I blogged last week about the Minnesota Twins being awarded exclusive negotiating rights with Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
I mentioned in that post how it was unusual to see a Midwest team win the bidding, since seemingly the majority of well-known Japanese imports (Hideki Matsui, Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo, etc.) have ended up on the West or East Coasts.
But according to Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Joe Christensen, Nishioka sounds pretty excited about the possibility of playing for the Twins if a contract agreement can be reached.
Nishioka is coming off a career-best season in which he hit a Japanese Pacific League-leading .346. He can play both shortstop and second base.
You could argue that infielders from Japan have had the least amount of major league success when compared to other position players or pitchers from that country. The three Japanese infielders that come to mind are Tadahito Iguchi, Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura.
- Iguchi played four seasons in the major leagues from 2005-2008 before returning to Japan. Prior to joining the Chicago White Sox, he hit .333 with 24 homers and 18 steals for Dalei in the JPL in 2004. In his first season with the White Sox, he hit .278 with 15 homers and 15 steals.
- Matsui might be the most famous Japanese infielder, yet he’s considered one of the biggest disappointments, although some of that is due to his time spent in New York. Matsui played seven seasons in the major leagues from 2004-2010 with the Mets, Colorado and Houston. In his last season in the JPL in 2003, he hit .305 with 33 homers and 13 steals for Seibu. In his first season with the Mets, he hit .272 with 7 homers and 14 steals. He announced last week he is returning to Japan.
- Iwamura has played four seasons in the big leagues dating back to 2007 with Tampa Bay. In his final season in the JPL in 2006, he hit .311 with 32 homers and 8 steals for Yakult. In his first season with the Rays, he hit .285 with 7 homers and 12 steals.
The first conclusion I would draw from this is that power does not transfer over well from the JPL to Major League Baseball. In fact, it virtually disappears. But in looking at the three infielders above, speed actually does. Two of those three actually stole more bases in their first seasons in MLB, despite playing in far fewer games in each case.
For Nishioka, that’sÂ not terribleÂ news. Last season, he was more speedy (22 steals, has a career high of 33) than powerful (11 homers, career high is 14). AndÂ at Target Field, it’s safe to say he would be nothing more thanÂ a gap hitter.
The other thing to keep in mind is age. Nishioka would be the youngest of the group, being only 26 years old on Opening Day 2011. Iguchi was 30 when he started out. Matsui was 28 when he debuted with the Mets. And Iwamura was 28 in his first season in Tampa.
So Nishioka, at least in terms of age, has more good years ahead of him than his predecessors. But at the same time, his skills could be less refined. His rate of efficiency in stealing bases in Japan isn’t the greatest. No doubt that the Twins wouldn’t mind getting Rod Carew or Paul Molitor to help him out in that area should he sign with the team.
Iguchi and Iwamura have actually been pretty good players at one time or another in the big leagues. The problem is neither aged (or in Iwamura’s case, appears to be aging) very well. But that’s not hard to understand when you consider that in Japan, they both relied heavily on the home run. In the United States, that ability was diminished (though in Iguchi’s case, he had 33 homers combined between 2005 and 2006).
There’s no doubt the Twins would be taking a gamble in signing Nishioka. But considering how weak the free-agent market is with middle infielders this year, it’s a gamble worth considering.
Here’s a video of an ad that Nishioka did in Japan: