FanPost

Hiroyuki Nakajima: A Somewhat Scientific Take




Last year, before spring training I wrote a little piece about why I thought the signing of Yoenis Cespedes would work out for the A's, eschewing my usual data-based analysis for some armchair sports psychology. To my surprise and sheer glee, I turned out to be absolutely right about everything. Cespedes turned out to not just be a freakishly gifted athlete, but a perfect specimen of the type of mindset needed to succeed in the major leagues. Cespedes went from swinging at Felix Hernandez pitches in the dirt to a unstoppable force in the same year. According to this fangraphs article, Cespedes swinging strike percent on breaking balls went from 18% to 8% from March-May to August-September. That type of adjustment speaks to Cespedes's preternatural ability to adjust, and bodes well for Cespdes's future. But enough tooting my own horn. What about Nakajima?

There have been a fair amount of Japanese hitters to come to play stateside, and the quality runs from "potential hall of famer" (Ichiro Suzuki) to "very good player" (Hideki Matsui), to "pretty good player" (Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamaura, Kaz Matsui), to utterly forgettable (Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who I only remember from being in the tri-state area). One of the issues seems to be that the Japanese leagues exaggerate offensive statistics, especially power statistics. Matsui, an annual 30-40 HR threat in Japan, only hit 30 HR's once in the US. Even more striking, Akinori Iwamura hit 44 Home Runs one season in Japan, followed up by two 30 HR campaigns, only to never manage more than 7 in the US.

So when we look at Nakajima's stats, we can be forgiven a fair amount of skepticism. While his stats, a career line of .310/.381/.474 seem like something out of Troy Tulowitzki or Derek Jeter's resume, its not likely he would replicate those numbers in America, due to the superior competition. However, there is reason to believe that his offensive may be less drastic than the norm, if we add context to his numbers. As pointed out in this fangraphs article n 2010, the Japanese leagues introduced a new ball that suppressed offense to unprecedented lows. According to reports, the ball carried less and broke faster. Power went down. Strikeouts went up. Pitching got better.

Looking at Nakajima's stats, we see he was not totally immune to these trends. His slugging went down from .511 to .433. However, as the article points out, his decline was in line with the decline the rest of the league was experiencing. It would be quite enough to say that Nakajima remained the same player during this league wide change. But on top of that, the article points out his strikeout rate decreased, from 17% in 2010 to 15% in 2011 to 13% in 2012, in the face of a league-wide improvement in pitching. To me, this does not just show that Nakajima is merely getting better. I think an underrated part of any evaluation of a baseball player is that player's ability to adjust to different circumstances, and as I pointed out, that's what makes Cespedes such a valuable player. Perhaps Nakajima cutting down on his strikeout rate shows he recognized that the league had changed, that swinging for the fences was no longer an attractive option, and decided to be more of a contact hitter than he was previously. The fact that a player would be able to make such an adjustment suggests that he would be able to adapt to the MLB much quicker than usual.

As for Nakajima's projection as a major leaguer, although the MLB is on a higher talent level than the Japanese leagues, I propose a slightly scientific reason for the liberal imbibing of kool-aid. We have very little data on players coming from the new run-scoring environment in Japan, but the one example we have of a player making that jump and receiving regular playing time seems to be encouraging. The Brewers' Norichika Aoki had a pretty impressive debut campaign stateside, hitting .288/.355/.433, with 10 Home Runs in 588 Plate Appearances. His 2011 stats in Japan? .292/.358/.360, with 4 Home Runs in 643 Plate Appearances, down from .358/.435/.509 from the year before. We see that 1) Aoki was certainly hit hard by the new environment, significantly more than Nakajima. 2) His power numbers actually improved in the US, while his contact and plate discipline numbers remained around the same. While this is merely one example that would not qualify as ironclad statistical evidence, it makes enough sense with what we might have guessed to be worth thinking about.

I think a perfectly reasonable projection for Nakajima is .270/.330/.400(compare to Asdrubal Cabrera) I don't think .290/.350/.430 is out of the question (compare to Jose Reyes) and I would not be terrible shocked by a .300/.360/.470 (compare to Ian Desmond or Ben Zobrist) line at all, which is the only one that, like Aoki, keeps the same contact and plate discipline and improves the power. Even the lowest projection of those is very worth 2 years and 6.5 million, which is Ty Wigginton money, for a competent shortstop. Even better, the reasonable guess that the Japanese leagues now are a more accurate predictor of offensive success seems to be an undervalued market ripe for exploitation, and Beane seems to be ahead of the curve here.

At the very least, if an optimistic post by me is actually a good luck charm, consider my obligation fulfilled.

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