Hype can get lost in translation
If scouting baseball players were an exact science, Ruben Rivera would have fulfilled his promise as the second coming of Mickey Mantle -- instead of being known as the guy who stole Derek Jeter's glove and drifted into oblivion without cashing in on eBay.
Factor in cultural differences, a language barrier and the on-field adjustments that players from the Far East encounter in their journey to a new world, and the job of predicting whether a player from Japan, Korea or Taiwan can cut it in the American major leagues is a more complex proposition.
Sometimes, the hype gets lost in translation. Former Mets infielder Kazuo Matsui was billed as "an Ichiro with power.'' One scout compared him to Omar Vizquel defensively, and author Robert Whiting, an authority on baseball in Japan, called him "the Alex Rodriguez of the Japanese game.''
Then the Mets' season began, and Matsui displayed bad feet in the field, a lack of plate discipline, and not a smidge of the toughness required for survival in New York. Three years, two teams and a .318 on-base percentage later, it appears that Alex Cora might have been a more appropriate comparison.
The scouts entrusted with making value judgments on talent in the Far East agree that the job is essentially the same regardless of venue. Stopwatches and radar guns tell a similar story whether you're seated behind home plate at Fenway Park or the Tokyo Dome.
Still, the games are markedly different in some respects. Japanese clubs play six days a week, with Monday as a designated off day, so a regular breather is built into the schedule. Major League Baseball features more of a power game, with pitchers who throw harder and hitters with more thump. And the talent level is more uniform on big league rosters, even if you might not know it by watching the Kansas City Royals or Washington Nationals.
"In Nippon Professional Baseball, you have players that can be impact players in the major leagues on the same field with guys who would struggle in Double-A,'' Randy Smith, director of professional and international scouting for the San Diego Padres, said in an e-mail to ESPN.com.
Smith, a former general manager for the Padres and Tigers, has worked as San Diego's director of international scouting since 2003 and makes annual trips to Japan to scout free agents and be on the lookout for players who might be available under the Japanese posting system.
Listen to Ichiro get his first major league hit.
• For more calls, click here.
"Aki displayed all the things that you look for when pursuing a player: good stuff, exceptional makeup and performance to back his tools,'' Smith said. "I firmly believe that makeup is the most important thing in determining who will be successful in the transition from [Japan] to the major leagues. Not every player can handle the extreme pressure of playing for your country every day in the majors. These players are under the microscope, and every outing and at-bat is broadcast through the entire country.''
The consensus among scouts is that pitchers are easier to assess than hitters, because they dictate the action and don't have to react to so many variables.
"You can see the raw stuff,'' said Craig Shipley, Boston's vice president of international scouting. "Fastball velocity is an objective grade. And if a guy commands both sides of the plate and has tremendous poise, you can see it. As far as the breaking stuff, you can subjectively evaluate it and compare it to guys you've seen in the big leagues.''
Shipley followed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka for three years before the Red Sox signed the Japanese star in December. Like other scouts, Shipley was impressed with Matsuzaka's mound presence, athleticism and ability to throw several pitches for strikes. Even scouts who are concerned about Matsuzaka's heavy workload at a young age rave about his strong leg drive and lower-body foundation.
Hitters are a bigger challenge to evaluate because they have to solve a different puzzle when they come to the United States. Japanese pitchers, according to Smith, throw straighter fastballs than their MLB counterparts, and rely more on location and less on movement. Bigger ballparks are also a challenge: While Kaz Matsui showed intriguing power in Japan, his best bolts died at the warning track in New York.
Matsui and former Mets outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo are classic cases of hitters who were exposed by deeper big league staffs. When you combine detailed advance scouting reports and pitchers who can execute the game plan, it tends to accentuate a hitter's flaws.
Even Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, a cultural phenomenon in Japan as "Godzilla,'' needed time to adjust to the cut fastballs and other strange breaking balls he saw upon arrival in the Bronx. In his rookie season with the Yankees, Matsui hit just three home runs in 225 at-bats in April and May, and only 16 dingers overall.
Regardless of a player's talent, various rules and international protocols affect the pursuit of free agents in the Far East, Shipley said. Ballplayers in Korea and Taiwan face the prospect of military service. And the Japanese posting system, which received such a thorough dissection in the press when the Red Sox signed Matsuzaka, is a perpetual barrier to entry.
"I don't think there will ever be a year when you see seven or eight guys come over, because teams in Japan are generally reluctant to post their best players,'' Shipley said. "Turn this around and look at it from the perspective of a major league club: If I'm a team here in the States and my best player helps me win and keeps fan support up, I would be reluctant to sell that player, too.''
The Red Sox thought Matsuzaka had enough potential to warrant a $51.1 million posting fee and a six-year, $52 million contract. That expenditure and the accompanying headlines ensure he won't have much of a honeymoon. But Boston management believes he's worth the investment.
"He's a polished guy,'' Shipley said.
At least, that's what the scouting reports say.