M’s Sign Int’l SS Pedro Okuda

Jay Yencich · December 16, 2009 at 6:16 pm · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues 

You may have heard recently that the Mariners have traded for some guy, former Cy Young winner or something. I don’t know, Dave seems to be pretty stoked though, and I take this as a good sign. Speaking from the perspective of the resident prospect guy, we dealt spare parts from our depth and lost little that’s likely to haunt us, and from that standpoint alone the deal is awesome. I really am excited too, but I leave the analysis to the professionals.

Another smaller deal that went down today was that the Mariners signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Pedro Okuda to a minor league contract. He’ll report to the Mariners’ Venezuelan academy come spring.

Pedro Okuda… it’s quite a name isn’t it? There’s a story behind that though. There were waves of Japanese immigration to South America in the early part of the century, and one of the things they brought with them was baseball. For the longest time, it was a niche game, as the locals were more interested in futbol, but it gradually gained in popularity to the point where the nation’s youth got a hold of it. In Brazil, the academies that pop up will require that players learn both Japanese and Portuguese in order to adequately communicate on the field. I imagine it’s the same with Spanish elsewhere. It’s still a market that’s opening up, but as you get out of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia, and into places like Argentina and Brazil, the players that get signed usually have some Japanese ties.

The book on Okuda is this: he’s half-Brazilian, half- third-generation Japanese, is a left-handed hitter who is about 5’10 and 160 lbs currently, and was signed as a shortstop, though he pitched a bit in his earlier days. Okuda has been playing the game since he was eight and shipped over to Japan for high school, recognizing the need to face stronger competition.

The local scouts didn’t like him much when he arrived, just an interesting physical specimen lacking in hard skills, but they warmed up to him by his third year. A large part of this was due to his walk-off home run for Koshien in a ’07 tournament, which came to be known as the “Sayonara Home Run”, a low-inside ball that was hit with just barely enough leverage to get out of dead center. The catcher left the field bawling. It’s the kind of thing that gets a kid noticed. Despite this, the recent NPB draft passed over him completely, for reasons not entirely clear. Granted, he was in the second tier of prospects, but scouts liked him plenty.

After watching the famous home run, Graham suggested it looked like Ichiro’s HR swing. I didn’t want to believe it at first, as the comparison is almost too facile to make, what with two wiry strong left-handed batters of Japanese heritage. Spending some hours with the video feeds though, I can definitely see it. Okuda looks like he’s spent a fair amount of time studying Ichiro and mimicking his mannerisms. He stands taller in the box and moves around a bit more, but otherwise the influence is strong, particularly in the way he handles pitches out of the zone , the load in his swing, how he seems to shift his focus up a notch as the ball is coming to the plate, and the follow-through as he’s heading for first. He also shares Ichiro’s wheels, maybe not to the same degree, but he sprinted out a bunt single or two that I saw that most players could not, and he’s also known for being quite aggressive on the basepaths. The illusion isn’t perfect, as there is something unmistakably methodical about the way Ichiro goes about his business, where Okuda plays with a kind of exuberance and clearly isn’t above showboating a bit, but the approach is similar enough and he has the same kind of pop that can surprise you.

Okuda is thought of as being a bat-first infielder, so I’ve only seen a little bit of video of him on the field. However, the bat-first part may be a bit of a mislabeling, as he plays short like a natural, ranging easily, fielding a few tricky plays, covering well for the third basemen, and occasionally showing off a strong arm that hearkens back to his pitching days. More accurately, taking all the other factors into account, he might be called a five-tool shortstop that is seems likely to stay on position. His ability to hit for power may end up as nothing extraordinary, but he’s physically bigger than Ichi at the very least and looks like he may offer some power for the average he won’t be able to provide.

On ability alone, I could put him in Everett right now just to see what happens, but the M’s have made a point of saying that he’ll be in Venezuela in their press releases. This is probably something Okuda included in his contract, as he’s spent the past few years playing in Japan and only came home to Brazil briefly last summer while his mother endured surgery on a brain tumor that lasted ten hours. My guess is that he wanted to play closer to home to keep an eye on her, so to speak, for the first year, and then in 2011 we might see him stateside, perhaps even breaking with one of the full-season teams depending on how he does in Venezuela.

Okuda is not an elite prospect, but he’s an exciting one, physically talented and getting better. The M’s made note of him to the press today for a reason, and I think we’ll see what they mean in the near future.


