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Curious about the best bullpen arms in Japan? Well I was, so I decided to try to find out who they were. I examine some good arms that could be appearing in the majors in the next few years, and I also quickly look at Denny Tomori, who was rumoured to be linked to the Jays a few weeks ago.

Clearing the Ayers: Japanís Best Relievers

In my previous article I talked about the unexpected success of Akinori Otsuka and Skingo Takatsu, and compared them to other Japanese relievers who had made the transition to the majors, from the success of Kaz Sasaki to the relative failure of Masao Kida or Saturo Komiyama.

Just to recall the last article, here are the summaries of the three successful Japanese relievers (Shigetoshi Hasegawa has been omitted due to the time he spent as a starter in Japan):

Player 		IP	H	HR	BB	K	H/9	K/9	BB/9	HR/9
Takatsu 135.1 128 16 45 93 8.51 6.18 2.99 1.06
Otsuka 141.1 95 15 23 192 6.05 12.22 1.46 0.95
Sasaki 139.1 76 11 36 211 4.91 13.63 2.33 0.71
Average 138.2 100 14 35 165 6.49 10.71 2.27 0.91

The average line shows the average of the cumulative stats of those three relievers, divided by three (as the innings pitched totals were relatively close). All numbers were rounded up or down except for innings pitched and ratio stats. That will serve as our baseline for use when analysing the top relievers in Japan. Iíve identified seven relievers in Japan whose stats looked particularly impressive, and Iíve also included an eighth reliever who was recently linked to the Blue Jays in a rumour in the Toronto Sun.

When considering the best players in a foreign league, which applies predominantly to players in Japanís NPB for the time being, itís important to consider personal characteristics, as it is with prospects and major leaguers themselves. As I wrote about in the last article, itís a waste of money if you buy a player from Japan who has little desire to play in America. One needs to consider the roots that the playerís desire to play in the United States stems from, whether itís money or a desire to prove they can pitch successfully in the best baseball league in the world. One also needs to consider if they have a family; whether that family is coming to America or staying in Japan and whether they seem likely to be able to adjust to the culture shock and similar issues.

Many players, like Ichiro or some of the relievers discussed above, appear to have adjusted successfully. However, other players have had problems, most noticeably Hideki Irabu, as Coach pointed out. Another good example may be the issues Jose Contrerasí had with getting his family over to the United States, and whether that impacted his performance Several American players who have gone to Japan have had problems adjusting, and thereís no reason it doesnít apply to Japanese players coming across to America. A team must take into consideration character issues if they are going to invest a million or several million dollars on a player who has never pitched in America.

Now, itís time to look at the top relievers in Japan. Iíve only included relievers who have shown several years of good ability, so any rookies or second-year players who have shown talent have not been included yet, as I wanted to limit it to those who have shown sustained success. For these relievers Iíve included the stats for their last three years in the NPB as best I know them, although I make no claims to their complete accuracy. In addition to the stats, Iíve listed their age as of opening day 2005 and then Iíve included a brief write-up of each pitcher. They are listed in no particular order.

Yoshinori Tateyama, Nippon Ham Fighters, 29, RHP
2004: 1-3, 2.33 ERA, 41 G, 46.1 IP, 39 HA, 12 ER, 4 HR, 7 BB, 39 K
2003: 2-1, 2.17 ERA, 32 G, 37.1 IP, 24 HA, 9 ER, 5 HR, 4 BB, 31 K
2002: 3-2, 2.29 ERA, 45 G, 59 IP, 40 HA, 15 ER, 7 HR, 13 BB, 41 K
Totals: 6-6, 2.27 ERA, 118 G, 142.2 IP, 103 HA, 36 ER, 16 HR, 24 BB, 111 K
6.50 H/9, 7.00 K/9, 1.51 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 4.63 K/BB, (5 UER in 2004, 1 in 2002)

Yoshinori Tateyama, born on Boxing Day, has pitched for the Nippon Ham Fighters for the past six years. After a good 1999, a sub par 2000 and an injury-filled 2001 Tateyama has put together three good years in a row. Tateyama doesnít surrender many hits, as his H/9 ratio is right at the ďEstablished AverageĒ (EA). His walk rate is low, but so is his strikeout rate, leaving his K/BB rate right at the EA.

