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Oakland's Japanese import is struggling. Should we be surprised?

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Christian Petersen

In his first spring training as a major leaguer, Hiroyuki Nakajima has struggled. Specifically:

Specifically, Nakajima came into Sunday with three errors, one in each of his last two starts, a .214 batting average and no evidence that he’ll be able to pull the ball.

"Each guy has to get acclimated (in his own way),’’ the manager said. "His personality is always good. He’s always in a good mood. He’s not moping, and that’s good.

"When you are playing for a new team in a new league, it takes time to get there, and he’s not there yet.’’

Source: John Hickey

Just a quick fact: In Ichiro Suzuki's first regular-season month in the majors, he batted .336.

Of course that's not a fair comparison, because Ichiro Suzuki's a Hall of Famer. In two countries, at least. But another fact is that very few Japanese players have made good with the bat. There's Ichiro, and Hideki Matsui, and ... well, Norichika Aoki played really well for the Brewers last season. Otherwise we're talking about a few guys who did okay for a few years, and a few out-and-out busts.

Generally speaking, pitchers on the east side of the Pacific throw quite a bit harder than pitchers on the west side, which might go a ways toward explaining why so many Japanese hitters have struggled over here. It's not that we should expect them all to become Major League Baseball stars; Japanese players are allowed to be just fair (or worse), just like there are just fair American players, just fair Dominican players, etc.

Fairly or not, though, a relatively high percentage of Japanese hitters have been deemed disappointments, from Tsuyoshi Shinjo to Tsuyoshi Nishioka. To me, this suggests the high degree of difficulty of scouting. Not scouting Japanese players, specifically; scouting, generally. These guys all played many hundreds of games in Japan's best baseball leagues, which are generally believed to fall somewhere, qualitatively, between Class AAA and Major League Baseball. Every major-league team has scouts in Japan, and I assume than a high percentage of each player's games are recorded on video.

You might figure that scouts -- and for that matter, sabermetricians -- would have a better handle on projecting long-time Japanese major leaguers than just about any other sort of player. But it doesn't seem to be true, at least not when it comes to hitters.

We might attribute this to culture shock, except a number of Japanese pitchers have experienced great success, for at least a few years. Sure, Kei Igawa was a huge bust. But just last season, both Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma pitched well in their freshman MLB seasons.

I was optimistic about Hiroyuki Nakajima. So were the Athletics. Maybe we shouldn't have been.

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