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Community Projection: Kenji Johjima

The eighth in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)

LL Community: .280/.343/.438 (n=26)
PECOTA: .292/.354/.434
Bill James Handbook: N/A
ZiPS: .273/.342/.480
Marcel: N/A

Actual: .291/.332/.451

Now there's a mixed bag of projections if I ever saw one. ZiPS undershot the average and overshot the power. PECOTA undershot the power and nailed the average. LL undershot the average and nailed the power. The only thing all three had in common: everyone missed on the walks. No one expected Johjima to come in and be Adam Dunn, but no one saw him posting the seventh-lowest BB% in baseball, either. (Marcel and the Bill James Handbook didn't list projections, as Johjima hadn't played on American soil in 2005.) Not a single LL reader predicted an OBP-BA as low as the .041 Kenji posted this year. This aggressive approach came as a pretty legitimate surprise.

That Johjima's strikeouts also increased by 22% from his 2005 season in Japan might lead one to suggest that this rather substantial change in BB/K came from having to face a higher level of competition. After all, more talented pitchers issue fewer walks and miss more bats, so maybe this was just a natural adjustment we should've seen coming. I don't know if that's fair, though. While Hideki Matsui, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, and Ichiro both saw their walk rates decrease rather sharply upon crossing the Pacific, they also reduced their strikeout rates, presumably the result of trying to put the ball in play earlier in the count to protect against better pitchers. Tadahito Iguchi whiffed a bunch more in 2005 than he did in 2004, but that came with a (very slight) increase in walks. Kaz Matsui barely saw a change in either. We can't apply a blanket BB/K adjustment to imported Japanese hitters because there just isn't a consistent track record yet. While part of Kenji's lower ratio may be due to facing higher competition, right now I'm more comfortable saying the bulk of it is due to something else.

Nay, where the higher level of competition shows up is in Johjima's power output. This is where we see a considerable adjustment across the board. The following is a list of the six prominent Japanese import hitters, along with their first-season drop in isolated power (SLG-BA):

H Matsui: -58.7%
K Matsui: -49.2%
Ichiro: -29.6%
Iguchi: -25.9%
Johjima: -35.5%
Shinjo: -35.6%

(This list ignores So Taguchi, who barely played during his first few seasons in the US, and Norihiro Nakamura, who sucked.)

That's a pattern. The best-case scenario, based on those six players, is that an import hitter initially loses a quarter of his power to a better league (for the sake of simplicity we're ignoring park factors, so feel free to chop a few percentage points off of Johjima's number if you like). And while Hideki Matsui was able to get some of his lost power back in the following seasons, none of the others did. This is where the difference in leagues is most apparent - while Japanese baseball is better than AAA, there's pretty clear evidence that it's still a step below the Majors. You just can't argue equality when some of your top hitters are crossing the ocean and losing that much productivity. They've been varying degrees of decent to good to great, but they haven't been the same hitters they were in Japan.

So that's Kenji's league adjustment. If you only read the last few paragraphs you might think that I consider him a disappointment, which isn't really the message I'm trying to convey. The fact of the matter is that even with the drop in walks and the power reduction, in 2006 Kenji Johjima was the best catcher this franchise has ever had. His .279 EqA narrowly beat out Dave Valle's 1993, and while Bob Stinson was a point better in 1978, Johjima earns a bonus for his durability (140 games to Stinson's 124). He wasn't an MVP candidate or an approximation of Jason Varitek's best seasons, but he ranked in the top fourth at his position, and for $16.5m/3yr he came as a terrific bargain.

Simply put, there wasn't any reason to be upset with the season he had. For the most part he was a consistent bat in the 6/7 slot, driving in the runners Carl Everett left on base and patching up one of the more glaring positional black holes in baseball history. Going deep in the first two games of his Major League career proved an effective way for Kenji to endear himself to a fan base eager to have a catcher who knows what a baseball looks like, and he was able to maintain a steady level of production for much of the year, fighting through a grueling workload that stemmed from both Mike Hargrove's staggering inability to rest his starters and nobody's desire to see Rene Rivera drag his sorry ass to the plate three times in three hours. Kenji had his defensive problems, but they were either largely insignificant (stabbing at balls in the dirt) or completely fictional (alleged difficulty calling games), and his only real offensive concern was at least partially negated by his consistently putting the ball in play. The 2006 Mariners had a lot of problems, but Kenji Johjima absolutely wasn't one of them.

What's a little frustrating is that Kenji, like every non-Boone right-handed hitter in the history of Safeco, is hurt by his home park. He's a dead pull hitter, with almost every single one of his extra-base hits going to left field, and as a result he gets killed by that cavernous left-center power alley. His isolated power was 71% better on the road, and while I understand that lots of people have to go through the same thing, both Mariners and opposition alike, this ballpark does a spectacular job of masking just how good some of our hitters really are. Johjima's BB/K was 0.65 at home and 0.31 away. Small sample size arguments apply and and all that, but no one should have to change his approach at the plate just to suit his own stadium. How does that help? Hitters get spooked and start changing their swings, and pitchers get overconfident and think they can get away with stuff on the road just because it works at home. That's a double-whammy. Safeco needs new dimensions, and Kenji is one of hundreds of reasons why.

It's going to be interesting to follow Kenji over the next two years while he's still under contract. While on the one hand you might expect him to make a slight improvement after adjusting to the new league and home ballpark, he's a catcher who turns 31 next June and just carried one of the heaviest workloads in the league. He'll be asked to do the same in 2007, too, unless the Mariners go out and acquire a veteran backup that Hargrove actually likes. It's too soon to stick him with any red flags, but catchers do age quicker than anyone else, so Kenji's at an elevated risk of both injury and performance decline. This is why having Rene Rivera as the organization's current #1 insurance policy is so terrifying.

Of course, even with the risk, Kenji's a good bet to survive the next two years and ease us into the Jeff Clement Era. He's not a superstar, but he's a steady player who should have at least another two or three seasons of starting in him before things go south. Even if he has a few problems with his knees, the occasional DL stint isn't the end of the world, and there's still a lot of value in a .775 OPS backstop who plays 100+ games. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. A risk isn't a guarantee, and the odds are strongly in favor of Kenji's 2007 being more of the same. Look for Johjima to more firmly establish himself as the greatest catcher in Mariners history.