Twins shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Gonzalez, Carlos, Star Tribune

Souhan: Nishioka's struggles can't all be chalked up to nerves

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • June 29, 2011 - 11:48 AM

Tsuyoshi Nishioka was supposed to become a symbol of the Twins' new resources and resourcefulness.

Instead, he's become a walking public service announcement designed to warn young baseball players about the dangers of smoking. Puff on too many Marlboros, kiddies, and you might develop jittery hands.

After winning Gold Gloves at second and short in Japan, Nishioka has made six errors in his first 18 big-league games. In the Twins' 6-4 victory over the Dodgers on Tuesday night at Target Field, Nishioka wasn't charged with an error, but he bobbled a slow hopper and botched a double-play grounder.

"That's got to be a double play there," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "And offensively, he drifted off the ball again."

He's been given the nickname "Nishi" by his new team. A few more errors, and fans might start calling him "MnPass."

The Twins paid a $5 million bid to win the rights to negotiate with Nishioka, then signed him to a three-year deal worth $9 million. For $14 million, the Twins could have afforded to keep one or two of their best relievers, such as Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier.

The Twins hoped Nishioka would add range to their defense and speed to their lineup. They never considered keeping last year's second baseman, Orlando Hudson, and they traded their shortstop, J.J. Hardy, along with utility player Brendan Harris to Baltimore for pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

The Twins weren't thrilled with Hardy's willingness to miss games with seemingly minor injuries, and felt they needed a power arm for the bullpen. Hoey is in Class AAA, and his big-league ERA this season is 7.71. Jacobson is at Class AA and has an ERA of 2.78 and a strikeout-walk ratio of 41-38.

Harris is hitting .225 in Class AAA. The only impact player in that trade is Hardy, who is batting .303 with 11 home runs and one error in 242 chances for the Orioles, who are trying to sign him to a contract extension.

Hardy played a steady shortstop and hit .268 with six homers for the Twins last season, playing in 101 games. He has played in only 49 games this season, but has proved productive while benefitting from a better hitters park in Camden Yards.

The Twins hoped to upgrade from Hardy with Nishioka, and the nicest thing you can say about that exchange is that Nishioka is, indeed, the opposite of Hardy.

Hardy lacks range, displays sure hands and can hit for power. As a Twin, to the shock and dismay of the front office that signed him and the field staff that continues to work with him, Nishioka has excellent speed and range, but he has made errors with poor technique, unsure hands and erratic throws.

He's also made mistakes that can only be explained by extreme nervousness, such as the time this weekend in Milwaukee that first baseman Michael Cuddyer threw the ball accurately to second and Nishioka missed it completely.

Gardenhire chides some struggling players and encourages others. He has chosen the latter approach with his struggling import.

"I want him to stay positive, stay upbeat, know that we're with him out there," Gardenhire said before the game. "He wants to do so well, and I understand every bit of that."

Nervousness might be a realistic explanation of Nishioka's struggles, but it is not an excuse. Confidence is as important to a big-league ballplayer as bat speed.

Nishioka looked remarkably nervous early in spring training, and again when the spring training games began.

He made one error in 56 chances and hit .345 with two doubles and a triple in 58 at-bats.

"I hope this goes the same way -- he gets back from this injury and we get him more at-bats," Gardenhire said. "I think you're starting to see better at-bats now. He's seeing the ball better and shooting the ball the other way."

After the game, Gardenhire showed off a stack of DVDs featuring Nishioka's Japanese hitting stroke. "They're all hits!" Gardenhire said. "I told that to Nishi, and he said, 'I don't make outs.'"

That was a long time ago in a country far, far away. In the present, Nishioka is hitting .210 with a .269 on-base percentage and .258 slugging percentage.

Nerves don't explain that kind of performance. Only flop sweat of the kind last seen drowning Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News" would explain that kind of performance.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. •

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