The Meaning Of Kosuke Fukudome

Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs stands before the start of the Cubs and Washington Nationals game at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. The Cubs traded Kosuke Fukudome to the Cleveland Indians for two prospects. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Most people here -- myself included -- are happy, I believe, that Kosuke Fukudome is no longer a Cub. He provided good defense and drew a fair number of walks. But that's about all the value he had in his Cubs career; the power that he showed in Japan never manifested itself on this side of the Pacific, and his MLB career -- which I suspect is over after this season -- has to be seen as a huge disappointment.

Why did this happen? From 2003-2006, Fukudome averaged 29 home runs and 96 RBI for the Chunichi Dragons in NPB -- and that's in a shorter season that lasted around 140 games. He was widely considered to be the best hitter in Japan. Here's his complete NPB record (which has only a handful of categories; there isn't a more complete record available online, at least not one I could locate). He did have a wrist injury that cut his 2007 season down to about half a year, but even then, he hit 13 HR and drove in 48 runs playing 81 games. (Here's his 2007 Chunichi Dragons record.)

At least three other teams -- the White Sox, Rangers and Padres -- were interested in Fukudome, and at least one of those teams offered more money than the Cubs wound up paying him. Fukudome stated at the time he was signed that he wanted to play for the Cubs -- remember, they were coming off a division title season -- and they guaranteed he could play his Japanese position, right field; it appeared at the time the other teams wouldn't or couldn't do that.

So what happened? Why did this signing go so terribly wrong?

There are only two Japanese-born position players who have contributed over an extended period of time on a solid, major league regular or star basis: Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. The rest of the baseball landscape is littered with failures: Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kenji Johjima, Akinori Iwamura, Tadahito Iguchi and a number of pitchers, many of whom had a decent season or two, but wound up heading back to Japan. Do you think the Red Sox would like to have all the posting money they spent on Daisuke Matsuzaka back? (I'm guessing yes.)

There are two factors, I think, involved here: cultural differences and the nature of how baseball is played in North America compared to Japan.

It must be very difficult for a player to come 10,000 miles from home, to a place where he knows little or nothing about the language, perhaps without his family for extended periods of time, and play baseball effectively, even with a translator and other amenities the team gives him, and even in a city where there may be enough Japanese culture and population for him to feel somewhat at home. For Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, playing in Seattle and New York (and later, for Matsui, in southern and northern California), the Japanese community may have been enough. Or these two players may have had the mental toughness to do it, while the others didn't. It's impossible to get into the mindset of players, but this seems the most likely outcome. Why else would there be more than 40 Japanese-born players who have come to MLB since Hideo Nomo broke the barrier in 1995, yet only a handful (and Nomo also had some success before flaming out) have succeeded?

Another reason is likely the difference in ballparks and pitching styles. I have been to Japan and seen two stadiums there (the Tokyo Dome and the Seibu Dome). Japanese parks are smaller than North American parks. It's easier to hit home runs there -- this is also proven out by the numbers of American players, many of whom don't hit in MLB, who go to Japan and become fearsome power hitters (Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes, others). Japanese pitching is also different; this recent Baseball Prospectus article ($) explains some of the differences. It may be that Japanese hitters simply can't adjust; Fukudome did manage to bring his plate discipline over and draw walks, but the power virtually vanished. This link estimates the Major League Equivalency for Fukudome -- before he came here. The power numbers are a little too high, but anyone looking at these might have exercised caution before giving Fukudome $48 million.

What does this mean for the future? The Cubs made a mistake -- but it was a mistake other MLB teams were lined up to make after the 2007 season. Four years later, it's extremely unlikely that teams are going to do this in the future, and after the Matsuzaka debacle, players who go through the posting system aren't likely to get those huge paydays, either. It may be that NPB players just aren't suited to become stars in MLB, with the occasional exceptions such as Ichiro, or Hideki Matsui. It will mean that MLB teams' Pacific Rim scouts will become much more circumspect about who they go after to bring to play here.

We're not likely to see another Kosuke Fukudome in a Cubs uniform; though it's possible the Cubs may have another Japanese player in the future, as may other teams, I suspect the flood of players from NPB coming across the Pacific will slow to a trickle in the near term, or at the very least, they won't be paid as handsomely. Fukudome, as I noted, did bring some useful skills to the Cubs and the USA; just not enough of his Japanese skills translated to make him worth his big free-agent contract.

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