Projecting Akinori Iwamuraby Jeff Sackmann
November 08, 2006
He's no Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Akinori Iwamura could soon be the highest-profile Japanese hitter to land in the major leagues since Hideki Matsui.
He's no Matsui, either, but for the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League, Iwamura has hit .300 and slugged at least .530 for each of his last four full seasons. He hit a career-high 44 homers in '04, and reached 30 in the two seasons since. Hideki Matsui's first year with the Yankees is a warning for those teams who might expect Iwamura to do the same in the States, but it seems likely he could contribute, if not with a 900+ OPS.
Matsui is enough of an outlier in Japanese baseball history that it seems foolish to make much of a projection based on his experience, but the alternatives are few. There are plenty of American pseudo-sluggers such as Tuffy Rhodes who had great success in Japan, but few Japanese sluggers have even tried. It's indicative of the situation that, behind Matsui, the highest slugging percentage for a Japanese-born player belongs to Kenji Johjima.
Luckily, there are other tools we can use. Let's start with Jim Albright's translations of Iwamura's NPB stats. In my article last week about Matsuzaka, I used these (rather uncritically) as a high-end projection of what the player could do in the big leagues. Here's Iwamura's last three seasons, adjusted Albright-style:
YR AB H 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG 2004 626 175 22 0 31 66 - 0.28 0.349 0.464 2005 608 181 34 7 20 56 - 0.298 0.357 0.475 2006 624 181 40 3 22 64 - 0.29 0.356 0.449 note: I translated '06 numbers based on an estimation of Albright's method
Albright's translations are based on those players who have moved between MLB and Japan's NPB. Therein lies danger: by not considering those players who floundered in Double-A and Triple-A before finding traction in Japan, the sample is biased, and almost doubtless ends up making projections like these look pretty.
As with Matsuzaka, these numbers serve as a nice upper bound for optimistic fans of whichever team signs him. I'll show you a simple '07 projection based on these numbers in a little while, but for now suffice it to say that these make him about equivalent to Ryan Zimmerman's 2006. Not bad, but even in the best case scenario, such numbers might not make a 28-year-old worth an eight-figure posting fee.
Yakult versus Pawtucket?
We could come up with better translations (I say "we" in the sense that I'm sure Clay Davenport already has), but in the meantime let's look at some other existing ways to estimate Iwamura's performance. As a generic lower bound, we can translate his NPB stats as if he accumulated those numbers in the Triple-A International League:
YR AB H 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG 2004 533 141 16 0 35 55 163 0.264 0.333 0.490 2005 548 154 16 3 24 50 137 0.281 0.341 0.452 2006 546 150 23 2 25 55 120 0.274 0.341 0.461
The IL tranlsations are no more pessimistic when it comes to power—there's enough of a tradition of players hitting harder in Japan that Albright's numbers take that into account. However, there's a 15-point hit on his batting average; in this scenario, he's 2006 Chad Tracy—a solid player in an off year.
It Gets Worse...
Let's assume for a moment that Hideki Matsui's struggles in 2003 were something that all Japanese sluggers can expect to face in their adjustment to MLB pitching. Godzilla's career SLG in Japan was .582; in his first season in the Bronx, it fell to .435. That's a bona fide disaster; for a player of less than Matsui's caliber, it's a ticket to the minors. Using what I'm calling "hideous" translations (get it?), here's what Iwamura's numbers would've looked like as if he was making the first-season switch to MLB pitching:
YR AB H 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG 2004 533 151 18 0 15 38 117 0.283 0.331 0.403 2005 548 165 18 2 11 35 99 0.301 0.343 0.398 2006 546 160 25 1 11 38 87 0.294 0.340 0.405
As we might've expected, knowing the translations are based on Matsui's disappointing season, this isn't what MLB teams will be bidding on. Aside from a prettier batting average, Iwamura could—for a season, at least—look just like David Bell.
...and Then Gets (a Little) Better
Of course, Matsui wasn't a disaster; after his first-year, he settled in nicely. He'll never hit 50 home runs in a season, like he did in Japan, but he resumed slugging in the .500 range, and has even topped a .300 batting average the last two years. Still, the way his power numbers have taken a hit is instructive; these translations show what Iwamura's stats would look like in MLB if his overall adjustment (career in Japan to career in MLB) took the same route Matsui's did:
YR AB H 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG 2004 533 157 17 0 23 46 122 0.294 0.350 0.457 2005 548 172 17 3 16 41 103 0.313 0.361 0.443 2006 546 167 24 2 17 46 90 0.305 0.359 0.449
I'm running out of comps here, but these numbers are a lot like Jeff Cirillo in his prime—minus a few walks and a few doubles. Not a bad player, but nothing that's going to rocket the Phillies or Indians into the playoffs.
Jeff's Non-Committal Projections
Iwamura will enter the '07 season as a 28-year-old, so it seems safe to expect he'll continue to perform at the same level—whatever that level turns out to be in America. Using the various systems described above, here are projections of Iwamura's 2007 performance, based on a simple 3/2/1 weighting of his last three years, with no age adjustment and no regression. The first line is Iwamura's projection if he stays in Japan. The Albright projection was adjusted so that playing time was equivalent with other projections, and I included an average of the four translation methods.
METHOD AB H 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG NPB (act545 170 23 2 33 68 142 0.312 0.388 0.547 Albright545 158 31 3 20 54 0.291 0.355 0.470 IL Trans545 150 20 2 26 53 133 0.275 0.340 0.463 Hideous 545 160 21 1 12 37 96 0.295 0.340 0.402 Matsui 545 167 20 2 18 44 100 0.306 0.358 0.448 Average 545 159 23 2 19 47 82 0.292 0.348 0.446
I would love to offer more certainty, but there just isn't that much of a precedent for a player of Iwamura's caliber to cross the ocean. It seems certain that he'll maintain a decent batting average and an average-or-better OBP. The big question is just how much power he'll lose. Will he be the mid-level free agent that fills the final need on a contending team, or will he make someone wish they had opted for David Bell instead?
References and Resources
Thanks to Jim Albright for his work on Japanese Baseball, to Tom Goyne of Balls, Sticks, and Stuff (an excellent Phillies blog) for pointing me to the right place, and to the site JapaneseBaseball for their updated NPB stats.
Jeff Sackmann is the creator of MinorLeagueSplits.com. With Kent Bonham, he founded CollegeSplits.com. Jeff and Kent blog about college baseball and the draft, and you can follow them on Twitter for bite-sized snacks of minor league and college stats. Jeff also has an email address.