However, Iíd be a bit more hesitant if someone whose strikeout rate is low would stand as much chance to succeed as someone with a high strikeout rate, but with a similar K/BB. If the strikeout numbers drop itíll be a lot less damaging with a low walk total. While Takatsuís numbers in Japan werenít that impressive, both Sasaki and Otsuka had impressive numbers before succeeding in the majors; whereas a pitcher like Komiyama, who relied upon control, struggled when he tried to adjust to the majors. Heís certainly a fine pitcher to take a chance on if the price is right and I wouldnít be overly hesitant with him, but itís something to keep in mind.

Hirotoshii Ishii, Yakult Swallows, 27, LHP
2004: 4-2, 2.05 ERA, 38 G, 52.2 IP, 38 HA, 12 ER, 5 HR, 10 BB, 69 K
2003: 6-1, 1.99 ERA, 36 G, 45.1 IP, 37 HA, 10 ER, 4 HR, 10 BB, 61 K
2002: 6-2, 1.51 ERA, 69 G, 89.2 IP, 63 HA, 15 ER, 7 HR, 12 BB, 109 K
TOTALS: 14-5, 1.77 ERA, 143 G, 187.2 IP, 138 HA, 37 ER, 19 HR, 32 BB, 239 K
6.62 H/9, 11.46 K/9, 1.53 BB/9, 0.91 HR/9, 7.47 K/BB

This southpaw pitched 10 innings in 1996 and 1997, and then became a full-time pitcher in the NPB in 1999. After a poor í99 season, he turned into a good reliever in 2000. Ishii really turned a corner in 2002, as he became one of the best relievers in Japan. Only 27, Ishii had two seasons of ERAs under 2, and then he just rose above that mark this year. Those ERA figures arenít inflated either, as Ishii hasnít allowed an unearned run in the last three years, although he allowed 8 in 2001. His rate states, save hits per 9 innings, are all better than the EA, and they closely resemble Akinori Otsukaís with a small drop in the K rate. Given Ishiiís recent dominance, he is one of the best bets in a Japanese bullpen for success in the majors.

In the 2003 off-season Nippon Sports reported that Ishii wanted to be posted to the majors after the 2004 season. However, that article also included speculation that the Swallows might try to prevent that, given Takatsuís posting to the majors, especially if third baseman Akinori Iwamura is also posted following the 2004 season.

Ryota Igarashi, Yakult Swallows, 25, RHP
2004: 5-3, 2.66 ERA, 66 G, 74.1 IP, 57 HA, 22 ER, 9 HR, 36 BB, 86 K
2003: 5-5, 3.89 ERA, 66 G, 74 IP, 60 HA, 32 ER, 9 HR, 33 BB, 83 K
2002: 8-2, 2.08 ERA, 64 G, 78 IP, 49 HA, 18 ER, 8 HR, 18 BB, 97 K
TOTALS: 18-10, 2.86 ERA, 196 G, 226 .1 IP, 166 HA, 72 ER, 26 HR, 87 BB, 266 K
6.60 H/9, 10.58 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 1.03 HR/9, 3.06 K/BB, (2 UER in 2004, 1 in 2003, 1 in 2002)

The Yakult Swallows have a good relief core, and Ryota Igarashi is an important part of the bullpen. Igarashi usually puts up a low ERA and strikes out many batters; however he has really struggled with his control most of his career, 2002 being the notable exception. In terms of hits and home runs allowed, Igarashi is close to the EA and shows good signs, but no dominance.

