What price freedom

Former Giants ace and major league closer Koji Uehara on Thursday raised a novel criticism of Japanese baseball’s free agency system. He took exception not with the absurd service time requirements, but how the system’s mechanisms turn it into a public loyalty test.

The Japanese system was established by owners who had been strong-armed by the Yomiuri Giants. Yomiuri wanted to be able to skim the cream of the nation’s veteran talent each year and couldn’t conceive that Japanese players might use it to play in the majors since the very idea was inconceivable to their social Darwinist mind-sets.

The system that went into effect in the winter of 1993-1994 so that the Giants could plunder their rosters and drive up salaries, requires eligible players to file for free agency. Players who do so may negotiate with any team but may not exercise that right again until they acquire an additional four years of service time.

Filing or not filing for free agency therefore becomes a public loyalty test, where players who announce they are not filing, or who are filing with the intent of re-signing with their existing clubs, are branded as being loyal, while others in some cases, are mocked in the press as being traitors.

“I don’t want players to make their decision about free agency based on it being an invisible measure of their loyalty to the team.”

–Koji Uehara

Uehara’s solution is superficially a simple one: Make every player with enough service time a free agent.

This small change, however, would force a drastic overhaul of the system. Players with enough service time would be free to leave whenever their contracts expire. The four-years of service time needed to refile would be scrapped. The notion of free-agent compensation would have to be reconsidered. Yet there is a bigger hurdle, the simple desire to keep the game the way it is.

Uehara also said automatic free agency would keep rival teams from approaching players in secret and encouraging them to jump ship.

“I’ve heard that before players make their decisions to file, other teams contact them on the sly trying to encourage them,” Uehara wrote. “But if there was no choice for players to make about whether or not to declare themselves free agents, then there would be no benefit to teams to contact players in secret. It would be transparent.”

Transparency, however, is not something Japanese pro baseball really excels at. Japanese baseball’s greatest advocate of transparency, former commissioner Ryozo Kato, ended confusion about the balls in play by instituting a standard uniform ball everyone could understand. But his desire to put things in the open was met by a backlash which ended up in his being ousted in a palace coup.

The owners simply don’t want to do anything different if they don’t have to, but being hesitant to change is not always a bad things.

Japanese teams market marginal players to their fan bases, and stars are only traded under exceptional circumstances. It’s part of the fabric that sees players as more than employees and hired guns. A change to a more matter-of-fact system like MLB’s might also encourage the adoption of MLB’s more unpalatable practices such as the wage slavery of minor leaguers and pre-arbitration major leaguers.

There’s nothing wrong with being business-like, but when being business-like means elevating promoting baseball games to sets of ruthless spreadsheet-driven transactions, then you risk losing what you’re trying to protect.

Kotatsu League: Dec. 3

Sugano takes the next step

Although Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano has been cleared for takeoff to the majors via the posting system, there was no word yet whether he will go ahead and test the waters in MLB’s petri dish next season until Thursday night in Japan. At that point, Kyodo News‘ Japanese side reported that the right-hander had indeed asked his team to file the paperwork to post him.

The story suggested that Sugano will see what the market its like but is not 100-percent sold on moving to MLB this winter.

The Sugano posting so far has been an inversion of the regular process. Prior to 2019, there were two posting patterns, one for 10 teams and another for the SoftBank Hawks and the Giants

Teams other than SoftBank and Yomiuri

  1. Player speaks to media after meeting with team officials in December to discuss next year’s contract.
  2. Player tells the media that he’s told the team he wants to be posted.
  3. Team says it will be considered.
  4. The following year, the team posts the player.

SoftBank Hawks posting

  1. Player tells the media he wishes to be posted.
  2. Team tells the player to forget about it and focus on baseball

Yomiuri Giants posting

  1. Team denies any players will ever be posted.
  2. Sugano tells everyone he’ll go when he can but never says he asks to be posted.
  3. Team calls report that Shun Yamaguchi will be posted “untrue.”
  4. Team posts Shun Yamaguchi.
  5. One team official said policy toward posting players has not changed and that there are no exceptions — except Yamaguchi.
  6. Another team official said policy toward posting players has not changed but that Tomoyuki Sugano is an exception.
  7. Team reveals Sugano is free to go if he likes.
  8. Sugano at some point reveals whether he will go or not.

Nishikawa joins Arihara in posting que

The Nippon Ham Fighters revealed Thursday that they have posted center fielder and leadoff man Haruki Nishikawa, who now joins ace pitcher Kohei Arihara in pursuit of major league work.

