According to Minnesota Twins’ beat writers, the team is interested in signing Randy Messenger out of the NPB in Japan. He is not listed under the NPB free agent list, so it would seem that the Twins would have to buy out Messenger’s contract from his NPB team.
The 6-6 255 pound right-hander was originally drafted in the 11th round by the Florida Marlins in 1999 and pitched in the Majors for the Marlins, San Francisco Giants, and Seattle Mariners. He pitched exclusively in relief, appearing in 173 games. He was mediocre at best, with a 113 ERA – and 108 FIP – and -.1 fWAR. He threw his last MLB pitch in 2009.
Now 31, Messenger has spent the last 3 years with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. His first year was split between the bullpen and the rotation. He threw 80.1 innings, and wasn’t very good, with a 5.4 K/9IP, 3.5 BB/9IP, and 1.1 HR/9IP. That year, the average Central League (the NPB is split into two “leagues”, just like the MLB) pitcher had a 1.0 HR/9IP, 3.0 BB/9IP, and 6.8 K/9IP. Then, the NPB switched to a much more pitcher friendly baseball, and is now absurdly defensively built. In 2011, league average OPS was .642. In 2012, league average OPS was .649. The only ballpark in the MLB to have a lower OPS in 2012 was Safeco Field (.624 OPS, which is driven both by the park, and Felix Hernandez and Chone Figgins). In 2012, the average NPB Central Pitcher had a 6.5 K/9IP, 2.8 BB/9IP, and .5 HR/9IP. In 2011, average was 6.9 K/IP, 2.7 BB/9IP, and .6 HR/9IP, making the two year average 6.7 K/9IP, 2.75 BB/9IP, and .55 HR/9IP or -.05 K/9IP, -25 BB/9IP, and -.45 HR/9IP difference between 2010. The strikeouts and walks didn’t see a big difference, but the home runs did. Whether it was the change in ball and suppression of offense, an adjustment to life in Japan, or an adjustment in pitching, Messenger was much more successful. In 2011, he had a 7.3 K/IP, 2.7 BB/9IP, and .4 HR/9IP. In 2012, Messenger had a 7.7 K/9IP, 3.1 BB/9IP, and .3 HR/9IP. He was exclusively a starter in that time, and was an above average strikeout pitcher, with a slightly higher walk rate and very similar home run rate. In fact, he was in the top 5-10 in strikeouts both seasons.
Statistics aren’t always predictive from the NPB to the MLB, as we have seen. Wei-Yin Chen had a 5.1 K/9IP, 1.7 BB/9IP, and .5 HR/9IP in 2011, his last year in Japan. In America, he struck out 7.19 batters per 9 innings (I realize that strikeout percentage is a better indicator than strikeouts per 9, but it is easier to get the K/9IP in the NPB). So what about a scouting report on Messenger?
In his time in the Majors, Messenger threw a 92.2 MPH fastball (below average for a reliever) along with a 85.3 MPH slider, 76.1 MPH curveball, and 84.7 MPH changeup. It doesn’t seem that he had confidence in an out pitch, which makes sense considering his extremely low strikeout rate:
The average batted ball distance off Messenger in his career was 258.432, which is actually quite solid, but because he couldn’t miss bats, he started messing with his release point:
Here is the data from his time in the NPB, the pitch classification has some issues, but it does give you an idea of what he is throwing:
His height clearly gives him extension and a downward plane:
He has sort of an awkward delivery where he sweeps his front leg back before going forward in what looks like an extremely easy stride (at least in part because of his size). He has altered his delivery since leaving the United States (you can see him in the Majors here and in Japan here, there are others on the internet as well, but you are going to want to fast forward to about 50 seconds on the Japan video to see Messenger) at least slightly. He has added what seems like a pause in his delivery, which makes him slower to the plate. It was definitely more smooth and fluid when he was in the Majors. He brought the ball lower behind him while in America, something he doesn’t really do anymore. He still has the high leg kick, but turns his shoulder away from the batter now, something he didn’t do in the Majors, as he was more straight up. I am not a big fan of the shoulder turn, as it seems like pitchers that employ it are less predictive and regress much faster, but it seems like Messenger can repeat it:
Despite getting on top of the ball so well, and getting what looks like good downward movement on the ball, he didn’t get a great ground-ball rate when he was in the Majors. Matched with his low strikeout rate, it didn’t allow him to be successful. Would things improve if Messenger gets a 2nd shot in the Majors? To me, it seems unlikely. When I watched video of Messenger from Japan, it didn’t look like big league stuff or even pitchability. I would rather see him get a shot as a starter than a reliever, as his mix of pitches seems to at least give him a chance to be a back of the rotation starter eating up innings at a below average but perhaps acceptable rate. He obviously won’t overpower anyone or probably strike many out, so he wouldn’t be very effective in the bullpen. The Twins pitching was really bad in 2012, but I am not sure Randy Messenger is a guy that is going to be able to help them in 2013.