Does "Japanese pitcher" tell us anything at all?

Koji Watanabe

Baseball America's Ben Badler showed up Tuesday with an essential corrective:

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s name is often thrown around as a cautionary tale. Matsuzaka’s performance, supposedly, is evidence of the risk of investing heavily in a pitcher who’s spent his entire career in Japan.

There is some truth to that. The $103 million the Red Sox paid for Matsuzaka, between the $52 million contract and the $51.1 million posting fee, outstripped the value Matsuzaka delivered over the six-year deal.

But if anything, Matsuzaka should serve as another data point that pitchers who dominate in Japan and are highly regarded in the scouting community, such as Masahiro Tanaka, will have immediate success against major league hitters.

--snip--

The top Japanese starters who have come to the United States in recent years—Darvish, Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma—have had success in the major leagues. Koji Uehara, who arrived in the majors in 2009, has been baseball’s best reliever from 2010-13 after Craig Kimbrel. And Kuroda, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound righthander who like Tanaka has plus command of a fastball that sits in the low-90s and relies on his slider/splitter combo for his putaway pitches, has been quite durable, compiling 19.3 WAR and a 3.40 ERA in his six major league seasons even though those were his age 33-38 years.

First, one quibble: I'm always a little put off when a writer questions or criticizes an opinion without offering a concrete example of that opinion. Dice-K's name is often thrown around as a cautionary tale? Yes, that does ring true. But how often, and by whom? If nothing else, presenting one example replaces a straw man with an element of dynamism that too many pieces of analysis can sorely use.

Still, this is good work. Badler doesn't just look at other Japanese pitchers (I've done that before, so have you probably). He also looks at Dice-K's contemporaries and ... hey, whaddaya know! Many of them failed to put together a long string of good seasons, too!

This isn't any sort of rigorous analysis, but the general point holds: It's both tempting and unfair to hold Japanese pitchers to a different standard than the one we use for everybody else. If Tanaka signs a five-year contract and isn't great in three of those years ... Well, hey, welcome to five-year contracts for pitchers everybody.

Now, we might guess that Japanese pitchers need some time to adjust to the bigger, stronger, more talented hitters in the majors ... but that's just a guess. Yes, we've got the recent history, as Darvish, Kuroda, and especially Iwakuma were better in their second seasons. But Matsuzaka wasn't -- freakish sophomore ERA aside -- and Uehara's a special case, as he became a reliefer in his second season. It's a good narrative: The Japanese pitchers have to learn to trust their stuff over here. But we just don't have enough experience to say with any confidence that Tanaka won't hit the ground running. Hideo Nomo certainly did; Kei Igawa certainly did not.

The message here, and it's a valuable one, is that we should extra-careful about generalizations. Sure, it's possible that there's something special about Japanese pitchers. But it's likely that we're simply creating a heuristic that doesn't actually tell us anything meaningful or true.

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