Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/13/14
Here are the four rookie position players above 3.0 WAR in the 2012 season:



Name
Team
PA
BB%
K%
BABIP
wOBA
wRC+
Fld
BsR
WAR


Mike Trout
Angels
639
10.5%
21.8%
.383
.422
175
13.3
6.8
10.4


Bryce Harper
Nationals
597
9.4%
20.1%
.310
.353
122
8.9
-0.3
4.8


Yoenis Cespedes
Athletics
540
8.0%
18.9%
.326
.370
138
-9.6
0.1
3.1


Norichika Aoki
Brewers
588
7.3%
9.4%
.304
.348
118
0.1
-1.4
3.1


Two of these players are foreign imports — veterans of other leagues. And two of the top 10 pitching rookies (No. 1 and No. 10) hail from abroad as well:



Name
Team
GS
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
BABIP
ERA
FIP
SIERA
WAR


Yu Darvish
Rangers
29
191.1
10.4
4.19
0.66
0.295
3.90
3.29
3.55
5.1


Wei-Yin Chen
Orioles
32
192.2
7.19
2.66
1.35
0.274
4.02
4.42
4.14
2.2


With the likes of Junichi Tazawa, Hisashi Iwakuma and even Munenori Kawasaki providing value across the league, it is time to reconsider the the levels of professional and amateur talent in East Asia, and more importantly, reconsider how those talents might translate into the MLB.

One of the key elements in reassessing the talent available in Japan is the new NPB baseball. Like, their new literal baseball. In the 2011 offseason, the league switched from stadium specific balls to a standardized, more MLB-like ball.
In my May 31st article wherein I advocated Norichika Aoki deserved a starting job (and under-predicted his offensive ability), a commentor by the name of Nate offered a great glimpse as to why the new baseball could make NPB statistics much more useful:
[The new NPB ball] was designed to imitate the MLB ball, which is used in international tourneys like the WBC. The smaller, slicker one was one of the more common ones used before the switch…at least from what I read. I’m interested to see if this switch leads to being able to make more accurate predictions about NPB players before they come over to MLB.
The first and most obvious effect of the new ball was a depression of run scoring across the league. Here is a look at runs per game since 2006:

The league went from averaging about 4 runs per game to just a tick above 3 runs. For years now, sluggers in Japan — Hideki Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome and the like — have come to the MLB and had their power numbers take a discount. The new ball might help correct for that, and if it does, it will remove or lessen one key difficulty in translating NPB numbers to MLB numbers.
The 2012 batch of NPB vets / MLB rookies were the first to post a season in the majors after using the new ball. If we look at a 5-4-3 weighted comparison of their 2009 through 2011 NPB numbers, we see there is the beginnings of a relationship — at least among the pitchers:

NOTE: The NPB numbers are league-adjusted, but not park adjusted. That is why I refer to them has wOBA+ instead of wRC+.
Kawasaki, who only had a handful of PA, was the only player to perform at a rate significantly far from his 2009 through 2011 numbers in Japan. But Kawasaki had only 115 PA and a .233 BABIP — whereas in Japan he averaged BABIPs over .300 as well as a 103 to 120 BABIP-plus over the last five seasons.
Darvish is also considerably further from his NPB production, but he also had 221 strikeouts in under 200 innings — not to mentions his 5.1 WAR — and would have joined the game’s most exclusive club if he matched his NPB numbers over 150+ innings.
If we limit our scope to just the 2011 season, the “new ball” season, as it were, we see Aoki actually performed better in America than in Japan; Chen performed closer to league average in Japan using the new ball; and Iwakuma and Darvish looked better with the new ball:

Here is where I would like to add a caveat concerning Iwakuma. The long-time starter began the season in the Mariners bullpen, where he pitched 30.1 innings with 6 homers, 15 walks and 23 strikeouts. That 5.73 FIP, 4.23 xFIP smoothed out to a 3.91 FIP, 3.61 xFIP once he joined the rotation. His went from an 18.1% K-rate to a 19.9% K-rate, and his 11.8% walk-rate dropped to a respectable 7.1% walk-rate.
I think in the case of Iwakuma, he may very well have had trouble learning the ropes of pitching out of the bullpen. I am confident, had the Mariners left him in the ‘pen, he would have done quite well there, but since he has been starting since age 20, it will require a period of transition first.
In other words, I would not be surprised to see Iwakuma post numbers in the 85 to 95 FIP-minus range in 2013, depending on his role in 2013 (Note: He actually had a 91 xFIP-minus in 2012).
So where does that leave us? Well, first of all, it appears Aoki’s number from Japan almost perfectly matched his MLB numbers. That is not only surprising, it is unprecedented. Only time will tell if the new ball has helped him — and potentially other elite NPB hitters — transition, or if he is merely a special case.
Meanwhile, the pitchers all took a different degree of a hit in their numbers when transitioning to the MLB. Part of that may be due to diminishing returns (Darvish), aging and peaking (Iwakuma and Chen) or maybe even just problems adjusting to new roles (Iwakuma and Kawasaki) or matters of luck (any of them).
But, as the regression line in the initial regression shows, the formula for converting pitchers may be as simple as, well, adding 20 FIP-minus points. Which is great news for the likes of Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujukawa, who has been posting 40 to 50 FIP-minus season in Japan for almost a decade now. Fujikawa will be a free agent this offseason and if he can translate his relief success to a 60 to 70 FIP-minus in the US, he could realistically find himself in high-leverage relief situations by mid-2013.
Here’s a video of Fujikawa, which shows both his low-to-mid 90s fastball and a slow-mo of his low-to-mid 80s split-change (3:58). I believe he also throws a mid-70s curve, but I’m not sure if he throws it in this particular video.
Add to Fujikawa this young man:

That is high schooler Shohei Otani who throws 99 mph (in that particular video even) and who has already met with the Rangers among as many as four other MLB teams with the possibility he might get drafted into the MLB in 2013.
There has been — for some time — a gentleman’s agreement between the MLB and NPB, one such that has prevented MLB teams from acquire amatuer Japanes talent. So, it is likely Otani will start his career in the NPB — and he might be the next big pitcher to cross the sea.
And Aoki’s success is going to matter to Hiroyuki Nakajima. The Yankees acquired Nakajima for the low-low posting fee of $2.5 million, but Nakajima was apparently not thrilled at the thought of getting paid Bargain Barrel rates to sit on New York’s bench, so he returned to the NPB for another year.
Nakajima is now a free agent and has intimidated he is bringing his six years of strong production to the MLB this offseason:


Season
PA
wOBA
wOBA+
BABIP
BABIP+


2007
593
.352
116
.378
124


2008
556
.411
131
.376
123


2009
648
.384
121
.353
120


2010
579
.387
121
.348
114


2011
633
.352
123
.325
113


2012
563
.360
126
.342
119


…And enough defensive chops to fit at least at second or third. I think Akinori Iwamura (pre broken leg) is a good comparison here. Many scouts have suggested Nakajima will fall into a bench utility role, but Aoki’s success may just alter that perception.
Here is a video breakdown of Nakajima’s swing (lamentably in Japanese). As Google Translate so perfectly puts it: “Since you put a super slow last, please refer to the children that play baseball.” (Since this clip includes slow-mo swing goodness, make your children watch it… I think is what means.)
We cannot know yet whether or not the 20 FIP-minus rule of thumb holds water, or whether or not elite hitters are going to be able to perfectly translate their skills from the new-ball NPB. But as far as the first data points go, it is looking like a good sign.
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

Report: Jim Harbaugh to Michigan is done deal

Amari Cooper not a fan of New Orleans, thinks it smells

WATCH: Jennifer Lawrence does Louisville chant at game

WATCH: Did Bret Bielema do ‘Horns Down’ gesture?

Devils unveil unique coaching by committee situation

Report: 49ers expect Jim Harbaugh to take Michigan job

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

Report: Johnny Manziel fined for being late to treatment

Duke Johnson's mother says son will enter NFL Draft

Starlin Castro questioned following nightclub shooting

Report: Jeff Driskel thinking about transfer to Duke

Browns suspend Josh Gordon for final game of season

Report: Rex Ryan has already cleaned out his office

WATCH: Nebraska safety pukes on field, keeps playing

WATCH: Nyquist holds puck for 28 seconds, scores OT winner

WATCH: Kevin Garnett blows in David West's ear

WATCH: Frank Beamer busts a move after bowl win

Bears could clean house after season

Nebraska chancellor booed by Huskers players?

WATCH: Rory McIlroy trolled by 'Sweet Caroline' song

Auburn, Wisconsin players literally ate tons of food

Did Kobe Bryant respond to heckler with the rings count?

Doug Fister bought Starbucks for his Twitter followers

DeMarco Murray dumped over cheating accusations?

Video: Rudy Gay tosses half-court alley-oop to McLemore

MLB News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Fox Sports Digital Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.

Amari Cooper not a fan of New Orleans

Harbaugh to Mich. is done deal

WATCH: Jennifer Lawrence supports Louisville with chant

Did Bielema do ‘Horns Down’?

WATCH: Beamer busts a move

Bears could clean house after season

Nebraska chancellor booed by players?

Johnny Manziel fined by Browns

Castro questioned after shooting

Rory McIlroy trolled with 'Sweet Caroline'

Browns suspend Josh Gordon

Kobe gives heckler the rings count?

Today's Best Stuff
For Bloggers

Join the Yardbarker Network for more promotion, traffic, and money.

Company Info
Help
What is Yardbarker?

Yardbarker is the largest network of sports blogs and pro athlete blogs on the web. This site is the hub of the Yardbarker Network, where our editors and algorithms curate the best sports content from our network and beyond.