Coming to America

Last year around this time, Kaz Matsui coming over from Japan was a very big story. He was one of the offseason’s most-hyped free agents, there were multiple teams bidding for his services, and published scouting reports touted his skills and accomplishments in Japan. The Mets ended up signing him to a three-year deal worth $20 million.

Fast forward now to this year. Another Japanese middle infielder with a fantastic resume has decided to see what he can do in America. In fact, Tadahito Iguchi‘s credentials are very similar to Matsui’s. Matsui was a career .309/.361/.486 hitter in Japan; Iguchi was a career .271/.349/.471 hitter in Japan. Matsui was coming off two outstanding seasons in which he hit .332/.389/.619 and .305/.365/.549; Iguchi is coming off two outstanding seasons in which he hit .340/.438/.573 and .333/.394/.549. Matsui was a seven-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop; Iguchi was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner at second base.

Perhaps the similarities aren’t exactly eerie, but they are certainly enough to make you wonder why Iguchi’s free agency and subsequent signing with the White Sox went completely under the offseason radar. While the baseball world was getting daily updates on Matsui’s status last offseason, I bet most fans didn’t even know who Iguchi was until yesterday, let alone that he was a free agent. I am definitely guilty of that too, because I didn’t even discuss Iguchi when I previewed the free agent second baseman earlier this offseason, mostly because I didn’t even know he was a free agent. Now he’s a member of the White Sox, signing a two-year deal with around $5 million, with Chicago holding a team option for a third season.

The obvious question now is what sort of production we can expect from Iguchi this season. In an effort to come up with an answer to the same question for Matsui last offseason, I did some very basic estimates based on the performances of past Japanese imports Ichiro!, Hideki Matsui, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo in their first American seasons. The end result was that I projected Matsui’s 2004 numbers to be .275/.325/.445 and added that the projection was “subject to change, depending on which team he ends up signing with and which ballpark he ends up playing his home games in.”

Well, Matsui ended up hitting .272/.331/.396 with the Mets, nearly exact matches for my batting average (.275) and on-base percentage (.325) projections for him, but off by 49 points in slugging percentage. Some of that can be explained by Shea Stadium hurting power numbers, but Matsui slugged just slightly better (.400) on the road than at home (.391). All things considered, it was a pretty good projection, but more importantly what Matsui’s first U.S. season does is give us another data point for this year’s projection for Iguchi.

Here is a look at how Ichiro!, Shinjo, and the Matsuis did in their first season in America, compared to their last season in Japan:

ICHIRO!                        AVG      OBP      SLG
Last season in Japan          .387     .460     .539
First season in U.S.          .350     .381     .457
 
HIDEKI MATSUI                  AVG      OBP      SLG
Last season in Japan          .334     .461     .692
First season in U.S.          .287     .353     .435
 
TSUYOSHI SHINJO                AVG      OBP      SLG
Last season in Japan          .278     .320     .491
First season in U.S.          .268     .320     .405
 
KAZ MATSUI                     AVG      OBP      SLG
Last season in Japan          .305     .368     .549
First season in U.S.          .272     .331     .396

There are all sorts of sample-size problems with the above data because it only includes four players and a total of eight seasons, plus it doesn’t take into account what sort of ballparks they played in. Still, for some quick-and-dirty estimates, I think it does the trick pretty well (or at least it did last year with Matsui). Taking it one step further, here’s a category-by-category breakdown of what each player gained or lost (by percentage) in their first season here:

               AVG        OBP        SLG       IsoP       IsoD
Ichiro!      - 9.6      -17.2      -15.2      -29.6      -57.5
H. Matsui    -14.1      -23.4      -37.1      -58.6      -48.0
Shinjo       - 3.6        0.0      -17.5      -35.7      + 2.4
K. Matsui    -10.8      -10.1      -27.9      -49.2      - 0.6
--------------------------------------------------------------
AVERAGE      - 9.5      -12.7      -24.4      -43.3      -25.9

On average, the four players lost the least production in batting average (-9.5%) and lost the most production in Isolated Power (-43.3%), which seems to match the common perception of what should and does happen when Japanese players come to the U.S. One important thing to consider when looking at the across-the-board drops in production is that the four players called Safeco Field, Yankee Stadium, and Shea Stadium (twice) home during their first U.S. seasons — all ballparks that depress offense. Iguchi will play half his games at U.S. Cellular Field, which has been one of the friendliest places for hitting in the American League in recent years, and has been particularly good for hitting home runs.

If you take the average drops in each category for the four players listed above, apply them to Iguchi’s numbers in Japan last season, and give him a little boost because of his new home ballpark, you get something like this:

                    YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD
Tadahito Iguchi     2005     .300     .345     .425     .125     .045

Now, that projection is dependent on his 2004 season in Japan being something other than a career-year or a fluke, and it is also dependent on his 2005 season in the U.S. showing his “true” level of talent. So there is a lot that can go wrong, but I think that gives a pretty decent idea of what to expect from Iguchi this year.

Those projected numbers — .300/.345/.425 with a .125 IsoP and a .045 IsoD — would make Iguchi’s 2005 season very similar to the years infielders Placido Polanco (.298/.345/.441, .143, .047) and Chone Figgins (.296/.350/.419, .123, .054) had in 2004. In other words, solid-but-unspectacular production that should provide a significant upgrade over Willie Harris, who has hit .240/.305/.296 in 823 big-league plate appearances and was slated to man second base for the White Sox before they signed Iguchi.

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