Boston Red Sox Rumors: 15 Ways They're Making Right Move Avoiding Yu Darvish
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Six years after going all in—committing about $103 million to a Japanese pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka—the Red Sox face another decision concerning a so-called "can't miss" hurler from Japan, Yu Darvish.
The uncertainty swirling around the question of the potential availability of Japanese pitching sensation ended this week when he announced that he would subject himself to the posting process in order to pitch in the US.
The posting period will end on Wednesday, Dec. 14. According to mlbtraderumors.com, the high bidder will have a 30-day exclusive negotiation period with Darvish and his representatives Don Nomura and Arn Tellem. If no agreement is reached, the posting fee will be refunded and Darvish will return to his current team.
On the face of it, Darvish sounds like the real deal. The soon-to-be-26-year-old right-hander allowed only five home runs all year, while posting an 18-6 record with a microscopic ERA of 1.44, for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League. He is widely considered to be the best pitcher in Japan.
So far, every indication out of Fenway Park is that the Red Sox have little or no interest in submitting a significant bid by next Wednesday.
In my opinion, that is a very wise decision. There are enough warning signs out there for Red Sox GM Ben Cherington to think twice about jumping into these perilous waters.
In the slides to follow, I follow the reasoning of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, among others, who throw up caution signs. In his story, he reports that he asked an MLB executive if the poor track record of other pitchers from Japan would discourage teams from bidding high on Darvish. The exec replied, "Remarkably, no. In the landscape of a competitive market, people turn a blind eye to history or believe this is the one guy who is the exception to the rule—that somehow this one guy is more capable than all the others we know about."
Wasn't it Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Here are 15 reasons for the Red Sox to pass on Yu Darvish.
1. Once Burned…
The huge investment in Matsuzaka has not paid dividends.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Two words: Daisuke Matsuzaka
In 2006, the Red Sox paid a $51.1 million posting fee for Matsuzaka, then signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract. At this point, it’s unclear whether Darvish will be as costly, but he is expected to approach Daisuke-type dollars.
The Dice-K experience was not a good one for Boston. He had two good seasons, going 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA. From the third season on, he has gone 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA while suffering one injury after another. (See Slide 7 to follow.)
2. Do the Red Sox Really Need More Drama?
Darvish has quite the reputation in Japan. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File)
Questions about Darvish's off-field behavior have been raised by the most unlikely of sources: The Atlantic Monthly magazine, which compliments itself for having been voted the "most insightful, thought-provoking magazine" by the readers of American Journalism Review. "The Atlantic Monthly is a consistent leader in the publication of intelligent ideas."
American scouts (and baseball media coverage) have focused exclusively on Yu Darvish's performance on the mound. However, Patrick St. Michel, a journalist living in Osaka, Japan, reported for The Atlantic that Darvish has "also become famous for his off-the-diamond activities."
St. Michel reported that Darvish was caught smoking in a pachinko parlor during his very first spring training, before he was legally old enough to either smoke or gamble. (In Japan, one must be 20 to do either.) Now that may sound petty by Western standards, but in very proper and rigid Japan, it was a noteworthy offense for someone of his stature who was supposed to be a role model for youth.
"He has also posed nude for a woman's lifestyle magazine," wrote St. Michel, "and became tabloid fodder after marrying actress Saeko, which many publications claimed was a shotgun wedding."
Speaking of which…
3. His Pending Divorce Could Get Messy, and Become a Distraction
This is Saeko, his 27-year-old actress wife. (Photo from newcutegirls.com)
Darvish married a popular and sexy Japanese actress named Saeko in 2007. They have two children.
On Nov. 28, Paul White reported in USA Today that the couple was splitting up, and the breakup could have a serious impact on how his posting to MLB was handled. White wrote that the divorce proceedings have been "a hotter topic in the entertainment industry press than on the sports pages."
This was certainly on the minds of Darvish and his agents when they contemplated the timing of the posting. While Darvish is certainly well-paid by Japanese standards (he made $4.2 million last season), that number pales into insignificance compared to the size of the contract he could sign with an MLB team.
