Phil Mackey from ESPN1500 in Minneapolis had a "Live from Florida" piece on the ESPN1500 website this morning in which he mentions:
"10: The number of Japanese-born hitters with at least 900 career major-league plate appearances: Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Dave Roberts, Kazuo Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura, Kenji Johjima, Kosuke Fukudome, So Taguchi and Tsuyoshi Shinjo."
That gave me an immediate posting idea so here's a quick look at the ones with at least 1000ABs (which happens to be all of them except Shinjo), comparing their numbers in Japan vs. what they've ended up doing this side of the Pacific in an effort to gauge what we can expect from our new player, Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
1. Ichiro (OF) - 10 Seasons, 1,588G, 6,779ABs
'Nuff said already here, he's been the most consistent pure hitters for the past 10 years. He has a .331 MLB lifetime avg. in those 10 seasons, he's compiled 10 straight 200+ hit seasons (ML-Record) and he's been a perennial All-Star. Within this group of 10 players, Ichiro has had, by far, the most success.
Ichiro was even more successful in 9 Japanese League seasons, with a lifetime average of .353, 1,278 hits, 118 HRs and almost 200 SBs. Ichiro won 7 Gold Glove awards in Japan and he's won 10 here in the States so clearly his fielding talents have translated well.
2. Hideki Matsui (OF, DH) - 8 Seasons, 1,061G, 3,830ABs
Matsui has been the 2nd most successful player to transition from the Japanese League to MLB, compiling a .290/.369/.479 line in 8 Major League seasons while hitting 161HRs and winning a World Series with the Yankees in 2009. Aside from 2 injury plagued seasons in 2006 and 2008, he's managed to maintain his status as a 'regular' though he is only really useful as a DH now (he's played only 41 games as an outfielder in the past 2 seasons).
Like Ichiro, Matsui was even more of a success in Japan, playing 10 seasons there with a lifetime BA of .305 and a .582 SLG%. In 2002, Matsui hit 50 HRs for the Yomiuri Giants which established a Japanese League record. He's shown power over here, but not quite to that level, averaging about 23-25 HRs per full-season in the Majors.
3. Dave Roberts - (DQ'ed)
Roberts, while Japanese-born, doesn't really qualify for our discussion here because he never played in the Japanese Leagues.
4. Kazuo "Kaz" Matsui (2B) - 7 MLB Seasons, 630G, 2,302ABs
I'll be honest, this is the type of player I expect Nishioka to most closely resemble. Kaz hasn't been a terrible Major League player, but he's been plagued by injuries and despite his 4 Japanese Gold Gloves, he's never won the award in the Majors. His .267/.321/.380 career line in the Majors is certainly nothing impressive, and a far cry from his .309 career batting average in Japan. More on his fielding,...since 2004 when he came to the Majors, he owns a 5.8 UZR which ranks 23rd in the Majors amongst 2nd basemen with at least 1,400 innings over that period. People like Nick Punto, Craig Counsell, and Mike Fontenot have had a better UZR over that same period of time.
Not surprisingly, Matsui seized on an opportunity to return to Japan during the off-season and will be playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this season.
5. Tadahito Iguchi (2B) - 4 MLB Seasons, 493G, 1,841ABs
Yet another 2B out of the Japanese League, Iguchi was signed as a free-agent by the White Sox in 2005 and pretty much played full-time 2B for two seasons. With a .780 and .774OPS in those two seasons, he was certainly competent at the plate, and also featured a little speed, stealing 26 bases between 2005 and 2006. The White Sox plans changed the following season and Iguchi was traded to the Phillies. Nothing really went his way after that and he was unable to find consistent playing time anywhere. He ended up leaving MLB and went back to Japan in 2009. For only having played 4 Major League seasons, he managed to gather quite a hardware collection, being part of the 2005 World Champion White Sox team and the 2008 World Champion Phillies team.
Iguchi garnered American interest because of two seasons he had in Japan, in 2003 and 2004. In each season he hit well over .300 and drove in a total of 198 runs while hitting 51HRs and stealing 60 bases. That level of success didn't translate very well, however, and I think the White Sox quickly realized they had another average middle-infielder on their hands, both offensively and defensively.
