Coming to America (Part Two)

Three prominent Japanese League players have signed with American major league teams for the upcoming season, starting with the White Sox signing second baseman Tadahito Iguchi to a multi-year deal last month. The Dodgers then signed Norihiro Nakamura and the Red Sox inked Roberto Petagine, each to minor-league deals with invites to spring training.

Nakamura is a 32-year-old veteran third baseman who has played 1,383 career games in Japan and I first heard of him back in 2002, when he was negotiating to join the Mets, before eventually returning to Japan. At that point Nakamura was coming off of three monster seasons offensively:

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR      BB      SO
2000     127     .277     .381     .578     26     39      80     112
2001     140     .320     .434     .630     25     46     104     106
2002     140     .294     .400     .597     27     42      86     136

Since that outstanding three-year run, Nakamura has seen his production at the plate drop way off. He hit just .236/.357/.459 with 23 homers in 117 games in 2003 and then batted .274/.390/.458 with 19 homers in 105 games last season. Considering that offensive dropoff and the fact that he’s on the wrong side of 30 now, I think it’s safe to assume that Nakamura’s best days are likely behind him. With that said, what sort of player can he be for the Dodgers?

When Iguchi signed with Chicago, I used the numbers from Ichiro!, Hideki Matsui, Kaz Matsui, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo to come up with a quick-and-dirty projection for his rookie season in the U.S. In other words, if Iguchi’s Japanese League numbers dropped off a similar amount as the numbers of those four players in their first seasons in America, he would be projected to hit .300/.345/.425 with the White Sox in 2005.

If you make the same sort of adjustments using Nakamura’s 2004 numbers in Japan, he projects as approximately a .250/.340/.360 hitter with the Dodgers. That looks like a really awful projection, but the thing to remember is that Nakamura’s main skill — power hitting — is also the skill that has deteriorated the most for Japanese League players coming to America.

My guess is that anyone capable of the sort of power numbers Nakamura put up in his prime in Japan is a good bet to do better than a .360 slugging percentage, but he is going to struggle to post a decent batting average. The larger point is that Dodgers fans should know not to expect Nakamura to be a star player. Instead, with Jose Valentin and his massive platoon splits (career OPS: .583 vs. LHP, .826 vs. RHP) at third base this year, I would expect Nakamura to compete for a job as his platoon partner against left-handed pitching. And if Nakamura faces predominantly southpaws, his numbers will almost certainly surpass that projection.

Meanwhile, Petagine is a bit of a different story. Signed by the Astros out of Venezuela back in 1990, he put up big numbers in the minor leagues but struggled when given brief chances in the majors. In a total of 370 plate appearances spread over four teams and five seasons, Petagine hit .225/.346/.371 with 10 homers, 13 doubles, and 55 walks. Despite the small sample size and a performance that really wasn’t all that bad (plenty of power, tons of walks), Petagine left for Japan after hitting .258/.405/.468 in 34 games with Cleveland in 1998.

He then spent the next six seasons dominating Japanese League pitching, all while stat-heads here in the U.S. turned him into a cult hero, the guy who deserved a more legitimate chance to establish himself as a big-league hitter. Petagine’s situation was like an extreme version of the “FREE ERUBIEL!” mantra shouted in response to Erubiel Durazo‘s lack of playing time with the Diamondbacks a few years ago. Except with Petagine, he was getting all the playing time he wanted in Japan; the frustration was that he should have been putting up some of these incredible numbers in America:

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR      BB      SO
1999     134     .325     .469     .677     23     44     116      91
2000     136     .316     .432     .601     30     36      97     116
2001     138     .322     .466     .633     27     39     120      89
2002     131     .322     .438     .649     23     41      85     106
2003     100     .323     .457     .683     17     34      77      72
2004     117     .290     .409     .560     17     29      75      76
---------------------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL    756     .317     .446     .633    137    223     570     550

By comparison, Hideki Matsui hit .304/.413/.582 during his 1,268-game Japanese League career, with slugging percentages of .631, .654, .617, and .692 in his final four seasons.

While not even close to an original thought, there is little doubt in my mind that a player who dominated the minor leagues and in Japan like Petagine did would have been a very successful hitter in the major leagues as well. Even his big-league struggles that were used against him early in his career weren’t that bad, and the sample size was tremendously small and spread out.

Unfortunately, no one will ever find out what Petagine would have done if given a chance in the majors, because his prime years were spent crushing Japanese League pitching. Petagine will turn 34 years old in June and his last season in Japan was his worst, as he hit below .300 and slugged below .600 for the first time. The Red Sox are hoping that he still has a little gas left in the tank, perhaps enough to give us all a glimpse of what could have been if only some team was willing to take a chance like this earlier.

Making the same adjustments for Petagine’s final season in Japan that we did for Iguchi and Nakamura, his projection for Boston in 2005 comes out to approximately .265/.360/.425 — not particularly exciting for a first baseman/corner outfielder. However, if you give Petagine some slack for an “off” year in 2004 and use his career numbers for a projection, he comes out to a more impressive .285/.385/.475.

Something along the lines of .285/.385/.475 is probably pretty similar to what Petagine’s many supporters claimed he could do back when he was fighting for playing time in the U.S. In fact, Baseball Prospectus projected Petagine’s “future peak performance” in the major leagues as .266/.372/.485 based on his minor league numbers from way back in 1997. It’s funny how that works out, isn’t it?

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