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Updated: June 30th, 2011 10:39pm
Numbers Game: Nishioka never should have been judged as batting champ

Numbers Game: Nishioka never should have been judged as batting champ

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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An extension of the Twins Daily section, Numbers Game is a place where we dive a little deeper into stats, trends, sabermetrics, and basically make peoples' heads explode.

It's safe to say Minnesota Twins middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka hasn't exactly sprinted out of the gate in his first three months in the big leagues.

Along with missing two months due to a broken leg -- suffered in part because of his unfamiliarity with American baserunning aggression -- Nishioka has committed six errors in 79 chances, looking uncomfortable and tentative in the field despite showing impressive range.

Nishioka has struggled equally at the plate, hitting just .197/.254/.242 with three extra-base hits in his first 71 trips. To make matters worse, Jim Thome (31%) is the only Twins hitter who has struck out more frequently per at-bat than Nishioka (26%).

This, of course, just one year after he won the Japan Pacific League batting title with a .346/.423/.482 hitting line.

A drop-off in production from Japan to the United states was inevitable. But slow start or not, the long-term drop-off may be even steeper than most folks originally anticipated.

In fairness, Nishioka -- who signed a three-year, $9 million deal in December -- has barely gotten a chance to find a comfort zone. And 79 plate appearances is barely enough to make judgments about any hitter, let alone someone who is completely unfamiliar with any of the pitchers he faces.

But in taking a deeper look at Nishioka's four seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines, it was clear from the start that the Twins weren't signing a perennial batting champion. Instead, they were signing a hitter who put together an offensive performance in 2010 that was simply not repeatable, even in Japan, namely because of an eye-poppingly high .399 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

BABIP includes all batted balls that landed in fair territory, not counting home runs. Hitters who hit mostly fly balls, such as Carlos Quentin, have lower BABIPs than speedsters who hit line drives and groundballs, such as Ichiro. BABIP can vary depending on solidness of contact, luck, trajectory, etc., but it usually evens out over the course of a season for each individual hitter.

Even an elite hitter like Albert Pujols has a career BABIP of .312.

The word "lucky" might be too harsh.

Unsustainable? Yes.

To put Nishioka's .399 BABIP into context, no MLB hitter posted a mark that high in 2010. Austin Jackson led the league with a .396 BABIP, followed by Josh Hamilton (.390), Carlos Gonzales (.384) and Joey Votto (.361). Only nine hitters posted a BABIP higher than .350.

Anything higher than .350 generally requires a great deal of help from the baseball gods -- or consistently facing teams with nine statues on defense.

In three previous seasons with Chiba Lotte, Nishioka hit .300/.366/.393, .300/.357/.463 and .260/.360/.427 with BABIPs of .347, .329 and .286.

Much more realistic numbers than what he posted in 2010.

In other words, yes, Nishioka won a batting title for Chiba Lotte in 2010, but that performance almost certainly wasn't indicative of his true talent level.

When Joe Mauer hits .330, it's because his true talent level is that of a .330 hitter.

That's not the case with Nishioka, even if he would have stayed in Japan.

Nishioka's meager 2011 batting line is accompanied by a .265 BABIP, which will almost certainly rise by default because of his speed alone.

That said, the Twins are only paying Nishioka $3 million per year, and at that salary he isn't expected to win batting titles, nor should he be judged in that fashion.

He's simply expected to be serviceable. But we're still waiting for that as well.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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