost a decade now. Fujikawa will be a free agent this offseason and if he can translate his relief success to a 60 to 70 FIP-minus in the US, he could realistically find himself in high-leverage relief situations by mid-2013.

Here’s a video of Fujikawa, which shows both his low-to-mid 90s fastball and a slow-mo of his low-to-mid 80s split-change (3:58). I believe he also throws a mid-70s curve, but I’m not sure if he throws it in this particular video.

Add to Fujikawa this young man:

That is high schooler Shohei Otani who throws 99 mph (in that particular video even) and who has already met with the Rangers among as many as four other MLB teams with the possibility he might get drafted into the MLB in 2013.

There has been — for some time — a gentleman’s agreement between the MLB and NPB, one such that has prevented MLB teams from acquire amatuer Japanes talent. So, it is likely Otani will start his career in the NPB — and he might be the next big pitcher to cross the sea.

And Aoki’s success is going to matter to Hiroyuki Nakajima. The Yankees acquired Nakajima for the low-low posting fee of $2.5 million, but Nakajima was apparently not thrilled at the thought of getting paid Bargain Barrel rates to sit on New York’s bench, so he returned to the NPB for another year.

Nakajima is now a free agent and has intimidated he is bringing his six years of strong production to the MLB this offseason:

2007 593 .352 116 .378 124
2008 556 .411 131 .376 123
2009 648 .384 121 .353 120
2010 579 .387 121 .348 114
2011 633 .352 123 .325 113
2012 563 .360 126 .342 119

…And enough defensive chops to fit at least at second or third. I think Akinori Iwamura (pre broken leg) is a good comparison here. Many scouts have suggested Nakajima will fall into a bench utility role, but Aoki’s success may just alter that perception.

Here is a video breakdown of Nakajima’s swing (lamentably in Japanese). As Google Translate so perfectly puts it: “Since you put a super slow last, please refer to the children that play baseball.” (Since this clip includes slow-mo swing goodness, make your children watch it… I think is what means.)

We cannot know yet whether or not the 20 FIP-minus rule of thumb holds water, or whether or not elite hitters are going to be able to perfectly translate their skills from the new-ball NPB. But as far as the first data points go, it is looking like a good sign.

Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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Chad Moriyama

Rough Translation: “In the top of the seventh inning, Nakajima Hiroyuki of the Seibu Lions drove this home run to right-center. It looks awesome every time you see it. Since this is super slow motion video, you can use it to teach kids who play baseball.”