Mound Musings

Usual Mound Musing author Dave Regan took an All-Star break trip

to Las Vegas this week, so I’m filling in. He’ll be back next week,

but in the meantime, in addition to this week’s Mound Musings, be

sure to check out my usual weekly column, Bogfella’s Notebook, on

RotoWire, and throw me a follow on Twitter @bogfella.

Looking for Arms in all the Same Places

I wanted to do something a little bit different for Mound

Musings – at least different from what I typically cover in

Bogfella’s Notebook. There is always a lot of discussion about

major league pitchers, at least as much about minor league

prospects, and even an occasional blurb about an exciting arm

coming up in college, especially around first-year player draft

time. Let’s face it, with the explosion of information, it’s

becoming harder and harder to stay ahead of your competition in

most fantasy baseball leagues. However, that just means you

sometimes have to look in less familiar places.

That said, why don’t we look west … or would it be east?

Actually it all depends on your perspective, but we’ll call it east

– as in Far East. Over the past few decades, several players have

arrived in the United States after beginning their careers in

Pacific Rim locations such as Australia, South Korea, China and,

perhaps most notably, Japan. We’ll focus on Japan, both for those

already here, and those who might arrive soon.

Players from the Far East have been a diverse group. Some of the

most notable, or at least most familiar, include Ichiro Suzuki,

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Hideo Nomo, Koji Uehara, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ryan

Vogelsong and Colby Lewis (OK, those last two are not really from

the Far East, but they certainly experienced the influences of

baseball, other-side-of-the-world style). The players come from

varying backgrounds, but there are some notable similarities. Most

(at last count, 34 of 43 players from Japan who made it to the

major leagues) have been pitchers. There are no definitive reasons,

but it’s likely due to the fact that the professional (and fantasy)

baseball worlds are always looking to upgrade their pitching. It’s

a rare commodity. Further, while not always the case, players

arriving from Japan tend to be older.

Once a player enters the pro draft in Japan, he cannot become a

free agent for nine years unless his Japanese team agrees to “post”

him. That can mean windfall income for his Japanese team as it

forces MLB teams to bid on the right to negotiate with the player.

The posting fee is above and beyond what the MLB team will pay in

player salary, so signing a player out of Japan can be a very

expensive undertaking. Interestingly, just a couple years ago, in

2009, a player nearly agreed to come to the United States before

entering the draft. A well-regarded high school pitcher named Yusei

Kikuchi contemplated bypassing the Japanese draft to sign in the

United States, but eventually decided against it. He would have

been the first Japanese player to take that path.

That’s probably at least partially due to cultural factors. Star

baseball players in Japan make very good money, though not at the

same level as their U.S. Counterparts; the sport is wildly popular

there, so they can become folk heroes of a sort; and there is a

tendency to want to play locally, to promote the sport in their

home country. Many eventually get the urge to test their skills

against teams in North America, but it is often well after they

have established themselves in Japan, and in a sense, given back to

the sport there.

And that leads to a more performance-based difference between

pitching in Japan and pitching here in the United States. Again,

something of a cultural phenomenon, pitchers in Japan are typically

encouraged to take a more ritualistic approach to retiring opposing

hitters. When they have a hitter behind in the count, it is not

unusual for them to throw pitches outside the strike zone, evening

the count, before the ultimate showdown. Would that be a blazing

fastball on the black? No, it would probably be a perfectly

executed curveball with a little extra break, and a lot more crowd

appeal. That difference in approach is something Japanese imports

often have a hard time adjusting to when they come here. In Japan,

when they win that ultimate showdown, it is an honorable victory,

and fans are extremely appreciative of the skill it took to execute

that pitch compared to just blowing a fastball by the hitter. There

are some who believe Daisuke Matsuzaka’s inconsistency since coming

to the United States is at least partially tied to that very

different philosophical approach.

All right, that’s enough of the philosophy and idiosyncrasies

that are a part of Japanese baseball, let’s look at some arms you

might want to be familiar with if they make the move across the

Pacific next spring.

Yu Darvish (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters) – This is a name

you have probably already heard, and there’s good reason for the

buzz. He is generally considered to be the best pitcher to have

ever played in Japan. He is not eligible for free agency, so his

team would have to post him, and the winning bidder would be

putting up a huge sum of money to just win a chance to negotiate

with him. He has stated many times that he has no interest in

coming to the United States, however he recently indicated he might

decide to try his hand in America in 2012. The major league

baseball world has taken note, and virtually every team has scouted

him numerous times, and many general managers have even made the

long trip to Japan just to see him pitch. If he decides to test his

considerable skills here, he will very likely be a high-impact

player.

The soon-to-be 25-year-old Darvish is an interesting case. He

has an Iranian father and a Japanese mother who met in Florida. He

has spent his whole life in Japan but had to make his way there as

something of an outsider. He reportedly said that playing baseball

as a youngster was his way of fitting in. It’s working.

At 6-foot-5, 200, the right-hander is quite a physical presence.

He throws from a pretty standard three-quarters arm slot with a

deceptive motion and features a 92-94 mph four-seam fastball with

good movement that can touch 97 at times, and an absolutely wicked

low-80s slurve that truly has slow curve depth with slider

velocity. He compliments those two mainstays with about 4-5 other

offerings including a splitter (which has become an out pitch since

he abandoned the screwball in 2006 when it was decided the pitch

was too hard on his arm), a more traditional curveball and slider,

a change-up and a “shuuto,” which roughly translates to two-seam

fastball. Perhaps most noteworthy, he generally throws any of them

for strikes at any time.

