On Saturday, Tsuyoshi Nishioka met with the media, donned his new Twins jersey, and officially became the first ever Japanese player to sign with the Twins.
If you havenâ€™t found the time yet to figure out just who the heck this guy is, then keep reading.
Nishioka has spent his entire career until now with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japanâ€™s professional baseball league, the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball). The Marines play in the Pacific League (the other is the Central League).
In his rookie year in 2005, he was a key player in a Marines team that surprised everyone by winning the Japan Series, sweeping the much favored Hanshin Tigers. Bobby Valentine was the Marineâ€™s manager that season, and continued managing the team through 2009.
This past season, the Marines once again won the Japan Series, this time beating the Chunichi Dragons. Nishiokaâ€™s stellar season was less of a surprise this time around, but equally significant in bringing the Marines the championship. This year he became the first player to record at least 200 hits in the 145 game regular season since Ichiro Suzuki.
In between Japan Series championships, Nishioka was the starting shortstop for team Japan in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics â€” both of which were won by Japan.
In short, Nishioka seems to bring championships wherever he goes.
Iâ€™ve always hoped that the Twins would sign a Japanese player, so when they acquired negotiating rights with Nishioka I was stoked. Now that the dealâ€™s official, Iâ€™ll be the first person to buy a personalized Nishioka Twins shirt.
The question now for the Twins: is Nishioka the right Japanese player to have signed?
Ever since Hideo Nomo stunned the majors â€” and everyone in Japan too â€” by successfully transitioning from Japan to MLB (called the â€œdai-leeguâ€ in Japan) back in 1995, the prospect of the best Japanese players crossing the Pacific to the USA has been a fixture of most off-seasons. Ichiro Suzukiâ€™s crossing before the 2001 season put this trend into overdrive.
Ichiro was the first position player to try to play in MLB, and to date has by far been the most successful. His success sent major league teams looking for the next Ichiro, positive that Japan was full of players just like him.
The US media has already made comparisons between Nishioka and Ichiro â€” though these comparisons of course have to be taken with a grain of salt.
There is only one Ichiro (although it is actually a very common first name in Japan). It is not Nishioka. Nishioka probably still gets butterflies every time he meets Ichiro, even though they are teammates on the Japanese national team.
Thatâ€™s not to say you shouldnâ€™t expect special things from Nishioka. He possesses qualities that make him successful at what he does best â€” put the ball in play and hit for a high average. He is the type of player the Twins sorely need, a bona fide leadoff man, and I have no doubts he will excel in that role.
However, no matter how much hype a Japanese player receives when first entering the dai-leegu, there is no guarantee that his success will translate to the American game.
How will Nishioka compare to the other Japanese players that have tried playing in the big leagues?
The next big position player to follow Ichiro to the US was Hideki Matsui. Matsui played for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Japanâ€™s sacred team, and spent his career in Japan lauded as Japanâ€™s next great home-run king after Sadaharu Oh (who was also a Giant). His home-run stroke didnâ€™t translate fully to the majors, but, in spite of his injuries, for the past eight seasons he has been as solid and consistent a hitter as any other major league player.
Then there was the other Matsui â€“ Kazuo. He was hyped when he came over from the Seibu Lions, but found less success playing shortstop for the New York Mets. He was traded to the Colorado Rockies, where he became the teamâ€™s every-day second baseman and helped lead the team to the 2007 World Series, but he wasnâ€™t able to take his mile-high success to Houston. He finished his career in the US with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky-Sox, and will return to Japan next season to play with the Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Focusing solely on other infield players that have come to the US from Japan, we have had Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura and catcher Kenji Johjima.
Iguchi was a power hitter for the Softbank Hawks, and was successful more as a speedster for the White Sox in 2005 and helped them win the World Series that year.Â Â Iwamura, who was a power-hitter in Japan for the Yakult Swallows but was turned into a contact hitter by the Rays, was a part of their 2008 World Series team. Johjima, who was also a power hitter for the Hawks in Japan, never quite turned into the long-term option behind the plate that the Mariners needed.
All three ended up returning to play in the NPB. Iguchi came back in 2009 and was Nishiokaâ€™s teammate on the Marines championship team this season, Johjima was in Japan playing for the Tigers this season, and Iwamura will play with Kazuo Matsui on the Golden Eagles next season.
Nishiokaâ€™s three-year contract shows that the Twins are hoping that Nishioka bucks the trend of Japanese infielders only having short-term success, and will fit more into the Ichiro or Hideki Matsui model.
For every hit Japanese player, there has been a comparable bust. The Red Sox got Daisuke Matsuzaka from the Lions before the 2007 season, and the Yankees got Kei Igawa from the Tigers. Matsuzaka had the more successful career in Japan, though Igawa was also a star. Matsuzaka won the World Series in 2007, while Igawa failed miserably with the Yankees.
There have also been Japanese players that werenâ€™t hyped much at all when they came to the majors, but ended up being successful anyway. For example, Nomo wasnâ€™t much of a star when he played for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan. He was a solid starter, but more in the way that Ted Lilly has been in recent seasons as compared to, say, Tim Lincecum. The Buffaloes fought to keep him anyway, which led Nomo to invent the current system that Japanese players use to come to the US â€” the posting system.
The way the system works is that MLB teams first bid for the right to negotiate with a player, then see if they can reach a contract â€” which is how the Twins got exclusive negotiating rights with Nishioka. Beforehand, Japanese players would have to wait until they became a free agent before being able to come to the US, which is only granted after nine years of experience â€” a measure that stopped pretty much any Japanese player trying to come to the US in the pre-Nomo era.
Â Even the players that have come through the posting system have usually waited until late in their careers to make the leap to the US â€” which probably explains the lack of longevity of a lot of Japanese imports.
One player that hasnâ€™t had a problem with longevity? Ichiro, of course. He came over at 27, and Nishioka is only 26 â€“ thatâ€™s a good sign that over his three-year contract with the Twins we can expect Nishioka to put up prime-time numbers.
The final verdict on Nishioka wonâ€™t come until he steps onto the infield dirt at Target Field and starts playing ball. As we suffer through a horrendously cold winter until that point, we are left only to speculate at how spectacular that day will be.
Iâ€™ve paid very close attention to the past nine years of Japanese major leaguers, and I am among the crowd that believes that Nishioka will be one of the best of the bunch.
His numbers from Japan wonâ€™t translate perfectly â€” so donâ€™t expect him to add the American League batting title to his Pacific League one (after all, heâ€™ll have to beat out teammate Joe Mauer for that honor) â€” but do expect him to be an upgrade in the middle infield over any player the Twins have had in that position in the past nine years. Iâ€™ll say heâ€™ll be better than a Luis Castillo, Orlando Hudson, Christian Guzman or Jason Bartlett.
No matter how Nishioka does, be prepared to see a throng of Japanese reporters at every Twins game this season. Japanese major leaguers make the headlines in Japan whether they hit a game-winning homer or whether they go 0-for-4.
Besides being surrounded by Japanese media, he may feel a bit out of place for a while being over 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, so be sure to let him know you love having him here! Yell â€œkatto-baseâ€ when heâ€™s at bat (he is used to a constant stream of cheering throughout every one of his at-bats â€” band and all), and be ready for a very humble response when he gets a hit for a â€œsayonaraâ€ (walk-off) victory.