Igarashi is the typical fireballer who doesnít always know where heís throwing. Heís tied for the record for the fastest pitch in Japan with Hideki Irabu and Kazuo Yamaguchi, clocking a heater at 158 kph (98.75 mph). He officially achieved the record on June 3, 2004 in the bottom of the 9th against Makoto Imaoka of the Hanshin Tigers. Consistently throwing near 99 mph doesnít seem to be a problem for Igarashi as he hit 158 kph with three pitches in a row on September 20th vs. Hanshin. As heís only 25, Igarashi could well become the first Japanese pitcher to clock 100. Itíd be quite interesting to see how he did in the majors with his blazing fastball.

Shinji Mori, Seibu Lions, 30, RHP
2004: 0-4, 4.59 ERA, 34 G, 49 IP, 50 IP, 25 ER, 5 HR, 38 BB, 49 K
2003: 7-3, 2.31 ERA, 61 G, 70 IP, 55 HA, 18 ER, 6 HR, 22 BB, 92 K
2002: 6-7, 2.07 ERA, 71 G, 78.1 IP, 61 HA, 18 ER, 4 HR, 29 BB, 102 K
TOTALS: 13-14, 2.78 ERA, 166 G, 197.1 IP, 166 HA, 61 ER, 15 HR, 89 BB, 243 K
7.57 H/9, 11.08 K/9, 4.06 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 2.73 K/BB, (10 UER in 2004, 1 in 2003, 7 in 2002)

Mori had a bad 2004, which was even worse than it looked at he allowed ten unearned runs for a 6.43 RAA. That gives Mori an almost unheard of, for a reliever, 18 unearned runs allowed over three years. Another warning sign surrounding Mori is his high walk rate, which gives him a K/BB ratio under 3. Moriís not all bad news, as his low HR/9 ratio helps to minimise damage he does to himself through his walks allowed. Furthermore, his K/9 ratio would be 11.77 if 2004 wasnít considered. 2004 also misleadingly bumped up his walk rate, which was 2.87 (high, but not worrisome like 4.06) from 2000-2003. He throws a fastball that apparently only reaches 90 mph on most days, but he has also has a forkball with a sharp drop.

In some ways Mori looks like a pitcher whose numbers hide some troubling stats, while in others he looks like someone whose 2004 is going to drag down his price more than he deserves. Heís someone worth taking a chance on if the price is minimal, which it might well be after last year. Obviously, if I was going to sign him Iíd try to get extensive reports from Japanese executives and players as to what his trouble was in 2004 and whether it could be a sign of decline in any way.

Kiyoshi Toyoda, Seibu Lions, 34, RHP
2004: 5-1, 0.98 ERA, 34 G, 36.2 IP, 26 HA, 4 ER, 1 HR, 5 BB, 39 K
2003: 2-3, 1.24 ERA, 58 G, 58 IP, 37 HA, 8 ER, 2 HR, 9 BB, 54 K
2002: 6-1, 0.79 ERA, 57 G, 57.1IP, 32 HA, 5 ER, 1 HR, 3 BB, 66 K
Totals: 13-5, 1.01 ERA, 149 G, 152 IP, 95 HA, 17 ER, 4 HR, 17 BB, 159 K
5.63 H/9, 9.41 K/9, 1.01 BB/9, 0.24 HR/9, 9.35 K/BB, (1 UER in 2004)

Toyoda has been an extremely solid force out of the Seibu bullpen for many years, but heís turned a corner over the last three years. Toyoda doesnít quite strike out as many batters as the established average, but heís not far behind with a K rate that still exceeds one an inning. However, with regards to his other ratios he noticeably exceeds the average, especially with regards to walks and home runs allowed. Toyodaís HR allowed rate is 26.39% of the average of the previously successful relievers, and his BB/9 ratio is 44.44% of the EA. Plus, his K rate is still 90.66% of the EA.

