Hat tip to Grant at McCovey Chronicles for first making me aware of the Giants interest in Kosuke Fukudome. Kosuke is a corner OF, who has a reputation of being a defensively sound player. He has played 9 seasons in Japan for the Chunichi Dragons and has done quite well. Over his 9 seasons, he has hit 192 home runs, 264 doubles, and put up a career line of (.305/.397/.543). For skeptics concerned about the level of talent in the Japan Pro Leagues, it can generally be compared to AAA or even slightly above.
Fukudome’s career numbers suggest that he’s somewhere between Akinori Iwamurwa (.300/.363/.519) and Hideki Matsui (.304/.418/.582). More than he is, say, a Kaz Matsui during his time in Japan (.309/.361/.486) or an Ichiro (.353/.421/.522). He doesn’t have Hideki’s power, Matsui slugged 40 points higher, but his batting average and on base percentage are close. He had a better power and on base skills than Iwamura. Ichiro’s had a better batting average and on base percentage. Looking at Ichiro’s stats, it’s amazing that he hit a career .353 in Japan, I mean, it’s not unbelievable because he can sure swing the bat but it’s a ridiculous number to wrap your head around. Only Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, and Shoeless Joe Jackson had career batting averages of .350 or higher in at least 1000 games played.
It’s clear though when Japanese hitters make the transition to the states they loss a little something, or in some cases a good bit, in the move. Chalk it up to adjusting to a different culture, tougher competition, or whatever you’d like, but players usually see a drop in their production in their fist year compared to their numbers in Japan. Let’s take a look at 3 hitters who had success in Japan and made the move to the MLB. I used Hideki Matsui, Kaz Matsui, and Ichiro as my hitters. All three were high profile sluggers in Japan. I then compared their average seasons in Japan, with their first year in the major leagues, and their average seasons in America. Once again, I’ve used OPS as my measure for the hitters.
After playing baseball for 10 seasons in Japan, Hideki Matsui saw his average Japan OPS drop by 207 points in his first year in America. His career Japan OPS of (.995) emphasizes the monster power he displayed while playing in Japan. In 2003, Hideki’s first year, he hit just 16 home runs and didn’t crack a 800 OPS. But Hideki adjusted and has made great strides since his 2003 season. He’s not the 40-50 HR hitter that he was in Japan, but he’s settled in nicely as a guy that will hit in the mid-to-upper 20′s in HR’s, hit a lot of doubles, and get on base. If the Giants were to sign Fukudome, they would hope that he would follow the path of Hideki Matsui, struggle a little initially, then make adjustments and become a good offensive player. Even in Matsui’s adjustment year of 2003, he was an above league average hitter, and has been every year since.
The other Matsui, Kaz, hasn’t adjusted as well as Hideki has. While in Japan, Kaz was a solid hitter that hit as much as 36 HR’s in one season. His career OPS in Japan of (.847) is outstanding for a middle infielder. The Mets brought Kaz stateside in 2004. He played three seasons in New York with disappointing results before he was traded to the Rockies half way through 2006 for Eli Marrero. Kaz is a solid defender at second base but he hasn’t hit for power like he did in Japan. In 4 seasons he’s hit just a combined 17 home runs. If there’s a cautionary tale for importing players from the east, this is the one. He turned from a “Japanese Barry Larkin” as BP put it, to a below average player in the United States. It’s not a good sign for a player when you are traded for Eli Marrero.
Ichiro! on the other hand, has made a good transition while switching continents. He’s not the 900+ OPS player he was in Japan but he can still hit like no one’s business. He’s been an above league average hitter every year and his defense has been outstanding. What else can you say about Ichiro? He’s a great ballplayer. Fukudome hasn’t displayed the ability to hit for average like Ichiro has but he has hit for more power.
The risk of importing a Japanese ball player is one that a team will have to consider before committing to Fukudome. Of the three hitters we looked at, H. Matsui, K. Matsui, and Ichiro, all of them have yet to hit like they did in Japan. The fact that the players usually are in their 30′s by the time they get to the MLB might also have something to do with their performance drop other than difference in leagues. Would a young Hideki Matsui have been able to hit 50 HR’s in North America? It’s possible. For the record, Kosuke Fukudome will be 31 by the time next season starts.
I think if the Giants could move one, or both of Dave Roberts or Randy Winn, Kosuke Fukudome would make much more sense. His defense has been praised and he coud fit into RF. The rumor is that it might take anywhere between $10-12M a year to sign Fukudome, most believe that he’ll sign a 3-4 year contract. I’m not sure what to think of that, last year when Akinori Iwamura was open for grabs, the reports of his potential salary were much higher than what Tampa Bay actually paid. Not including the posting fee, Iwamura is only making $7.7M over three years, which is a pretty good deal considering he was above league average this year. Speaking of the posting free, Kosuke Fukudome is a free agent, which means that teams wont have to pay the posting fee to acquire his services.
Here’s my quick thoughts on the pros and cons of Fukudome.
- No posting fee, which should keep the total cost down some.
- He has the potential to be a above league average hitter for the Giants with quality defense.
- The San Francisco area has a huge Asian community and a player like Kosuke Fukudome would be welcomed with open arms and praise. I think if the Giants make a strong push towards him, they’ll be doing so in an effort to put some people in the stands in the post-Bonds era. He would most likley be a huge draw, just look at Ichiro or Hidek Matsui at any of their home games.
- He will be 31 by the next season, so he should have some good baseball left in him.
- He has a awesome swing. Here’s a YouTube clip of him hitting a bomb at Petco during the WBC.
- He’s probably going to see a drop in his numbers, initially and if he has trouble adjusting maybe longer. Will he be a Kaz Matsui or a Hideki Matsui?
- The Giants already have league production from their RF spot in Randy Winn. In addition, the team is full of outfielders and signing another outfielder seems crazy.
- He was injured in 2007 and lost a lot of his power. He still got on base and hit for average but the power drop is concerning. He had endoscopic surgery on his right elbow to remove bone fragments. Will the power return? Combine the injury with the adjustment period and you’ve got a bad case scenario.
Weighing both the pros and cons, I’ll give Fukudome a tentative “yes”. If he’s healthy, and Winn and Roberts are moved, he makes a little sense to the Giants from a drawing fans perspective. He’s got the chance to outproduce Winn who wasn’t much above league average in ’07. On the other hand, the Giants offense is in tatters and Randy Winn is our best hitter right now. Re-read that again, Randy Winn is-the-best-hitter-we’ve-got. If that doesn’t instill you with fear, I don’t know what will. But rolling the dice on Fukudome is a gamble but one the Giants might be inclined to take if they are worried about putting butts in the seats, which they should be since the stadium is still on mortgage.
With Winn’s partial no-trade starting in 2008, he could serve as a valuable 2nd tier outfielder on the trade market after the Jone’s and the Hunter’s of the world find new teams. If the Giants get a solid offer for Winn, they should take it and attempt to bring in Fukudome. I just pray that he doesn’t turn into another Shinjo, though that LED belt buckle was pretty sweet.