It certainly must have crossed the minds of Darvish and his brain trust that it would be smart to settle with Saeko before he signs that contract.
On the other hand, Saeko is probably intelligent enough to see the other side of that coin. White wrote that "Saeko, when asked about the divorce at an event promoting a book project last week, told reporters, 'Well, hmm, there is still a ways to go.' Asked if she expected a resolution by the end of the year, Saeko said, 'I do not know the answer to that either.' "
This situation doesn't sound good for anyone involved. Splitting from his family just prior to moving 7,000 miles to ply his trade in a relatively alien environment could be a distraction at best and a disaster at worst for Darvish.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told SI's Tom Verducci that one of the reasons Hiroki Kuroda adapted reasonably well was because he devoted himself fully to the cultural change:
"Kuroda immediately established a year-round home for his family in Southern California and enrolled his children in English-speaking schools," Coletti said. "We know the support system you have alongside the player is important. Kuroda came here and was both a little excited and anxious to know what it was going to be like. He was coming here not just to pitch but to set up his family in a new country. It took not only his willingness, but also his family's willingness."
Does this ring any warning bells?
4. Bobby Valentine, with All His Time in Japan, Is Not Pushing Hard for Darvish
Despite (or perhaps because of) his five years in Japan, Valentine does not seem to be pushing for Darvish.
Getty Images/Getty Images
Peter Abraham wrote in the Boston Globe that the x-factor in determining Red Sox interest in Darvish is Bobby Valentine, who managed six seasons in Japan and speaks Japanese. One might assume that this ability to communicate, combined with cultural understanding, would make Valentine the odds-on favorite to take Darvish under his wing.
Valentine, however, has long been concerned about the Japanese tendency to burn out pitchers at an early age. Back in 2006 he told the New York Times that "overthrowing is a definite concern."
In fairness, he also said that the superior mechanics of Japanese pitchers may help them prolong their careers. “Pitchers in Japan are taught at an early age what proper form is. They’re less prone to injury than in America where they deal with results rather form.”
Valentine has not appeared to have pushed (at least publicly) to get the Red Sox involved in the Darvish sweepstakes.
"I have no idea if his talents will translate at the Major League level if he came here, but he's a quality pitcher. He has size, quality, velocity, breaking balls, very good hands. He makes the ball do a lot of crazy things on its way to the plate. Great competitor. If those things translate into another uniform, whether it's another uniform in Japan, who knows?"
If Valentine really wants Darvish, he's certainly taking the subdued approach. For what it's worth, he never managed Darvish while he was in Japan.
5. Look at the Commitments the Red Sox Have to the Current Rotation
The Red Sox have a significant amount of money already invested in starting pitchers, to include Lackey and Matsuzaka.
J. Meric/Getty Images
The combined 2012 salaries for starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz adds to about $27 million. Daisuke Matsuzaka is entering the final season of his six-year, $52 million contract. His salary is already on the books, and he’ll get it whether or not he returns to the Red Sox rotation.
There's also the $15.25 million they will be paying John Lackey next season while he rehabs (and the same in 2013 and 2014). Granted, the team will now able to stretch his contract over another season, which means there will be another $3-4 million available this year to pick up another player or two. But certainly not Yu Darvish.
Bottom line, the Red Sox don't have a lot of wiggle room if they want to fill the end-of-the-rotation starting slots and shore up their bullpen this offseason without exceeding the $178 million luxury tax threshold.
6. The Red Sox Just Fired Their International Scouting Director
Craig Shipley when he played for the Padres.
Ian Browne of mlb.com reported that the Red Sox recently fired International Scouting Director Craig Shipley. Shipley was the driving force behind the signings of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima out of Japan five years ago.
"I would expect that Ship probably will move on at this point," GM Ben Cherington told Browne. "Through the course of conversations with him, it just became clear to me that it might be time for a fresh start. So, that's the direction we're going. I wish him nothing but the best."
