One aspect of the offseason that is intriguing for fans and teams alike is the international market and seeing the next wave of talent that will be able to play in the MLB. We’ve seen many fantastic names come from overseas like Ichiro, Ohtani, Darvish, Hyun Jin Ryu, Ha Seong Kim, and more. But with recent lulls in the market, the reliability of giving contracts to these players is coming into question.
The problem teams have had with scouting overseas is not with the top-tier talent, such as those aforementioned names, but rather with trying to identify the more above-average starters. Many international scouts often compare Japanese and Korean Baseball Leagues as being one step above Triple-A, but also not nearly at the same level of play as MLB. It leaves these scouts in a tough position. Players who are regularly at the top of international leagues by putting up insane stats and priming themselves well to come to America have to be looked at through different lenses by Major League scouts.
There are many factors in these different leagues that skew how top names are seen, such as pitchers not throwing as hard, far fewer power hitters, and more of a small ball style of play as opposed to the launch angle revolution taking place here. This leads to hitters or pitchers who can throw slightly harder and hit for more power than their teammates standing out much more than they would in MLB. It can also lead to highly inflated stats that might not accurately reflect the true talent level of the player being scouted.
Many statistics that are used to measure talent often compare a player’s production to a league average benchmark. This makes it easy to identify how good a player is at first glance with stats like OPS+ and ERA+ becoming much more popular as of late. But in order to scout these international stars, they can’t scout from a stat sheet like in MLB because the reliability of these stats is so skewed. Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama was seen as a top name during the free agent class of 2020 after putting up eye-popping numbers that included a season of a .359/.419/.522 statline. He was known for stellar center field defense, and his profile compared similarly to MLB studs like Yelich and Ellsbury. The Reds took a chance on him by giving him a three-year deal worth 21 million dollars, and in the years since that deal, Akiyama is out of the league after never putting up any type of production with Cincinnati. It’s a cautionary tale that GMs around the league most likely took notice of. The superstars of Japanese and Korean leagues are more often than not getting overwhelmed at the major league level with all the new adjustments they need to make, and it is looking increasingly safer to just sign domestic players who’ve been in the majors their whole career.
This is an interesting trend to observe because another part of the international market has been thriving with Major League players leaving for international leagues, and coming back even better. The idea behind this strategy more and more players are adopting is to leave behind the rigorous system of DFA and waiver claim purgatory that is American baseball, to go somewhere they can find consistent playing time. The KBO (Korea Baseball Organization) has been a very popular destination with some notable players taking a hiatus to Korea and coming back looking better than ever. Darin Ruf and Chris Flexen have probably been the two best players after their time spent in the KBO with each of them receiving multi-year contracts and putting up career years upon their return. These two trends in their respective markets have signaled a change on a larger level for what the future of international transfers could look like.
On one hand, the past three years have seen some of the more lackluster names come out of Japan and Korea. Seiya Suzuki, the Nippon League’s superstar from a very young age, had a highly anticipated debut in America and when the Cubs gave him a 5-year/85 mil guaranteed contract, there were expectations of greatness. So far, the Cubs look to be regretting that contract as Suzuki has been a very league-average player whose elite plate discipline and power notoriety have yet to develop against Major League pitching. Suzuki along with Yoshi Tsutsugo, Yusei Kikuchi, Shun Yamaguchi, and some others have all been falling in line with this recent trend and for many baseball front offices, this is probably becoming somewhat of a concern.
Contrastingly, around the league more and more rosters feature former KBO and returning MLB players that are all playing roles on their respective teams. Former Lotte Giants pitcher Adrian Sampson is currently having one of his best seasons yet with the Chicago Cubs, and priming himself very well for a starting job in the future. Sampson along with more returning players like Christian Bethancourt, Merrill Kelly, and Brooks Raley have all been having very valuable and productive seasons too.
So what does this all mean? Well, the assumption that I would make by noticing these trends that have recently seesawed with homegrown talent from international leagues struggling to adjust to the majors, while former big leaguers who built their value back up in the KBO are surging, is that the market is changing. I think we’re going to see a change in plans from front offices not scouting premier names from Japanese and Korean leagues as much, and instead spending more of their scouting resources on former big leaguers who have been finding so much success from the KBO transition strategy.
Now, this isn’t anything certain but I do think it’s interesting to see how times have changed more with international league scouting and I think the results will be seen in the upcoming offseason.
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