Toyoda is one of the best relievers in Japan, and looks like a very good bet for success in the majors. He bears a rough resemblance to Otsuka, and Otsuka has adapted to the major leagues very well. Even though the strikeout numbers arenít as outstanding as Sasaki or Otsuka, theyíre still quite good and his other numbers are outstanding. A team would be foolish to pass him up given the opportunity to acquire him.

Hitoki Iwase, Chunichi Dragons, 30, LHP
2004: 2-3, 2.80 ERA, 60 G, 64.1 IP, 53 HA, 20 ER, 4 HR, 14 BB, 53 K
2003: 5-2, 1.41 ERA, 58 G, 63.2 IP, 47 HA, 10 ER, 3 HR, 12 BB, 61 K
2002: 4-2, 1.06 ERA, 52 G, 59.2 IP, 38 HA, 7 ER, 2 HR, 15 BB, 66 K
TOTALS: 11-7, 1.77 ERA, 170 G, 187.2 IP, 138 HA, 37 ER, 9 HR, 41 BB, 180 K
6.61 H/9, 8.63 K/9, 1.97 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 4.39 K/BB, (1 UER in 2002)

Iwase is part of a strong Chunichi bullpen, and the second southpaw on this list. He doesnít strike out as many batters as the previously successful relievers, but his other ratios are all better than average, although only by miniscule amounts in two cases. Iwase has a better chance for success than some with lower strikeout numbers, as his control is consistently good and he keeps the ball in the ballpark.

He could make a valuable addition for a team in search of a left-handed reliever in their bullpen if Ishii is not posted or signs with another different major league team. Iwase still has a number of good years in front of him, and with fairly good control he can likely survive without the stuff that some of the other relievers on this list appear to possess.

Masataka Endoh, Chunichi Dragons, 32, RHP
2004: 1-0, 7.01 ERA, 22 G, 25.2 IP, 26 HA, 20 ER, 11 HR, 9 BB, 30 K
2003: 2-2, 2.83 ERA, 34 G, 41.1 IP, 33 HA, 13 ER (1 UER), 5 HR, 14 BB, 41 K
2002: 4-2, 3.14 ERA, 57 G, 71.2 IP, 61 HA, 25 ER (1 UER), 9 HR, 18 BB, 77 K
TOTALS: 7-4, 3.76 ERA, 113 G, 138.2 IP, 120 HA, 58 ER, 25 HR, 41 BB, 148 K
7.79 H/9, 9.61 K/9, 2.66 BB/9, 1.62 HR/9, 3.61 K/BB, (1 UER in 2003 and 2002)

Masataka Endoh (I've seen his surname listed without the "h" sometimes, but I'm assuming the above spelling is correct) had a nice three years prior to this year, where the wheels fell off. I donít know enough about the NPB to speculate as to why Masataka pitched so poorly this year. Was it just a case of a lot of bad bounces? Did he struggle with a nagging injury, explaining the drop innings pitched? Did he look healthy and the Chunichi coaching staff canít explain it either?

Masatakaís numbers, even before the 2004 season, werenít among the best but he was right at the top of the second tier of relievers. Heís right in the middle of his career, but I canít really add a lot without knowing more about the nature of his struggles this year.

Denny Tomori, Yokohama Bay Stars, 37, RHP
2004: 0-1, 4.62 ERA, 21 G, 25.1 IP, 30 H, 13 ER (2 UER), 7 HR, 4 BB, 24 K
2003: 1-8, 4.40 ERA, 52 G, 47 IP, 49 H, 23 ER (1 UER), 5 HR, 11 BB, 47 K
2002: 0-0, 3.00 ERA, 2 G, 3 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 HR, 0 BB, 4 K*
2001: 1-2, 3.83 ERA, 54 G, 51.2 IP, 38 H, 22 ER (2 UER), 8 HR, 23 BB, 53 K
TOTALS: 2-11, 4.20 ERA, 127 G, 124 IP, 117 H, 58 ER, 20 HR, 38 BB, 124 K
8.49 H/9, 9.00 K/9, 2.76 BB/9, 1.45 HR/9, 3.26 K/BB, (2 UER in 2004 and 2001, 1 UER in 2003)

For Yui ďDennyĒ Tomori I didnít include his 2002 when calculating his totals. This is the player that was linked to the Blue Jays in an article in the Sun a few weeks ago. He isnít the best reliever on this list, not by a longshot. However, as Iíll get into in a bit more detail below, he may be one of the only ones who are available, and maybe the Jays expect the price of the others to exceed what they can afford to spend on an untested relief arm.

