Clearing the Ayers: Shingo Takatsu and Akinori Otsuka

Wednesday, September 15 2004 @ 10:47 AM EDT

Contributed by: Thomas

In a couple of relatively quiet transactions in the offseason two Japanese relievers were brought over to the majors. Each of them has been outstanding and merits a closer look. Additionally, I take a look at several other Japanese relievers, from Kazuhiro Sasaki to Masao Kida.

Clearing the Ayers: Shingo Takatsu and Akinori Otsuka

Note: For all career statistics and ratios all years up to, but not including, the 2004 season were used. Also, the uncommon relief statistics that appear in this article are courtesy of Reliever Evaluation Tools at Baseball Prospectus. Unfortunately, they are only accurate as of August 5th, but I doubt any conclusions drawn from those statistics will have changed over the last month, especially considering how both pitchers have pitched. Some are from The Hardball Times, another great website. All statistics were current as of September 12th.

For years the only Oriental reliever in the major leagues of any consequence were Shigetoshi Hasegawa and, for the last few years, Kaz Sasaki. However, this year the performances of Shingo Takatsu and Akinori Otsuka are exhibit 1A and 1B of what a good reliever from the Japanese Professional Leagues (Central or Pacific) can do. Any person impressed with conventional pitching statistics would be quite impressed with what the pair have accomplished this year, but a look into more advanced pitching numbers shows that their success isn’t a mirage, either.

The 35-year-old Takatsu signed with the Chicago White Sox this offseason from the Yakult Swallows. “Mr. Zero” is the career saves leader in Japan with 260, a record he set in 2003 when he passed Sasaki’s old mark of 229. Takatsu earned the nickname while helping Yakult to four Japanese League titles, as he didn’t allowed a run in his 10 Japanese Series appearances. He declared his free agency after the 2003 season, his 13th with Yakult, and signed with the White Sox on January 22nd, following a workout on January 14th. He signed a deal for $750,000 with a $2 million option or $250,000 buyout for 2005. After his performance this year, I seriously doubt his option will not be picked up.

Takatsu, who has taken over the closer role for the White Sox, has 17 shiny saves this year. Takatsu also has a 2.44 ERA with only one unearned run allowed, a WHIP of 0.99, 43 strikeouts in 55.1 innings and due to a pedestrian 35 hits over that timespan he has an opponents batting average of .199. Firm believers in DIPS might be skeptical and his 20 walks are more than you’d like, but Takatsu’s deadly changeup (speeds: slow and slower) and his reliance on location and changing speeds have held up so far against major league hitters.

His success has also made this excerpt from a January Ken Rosenthal column look silly: Scouts and executives say the White Sox are kidding themselves if they think RHP Shingo Takatsu, Japan's all-time saves leader, can be their closer. Takatsu, a slender 35-year-old sidearmer, throws 84 to 86 mph and averaged only 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings against Japanese hitters the past two seasons.

The advanced numbers show that Takatsu has been equally valuable this year. He ranks 12th in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) with 17.6, and although he certainly would have overtaken Jason Frasor (who was 11th) at this point, someone else right behind him may have overtaken him so I won’t assume that he’s gained a spot. Takatsu has a Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER) of .800, which is quite high compared to the league average. However, his line drive percentage is .144 and his groundball/flyball ratio is .86, so he deserves some credit for that low DER himself, as he doesn’t allow many line drives and he succeeds in inducing flyball outs.

Akinori Otsuka, 31, signed with the Padres this off-season in a deal that garnered even less media coverage that Takatsu’s did. Otsuka spent 2003 with the Chunichi Dragons collecting 17 saves, to raise his career total to 137. Otsuka signed a $1.7 million contract for 2 years with a club option for 2006, and San Diego only paid $300,000 to Chunichi to secure the rights to negotiate with him) with the Padres, and he has been very valuable to their playoff run. Otsuka’s agent was friends with Randy Smith and the former Padres GM apparently recommended the pitcher to Kevin Towers.

Even more interesting is the fact that neither Towers nor Smith had ever seen Otsuka pitch in person before signing him. After the recommendation they watched some video of him pitch, they surveyed players who had faced him, including Ichiro Suzuki, and then made the gamble and signed him in December, 2003. Otsuka has wanted to play in the majors for a while now, and his desire to do so was an issue before the 2003 season, with some suggesting Chunichi should just release him to save themselves a headache.

