An Interview With NPB Tracker's Patrick Newman

Dan Duquette's tenure in Baltimore hasn't been especially awe-inspiring so far. You can expect the 2012 Orioles to look a lot like the 2011 Orioles, but with more pitching and bench depth. The one eye-catching difference on the roster is the two new starting pitchers from Nippon Professional Baseball. The NPB usually requires players making the jump to the big leagues to do it through the complicated posting system (made famous by Daisuke Matsuzaka, and this winter by Yu Darvish), but the O's picked up lefties Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen through simple free agency.

Wada and Chen were two of the best pitchers in Japan. They both started game one of the championship Nippon Series, Wada for the Softbank Hawks and Chen for the Chunichi Dragons. To us though they are just names. Enigmas even. I don't think I could even name all of the NPB teams (I get tripped up on the Buffaloes and BayStars). Patrick Newman, though, is exactly the man to ask about the new faces on the Orioles. He already knew about Wada and Chen long before the first rumor linking them to Baltimore, because he runs NPB Tracker, the website for baseball news from Japan. You can also find him on the twitter at @npbtracker.

After the jump comes my interview with him. After that, do what I do and go spend your browsing time on his website. There's a tremendous amount of information to be gleaned from it. You can even search just for Chen info or just for Wada info.

Firstly, my very large thanks to Patrick Newman for taking the time to answer my questions (which are in bold).

CC: We have seen in the recent past pitchers come over from Japan who have had success in the NPB but gone through a huge range of outcomes in MLB: those who struggled like Kei Igawa, those who found early success but then broke down and struggled like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kenshin Kawakami, those who eventually found their niche of success like Koji Uehara, and those who simply found success like Hiroki Kuroda. Obviously everybody has a unique situation, but what are the difficulties pitchers specifically have coming over to the US and adjusting to life in MLB, and is there a common thread amongst those who find success here?

PN: I think your question makes the point that there's a lot of variation among the players that come over, and the roles and expectations conferred upon them.
But that said, starting pitchers have a lot to adjust to:

* pitching every fifth day instead of once a week
* facing lineups with multiple home run threats
* demanding travel requirements (as oppsed to Japan, which fits entirely in one time zone)
* not getting a day off every week (NPB usually doesn't have games on Mondays)

I don't see an obvious common thread among those who have been successful. There is, however, a bit of trend for Japanese pitchers to do well initially and then tail off (Kazuhisa Ishii comes to mind in addition to your examples). So I think a key thing is being able to adjust after hitting that first hurdle. Kuroda had a really rough stretch mid-way through his first year, and he re-doubled his commitment and got through it.

CC: What exactly does "Kuroda re-doubling his commitment" mean? Is it bearing down mentally, or putting in extra physical work (in the bullpen or the gym) between starts, or something else?

PN: As I recall, Kuroda went through a rough patch around July in his first year. I remember watching him have a bad outing against the Giants. He was so frustrated he ran wind sprints after one of his bad games. I don't know what it was but obviously he managed to adjust and has had a solid MLB career.

CC: The bulk of what we have learned about Tsuyoshi Wada is the tremendously reductive bit that he is "the Jamie Moyer of Japan". That is, he has a bad fastball but strong control (and he's left-handed). Is that fair or accurate?

PN: Personally I dislike the trend of comparing soft-throwing lefties to Moyer, as he's a pretty huge outlier in terms of being able to succeed with the stuff he has. My comp for Wada is Dallas Braden -- 86/87 mph fastball, pretty good changeup, pretty good slider. Braden's had health issues and is a much bigger guy, so that's not a perfect comp either. The bad fastball/good control description isn't a bad one.
My biggest concern about Wada is his durability. He's crossed the 180 IP line a few times in his career, but seems to mostly throw around 160-170. NPB pitchers usually see their innings regress in MLB, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him drop by to 140 or so. Add to that his fringe-y stuff and the very tough AL lineups, and I think you basically have a #5 starter.

CC: At this point, it's likely that Wada at least starts the year in the bullpen for the Orioles. Does he have any experience with relief pitching, and how does that change your projection of him?

PN: Wada was hell-bent on continuing as a starter in MLB, and I have to believe that he chose the Orioles because they could offer him a chance to. I don't know the Orioles rotation situation though, so I can't comment on where he fits in their depth chart. Wada has been a starter for his entire NPB career and doesn't have any significant bullpen experience as a pro.
It feels like he's good enough to be a reliever but he doesn't have an obvious get-me-out-a-jam pitch. Since I've never seen him relieve I don't really know if he would throw the same way though. Maybe he'd add a few mph.