OK, that doesn't mean they won't make a move for Darvish. But it certainly doesn't position them well to do so with a leaderless international scouting group.
7. The "Third Year Wall"
Hiroki Kuroda (3.45 ERA) is the only Japanese pitcher to start forty MLB games and have an ERA of less than 4.24.
Harry How/Getty Images
Tom Verducci's superb Sports Illustrated piece described the "Third-Year Wall" problem in good detail.
Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told Verducci, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."
It has been 16 years since Hideo Nomo debuted in the major leagues, Verducci notes, His coming to the US led the first group of players who wanted to leave Nippon Pro Baseball for MLB.
Since then, 43 Japanese players have followed Nomo. "Only three have been named to more than one All-Star team (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Sasaski)," writes Verducci, "And only 11 are active big leaguers, including Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a .226 hitter with no home runs who became the latest of several players to struggle with the transition."
Nomo was the first to hit the Third-Year Wall. In his first two seasons he was 29-17 with a 2.90 ERA. In his third year his ERA rose to 4.25. He was traded in year four and released in year five. "He became a journeyman with the occasional comeback season," added Verducci." His ERA after hitting The Wall was 4.61."
Verducci solidifies his argument by pointing out that since 1995 there have been nine pitchers from Japan, including Nomo, who have made 40 starts in the big leagues. Except for the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda (3.45), all have posted career ERAs between 4.24 and 5.72.
Levine concludes, "In general, the decline is pretty precipitous [for starting pitchers]. It's almost like relief pitchers in general. You can carve up their career in three-year cycles: good ones for two or three years and then they're almost done. It seems only the guys with an elite pitch are able to extend beyond that two- or three-year window."
8. Time Between Starts, and Days off
The Yankees did too little research before signing Kei Igawa.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Journeyman pitcher C.J. Nitkowski debuted with the Reds in 1995, and played for seven more major league teams before he went to Japan in 2007. He pitched for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for two years, and has spent the last three years pitching in Korea.
His website, cjbaseball.com, gives an excellent analysis of the technical differences between pitching in Japan and the US.
He also agrees with Tom Verducci's observations about a "Third-Year Wall."
One of the issues that makes it difficult for Japanese starters to transition to MLB is the fact that US teams feature a five man rotation with four days of rest between starts.
In Japan, most teams use a six man rotation. Also, as Nitkowski points out, "Nearly every Monday is an off day in the NPB, and rarely are there more than 6 games played in a row. That means in a six man rotation you’ll usually pitch every seven days."
Even with a five man rotation, a starter usually gets six days off. Also, Japanese pitchers do not have to travel with their teams to road games if they are not pitching.
The trade-off is that Japanese starters routinely throw 120 pitches or more in a start, but the extra rest seems to enable them to bounce back. NPB teams are far less concerned with pitch count than we are over here. (Some MLB executives, such as Nolan Ryan of the Rangers, are trying to change that emphasis on pitch count, and allow starters to pitch deeper into games.)
To his credit, Darvish has been a horse, at least so far as pitches per outing is concerned. SI's Tom Verducci reports that in 2010, Darvish threw 140 pitches or more nine times, "more than every major league pitcher combined over the past nine years."
"This year he hit 140 just once," Verducci continues, "But [he] still reached 120 pitches 15 times. No major league pitcher has thrown 15 120-pitch games in a season since 2005, when Livan Hernandez did so."
The problem is the adjustment. Most Japanese starters find it difficult to pitch more often, even if they throw fewer pitches per start.
9. Length of Season and Total Pitching Workload
C. J. Nitkowski pitched for two years in Japan, and has written extensively about his experiences there.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
NPB plays a 144-game season, 18 games fewer than MLB. Starters in Japan typically make about 26-27 starts per year. Starters in the US make on average 33 starts per year. The innings and games started will catch up with a pitcher over time.
C.J. Nitkowski observes that MLB starting pitchers train for a heavier total workload, expecting about 33 starts and 225 innings for the season, not including playoffs.