Akinori Otsuka’s stats can almost go right beside Shingo Takatsu’s. While he hasn’t become the trademarked closer that Takatsu has, Otsuka’s been practically as valuable as the setup man for an in-the-thick-of-the-playoff-race San Diego Padres team. Otsuka’s ERA is 2.06 and he hasn’t allowed an unearned run. He has a WHIP of 1.05 with 75 strikeouts in 65.2 innings, as well as a similarly pedestrian 43 hits allowed for a 1.93 batting average against. But his set-up man coolness factor suffers because he doesn’t have a Fu Manchu moustache.

When you delve deeper into his statistics, like Takatsu’s, they pass scrutiny. Otsuka was 19th in the majors with 13.3 ARP and is likely continuing to hang with company like Juan Rincon and Frankie ”Doesn’t Take Heckling Well” Francisco with regards to that. Otsuka’s DER is .744, so as you may have guessed his increased number of strikeouts show that he isn’t relying on his defence as much as Takatsu. However, his LD% is .196 and his G/F ratio is 1.33, and both of those stats are above league average, which is not something that is encouraging. So while Otsuka has the strikeouts and less walks per 9 innings, Takatsu’s LD% and G/F ratio bode well for his future. My suspicion is that while neither reliever is a fluke in the sense that they are pitching well above their head, they probably won’t pitch quite this well in the future either. However, one of the authors of the The Hardball Times would be better qualified to answer that question than I.

Otsuka was targeted by the Diamondbacks when the two teams discussed Steve Finley, and while I’m not sure if that request alone put the kibosh on the deal I suspect San Diego was very hesitant to part with him. Otsuka is on pace to pitch in close to half of San Diego’s games, after never having pitched in more than 35% of his team’s games in Japan. Otsuka claims he isn’t even tired, saying through an interpreter, “Here a day off is a day off. In Japan relief pitchers throw every day in the bullpen, and twice on days when he is pitching.” That’s an interesting difference between leagues that I never knew about.

Otsuka is also well-known for his unique windup where he double pumps the ball in his glove with his front foot lifted, before striding forward. Mets manager Art Howe protested a game against San Diego claiming that Otsuka balked each time he pitched, but Major League Baseball didn’t uphold the protest.

Their success leads me to another thing that I want to look at and that is how well pitchers from the Japanese League tend to pitch in the majors in general. Hasegawa and Sasaki have been successes, this year notwithstanding in Shiggy’s case, but how do these two, and the 2004 duo compare to those who have come over to North America and not succeeded? Is there anything we can learn from them?

Interestingly, the Japanese reliever train of the 1990’s began in 1997 with Haseagawa and a second reliever, the forgettable Takashi Kashiwada. Kashiwada was released by the Mets after the 1997 season and returned to the Tokyo Giants for 25 million yen. Kashiwada is one of several Japanese relievers who didn’t adjust successfully to the major leagues, including Saturo Komiyama, Mac Suzuki and Masao Kida, who was claimed on waivers by Seattle on September 1st.

To try to give us some insight into why Otsuka and Takatsu are succeeding where others before them failed, let’s examine everyone’s pitching statistics from the last three years in Japan before they came to the major leagues. I am going to use the terms “successes” and “failures” to describe the relievers, and those terms are used loosely, but also relatively fairly for the purposes of this.


Player 			IP	H	HR	BB	K	BB/9	K/9	HR/9
Takatsu 135.1 128 16 45 93 2.99 6.18 1.06
Otsuka 141.1 95 15 23 192 1.46 12.22 0.95
Sasaki 139.1 76 11 36 211 2.33 13.63 0.71
Hasegawa* 258.2 276 28 91 146 3.16 5.08 0.97

*I only have stats for the last two years in Japan for Hasegawa, who also differs from the other 3 success stories as he was used as a starter.

Player 			IP	H	HR	BB	K	BB/9	K/9	HR/9
Kashiwada* 15 18 1 7 5 4.20 3.00 0.60
Kida 270.2 265 27 92 226 3.06 7.52 0.90
Komiyama 451.2 474 52 82 278 1.63 5.54 1.03
Suzuki# N/A N/A

* Only have two years of statistics for, as well
# Have no Japanese League Stats for. He was signed out of Takigawa Daini HS in Kobe, Japan.

