NPB’s Free Agent System


I want to apologize for misleading anybody about the free agent status of Yuki Yanagita. The 30-year-old SoftBank Hawks center fielder was eligible to file for domestic free agency this past week but did not, unlike Hiroshima Carp center fielder Yoshihiro Maru, who did. My confusion stemmed from Maru having come out of high school and needing eight years of service to be eligible for domestic free agency.

Every player needs nine years to file for international free agency, but unlike Maru, Yanagita came out of university and needs only seven years for domestic freedom. I was thinking, while focusing on the Japan MLB All-Star game in front of me, was that if Maru’s eligible next year to go abroad, so would Yanagita. Two twitter followers pointed out that this was incorrect as Yanagita had signed a three-year contract after the 2017 season, so couldn’t play abroad until 2021.

With that self abasement out of the way, let’s define free agency as it currently exists in NPB.

Defining service time

NPB defines a year of service time as one year with 145 or more days on the first-team roster with two exceptions.

  1. Players who spent at least 145 days on the first-team roster in the previous year, will be credited with up to 60 days between the time he suffers an on-field injury and appears in a minor league rehab game.
  2.  Players who fail to achieve 145 days in a single year, can add those days to days from other years with fewer than 145 to create a full year’s service.
  3. Starting pitchers who pitch within one week of the start of the season, and who pitch within one week of the start of the All-Star series and within one week of the end of the series are not docked service time for being deactivated.

By the way, if anyone needs to know exactly when a player is set to be a free agent, I’m available for a fee to scour NPB’s records and let you know. I asked colleagues at work and that is the only way to  know until NPB presents its fans with a summer of …

Stupid questions

At some point in the season in which a player needs 145 or fewer service days to qualify for free agency, NPB will inform the media that the player has qualified so that he can be bombarded with dumb questions about his future that so far only one player has given an interesting answer to.

This parade goes on all year as first one player than another is pestered. Th player who said, “I’m out of here as soon as I can file and I’m going to the majors,” was Koji Uehara. Everybody else says, “I am focused on the pennant race and I will make that decision when the time comes.”

The time comes

Players with the required service time have seven business days from the end of the Japan Series at the end of October or the beginning of November in which to declare their intent. The day after the deadline, players exercising their option are free to negotiate with any teams, including their present one.

Domestic free agency…

… comes with a catch: compensation. A team losing a player to a domestic rival gets compensation if the player is among the 10 highest-paid Japan-registered players on its roster. The three highest-paid on a team’s payroll are designated “Class A” players for purposes of compensation, while those ranking fourth through 10th are designated as “Class B.”

Teams signing “A” and “B” players must draw up a list of 28 protected players — that must include players on with multiyear contracts that extend beyond the following season (1). Roster players — other than those registered as foreign players and newly drafted players (2) — not on the list are eligible to be taken by the team losing those players.

Teams losing players can look over the list of players to choose from, ask for their contract details (2) and decide whether to take only compensation, 80 percent for Class As, 60 percent for Class Bs, or a player and compensation (50 percent and 40 percent, respectively).  The compensation for players who have previously been free agents is reduced — encouraging more teams to take players for those guys.

The three-year itch

Any player filing for free agency abandons his right to file again for another three years. By opting for domestic free agency, Yoshihiro Maru — who could have moved to the majors a year from now, cannot now move until after the 2021 season. Of course, there is another option. He could sign a deal with a team that is willing to rent him, sign him to a one-year deal and then post him — although the posting market for Japanese position players is not a very lucrative one for the NPB teams at the moment.

Speaking of posting …

… it probably never would have been a big thing if it hadn’t been for Japanese baseball’s universal belief in 1993 that no Japanese player was good enough to play in the major leagues. Once Hideo Nomo disproved that in 1995, the free agent system became an exit through which Japanese stars could depart with their teams getting zero compensation.

