Using the observations made in my last article, I projected the following Nippon Professional Baseball batters in the MLB. Kazuto Yamazaki ranked the top thirty prospects that might make the transition to the US, and in doing so, he revealed nine batters and twenty-one pitchers. Using that list of nine batters, I ran all but one of their 2014 seasons in Japan as if it were their last there in order to project their first-year MLB statistics (Tomoya Mori had too small of a sample size).
The small sample size of the grouping as a whole may misdiagnose statistics though because the batters who come to America are usually some of the best. This type of natural selection process weeds out the other lesser batters, which if given a chance, might better represent the transition. The fact is that only 12 batters make up the entire basis for this projection system, and it is obviously in its infancy until more instances are viable for testing.
To recap the previous article, statistics like walk percentage (BB%), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), isolated power (ISO), and home run rate (HR%) drop by a significant amount upon transitioning to the MLB. Strikeout percentage, on the other hand, fluctuates between batters and does not yet have a clear movement between the leagues.
Starting with the lowest ranked NPB batter, Ryosuke Kikuchi is widely known as the best defensive second baseman in Japan but his bat may not stand out among his teammates. His walk rate in 2014 was well below average in Japan and his seemingly great batting average was buoyed by the .358 BABIP. Upon an introduction to the US, his strikeout rate climbs half a percent, and his BABIP, home run rate, and isolated power all fall. The one odd characteristic of the projection is that his walk rate actually improves. While not implausible, it's highly unlikely to happen when entering a more challenging league. A player with similar traits in the MLB and a reasonable upside for Kikuchi is Alcides Escobar playing second, but the downside is Darwin Barney.
In the tables below, the leftmost set of statistics ranging from K% to ISO are from the batter's last NPB year, and the rightmost set is for the projected first year in the MLB.
The seventh-ranked batter on the list is outfielder Yuki Yanagita. He possesses top-notch athleticism and the power/speed combo to do some damage. His plate discipline can be improved though, and his 2014 season was enhanced by an enormously unsustainable .396 BABIP. Like others, he would likely walk less often, hit home runs at half the rate of before, and experience a drop in BABIP and isolated power. Because strikeout rate is not normalized in a single direction, Yanagita improves in that regard. His projection points to a Daniel Nava type of performance in the big leagues.
Coming up sixth is slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. Out of the eight batters tested, Tsutsugo demonstrated the highest home run rate: 7.05%, comparable to J.D. Martinez. The 23-year-old outfielder underwent a breakthrough 2014 season in which he hit 22 home runs. The transition to the MLB will cost him a lot of his power though. Otherwise his statistics follow in the general movement the other batters. A modern day Andre Ethier is the best comp for Tsutsugo.
Sho Nakata is the fifth best MLB prospect from Japan, with a cannon for an arm and a strong swing. Nakata does have some swing-and-miss to his game, though not as much as Tsutsugo. Both are powerful 1B/OF types, but Nakata needs more help putting the bat on the ball at times. His low NPB BABIP translates to a slightly better one in the MLB, and the 25-year-old should generally see a major decrease in home runs. David Murphy of the Indians or David Lough of the Orioles are reasonable comps for Nakata.
Next up on the list is Nippon Ham Fighter Dai-Kang Yang. He displays excellent athleticism like Yanagita but has more power and might be the better center-fielder in the long run. Once run through the projection system, you can see that his BABIP becomes around league average. On the bright side though, Yang's walk rate falls at a slightly better rate than his peers. Plate discipline is the larger issue here, and it might affect him substantially in the US. Desmond Jennings is the best comparison for Yang, who could provide annual 10 HR and 10 SB seasons.
The young superstar here is Tetsuto Yamada, a 22-year-old who can play second base and slug 29 home runs in a single season. Not to mention the fact that he swiped 15 bags and possesses advanced plate discipline. While he is quite far away in terms of international free agency, Yamada may be posted early by the Swallows. Dioner Navarro's bat at second base or a more athletic and poweful Daniel Murphy should be the expectation early on.
The so called the "Derek Jeter" of Japan, Hayato Sakamoto is an extremely durable and reliable shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan). Even though he's only 26, Sakamoto has already played seven seasons in Japan and had an amazing 31-homer season back in 2010. His arm and defense at SS is slightly below average so a move to second base might be needed. In the MLB, Sakamoto's below-average power might hinder him, but his other abilities more than make up for it. Jed Lowrie is ultimately the closest comparison right now.
Finally we reach Yoshio Itoi, the veteran outfielder for the Orix Buffaloes. Itoi is as close to a five-tool prospect as you could get, but the major drawback here is age. He's already 33 years old and may or may not be posted in the near future. In the short term, there is no better batter for the mission, but one has to worry about what signing a three-year contract could mean on the tail-end of the deal. Itoi has suffered through knee injuries and his age is only slowing him down in right field. A mix between Carl Crawford (2.6 fWAR) and Gregor Blanco (2.0 fWAR) looks like the best comparison for Itoi given his age.
With the current lack of crossover between leagues, I'd be happy to see just one of these batters make the transition in the next few years so I could hopefully improve on the projection system. For now though, I'd recommend scouting as the better indicator of success across leagues rather than a projection system.
(This is part two of a two part series. Check out last week's article first.)
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