Darvish pitched 236 innings in 2011, and was one of only two pitchers in the six-team Pacific League (which uses the DH) to log 190 innings or more. By comparison, in the 14-team American League, 26 pitchers threw at least 190 innings.
As addressed on the previous slide, the Japanese pitchers generally turn out higher pitch counts per outing, and they also need more time between starts to recover.
Nitkowski states, "The difference between these two styles is bigger than you might think, and is a key reason some Japanese pitchers have a harder time in the US. Their bodies can’t adjust to the new regime and what they are asking their arms to do."
He explains that a pitcher's bounceback from a start is something your body learns over time.
"Asking your body to change that recovery time after years of doing it one way can prove difficult," he adds. "As a result fatigue sets in and your stuff is not the same. That fatigue also puts you at a higher risk for injury."
Another major difference between NPB and MLB is that there are limits to game lengths (either innings or time). In the regular season, the limit is twelve innings, while in the playoffs, there is a fifteen-inning limit. The limit is designed to prevent spectators from missing the final train.
In the Pacific League, when a game reaches 12 innings without a winner, the match is ruled a tie.
This tie rule provides major insight into Japanese priorities and way of life. It is more important that the fans not miss the last train home than it is to determine a winner.
10. Spring Training and the Japanese Work Ethic
Spring training sets the tone in both countries, and it can be difficult for Japanese players to adjust to the MLB pace.
Feb. 1 is the first day of spring training in Japan, and the training period lasts a full two months. However, the longer training period incorporates a considerable number of off days. According to C.J. Nitkowski, the Japanese teams "never went more than three days without taking a day off; four was the max." Spread that out over an eight-week stretch, and Japanese spring training players would get 10-15 days off.
By contrast, MLB players are lucky to get one full day off during spring training.
Nitkowski adds, "I once played with a Japanese pitcher who went through spring training with the Chicago Cubs. His biggest complaint was the lack of days off during the six week camp in Arizona."
However, the training days themselves are far more intense in Japan. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Twins' new middle infielder, told LaValle E. Neal III of the Twin Cities Star-Tribune that "a workday means working on your game until 6 p.m. -- and there might be night practices. And then you return to your hotel room at the end of the day, not a vacation home or condo."
The Japanese don't know any other way than to practice, practice and practice some more.
Nitkowski points out that Japanese players are "bred to practice as hard as they play". In an email to Neal, he wrote, "The first thing that jumped out at me was the practice time these guys put in. I would see young players arriving the team hotel from spring training workouts at 7 p.m. after our day started at 10 a.m. They would eat dinner and then go to 'swing practice' at the hotel, 500 dry swings. Pitchers would do similar routines.
"I've seen 250-pitch bullpens before, which in American eyes is absurd. Guys will practice this hard, see guys get hurt and continue to do the same routines. They know one way—work hard, work long."
Japanese players practice year round, sometimes for seven or eight hours a day, and attend endless meetings, while their American counterparts have five months off in the off season, show up at only a handful of meetings, and practice only four hours during the six week pre-season training camp. One American player who played in Japan said, "It is the difference between summer camp and a year in the Imperial army."
In Neal's story, he interviewed former Twins outfielder Michael Restovich, a Rochester native who played in Japan in 2008. Restovich said that a Japanese players would miss a ground ball, then bow to the coaches to apologize. The next ground ball would be farther away from him, the next one even farther. The player would dive and dive and dive, his jersey layered with dirt.
Jeffrey Hays, a writer on Japanese baseball, described a popular drill, only recently been abandoned by many coaches, called the senbon-nokku ("thousand knocks"). This drill required players to catch balls until they collapsed from exhaustion. "It is still not uncommon for Japanese players to puke their guts out at the end of practice," Hays concluded.
This work ethic may be impressive, but it does not necessarily translate well to the longer MLB season, with fewer days off—especially for pitchers.
One day off in a slower-paced spring training helps pace American players for six or seven more months of baseball. Nitkowski very astutely points out that "Japanese players really don’t have a 2nd or 3rd gear. It’s full throttle all the time and in a six week, one day off camp that doesn’t work as well."