CC: Moving on to Wei-Yin Chen, there's also a dearth of knowledge about who exactly he is. We know that he is from Taiwan but pitched for Chunichi, he is left-handed, and that he throws hard (low-to-mid nineties fastball) but that his velocity was erratic this past season.

PN: Chen really had electric stuff a few years ago -- 93-95 mph fastball, sharp slider. His stuff flattened out this year -- less movement on the slider; a slower, straighter fastball -- but his command was a bit better. I recall watching one game rather early in the season where he really working the edges of the zone and getting a lot of quick outs on weak contact. Whether he was intentionally "pitching to contact," I'm not sure, but it was interesting to see that look from him.
I think the key thing with Chen is that he's relatively young at 26, he's had success against the best competition he's faced, and he's shown some quality stuff. So he has more upside than Wada, and probably most other NPB players we see come over.

CC: Chen and Wada matched up in Game 1 of the Japan Series in November, which was, as my foreign eyes gleaned from the boxscore, an instant classic of a pitcher's duel.

PN: That was a great game, probably the best I've seen Chen pitch. And his fastball velocity was weak, so you never know. I wrote about that game here.

CC: Was there any kind of rivalry or interaction at all between them because of that game?

PN: Not that I know of.

CC: Are those kinds of low scoring games commonplace, even in championship series?

PN: In 2011 they were. NPB introduced a new ball in 2011 that greatly suppressed offense.

CC: What exactly are the differences between the 2011 Nippon ball and the current Major League ball?

PN: I actually don't know the exact differences off the top of my head. Here's an article by Rob Smaal, and one for the Japanese specifications of the new and old ball. I haven't tried Google translate on that one but it's probably okay.

CC: Do you think having each other in the clubhouse as fresh major leaguers will help with their adjustments to the major leagues at all?

PN: It can't hurt. I think Chen speaks Japanese but it's not his first language. I think potentially getting Koji Uehara back would mean more (and it seems like he wants to go back to Baltimore, he still has the Orioles logo on his website).

CC: Obviously Uehara had some kind of tremendous experience in Baltimore, as you allude to. When the press (repeatedly) asked Wada during his introduction if he had even talked to Koji he was polite but firm that Koji did not affect his decision to sign. Is there reason to believe that the Orioles can make themselves a place Japanese (and other eastern Asian) players specifically want to come to? Or, more specifically, do you think signing Chen and Wada work towards that goal, or will it always be primarily a business decision of where to sign?

PN: I think there are a couple of factors at play here. The guys the Orioles signed are interesting -- they both have some upside (especially Chen), but neither is a Darvish-caliber star, and transitioning from one country to another comes with some question marks. Baltimore being at a rebuilding stage is a good fit in that the pressure won't be amazingly high to win, and they can afford them a chance to learn at the big league level. Wada might be somewhat of a stopgap but Chen might be a part of Baltimore's next competitive team.
I think Japanese players, in general, are more loyal to their teams than American players are. If that's a too lofty way of putting it, they are more willing to stay in one organization than American players tend to be. So there's that. This is my speculation, but Uehara played for probably the most demanding baseball team in the world in Japan (the Yomiuri Giants) so he might have appreciated the atmosphere in Baltimore.
Another factor is John Stockstill's efforts. He scouted Japan and Korea quite a bit last summer, so obviously he is comfortable with the level of talent in the Asian leagues and is willing to commit to these players, which is important. A lot of times Japanese players talk about wanting to go to "a team that values me" or "a team that needs me."

CC: The Orioles have spent about $15 give or take on Wada and Chen over the next 2-3 years, whereas an established but mediocre duo of American pitchers might cost upwards of twice that. Do you see an untapped market inefficiency in picking up Japanese (and other Eastern Asian) pitchers to provide rotation depth? Is that a potential plan that could continue regularly in future offseasons?

PN: Not quite. There won't be starting pitchers available on the Japanese/Korean free agency market every year. This is the first time we've had any since Uehara and Kawakami three years ago, or Colby Lewis two years ago if we want to include him. There will occasionally be cases where upside outweighs risk, and I think the Orioles have found that this year, particularly with Chen.

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