Yu Darvish has commanded a lot of hype this past offseason, and rightfully so; the Rangers ponied up $50 million just to be able to negotiate with the guy. However, the casual baseball fan may have missed three other big name starters (in Japanese baseball circles, anyway) who made the jump across the Pacific to play in the majors this upcoming season. The Orioles signed both Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen to big-league deals, and Seattle tabbed Hisashi Iwakuma to help its largely weak rotation. So what should we make of these three?
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, SEA (31 years-old on April 12)
Iwakuma made his Japanese major league debut at the age of 20 in 2001, serving as a reliever. He then became a starter and had three great years, followed by three poor injury-plagued years, then a 2008 league-MVP season, and finally three more very good years. He comes to the Mariners as a pitcher who never had the best “stuff,” but found ways to induce ground balls and get the occasional K when he had to do so. He was able to reach the mid-90s on his fastball in his early years, but the 2005 rule changes in Nipponese baseball forced him to revamp his delivery (remove the double-kick move) and ultimately caused him injuries and permanent loss in velocity. He’s now lucky if he is able to get the ball to the plate at 91 mph (146 kmh). The other knock on him is the lack of strikeouts (he has averaged 6.8 K/9 the last four seasons).
Regardless of his average velocity, he still has a good repertoire of pitches that should allow him to be reasonably successful at home in Safeco Field. In addition to the four-seam fastball, he has a very good splitter, a good slider, and a decent two-seam fastball. There is a lot of movement on his splitter, and it should continue to be an effective pitch for him going forward. After returning from injuries in 2008, Iwakuma has posted ERAs of 1.87, 3.25, 2.82, and 2.42, which would all be good for fantasy. However, his control jumps out at me even more, and this is what leads me to believe he is worth a late draft choice in most leagues. His last four WHIPs have been 0.977, 1.314, 1.095, 1.050, but the real gold lies in his last four K/BB ratios: 4.42, 2.81, 4.25, and 4.74. If we disregard his 2009 season (which seems to be a bit of an outlier in general), then those ratios would have ranked him in the top 10 in all of baseball last season, among the likes of Kershaw, Greinke, Hamels, and Verlander. Now I’m not saying that he has the skill set of those pitchers, but what he does have is pretty elite control.
Currently Iwakuma doesn’t even show up on the Mock Draft Central ADP rankings (through pick 465), and his NFBC ADP is 449. He’s obviously not fodder in 10-team leagues, but I might consider him at the very end of a 12-teamer. He won’t get you tons of wins or strikeouts, but his ratios should be good enough to warrant a roster spot. However, if there is a pitcher with more upside available at the end of your draft (like Brad Peacock, for example), then you should go with the younger upside guy. Iwakuma is definitely worth a late round pick in leagues deeper than 12 teams.
Tsuyoshi Wada, LHP, BAL (31 years-old)
After a very successful college career, Wada began his pro career in 2003 and started right away. He stands only 5’11”, but he makes up for lack of height by being left-handed. With the exception of an injury-filled year in 2009, he’s had a pretty successful career in Japan. In every year but 2008 and 2009 he has posted double-digit wins, and he has recorded sub-3.4 ERAs in six of nine seasons. Now, I know what you’re probably saying: “Big deal; those things don’t mean much when a pitcher transitions to the majors.” To be totally honest, I tend to agree with you in that regard, but let’s look a little deeper. Wada was a very good strikeout pitcher in Japan (usually averaging more than 8 K/9), but those numbers can be rather deceiving. He gained a good number of his strikeouts by his unorthodox delivery (which seems to be true of many Asian pitchers), one that uses a high three-quarters arm slot and deceives hitters through its motion. Wada delays his throwing motion slightly while stepping into pitches, keeping his arm back just an extra bit before driving toward the plate with his stride. This gives the hitter just a little less time to react and generates some extra Ks.
