31 October 2005

Valentine's "Real World Series" a Bad Idea...for Him

Bobby Valentine's in over his head this time.

New Jersey's Bergen Record columninst and ESPN.com-tributor Bob Klapisch worte a piece discussing Valentine's challenge to have a "real" World Series, after his own Chiba Lotte Marines swept the Hanshin Tigers, 4-0, in the Japanese Series. Valentine became the first foreign-born manager in Japanese baseball history to even get to the final round of their playoffs, much less win them, so this accomplishment apparently went to his head pretty quickly.

Valentine had managed the NY Mets (1996-2002) and Texas Rangers (1985-1992) and never won a division title, though he did pick up an NL pennant with the Wild-Card winning Mets in 2000. He was also a very controversial manager, sticking with favorite players in spite of their repeated demonstration that they had no business in the regular lineup. His continued use of Brian McRae and Rey Ordonez in 1999 probably cost the Mets a Division Title, and if it didn't, then his use of Ordonez and Bernard "Innocent Until Proven" Gilkey certainly cost them the 1998 Wild Card. In a hilarious but extremely controversial move, Valentine returned to the Mets dugout after having been ejected from a game in 1999, in a not-particularly effective disguise.

I hope that was worth the suspension the commissioner levied upon you, Bobby.

Anyway, for all his faults, Valentine was reasonably successful as a manager, at least with the Mets, and in only his second year as a manager in Japan, he's as successful as anyone has ever been in that role. This success, as I mentioned, seems to have swelled Bobby's already sizeable ego:

"I can tell you the level of play is equal. [The Marines] are as good as any team I've ever managed.

Putting aside the fact that virtually any manager who wins a World Series (and any player who's won one and is in contention for another) always says this about his current team, we have yet one more reason not to believe Valentine: This team didn't win a World Series.

They won a Japan Series. Yes, I know. It's not polite to disparage the Japanese Leagues. They're people too, and it's racist or prejudiced or something to say that we're somehow inherently better than they are just because we're American. Well, I'm not saying that. If it were somehow an even-grounded competition, where it was just the best of Japan ogainst the best of the U.S., well, we'd still probably win that handily, because we've got more than twice the population upon which to draw for our talent in the U.S. Alone. Also, most of us are bigger. OK, well, I am. In reality, it's not even that close, though, as Major League Baseball has the best talent from around the entire world, and Japan, well, doesn't.

Heck, we could probably win with just the players born in California. All of the following players were either productive (or better) in 2005 or very recently before that: Garrett Anderson, Rod Barajas, Hank Blalock, Barry Bonds, Chad Cordero, Coco Crisp, Bobby Crosby, Doug Davis, Jermaine Dye, Jim Edmonds, Joey Eischen, Scott Eyre, Brian Fuentes, Nomar Garciaparra, Jon Garland, Jason Giambi, Brian and Marcus Giles, Troy Glaus, and Eddie Guardado, to name a few, all native Californians. We've got two decent starting pitchers, five good relief pitchers, two good shortstops, two good thirdbasemen, a first baseman, a catcher, a second baseman, five productive outfielders and Superman himself. And I haven't even gotten out of the first seven letters of the alphabet!

By contrast, the Japanese leagues have only the Japanese population upon which to draw, as well as a few Koreans and some cast-offs from the North American major and minor leagues. To give you an idea of the talent level, here are a few of the players I've found who had playing time on both sides of the Pacific Ocean:

Brian Powell: In the majors, he went 7-18 with a 5.94 ERA in parts of six seasons with four franchises. In the Japanese PCL in 2005, at age 31, he went 14-12 with a 3.51 ERA in 200 innings (2nd in PCL), 160 strikeouts (4th in PCL), 5 complete games and two shutouts.

Julio Zuleta: Hit .247/.309/.466 in parts of two seasons with the Cubs, spent two years in AAA, then went to Japan and became a star. He hit .284/37 hr/100RBI in 2004 and .319/43/99 in 2005, placing 2nd in the PCL in all three triple crown categories.