Firstly, Mac Suzuki was signed as a undrafted free agent out of high school in 1992 and did a fair bit to lay down a path that has since been followed by many pitchers of Oriental descent. Suzuki had a relatively good year at San Bernadino (A) in 1993. However, warning signs were present as Suzuki walked too many batters and was used as a minor league reliever, which is not something that is usually done with significant pitching prospects. He barely pitched the next two years, presumably struggling with injuries. Afterwards Suzuki had some relatively mediocre years in AA and AAA, before making it to the big leagues, where he accumulated close to 500 innings of 5.74 ERA baseball, mainly with Kansas City.

I’m not sure if Seattle paid a lot of money to sign Suzuki, after outbidding several teams for his services, or if they made this move relatively quietly, before Asian markets were looked at as the legitimate source of baseball talent like they are now. If Seattle did the former, it was obviously a very risky move that ended up backfiring. Without any comparison data to go on it’s a big jump to pay a lot of money for a Japanese pitcher, especially when he’s never pitched at a level higher than Japanese high school ball. If Seattle paid very little for Suzuki (what I suspect based on his salaries courtesy of Doug Pappas) then it was an interesting gamble on their part, which unfortunately didn’t work out.

Takashi Kashiwada is a different story. His page at Baseball Cube doesn’t contain any minor league statistics, although I know Kashiwada pitched in Norfolk in 1997 as well. The bigger question is why New York signed this 26-year-old who had only pitched 15 innings in the Japanese League over the past 2 years. Kashiwada left for Japan after the 1997 season was over and didn’t try to latch onto another major league team.

Again, maybe he was available for minimal cost and New York wasn’t confident enough in the abilities of Japanese pitchers to pay a lot of money to a Japanese team to buy an established player’s contract rights, and then pay him the necessary salary to make it worth it to come over to North America. However, both this and the Suzuki pick beg the question of, if a team is going to jump the queue and be one of the first teams to bring over an Asian pitcher, why would they not spend the money to bring over the best, or at least someone close to the best, as opposed to unknowns, both by name and statistically.

There are also two players who stand out when looking at the success group. Kaz Sasaki and Akinori Otsuka’s stats both stand out dramatically from Takatsu or Hasegawa’s.

Let’s take a look at their rate stats again for a moment:

Player 			BB/9	K/9	BB/K	HR/9	
Takatsu 2.99 6.18 2.07 1.06
Otsuka 1.46 12.22 8.35 0.95
Sasaki 2.33 13.63 5.86 0.71
Hasegawa 3.16 5.08 1.60 0.97

Otsuka and Sasaki both displayed phenomenal control and strikeout rates in Japan, and while they surrendered more home-runs than one’d like, it wasn’t a worrisome rate. Their Japanese statistics compare well to the MLB stats of the league’s top relievers, pitchers like Eric Gagne, Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge, John Smoltz and Trevor Hoffman.

Obviously their stats aren’t going to translate to that degree of dominance in the majors, but Sasaki had three good years in the majors before a decent fourth one filled with injury, and Otsuka has adjusted fine, so far. I could look into exactly what sort of drop-off is expected from a dominant Japanese reliever when he comes over to the majors, but I might leave that for another time, as I’m more curious as to what the differences are between success and failures, outright.

Now, it’s time to compare the remaining two successes with the remaining two failures to look at what differences we can spot between the two groups.

Player 		IP	H	HR	BB	K	BB/9	K/9	K/BB	HR/9
Takatsu 135.1 128 16 45 93 2.99 6.18 2.07 1.06
Hasegawa 258.2 276 28 91 146 3.16 5.08 1.60 0.97
Kida 270.2 265 27 92 226 3.06 7.52 2.46 0.90
Komiyama 451.2 474 52 82 278 1.63 5.54 3.39 1.03

If there are any noticeable differences there they have escaped my attention. Takatsu had the highest K rate, but he was also the only one of the four pitchers to be used exclusively as a reliever, so that’s not a suprise. Takatsu had good control in Japan, but his K/BB rate was the third-lowest of the four pitchers, and he also surrendered the most homers per inning.

