01 November 2011

O's Targeting Other Japanese Pitchers?

Wei-Yin Chen in '08 Olympics
I was told the other day that the Orioles are more interested in three Japanese starting pitchers who are not named Yu Darvish and do not need to be posted.  I was not told the names of these players, but I think it is fair to assume they are the following: Hisashi Iwakuma (RHSP, Rakuten Golden Eagles), Wei-Yin Chen (LHSP, Chunichi Dragons), and Tsuyoshi Wada (LHSP, Softbank Hawks). 

Hishashi Iwakuma (31 years old)
You may remember Hisashi Iwakuma's name.  He was posted last year by the Golden Eagles and the Oakland Athletics won the right to negotiate with him for the conditional amount of 18 MM.  The Athletics failed to sign him after allegedly offering him a three year deal worth 10 MM total with the agreement that they could not use arbitration with him at the end of the deal.  Unsurprisingly, Iwakuma who had made 4 MM in 2010 as a member of the Golden Eagles did not see the point in locking himself in a multi-year contract at that amount.  By staying in Japan, he signed a one year deal at 4 MM, which was more than what the A's offered.  He now is able to enter the MLB market as a free agent without the restrictions imposed by the slotting system.

Iwakuma throws five pitches in the JPL: four seamer, two seamer, split finger, slider, and curve.  In 2010, his four seamer sat around 90-91 mph.  In 2011, he saw it lose some speed which might be connected to shoulder issues he suffered this past year.  Toward the end of the season, he was up in the high 80s.  His two-seamer is a typical shuuto in that there is not much difference in velocity between it and the four seamer.  I figure that will disappear stateside.  His split finger actually looked like a very good pitch last year, but has been less useful to him in 2011.  He throws it around 83 mph this year and the difference in speed between that pitch and his four seamer has narrowed.  I think that is why is now less useful.  Iwakuma's slider comes in the high 70s now and his curve in the low 70s.  Both look very hittable.

My guess is that a stateside Iwakuma will be a below average high eighties fastball, an above average split finger in the low eighties, and an average high 70s slider with a mix of a few curves.  This is likely to be someone who would be hit pretty hard as a starter.  Prior to his injury, he looked like a potential 4 or maybe 3 slot pitcher.  He has lost about 4-5 mph on that fastball and it completely changes the outlook on him.  I think he might be best suited as a relief pitcher where he might be able to get back into the 90s with his four seamer and may be able to live primarily off the four seamer and his split finger.  The more he has to depend on his other offerings, the more trouble he is likely to have.

The projection system I developed for Yu Darvish actually is very kind to Iwakuma.  In large part I think this is due to him probably being a different pitcher in years prior to 2011.  Over 200 IP, it projects Iwakuma to throw 137 strikeouts while giving up 77 walks and 17 home runs.  This would be good enough for a 4.12 FIP.  I think the current version of Iwakuma with his reduced velocity would be more of a 5.00 to 5.50 FIP pitcher.  If someone thinks he can regain his arm strength back, I could see someone putting down a 2 year, 10 MM deal on the table.  He might be able to get 3 MM on a one year deal as a relief pitcher.  The latter would probably result in him staying in Japan.

Wei-Yin Chen (27 years old)
Chen is a rather young to qualify as a free agent as he has finished his age 26 season.  He was paid 2.25 MM for Chunichi in 2011 and would be up for a significant raise in either side of the Pacific.  The lefty had been known for pitching in the low 90s and racking up strikeouts in Japan.  However, things seems to change in 2011.  Based on the information I have, it appears he has become a completely different pitcher.  His average velocity dropped from the low 90s into the high 80s and he wound up throwing 50 more innings this year.  This gives the appearance that he threw with less effort to go deeper into games.  With a new ball this year and power evaporating league-wide, it may have been a conscious effort on his part.  It concerns me slightly, but I have heard nothing of any injury.

