Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Foreign Soil

French commented on my last entry that Kaz Matsui was a 'small market player'. Someone on Baseball Tonight (not sure who) made the generic and somewhat vague argument that Kaz couldn't handle the pressure cooker that tends to come with playing in New York or Boston. That it takes a special mentality to live and play in such an environment.

One can even point to Edgar Renteria's one year stop with the Sox or the current struggles of Julio Lugo as a prime example. Certain players can't handle the intense criticism and scrutiny, both from the media and fans.

Couple that with the cultural transition the Japanese players must go through and you would think that they would be even more susceptible to the stress of playing major league ball than most.

Only I argue they aren't. In fact, I would make the case that players coming from the Japanese Leagues are more ready for the MLB spotlight, including New York and Boston, then any other players. The attention paid to the top Japanese players pales in comparison to what they deal with here. Just look at the media circus following Dice-K. The Sox had to build a separate pen just to hold them all.

Now, let's consider the language barrier for a minute. While I can't say for sure, I'm betting the U.S. media are much more critical of the players then the papers in Asian countries and their fans much more forgiving. While they obviously know what boos are, they are also somewhat protected from the criticisms of the local media than are English speaking players. Mainly because they can't read it. Plus, you can figure the translators (if they're any good) will protect them from that as much as they can. Reporters have to ask them the questions they want answered by their player. If it's inflammatory at all (as if!), the translator most likely will dilute the phrasing to make it more friendly. Don't ya think?

Let's take a look. Below are the main MLB players that are from Japan.

Daisuke Matsuzaka - Red Sox - 8-5, 4.18 ERA (and dropping!) 92.2 IP, 93 SO

Hideki Okajima - Red Sox - 2-0, 1.01 ERA, 35.2 IP, 31 SO, 4 Saves

Kei Igawa - Yankees - 2-1, 7.62 ERA, 30.2 IP, 21 SO

Akinori Otsuka - Rangers - 1-1, 2.03 ERA, 26.2 IP, 22 SO, 4 Saves

Masumi Kawata - Pirates - 0-0, 5.40 ERA, 3.1 IP, 0 SO

Tomo Ohka - Cardinals - 2-5, 5.79 ERA, 56 IP, 21 SO

Takashi Saito - Dodgers - 1-0, 1.61 ERA, 28 IP, 35 SO, 19 Saves

Position Players
Hideki Matsui - Yankees - .296, 7 HR, 42 RBI

Akinori Iwamura - Devil Rays - .317, 2 HR, 10 RBI

Tadahito Iguchi - White Sox - .253, 3 HR, 17 RBI

Ichiro Suzuki - Mariners - .358, 5 HR, 36 RBI

Kenji Johjima - Mariners - .308, 7 HR, 27 RBI

So Taguchi - Cardinals - .310, 2 HR, 13 RBI

Kaz Matsui - Rockies - .318, 2 HR, 16 RBI

Everyone handles change and stress differently, of course, but this is baseball we're talking about. Once the players take the field their instincts and training and lifelong practicing take over. Right? Guess not. Just look at A-Rod's first two years in New York or Randy Johnson's first two minutes.

I can imagine the off field distractions, especially in major cities like Chicago and New York must be enormous. Christ, they distract me when I'm there for work and I don't have smoking hot groupies trying to sleep with me. Stupid groupies. Don't know what they're missing. Or maybe they do.

Anyway, let's get back to the Japanese players. They come from a society where honor, discipline and hard work are not only expected of men, but nearly encoded into their DNA from birth. They practice harder and expect more of themselves than most of their MLB counterparts. That's no slight on the rest of the league, it's just not possible to out work them.

Add to that the absolute mania in Japan fans display towards their teams and the players, then who would be better prepared for the grindhouse of Boston, New York, Chicago and other major cities who live and die by their teams? I say nobody.

Which brings us back to Kaz. He keeps being referred to as a bust for the Mets, but is that really the case? Check out this line:

Games 114, AB 460, 125 hits, 7 homers, 44 RBIs, .272 Avg, .331 OBP, .727 OPS

These are his complete batting stats for his rookie year in New York. Is that a bust? I wouldn't say so. But the media and fans in the city are so relentless and he was playing in the shadow of Hideki Matsui (appropriately nicknamed Godzilla) across town that perhaps expectations were a bit high. Especially considering he's basically a lead off hitter. More in the Ichiro mold than the other Matsui.

He dropped off significantly in 2005 and was even sent to Triple A to work out his issues. Then he hurt his knee, got traded and here he is, on the verge of making the All Start team.

So the question is, if he could handle the New York pressure (and I would argue he could based on his first year stats), then what was the problem? May I suggest coaching? Or maybe how he was being handled in New York. It was no secret that the team was in flux, going through some major turmoil and was looking for a new 'face' for the team. Who better then the new Japanese guy? Managers and front office guys are always taking credit for turning a player around. Maybe they should receive some blame for screwing a player up. He seemed just fine his first year.

Maybe we should figure out what the Rockie coaching staff has done right with him (and what the Met staff did wrong for him) before we blame it on the environment. He's certainly succeeded in crazier arenas then Shea.

Today's distraction: Kaz Matsui's official website. Make sure you check out his stats here. Look remarkably similar to this year's stats, no?

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