Tomoriís stats by themselves donít really stand up to any of the other arms listed here. However, Shingo Takatsu proved that sometimes mediocre Japanese numbers can turn into good major league ones. Plus, Tomori is a submariner, which compares well to Takatsuís deceptive sidearm. If the reports from the Sun are true, itís likely the Jays hope the submarine arm angle will give major league hitters trouble for a year or two, at which point Tomori would be at about the end of his career anyway. Still, he wouldnít be the first option I would go after, and I wouldnít recommend the Jays sign him unless theyíd exhausted some of the other options above.

Now, all of this is moot if the players canít join the major leagues. Basically, as far as I understand it, the rules for Japanese players leaving to play in the majors are as follows (please correct me if Iím wrong, btw). If the player is a free agent he is free to sign with any team on November 6th, this includes either Japanese teams or major league teams. Of the pitchers listed above it seems as if Tomori is a free agent (although Iíve seen conflicting reports, most say he is) , but none of the rest appear to be free agents from anything Iíve come across. If the player is not a free agent, he may file a notice with MLB that heíd like to play in the majors. This allows any club interested in him to place bids on the rights to negotiate with the player. The playerís Japanese team selects the winning bid, and then allows the player to negotiate with the major league team and sign a contract if they so choose. I presume Japanese teams can not accept any bid, and can keep a player who has expressed a desire to play in the majors, but I donít think this is common, and probably not particularly desirable to keep an unhappy body around.

So, what does this mean for the Blue Jays? Well, Iíd rank the eight relievers in the following non-scientific order:

1. Toyoda
2. Ishii
3. Iwase
4. Tateyama
5. Igarashi
6. Mori
7. Endoh
8. Tomori

I strongly feel like any of the top four names could become an impact reliever in a major league bullpen. Igarashi could turn the corner with a bit better location, but if he loses a couple of mph on his fastball he could become eminently more hittable. Moriís the best of the last three relievers, but both he and Masataka have question marks surrounding them after their 2004. If any of the top four posted themselves to the majors Iíd encourage the Jays to put in serious bids for them. Toyoda could become an excellent setup man and after Doug Creek, Jason Kershner and Valerio de los Santos, Iíd love to have Hirotoshi Ishii be our left-handed setup man for the next few years. As stated above, both Iwase and Tateyama would also make fine additions to a bullpen.

Over at the Hardball Times Craig asked about potential World Cup teams for each nation. Well, Iíll conclude this article by looking quickly at the Japanís potential bullpen for the tournament.

Bullpens for such international tournaments are hard to predict, as you often might end up with two or three starters who didnít make the rotation in the bullpen. Despite that I think that Ishii and Toyoda are locks for the Japanese bullpen, or are as close to locks as you can have for a tournament that is still 18 months away. Both of them post ridiculous numbers and have for several years in a row, demonstrating consistent talent with no signs of decline. Go look again at Toyodaís K/BB ratio or HR/9, or at Ishiiís strikeouts. Ishii would be a formidable force against Larry Walker, Barry Bonds, Carlos Delgado and all the other left-handed sluggers and Toyodo would be one of the best setup men or closers in the tournament.

Iíd say Iwase and Tateyama are very close to being locks as their numbers are in the next tier, not quite as good as the first two but still solidly above everyone else Iíve encountered. A poor year or two might hurt them more, as with the potential of a couple of starters in the bullpen, a good year by Igarashi or another reliever might knock one of them out. Iíd lay solid money on at least one of the pair showing up at the tournament.

