Detect-o-Vision: "Catching" a Japanese Star

The rumors heat up that the M's might pursue Kenji Johjima, who is a free agent this offseason. Let me read that last phrase again - You guys don't get real excited about Japanese players, do ya. Lemme give you a hand.

Kenji Johjima's Career Statistics

Q: How good is Japanese baseball?

A: Their worst critics acknowledge them as a good hard AAA league.

The reality is that NPB is precisely 50% of the way between AAA baseball and the majors. Baseball Prospectus' translations will eventually settle in right there - AAA is 90, MLB is 100, and NPB is 95.

The one issue that NPB does have, is that you can figure their hitters to lose -100 points of SLG here.

Q: How do you spell it: Jojima, Johjima or JoCrazyDoc?

A: None of the above. You spell it with pictographs.

Seriously, when you are translitering from Japanese to English, you just take a guess as to which English letters give you the right pronunciation. A quick-sketch of a squished ladybug does not equate to "bllch" in English.

The correct spelling would be whatever you want it to be … or in this case, whatever Johjima wants it to be. We hear that he himself wears "Johjima" on the back of his jersey in English.

He can go with "IMDABOMB" or "HEHATEME" or "BENCH" if he'll just call those Japanese pitch sequences for MY team.

Q: What is Johjima's established level of performance?

A: Johjima's established level of performance in Japan - last three years - .320/.400/.600. That's only a slight tick off what Hideki Matsui did there, and it's better than what Tadahito Iguchi did.

Johjima is not merely an NPB All-Star, like Tadahito Iguchi was. Johjima is a HOF-level player, every inch a player in the Matsui/Matsui/Ichiro echelon.

Ichiro was the Japanese Ty Cobb. Hideki Matsui was the Japanese Manny. Johjima is the Japanese Ivan Rodriguez.

Dr. D is not saying go get every Japanese player. He is saying, go get the certified-superstar Japanese players.

Q: What did Yorvit Torrealba do in 2005 for us?

A: .240/.290/.333.

You have to be verrrrrrry anti-Japanese Baseball to amputate Johjima's line down to a .260/.330/.425 nub in the majors. The worst case has Johjima past Torrealba like a Murcielago past a PT Cruiser.

Suppose that Johjima gave you an Iguchi year: .280/.340/.440. That is +150 OPS points more than Torrealba had. One hundred fifty, chief.

Q: How do we know whether Johjima will adjust quickly?

A: His HR to K to BB rate is the key here. That is the factor that matters when making this judgment.

Johjima has as many BB's as K's the last three years and almost as many HR's as strikeouts!

In 2004, for example: 36 HR's (in 116 games) vs. 45 strikeouts. In 2005, last we checked, he had 30 bb's, 30 k's, and 20 homers, despite playing with a sore shoulder.

Go find me an MLB player who does that? Joe DiMaggio used to do it. Since then, nay verily.

Q: But aren't the HR's cheap in Japan?

A: Cheap HR's? Fukuoka has the biggest park in Japan. Johjima's home park is bigger than Safeco Field - 335 down the lines and 387 to the alleys.

Pudge-San is hitting a pro-rated 40-50 bombs a year … in a park that looks like Yankee to left field. As Jason Churchill told us, "one time I saw him take a 96-mph heater off his shoetops, 30 rows back to left field." Daps amigo.

Q: Is Bengie Molina a good comparable?

A: One of our amigos compared Pudge-San to Molina's .290/.320/.440 line … only in a Benjamin Franklin "cheerful pessimism" mood. Expect little and then you're pleasantly surprised if you get more.

We're not in the "quiet celebration" phase yet, Jeffy. We're in the "clamoring" phase.

All respect though: 1000 OPS in Japan does not project to a MAXIMUM of a 750 OPS in the majors. It projects to a minimum of a 750 OPS in America. So we were almost right. Must have been a 2-letter transcription error in the scrolls.

Q: But can he defend and call a game?

A: I dunno if it is politically correct to say so, but we are going to put it in a way that you can get a feel for it - The Japanese are smart.

The Japanese value intelligence more than we do, and most especially their baseball culture values intelligence more than ours does.

Johjima is reputed to keep computer-like data on opposing hitters, and his brashness gives him the coveted "take charge" attitude behind the plate.

Yet, he is reputed to be a mind-body "never let the pitcher feel alone" psychologist. Scouts say that he is a master of working with what the pitcher has that day. You've got a black belt here in pitcher management.

Q: None of that matters. No speakee Ingles. Que?

A: Johjima reportedly works with foreign players without issues.

Johjima himself says this is because he DOES have a BASEBALL vocabulary. He understands that it is his responsibility to communicate well with the pitchers and the Mariners would be in a position to require him to "bone up" on his English.

The Spanish language is never an issue when you have a staff full of Meches and Franklins. Why is language a deal-breaker here?

Q: He's no guarantee, right?

A: And why does he have to be? Torrealba and Rivera guarantee you nothing, except that the 2006 catcher position will be the weakest on the team.

Let us suppose that there was a catcher in the International League who had hit .320/.400/.600 the last three years, was cocky, played good defense, and had an IQ of 160.

So call Johjima a PROSPECT, amigo. Call him a super-prospect out of AAA baseball, a catcher who slugs .600 in AAA and dominates a game behind the plate. Grouse that he hasn't done anything in the majors yet.

Fine and dandy. Why the holdup on that? If Scott Boras got Delmon Young or Andy Marte declared a free agent, you would run screaming the other way because he's no guarantee?

Q: What about Norihiro Nakamura, the Japanese Jeff Cirillo?

A: Nakamura was a big Japanese star who, famously, had a Jeff Cirillo-Scott Spiezio-type implosion at 31.

D-O-V cannot release its opinions on the aging of Japanese hitters because those opinions are not politically correct. ::bigsmile::

But suffice it to say this – you don't write off all 31-year-old Caucasians because of Jeff Cirillo. And you don't write off every Japanese star because of the Japanese Cirillo. There are many Sadaharu Oh's in Japan, hitters who mashed well into their 30's.

However, we will cheerfully concede that it is well worth being careful about 30-something Japanese hitters. Just don't go jumping to Cirillo conclusions based on one player (Nakamura).

Pudge-San has much better K/BB ratios, is a better player overall, and has a "harder" body than Nakamura did. Marginal reflexes, "overachieving," is what you are leery of here. Johjima, who was in the Japanese majors as a teenager, is not known for lack of physical talent.

Q: What if you're wrong and Johjima is a Kazuo Matsui-type failure?

A: If that happened, the Mariners would have a weak-hitting catcher – which is what they will CERTAINLY have ANYWAY if they go with Yorvit Torrealba.

The M's will have one – count it, one – position in 2006 that needs improving. As it so happens, the major Japanese free agent this winter plays that position.

Yeah, I can see why we'd pass on Johjima. There's a 20% chance that he'll give us a Yorvit season. Better go with Yorvit.

Q: What IS the upside?

A: To have a right-handed Hideki Matsui hitting in your catcher slot. Calling Japanese pitch sequences that baffle American hitters and cut 0.50 off the staff ERA.

Matsui's contract offer, as we speak, is 3/$35mm. Johjima will reportedly cost 3/$12mm.

Sounds real risky,

Dr. D

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