Chen has a four seamer, two seamer, split finger, slider, and curve.  He primarily sticks to his four seamer, split finger, and slider.  He has similar offerings as Iwakuma, but has concentrated more on those three pitches than Iwakuma.  Chen also rarely throws his two seamer while Iwakuma has lately depended on it heavily.  The pre-2011 version of Chen threw around 91-92 mph often throwing mid 90s in the first couple innings and then dropping down to 88-90 after the third inning.  This season it stays and remains in the 88-90 range.  His split finger comes around in the mid 80s.  His slider used to be slightly faster than the split finger, but has appeared a tick slower this year.  Chin finished the season coming out of the bullpen for an important game.  He managed to add three mph to his fastball and stuck with his splitfinger with a couple sliders mixed in.

I think Chen has a better chance to stick as a starter than Iwakuma.  His decrease in velocity looks more like a conscious that will be quickly changed in the States.  At worst, I think his current repertoire will play as a below average to average starter.  As a relief pitcher, I think his increased velocity coming in from the left side could make him an incredibly valuable set up or left handed long reliever.  The projection system sees Chen in a negative light.  Over 200 IP, it projects him to strike out 150 while giving up 87 walks and 21 home runs for a 4.42 FIP.  That is five or maybe four slot pitcher in the Majors and could work well for a reliever.  I would be willing to give him a 2 year, 10 MM deal and see where it would lead while starting him out as a starter.  Of course, I would get my scouts to review him first. 

Tsuyoshi Wada (31 years old)
Wada will be entering his age 31 year in 2012 and has just made 4.35 MM for the Softbank Hawks.  He has been rather prolific at striking out batters and reminds me slightly of Koji Uehara in that he is a light tosser that relies on speed change and command to rack up Ks.  Like Uehara, he is also prone to giving up the occasional long ball.  I would not put him in the same caliber as Koji though.  I actually find it surprising if he can muster much more money out of American clubs than Japanese ones.

Wada lives off three pitches: a mid 80s fastball, a 80 mph changeup, and a 80 mph slider.  Based on the pitch f/x data, it looks like he works his fastball between 82 and 88 mph while coming in with a slider occasionally.  His changeup is a pitch he tosses in for good measure against righties.  Otherwise, you only see fastballs that vary widely in speed and his slider.  I imagine to be as successful as he is in Japan, he must utilize a pretty deceptive motion.

It will be difficult for Wada to be successful in the United States as a starter.  With his average velocity of 85 mph, he would have exceeded only four other starting pitchers last year: Livan Hernandez, Jeff Francis, Tim Wakefield, and RA Dickey.  Two of those guys are knuckleball pitchers.  No relievers throwing more than 50 IP would have used a lesser velocity.  However, when Wada has been used in relief he actually averages around 90 mph.  I think he could be a very useful middle reliever for someone.  As a starter, the system projects him over 200 IP with 128 strikeouts while giving up 77 walks and 16 home runs with a 4.55 FIP.

I cannot see Wada making more than five million on this side of the Pacific.  The receiving team would have to be overly optimistic about him being able to start.  I know we were fully behind acquiring Uehara here a few years back, but, even though he was right handed and showed similar speeds, he showed incredible command.  I just do not see that in Wada.  Wada's walk rate is more than twice was Uehara's was in Japan.  I just cannot see giving him more than what he made in Japan.

Compares to what they could earn in Japan, Wei-Yin Chen is the only pitcher who I think shows good value to the Orioles.  He has an outside chance of being a 4/5 slot pitcher working as a 90 mph left hander or he could come out from the bullpen with a little more heat.  His pitch f/x data just looks more like what I expect from MLB quality pitchers.  Iwakuma appears as if his shoulder is a problem.  I have severe reservations spending several million on someone who looks similar to several of our own right handers who were shuttled back and forth between Norfolk and Baltimore.  Wada looks interesting as a reliever, but I just cannot see matching what he makes in Japan in the US.  What works there does not necessarily work here.  It should be noted though that I have not evaluated these pitchers on video.  I have seen Iwakuma and Yada pitch, but have not really focused on them.


Daniel said...

I get what you mean here since Chen plays for the Dragons, but Wei-Yin Chen is Taiwanese, not Japanese.

Anonymous said...

Eh...I would refer to Hayden Penn as a Japanese pitcher. I am perhaps too casually referring to the league.