6. Akinori Iwamura (2B) - 4 MLB Seasons, 408G, 1,545ABs
The Rays purchased Iwamura's contract from Japan in December 2006 and he was immediately installed as a regular 2nd baseman. His rookie season wasn't terrible as he managed a .285/.359/.411 hitting line while playing pretty good defense at 2nd (only 7 errors in over 1,000 innings). In his 2nd season, he did play a full-time 2nd base role, but didn't fare as well as his OPS dropped from .770 to .729. In 2009, he was once again the regular 2nd basemen, but tore his ACL in May and missed 3 months of the season. After the 2009 season, the Rays traded him to the Pirates and in 2010 the Pirates released him, he signed with the Athletics and then the Athletics released him. In November, he returned to the Japanese League and will play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (with Kaz Matsui).
One other interesting note about Iwamura is that he's won 6 Gold Glove awards in Japan and won zero in the U.S.
7. Kenji Johjima (C) - 4 MLB Seasons, 462G, 1,609ABs
After a state-side rookie season that saw Johjima finish 4th in AL ROY voting, his career went downhill fast and in 2009, he went back to Japan to play with the Hanshin Tigers. In 12 Japanese League season, his hitting line was .300/.359/.516 but he couldn't translate that success to MLB hitting only .268/.310/.411 in parts of 4 seasons.
8. Kosuke Fukudome (OF) - 3 MLB Seasons, 426G, 1,358ABs
Fukudome is definitely one of the more hyped position players to come out of the Japanese Leagues in the last few years and though he hasn't been as disappointing as the last few I've covered, he definitely hasn't performed nearly as well here as he did in Japan. In Japan Kosuke became a star with the Chunichi Dragons, winning 4 Gold Gloves and carrying a lifetime .305/.397/.543 line. He was also a national hero of sorts playing for the Japanese team in the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics as well as the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic teams (both of which won the Gold).
Fukudome's skills have translated in some ways to the Majors. He has maintained his ability to get on base and has shown a very patient eye at the plate. Where he has struggled, however, is with his consistency. His career .259 average leaves a lot to be desired, particularly because he plays an offensive position. He's prone to hot and cold streaks at the plate and his defense is only average. If something encouraging can be said of Fukudome, it's that he has improved at the plate in every season, at least from an OPS standpoint and last year, he completed his first .800+ OPS season.
9. So Taguchi (OF) - 8 MLB Seasons, 672G, 1369ABs
I won't spend much time here, the bottom-line is that Taguchi is back in Japan, and really, he didn't even start his MLB career until age 32, so it might have been doomed from the start. Like Tadahito Iguchi, he managed to gather two World Series titles in his brief MLB career, winning with the Cardinals in 2006 and the Phillies in 2008. He left MLB at the end of the 2009 season and resigned with a Japanese team in 2010.
What lessons can we take away from this analysis? First and foremost is the lesson that NO Japanese player that has come to the U.S. and played any significant amount of time has been able to duplicate in MLB the type of success they had in Japan. Ichiro was a .353 hitter in Japan, he's a .331 hitter here, still great, but not as good...and Ichiro is the BEST-case scenario. Something more realistic is what we saw with Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi and Akinori Iwamura...all good hitters in Japan, like Nishioka was, but none could duplicate those results in the States. Another interesting note is that aside from Ichiro, none of the players I covered won a Gold Glove in the U.S. despite the fact that a few of them won the award multiple times in Japan.
I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but the track record is undeniable. Aside from Ichiro, who possessed superior hitting and fielding skills prior to coming to the U.S., and Hideki Matsui, who was as great of a power hitter as Japan has ever seen, the overall crop of Japanese players has been disappointing. What's really scary to me is that some of these guys were .300+ hitters in Japan (K. Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura) and couldn't crack .275 over here...Nishioka was only a .293 hitter in Japan (.287 career average before an unusually good 2010 seasons). Nishioka also didn't have much power in Japan (career .426 SLG%), though he is only 25, so he could develop that as he goes along.
I hope it works out for young Nishi, but history suggests the road will be a tough one.