The free agent system that the Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe forced everyone to accept in order that he could scoop up big-name veterans meant players who signing overseas would earn zero compensation for their clubs — necessitating a posting system that Yomiuri has ridiculed and derided since Day 1 like the biggest toxic waste producer ridiculing the toxic waste disposal industry.


(1) Multiyear contracts are deals between a team and a player, that are not filed with NPB, although NPB is typically informed of their existence. They are, in essence, personal service contracts. 

(2) Thanks to Kozo Ota (@kojaxs) for reminding me about the foreign-player, new-draftee exemption.

(3) The details of player salaries are really not known in the industry until a player trade or purchase or compensation move is in the works. Then the team looking to acquire a player will find out what kind of contract they are taking on. NPB doesn’t always know, and the union doesn’t always know, a former team official told me.

Golden Gloves Part 2, outfielders

Yuki Yanagita unleashes a throw while playing for the national team.

Of my six picks for outfield Golden Gloves, four were elected. The other two missed selection by 100 votes apiece.

My picks, their final vote totals placing in the poll of Japan’s baseball media and overall rankings in their league from baseball analytics site Delta Graphs. Unless noted all players are center fielders
Central League
Yohei Oshima, Chunichi Dragons (177) 2nd, DG CF 2
Ryosuke Hirata, Chunichi Dragons (139) 3rd, DG RF 1
Masayuki Kuwahara, DeNA BayStars (38) 7th, DG CF 1

Yoshihiro Maru, Hiroshima Carp (230) 1st, DG CF 4
Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp (102) 4th, DG RF 3
Takayoshi Noma, Hiroshima Carp (61) 5th, DG LF 1
Norichika Aoki, Yakult Swallows (39) 6th, DG CF 3

Pacific League
Yuki Yanagita, SoftBank Hawks (156) 2nd, DG CF 3
Haruki Nishikawa, Nippon Ham Fighters (143) 3rd, DG CF 2
Kazuki Tanaka, Rakuten Eagles (29) 5th, DG CF 1

Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions (216) 1st, DG CF 4
Seiji Uebayashi, SoftBank Hawks (134) 4th, DG RF 2

My votes started using defensive win shares and pretty much moved straight on from there. Outfield defensive win shares are about the weakest part of the entire system in my opinion. Because win shares tries to establish a cumulative positive value with no rental cost for taking up playing time, one will see left fielders who play everyday get listed above center fielders who contribute much more defensively but who play fewer innings.

So I make a slight adjustment for playing time and I also consulted analytic site Delta Graphs to make my choices. Unfortunately, their analysis of defensive contribution over 1,200 defensive innings produced exactly the same results as Bill James’ team-oriented-holistic approach. DG uses Arm ratings and UZR — which I can’t calculate, but this year I have some interesting data about how many times runners advanced against each team on plays to the three different outfield positions. This data is cumulative. If there is a single with a runner on first and and the lead runner advances to third and the batter remains on first that’s coded as “R1 > R13.” Hits with two outs are different from those with fewer than two, so they are treated separately.

I currently have only cleaned up my 2018 data set, so their is more noise than a data set looking at two years worth of data points.

My decision to exclude Shogo Akiyama, who won his fourth straight Golden Glove, received the most attention, one twitter follower pointing out the disparity in the vote totals amassed. One does have to respect that more members of the baseball media voted for Akiyama.

But, let’s compare what little evidence I have:
The Hawks pitchers’ were slightly more likely to get infield ground outs than outfield fly outs than the Lions.

The Hawks’ center fielders fielded 20 fewer singles and 14 more extra-base hits, suggesting Akiyama might be better at cutting off balls in the gaps than Yanagita and his cohorts. Akiyama appears to have made a slightly higher percentage of potential catches — although that’s guessing. Delta Graphs gave Yanagita a higher UZR rating than Akiyama.