This past week, Hirokazu Sawamura filed for free agency, saying he would be open to offers from all 30 MLB clubs and all 12 in Japan. His teammate, Ayumu Ishikawa was allowed to go but decided against it this winter, citing the coronavirus situation in the States as one reason to stay put.

Clearing the decks

Hawks release, Moore, van den Hurk, Uchikawa, Colas on cut day

The Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks parted company, at least technically with pitchers Matt Moore and Rick van den Hurk, while making longtime captain Seiichi Uchikawa free to complete a deal with the Central League’s Yakult Swallows on Wednesday.

Nippon Professsional Baseball’s teams are required to submit their reserve lists for the 2021 season on Dec. 2, the big day for releases across Japan. The moves don’t necessarily mean that neither Moore nor van den Hurk will be back with the four-time defending Japan Series champions, but it does mean they were unable to or unwilling to exercise an option to keep them.

Cuban two-way player Oscar Colas, who has been on the restricted list since Feb. 19, was released by not being placed on the Hawks’ 2021 reserve list, meaning he will be free to sign with an MLB club as an international amateur when the next international signing period opens in June.

Cuts throw import market wide open

The winter NPB market for import players heated up considerably with Tuesday’s cuts when a number of experienced players with established value were left off their clubs’ reserves list. Here’s a brief rundown:

Lotte Marines
Seibu Lions
Rakuten Eagles
Nippon Ham Fighters
Orix Buffaloes
Yomiuri Giants
Hanshin Tigers
Chunichi Dragons
DeNA Baystars
Hiroshima Carp
Yakult Swallows

Strong Hall of Fame candidates announced

A group of sure-fire Hall of Famers will join the ballot this month for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame’s next election, the Hall announced Tuesday. Voting will take place in January with the new inductees announced at the museum located at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 14.

A pair of two-time MVPs, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Michihiro Ogasawara, 200-game-winning pitcher Masahiro Yamamoto and one of Japan’s great catchers, Motonobu Tanishige are among 11 new names on the players’ ballot, joining 19 holdovers from last year.

Five new names will go onto the experts’ division ballot, including two greats, shortstop Taira Fujita and third baseman Michio Arito, whose failure to be elected through the players’ ballot is an indictment of the players’ division popularity contest. Greg “Boomer” Wells will also join the experts’ division ballot this year.

The entrance of new candidates with strong portfolios means that most players who were making good progress toward election will likely take a step back this year.

New candidates: Players’ division

  • Kazuhiro Wada (C, OF) Wada went to university and then played corporate league ball before becoming a reserve catcher and fifth outfielder with the Seibu Lions and didn’t begin earning anything like regular playing time until he was 29, but became a key producer with the Lions and Chunichi Dragons and finished his career with 2,050 hits.
  • Masahiro Yamamoto (LHP) posted 219 wins for the Chunichi Dragons and was the oldest pitcher in NPB history, and the oldest to throw a no-hitter. He won one Sawamura Award and two Best Nines.
  • Michihiro Ogasawara (1B, 3B) began his career as a catcher to get playing time but was never that good at it. His success as a pinch-hitter in 1998, earned him a starting job at first base the following year. After Trey Hillman moved him to third base in 2003, Ogasawara won back-to-back MVPs, the PL’s in 2007, and the CL’s in 2008 after he joined the Yomiuri Giants. He finished with 2,120 hits.
  • Fumiya Nishiguchi (RHP) was a 182-game winner for the Seibu Lions. In 1997, he was the PL’s MVP and Sawamura Award winner and won two Best Nines.
  • Takashi Saito (RHP) between NPB and the majors, Saito won 112 games and saved 139. The Yokohama BayStars discarded him due to arm trouble, but he caught a break with the Los Angeles Dodgers when closer Greg Gagne was hurt. An NL all-star, he returned to Japan to play for his hometown Rakuten Eagles.
  • Motonobu Tanishige (C) played in a record 3,201 games, which is a huge recommendation. A big hitter as a young catcher, Tanishige developed into a top defender and amassed over 2,000 hits.
  • Kenshin Kawakami (RHP) with 117 wins for the Chunichi Dragons. He was the CL MVP and Sawamura Award winner in 2004.
  • Nobuhiko Matsunaka (1B) a two-time MVP for the Daiei and SoftBank Hawks and was Japan’s last triple crown winner.
  • Yoshitomo Tani (OF) a longtime front-line outfielder for Orix, who played a key role in the Yomiuri Giants’ 2008 pennant and finished with 1,928 hits.
  • Yoshinobu Takahashi (OF) was a big name Yomiuri Giants star, whose career ended slightly prematurely when the Giants pressed him to manage in 2016. He finished with 1,753 hits.
  • HIrokazu Ibata (SS) the linchpin of the Chunichi Dragons’ golden age from 2004 to 2011 as both the league’s best shortstop and a top offensive performer, something that was undervalued because he spent most of his career at Nagoya Dome.

