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International Stars' Immediate MLB Stardom Signaling Less Risk Than Past
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This being the year 2014, it's not news that players born outside of the ol' U.S. of A. can find success in Major League Baseball. That's something we've been used to for a while.

What we're less used to is how easy a couple specific brackets of international players have been making it look recently.

One is Asian pitching imports. Hiroki Kuroda arrived from Japan in 2008 and quickly found success in MLB without any minor league preparation. Following suit were fellow Japanese imports Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma in 2012 and South Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2013. In 2014, it's been Masahiro Tanaka's turn.

Then there are the Cuban defectors. Yoenis Cespedes exploded as a star in 2012 despite not logging any time in the minors, and Jose Abreu is looking to do him one better this year.

Uncredited/Associated Press
FanGraphs WAR rates Puig as one of the five best hitters in MLB over the last calendar year.

Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, needed only 39 minor league appearances before he was ready for the majors in 2010. Likewise, Yasiel Puig needed less than 300 minor league at-bats before exploding onto the scene as a superstar in 2013.

These success stories feel like something new for a reason.

Before Kuroda, Darvish, Iwakuma, Ryu and Tanaka came along, we tended to associate Asian pitchers mainly with the wreckage that followed Hideo Nomo. Hideki Irabu was a bust, as was Kei Igawa. Daisuke Matsuzaka was good at first, but then he also flamed out.

The history of Cuban imports before the recent wave of stars was just as checkered. Livan and Orlando Hernandez did just fine in the 1990s, but MLB teams seemed to want nothing more to do with Cuban defectors after Jose Contreras busted with the New York Yankees in 2003.

It all comes down to this: After long being considered big-time risks, it now seems like Asian pitchers and Cuban defectors are significantly less risky.

Which leads us to ask: What's changed?

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

With Cuban defectors, one reason more of them have been hits in MLB is simply because there have been more of them coming.

The list of Cuban defectors at Wikipedia—there might be a more definitive list out there, but theirs will do for our purposes—lists 81 since 1963. Of those, a whopping 38 have come since 2008.

The main reason for the increase isn't some big mystery. It's money.

Even before Chapman's $30.25 million contract in 2010 set the bar for Cespedes, Puig and Abreu, Dan Morrell of Slate.com noted that MLB might as well have been holding up a "Come one, come all!" sign when Jose Iglesias and Dayan Viciedo were given nearly $20 million combined in 2008 despite how neither was an established star in Cuba.

The thinking among Cuban baseball experts was that bad scouting was to blame. Rather than actual talent, MLB clubs were blindly investing in potential talent. Maybe not the worst idea in light of the notion—espoused by Baseball America Editor-in-Chief John Manuel and others—that Cuba was an "untapped hardball gold mine," but blindly investing in anything is rarely a good idea.

Nowadays, though, "blindly" doesn't work to describe how teams are investing money in Cuban players.

Denis Poroy/Associated Press
Yoenis Cespedes with the Cuban national team in 2009.

Jorge Arangure Jr. of Sports on Earth noted last fall how MLB teams no longer have to rely on international tournaments to scout Cuban talent. Thanks largely to websites that stream games, MLB clubs can now scout Cuban National Series games.

In addition, MLB clubs have a better understanding of Cuban statistics.

"We can access performance in terms of statistics in the Cuban League," Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane told Arangure. "It's not as much as we have in other areas, but it's more than before. More players coming over also gives you a baseline to judge these guys too. It just gives you more of a foundation."

This isn't surprising. Determining the trustworthiness of Cuban stats was something Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus was working on as far back as 2005. Since he had a pretty good idea of what to do with the numbers back then, MLB clubs should have an even better idea now.

There are your explanations for the sudden rush of Cuban stars. It's a combination of extra availability spurred by money and something of an underlying fascination, enhanced scouting ability and knowledge of statistics.

The explanations for the recent rush of outstanding Asian pitchers, meanwhile, aren't totally dissimilar.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It's even easier to translate Nippon Professional Baseball statistics than Cuban National Series statistics.

That's owed not just to the solid collection of players who have made the leap from NPB to MLB, but also to the even larger collection of players who have made the leap from MLB to NPB. Davenport, naturally, has done work on the subject, as have the fellows at FanGraphs.

