Yu Darvish’s six-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers made him a big leaguer on Wednesday, but will the right-hander also become the vanguard of a Japanese renaissance?
The buzz over the 25-year-old Nippon ace — before, during and since his posting — has already transcended what recently has been a bearish market.
Major League Baseball executives for the most part have lost their infatuation with this market, discouraged by a string of disappointing results.
Yet, eight years after the New York Mets moved Jose Reyes to second base to clear a spot at short for Kaz Matsui, the Rangers opted for future with Darvish rather than making a run at free-agent slugger Prince Fielder.
The excitement over Darvish is understandable, because there aren’t many 25-year-old right-handers with his stature, repertoire and accomplishments.
The Rangers matched their enthusiasm with their bidding dollars, taking negotiating rights with a bid of $51,703,411 — topping the five-year-old record of $51.1 million by Boston for Daisuke Matsuzaka. Similarly, the value of Darvish’s contract will top Dice-K’s $52 million deal.
Such high-upside comparisons have become the exception. Only a few days ago, the New York Yankees declined to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima, after having earned negotiating rights with the shortstop considered a Matsui clone with a modest $2 million bid.
“Nakajima had about the same stats in Japan as Kazuo,” said Robert Whiting, an author and renowned expert on Japanese baseball and ballplayers. “Clear evidence that the love affair with Japan is over.”
This could be particularly true of position players, the last of whom to make a true impact was Hideki Matsui, whose debut season with the Yankees was nine years ago. Milwaukee is hoping that Norichika Aoki will be the next; the Brewers reached a two-year deal with the 30-year-old outfielder on Tuesday, two days before their own negotiating deadline.
However, mounting skepticism also relates to pitchers, who rode the first wave from Japan but have had little sustained success since Hideo Nomo.
Shortly before Darvish was posted in mid-December, in fact, the posting period for Hiroki Sanada ended with the Yokohama reliever becoming only the third player to not draw a single bid.
Pitchers, at least, have continued to show an upside, even if only in bursts. Matsuzaka was 33-15 in his first two Red Sox seasons, the same period during which lefty Hideki Okajima was a feared weapon in Boston’s bullpen. Although he didn’t make the move until he was 33, Hiroki Kuroda put in four solid seasons in the Dodgers rotation, with an overall 3.45 ERA in 114 starts, prior to signing with the Yankees as a free agent. Takashi Saito has relieved for four postseason teams in his six Major League seasons, working in a total of 322 games with an ERA never higher than 2.83.
Position players in the footsteps of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui? Very little encouragement: None have hit higher than .268 (infielder Tadahito Iguchi and catcher Kenji Johjima). Very little power: Kosuke Fukudome hit 101 home runs in his last four seasons in Japan before getting a four-year, $48 million deal with the Cubs, and has totaled 42 homers in four Major League seasons.
“There used to be a feeling that if a guy was a superstar in Japan, he’ll be a superstar here. I don’t think you can say that anymore,” said Jim Duquette, now with MLB Network but eight years ago the Mets general manager who pursued and signed Kaz Matsui. “It’s become more a case of ‘buyer beware.’ We’ve seen the track record, and it hasn’t been great.”
The assimilation of Japanese ballplayers into Major League Baseball unfolded in steady, well-defined stages.
The pioneers were starting pitchers (with the historical exception of reliever Masanori Murakami of the 1964-65 Giants), led by Nomo, who joined the Dodgers in 1995. His 43 wins in his first three seasons included a no-hitter in the pitchers’ hell of Coors Field.
They were followed by setup relievers (Shigetoshi Hasegawa was an underrated weapon for the 1997-2001 Angels), then closers (Seattle’s Kazuhiro Sasaki, the 2000 American League Rookie of the Year who saved 119 games from 2000-02).
Next came small-ball outfielders (Ichiro in 2001 became the first regular), then sluggers (Hideki Matsui, a.k.a. Godzilla). Finally, middle infielders (Kaz Matsui), which is where the tide appeared to turn.
Kaz Matsui, who had been such a dynamic and exciting threat in Japan, forced Major League talent evaluators to begin taking a hard look at the factors that influence — or can prevent — crossover success.
The depth of the talent on big league teams is the biggest hurdle; it is a game without letup.
“You try to evaluate talent in Japan, but they don’t face the same caliber of pitching night in and night out,” said one Pacific Rim scout. “Pitching here is a lot deeper than it is in Japan. The top relief pitchers in Japan who come here become middle relievers.”
It is also a game with a different pace and mentality.
“Japanese baseball is not a very aggressive game,” Whiting pointed out. “You seldom see brushback pitches, or pitchers retaliating for hit batsmen, or basepath collisions. Japanese infielders seem intimidated by the tougher American game. [Kaz] Matsui seemed afraid of the inside fastball and the spikes-high slides of baserunners trying to break up the double play. Tsuyoshi Nishioka didn’t know how to handle the double play.”
Whiting was referring to the Gold Glove batting champion for whom the Twins paid $15 million a year ago, between the posting fee and a three-year contract. Nishioka batted .226 in 68 games — 120 points below his 2010 average for Chiba Lotte — but spent around two months on the disabled list with a fractured left leg, suffered when he couldn’t avoid a takeout slide by the Yankees’ Nick Swisher.
“It’s just a tough adjustment, all in all,” Whiting continued. “A player has to learn 30 different parks, different umpires, different strike zones. A batter has to learn 30 different pitching staffs. Pitchers have to learn 30 different batting orders.”
Competition shock is accompanied by culture shock, which cannot be minimized for players from such a tradition-bound country as Japan — which, not so incidentally, is also quite a bit smaller.
“I remember talking to Kaz about it,” Duquette said, “and he said the travel really wore on him. In Japan, you’re not on the road as much, you don’t do as much flying, with the crazy hours, as we do.”
“Different food, different language. A guy might have the physical ability and still be unable to make the mental adjustment,” Whiting cautioned. “You just never know how a guy will do in the Majors until he actually goes and tries to do it.”
That even goes for a beguiling prospect such as Darvish, on whom Major League talent mavens have kept a close watch for years. “He’s extremely talented,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, “but in terms of how it transitions and everything else like that, it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t even want to speculate.” The Rangers are paying the price for finding out, confident that it will be money well spent.