Here’s how the teams’ center fielders interacted with base runners after a single to center with fewer than two outs and a runner on first:

And here they were with two outs:

And with a runner on 2nd with fewer than two outs:

And with a runner on 2nd with two outs:

As a group, the Hawks center fielders had 10 assists, took part in four double plays and made three errors. Akiyama appears to be easier to run on, had four assists, took part in one double play and made four errors. He’s pretty good at going and getting balls, but he doesn’t have a great arm.

With runners on 1st and 2nd with fewer than two outs, four runs scored against the Hawks on 10 singles to center, while two outs were made.

Against Akiyama, seven runs scored on 14 singles without an out being recorded.

Pitchers and Golden Gloves

Now that the Golden Glove Award votes have been announced, there are a few things I’d like to add to my voting story.

Among the pitchers, I voted for Hiroshima Carp lefty Kris Johnson, and Rakuten Eagles righty Takahiro Norimoto. Both of these guys finished third.

The CL vote went to Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants for the third straight year, while Takayuki Kishi of the Rakuten Eagles won his first. I had Sugano rated very low, because he was below average in the three hard counting percentages I measured (see below).

One thing about Golden Gloves is that reputation goes a long way. Had he foiled a single bunt all season, he would have rated much higher. But here’s the thing, and John Gibson (@JBWpodcast) and I discussed this Monday on our latest podcast. A reputation has value on the field — if opponents limit tactical options to avoid someone’s perceived strength. I know it’s backward, but that happens.

I once calculated that by throwing out runners at an astonishing rate, Hall of Fame catcher Atsuya Furuta was helping opponents create runs, because they abandoned trying to steal against him. This meant his Yakult Swallows were given fewer easy outs on defense that other clubs were getting when opponents tried to steal against them.

If opponents don’t want to risk bunting against Sugano, that’s something in his favor, I suppose. But my pick, Johnson, has been outstanding at starting double plays the past two years and fields bunts really well, and has an outstanding number of plays considering the number of untaken ground balls in the infield and singles that aren’t stopped before getting to center field.

Kishi was, before I did a more thoughtful analysis, my first choice, above average in four of the five measures I looked at. He and Sugano are both reasonable choices, I suppose.

I don’t think too many people care about which pitcher wins an NPB Golden Glove, but the information is so scarce, I thought I’d contribute to what little discussion there is by trying to answer a few questions.

Because tomorrow is the deadline for NPB Golden Glove voting, I’ll throw some things out there. There’s very little info available for pitchers so I spent way too much time on this.

I wanted to measure how pitchers compared to their NPB peers in errors, bunts foiled, double plays started.

Those three are concrete, because we know the number of bunt attempts each pitcher fielded and about how many times each pitcher got a ground ball in a GDP opportunity – and how many of those weren’t taken by one of his teammates.

I have two more categories that are iffier.

1. The number of “bonus” plays a pitcher makes more than the NPB norm from balls at are :
a) infield ground balls in play to the pitcher, catcher or first baseman.
b) fly outs to the pitcher.
c) sacrifice hits.
d) Other singles that stay in the infield or get through to center field.

I don’t want to put much weight on that since this context is mostly noise.

2. The number of first base infield singles, since a fair number of these occur every season when the pitcher is not in position to cover the bag.

Again there are lots of other infield singles to first that don’t involve the pitcher, so I wouldn’t give that very much weight.

The tables below are for the pitchers who are eligible for Golden Glove votes having pitched 143 innings or appeared in 47 games. They are ranked in the order of points I assigned to each category – which I’ll put at the bottom for those of you inclined to look under the hood.

CL pitcher fielding plays above NPB norms
PL pitcher fielding plays above NPB norms

Point weights used for rankings

2.25 points for each error fewer than the NPB average per fielding chance, and for each GDP started more than the NPB average for ground balls in GDP opportunities.

2.5 points for each good additional good outcome (no fielder’s choice, hit, error or sacrifice) on bunts fielded by the pitcher.

.25 points for: every play made by the pitcher from the set of balls in play (listed above), and every additional first base infield single.