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Once we open this up to considering NPB play, then we can consider anything, and...
And I know that combining home runs -- or simply combining the stats from the two leagues -- is ok, because witness the fetish people had over Ichiro approaching a combined 4,000 hits, which was used as a HOF argument. Thus, as Matsui was a great player in Japan and a good player in the US, he gets my vote.
...Ichiro's .310 EqA last year [rookie year in Seattle] was his second-worst since 1994. I think he changed his approach at the plate, concentrating on slapping the ball around without attempting to drive it. He got a boost to his batting average, but lost all his power. It would not surprise me at all to see him improve upon his MVP season. In another park, he'd have a realistic shot at hitting .400.
...Sticking with the Pacific League, last year's MVP was an American import who tied the Japanese home run record, Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes... In 1993, Rhodes split a .291 EqA while playing for Omaha (Double-A), Iowa (Triple-A), and the Cubs, easily his best American season. The average of these seasons isn't out of line for a player who had that level of talent at age 24, but the peaks are better than you'd expect.
...Alex Cabrera followed up a monstrous seasons in the U.S. minors by having one more just like it in Japan.
...Kazuo Matsui is not quite the caliber of hitter as some of the other players listed here, but he's a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.
...The reigning MVP of the Central League, leading the league in home runs, RBI, and EQA, Roberto Petagine had a lot to do with the Swallows (am I the only one who can't say without at least thinking "beloved Swallows"? Longtime r.s.b readers will know what I mean) winning the title last season. I was suspicious of his hitting improvement and the small dimensions of Jingu Stadium, but 1) the park doesn't show as being offense-friendly, and 2) he only hit 15 of his 39 home runs in 2001 there, one less than expected given that 59 of his team's 140 games were there.
...AKA "Godzilla," or "Big Matsui" in contrast to Kazuo, "Little Matsui." Hideki Matsui was one of the most anticipated draft picks in Japanese history, and has lived up to the anticipation. For his consistency, I would name him the best native hitter in Japan right now. He's always had power, and has developed his other hitting skills to the point that he led the league in batting average last season, and was the league MVP in 2002. While he plays center field for the Giants, he would be a corner outfielder in the U.S.
...Daisuke Matsuzaka has played three years in Japan's major leagues, and has been named the league's best pitcher three times. He throws as hard as Ishii does, but from the right-hand side, and blew Ichiro away three times the first time they met. I also have to think he's a good candidate for arm trouble, given his age and workload.
Ron, as you know, guys like Tuffy Rhodes and Roberto Petagini also excelled in Japan.
In Baseball Prospectus 2001, I wrote that the difficulty level of Japan was "about even with the Triple-A leagues." Looking at it more comprehensively--I was basing my assessment on a scattering of players, rather than off a full list of Japanese player data--that was a silly thing to say, as the Japanese leagues have clearly and consistently rated as tougher than the American Triple-A leagues. Every case from the 1990s shows that players do worse as a CPA-weighted-average group in Japan than they do in Triple-A, and by a considerable margin. The Triple-A/majors multiplier is .860; if the transitive property holds, then Japanese EqA is worth about .948 of a major-league EqA, which conveniently enough is almost identical to what we got from major leaguers.
FWIW, Clay has Hideki Matsui as being a CF in Japan.
Ichiro Suzuki will be the first non-pitcher from the Japanese professional leagues to play in the majors. He begins the quest at the peak of his career, following seven consecutive Pacific League batting titles. Mariners’ owner Hiroshi Yamauchi made sure that Suzuki would get to play for his team of choice by submitting a $13.1-million bid to the Blue Wave merely for the rights to negotiate with him. Johnny Damon is the player most frequently mentioned when describing Suzuki; it’s a fair comparison.
Yankees Runs/Plate Appearances from July 23, 2012, onward:16.1% A-Rod14.7% Jeter14.6% Ibanez14.5% Cano13.3% Granderson12.7% Swisher12.5% Chavez12.3% Martin11.7% Ichiro
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