This player preview was written by Aaron Shinsano, who runs a wonderful site called East Windup Chronicle, about baseball in Asia.
I think in some cases it can be difficult to project what a former NPB player might do upon arrival in MLB. Takashi Saito had 21 career saves over 12 years before saving 24 games for the Dodgers in 2006. Daisuke Matsuzaka was just beginning to realize his potential, and had been used both as a starter and a reliever, when he reached the majors at age 26, so guessing what he might do in MLB wasn't straightforward. Likewise, the other big Japanese signing of the 2008 offseason, Baltimore's Koji Uehara, has been flip-flopping between the DL, being a starter, and getting the ball in the 9th inning. It's difficult to project what the Orioles might get.
However, in the case of Kenshin Kawakami, we do have a very recent, similar comparible -- Hiroki Kuroda. That's not to say the pitcher's are similar in terms of pitch mix and stuff, but they are exactly the same in the sense that both are what they are. Both are veteran pitchers with roughly a decade of experience in Japan -- Kawakami has 1641 innings under his belt and Kuroda had 1510. Their career stats matchup fairly well, and if you make park-adjustments they'd be even closer -- Kuroda spent his career in a small park, Kawakami in one of the league's largest.
This might sound a little vague but it isn't. Kuroda didn't make any radical changes, posted a sub 4.00 ERA and kept his hit, walk and K rates virtually the same. He cut his home run rate nearly in half, which one might have expected in moving from Hiroshima Municipal Stadium to Chavez Ravine.
Kuroda's K-rate dropped about .5 in his transition. I think Kawakami's might fall a bit more. There are scouts that say Kawakami is a guy with four below-average pitches and above-average command of all of them. That says back of the rotation success. His arm works well and he's not afraid to challenge hitters. He's got a sinking fastball that ranges from 87-91, a sharp cutter that comes around 84-86, a lazy slider, a splitter and a 12-6 curve with some tilt.
I doubt Kawakami's ERA will be anything close to the 2.30 he maintained during 2008, but looking at his career mark of of 3.22, and bumping that up for both the move into a smaller park and a better league, I think something in the range of a 3.75-4.00 ERA is attainable. How that translates into wins probably depends more on the health of the bullpen, but I think he'll keep the Braves in games with a shot to win 10-12 games on a good team. Is he the #3 starter the Braves might like him to be? I can't say he will be. He looks more like a #4 or #5 to me.
An absolutely fantastic preview from Aaron. I really wanted to get his opinion, since he is more familiar with the players over there, and I think this resulted in a very knowledgable preview with plenty of comps to help us better understand what to expect from Kawakami (who, by the way, had a terrific start last night).