Komiyama has the best K/BB ratio, and by far the fewest number of walks of the four pitchers and also had the fewest K/9, suggesting a pitcher who relies on location and control, rather than pure stuff. Therefore it’s not entirely surprising that Komiyama didn’t succeed in a major league bullpen..

Kida stuck out the most batters of any of the relievers, but his K/BB was still noticeably behind Komiyama’s because sometimes he struggled with his control, walking approximately a batter every three innings. When Kida pitched in the majors he walked about a batter every two and a bit innings, and his K/BB ratio dropped to 1.75, from his Japanese ratio of 2.46, a drop of 40%. I wondered if that was the reason for his lack of success. However his ratio dropped less than other relievers as Sasaki’s ratio dropped to 3.14 from 5.86, a drop of almost 86% and Otsuka’s ridiculous ratio of 8.16 fell to 3.17, a drop of 157%.

The point to take from those numbers is that those relievers who are very successful in Japan (Sasaki and Otsuka) can afford those drops, whereas relievers who are doing good, but not great, in Japan will likely have much more trouble surviving against hitters of a better calibre.

Hasegawa made his major-league debut in 1997 with the Anaheim Angels, at the age of 28. After graduating from Ritsumeikan College in Kyoto, Japan Hasegawa spent six seasons with the Orix Blue Wave. After his 1991 campaign, Hasegawa stepped up in 1992 when he was a starter, amassing a 3.24 ERA in 24 appearances. He improved upon those totals in 1993 with a 2.71 ERA and nine complete games, and “dropped” to a 3.11 ERA and eight complete games the following year. In 1995 he continued to be an ace on the Orix staff, with a 2.89 ERA in 24 games, nine of them nine-inning efforts. In 1996 he had the worst year of his Japanese career with a 5.34 ERA in eighteen appearances, although Orix reached the Japan Series that year.

In what was quite possibly a very shrewd scouting move Anaheim saw past the pitcher with a mid-5 ERA this year in an inferior league, and recognised the pitcher who had done very well in the Japanese league for the previous four seasons. Anaheim signed him, likely intending to use him as a starter as he started in his first major league appearance on April 5th. However, Hasegawa soon settled into a role in the bullpen, and put up the first of what would be many solid seasons.

Years 			IP	H	HR	BB	K	BB/9	K/9	HR/9
1997-2000 386.2 384 53 150 259 3.49 6.03 1.23
2001-2003 199 174 14 68 112 3.08 5.07 0.63

Hasegawa’s never been a dominant force out of the pen, but he’s relied upon his location and changing speeds with his fastball and forkball to get batters out. A look at his stats from his first four seasons in the big leagues compared to his next three would show a noticeable improvement in ERA that stems from a very good and somewhat lucky 2003 campaign and a marked improved in his ability to avoid conceding homeruns. By cutting his HR/9 rate in half Hasegawa turned himself into a much better reliever. To be fair a significant portion of that credit must go to Safeco Field, which he moved into in 2002, which depresses home runs.

Hasegawa’s career low walk rate of 2003 and his luck have both worn off, and this year is being repaid by the Karma Gods for all the karma he stole on the black market as, despite the fact he’s striking out more batters than he did last year, his ERA has more than tripled.

Again, let’s play the ratios game, this time comparing Hasegawa’s Japanese League tenure against his MLB career.

Player 			BB/9	K/9	K/BB	HR/9
Hasegawa (Japan) 3.16 5.08 1.60 0.97
Hasegawa (MLB) 3.35 5.70 1.70 1.03

Hasegawa has allowed marginally more walks and homeruns in the majors than he did in Japan, although much less of a difference than the other pitchers we’ve looked at, and he also improved his K/9 rate noticeably, about 12%. This is the only improvement amongst the control stats of any of the eight pitchers.

If we were comparing stats that didn’t need any adjustment, this could be explained by Hasegawa’s conversion from starter to reliever, which is usually accompanied by a rise in the strikeout ratio. Komiyama experienced this too, but Kida did not, and Hasegawa avoided any big drops in other ratios as well, which neither of the other two avoided.