But with pitchers in particular, the bigger change in recent years has occurred in the scouting arena.

Former MLB and NPB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski covered that in an article for ESPN Insider (subscription required) last May. The gist is that MLB teams have better ideas of what to look for, particularly when it comes to stuff and body size.

Nitkowski highlighted Kei Igawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka as examples of how MLB learned the hard way.

Igawa was big enough at 6'1", but he was a soft tosser who lacked the stuff to succeed in MLB, where the strike zone is smaller and the hitters are stronger. It's no wonder he didn't last, posting a 6.66 ERA in parts of two seasons.

Dice-K, on the other hand, definitely had the stuff. But at 6'0", he was bringing a smaller frame with a lot of miles already on it to a league with a more punishing schedule. It's no wonder said body broke down after two seasons.

Kuroda, Darvish, Iwakuma and Tanaka are different stories. Kuroda is 6'1", while the other three all go at least 6'2", and each of the four has MLB stuff.

Only Iwakuma doesn't sit comfortably in the 90s with his heat. But as Nitkowski noted, everything Iwakuma throws moves, including his devastating splitter. Kuroda is also known for his splitter. Tanaka has both a great splitter and a nasty slider.

Darvish, meanwhile, might have the nastiest slider in the world, not to mention a couple different curveballs and a handful of other deadly pitches. (All of them at once is a dandy of a sight.)

MLB teams have another advantage when it comes to Japanese pitchers these days: the ball.

As The New York Times noted, NPB switched to a ball design in 2011 that wasn't quite a replication of the MLB ball, but that "a conscious effort was made to make it much more similar than before."

The idea for NPB was to help prepare players for international competitions. But for MLB, the new design meant (and still means) a chance to see what pitchers can do with a ball much like the one they'll be throwing in the States.

Kuroda didn't get a chance to show what he could do with the redesigned ball, but Darvish, Iwakuma and Tanaka did. Put simply: Yeah, they were impressive.

Darvish, Iwakuma and Tanaka with MLB-Style Ball in Japan
Pitcher Year GS BB/9 K/9 K/BB WHIP ERA
Darvish 2011 28 1.4 10.7 7.67 0.83 1.44
Iwakuma 2011 17 1.4 6.8 4.74 1.05 2.42
Tanaka 2011 27 1.1 9.6 8.93 0.88 1.27
Tanaka 2012 22 1.0 8.8 8.89 1.04 1.87
Tanaka 2013 27 1.4 7.8 5.72 0.94 1.27

Baseball-Reference.com

As for Ryu, he was coming from a different situation. Because he never left the Korean Baseball Organization, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a less complete checklist to work with when scouting him.

But the Dodgers certainly did their homework. According to Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, the team was scouting Ryu six years before they signed him. The Dodgers further helped themselves by making "sure plenty of eyes were in on him."

Furthermore, Nitkowski noted that some of the things that MLB teams are looking for in Japanese pitchers can be applied to Ryu.

At 6'2" and upward of 250 pounds, Ryu definitely has a big body. And with a low-90s fastball that he can command with the best of 'em, a well-above-average changeup and a couple of breaking balls, Ryu came to the States with an MLB-ready repertoire. 

There are your explanations for the sudden rush in dominant Asian pitchers. The recent ball change in NPB is a factor, but beyond that it's a matter of MLB teams having a better understanding of what to look for thanks to past failures.

Is there still risk involved when it comes to Asian pitchers and Cuban defectors?

Of course there is. These are players who are unproven in MLB. There's risk involved with all such players, be they minor leaguers, draft picks or even baseball-playing space robots from Mars.

But since knowing what you're dealing with can go a long way toward minimizing risk, we really shouldn't look at what's gone on with Asian pitchers and Cuban defectors and be surprised that things have taken a turn for the better.

What we do know is that these international stars of MLB are showing no signs of slowing down or being "figured out" by the league—a curse of days past for this market.

Is there a limitless supply of Yasiel Puigs and Masahiro Tanakas out there? No, and that's what makes them so special. That said, overseas scouting has improved dramatically over the years, and this trend of early success very well could continue with future international signings.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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