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In December, the Minnesota Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a three-year, $9 million contract. The middle infielder, who will be playing second base for his new team, led all of Japanese professional baseball in hitting in 2010 with a .346 average. However, for fantasy baseball owners in the United States, should that matter? What exactly should we expect from the latest export from Puro Yakyu in his stateside debut?
While Japanese players have been coming over to America in a somewhat steady stream since 1995, it is easy to forget that until 2001, only pitchers had made a successful crossover to the different style of play. That spring, there was plenty of buzz over an outfielder who had always dreamed about playing in this country. His manager was excited about his arrival and praised his defensive skills, strong arm, and was looking forward to having his power-speed combo in his lineup.
Unfortunately, Tsuyoshi Shinjo didn't exactly do for the New York Mets what Bobby Valentine had hoped he would. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Ichiro Suzuki was busy kick-starting his Hall of Fame career with a Rookie of the Year and MVP campaign. Although there have been only a handful of players to have followed that original duo's path across the Pacific -- admittedly a small sample size -- a quick look at the stats from these players' transitional seasons does seem to demonstrate that the overseas numbers just don't translate.
(Not included in this chart was So Taguchi, who came over in 2002, after batting .280 with eight home runs and 70 runs scored the previous year for Orix. However, he spent most of the season in the minors, earning only a late-season cup of coffee with the St. Louis Cardinals.)
Every single player -- even Ichiro -- saw a significant dip in batting average and a power outage of epic proportions. This not only has a lot to do with the difference in talent and the harder-throwing pitchers they would encounter in the major leagues, but also bigger ballparks which would turn many of their Japanese home runs into cans of corn.
Throw into the mix a longer season, much more extensive travel, cultural differences and language barriers, and there's every reason to be very cautious when projecting immediate success for these imports. Japanese stats are, simply put, inflated to begin with -- a point made all the more by Tadahito Iguchi's 2010 season in Japan. After a four-year big league career in which he averaged .268-14-67, the now-35-year-old hit .294 with 17 home runs and 103 RBIs as Nishioka's teammate last season.
Let's get back to Nishioka's career numbers. On the plus side is his youth. At 26, he's younger than any of his predecessors when they made the jump to America. Plus, he's been playing since he was 18, so although he has youth, he also has experience. Here are his numbers over his past six seasons of play:
If we were to use the template of declining debut seasons, we should expect that Nishioka will have some difficulty blasting too many balls out of the ballpark -- especially given Target Field's cellar-dwelling rank in ESPN's Park Factors in terms of home runs hit.
Stolen bases are the one category that Japanese newcomers have managed to maintain, since speed is speed regardless of the location. Still, with Nishioka's low success rate, it's reasonable to assume a slight decline in this category as well.
|Tsuyoshi Nishioka likely won't match his .346 in Japan last year, but he still should help the batting average.|
Now about that batting average: Was 2010 a fluke? The .401 BABIP -- a huge jump over his previous career high of .348 in 2007 -- seems to indicate had he stayed in Japan, there would have been a regression back toward a more typical (for him) .300 season. Now throw in the expected 30-point drop from changing leagues, and we're looking at someone who should reasonably be expected to be in the neighborhood of .280 for Minnesota in 2011.
Ask Ron Gardenhire about Nishioka and you'll hear him rave about his defensive skills and how the manager believes he may well win a Gold Glove or two during his stay with the Twins. That confidence is certainly a terrific sign that Nishioka will be firmly entrenched at second base, without fear of any platoon.
It also should give the second baseman a lot of time to work his way out of any slow start he might get at the plate when the games start to count -- though the .351 batting average in his first 37 spring at-bats certainly makes one think that there might not be too many growing pains, especially when you throw in the fact he's performed this well while also dealing with being away from his family, who are still in Japan, during the recent tragic events.
So while it's asking an awful lot to expect an Ichiro-type debut from Nishioka, it's more than reasonable to put him in the same category as Rocco Baldelli or Denard Span when they came into the league. Good enough to get Rookie of the Year consideration, to be sure, but still a ways away from being the next great fantasy superstar. Draft him accordingly.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can email him here.