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Checking in on International Rookies


When you think of baseball’s rookie class for the 2012 season, the names Mike Trout and Bryce Harper probably come to mind first and foremost. But never mind this year’s eventual Rookie of the Year winners. We’re going to discuss a different class of rookies, one that honestly is not a rookie class at all: international signings getting their first taste of professional baseball, American style. Obviously the Rangers stole most of the publicity in this department over the off-season when they inked Yu Darvish to a record setting international deal, but there are a few other players worth getting updates on as well.

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

I might as well start here, since I already referenced Darvish in the introduction paragraph and he’s pretty much the cream of this year’s international crop. Through 20 big league starts, Darvish has shown the ability to pile up both the strikeouts (10.25 K/9) and the ground balls (47.0%), an enviable combination. Unfortunately, he’s also a little (okay, a lot) on the wild side as well, as he’s issuing nearly five walks per every nine innings he pitches. He’s outperforming his 4.38 ERA just a bit based on his other peripherals, but this is about as good as Darvish will ever be if he doesn’t learn to throw more strikes. He’s a good pitcher, but he’d better be considering how much the Rangers paid to sign him ($111.7 million counting posting fees).

Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland Athletics

Darvish draws more headlines overall, but Cespedes has been a very valuable player in his own right for the A’s. Signed to a four-year deal worth $36 million in the off-season, Cespedes is putting up nice numbers in his Major League debut, and at just 26, there’s still room for improvement. Cespedes is awful with the glove according to UZR (which claims he’s already cost Oakland 12 runs on defense), but he makes up for it by hitting baseballs quite well. Overall, he’s batting .310/.370/.531, and he along with Josh Reddick comprise pretty much the entire Oakland offense this season. Cespedes could stand to walk a little more (7.5%), and he’s benefiting from a fortunate BABIP (.358), but he clearly has the necessary tools to be an impact player for a long time to come.

 Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles guaranteed the then 26-year-old Chen a little more than $11 million over three seasons this past off-season, and so far it’s looking like a nice investment. The lefty from Taiwan is flashing solid control (3.02 BB/9) and missing a respectable amount of bats (7.36 K/9) to boot. There’s nothing especially alarming about his peripherals to suggest he’s achieving his success with luck, either, which is certainly a good sign for the future. His BABIP (.261) is perhaps a bit on the low side, but that 3.65 ERA won’t rise too much should that number normalize. Chen looks like a great value for Baltimore even if he lacks the upside of Darvish and Cespedes.

Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners

Iwakuma struck out 13 Blue Jays in his most recent start, hurling eight innings of one-run ball in the process, but the rest of his season has been somewhat lackluster. Seattle signed the 31-year-old Japanese pitcher to a one-year deal for $1.5 million last off-season. Since he completed his nine-year tenure in Japan, they were not required to pay any posting fees for his services. While Iwakuma showed in his last start what he’s capable of, his 4.10 ERA is a little misleading. He’s stranded 82.8% of base runners, a number that is not sustainable by a wide margin; this explains why his FIP is over a full run higher than that ERA. He also walks far too many batters (4.25 BB/9) considering his K/9 rate is only at 7.58. Oddly enough, Iwakuma has actually been better as a starter than when he’s pitched out of the bullpen, and at this point we’re talking about roughly 30 innings of data in both roles. Perhaps he can build off his latest start, a real gem, and see continued success as a member of the Mariner rotation.

Norichika Aoki, Milwaukee Brewers

Signed to a deal that guarantees $2.25 million through next season with a team option for 2014, Aoki has been a pleasant story in an otherwise difficult season for the Brewers. The left-handed hitting 30-year-old from Japan is triple slashing a respectable .280/.351/.418 in his first 346 Major League plate appearances, and has been worth 1.1 WAR according to FanGraphs. He’s also contributed on the base paths, swiping 13 bases in 16 tries. The .341 wOBA is not eye-popping for a guy who gets most of his defensive work in right field, but considering his small price tag, Aoki is more productive than many of other options Milwaukee could have gone with.

Can’t get enough of Spencer? Check out his work at StanGraphs and follow him on Twitter at @shendricks221.