Patrick Newman writes the excellent NPB Tracker, the premiere English-language online source for information about Japan's Nippon Pro Baseball league. I learned recently that an article I wrote in 2007 partly inspired Patrick to start his site because he was so frustrated by uninformed American baseball writers like me trying to sort out the subtleties of the Japanese game.
Since so much of my own writing comes in reaction to what I read in the local papers and hear on local talk radio, the irony was too rich to ignore. Here I am, constantly accusing columnists and reporters of ignorance or myopia, and yet I'm apparently just as guilty. Plus, I think the Japanese market is an interesting option for the Mets to investigate this offseason, so I caught up with Patrick for an interview.
Ted Berg: Let's jump right into it. When and why did you start NPB Tracker?
Patrick Newman: My opinion is that Japanese baseball is generally not well understood in the American media, and that's always been a little bit of a pet peeve of mine. Last winter, I found an article you wrote linked to on MLBTRADERUMORS.com that contained some factual inaccuracies on a couple of Japanese players, so I wrote a reply to the site's author Tim Dierkes. After that I began feeding him information from the Japanese media, and that led to me starting the blog. My first post was on June 15, 2008.
I first had the idea to put together a Web site on Japanese baseball when I was living in Japan several years ago. I wanted to share information on some of the great players that I had seen there. Realizing that there are consumers for this information, which is not readily available, was a big motivator in putting the site together.
Berg: As much as I regret the inaccuracies, I'm glad my ignorance in some way led to such an excellent site. Naturally, if NPB Tracker existed when I wrote that article, I would have had a lot more information to work from. Anyway, tell me about the Japanese game. Is the style of play in NPB any different than in the Major Leagues?
Newman: There have been much worse reports than yours, so no worries. I'm not trying to beat up on you or anything, this is data that just isn't widely available in English.
There are a number of differences in the Japanese game. Some of the bigger ones, in my observations, are: more sacrifice bunting and less base stealing; most teams basically use a six-man starting rotation, but let the starters go deeper into games (Yu Darvish threw 165 pitches in a game last year; MLB hopeful Ken Takahashi threw a 173-pitch shutout a few years ago); pitchers rely more on control and breaking stuff than hard fastballs; and many of the fields have artificial turf or all-dirt infields, so infield play is a little different.
For me, the fans are the biggest difference. The fans cheer for their teams with loud, organized chants and when they are out in full force it's pretty amazing.
This article may be insightful as well.
Berg: I've actually heard about the fans from Flushing Fussing hero Val Pascucci, who played there and directed me to this video.
Do you think the ability to rely on breaking stuff, not to mention the ability to reliably get breaking pitches over the plate, translates to Major League value? From an uninformed perspective, it seems like a reliever who could deceive hitters with consistent breaking pitches, even if it's just one time through the order, would be a great fit for a bullpen-starved team like the Mets.
Newman: Well, there are certainly successful MLB pitchers that rely on breaking stuff and an ability to spot their stuff. Here in the Bay Area I've gotten to see lots of Justin Duchsherer, who does fine a without dominant fastball. We'd seen a string of Japanese relievers (Kaz Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Shingo Takatsu, Akinori Otsuka,Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima) succeed in MLB until Masahide Kobayashi and Yasuhiko Yabuta disappointed this year, so there is some indication that success in NPB can translate to success in MLB. To me, the Mets seem like they've mostly cured their bullpen starvation with the acquisitions of K-Rod and J.J. Putz, but everyone needs depth.
Berg: Speaking of which, I've seen several Japanese pitchers linked to the Mets this offseason. They still have some holes in both the bullpen and the rotation. Can you introduce Mets fans to some of the pitchers you think they might go after?
Newman: There are four pitchers attempting to come over from Japan this offseason, and the Mets have been reportedly interested in all of them with the possible exception of Koji Mitsui, who only recently announced his posting request. Here's a little on each:
- Koji Uehara: Uehara is the most accomplished of the four pitchers coming over, but also carries some injury risk. Uehara won Sawamura Awards (Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young) in 1999 and 2002 and gets by on outstanding control. The risk with Uehara is that he's had injury issues over the last two seasons, and spent all of 2007 in the bullpen, where he dominated. He wants to start in MLB, but not everyone views him as a starter (Omar Minaya might). Uehara is a flyball pitcher, so if Citi Field is similar to Shea, the dimensions may suit him.
