A baseball team is always taking a bit of a shot in the dark signing a foreign player, particularly a Japanese infielder, who will be expected to jump directly to the major leagues as soon as he steps on U.S. soil. The A’s hope Hiroyuki Nakajima can break a dubious track record among infielders coming from the Land of the Sun.
For some reason, they haven’t had the same kind of success coming to America as outfielders and pitchers, and there are myriad theories. One is that defensively, they have adjustment issues going from artificial turf, which is the dominant playing surface in Japan, to grass. Another is that there simply haven’t been that many top-notch prospects capable of making the jump.
Scouts seem to be on the fence about Nakajima, who signed a two-year deal Tuesday with the A’s that includes a club option for a third season. Many believe he will be able to handle himself offensively, but that his defense is a question, particularly the strength of his arm. We’ll just have to see, but it doesn’t appear to be a dramatic risk.
I found a highlight reel of some of Nakajima’s defensive work on YouTube, and I don’t see anything that alarming compared to what the A’s are used to. He’s nothing if not surehanded. The arm seems decent enough, and his range is good if not great. It’s tough to make sense of Japanese fielding stats, but Nakajima did win three Gold Gloves in Japan, and according to numbers on Baseball Reference, Nakajima made just 10 errors in 144 games in 2011 (strangely, numbers for 2012 couldn’t be found). But 10 errors in that many games is a very good number. What’s more, his Seibu team easily led all of Nippon Professional Baseball in double plays, where you have to figure the shortstop was involved in many of those.
Stephen Drew made five errors in just 29 games for the A’s. Cliff Pennington made nine in 93 games at short. So it’s not like Oakland was getting plus defensive work at the position. Pennington was competent. Strong arm, good range to his left, solid on the double play. Drew, meanwhile, had a good arm but limited range. Nakajima won’t present much dropoff, if any at all. The most worrisome thing, as noted at the top, is how he makes the conversion from artificial turf to grass.
At 30, Nakajima has considerable experience playing at a high level. He has some power in his bat. He appears to have a good strike zone based on his walk totals, and his on-base percentage is notably accentuated by double-digit hit-by-pitch totals in virtually every season he has played. We’ll see how he adjusts to major league pitching, but if he hits .250 with 10 home runs, he’ll have easily topped what the A’s got last year from the position.
Financially, it’s a windfall. Two years at $6.5 million compared to more than $9 million for Drew? For the cost-conscious A’s, that’s more than worth the risk considering that Drew has injury concerns. There certainly was no guarantee he is capable of holding up over a full season, and on that count, Nakajima was the cheaper, safer risk. In Japan, he has been a very durable player.
It should be a fun experiment, and the A’s seem to prosper with their international dynamic. Nakajima brings another new dimension to it. And he does appear to have a bit of flair. Can’t wait to see him get his first pie.