Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hiroyuki Nakajima and Norichika Aoki: Somebody Sign These Guys!

Quick—name a Japanese baseball import this offseason.

I think I can guess who Yu named. However, this has been a banner offseason all around for Japanese talent coming to the Major Leagues—pitchers as well as hitters. Perhaps because of all the Yu Darvish buzz, no one is really talking about two of the best hitters ever to come out of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB): Hiroyuki Nakajima and Norichika Aoki.

Nakajima, a 29-year-old shortstop for the Seibu Lions, has consistently kept his OBP in Japan near .400 while playing Gold Glove defense. He's a 20/20 threat every year and can play all around the infield. In fact, using him as a utility player is what the New York Yankees had in mind when they won exclusive negotiating rights with Nakajima last month. According to this "posting" system, the Yankees must pay Seibu $2 million as compensation if their exclusive negotiations result in a contract. (However, the negotiating window expires tomorrow, and it sounds like the parties will not arrive at a deal in time.)

Aoki, who coincidentally turns 30 today, has been called the "best pure hitter" to come out of Japan since Ichiro Suzuki. The outfielder is a leadoff-type guy with power and some eye-popping statistics, including a .944 OPS in 2010. Most sexy, perhaps, is the fact that he has had more walks than strikeouts in three of his last five seasons in NPB. The Milwaukee Brewers won his rights with a $2.5 million posting bid, and the team plans to work Aoki out before committing to anything.

Unfortunately, we lack some of the more refined statistics (OPS+, WAR) for those who play in NPB, so it's harder to tell if they are as valuable as they seem. However, it is possible to calculate how Nakajima and Aoki performed according to my own preferred offensive metric: Bill James's runs created. Runs created are measured on a scale similar to runs scored: 60 is a solid regular, 80 is a lineup stalwart, and superstars crack 100 every year.

Let's use runs created to compare Nakajima's and Aoki's production to some of their would-be peers in the US; it's much easier for us to judge what they'll be worth to any of our ballclubs if we know which MLB players they resemble the most. Here is a chart comparing Hiroyuki Nakajima's yearly runs created to those of MLB players most like him—i.e., shortstops who were 28 in the 2011 season:

And here is a chart comparing Norichika Aoki's runs created to MLB outfielders who were 29 during 2011:

Both Nakajima and Aoki have the highest average runs created in their group. In other words, if they were MLB players putting up the exact same numbers here that they did in Japan, they would be considered the best players, at their age, at their position, in the game. In other other words, if they were MLB free agents this winter, Nakajima would be looking at a Reyes-sized deal (106/6) and Aoki at a Crawford-sized deal (142/7). Yet they both were posted at modest fees, and neither would command more than a few million dollars a year.

Obviously, this is all an exercise in curiosity; there's no truly accurate way to compare stats in Japan with those in the Major Leagues. Primarily, one would assume that the competition is tougher in MLB (although the Japanese team has won both World Baseball Classics thus far); however, NPB is notoriously pitcher-friendly, especially after the introduction of a new type of baseball in 2011, when both Nakajima and Aoki performed rather well even in strange, unfavorable hitters' conditions. In my opinion, the foreignness of Japan's new baseball in 2011 is a reasonable approximation for the adjustment of moving from NPB to MLB, so their muted 2011s might be a better indication of how they'd fare stateside. Still, not bad.

It may all just be for fun, but it is very intriguing food for thought. I'm usually of the school that NPB players are overhyped when they make the leap to America (e.g., Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kazuo Matsui) and are therefore not worth the financial risk, especially when a posting fee is involved. But this duo was posted with such little fanfare, their salary demands so inexpensive, and their talent so competitive that I have to believe they would make worthy Major League signings. Yankees and Brewers fans better hope their front offices wise up to these bargains.

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