After doling out $5.3 million to try to talk Chiba Lotte’s shortstop into moving from the Far East to the Midwest, the Twins are in the midst of a 30-day negotiating process with Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s agents. What fans are interesting in is what may be expected from what could be the Twins’ newest import.
While we live in an age where you can just about anything you want from the annals of the internet (including videos of, ahem, well, subtract an “n” from one of the words prior to this parenthetical…), we still do not have a comprehensive data available for imports from Japan. There are no sites like Fangraphs.com or Baseball-Reference.com that carries over the pertinent Nippon Professional Baseball information – like batted ball splits or platoon splits –needed to making analysis on what a player’s conversion rate might be. If there were, it might have been possible for the Mets to vet Kaz Matsui before acquiring him (although, by some ratings systems, he is still ranks as the fourth-best player ever in Japan).
For the most part, the common accepted belief is that the NPB is a step below major league caliber play – at best, a AAA with a half-A. Still, with the exception of Hideki Matsui, there has not been a player from Japan whose power skills made the trip across the Pacific with him. (Of course, the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium was very welcoming for Matsui who went from 50 home runs in Tokyo to 16 in NYC his first season.) Both Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui hit over 30 home runs while in the Nippon league but failed to hit out of the single-digits in the majors. It would appear that power is a high tariff in the United States on goods from Japan.
Perhaps because Nishioka does not possess that particular skill but has several other universal skills like line drive tendencies and a strong zone acumen that he would find greater success than his other two infield predecessors – who have since returned back to their homeland as their careers on this side of the globe has fizzled. With little hard data available on Nishioka’s career, we can use this video that has circulated around recently, to see what it might reveal about his potential.
Old-fashioned scouting with new fangled video techniques:
As you will see below, he attacks the pitch well with a level swing from both sides of the plate. His hands/weight remains back while he takes a large stride and his hips and hands explode at the same pace through the zone up to the point of contact – which is out in front in both examples.
Unlike the Matsuis or the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukudome – three of Japan’s power-hitting imports - Nishioka stays relatively low while the other three remain upright with a short stance before the pitch. They all share the same leg-lift and stride, however, Nishioka’s appears to be longer (especially from the left-side), setting up a wider base during his swing. Clearly, he’s not trying to leverage the ball for elevation like the other trio did in Japan, rather, he’s hitting the ball on a rope.
With the torque and involvement of his lower-half, you get the impression that these are not fliners (fly ball/liner combination) or slapped grounders but rather inciting some charge in the ball. He also gets out of the box faster than a man who has just been discovered by a jealous husband so with good speed he probably beats out numerous infield hits. As such, without any access to batted ball data to base this upon, making the assumption based on his mechanics, Nishioka is probably above-average in the line drive and ground ball categories – propelling him to that fairly impressive .293 career batting average.
Reviewing just the video of his highlight clips, it would appear that Nishioka is adept at using the entire field (perhaps a little more pull-happy from the left-side of the plate judging from the way he opens up his hips quickly). Again, I cannot stress enough on how these videos are hand-picked and do not tell the entire story, however, from the small-sample clips we can see that Nishioka is spraying foul pole to foul pole with line drives from both sides of the plate.
Based upon his mechanics in the video, this appears to be a common occurrence rather than cherry-picked moments because, as I noted above, he keeps his weight/hands back extremely well. This, I believe, will play favorably for the Twins.
Without the availability of data (platoon splits, batted ball numbers, etc) to marry along with the visual report, it’s hard to paint an accurate picture of Nishioka’s true potential. Still, I believe we can make a few assumptions on what is future will be stateside.