So far this season – probably his best to date, though the

numbers are not all that unusual for him over his career – Darvish

has compiled an 11-2 record with a 1.50 ERA. He has worked 108

innings, allowing 73 hits and just 15 walks while striking out 124

as he continues to build on his growing success. Pitch counts are

not a significant stat in Japan, and he has thrown as many as 165

pitches in a game, albeit that was several years ago. But he tends

to be relatively efficient with his pitch counts, at times

appearing as though he might be pitching to contact too often, and

he typically gets plenty of rest between starts, averaging about

207 innings the last three seasons. Durability is always hard to

predict, but his track record suggests it won’t be a problem.

Several pitchers have come to the United States and enjoyed

considerable success, especially early on, and none has ever come

with Darvish’s credentials, or while just reaching his peak

performance age. If he comes over for 2012, and that looks like a

very real possibility, be ready.

Looking at a few other, less publicized, names to potentially

file away for draft day:

Hisashi Iwakuma (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) – Iwakuma was

actually posted prior to this season with the Oakland A’s winning

the rights to negotiate with him – reportedly for about $17

million. They were unable to reach a contract agreement and Iwakuma

opted to return to his team in Japan.

Another interesting story, the 30-year-old right-hander was a

very successful pitcher for a perennially weak team in 2004. When

his team and another merged, he forced a deal that sent him to an

expansion team in 2005. He was not immediately successful, and the

new team (the Golden Eagles) was awful. He experienced some arm

problems in 2006 and 2007, but he returned in style in 2008 going

21-4 with a team that finished the season 65-76, producing an

amazing 1.87 ERA over 201 innings. He then posted good, but not

great seasons in 2009 and 2010.

Not a strikeout pitcher (he had a career-high 159 strikeouts

over the 201 innings in 2008) and with a smallish stature, even

though his fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s, some question how

his game will fit in against the better hitters in the United

States. He has impeccable control, averaging less than three walks

per nine innings over his career, and he has always been a big

groundball pitcher, so he could be relatively successful, in the

right situation, and assuming he doesn’t experience any more arm

problems. Finally, he has sometimes been described as a bit of a

renegade, not always endearing him to Japanese fans, but perhaps a

sign that he might be more comfortable adjusting to a MLB approach.

Tsuyoshi Wada (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) – Also 30, but a

southpaw, Wada is much more of a finesse pitcher than either

Darvish or Iwakuma. His fastball, delivered from a high

three-quarters arm slot with a reach-back motion generally sits in

the 85-88 mph range and tops out at about 90. He uses it to set up

his assortment of solid/average off speed pitches including a

slider, a change-up and a forkball. Like many Japanese hurlers, he

has excellent control (about a 2.5 BB/9 ratio), but he has allowed

a few too many home runs, something he has kept in check so far in

2011.

Wada is experiencing a very good year in Japan. He is 7-1 with a

1.81 ERA over 84 innings. He has allowed 69 hits, walking 17, while

striking out 79 in his 12 starts. The Diamondbacks, Twins and a few

other major league teams have scouted him, and the reports

typically say he “knows how to pitch.” They like his slider and his

circle change, and most feel he could be moderately successful in

major leagues.

Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin Tigers) – He is 31 – roughly the age

when Japanese pitchers begin to qualify for free agency. However,

unlike the others we have covered, he is a relief pitcher, and

arguably the best closer in Japan. He has already stated a desire

to come to the United States, and the Tigers appear willing to let

that happen.

Fujikawa is a prototypical power pitcher. His fastball sits in

the 93-95 mph range but can consistently hit 97 when he needs it.

He compliments the heat with a forkball, a curve that comes in

anywhere between the mid 60s and high 70s and a cutter. Once a

non-descript middle reliever, he suffered some arm problems in 2004

and reworked his entire delivery while rehabbing from the injury.

He came back a completely different pitcher. Since the rework, he

has averaged just 13 strikeouts per nine innings over 400-plus

innings while walking just over two batters per nine. He hasn’t

posted an ERA more than 2.00, and he has been honored with numerous

awards in Japan. True to form, so far in 2011 he is 2-0 with 17

saves and a 0.84 ERA over 21 innings. He has allowed 11 hits,

walked five and struck out 37 in his 23 appearances.

To close our scouting reports, it is said that Fujikawa has the

“most explosive fastball in Japan” and interestingly enough, there

is a scientific study to prove it. In 2006, a Japanese television

station used high-speed cameras to examine Fujikawa’s fastball

which – you have heard this before – was said to “rise” as it

approached the plate. What they found was his four-seam fastball

rotates at about 45 revolutions per second (the average is in the

lower 30s) and the tilt on its axis relative to its trajectory to

the plate was only five degrees compared to the average of 30

degrees. Scientists confirmed that more rotation and less tilt will

create more lift. What that means is while the ball doesn’t

actually “rise,” it can appear to do so because it doesn’t actually

drop nearly as much as a pitch will naturally do as it travels the

distance between the pitcher’s hand and the plate. Scientifically

speaking, when Fujikawa throws a fastball, it will arrive at home

plate a full 12 inches higher than the exact same pitch, thrown

from the exact same release point, at the exact same target, but

with average rotation and tilt.

Now that is something to muse over …

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