10/16/2007 10:00 PM ET
Help from the Far East
Scoping out the Japanese free-agent market
By Ted Berg / SNY.tv
This is what Kenshin Kawakami looks like. (AP)

A reader e-mailed me a question yesterday that I planned on holding for an upcoming offseason mailbag post, but after watching Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima pitch in Monday night's ALCS Game 3, I decided this would be as good a time as any to answer him.

Steve from Brooklyn, NY, writes:
Ted -- Your early dispatches from the free-agency market have helped salve the shattered sprits of Mets fans, mostly by convincing us that there IS a future out there somewhere, one that will hopefully include some promising new faces. Many thanks.

My question for you is whether you have any insights into the crop of Japanese pitchers who are contemplating a move to MLB. The names of Koji Uehara, Hiroki Kuroda and Kenshin Kawakami keep coming up. There may be others. I don't have any idea if one or more of them would be a good fit for the Mets, or how their NPB stats would translate to the U.S. Any wisdom you could share would be much appreciated.

First, thanks for the kind and eloquent words, Steve. I've gotten a surprising amount of feedback from gracious Mets fans since The Collapse; I guess we're all grieving together.

As for Japanese free-agent pitchers, I'm ambivalent. A lot of people have written that the level of Japanese baseball is somewhere around that of Triple-A, but I'm dubious. Really only two Japanese players have enjoyed prolonged success in the Majors -- Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui -- and there have been far more monumental disappointments than there have been pleasant surprises.

It seems like a lot of the Asian pitchers that have been imported to the U.S. rely on deceptive deliveries. Hideo Nomo, the first in the recent surge of Japanese big leaguers, is a great example. Nomo twisted his body before throwing the ball, and his windup apparently took unfamiliar hitters a while to get used to. He was dominant in his first season, very good in his second, and never much better than average thereafter -- save for a brief resurgence in 2004.

Nomo's immediate success and subsequent reversion to the mean are representative of a fair number of pitchers who employ unconventional means to hurl the ball home. It's not just a Far-Eastern phenomenon, either. The case can be made that the league finally figured out Dontrelle Willis' bizarre delivery, prompting his consecutive seasons of decline in 2006 and 2007.

Look what happened to Byung-Hyun Kim. The diminutive Korean was nearly unhittable in his first several season in the bigs, then completely fell apart. The amazingly knowledgeable Nate Freiberg reminds me that Ben Weber fared similarly.

Pitchers with funky deliveries tend to start out strong, then fall victim to either injury or a league no longer baffled by their throwing motions. This works out well for the teams that have them when they enter the league, as with the Red Sox and Okajima. The left-hander, who swings his head downward as he releases the ball, enjoyed a stellar first half of the season to the tune of a 0.83 ERA in 43 1/3 innings, but leveled after the All-Star break, yielding a 4.56 ERA in his last 25 2/3 innings.

Of course, not all Japanese pitchers feature unconventional deliveries. But many of those that don't and have made the trek across the Pacific have disappointed. Daisuke Matsuzaka may have won 15 games for the Red Sox this season, but it's very difficult to argue that he was worth his monstrous contract and posting fee. His 4.40 ERA was only slightly better than league average, and he, too, faltered in the latter part of the season.

And I don't think I need to remind anybody about Hideki I-Robbed-You.

But while it seems like Japan's national hype machine might still far exceed its ability to produce baseball talent -- don't forget that Tsuyoshi Shinjo was a power hitter there -- the most successful Japanese pitching imports have all been relievers. Based on ERA+, they have been, in order of success: Takashi Saito, Okajima, Akinori Otsuka, Shingo Takatsu, Kaz Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

It could be argued that some of those listed only kept their ERA+ up (and their ERAs down) by limiting their innings pitched and thus avoiding the exposure suffered by Nomo. Maybe that's true, but it's irrelevant. The point is that the Mets would only be well served to test the Japanese free-agent market if they were looking for a relief pitcher which, incidentally, they should be.

So to answer Steve's question in a very roundabout way, yes, a Japanese pitcher could be a nice fit for the Mets. I wouldn't go about locking up any pitcher with a particularly deceptive delivery to a long-term deal, but the Asian market might be good place to start looking for bullpen help.

None of the three pitchers in question seems like a distinctly better option than the other two. They're all 32 years old. Kawakami was a successful reliever from 1999-2006 before joining the Cunichi rotation in 2007 and posting a 3.60 ERA with 141 strikeouts in 162 1/3 innings. Uehara followed an opposite path, starting from 1999-2006 then switching to the bullpen in 2007 to notch a 1.74 ERA and 66 strikeouts over 62 innings. Kuroda has been a starter for most of his career. In 2007, he struck out 123 batters in 179 2/3 innings with a 3.56 ERA for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

If I had to choose, I'd say the Mets should pick between Kawakami and Uehara, if not for their bullpen experience then for their decent strikeout rates -- always a plus for a reliever. Other relievers like lefty Hitoki Iwase and righty Masahide Kobayashi might test the American market as well, but I think Steve's instincts were best. Iwase strikes me as overrated, as he owns the Japanese single-season saves record but doesn't strike out an overwhelming amount of batters for a closer, and Kobayashi has done nothing to show he's half the athlete his competitive-eating namesake is.

Another pitcher, Kazumi Saito is under contract with the Fukuoka Hawks through 2008 but could be posted by his team, meaning a Major League suitor would have to negotiate a deal with Fukuoka before dealing with him -- the process the Red Sox went through for Dice-K. A drop-and-drive pitcher, Saito throws hard and has put up some pretty amazing numbers in Japan, but had arm troubles in 2007. Based on the spotty success of his fellow big-name imports, Saito seems like a bad signing to me, especially considering the pricey posting fee.

My favorite Japanese pitcher, albeit one who likely will not be available in the Western market for a while, is a guy named Yu Darvish. The 21-year-old loose cannon, who was once suspended for smoking cigarettes in a pachinko parlor during spring training, has steadily improved in his three years playing Japanese ball. The son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother who met at Florida State, Darvish struck out 172 batters in 175 innings for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters -- long my favorite Japanese team because of its pork connotations -- while posting a 1.99 ERA.

Ted Berg is an editorial producer for SNY.tv. He can be reached at Ted.Berg@mlb.com or via the Flushing Fussing Facebook group.
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