In addition to posting his career-high marks in 2010, Patrick Newman at Fangraphs.com noted that Nishioka’s overall BABIP was .389 last season. Without context of how that fits in with the Japanese standard, it is a number that is absurdly high over here. Only two MLB players finished the season with better BABIPs than that – the reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton and Austin Jackson. Typically, major leaguers have a BABIP near the league norm of .294. The natural conclusion is that Nishioka will likely experience some drainage in his BABIP in converting to the professional ranks on this side of the Pacific, resulting in a depression of his overall batting average as well as shaving off some points from his on-base percentage. Because of this, Newman believed that Nishioka’s batting line would probably resemble that of either Ryan Theriot (.284/.348/.356 career hitter) or Chone Figgins (.287/.359/.376). Both hitters are archetypal high contact, high line drive/ground ball tendencies with little power behind their swings but practice zen-like zone judgment. Essentially, they are above-average at avoiding outs but will not be a contributing power factor.
While Newman points to Theriot and Figgins as Nishioka’s potential comparables, after reviewing Nishioka’s video, I’m not entirely convinced these are appropriate comparisons. For one, Theriot is strictly a right-handed hitter and has not had a career full of success against same-sided pitching. With Nishioka able to exercise a platoon advantage over Theriot, there is ample room for better numbers. Figgins, meanwhile, has never shown any semblance of home run power, even in the minors. Whereas Nishioka has hit home runs in the teens the past three seasons in Japan, the most Figgins ever hit in development leagues was 7 in a very hitter-friendly atmosphere of the Pacific Coast League (AAA). Figgins, on the other hand, doesn’t use much of his lower extremities when it comes to his swing. Like a Denard Span, Figgins utilizes quick, strong wrists to hit his line drives. While I wouldn’t anticipate Nishioka popping off for 12 or 15 home runs, especially given the configurations of his potential new ballpark, he does have more power generation in his mechanics and could come close to reaching double-digits.
Furthermore, the line drive/groundball-oriented Nishioka will also have to contest with the natural environments that are found at the stateside stadiums and ballparks. While playing in the Pacific League, Nishioka’s venues included stadiums that were all decorated with artificial surfaces – assisting in the acceleration of groundballs past helpless infielders. This faux-grass undoubtedly aided in his .293 career batting average in Japan (and possibly added a few extra base hits that split the gaps and whistled into corners of the plastic field). His transition into a league that has only two stadiums with artificial turf will likely cause some of those carpetburners to slow up in the grass. After all, considering that both Joe Mauer and Denard Span – two of the lineup’s most prevalent groundballers – lost a significant chunk off of their groundball BABIPs after relocating from the Metrodome to Target Field (Mauer’s 38 points lower while Span’s 54 points was significantly lower), it is not a stretch to assume that Nishioka could befall the same fate on a similar scale.
While that portion of the landscape may hinder his numbers, there may be some benefit to the structure off of Twins Way.
Minnesota has quickly learned that power is rendered almost useless 81 days a year at Target Field. Because of that, signing/acquiring someone with marginal power is not a sound solution. Unless a dead-pull power hitter is available, anyone that utilizes the gaps and center as their land spot will have serious troubles trying to maintain their current home run pace. This would wreak further havoc on their overall numbers if that player isn’t a line drive hitter that direction.
For example, last year Danny Valencia found Minnesota to be a safe haven – hitting .387/.461/.561 at Target Field. This is because his style of play fits well within the confines. According to Inside Edge, Valenica sent 21.3% of all his in play balls to center field. Of those hit towards center, 22% were line drives and resulting in a .376 BABIP in that direction (well-above the .263 league-average). With the extra vacant land in center, it is no small wonder Valencia gained additional hits there. Likewise, Denard Span was also markedly better on his home turf. Despite road woes and troubles getting groundballs for hits, Span hit .301/.371/.390 at the Target Field. Like Valencia, Span also favors smacking line drives to center field (21.7%) and wound up with an above-average BABIP in that direction too (.286). If Nishioka can continue hitting to all fields like it appears in his video, he may replicate Valencia and Span’s success.
Needless to say, Newman is correct in anticipating some degeneration of his Nippon career numbers as he acclimates to the improved competition and new surfaces not made of polypropylene. However, because Target Field appears to reward players that use the middle of the yard for line drive demonstrations, the Twins and Nishioka could find his new home extremely accommodating to his style of hitting.