Alex Cabrera: Had a cup of coffee with the Diamondbacks in 2000, but by then he was already 28 and had a decade's worth of minor league at-bats under his belt. He had generally hit well, but apparently nobody in a major league GM's position took him seriously because he always did it in places like Mexico City and the Texas League, where offense is cheap. He's now been in Japan for 5 seasons and has averaged 43 homers a year, including 25 in only half of the 2004 season, and 36 more this year.

Fernando Seguignol: Hit .249/.303/.451 in parts of five major league seasons, went to Japan and has 75 homers and 192 RBI in the last two seasons.

Tyrone Woods: Woods never made it to the majors, but now in his mid-30's, he's averaged over 40 homers for the last three seasons with the Chunichi Dragons.

Alex Ochoa: Ochoa, a 3rd round draft pick by the Orioles in 1991, never panned out in the majors, hitting .279 with moderate patience but no power or speed in parts of eight seasons with six different franchises. Now healthy, he's been a fixture in Chunichi's lineup for three years, averaging 20 homers and over 75 RBI per season from 2003 to 2005.

Alex Ramirez: There do seem to be a lot of Alexes, don't there? Anywho, this Alex had power, hitting .299 with 34 bombs for Cleveland's AAA affiliate in 1998, at the tender age of 23. Unfortunately for him, the late '90s Tribe was loaded with talent at the corner IF/OF spots, and he never got much of a chance to break in. He also had terrible plate discipline, so it didn't take long for major league pitchers to realize that they didn't have to ever throw him a strike. In Japan, though, he's averaged 30 homers and over 100 RBI in five seasons, despite the fact that he still strikes out about 4-5 times as often as he walks.

That's only seven players, but all of them were wash-outs in the North American major leagues, and all of them are now or have been solid contibutors and/or stars in the Japanese leagues. If you're interested, you can look up Tuffy Rhodes, George Arias, Roberto Petagine, Greg LaRocca, and others as well. The list is almost endless.

Among the players involved in the 2005 Japan Series alone are a handful of washed-up major leaguers, a few on each team:

Andy Sheets: In parts of seven seasons and over 1000 major league plate appearances, Sheets hit .216/.271/.321 with 19 homers. His first three seasons in Japan have netted him 67 homers, 245 RBI and a .290+ batting average.

Jeff Williams: With a 7.49 ERA in parts of four seasons with the LA Dodgers, and an unimpressive 4.05 ERA in over 650 minor league innings, Williams signed on with the Hanshin Tigers in 2003 and has a combined ERA just over 2.00 and more strikeouts than innings pitched in 2003-05.

Benny Agbayani: Benny and his jets hit .274/.362/.445 in parts of five major league seasons, mostly with Bobby Valentine's Mets. His minor league numbers had been comparable, but then he went to Japan, AKA "The Land of the Rising (...and Rising, and Rising...) Baseball", where he promptly hit .315 with 35 homers and 100 RBI in 2004. His 2005 stats (.271/13/71) look more like his MLB stats because, as was often the case for him on this side of the ocean, he was injured and only played about 2/3 of the season.

Matt Franco: Another ex-Valentinian Met, Franco hit .267/.349/.391 with 22 homers in almost 1000 at-bats over eight years in the majors, the quintissential backup catcher. In Japan, Franco starts, plays 259 games and hits 36 homers over two seasons, including .300 with 21 of them in 2005.

Dan Serafini: Serafini spent nine seasons in the minors and went 50-45 with a 4.36 ERA and parts of 6 seasons in the majors, going 15-16 with a 5.98 ERA. In 2004, in Japan, he went 5-4 with a 4.13 ERA and in 2005 he became a rotation anchor for the eventual Japan League Champion Chiba Lotte Marines, going 11-4 with a 2.91 ERA.