22 Responses to “M’s Sign Int’l SS Pedro Okuda”

  1. TumwaterMike on December 16th, 2009 6:25 pm

    Nice historical bit on the Japaneese in Brazil.

  2. Nik Aitken on December 16th, 2009 6:28 pm

    Here is the AB of the HR and some of the celebration following it.


  3. Adam B. on December 16th, 2009 6:39 pm

    Thanks for the info Jay, you’ve always been the go to guy for Mariner minor-league info.

    I know raw import teenagers are a fickle group to classify but, any idea on how his tools project on the 20-80 scale?

  4. Jay Yencich on December 16th, 2009 6:45 pm

    I would have to see a lot of video feed on him (or rather, a lot more) before making any judgments on how his tools break down in relation to one another, but by five-tool, I mean I see him being average at least across the board. The power is the most difficult to gauge properly and I don’t know how high of an average he’ll be able to hit for, but everything else seems to be there.

    Mind you, there’s of course a huge variance in guys whom we identify as five-tool as well.

  5. nuin on December 16th, 2009 8:26 pm

    Couple of things:

    They would need to learn Japanese in baseball academies in Brazil, as they already know Portuguese, as most Japanese families (second, third, fourth generation) only speak Portuguese at home.

    Also, he’s not half-third-generation and half-Brazilian, he’s Brazilian of Japanese descent, third generation (sansei).

    In Brazil, football (the real one) is called futebol, while futbol is the Spanish term.

    And, baseball is less than a niche sport in Brazil, played only by Japanese descent kids and some “Brazilian” kids. You can watch the World Series on TV, but I bet less than 1% of the Brazilian population know the rules.

  6. mln on December 16th, 2009 8:33 pm

    A large part of this was due to his walk-off home run for Koshien in a ’07 tournament, which came to be known as the “Sayonara Home Run”, a low-inside ball that was hit with just barely enough leverage to get out of dead center. The catcher left the field bawling. It’s the kind of thing that gets a kid noticed.

    Yes, crying in baseball will certainly catch the notice of scouts everywhere. 😉

  7. mw3 on December 16th, 2009 9:44 pm

    Very intriguing. Thanks for the info.

  8. MKT on December 16th, 2009 10:31 pm

    Fascinating post, plus the comment by nuin, not just for the Pedro info but the background.

    Walking through the downtown of Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela, I noticed a lawyer’s office with the name Javier Ishikawa, another example I think (along with Alberto Fujimori) of Japanese immigrants integrating into South America.

    But if these Brazilians of Japanese ancestry speak Portuguese, but need to learn Japanese in order to develop in baseball, that seems to imply that these Brazilian baseball camps are run by Japanese baseball? I’m a bit surprised that the Japanese teams would be so aggressive about pursuing foreign talent (of Japanese descent to be sure) given their general reticence about in-migration and imports into Japan. Also surprised because I haven’t heard of American baseball camps in Brazil — but the Japanese evidently are there, training and recruiting players?

  9. KaminaAyato on December 16th, 2009 10:34 pm

    The catcher left the field bawling. It’s the kind of thing that gets a kid noticed.

    Generally, there is a lot of crying at the Koshien tournaments – especially on a sayonara win/loss. There was one this year as the eventual champions would get a sayonara against a team that hadn’t been to the tournament in 70 years – and against a pitcher who was converted to a catcher!

    Anyways Okuda (that is a video of all his AB’s against Kaisei of Shimane) is a growing breed of Japanese players of “mixed” descent that are being featured at Koshien. More recently was Teikyou HS Ariga Naville (photo courtesy of fellow M’s fan Deanna), half-Ghanan & half-Japanese.

    Another example was John Clayton Unten out of Urasoe Industrial HS. He’s American-Japanese, and his form apparently was such he was called he Okinawan Darvish (Yu Darvish). He was taken in the 4th round of the draft this year by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

    Increasingly, there is at least one team at Koshien that has a Brazilian-Japanese player on the starting nine. This is the first though that I have seen one picked up by a ballclub. Deanna would have better info on that than me.

  10. portablestanzas on December 16th, 2009 11:53 pm

    I see more Akinori Iwamura in Okuda’s swing than Ichiro.



