Major League Baseball took a subtle step toward greater homogenzation in January, when it ratified a labor deal with its union that will lead to less experimentation and fodder for evolution. Aimed at robbing Cuban professionals of their bargaining power in the same way MLB robs homegrown amateurs of theirs, the new agreement will lead to a duller, less imaginative brand of baseball.
The agreement raises the age for foreign pros to be treated as anything but amateurs from 23 to 25, not a huge increase but one which could dissuade talented amateurs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from turning professional in their home countries and instead signing directly with MLB clubs.
This would allow MLB teams to scoop up more foreign talent at rock-bottom prices rather than paying out huge sums for professional free agents years down the line. Yet, some of the value overseas pros bring to MLB is not measurable in physical attributes alone but in having competed in a radically different environment, having developed different skill sets and going up against some elite professional opponents at a young age.
The blindingly obvious example is Shohei Otani, a name familiar to every top executive on every MLB team. The 23-year-old Otani was the most valuable player in Japan’s Pacific League this year, is Japan’s fastest pitcher while being one its elite hitters. His Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will allow him to move to the majors in the autumn, but because MLB’s new labor deal defines Otani as an amateur, a player whose contract was expected to range from 200 to 300 million dollars, will be on the market for around $10 million.
While Japan’s two top leagues lack the talent depth of their U.S. counterparts, Otani is the first in Japanese pro history to hit 10 or more home runs in the same season in which he won 10 or more games, and has done it twice. The only other player to do that in a top-flight professional league was Babe Ruth – who then gave up pitching to concentrate on batting every day.
The right-handed throwing, left-handed hitting wunderkind will, as early as 2018, get a chance to see how well his talents play in the big leagues. Ironically, Otani had not planned on turning pro in Japan, and had to be convinced not to sign with an MLB club. But the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him and manager Hideki Kuriyama convinced him that his club would allow him to both hit and pitch and by competing against Japan’s best at the age of 18, prepare him for the majors at an early age.
Although many former ballplayers in Japan scoffed at Otani wasting time on hitting when he should be honing his pitching skills, the youngster has shown an amazing ability to both develop his arsenal and velocity on the mound, while refining his swing and his batting approach. And like the old guys here, major league scouts are beginning to think his batting – Otani was voted his league’s best pitcher and designated hitter this year – could have value at the highest level. While the competition in Japan is different from the majors, Otani’s batting compares favorably with Hideki Matsui’s at the same age, while his pitching prowess has matched Yu Darvish’s.
We will never know good a pitcher Otani would be now if he had gone directly to the States as an 18-year-old, but we do know this: Had he signed with an MLB team out of high school, nobody would know he could hit, because no big league club would have permitted him to do both.
Otani is a better and more exciting player because he stayed in Japan, competing against NPB’s best and playing for a team and a manager who were willing to do things differently. If he does buck the odds and succeed in the big leagues on the mound and in the batter’s box – as only Babe Ruth has ever done – it may change baseball’s thinking about what a determined and talented player can accomplish and mean teams will no longer tell players it is impossible to both pitch and bat at a high level.
When Otani does move to the U.S., MLB will benefit from the lessons he learned in NPB. But by discouraging future amateurs from following Otani’s route and by having them skip the advanced skill lessons Japanese pro ball teaches and the U.S. minors don’t, the American game is narrowing an avenue for future growth and evolution and will be the poorer for it.