So, as you can see, the talent level in the Japanese leagues certainly does not appear to be anywhere near the caliber of the talent in MLB. Probably somewhere between AA and AAA, I would think.

"But wait!", you say, "Japanese players have come here and succeeded! What about Ichiro? What about Matsui?"

Presuming that you mean Hideki Matsui, yes, I agree with you, to an extent. While it's true that Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo and most notably Ichiro Suzuki have had success in MLB, they're still not as good as they were in Japan. Ichiro hit something like .353/.415/.522 in Japan, but "only" .332/.377/.442 in the American League. Still excellent numbers, but not the kind he regularly logged for the Orix Blue Wave. Matsui, similarly, has seen a notable drop in production since joining the Yankees, going from .304/.412/.582 to .297/.370/.484. That's almost a 150 point drop in OPS, which is enormous.

Furthermore, the group of players who have struggled in the majors after doing well in Japan is much longer than those who have succeeded: Kazuo Matsui, Hideki Irabu, Kazuhisa Ishii, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo (who returned to Japan after struggling for three years in the NL and had the best season of his career in 2004), to name a few. There is at least another dozen I won't even bother to mention becaus emost of you have never heard of them. Their bids for MLB stardom never got out of the minors.

Now, with that said, I'm not sure that the Japan-American Series is necessarily a bad idea, just one that won't ever happen. It's certainly a good marketing idea, as those nutty sports fans over there in Japan are huge consumers and would certainly support such a venture. I'm not as certain that baseball fans on this side of the Pacific would really care all that much, except for nut-jobs like myself and Rogers Horsnby who sit around all winter, staring out the window, waiting for spring. For weirdos like us, having a chance to see major leaguers play a few games in November would be pretty appealing, even if it was against the likes of Dan Serafini and Matt Franco.

Here's another quote from Francona:

"I'd put them up against the winner of the World Series and I know we'd win at least a couple of games."

Well, Bobby, that depends on how many you'd play. In a ten or fifteen-game series, yeah, you might win a couple of games. But four out of seven? Not likely. Sorry to have to be the one to break this to you, Bobby, but the evidence simply does not exist to suggest that the level of play in Japan is "equal" to, or even remotely close to, that in the major leagues. While it's possible that an All-Star team from, say, the Eastern League or the International League, might beat the White Sox once or twice in a dozen games, it's also more than probable that the Pale Hose would make even quicker work of your team than they did of the Astros, a bonafide and talented major league team.

On the other hand, strange things do happen, and one of them could be a series lost by the White Sox, or whomever has won the World Series that year. And that possibility is exactly what will probably keep an exhibition like this from ever happening. When current MLB players go to Japan to play exhibition games, nobody takes it seriously, so even though the MLB teams usually win, nobody takes the losses too seriously. But a Championship Series? An all-the-marbles contest for global bragging rights? Losing that would totally strip the Fall Classic of any and all credibility. The World Series would be seen as an illegitimate waste of time. I mean, really, who cares who wins the MLB World Series if the possibility exists that the winner of that series might lose to some team most Americans have never before heard of?

The 2005 World Series had its worst TV ratings in history, down 30% from last year and down 7% from the previous historic low, the 2002 Angels-Giants series. But if you think that's bad, just wait until another World Series occurs that not only alienates two thirds of the country (like the 2002 and 2005 Series did), but also can be upstaged by an upset from some upstart team of up-washed... sorry, washed-up former major leaguers and nobodies. The empty suits who own and run MLB would never let something like this happen. As Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor and current spokesman for NCAA basketball betting or baseball betting or something, so eloquently put it,

"These people did not get the wealth they have by being stupid.”

Bobby Valentine is not stupid, just a little caught up in the moment. So don't hold your breath waiting for the moment the Chicago White Sox will play the Chiba Lotte Marines in any kind of meaningful baseball game. It's not coming.

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