The bottom line is that a serious adjustment has to be made, not just in the training regimen, but also in the philosophical approach to training. Ball players from both countries get set in a training routine, and become used to it. They think they know what works best for their own bodies. They don’t like that routine to change, and sometimes that becomes a problem—as it did with Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox.
11. The Strike Zone in Japan Is Bigger, Especially Inside
There is a chance that this might be a strike in Japan.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Anecdotal evidence, particularly the experiences of players who have pitched in both leagues, is that the strike zone in Japanese baseball is larger, higher and narrower inside than outside the batter than the strike zone in American baseball and balks are rarely called. Consequently, a Japanese pitcher will often get more strikes called on inside pitches just off the black. This can change the game significantly, especially when a Japanese pitcher used to getting those calls comes to the US and does not get them.
Nitkowkski says that batters swing at pitches inside far more often than they do in the US as a result. "I once had a right-handed hitter swing and miss at a cutter that hit him in the thigh," he wrote. "This doesn’t happen in the US. The inside pitch is the hardest to get called [a strike] and batters won’t swing at what they don’t have to."
When a pitcher gets those inside strike calls, he continues, "The outside really opens up and you don’t have to be perfect out there."
The plate may be the same size, but the problem for the Japanese pitcher coming to MLB is that the hitters in MLB don't have to cover as much of it. A decent change-up or cutter away in Japan is easier to hit in MLB because batters don't have to worry as much about the inside corner. As a result, nibblers like Matsuzaka are not as effective here.
Another concern in Japan is the consistency of umpiring. American umpire usually spend eight to ten years working their way up through the minor leagues. In Japan, according to Jeffrey Hays, some umpires begin working in big league games shortly after completing a five week training course in America.
Former Red Sox pitcher Kip Gross pitched for three other MLB teams before becoming one of the finest non-Japanese players to have ever played for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish's current team. Gross led the NPB in wins in 1995-96, so he's a pretty good source about the strike zone in Japan.
On one blog he wrote about how the umpires practiced right along with the pitchers and catchers before the game. They stood behind the catchers while the starters were throwing bullpens "to get a feel for the pitchers and what they are throwing". Gross recalled one instance: "I started throwing a different change up and at one time a big slow curveball. Before I went into the game with these 2 new pitches I had different umpires come see them while I was throwing bullpens so they wouldn't get caught off guard during the game."
Bottom line: The rulebook strike zone may be the same, but some umpires in Japan seem to narrow that part of the zone nearest the batter. This can, over a season, result in more strikeouts and lower batting averages against.
12. The Mounds Are Softer in Japan
Working on the mound in Osaka. (Photo from groundskeeper.mlblogs.com)
"So what?" you might say. "Dirt is dirt."
But anyone who has watched an ace pitcher fuss with a mound that he doesn't like knows differently.
Nitkowski says the mounds in Japan are generally very soft, and it is something he struggled with personally. "As a reliever coming in the game late I had to deal with monster holes on the mound. I hadn’t seen anything like it since high school."
The mounds in Japan are the same size as those in MLB: 18 feet around and 10 inches high. But in Japan they are made of a softer, more powdery dirt that allows pitchers to dig in more easily and provides less resistance when a pitcher drags his foot.
When a Japanese pitcher comes to the US, he has to grapple with an opposite problem. For some, the mounds are too hard.
Hiroki Kuroda pitched for 11 years in Japan before signing with the Dodgers in 2008. He is also perceived to be the most effective of all former NPB pitchers in adapting to life in America, as well as pitching in MLB.
According to a July 8, 2009 article by Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, however, "Kuroda has spent the past two seasons grappling with the subtle differences between the pitchers’ mounds in Japan and those in major league baseball."
Kuroda drags his right foot more than most pitchers as he releases the ball—an aspect of his delivery that caused him no problems in the soft dirt of mounds in Japan. However, here in the US, the harder ground caused friction that led to painful blisters on the top of his foot.