Igarashi is a leading candidate for a fifth relieverís slot. His age and speed are a dangerous combination and similar results to what heís done previously will help his chances, as people tend to go with firepower in a tossup. Mori and Masataka are question marks at this point, and I think Tomori will be too old, or just not good enough at that point to make the club. Other candidates to keep an eye for the last couple of spots include Shinya Okamoto (only been in the NPB for two seasons effectively, or else heíd have made the article; heís probably the best bet of people not covered in this article), Yukinaga Maeda (good consistency, but heís aging and the peripherals are never anything special), Koji Mise (no stats on the page; recent draftee who closed for the Fukoka Daiei Hawks this year and had a 3.06 ERA with good peripherals) and Ryu Kawabata (good numbers, just nothing outstanding). Additionally, as stated before, leftover starters who donít make the rotation may get a place or two in the bullpen. However, the frontline of this bullpen looks very good with Otsuka, Toyoda and Ishii, and probably Iwase and Tateyama not far behind.
Clearing the Ayers: Japan's Best Relievers | 11 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Thomas - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 03:25 AM EST (#17904) #
This may be one of the most frustrating things I've ever written, simply because I lost partially completed copies of it twice on my computer. Luckily the second time I wasn't very far in, and also that I could remember most of the names after losing the files, or else I may have given up.
_garth - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 11:35 AM EST (#17905) #
side note. vernon wells named mvp of japan all stars series. great news
_Braby - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 01:28 PM EST (#17906) #
are there any stats on the Japan All-Star series?
_Wildrose - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 01:51 PM EST (#17907) #
Solid work Thomas, hopefully the Jays are pursuing this avenue. I also strongly recommend Craig Burley's excellent article on a possible baseball world cup which is linked in this story.
_Dunny - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 05:21 PM EST (#17908) #
Good Job Thomas..Article Much appreciated
Craig B - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 09:45 PM EST (#17909) #
Thomas, I like your choices. I think Okamoto and Igarashi would be in a seven-man pen alongside Otsuka and Takatsu, with Toyoda, Ishii, and Iwase. The Japanese would likely be going with a four-man rotation and a long pen, since they are traditionally more likely to work their starters on shorter rest without worrying about the time of year.

If they go with six in the pen, I'd take out Okamoto (right now), but honestly I think he and Igarashi will be the class of the relievers by 2006. One of Otsuka and Takatsu would probably sit in that case, probably Takatsu as the greybeard of this group.

Honestly, I think the Japanese bullpen is the strongest part of their team. The success we've seen Japanese pitchers have in MLB bullpens is the tip of the iceberg.

This was a great article.
Thomas - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 11:00 PM EST (#17910) #
A reader has informed me that the family name is definately "Endo", so I will make that change above. Thanks.
_Jeff - Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 11:42 PM EST (#17911) #
The Argonauts are going to the Grey Cup!!!!!
_S. Bialo - Monday, November 15 2004 @ 01:25 AM EST (#17912) #
Terrific article, Thomas. Well researched and very solid analysis. I hope JP's reading.
_Jabonoso - Monday, November 15 2004 @ 12:31 PM EST (#17913) #
Is Suzuki( ex M's ) pitching now in Japan?
I like Ishi's numbers and LHs.
A question. Is it important to have success in an specific role ( as in this case, one or multiple innning(s), reliever ) to predict same kind of success in same role?, it seems that several mgrs are adept to switch roles ( most from starter to reliever,and rare now to stretch from reliever to starter )...
Craig B - Monday, November 15 2004 @ 11:45 PM EST (#17914) #
Sasaki still is pitching in Japan, but he didn't get much work this year for Yokohama, as he was (and is) injured. He's lost his good fastball, and I wouldn't expect him to be back as the pitcher he was.
Clearing the Ayers: Japan's Best Relievers | 11 comments | Create New Account
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