How strong are the new candidates?

Twenty-five players have more than one MVP award, and so far only one of those has been denied induction, pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, who was arrested for drugs after he retired. One is currently on the experts’ division ballot, Atsushi Nagaike, and one is on the players’ ballot, Alex Ramirez. Both are on track to induction.

Ogasawara may be the best-qualified player on the players’ division ballot, or it might still be Tuffy Rhodes, and Wada is then that group as well along with Matsunaka. It’s going to be hard to keep Tanishige out after Tsutomu Ito, who was far less qualified, got in. Ibata is an interesting candidate, while neither Tani nor Takahashi are very remarkable.

Yamamoto’s career fits in nicely in terms of career value with other Hall of Famers, while Kawakami would be a historically weak selection. Last year’s top vote-getter who didn’t make the grade, reliever Shingo Takatsu could get in as one of Japan’s top career relievers and probably would have gotten in next year.

Both Fujita and Arito were outstanding players whose careers fit in very well with other players who’ve been enshrined, making their exclusion somewhat noteworthy. As managers, they were known for being hard-asses, Fujita getting into a very public feud with popular outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Arito’s promise to make superstar Hiromitsu Ochiai toe the line, pushed the Hall of Famer to demand a trade.

Ramirez’s Way

Alex Ramirez, whose five-year tenure with the DeNA BayStars was the second-longest in NPB among foreign-born managers next to Bobby Valentines’ seven with the Lotte Marines, will not remain with the Central League club in 2021, the club’s chief executive, Kazuaki Mihara told the Sankei Sports.

Despite a sometimes subtle media campaign run by people around the team to paint Ramirez’s managing in an unfavorable light, the club said it recognized the Venezuelan-born skipper’s gifts and said they wanted to retain his services after he quit the dugout job.

“We talked different times, but he said that for the time being he would like to spend valuable time with his family. We respect his stance and won’t offer him a contract,” Mihara said.

The franchise’s .443 winning percentage since its inception in 1950 to 2015, the year before Ramirez took over, is the worst of any franchise in existence since NPB went to 12 teams in 1958. Ramirez’s 692 games are third-most in franchise history. His .499 winning percentage is second-best among managers who managed more than one season to Hiroshi Gondo’s .541.

Gondo and the two who managed longer, Osamu Mihara and Kaoru Betto are all Hall of Famers and Ramirez will likely join them within a few years.

Sugano Free to go

Tomoyuki Sugano, perhapsJapan’s most consistent pitching star over the past seven years, will be allowed to negotiate with major league teams via the posting system this winter if he wishes, the Yomiuri Giants revealed Wednesday night according to multiple Japanese news outlets including Sponichi.

Who wants to go to America?

The 31-year-old’s calling card is plus command, poise, and a plus slider to go with an average to above-average fastball and split, and the consensus among scouts is that he will slot somewhere in between a No. 2 and 4, but would be a plus to any major league team’s rotation.

The move was expected once the Giants’ season ended Wednesday in a 4-0 Japan Series defeat to the Pacific League’s juggernauts, the SoftBank Hawks.

The right-hander, who was a strong candidate this season to win his third Sawamura Award as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher, took the loss in Game 1 of the series on Saturday, but pitched well.

Sugano has long dreamed of playing in the majors and has not been shy about saying so, although he had never mentioned posting publicly. He reportedly wanted to turn pro with a major league team out of university when the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters won his draft rights in the autumn of 2011. Instead, he sat out the 2012 season so he could play for the Giants, managed by his uncle, Tatsunori Hara.

Perhaps the biggest reason Sugano might decide to stay is concern over health.

While Japan is now entering a third wave of infections and achieving record numbers — 2,508 new cases nationwide last Saturday — the situation is not nearly as dire-looking here as it is in the States, and baseball games have had limited crowds since mid July. NPB played just completed a 120-game season, paired down from its normal 143 with reduced playoffs.

Here is Kyodo News‘ English story.

writing & research on Japanese baseball