While Wada struck out a lot of batters in his years in Japan, he truly has below average velocity. In all of the video I have watched of him, I haven’t seen his four-seamer reach past 90 mph (around 145 kph), and most of the time it sits in the 85-88 mph range (136-141 kph). His fastball seems to have good movement near its tail end, however, and he mixes it up with a decent slider and change. A lot of his success in Japan seems to point to his strange delivery and pitch selection rather than his raw ability. His control has been good in the past (his last five WHIPs have been 1.15, 1.25, 1.14, 1.18, 1.00), but other than in 2011 he has never been elite in this category. In the first half of his career, he established a reputation as being prone to the long ball, giving up around a homer per 9 innings. In the last few years he has done much to shed that skin, and he has averaged around .75 HR/9 since 2007.
If it weren’t for Wada’s 2011 campaign, he probably would not have even been signed by anyone in the major leagues. Last season was really a career year for him, as he went 16-5 with a 1.51 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.19 K/9, and .34 HR/9. Now that said, I don’t think he is going to have anywhere close to that kind of success this season in the AL East. The offenses are better, he will have to pitch more innings (starters only average about 26 starts per season in Japan), and he moves to a very good hitter’s park in Camden Yards. His average velocity, OK secondary pitches, and decent control don’t lead me to believe that he is going to have a good strikeout rate or ratios this season. Wada has an ADP of pick 409 on Mock Draft Central (which I chalk up mainly to his being signed by the Orioles instead of oh, say, Seattle) and an NFBC ADP of pick 493, which is a little more in line with where he should go. I wouldn’t touch him at all in 12-team or shallower leagues, but in a 15-teamer he might be a VERY late-round play. I personally wouldn’t recommend drafting him unless you were stuck.
Wei-Yin(g) Chen, RHP, BAL (27 years-old on July 21)
Chen was born in Taiwan and made his 2005 pro debut in Japan as a reliever at age 19. He had only pitched 19 innings (poorly) before being sent down, and in 2006 he blew out an elbow ligament and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He returned to his Japanese League team in 2008 with a vengeance, first as a reliever and then as a starter midway through the season. He has since been one of the best pitchers across the Pacific (even posting an ERA title in 2009), doing so without insanely high pitch counts and innings totals. He comes to the Orioles with much lower mileage than Wada or Iwakuma, as he has only pitched four legitimate seasons in Japan and has never topped 190 innings in a season. He also has velocity on those other guys: his fastball is consistently in the 91-93 mph (about 146-149 kph) range, and there are times when it reaches 95 mph. His most used secondary pitch is his mid-80s slider, which shows decent break but probably won’t be an extreme out-pitch in the majors. He also has been developing a mid-80s forkball that he used a lot more this past season. Rounding out his arsenal are a cutter and curveball, both of which he uses sparingly and may not even be used in Baltimore.
Chen has posted great ERAs (2.90, 1.54, 2.87, 2.68) in every season since he had his surgery. There is also reason to believe that he will be a pretty good control pitcher in the majors, as his post-TJ WHIPs have been 1.17, 0.93, 1.14, 1.03. He was averaging around 8 K/9 until last season, where leg and side injuries took down his velocity into the 88-91 mph range and he only averaged 5.1 K/9. He is fully recovered from these non-structural injuries, so there shouldn’t be any really reason to worry about them. Some other things stand out about this past season that really show me that this kid might actually know how to “pitch”: even though his velocity dropped drastically, he had the lowest walk rate of his career (1.7 BB/9), he gave up 13 fewer home runs than the previous season (in only 20 less innings), and his ERA was 19 points lower. All that points to a guy that knows how to adjust and continue to get batters out.
Chen gets lots of ADP love (well, compared to the two others here) from the MDC community, coming in at pick 312, while he slips all the way down to pick 481 in the NFBC rankings. I have gone back and forth on this guy, but I think that I have finally settled on how I feel about him. He’s obviously not an option in 10-teamers, and I’m struggling to feel confident enough to draft him as a near-last round pick in a 12-teamer. It’s mainly due to a combination of his team, his division, and his home park. I would rather have Iwakuma at the end of a 12-team league draft than Chen. Now, I would definitely draft him in the last quarter of a 15-team draft though, because he still does have some potential to pan out.