“It was never a problem in Japan like it has been here,” Kuroda said through an interpreter. “I knew the mound would be harder here, but it has been much harder than I thought. It surprised me. The skin peeled off.”
Rather than change his delivery, Kuroda had special shoes built for him, and the Dodgers training staff worked out special padding to reduce the problem.
13. The Japanese Baseball Is (or Seems) Smaller and Harder
The the 2011 season marked the first time Japanese teams used a uniform ball from a single manufacturer. (Mizuno photo)
Until this past 2011 season, there was no uniformly manufactured ball used in all NPB games in Japan. In fact, as many as nine manufacturers had provided balls for Japan's 12 teams. While there was a very tight specification, Japanese players and fans always believed there were subtle differences which a clever team could use to its advantage.
NPB finally addressed this problem in 2011, awarding a contract to Mizuno for the baseballs to be used in all official NPB league contests. Old habits die hard, however, and individual teams are still allowed to use whatever balls they want for practice, spring training games and exhibitions. (Many still do use different balls in those situations, primarily to help out local manufacturers hurt by the NPB decision.)
There are two separate issues here, however. The Mizuno ball may have created a uniform ball for the NPB, but how different is it from the Rawlings ball used in MLB? The jury is still out on that one.
Nine manufacturers notwithstanding, experts agreed that prior to 2011 the average Japanese baseball was wound more tightly and was thus a fraction of an inch smaller than its American counterpart. Pitchers who have used both say the Japanese ball is harder than an American baseball, which can result in more speed on a fastball.
Even the prestigious New York Times acknowledged this difference; Michael Schmidt wrote, "Baseballs are slightly larger and more slippery in the majors."
Pitcher C. J. Nitkowski reminds us that feel of the ball is crucial for a pitcher. "I’ve had Japanese teammates hold an MLB baseball and tell me it felt big and slick, making it harder to grip."
Changing balls can cause adjustment problems for some hurlers, because their pitches can act differently.
Patrick Newman, resident baseball man in Japan for Fangraphs.com, runs a blog which addresses many of the differences between the NPB and MLB. He believes the balls do make a difference for some pitchers. "Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s forkball hasn’t survived the move across the Pacific, and Kenshin Kawakami said he spent more time working on his breaking pitches early in spring training in 2009 than he would have previously."
The difference between the balls can cause problems for American pitchers going to Japan as well.
C.J. Nitkowski thought the Japanese baseballs felt smaller and slightly tackier. "I could never get my two-seamer to run like I could with an MLB ball, " he blogged. "But my cutter was always tighter in Japan, and went from my third or fourth pitch to my first or second in Japan."
So, what did players think of the new Mizuno ball this year?
Pitchers loved it. Home runs and scoring were down significantly this year. There were half as many .300 batting averages this year; in the Pacific League, the batting champion hit .316 this year, compared to .358 in 2010. Home run totals dropped even more precipitously. In 2010 three players hit more than 40, with the top number being 49. This year, only three batters topped 30 home runs.
The point is that Yu Darvish's pitching line, including a 1.44 ERA, is at least partly due to the new, pitcher-friendly baseball. Seven pitchers on 12 teams had ERAs under 2.00, an almost unbelievably statistic. Even Darvish's 1.44 was only good enough for second best in his league. (Granted, his ERA of 1.78 in 2010 with the livelier ball is nothing to sneeze at.)
More significantly for this article, Newman wrote in January of 2010, "Yu Darvish had trouble throwing his curve with the World Baseball Classic ball." The WBC uses the Rawlings MLB ball.
Harbinger of problems to come, perhaps?
Lineups Aren't as Deep, and There Are Fewer Power Hitters in Japan
Two home run kings: Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron.
How often do you hear the term, "Japanese slugger"? Not often, and with the exception of Hideki Matsui in his prime, I can safely say that Japanese position players in MLB are not often feared for their power.
(As an aside, players who hit a home run in Japan are handed a stuffed animal when they cross home plate. I'm not sure how significant that is, but few if any teams run out of stuffed animals.)
