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International Free Agent Profile: CF Haruki Nishikawa

The speedy, versatile outfielder is looking to play baseball in the United States in 2021.

MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Yomiuri Giants
Haruki Nishikawa
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

As expected, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have made outfielder Haruki Nishikawa available through the posting system. The veteran fielder possesses a variety of skills that would be valuable to any Major League team. Known primarily for his speed, the 28-year-old is a career .286/.382/.394 hitter with 287 stolen bases in 332 attempts, an elite 84% success rate.

Haruki Nishikawa was born on April 16, 1992 in Kinokawa, a city in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture. He attended Chiben Gakuen Wakayama High School and had an up-and-down record there, as various non-chronic injuries kept him off the field at times and prevented him from living up to his full potential in his first two years there. He was finally healthy in his third year but was unable to lead his school to Koshien victory, losing to Konan High School in the second round of Spring Koshien and to Narita High School in the first round of Summer Koshien.

Nishikawa was selected by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the second round of the 2010 NPB Draft. He began his professional career in 2011, on the Fighters’ ni-gun minor league team. He dealt with some shoulder injuries early on but ended up hitting a perfectly acceptable .261/.323/.355 in 80 games. As a result of his performance in the minors, and then during off-season training camps following he conclusion of the season, newly hired manager, Hideki Kuriyama gave Nishikawa his stamp of approval and the 20-year-old infielder made the opening day Fighters lineup. He appeared in 71 games and accrued 155 plate appearances, hitting .239/.311/.343 with a pair of homers and seven stolen bases in as many attempts.

Incumbent second baseman Kensuke Tanaka signed with the San Francisco Giants that offseason and Nishikawa, who filled in for Tanaka in September 2012, when he broke his arm, became the Fighters’ regular second baseman. He settled into the everyday role well but suffered a tibial contusion and ligament injury in his left knee that June, missing over two months. Teammate Takuya Nakashima filled in at second while Nishikawa was injured, and he performed so well that manager Hideki Kuriyama elected not to remove Nakashima from second, instead playing Nishikawa at first base and in the outfield, in addition to time at second when Nakashima needed a game off. All in all, Nishikawa hit .278/.358/.370 in 85 games, hitting two homers and stealing twenty-two bases in twenty-four attempts.

He returned to second base in 2014, but once again circumstance prompted him to move around the diamond. Injuries to other players caused manager Hideki Kuriyama to juggle Nishikawa around, playing him at first base, second base, and right field. In addition, Nishikawa was often penciled in as the Fighters’ leadoff hitter, a role he had not found himself in previously. He appeared in 143 games and hit a respectable .265/.343/.389, hitting a career-high eight home runs and stealing a career-high fourty-three bases in fifty-four attempts.

The 2015 season saw Nishikawa get shifted once again, as he became the Fighters’ primary left fielder. The 2016 season came with another change, but this did not involve his position; rather, Nishikawa adjusted his approach at the plate, focusing on simply making contact with the ball and putting it in play rather than attempting to drive the ball for extra bases. A career .273/.356/.383 hitter up until that point, Nishikawa hit .314/.405/.398 in 2016. In addition, he stole forty-three bases, tying his career-high, and lucked into four home runs despite not putting a focus on attempting to hit them.

In 2017, Nishikawa officially had his registered position changed to outfielder, replacing departing free agent Dai-Kang Yang as the Fighters’ primary center fielder. The 25-year-old made his first All-Star Game, replacing teammate Kensuke Kondoh, who declined to participate because of an injury, and hit .296/.378/.416 in 138 games with a career-high nine home runs and thirty-nine stolen bases. In addition, he won a Golden Glove Award- though, as is the case in the United States, recipient of the award is based on the votes of reporters with their own preconceived notions and biases rather than defensive metrics. His 2018 and 2019 seasons were very similar, as he hit just under .300, winning his second and third Golden Gloves. Following the 2019 season, he told the media that he was interested in utilizing the posting system to play in the United States in 2021. “It’s kind of a dream story for me. International free agency is still a long way off and I would like to go sooner.” Named captain of the team in 2020, replacing Sho Nakata, Nishikawa appeared in all 115 the Fighters played and hit .306/.430/.396.

A left-handed hitter, the 28-year-old stands square at the plate, holding his hands high. He uses an exaggerated leg kick but does not generate much power, swinging with a flat, level swing that uses the entire field. While he has limited power, he hits the ball into the ground more often than hitting it in the ground, utilizing his speed. Speed is Nishikawa carrying. He has posted sub 3.75 times out of the box, giving him easy plus-plus speed and is a force on the base paths because of it. He won the Pacific League stolen base crown in 2014, 2017, and 2018, and was near the top of the leaderboard in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2020. He takes long leads and reads the pitcher well, keeping pickoffs to a minimum.

Nishikawa is extremely patient at the plate; His zone awareness is among one the best in Japan and he has one of the lowest O-Swing rates in Japan as a result. His selectiveness forces pitchers to come after him in the zone Nishikawa, giving him the ability to swing and drive pitches that he likes.

Defensively, Nishikawa is a jack-of-all-trades whose natural athleticism has compensated for defensive inadequacies. For example, in the outfield, he does not always get good jumps on the ball; in the infield, his reaction times generally grade out below-average. While defensive ability generally decreases with age, Nishikawa may be a player whose defensive ability plateaus longer even as his natural athleticism degrades because further experience and skill at the position will supplement it.