Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who is Tsuyoshi Nishioka?

Nishioka breaks his leg just 6 games into his first season in the U.S.
The Twins signed Nishioka out of Japan in December of 2010, winning the right to negotiate with him for $5.3 million and then handing him a 3-year, $9 million contract with an option for 2014.  Having played both second base and shortstop and having won Gold Glove-equivalent awards at each position across the ocean, it appeared he would be a defensive asset at either spot.  His hitting line was also solid, with a .305 average and .823 OPS over four seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines.  His 2010 season was particularly good, as he hit .346 and carried an OPS just north of .900 in 144 games.  Although Japanese hitters had typically had trouble reproducing their batting prowess in America, Nishioka figured to certainly be an asset on defense and at least be decent offensively.

After playing both positions in Spring Training, Nishioka opened the season as the Twins' second baseman.  Unfortunately, just six games into his American baseball career, he suffered a broken leg as Nick Swisher attempted to break up a double play.  The discussion immediately centered on how Nishioka may have been unprepared for the takeout slides typical in American baseball since they are not a common practice in Japanese baseball.

Figuring it would be easier to avoid a similar incident at shortstop, the Twins had Nishioka swap positions with Alexi Casilla upon his return more than two months later.  His season did not get significantly better after that, however.  While he's avoided injury, his average hovered around the .220 mark and his OPS didn't to surpass .600 at any point after his return.  In addition, he didn't look particularly good as a fielder either.   He often mishandled balls and his arm appeared relatively weak, and certainly not strong enough to make up for those bobbled balls.

But Twins fans have to remember that, despite his experience in Japan, Nishioka is essentially a rookie.  While what Nishioka has shown so far is definitely not worthy of a starting job, or perhaps even a reserve one, in the Majors, he is only 40 games into his first season in America.  Not only is he a rookie, but he is adjusting to playing within a new language and a new culture.  While he may not play any better than he has, fans must exhibit patience, as his play could easily improve with more exposure.  It might not, but it's best to relax and give him a chance since it's still very early in his career and the Twins will be paying him for at least two more seasons anyways.

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