[ View the story "Oakland Athletics shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima has the odds against him" on Storify] Oakland Athletics shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima has the odds against him How will the A's newest shortstop do?
Digital First Media· Fri, Dec 21 2012 06:15:09
On Tuesday, the Oakland Athletics signed 30-year-old Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5 million contract. The shortstop has played in Japan for the Seibu Lions since 2001, posting a .309 average, with 149 home runs and 664 RBIs.
Oakland A's introduce new shortstop Hiroyuki NakajimaClick photo to enlarge OAKLAND -- Flashing confidence, a sense of humor and a very wide smile, Hiroyuki Nakajima introduced himself as a ...
Nakajima said that a reason he signed with Oakland was to get as much playing time as possible at short, something he could not have done had he signed with a different team.
Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane, said that Nakajima was an "offensive player with a steady glove.
What can you expect from a 30-year-old Japanese position players moving to the MLB? Not much. While pitchers have succeeded in making the transition to American professional baseball, position players have had less of an impact. Eleven position players have signed with an American team, and only two of them -- Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki -- have made a significant impact. In fact, Ichiro and Matsui have a combined 22 years of MLB experience; the other nine have 39. That's an average MLB tenure of just over four years per player.
So how have some of these Nippon baseball players fared when they came over to this side of the Pacific?
In 2001, two Japanese fielders started in two major league games for two different teams in two different leagues on two different coasts. In the west, there was Ichiro Suzuki, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame right fielder for the Seattle Mariners. In New York, the Mets welcomed their center fielder, Tsuyoshi Shinjo.
Shinjo was expected to be a backup for center field, but wound up getting 400 at-bats. He hit .268 with 10 home runs, the first of which came in the home opener.
"For our club, he's just about what the doctor ordered," [then-catcher Mike] Piazza told the
Hartford Courant after the home opener in 2001. "We needed someone with his flair and talent. I expected him to be good, but not as good as I've seen. He gives us speed, and he has some wiry kind of power." He also stole only four bases, while being thrown out five times.
In 2002, Shinjo hit .238 in only 118 games, and in 2003, he hit under .200 before being sent down to AAA. After that season, he went back to Japan.
Let's get this out of the way first: So Taguchi was a part of two World Champion teams (the Cardinals in 2006 and the Phillies in 2008). But Taguchi only had over 300 at-bats in three seasons between 2002 and 2009. He posted a .279 batting average during those seasons, and compiled under 100 career extra-base hits (including 19 home runs). To be fair, Taguchi did sign with the Cardinals after age 30.
Kaz Matsui played eight years in Japan before signing with the New York Mets before the 2004 season. The first Japanese infielder in the majors, Matsui never played more than 114 games in a season. During his career, he hit .267 (compared to a career .309 average in the Nippon Professional Baseball League). However, Matsui may be remembered more for something on the field; the Mets put their high-priced free agent at shortstop, displacing Jose Reyes to second base.
By the end of the season, Reyes would be the starting shortstop. In June 2006, Matsui was traded to the Colorado Rockies. In 2010, the Houston Astros released him. He has been playing baseball in Japan since then.
In three full seasons, he posted a batting average of .268, .271 and .267. In 2008, his fourth and final year, Iguchi hit .238 in just 85 games. He's now playing with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the NBP.
Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Norihiro Nakamura was a bust.
Norihiro Nakamura Stats, Video Highlights, Photos, BioThe latest Norihiro Nakamura Stats, Video Highlights, News and more from MLB.com
However, in Japan, Nakamura hit .268, with six consecutive 40-home run seasons.
The Beautiful Sound of Baseballweymillerdotcom
On this list, Kenji Johjima has fared the best, perhaps, enjoying four solid seasons as the first Japanese catcher to regularly start in the United States. In his first two seasons, he slugged over ten home runs twice, and ended his MLB career after the 2009 season with 46 home runs total. He went back to Japan, where he has played sparingly over the past three years.
Akinori Iwamura homerun 2004.07.23komestars
A three-time All-Star in Japan, Akinori Iwamura was signed by the
Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays before the 2007 season. However, he moved from third base to second before 2008 to make room for Evan Langoria. He did complete the put out that sent the Rays to their first World Series appearance.
ALCS Gm 7 Final Outjstein2469
That season would be the last full one for Iwamura. A season-ending injury in 2009 would lead to decreased mobility. He played 54 games in 2010, posting a .172 average between Oakland and Pittsburgh. Overall, Iwamura hit .267 during his MLB career.
Kosuke Fukudome press conference with Cubswgn
He was a heralded free agent when he signed with the Chicago Cubs before the 2008 season. He got off to a fast start, hitting .327 during his first month in the majors. He also earned a spot on the All-Star team, the only player on this list to appear in the All-Star game. But after that,
his production quickly declined
. From 2009-2011, he maintained a steady presence in the Cubs lineup, holding an above-.300 on-base percentage.
In 2012, he spent the season in the minors, and announced this month that he would return to Japan to play in 2013.
Twins SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka vs. Hideki Okajima and the Boston Red Sox - Spring Training 2011mlbprospectportal
After playing seven seasons in Japan, Tsuyoshi Nishioka inked a three-year, $9 million deal with the Twins. Injuries played a big part in his lack of success. He suffered a broken leg in 2011, and was ineffective during his tenure in Minnesota. He was released from his contract after requesting to be released after that season, and has returned to Japan.
In 61 games with the Seattle Mariners in 2012, Munenori Kawasaki hit below .200. He was an eight-time All Star in Japan.
There are handicaps to this analysis, of course. For starters, many of these players have already had long and established careers in Japan, and may have already hit their peak (when they returned to Japan, they did not suddenly rise to the level they were playing at before coming to the United States). Compare this to the Latin American countries, where camps, clinics and baseball academies have ensured that their baseball players come to the MLB system at a far younger age.
Let us not forget the structural differences between the sport in the two countries: Japan has a smaller baseball. An all-dirt infield is not uncommon. And the ballparks are smaller in Japan.
In short, Hiroyuki Nakajima is more likely to be Kazuo, not Hideki, Matsui.