October 31, 2014

WHAT’S ON SECOND? The Japanese are Coming, Part II

November 19, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

As was mentioned in Part I, over 600 (664 by my count) players have played in MLB and NPB. Out of that 664, 32 of those have been native born Japanese players. If we break out the numbers by batters and pitchers, we get:

Japanese Pitchers to MLB – 23
Japanese Position Players to MLB – 9
Foreign Pitchers to NPB – 213
Foreign Position Players to NPB – 419

We have a good sample size of players moving to NPB, but rather limited data for players moving from NPB to MLB, especially for position players. Several studies have been done to estimate the difference in ‘quality’ between the two leagues, such as:

http://baseballguru.com/jalbright/analysisjalbright19.html
and

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1330

and also William McNeil, in his books “Baseball’s Other All-Stars” and “The King of Swat”. All seem to reach the same general conclusions:

1. NPB baseball quality is better than AAA baseball, but less than MLB.
2. Home Runs for batters going from MLB to NPB increase dramatically, and decrease dramatically for batters going from NPB to MLB.

While I plan to have a ‘super-duper’ study completed within the year on NPB quality that will also use U.S. minor league statistics to give an even better sample, for rough estimates I use a “90% of MLB runs” quality factor when creating MLE (Major League Equivalent) statistics for players moving to and from MLB. However, one point that is often missed is that ‘difference in quality’ is not the only factor to consider. Ballpark differences between MLB and NPB are a HUGE factor – so much so that they probably shape the perceptions of Japanese players coming to the U. S. more than any single aspect. The average/neutral NPB stadium is more offense friendly than its MLB counterpart, and MUCH more HR friendly. The average NPB park is 318-319 ft. down the lines, 371-372 ft. in the alleys, and 396 ft to dead center. The averages for MLB are 329, 378, and 402 ft. By my preliminary calculations for the ‘super-duper’ study, a neutral NPB park favors offense by 7% over a neutral MLB park, and favors home runs by a whopping 150%.

To understand what this means for talent evaluation purposes, imagine if MLB teams had played the entire 2007 in NPB parks. A team such as the Yankees that scored 968 Runs would be expected to score 1036 runs, even playing against the SAME LEVEL OF TALENT that they had played against in MLB stadiums. Mike Mussina’s ERA would be expected to be around 5.51 in this alternate reality.

What this means for trying to place statistics into proper context is this:

A. A Japanese pitcher with a 3.00 ERA in Japan would
B. be expected to post a 3.30 ERA in the U. S. based on the level of competition (3.00 x 10% increase due to tougher competition), but
C. pitching in more pitcher friendly MLB parks, his ERA equivalent would actually be 3.07 – almost the same as he posted in Japan!

A. A Japanese batter with 9.0 Runs Created in Japan would
B. be expected to produce 8.1 Runs Created in the U. S. based on the level of competition (9.0 – 10% decrease due to tougher competition), but
C. hitting in more pitcher friendly MLB parks, his Runs Created equivalent would actually be 7.5 Runs Created – much less than he posted in Japan!

Of course, for U. S. pitchers and hitters, the effect is reversed. Former MLB pitchers going to Japan don’t improve by 10%, but instead put up statistics roughly the same as they did against MLB hitters. Former MLB hitters going to Japan don’t show 10% improvement in their statistics, but instead typically show 15 – 20 % improvements.

With this last group, position players going to NPB, comprising almost 2/3rds of the sample of NPB/MLB players historically, and with several well-known examples of ‘marginal’ MLB hitters having great success in Japan (Tuffy Rhodes, Randy Bass, Boomer Wells, Roberto Petragine, Alex Cabrera) the general perception has been that Japanese Baseball is 15 – 20% inferior in quality to MLB. Now you know better!

(BTW, can you name even ONE former MLB pitcher who has had success in Japan? If NPB is so inferior, there should be a bunch, right?) ;>)

In Part III, we’ll finally address the 2008 Japanese players likely to come to the U. S., and guess how they might do.

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