Japanese pitchers are also accustomed to pitching to Japanese players who are smaller than the average American hitter. This lack of experience facing true power hitters causes problems for those who have never faced lineups as deep and as powerful as the top MLB teams.
C.J. Nitkowski says, "A Japanese pitcher doesn’t have to face anything like the Texas Rangers or New York Yankees lineup while in Japan…[lineups] that can wear you out and put up a five-spot in the blink of an eye. That is a big adjustment that can test you mentally if you’re not prepared."
As a very general statement, there is MLB-level hitting talent in Japan, but not MLB hitting depth.
Nitkowski adds that there are a few "MLB quality impact bats" playing in the NPB. "I’ve always said there are lots of guys who could hold [MLB] roster spots down, but [there are] less than a handful of difference makers in a [Japanese] lineup."
The biggest reason for the lack of depth is because Japan does not have the minor league developmental system that exists in the US. Only one farm team is allowed for each of the 12 NPB clubs, and the total roster of an organization, including the farm team, is limited to about 66 players. Because those levels of baseball are so shallow, the talent level in NPB also tends to be shallow.
According to Kamina Ayato, a Japanese baseball blogger, posting on Patrick Newman's FanGraph page, "[This] can lead to good players such as a Matsuzaka or a Kuroda to have stellar numbers. When they transition to the US, the talent level is so much deeper that their once great numbers don’t look as good."
Can the same be said for Yu Darvish?
15. Ballpark Dimensions
Yu's home field, the Sapporo Dome, in baseball configuration. (Photo by hfordsa)
Five of Japan's 12 NPB teams now play in ballparks with less-than-Major League dimensions: roughly 100 meters (328 feet) down the foul lines and 122 meters (400 feet) in center field. All fields have relatively high fences.
Except for the seven newest stadiums, Japanese fields at all levels tend to be smaller and irregularly shaped. Many Japanese infields are dirt, while American infields are all carefully groomed grass or artificial turf.
The mounds were addressed in Slide 12.
Since five of the six Pacific League teams play in the larger ballparks and only two of the Central League teams do, players tend to hit more home runs in the Central League.
Yu Darvish's team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, is in the Pacific League, which (in addition to the new baseball) may be one of the reasons for Darvish's low home run rate per nine innings.
For the Conclusion, Let's Come Back to Daisuke
As Matsuka has shown, success in Japan does not necessarily translate into success in the USA.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Tom Verducci reminds us that the Red Sox did their homework, and were well aware of the differences between pitching in Japan and pitching in MLB—such as pitching every fifth day, rather than every sixth or seventh day. They knew about the stress of a longer season pitching against powerful lineups one through nine. They knew about the different baseballs, different mounds, different ballparks and above all the culture shock of living in America.
Verducci writes that the Red Sox did everything they could to pamper Matsuzaka. "They gave him a no-trade clause, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, an interpreter, a media liaison, eight first-class airline tickets per year between Boston and Japan, a housing allowance of $100,000 per year, a car service, and box seats at Fenway Park."
Catering to his numerology and culture, they gave him uniform number 18, a traditional number for an ace in Japan. And, Matsuzaka pitched on the sixth or seventh day in 35 of the 61 games he started in 2007 and '08. That's 57 percent of his starts.
C.J. Nitkowski said about the Red Sox, "Despite their findings they still made the huge six year investment in Dice-K and right on cue, he began struggling in his third season with Boston. You have to imagine that the Red Sox brass was hoping Dice-K would beat the odds; they were betting $103 million on it, but he couldn’t do it."
He's not alone. As Verducci points out, only three of the 43 players to go from NPB to MLB made multiple All-Star teams. And only one starting pitcher—Hiroki Kuroda—has posted a career ERA below 4.24.
Robert Whiting, an expert on Japanese baseball and the author of “You Gotta Have Wa”, told the New York Times, “There are subtle — and not so subtle — differences between Japanese and American baseball that make it difficult for imported pitchers to adjust.”
And we never even mentioned diet or being 7000 miles from home.
Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.
In this case, pass on Yu Darvish.