Japan: Favored nation for 4-A hitters?

Brian Kersey

With Bryan LaHair heading off to Japan, we might ask once again: Are some hitters good enough to dominate in Triple-A, but not good enough for the majors at all?

Last week already seems like a long time ago -- a four-day weekend will do that, I suppose -- but I'm still not quite over the Bryan LaHair news. Just in case you missed it:

Infielder Bryan LaHair has been designated for assignment, as he and the Cubs are pursuing an opportunity for LaHair with a club in Japan...

A 2012 National League All-Star, LaHair batted .259 (88-for-340) with 16 home runs and 40 RBI in 130 games. He originally signed with the Cubs as a minor league free agent on December 23, 2009 and has combined to bat .263 (105-for-399) with 18 home runs and 46 RBI in 150 games with the Cubs covering two seasons (2011-12).

And LaHair has indeed signed with the SoftBank Hawks for two seasons and good money.

Last winter, with LaHair apparently ticketed for every-day duties as the Cubs' first baseman, we saw this quote from Theo Epstein: "Bryan LaHair is our first baseman. I don't believe in the concept of 4-A players. The guy can hit."

LaHair had spent all of 2010 and most of 2011 with the Cubs' 3-A affiliate, and in the latter season he'd absolutely crushed Pacific Coast League pitching: .331/.405/.664, 38 homers and 109 RBI in only 129 games. The Cubs brought him up in September and he played in 20 games and played well.

Was Theo Epstein wrong? Well, he said two things that aren't mutually exclusive; he can be right about one of them, and wrong about the other.

Can Bryan LaHair hit, though? In the major leagues? It obviously depends on your definition of "hit" ... but the market seems to have spoken. The Cubs clearly didn't have a place for LaHair, with young Anthony Rizzo clearly ready to take over at first base. But if Epstein really thought LaHair could hit, he'd have found a place in the lineup for LaHair, somewhere. If anyone else really thought LaHair could hit, they'd have made a deal for him, whether last season or just now. When a hitter goes to Japan, essentially it means that nobody really thought he could hit.

And historically, most of the players who went to Japan really couldn't hit. Not much, anyway. Cecil Fielder was a notable exception. But when you think of the American sluggers who thrived in Japan -- Boomer Wells, Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera -- they weren't good major-league hitters before going to Japan, or after leaving.

Those are just data points, of course, not a scientific study.

Whenever this subject comes up, I always think of Bill James' "Ken Phelps All-Star Team". In his Baseball Abstract 1987, James wrote:

Ken Phelpses are just available; if you want one, all you have to do is ask. They are players whose real limitations are exaggerated by baseball insiders, players who get stuck with a label -- the label of their limits, the label of the things they can't do -- while those that they can do are overlooked.

The stars of the All-Stars were Mike Stenhouse, Brad Komminsk, and (of course) Ken Phelps.

It's funny. Bill James made Ken Phelps famous to those of us who were rabidly devouring the Abstracts when they were published every spring; then, just a few years later, Seinfeld made Ken Phelps famous to everyone who watched television. In the interim, Phelps did get his shot in the majors, with the Mariners, and made good. James had chosen wisely.

Stenhouse and Komminsk didn't fare as well. Stenhouse, who had absolutely destroyed Triple-A pitchers but batted just .190 in 493 major-league plate appearances, never got another chance in the majors. Komminsk had been the fourth pick in the 1979 draft and done well in the minors, but struggled terribly in 740 major-league plate appearances. After James made him a Ken Phelps All-Star, Komminsk got another 379 PA and batted .228/.316/.380.

Again, just a few more data points. In This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones (1989), James wrote this:

It is a common belief in baseball that minor league batting records are not a reliable indicator of a player's batting skill. It is my belief ... that minor league batting statistics are exactly as reliable as a guide to future major league performance as are previous major league stats.

l can't really speak for 1987 or 1989. But in 2012, I think it's a common belief in baseball that minor-league batting records are a reliable indicator of a player's batting skill ... but not perfectly reliable, and not exactly as reliable as previous major-league stats. Whether they would slap the 4-A label on Bryan LaHair or not, it seems that the great majority of baseball executives now believe that Bryan LaHair's major-league stats tell us more than his minor-league stats about his batting skill. I suspect that something like a dozen general managers would have been interested in acquiring LaHair after his monster 2011; now, that number seems to have fallen to approximately zero.

Are all 30 general managers wrong? Maybe. But these guys aren't, as a group, idiots. There are a lot of really smart people in baseball who are looking, this winter, for a good-hitting first baseman or designated hitter. And the fact that apparently all of them are perfectly happy to watch Bryan LaHair spend next summer in Japan does, I think, say something really interesting.

Exactly what that is, I'm not completely sure.

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