    I fail at creating links but somehow made the above videos of Okuda and Iwamura – go fig. Copy and paste FTW

  11. ndevale on December 17th, 2009 4:22 am

    Hi Jay thanks for the excellent work. Your comment about acadamies in Brazil intrigues me. I live and work (in a school) in Asuncion Paraguay. The only baseball here are sunday pickup games among Japanese descent Paraguayans. There is no little league. I tried to find out what was involved in bringing in little league but got nowhere. I think Paraguay might be an intriguing place to train ballplayers, as it is a bus ride from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Brazil and is a sports obsessed country. Any thoughts?

  12. Ballspiker on December 17th, 2009 4:29 am

    I teach at an international school in Sao Paulo, and we have a softball league here through the American Society. Last year, a member of the Tampa Bay Rays organization was in town for a few weeks doing some type of recruiting of young players and came by. According to him, the Rays are (or are about to be – not sure when it was opening) the first MLB organization to open their own academy here in Brazil. Not entirely sure who scouted Okuda for the M’s, but there are several academies here run by the Japanese clubs, and one or two run by Brazilian organizations, I think. The bottom line is that this is a country of 180 million people, so there is bound to be some talent here.

  13. Jay Yencich on December 17th, 2009 6:07 am

    This is part of the reason I love doing posts on topics like this here where the traffic is better. They bring all the interesting commenters out of the woodwork.

    I was looking at Deanna’s site and a few others earlier in the day for info on Okuda and read about Unten and others, but Naville is new to me. The way baseball has dispersed like that via Japan is rather interesting to me.

    And Ballspiker is right, in that the only official American presence that I know of in Brazil is that of the Rays, who decided that even though there are only a handful of players that sign every year, it was going to be worthwhile to set up a base there. I don’t know who officially is scouting down there for the M’s, but Jean Tome, a pitcher that I like, was signed by both Hide Sueyoshi and Emilio Carrasquel. It was through looking up information on him a while back that I learned about how they typically teach Japanese in the camps too, just in case. That could be primarily for the benefit of guys like Okuda who end up playing HS ball in Japan.

    As for Paraguay, I was actually trying to remember as I wrote this whether or not I’ve seen a player signed out of either of the Guays. I’ll double-check and see what I come up with, but I don’t think I have yet, although there was one Argentine/Japanese kid who signed and was playing somewhere in the VSL. I think that it might be a worthwhile venture, but getting it started on your own might be a little tricky as funding probably wouldn’t become available until it really got going. Even then, the game is so much more popular around Venezuela, and I can’t say I’ve heard anything about baseball in Chile or Bolivia.

  14. nuin on December 17th, 2009 6:22 am

    Just a curious note, is that the first Brazilian in the Big Leagues (I think he got to AA) was not of Japanese descent. If my memory doesn’t fail me, he was signed by the Mets but ended having some injuries before moving up to AAA and MLB.

  15. Jay Yencich on December 17th, 2009 6:49 am

    re: nuin

    I don’t see him coming up in Baseball-Reference under places of birth, but maybe he just grew up in Brazil? I don’t know, I’d be interested to see what he did if true.

    As an amendment to my last post, I just checked the IBAF and they don’t have a branch office in Paraguay yet. They do have offices in Chile (Santiago) and Bolivia (Cochabamba) though. Something to look into.

  16. ThePopeofChilitown on December 17th, 2009 7:07 am

    Very interesting information. Pretty astonishing that these non-traditional breeding grounds of baseball talent have such untapped potential.

    His name reminds me of some of the better science fiction out there. I vaguely remember Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001, and the descriptions of future people and their seemingly homogenized names. Cool stuff all around.

  17. Conor on December 17th, 2009 8:05 am

    Good stuff, Jay. With MVN shutting down, will you be writing here all the time now?

  18. Jay Yencich on December 17th, 2009 8:20 am

    Actually, Conor, the MVN guys hooked me up with another publisher, so I’ll be good and Dave and Derek won’t have to worry about the front page getting cluttered with things like this that excite mostly me and ten other people on the planet 😉

  19. msb on December 17th, 2009 8:23 am

    It’s not clutter!

  20. Mike Snow on December 17th, 2009 8:41 am

    Just keep in mind that you’ll need to adjust for park effects when the Bolivian prospects start showing up.

  21. olystuart on December 17th, 2009 8:49 am

    I appreciate it – it’s not clutter. Thanks for the post, Jay.

  22. number9 on December 17th, 2009 5:42 pm

    The Tokyo Yakult Swallows have had an academy in Brazil since 2000 and have drafted a few players from there. They picked another Japanese-Brazilian in Maike Magario this year.

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