- Kenshin Kawakami: Kawakami doesn't quite have Uehara's resume, but he's not far off and has had a more consistent track record of recent success. Kawakami won't intimidate anyone with his fastball, but has a good cutter and curve, and can pitch down in the zone. Kawakami had the benefit of one of Japan's best infields and pitched in one of the country's more spacious stadiums, so that's something to take into account with him.
- Ken Takahashi: Takahashi is a left-hander who has started for most of his career in Japan but would certainly be a reliever in the Majors, given the fact that he'll be 40 early in the '09 season and has averaged only about 115 innings in each of the last two years. I think he'll get looked at as a lefty specialist, but he had .333 batting average against vs. left-handed hitters last year, as opposed to a .262 for righties. He'd likely be a low-cost, low-risk addition, but I wouldn't consider him a sure thing.
- Koji Mitsui: Of these four pitchers, I know by far the least about Mitsui. Seibu announced that they are posting him, a la Kei Igawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka, last week, but he won't command anything near what those guys did. He's coming off a bad year (7.50 ERA in 24 innings) but had solid numbers in '06 and '07. I know he throws a screwball and has low velocity, but that's about the extent of my knowledge. He's a 35 year-old lefty, and I'd say he's more likely to be a depth guy than a core guy. Then again, you never know. I never would have guessed that Saito would be as good as he's been.
Berg: Can you briefly take us through the posting process? Is it something you see continuing as the Major League game becomes more global?
Newman: The posting process was implemented to give NPB teams a uniform method of transferring players' contracts to MLB teams in exchange for cash. Alfonso Soriano's "retirement" from the Hiroshima Carp and subsequent signing with the Yankees prompted the creation of this system. The explanation on Wikipedia is as good as anything I'd be able to come up with, so I'll copy it here:
When a player under contract with a Nippon Professional Baseball team wishes to play in Major League Baseball, he must notify his current team's management and request that they make him available for posting during the next posting period (Nov. 1-March 1). If the team consents, the player (including any other NPB players wishing to be posted) is presented to the MLB Commissioner. The Commissioner then notifies all MLB teams of the posted player and holds a four-day-long silent auction during which interested MLB teams submit sealed bids (in USD) to the Commissioner's Office. After the allotted four days have passed, the Commissioner closes the bidding process and notifies the posted player's NPB team of the highest bid amount but not who the bidding team is. The NPB team then has four days to either accept or reject the nonnegotiable bid amount.
The NPB players union is supposed to re-evaluate the posting system at some point in the future, but I'm not sure what they'll want to change about it. I get the feeling that no one really likes the posting system that much, but it does allow the NPB teams to recoup something when losing star players. I don't see how the globalization of MLB would affect the posting system, at least until we see an MLB franchise in Japan. As long as the two leagues are independent I think there will be some formalized way exchanging players that are under contract to teams from either league.
Berg: Finally, Yu Darvish. How good is he, how good can he be and can we expect to see him pitching in the Majors in the next couple of years?
Newman: Darvish is the best pitcher in Japan right now. He's put up two consecutive sub-2.00 ERA, sub-0.90 WHIP seasons at age 21-22. To compare, Matsuzaka's best ERA in Japan was 2.13, at age 25. Can he get better? Probably. He's 22 (three months younger than Junichi Tazawa), has solid command of a couple breaking pitches, and has added a couple of miles per hour to his fastball over the last couple of years. He certainly has the stuff and composure to continue to improve.
Darvish has said repeatedly that he's not interested in coming to MLB -- his most recent comment was that he wanted to win 200 games in Japan. He's 48-19 in his career so far. Note that this is to some extent unusual -- Uehara, Hideki Matsui and others had talked openly about wanting to play in MLB before making the leap. My guess is that he'll eventually want to give MLB a shot, but it's a ways off. He's a minimum of five years away from free agency, and I don't really see him getting posted. So we'll see what happens. The interesting thing is that this is the first time we're seeing an NPB star attract a significant following outside of Japan this early in his career. I hope this can be leveraged to attract new fans to the league.
Berg: Thanks, Patrick.