Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eastern Arms: Four Great Pitchers in the World Baseball Classic

Posted By on Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 4:43 PM

You know, I really love the World Baseball Classic. Not so much because I really, honestly care about the results or anything like that; I love it because a) it's nice to have real baseball back on television, and b) because I love watching the Asian pitchers. More specifically, I love watching the Asian pitchers while trying to figure out which of them would make a good target for a major league team to try and bring over to the States.

So, in order to humor my inner scout, I'm going to force you, er, treat you to my scouting reports on four players from the Asian pool of the WBC that I think might make interesting targets for major league teams in the future. 

A quick word to begin: I'm going to leave Yu Darvish, whom I wrote about on Friday, off the list entirely. Darvish is well on the radar of major league teams by this point; he's expected to be the player to break the posting record set by Daisuke Matsuzaka in just a few years. No, I'm going to try and give you a couple of names that aren't quite so well known. So, without further ado, here we are. 

Jung-Keun Bong, LHP, Korea
Bong is actually a former major leaguer already, having been signed by the Atlanta Braves as a non-drafted free agent back in 1997. I remember watching Bong pitch in his major league days and being rather unimpressed, but he was also only 23, maybe 24 years old at the time. He pitched for both the Braves and Reds before being released and heading back to Korea to continue his career. He last pitched in the majors in 2004. 

Watching Bong in the WBC, I was surprised to see how much he looks to have matured since he was here in the US. At 28 years old now, he should be coming into the prime of his career, and his stuff looks like it. A running fastball helps to set up a solid cutter/slider (looks like it, anyway), and a nasty changeup. Unfortunately, since ESPN doesn't see fit to include speed gun readings in their WBC coverage (really, ESPN? The fuck?), it's tough for me to tell exactly how hard he's throwing, but I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of difference. He is a lefty, after all. 

Bong wasn't quite up to snuff in his first go 'round here in America, but seeing how he's matured physically, I think it's only a matter of time before a major league team looks at bringing him in again. I have no idea how good he would be, in all honesty, but the arm certainly intrigues me. He reminds me a bit of Chris Capuano, the Brewers' lefthander who had so much success before getting bitten by the arm trouble bug the last couple of seasons. 

Hisashi Iwakuma RHP, Japan
Yu Darvish gets all of the headlines, but Iwakuma-san took home the Sawamura Award (the Nippon equivalent of the Cy Young), in 2008. He ended the season with a 21-4 record and a ridiculous 1.87 ERA in 201 innings. Even better, Iwakuma is a strike-thrower of nearly Madduxian proportions, putting up a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 4.43, with only 36 total walks. He'll turn 28 in April of this year, putting him squarely in the prime years of his career. 

Iwakuma isn't an overpowering pitcher like his more heralded counterpart Darvish, living on aggressiveness and remarkable command rather than pure stuff. He pounds the zone with an excellent sinking fastball, and complements it with one of the single most wicked forkballs I've ever seen in my life. He also seems to throw about half a dozen other pitches, and to be honest, the couple of times I've watched him pitch haven't been enough for me to identify them all. I know he throws a straight changeup as well as the fork, what looks like either a short slider or a cutter, and probably a harder, four-seam version of his fastball. What makes his repertoire truly impressive is the fact that every single one of his offerings can be thrown for a strike. 

Watching Iwakuma pitch, I am a little concerned by his mechanics, as he looks to elevate the elbow on his pitching arm above shoulder level, which I consider to be somewhat of a red flag. It isn't severe, by any means, but it is there, and probably bears watching. Honestly, though, that's the only quibble I have with this guy, who otherwise is a wonder to behold. He recently signed a three-year deal for 1.1 billion yen (that's $12.1 million U.S., but it sounds more impressive in yen), with the Rakuten Eagles. After seeing him perform at the level he has thus far in the WBC, I expect MLB teams to begin lobbying for Iwakuma-san to be posted sooner than later. 

Finally, a bit of video on Iwakuma. It isn't subtitled, so I have very little idea what's being said (what Japanese I know comes almost entirely from watching Akira several hundred times when I was fifteen), but there's still plenty of good stuff to be gleaned. 


Toshiya Sugiuchi, LHP, Japan
If you like strikeouts (and I most certainly do), then Sugiuchi-san is likely your man. In 2008, he threw 196 innings, and struck out 213 batters. Couple that with only 36 walks, and you're looking at a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of almost 6:1.

Sugiuchi is very much in the mold of a classic lefty, throwing a wide variety of off-speed pitches to complement his fastball, which is solid but not spectacular. Of the breaking pitches I've seen from Sugiuchi, his curve-ball, a big, sweeping number, is the most impressive. He also has a very good change-up, and a couple of other pitches that I'm not sure exactly what they were. His command is solid, though probably a step down from that of Iwakuma. 

Statistics have been known not to translate perfectly between the Nippon league and MLB, but I would be willing to bet that a guy with the kind of strikeout-to-walk ratio that Sugiuchi posts should be able to have some real success over here. 

Some video of Sugiuchi, showing a pretty fair view of his delivery: 



Sun Guoquiang, RHP, China
The oldest player on my list, Sun (that should be his surname, I believe; I'm much less familiar with the rules of Chinese nomenclature than those of Japanese), checks in at 34 years old. 

To be honest. Sun is completely different from the other players on my list. He isn't a dominant force, even in his home league, and isn't really the sort of player one would look at as making a significant impact if brought over to play major league ball. However, he is a submarining right-handed reliever who just happens to have remarkable natural movement on the ball. In China's recent game against Japan in the WBC, Sun made no less a hitter than Ichiro look rather foolish on a couple of running fastballs that seemed to defy the laws of physics as they spun in there. 

Unfortunately, it's damned near impossible to get much (read: any), real information on Chinese baseball players, so I'm mostly left with only my own impressions from watching the guy pitch. What I saw was a very deceptive delivery, coupled with that kind of really unusual life to the ball that one only seems to see in pitchers who drop way, way down. He's not quite as low as, say, Chad Bradford, but is lower than someone like the Padres' Cla Meredith. 

What I find most intriguing about Sun is the fact that, to my knowledge, there has been very, very little Chinese talent which has found its way into the wider world of baseball. Eventually, a day is going to come when a Chinese player will likely be imported by an American team, and I wonder if a guy like Sun may not be the place to start. He's a veteran, so it wouldn't be as if a team were taking a long-term gamble on a kid to develop, he's a reliever, so there would be much less of a learning curve anyhow, and, in Sun's case at least, he lives on deception and movement, rather than being particularly fine with his control. Most of the earliest Japanese imports to American baseball were veteran pitchers of just this ilk; many of them ended up in relief work due to their unusual motions which threw off hitters' senses of timing especially well in short outings. 

As I said, the main reason I'm including Sun here isn't because I think he's the sort of player who's going to get posted for a huge sum like some of the other players we're watching in the WBC (honestly, I don't even know if there is such a system for Chinese players), but largely because I think he might very well be just the sort of player a team may want to target if they're interested in making that first real inroad into the Chinese talent market. 

I couldn't find any video of Sun; the best I could do was some nice photos taken during WBC play. 

Are all of these players going to play in America in the coming years? I have no idea, and I won't try to convince you that I do. What I do know, though, is that major league teams have cast their nets ever wider trying to find talented ballplayers, and if I was impressed by the pitchers on this list, I'm sure someone much smarter than me has taken notice long before now. 

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