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Caveat Emptor

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There has been much chatter everywhere regarding whether or not Japaanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka will be coming to the United States. He has repeatedly asked for permission from his team to begin the complex process by which a Japanese player comes to the MLB, and the team has finally relented and, reportedly, will post him.

What this means is that MLB teams get the opportunity to bid on the purse that they will offer his team, the Seibu Lions, in order to purchase his contract. The Lions will accept the bid from the highest qualified bidder (they don't have to accept any bid at all), and then the winning MLB club will get a chance to offer a contract to the posted player. If no contract is reached in a fixed amount of time, then the player goes back to Japan, and the fee is not paid. If a contract is reached, then the fee is paid, and the player goes over to the United States.

The posting fee for Matsuzaka is expected to be in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty million dollars, and Scott Boras, his agent, is implying that he will be wanting no less than something like a five year deal at ten million per. This means that it will cost something like seventy or eighty million dollars over five years to sign him, when all is said and done. This is certainly more than it will take to sign Schmidt, and about what it will take to sign Zito. I won't especially bother to answer whether the Cardinals will be able to do this (answer:probably only by having a rotation of Carp, Matasuzaka, Wainwright, Reyes and Narveson, plus some salary dumping), but rather I will try to answer whether or not Matsuzaka can possibly be worth this much. His stuff, by all accounts, is absolutely electric, and he is said to be able to throw a gyroball in addition to a mid '90s fastball and a low '80s slider. But, at that price tag, you deserve a player that will come in and be electric from the first minute of playing.

I've been somewhat interested in Japanese baseball players for a while. There have been five Japanese starters who have made the Major leagues: Masato Yoshii, Tomo Okha, Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii and Hideki Irabu. I want to use how these players have fared in the US as a gauge to see how effective Matsuzaka might be in the Major Leagues. Also, note that japan has two leagues, the Central and Pacific, with the Pacific having a DH and the Central having batting pitchers. Further, note that Japanese baseballs are smaller and more tightly wound than their American counterparts.

My claim is that Japanese starters come to the USA, and play quite well, but then flame out. Using the Baseball Cube's extensive database of Japanese statistics, I'm going to do the following comparison--I'm going to take the rate stats of these five players, and compare their last three years of Japanese ball to their first three years of American ball to see how Japanese players adjust to the majors.

Timeframe ERA WHIP K/9 K/BB
Japan 3.19 1.02 9.54 2.26
1st year 3.90 1.34 8.64 2.13
2nd year 3.76 1.31 7.33 1.86
3rd year 4.95 1.43 6.39 1.95

This is averaged across five different pitchers who have varied levels of success, but I think it makes my point pretty clearly--historically, Japanese pitchers have gotten worse as MLB hitters have seen them more frequently. Their first year, they are nearly able to replicate their Japanese statistics, but by the third year, they are, on average, just horrible pitchers. Including a fourth year would just make things look worse, as Nomo, the best of the lot, fell off of a cliff his fourth year, as did Ishii. Therefore, one would expect it to be unlikely for Matsuzaka to reproduce his Japanese statistics consistently in the MLB. One might say, however, that Matsuzaka is, by far, better than any of these guys and therefore might be an exception to this trend. This, however, isn't the whole story, either. Let's compare Hideki Irabu's last five years in Japan to Matsuzaka's previous five seasons:

Irabu 787 2.86 1.17 9.83 2.67
Matsuzaka 1112 2.16 0.83 8.93 2.99

Those two look pretty comparable to me--if anything, Matsuzaka looks more control dependent and less stuff-dependent than Irabu did. I would be more than a little scared by these numbers, though, considering the way in which Irabu flamed out with the Yankees.

Considering all of this information, I just don't think that it would be wise for any team to spend $80M on Matsuzaka--Japanese starters just don't have a consistent history of consistent long-term success at the major league level, and instead deteriorate rather quickly, regardless of their level of dominance in Japan. Matsuzaka has excellent stuff, and with some seasoning in the minors, might turn out to be a dominant pitcher, but for $80M, there is no time to leave him in the minors--he has to be with the big club and playing aggressively from day one. And for such a massive investement, he is too big a risk, especially when the same amount of money could buy you Zito or Schmidt.

Update [2006-11-8 16:41:10 by Valatan]: Apparrently, "Mike Baumann" is the nom de plume of Scott Boras.