Softbank Hawks Sign Wily Mo Pena for $3.6 Million

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Softbank Hawks Sign Wily Mo Pena for $3.6 Million

I’ve been waiting around the last couple of days to write about this rumored signing, until I could get something close to confirmation as to what the contract terms actually are.  According to NPB Tracker (Patrick Newman provides a link to a website in Japanese), Wily Mo Pena’s two year deal with the Softbank Hawks is for 280 million yen, which translates at today’s rates as a hair under $3.6 million.

That’s quite a bit less than the $5 million plus incentives that has been reported elsewhere, but much more in line with what Japanese teams have been willing to pay in the past to foreign players who haven’t yet proven their ability to play in NPB.  In fact, if the 280 million yen is guaranteed (and I suspect it is for the reasons I’ll state below), then it’s a huge deal by NPB standards for an unproven foreign player.

I assume the two year deal is guaranteed, at the very least for the first year, because there is just no reason for a player to agree to a non-guaranteed multi-year deal.  If the contract isn’t guaranteed (or comes with a big signing bonus like most long-term NFL deals) and player bombs, the teams cuts him and the player gets nothing more than he’d have gotten from a one-year deal.  If the player is great, he’s locked himself into a second year when he might have been able to command more if he could still negotiate.

By MLB standards, $3.6 million isn’t much, but most things are relative, and in the NPB it’s big money, and more money, in fact, than the Hawks should have guaranteed given their likely other foreign player options.  Meanwhile, it’s a great deal for Wily Mo, since I don’t see him as a full-time major league player in 2012.  In the U.S., he’d probably have made $70,000 to $90,000 pro rated for his time at AAA (likely more than half of the 2012 season) and $500,000 to $700,000 pro rated for this time in the Show.

Wily Mo is the kind of player the Japanese teams love, because he has substantial major league experience and had a big year in AAA ball last season.  However, I’m just not convinced he’s going to be all that good in 2012.

Wily Mo hit like a fool in the Pacific Coast League this past season, batting .358 with an insane 1.152 OPS over 332 plate appearances.  However, he put up most of these numbers playing his home games in Reno, which looks like an extreme hitters’ park if ever there was one.

Three Reno Aces were among the PCL’s top seven batters in OPS in 2011 (Cody Ransom, Ryan Langerhans and Colin Cowgill — Wily Mo didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify).  Here’s what these four did in limited playing time in the majors during 2011:

Ransome hit .152 with a .546 OPS in 37 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks.

Langerhans hit .173 with a .664 OPS in 64 plate appearances for the Mariners.

Cowgill hit .239 with a .604 OPS in 100 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks.

Wily Mo Pena hit .204 with a .666 OPS in 120 plate appearances, roughly split between the D’Backs and the M’s.

O.K., we’re talking small sample sizes, but the numbers are uniformly terrible.  The Reno Aces are a farm club for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who still play in a hitters’ park (the D’backs and their opponents scored 744 runs at Chase Field in 2011, and 651 runs in other ballparks).

In other words, Wily Mo’s big year at Reno doesn’t look nearly as impressive when you peal back the onion a bit.

A couple of years ago, I might have been a bigger fan of this signing, but after Dan Johnson struggled at Yokahoma in 2009, I’ve become more sensitive to the fact that it’s very difficult to predict which players will blossom (i.e., quickly make the adjustments) in NPB and which ones will wash out. [Johnson hit .215 in his lone Japanese season, a year after being the best hitter in the AAA International League and having substantial prior MLB experience.  Another NPB team should have given him a chance, given his .791 OPS that year, but no team was willing to consider it in light of his nearly $1 million 2009 salary.]

Numerous commentators have noted that Wily Mo has trouble with breaking balls and that NPB pitchers throw more breaking balls than MLB pitchers do.  That doesn’t sound good to me.  My understanding is that the NPB strikezone is bigger than the MLB strikezone (home plate is wider in Japan), and the big difference between NPB pitchers and MLB pitchers is more a matter of the number of pitchers who can hump it up there in the mid- to upper 90′s than command.

Wily Mo walked more than he ever has in the past at AAA this past season, but it was almost certainly because he was being pitched around in that league.  In the majors he walked five times and struck out 39 times in 120 plate appearances, which is much more in keeping with Wily Mo’s past performance.

If another Japanese team invests $900,000 for one year in Brian LaHair, I think they’ll get the same chance for success in 2012 as the Softbank Hawks will get from Pena at a much higher price.  LaHair led the PCL with 38 HRs and a 1.070 OPS playing for the Iowa Cubs in 2011, and he’s a year younger (29 next season) than Pena.

LaHair also walks more than Pena, and he had put up much better major league numbers last year in limited playing time (he hit .288 with an .885 OPS in 69 plate appearances for the MLB Cubs).  What he doesn’t have is extensive major league playing experience.  LaHair has 219 career MLB plate appearances to Wily Mo’s 1845.

LaHair’s career major league OPS is .730 compared to Wily Mo’s .748 in all that extra playing time.  However, LaHair’s career minor league OPS is .865 compared to Wily Mo’s .826.

The thing that strikes me most in LaHair’s favor is that in the last three years, his hitting has improved dramatically, particularly his power numbers, which is what you would expect from a player entering the second half of his twenties.  Wily Mo, on the other hand, looked like his professional career was headed for palookaville until a stint in the Independent A Atlantic League in 2010 got him into AAA ball.

Getting back to Wily Mo, the best thing about the two year commitment the Hawks have apparently made is that it will at least give him two seasons to adjust to Japanese baseball.  Unlike most foreign players, if he stinks or is merely mediocre in 2012, he’ll get to come back in 2013 and show if he learned anything from the first year’s experience.  That can only be a good thing for a player with his raw talent.


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