Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scouting Fukudome

A recent article reminded me that outfielder Kosuke Fukudome was eligible for free agency this year. Fukudome is one of Japan's biggest stars right now and currently plays for the Chunichi Dragons of the Pro Yakyu League.

Coincidentally, Chunichi was in the same boat as Cleveland until they ended their 53-year championship drought this season. I used to go see Chunichi play spring training games during my time in Japan and still try to keep up with the team.

At any rate, I'm familiar with Fukudome in name only; most fans have only seen his few at-bats in the World Baseball Classic. Scouting reports and comprehensive stats on Pro Yakyu players are hard to come by, but I was able to find some good info via (if you're interested in learning more about the league and its culture, that's a great place to start).

By the Numbers

Fukudome has followed in the footsteps of Ichiro and Matsui as one of the premier super-stars in Japan and his performance on the field backs up this assertion. Fukudome’s breakout season was in 2002 when he posted a .343 Avg, .537 Slg, and .406 OBP at age 25. 2002 was also the same year Chunichi moved him from the infield to center field (his infield defense was a liability once he reached the Majors, hence the move).

2002 608 85 186 42 19 56 4 96 .406 .537 .943
2003 617 107 165 30 34 78 10 118 .401 .604 1.005
2004* 404 97 97 19 23 48 8 93 .367 .569 .936
2005 612 102 169 39 28 93 13 128 .430 .590 1.020
2006 578 117 174 47 31 76 11 94 .438 .653 1.091
2007 348 64 79 22 13 69 5 66 .443 .520 .963

*Represented Japan in the 2004 Sydney Olympics

Fukudome continued to improve offensively, hitting 34 HR the following season. He reached the 30 HR mark in 2006 and just missed it in 2005 with 28. Fukudome has a tendency to draw walks and a reputation as a doubles machine (he set a league doubles record with 47 in 2006). His usual approach seems to sacrifice power for more control. There seems to be a rough correlation between his K rate and HR totals, but this pattern can be found in many players. Fukudome has good pop in his lefty bat and should still pose a solid power threat in the Majors.

Even if Fukudome’s power totals were to slip after he crosses the Pacific, he still has a superb OBP to fall back on. Fukudome has posted at least a .400 OBP five of the past six seasons, with 2005-2007 resulting in career highs in OBP. He has decent speed on the base paths, legging out all those doubles, but is not a major base stealing threat. Fukudome’s plate discipline, doubles production, and power potential would make him a good fit at either the top or heart of the lineup.

Scouting Report

Mike Plugh of Baseball Prospectus provides a scouting report on Fukudome’s game:

Most important among his skills is his batting approach, which relies on patience and a level left-handed swing. At roughly 6'0" and 190 pounds, Fukudome isn't a classic slugger. There is power in his bat, but it's of the line-drive variety. His hands are quick and he handles the inside pitch very well.

As I've watched Kosuke over the years, the few weaknesses I've noticed come against soft throwers, who like to go away, or down and away, against Fukudome. He'll chase high and inside on occasion, but looks worst when flailing at an offspeed pitch tailing low and outside.

On defense, Fukudome is a very good right fielder. His right arm is a gun, and has helped him to earn four Gold Gloves in Japan. Japanese baserunners, even of the speediest variety, have learned to run conservatively against the Dragons.

Where his lack of lateral quickness hurt him as an infielder, Kosuke's good athletic ability and fast legs are assets to him in tracking down balls. Generally, he gets good reads off the bat and reacts quickly to get into solid, fundamental position to make a catch and throw.

Below is a video of a Fukudome at-bat. You can see a slow motion of his swing and follow through at the 55 second mark.

Is There a Need?

What would Fukudome be replacing if he came to Cleveland? The Tribe’s left field platoon was among the worst in the majors as far as overall offensive production. Below are the splits for an average American League left fielder and Cleveland’s total production in left for 2007:

Left Field Production PA R H HR BB BA OBP SLG OPS
AL Avg. 2007* 650 N/A 147 15 49 .275 .335 .426 .760
CLE 2007 (Platoon) 673 N/A 156 15 51 .259 .315 .404 .719

*Adjusted per 162 games or 650 PA

One could argue that upgrading a slot in Cleveland’s lineup is a luxury, not a need, but that doesn’t mean the Tribe shouldn’t shop around. Cleveland’s left field was significantly below league average in OBP and Slg last season, so I think the need for an upgrade exists. The defense was also a bit shaky with Dellucci and Lofton manning the corner, so a strong arm with some range in left would make an already solid defense even better. Lofton may already be gone and Dellucci and Michaels can be moved via trade. If Cleveland were to acquire a potential All Star like Fukudome, it would be easy enough to accommodate him on the roster.

What’s the Contract Situation?

Fukudome has been relatively healthy over his career, but suffered from pain in his right elbow in July of 2007. He played in just 81 games this season because of the injury and underwent arthroscopic surgery in August. I have not heard any reports regarding the surgery aftermath or his recovery timetable. The elbow is more of a question mark than a risk, given his healthy track record. Fukudome will be 30 when he signs his next contract, but his recent numbers show no signs of decline.

Judging by the strong interest he has already received from other teams, his health is not a major concern and should be set for 2008. The Cubs and Red Sox are rumored to be the front runners for Fukudome’s services, which is already bad news for smaller market teams. The Red Sox do not have as strong a need for an outfielder as Chicago, although Coco Crisp could be on the move. Chicago recently dumped outfielders Jacque Jones and Craig Monroe, making a free agent signing seem even more likely for them. With Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones leading the pack, many teams may turn to Fukudome as a cheaper alternative. Fukudome has yet to make his team preferences known.

Fukudome is said to be looking for a three year deal with an anti-arbitration clause allowing him to hit free agency at 33. For comparison, Hideki Matsui received a 3 year, $21 million contract from the Yankees, with an escalating payroll scale. Cleveland paid $5.75 million for Michaels and Delluci in 2007, so $7-9 million per year may be viewed by some as a reasonable contract for Fukudome. It depends on how much you want to gamble on Fukudome making a good transition to the majors. If big-payroll teams like Chicago and Boston become aggressive though, you can bet Shapiro won’t hang around long in a bidding war over Fukudome.

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