In the end, there is nothing definite that I can point to that differentiates the four pitchers I’ve talked about. Otsuka and Sasaki put up ridiculous stats in Japan, and they were very good bets to have success in the major leagues. Suzuki and Kashiwada barely pitched in Japan, and we couldn’t really compare their stats. As I said, little seems to separate the Japanese stats of Hasegawa, an obvious success, and Kida, a failure, his success this year considered.

That leads us to two other things to consider. The first is that this small study has the evident problem of having a limited sample size. Since I wanted to examine relievers from the Japan only, I excluded starters so pitchers used primarily or exclusively as such, such as Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Masato Yoshii and The Fat Toad were excluded, as were South Koreans like Byung-Hyun Kim or Sun Woo Kim. So we were only left with 8 pitchers, some of whom had brief stays in the majors like Komiyama or Kashiwada. It’s quite possible that those two pitchers would have pitched differently given another 50 innings in the big leagues, and it’s quite possible we’d have different results with 20 pitchers to examine.

The second thing to consider are the many intangibles related to playing baseball in a foreign country, which play a large role in determining success and failure. The adjustment that must be made when coming from a foreign nation to the United States cannot be underestimated. You have to deal with a different climate, a different culture, different food and different ways of dealing with day-to-day activities. Players are usually away from their families, as well. Even if the family has the desire to move to the United States, than the player may lack the resources to move them, and regardless, it still doesn’t minimise the homesickness that many players feel, and that their families would feel as well.

For these reasons it is essential that the player in question truly want to come to play in America, or else all the adjustments they must make will seem worse by tenfold. It doesn’t seem unlikely that many players believe they want to make the transition, but once they are in the United States they find the adjustment too difficult, or at least their desire to return home is greater than their desire to stay in the major leagues and earn a bigger paycheque. I doubt it would surprise anyone if the problems encounter by at least one of the relievers above was primarily due to an inability to adjust to American life, and a desire to return home to their native land. This psychological aspect is an added difficulty to the task of trying to translate whether success in Japan will lead to success in the major leagues.

However, it does appear that the Japanese relief market is potentially a very profitable one for major league ball clubs. I think the success of Takatsu and Otsuka will open the eyes of many major league general managers to Japanese relievers; however there are many good bullpen arms in Japan waiting for an opportunity in the majors. Takatsu and Otsuka were both bought for a relatively modest price (no more than proven major league relievers like Kerry Ligtenberg or Todd Van Poppell) and unless their success has exploded the market, Japanese relievers won’t get too much more expensive in the future. The only tricky part is when it comes to paying negotiating fees to the Japanese clubs themselves, but if the player expresses an earnest desire to leave for America, a mutually agreeable figure is usually reached.

As was stated in the Catalanotto extension discussion threads, the Blue Jays are a team where every million dollars matters. The Jays can’t afford to waste $5 million like the Yankees or Red Sox can; these wasted resources harm the Blue Jays much more than they harm any other team. However, at the same time, to be successful, the Blue Jays have to develop a sustainable farm system, and they also have to be able to find skills or markets which are being undervalued currently in baseball.

The price that is paid for the next Japanese reliever to cross to the major leagues will determine if the market is still being undervalued, but I believe that if a top-notch reliever like Otsuka only fetches $2 million for 2 years, negotiating fee including, then he currently is being undervalued.

It’s a big risk for the Jays to invest that sort of money into a player that has never pitched in the big leagues before, and never even pitched in North America before. However, if one looks at the statistics and the other factors and tries to accurately paint a complete profile of this player, than I believe it can be done. While $1 million a year for the next Mac Suzuki is a poor investment, the same price for the next Akinori Otsuka is quite worthwhile.

I’m not advocating that the Jays do sign a Japanese pitcher this winter, because the right name may not be out there. And it maybe that the Jays believe they can only enter this market with players on the ground-floor, like they did with Chi-Hung Chen. However, based on the prices that pitchers fetched this offseason, I believe its well within their monetary capabilities, and it is certainly a market that they should consider and not entirely dismiss.

The Blue Jays bullpen needs help, and it may be way across the sea.

I welcome any thoughts and opinions from Bauxities. If people have interest, I’ve thought about doing a second piece on good Japanese relievers still in Japan, as I encountered several in my research.