Monday, September 5, 2011

My Japanese Goldbergs

In 1997, a guy named Bill Goldberg stormed onto the wrestling scene. He was an absolute monster; a former NFL player that had turned to wrestling once his body could no longer handle the grind of men trying to do real harm to him on a weekly basis. He looked like a guy that could tear you asunder without even trying. The crowds ate him up. Of course one of his truly signature qualities, was his over-the-top and obnoxiously long entrance, complete with this chant from the crowd:

Over. And over. And over. Until he got to that ring. And then again until the match started.

I about 12 years old, hanging at my friend Matt's house. Matt, like a lot of friends I had at the time, was a nice Jewish boy who had nice Jewish parents. Matt's dad usually just passed by us while we sat hypnotized on Monday nights. But that Monday, Matt's dad stopped and laughed harder than I had ever seen in the previous 12 years of knowing him.

"Wait, a guy named Goldberg is popular? Really? This guy is my favorite!" And from then on, Matt's dad took an active role in cheering for Goldberg. He really didn't care much for the WWF, WCW or their ilk, but he certainly always cared about Goldberg. I eventually understood that Goldberg was Jewish, but I didn't understand why Matt's dad cared so much. It didn't make sense to me that someone would cheer so hard for someone just because of one connective fiber. I truly didn't understand. I thought it was was even "racist".

Here I am 15 years later, and I can recite to you every Japanese player in the league from memory. I grew up and realized that some connections are more important than others. I care about these players because our last names are similarly difficult to say and I intuitively understand a lot of the principles they live and play by (including what I call Japanese "gamer-ism", which allows them to put all distracting factors aside and just forge ahead. This can work for or against a player). I want them to succeed because of our shared background and culture and face. I understand.

So now I'm the guy who will pay more attention to a player if I see his last name is Nishioka or Kawakami. I care if Igarashi throws in a meaningless blowout in New York or if Fukudome gets traded. However, I don't care one bit about Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's just awful.

Like Matt's dad to Goldberg, I have gravitated more and more towards Japanese baseball players, no matter what the team or significance of their role on it. Luckily enough for me, the Dodgers have always been one of the teams at the forefront of Japanese human imports. That sounded terrible, and I wish it weren't accurate.

Coming from the lineage of Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii and Takashi Saito (guess which one of those I wish I could get a mulligan on), Hiroki Kuroda is the latest guy who looks like he could be tangentially related to me to don Dodger blue. I've watched Kuroda pitch for four years now; he is one of the top 3 greatest Japanese players ever to play in America. I've come up with a ranking system, which I've chosen to base on performance, rather and playoff statistics or impact on the game of baseball, both in the states and in Japan. I placed both pitchers and hitters in the same ranking, but judged them in a MVP-style debate; who brought the most value to his team?

About a dozen other guys were taken into consideration, including: Akinori Otsuka, Hideki Okajima, Tadahito Iguchi, Kaz Matsui, Tomo Ohka, Hideki Irabu, Akinori Iwamura, Kosuke Fukudome and Koji Uehara. However, only 8 guys could really crack my upper echelon of Japanese-bred major leaguers.

5-way tie: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima: Four relievers with spectacular numbers, but in the case of Sasaki and Saito, truncated careers that came in the twilight of their playing days. These four get ranked lower because of the reliever's natural tendency to have less of an effect on a game.

5. Daisuke Matsuzaka: It brings me great joy to say that Daisuke has sucked for most of his major league career. 49-30, 4.25 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 1.89 strikeout to walk ratio and 4.4 walks per nine innings. In plainspeak, that means that he gave up a league-average amount of runs, while still managed to win a lot of games and frustrating every true Red Sox fan by loading the bases with only one out every single start. Throw in the fact that his Japanese gamer-ism worked against him (he would never tell the Sox when he was hurt, thus limiting his effectiveness), Daisuke has been extraordinarily overrated and has quietly had a mediocre career. I was tempted to rank him below the relievers, but his status as a starter who won games (including his only World Series start) and gaudy strikeout numbers (8.2 k's per nine innings) kept him in this spot.

Oh and I think the gyroball is made up.

4. Hideo Nomo: The Godfather. With such a prestigious reputation, why does he rank so low? His career numbers looks shockingly similar to Daisuke's:

Nomo: 123-109, 4.24 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 2.11 K/BB, 4.1 BB/9, 8.7 K/9.
Daisuke: 49-30, 4.25 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 1.89 K/BB, 4.4 BB/9, 8.2 K/9

Almost identical really. It's pretty eerie. But Nomo holds the advantage slightly in all of those statistical categories, and managed to do it over 12 seasons, while Daisuke's sucked it up for only 5. Plus, Hideo gets bonus points for his no-hitter, 81 wins and a 3.74 record in Dodger blue and making this post possible.

3. Hiroki Kuroda: My boy. Or I'm his boy. I guess it really depends on how you look at it.

Kuroda owns a 39-44 lifetime record in the major leagues. BUT his 3.46 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and striking out 3 times as many batters as he walked speaks much higher than his subpar record. If you're not stat savvy, quite simply put, he absolutely owned Daisuke over the previous four seasons. In fact, you could say he's been one of the best pitchers in the National League that whole time. Kuroda has been on two terrible teams and two playoff teams. If he were in Daisuke's position, that record probably would be much better than 5 games under .500.

More importantly, the guy is complete flip-side of Japanese gamer-ism. He's fought through a barrage of injuries, including getting beaned in the head so hard that he herniated a disk in his neck. Yet, he's come back year after year, not let his injury affect his performance, and pitched exactly to how he is paid.

2. Hideki Matsui: Godzilla incarnate. The best Japanese power-hitter ever in the Majors owns a lifetime .286 batting average, .834 OPS, with 172 homers and 1,220 hits (Not that I'm counting this here, but just for posterity's sake, his playoff numbers are even better, throwing down a .312 batting average to go along with a .933 OPS and 64 hits in 56 games played). Godzilla might be an understatement here. I think I may have subconsciously given him demerit points for having the same haircut I had when I was 16.

1. Ichiro Suzuki: Is there really any question? 2,400 hits, 1,117 runs scored, .327 batting average, 10 gold gloves in as many seasons, an MVP award - and that's just stateside. I don't need to write two more sentences about this; Ichiro is not only one of the best Japanese players of all time, he's one of the best players of all time period.

There you have it. The unfortunate discovery I made in writing this post was that the great Japanese players are far more limited than those hailing from the Caribbean, or Latin America. In my biased mind, I thought that the Japanese imprint on the American game was far more prolific than it actually has been. I just hope that when I have kids, I can flip on the TV and hear 50,000 people chanting KENNNNNNNNNNNNN-JIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII. Please God.

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