Daisuke Matsuzaka: Is The Cultural Divide Too Deep For Japanese Players?

Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox is headed for Tommy John surgery. With the recovery period for TJ surgery being about 18 months, that would take him to the end of his Boston contract, and, says Peter Gammons, he may just head back to Japan in 2013.

But what's more interesting in that linked story is this quote from Gammons about Matsuzaka:

"It’s very hard to build up a relationship with a franchise if a guy doesn’t trust them," Gammons added. "I don’t think he really made a great effort to adjust to this culture. I think that was one of the problems, the communication and the adjustment to the culture, which he didn’t really go in for."

Since 1995, when Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese-born player to play in MLB since Masanori Murakami pitched two seasons for the Giants in the 1960s, 43 other Japanese-born players have tried to make the switch from NPB to this side of the Pacific. Some of them, like Matsuzaka, got very large contract offers based on their play in Japan; Hideki Irabu got over $15 million from the Yankees (when $15 million was very large) and all he took home from his time in the USA was a 5.15 ERA and a nickname ("Fat Toad") that he's likely not proud of. Not satisfied with that, the Yankees threw $16 million at Kei Igawa, for 16 not-very-good major league appearances. Kosuke Fukudome got a four-year, $48 million deal from the Cubs, and a couple of teams bid more than that for Fukudome; what the Cubs got was a singles hitter who plays pretty good defense and walks a lot and can't hit major league left-handers.

The litany of guys who failed, or who put in a couple of good years and then headed back to the Far East, continues: Kenji Johjima had two decent years in Seattle, but wound up walking away from the last year of his deal after 2009; Tadahito Iguchi helped the White Sox to a World Series in 2005, but three years later had a .598 OPS and went back; there have been a couple of relief pitchers -- Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Takashi Saito -- who had limited success as closers, but whose stars also faded.

The only Japanese-born players with sustained success in the USA are Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Hideo Nomo.

Nomo won 123 games in the majors and tossed a couple of no-hitters. Ichiro, now in his 11th season, might get 3,000 hits in North America despite not arriving until he was 27. Matsui was a key cog with several Yankee playoff teams. Most of the rest haven't come close to matching their NPB performance in the majors.

Some blame the different pitching (more breaking balls here) or larger ballparks. But what if Gammons' comment is correct? What if it's cultural? Robert Whiting's seminal work on Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa, noted the difficulty many American players have in adjusting to the more regimented baseball life in Japan, and the differences in language and food. Only players who have embraced Japanese culture -- Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes and Matt Murton stand out in this respect -- have enjoyed great success in Japan.

The same may be true coming the other way. Fukudome has had little impact on the community in Chicago and he doesn't seem to have much to do with his teammates, despite the presence of an interpreter (which all Japanese players have). Ichiro, on the other hand, was a top celebrity in Japan and may have found it easier to adjust to life as a pop-culture icon in the USA. Matsuzaka had the same public image in Japan, but if he didn't make an effort, as Gammons claims, that may be a large part of his problems.

This is a cautionary tale for any MLB team scouting NPB. It's not just the performance of a player that has to be scouted, but the mental makeup and ability to adjust to living 10,000 miles from home and not being able to speak the language. In a couple of years, Yu Darvish, the best pitcher in Japan, may come to the USA either via the posting system, as a free agent, or by some other deal. Darvish isn't quite like anyone who's played in Japan before due to his background (Japanese mother, Iranian father). But given the history of Japanese players in America, let the buyer beware.

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