The Munenori Kawasaki Mirage

by on June 12, 2013

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Munenroi Kawasaki has been fun to watch, but he was signed as a back-up shortstop for triple-A Buffalo and that’s likely where the man who earned the nickname ‘The Mascot’ last year in Seattle is headed. …. 

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By Liam McGuire

Munenroi Kawasaki is fun to watch, there is no doubting that.

The YouTube sensation has quickly become a fan favorite in Toronto because of his unorthodox personality that doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the average MLB player.

Kawasaki prepares for the game of baseball differently than anyone, well ever.

Whether it’s his bizarre pregame routine (including handstands), his fake steal attempts (which are hilarious) or his bows to his teammates, there’s no doubting he is a lively addition to the Toronto Blue Jays.

However it seems that Blue Jays fans, that probably needed something to smile about after a disappointing start to the Blue Jays season, actually believe he is a viable option as a starting MLB player.

That is absolutely not the case.

I often hear Blue Jays fans talk about what is going to happen to the Japanese shortstop when superstar Jose Reyes comes back. Questions range from “can we shift Kawasaki to third when Reyes comes back?” to “who goes to the minors when Kawasaki goes to the bench?”

Questions like this are easy to answer.

Kawasaki and his .216 batting average will go to the minors, where he most likely belongs.

While Emilio Bonifacio and Macier Izturis (to a lower extent) have been extraordinarily disappointing, Kawasaki isn’t a savior at second or third base.

Keeping Kawasaki over either Bonifacio or Izturis would have to mean he has more potential than, or can produce at a much higher level than either of those two. While Bonifacio and Izturis have been horrible, this isn’t the case.

In 229 (109 games, through June 11th) at bats in the majors, this is what Kawasaki has (or hasn’t) done:

Career homeruns: 0

Career batting average: .205

Career doubles: 4

Career triples: 2

Career RBIs: 21

There isn’t any reason to believe Kawasaki will become any better than a player, who despite gaudy numbers, is peaking.

To compare, here are the stats of Seattle Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan, often considered one of the worst hitters (but best fielders) in the league from 2013 in 173 at bats (56 less at bats than Kawasaki):

Homeruns: 2

Batting average: .220

Doubles: 5

Triples: 0

RBIs: 14

The two players are comparable.

Both were teammates last year, and it is telling that Ryan played 141 games at shortstop despite Kawasaki’s presence.

Kawasaki is 32, Ryan is 31.

Both are shortstops.

Both are known for their gloves and certainly not their bats.

Kawasaki has shown solid plate discipline this season. He has taken walks. He has also had a couple of big hits for the Blue Jays this season.

However, the production still hasn’t been great.

His OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) is a staggeringly low .603. In comparison the struggling Brett Lawrie’s is .642. The only Blue Jays that ranked lower than Kawasaki are Bonifacio and Izturis both of whom have struggled mightily.

Kawasaki’s ISO (which measures a players raw power) is a team worse .056. Henry Blanco even posted a better ISO despite being an almost automatic out every at bat he had this season.

wOBA (weight on-base average) is generally the best statistic to measure a hitter. The formula is a bit complicated:

wOBA = (0.691×uBB + 0.722×HBP + 0.884×1B + 1.257×2B + 1.593×3B +

2.058×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

Essentially the statistic gives more weight to stats such as doubles, triples, HRs and walks than batting average would, which only gives the same weight to any hit.

Kawasaki’s wOBA is a well below average .281, which bests only season long slumpers Lawrie, Bonifacio and Izturis, which is largely because of Kawasaki taking walks.

While Kawasaki has shown solid plate discipline, it isn’t enough to justify him being in the lineup. His fielding, which is his apparent bread and butter, is also a bit overrated (but solid).

The American League average for fielding percentage among shortstop is .973; Kawasaki slightly beats out that mark with .975 rating.

Kawasaki rates in at -1.5 in UZR/150 which measures “the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games,” Comparatively Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta has a 6.0 UZR/150 and former Blue Jay and current Ray, Yunel Escobar has a 9.1 UZR/150.

Kawasaki rate at -0.4 runs in RngR (range runs) which measures “the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity,” again, for the sake of comparison, Peralta is at 1.5 runs and Escobar is a 1.9 runs.

Kawasaki is not a bad fielder, but his bat plus his defense don’t justify a spot in the lineup full time. Kawasaki’s only role if he is kept in the majors would be as a utility fielder/pinch-runner.

The campaigns to get Kawasaki to the MLB All-Star game this season are completely silly and a reflection of how depressing the Blue Jays season has been thus far. While surely Kawasaki would make a great story and give his usual great sound bites, it would be embarrassing to baseball to even consider his name for the honor.

While it isn’t easy to fill for one of the best shortstops in the planet, Reyes, Kawasaki has done an OK job. However, the decision to what to do with him after Reyes comes back isn’t as hard as Blue Jays fans are making it.

