Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Any hope for Nishioka?

In his conference call to the season ticket holders, Twins general manager Bill Smith made no promises for last offseason’s marquee signing, Tsuyoshi Nishioka:
"We've gotta figure out shortstop, and that may involve going out and getting another shortstop. We've got [Alexi] Casilla, we've got [Trevor] Plouffe, we've got [Tsuyoshi] Nishioka -- we've gotta find somebody that can be a stable, starting everyday shortstop."
So, the man they were willing to commit $9 million to over three years is now destined to try to earn a job in the spring. For the majority of fans, this suits them just fine. Better yet, he can go hang out with the center field trees – wherever they are now.

When he was initially signed, I broke down some of the available footage of Nishioka’s Japanese playing days. At the time, I caution that the video clips, compiled by Beverly Hills Sports Council (also Nishioka’s stateside agent), were very likely cherry-picked to serve the purpose of inflating his value. Even with this in mind, the majority of his swings seemed impressive as the ball was jumping off his bat. Yes, he pulled off with his front hip on the left-side but overall, Nishioka was driving the ball on a rope to all fields. The thought was that his foundation seemed solid enough to support a somewhat smooth transition.

Of course, the transition was about as smooth as Stearns County bathtub whiskey.

Truthfully, I was a bit stunned at what showed up in a Twins uniform. This version of Nishioka resembled nothing of the player that was poking line drives every which way but loose.

Early in the season, he struggled to stay in with his front side while batting left-handed and opponents picked him apart by pitching him away. He constantly made weak contact. In fact, his .014 isolated power average was the lowest against right-handed pitching in all of baseball (among those with a minimum of 130 plate appearances). According to Inside Edge’s scouted data, they have Nishioka marked with a .135 well-hit average against righties – lower than Drew Butera and Rene Rivera.

When Nishioka was finally shutdown in September for the year, manager Ron Gardenhire provided his assessment of how to better the Japanese middle infielder:
"His upper body is not as strong as I think it can be. He can gain upper-body strength, and that is going to help him with his swing. Perry has a good program written up for him, and I know Nishioka [already] has a good program over there."
While adding upper body strength is a good thing (so long as he doesn’t focus too much on his glamour muscles), Nishioka’s problems at the plate seem to stem from his legs, not his arms. Take a look at these two side shots of his swing from the left side, one from his Chiba Lotte days and one from this past season against New York:

There is a noticeable difference that stands out to me which may be a source of his offensive incontinence as a lefty - his launching point. The launch point is when a hitter’s weight is shifted back before he launches forward towards the pitch. Let’s take a look at some of Nishioka’s swings from the left-side throughout the years:

In the first clip, an image of him from the ‘06 NPB season when Nishioka was a 22 year old in his fourth year of professional baseball, you see him implementing a very aggressive leg kick and in position to drive his front leg forward.

In the second clip –one from Nishioka’s latter Chiba Lotte days – we find that the launch point is scaled down a bit. Still, what you see from this position is that Nishioka is driving his front hip forward as a significant amount of his weight is poised on his back leg.

Meanwhile, this year, Nishioka seems to have once again refined his mechanics and reduced the amount of lift in his front leg (or at least varied the angle in which he brings his front leg back). He also is shifting less weight on his back leg thus staying tall more throughout his swing. The end result appears to be more arm and wrist in his swings than engaging his lower half and weak contact overall.

Now, to speculate, there are plenty of reasons why Nishioka would pare down his stride. The first being due to the increased velocity in America versus Japan – simplifying his swing would aid him in making more contact. The aggressive approach would also leave a hitter more vulnerable to off-speed pitches as well. Perhaps he made the adjustments on his own.  Another theory is that the Twins encouraged Nishioka to trim down his lower half for the same reasons listed above. The club prides itself on putting the ball in play and may have wanted Nishioka to focus on contact and using his speed (or rather the once projected speed). Regardless of the why, it has made Nishioka one of the worst offensive producers the Twins have seen in a long time.

Ideally, for someone like Nishoka, more effort is needed from his legs and hips in order to generate some semblance of pop. This is very similar to Alexi Casilla. Dating back to 2010, Casilla had a pared down swing from the left-side, relying mostly on his upper body to do the work. Unfortunately, this resulted in more bouncers and slow rollers than anything else. At some point, Casilla incorporated his legs more and he had much more success:
“Casilla is able to engage his lower-half much better. Because of that, despite putting plenty of balls on the ground, we see the ball jump off his bat much better than it had at the beginning of the season. So, while grounders still become outs at high percentage of the time, putting them into play at a greater velocity is bound to turn into hitters more frequently than those of the slow bouncer variety.”
So, is Nishioka hopeless? Did the Twins just piss away $9.25 million in salary and another $5.3 in securing his negotiating rights?

One winter ago everyone assumed Casilla was cooked. His small adjustment proved that he could compete, posting a 779 OPS from mid-May until his mid-summer injury. Looking back at the old footage of Nishioka, I can see him capable of having a much improved season in 2012.

Without touching upon the atrocious defense – that’s a whole ‘nother problem right there – if the organization hopes to salvage some of the investment spent on Nishioka on the offensive side of the ball, the focus should be on getting him to return to his pre-major league days.