So the Dodgers have signed Japanese starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to a 3-year, $35.2 million deal.
As a Dodgers fan, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this. I mean, Kuroda was definitely the best Japanese pitcher on the market this year so that’s good, but how good is he really? We know his is better than Kei Igawa, but we also know he is worse than Daisuke Matsuzaka, so where exactly does that leave the Dodgers? Maybe he is a 4th starter in the Majors? But he could also turn out to be worse than a 5th starter. I’m not sure a pitcher falling into that range is at all worth $12 million a year or a 3-year commitment.
But one thing that really bugs me is the way pretty much the entire sabermetric community has been attempting to evaluate Kuroda and in fact all Japanese pitchers, namely by looking at stats like their strikeout and walk rates per 9 innings.
Now in fairness, in recent years, since we have come to understand the magic of BABIP and the fact that pitchers really have little control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play, things like strikeout, walk, and homer rates have been increasingly used to evaluate and project pitcher performance, dare I say with increasingly effective results. And in general, you can put me squarely in the camp of people who favor using these metrics to project performance by major leaguers from year to year and minor leaguers called up to the majors.
HOWEVER, I think that these types of stats begin to approach uselessness when evaluating Japanese pitchers. At least if they are used in isolation, and not part of a more considered approach.
Why? Because as anyone who has any real familiarity with Japanese baseball knows, there are real cultural differences between Japanese and American baseball that merely looking at stats cannot show you.
In this particular case, the difference is that in Japan, nothing a batter can do is worse or more humiliating than a strikeout. Japanese batters will do almost anything to avoid striking out, including choking up on the bat, slap-hitting, and bunting against tough strikeout pitchers. Japanese managers routinely bench players who strike out a few times in a row. In fact the swing they teach Japanese players from their youth is deliberately designed to sacrifice power in exchange for fewer strikeouts.
Walks are also somewhat more frowned upon in Japan than America. In many ways, the attitudes in Japanese baseball are what American baseball was like until about 15 years ago, where batting average is worshiped as the ultimate stat, and walks are seeing as almost disappointing.
Meanwhile, in America, while there are still the occasional grumbles about people who strike out too much and once in a while somebody like Dusty Baker says something like how walks “clog up the basepaths” (and gets endlessly mocked for it), pretty much everyone recognizes that strikeouts are not as bad as we once thought, and that walks are pretty much unequivocably good. And pretty much all players except Ichiro use the modern, full bodied swing designed to generate home runs and a lot of hard line drives, rather than the all-arms, slap-hitting swing which really hasn’t been seen much in America since the days of Ty Cobb.
So while looking at strikeout and walk rates work great for evaluating the chance for minor league pitchers to do well in the Majors, because those players are playing within the same baseball culture, it is completely foolish to do the exact same thing for Japanese pitchers. Hasn’t anyone noticed that basically all Japanese pitchers, from Hideo Nomo to Daisuke Matsuzaka and everyone in between, have seen their strikeout rates improve and their walk rates decline when they come over to the Majors?
This is why I get so sick of people saying that Takashi Saito was a fluke for being a mediocre middle reliever in Japan but an astonishingly good closer in America. No, he is not a fluke. His pinpoint command, and ability to miss bats just plays better in America, where people actually try to take walks, but also don’t mind striking out as much. In Japan, his always being around the zone was not as much of an asset because nobody was going to walk anyway, and his low-90s fastball with late life and back-door slider were not as effective either against slap hitters who would wait back an extra second on those pitches and just try to slap them into play.
Which is all to explain why I get so annoyed when people say things like this:
The thing is, Kuroda isn’t all that exciting of a pitcher. To best make my point, we’ll play the beloved compare Kuroda to a mystery player game.
Kuroda, age 32 season: 179.7 IP, 6.16 K/9, 2.10 BB/9, 2.92 K/BB, 1 HR/9
Mystery pitcher, age 28 season: 192.7 IP, 5.70 K/9, 2.66 BB/9, 2.14 K/BB, 1.03 HR/9
And the mystery pitcher is…a small Filipino woman. Have I just blown your mind?
No wait, it’s Kyle Lohse. Point is that while Kuroda is the superior pitcher, the fact that Lohse is four years younger, pitched in two of the biggest hitters parks in baseball, and actually was facing big league competition makes the gap mighty close. Now, since the general reaction to a Kyle Lohse signing would be Jonestown-esque, acquiring someone who might be a little better shouldn’t inspire much confidence.
Now the guy over at the True Blue LA blog (whom I actually respect in general) obviously thought he was being pretty clever by noticing this comparison between Kuroda and the much reviled Kyle Lohse, but while as I indicated above I’m not so sure that Kuroda is all that exciting of a pitcher either, I submit to you that the reasoning behind this kind of comparison is severely flawed, and that a rate 6.16 K/9 in Japan is much more impressive than it would be if it had been achieved in America.
Comparing home run rates is also silly, since Japan has much smaller ballparks than America does. And I’m not even going to get into the different strike zone in Japan, or the different ball, as this post is already getting quite long. The point is, when it comes to rates like these, Japanese pitchers need to be compared to other Japanese pitchers, or other pitchers who came to America from Japan. Comparing these rates directly to Kyle Lohse, who is pitching against batters with a completely different hitting philosophy, is truly comparing apples and oranges.