While Kawasaki’s good natured spirit and attitude rank among tops in the league, unfortunately for Kawasaki admirers, his actually ability isn’t on par.

(stats from Fangraphs.com via June 11th, 5:30 PM)

Liam McGuire
Liam was formerly the editor-in-chief of St. Thomas University’s student newspaper, The Aquinian, and now serves as a writer and a social media intern for Canadian Baseball Network. Liam has always been a fan of advanced stats and looking beyond the box score.

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8 thoughts on “The Munenori Kawasaki Mirage

  1. Jack Stevenson says:

    Given Kawasaki’s OBP vs Ryan’s ,he will get on base about 10 more times every 150 AB. In addition by working the count as he does each AB, he drives up the opposing pitcher’s pitch count more than I have seen any current Blue Jay do. Playing 2nd will negate a lot of the fielding stats that apply to SS, a position that requires max. range and skill. Kawasaki is cheap compared to Boni and Izturis and Johnson or Hill who contributed minimal offence over the last few years. Obtaining an alternative on the cheap would not be easy and I strongly doubt the either Boni or Izturis is worth waiting for, looking at the hacking approach and impatience both have at the plate, let alone the inconsistent play in the field. As much as you want to use just stats to determine something, the team situation and alternatives are just as big factors.

  2. Liam McGuire Liam McGuire says:

    He does see the most pitches per at bat of any Blue Jay, but the number is close.

    Kawasaki is a pure singles hitters, he won’t do much else. He has 36 total bases in 157 plate appearances (1/4.36). Izturis has 51 in 184 (1/3.6). Bonifacio has 52 in 177 (1/3.4) PAs. This despite the fact Bonifacio and Izturis have been well below their average AND the fact Kawasaki is currently peaking.

    Bonifacio and Izturis have been disappointing at times at the field, but both have been shifted around in the field, Kawasaki has had the luxury of playing a set position almost every single game.

  3. Jack Stevenson says:

    Kawasaki’s OBP makes him a perfect #9 set up to get back to the top of the order especially with Bau in #2 and EE in #3. I really look forward to his at bat which is usually productive. Last night for eg we had a groundout,walk, sac bunt and triple. Every at bat wasuseful, even the groundout was a close play and certainly better than a SO. Note that Boni strikes out at almost twice his rate not allowing the chance for anything to happen in the field. Izturis OBP .258 compared to his BA .221 seems ridiculous. These stats convince me that Kawi has more value.

  4. Liam McGuire Liam McGuire says:

    Thanks for the comment Jack,

    In response: He doesn’t.

    Kawasaki is playing at his peak value right now. A slightly below average utility infielder is his maximum potential. He will never be a starter (again) unless there is an injury to the Blue Jays (again). I highly doubt he sticks with the Blue Jays when Reyes comes back, but I’ve seen zanier things happen with the organization.

  5. Dereck says:

    The one thing you cannot take into count is the effect he has on the club. His enthusiasm and love for the game rubs off on pretty much everyone around him – he’s the fan favorite for a reason. Watching the dugout (and edwin in particular) jumping out of their seats and chanting his name with the crowd shows what kind of a positive force he has been for the team.
    These guys came in under huge expectations to perform this year – Mune has helped them calm down and enjoy the game. I haven’t seen a team celebrate mid season victories like these guys do – it’s like watching the world series at times. A team that’s jacked up, hot, and overly serious doesn’t behave like this and you have to give a lot of the credit for this to Kawa. The players love him, the fans love him – they gotta keep him on the bench if only to act as a cheerleader.

  6. Liam McGuire Liam McGuire says:

    If you want him as a cheerleader, pay him to be a cheerleader. The roster spot could be better used. Again, the Blue Jays are getting peak Kawasaki right now, and that’s 1 HR with a couple of hits (which is great, but won’t last). Roster spots in the MLB are extremely valuable and as such should be wasted.

  7. Liam McGuire Liam McGuire says:

    But Kawasaki has played great recently, there is no arguing that.

  8. mark m says:

    Liam, why such a hate on for Mune?? As Dereck said, you can blast all the numbers you want but you cannot measure the impact a guys character has made on the team. I contribute the 11 game winning streak in large part to Kawasaki. As Dereck said he brought joy, happiness and entertainment to not only the fans but his team mates as well. Not once in your article did you mention his personality and the subsequent effect on the team morale.

    If the team is happy, they play well. Is Kawasaki an all star??? No, is he a gold glove candidate?? No, but if you have ever been to a live Jays game at the Rogers center and felt the electricity the guy brought to the entire dome whenever he made a play or got up to bat, you would see how he was a GREAT TEAM player for the struggling jays whom turned around their dismal season with Kawasakis help.

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