MLB labor market changes hit Japan, but NBP could fight back

Fernando Seguignol and Takaaki Ishibashi reliving their favorite scene from the movie “Major League” at QVC Marine Field–now Zozo Marine Stadium. Seguignol was a fringe major leaguer who revitalized his career through his exposure to Japan’s brand of baseball.

Japanese teams depend on foreign talent to make a larger impact in pennant races, but their ability to secure players of quality is decreasing as MLB tightens the screws on its talent markets, executives with three different NPB teams said this past week at the winter meetings in Las Vegas.

“You’d like to see (NPB) greater involved than what it is. I think it’s very wise for the Japanese teams to take a look at amateurs.” — agent Scott Boras

“It is getting harder and harder to sign good talent,” a Central League club’s international director said Wednesday.

On another front, agent Scott Boras said Japanese teams should look at the opportunity of signing North American amateurs — whose negotiating power has been sharply curtailed by the signing pool bonus rules imposed by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with its union.

In the past, a lot of top targets for NPB clubs were former major league regulars looking to extend their careers in Japan before hanging up their spikes. Japan was, for many, the end of the road. This spring, a person on Twitter complained about Shohei Ohtani’s hype, saying he was coming out of a Four-A-level league.

What people often don’t get is that Japan is not a “level.” It exists in a different kind of baseball dimension. Because Japanese players stay in the system and don’t automatically move up if they succeed, a lot of players here are among the world’s elite. But because the pro ranks are thinner, some NPB regulars would struggle to get out of Double-A ball or succeed in Triple-A.

The average NPB attendance last year was 29,779. The pennant races and championships are real. The wins and losses are extremely meaningful. The competition could be fiercer, because as Jim Small, MLB’s vice president for Asia and a longtime fan of Japanese baseball, said, Japan’s game is essentially closed. Teams can only field four foreign-registered players in a game. (Players are registered as foreigners if they are not Japanese citizens, and did not play their amateur ball in Japan). This means that one of NPB’s de facto missions is to be a jobs program for Japanese and puts another hurdle in the way of growth.

Still, the four-foreign-player limit now only applies to the first team. Twenty years ago, it was two per organization. The increased number of players coming out of MLB and the U.S. minors, Taiwan and Korea has made Japan’s game better. And by getting better, it has changed NPB from a destination of last resort to a destination of choice.

Players over 25 with an uncertain future in MLB have been lining up to come. And because the game is different, NPB demands different adjustments to their skill sets or attitudes but also gives players a better chance to get regular playing time in pressure situations that their uncertain MLB status does not.

As a result, many of those who come to Japan and get better. Financially, it’s also a huge deal. A player who embraces NPB and improves, can make a lot of money and provide financial security for their families.

But MLB’s penny-pinching mentality–the one that denies minor leaguers subsistence wages, throws willing interns and new hires into a pit and gives living wages to the sole survivors–is now impacting the flow of talent to Japan NPB executives said in Las Vegas.

Instead of letting a big-hitting 27-year-old minor leaguer go in exchange for a lump sum from an NPB team, MLB clubs are now hanging on to guys like that with GI Joe Kung Fu grips. Because they are cheap insurance. If the guy is needed as a fill in with the big club, he’ll be paid an MLB minimum wage prorated to days on the roster. Guys who could be productive players and who would be available to enrich themselves and the fans of other countries are more and more often being kept in cold storage like frozen beef.

Because of its independence, NPB also has an opportunity to benefit from MLB’s efforts to put a damper on its talent markets. Agents for elite amateur players from North America have proposed two-year deals with NPB clubs, allowing them to earn more at an entry level and raise their profile before re-entering MLB’s amateur draft.

“You’d like to see (NPB) greater involved than what it is,” agent Scott Boras said. “I think it’s very wise for the Japanese teams to take a look at amateurs. I think that when they take a look at it and see the value of the player going forward, they’ll take a good look at it.”

Tracking Yusei Kikuchi

Yusei Kikuchi may have put his major league ambitions on hold in 2009, when he turned pro with the Seibu Lions, but it’s something he’s been building toward ever since. On Wednesday, a source said Kikuchi has been earnestly studying English once a week for years and is keen to be the first Japanese player to give his opening remarks at his first press conference here in English.

Read my story on Kyodo News here.

Trackman data is fairly new to Japan. In a nation where mind-numbing repitition is considered the biggest single key to success, even nutrition and strength training are still viewed by some teams as esoteric endevors.

Video review system under review

NPB’s executive committee on Monday mooted a change to the video review system introduced this past year according to a story in Sport Nippon. Unlike in MLB, where the decision is made by umpires at another location. Japan’s “request system” sees the umpires all trot off the field to look at a monitor under the stands.

A participant in Monday’s meeting reported HERE that a move is being considered to exclude the umpire who made a call under review from taking part in the decision to uphold or reject that on-field call.

Osamu Ino, a former umpire who chairs NPB’s umpiring technology committee, told last month that the system was by and large a success but had been hampered in its execution by the poor quality of some of the monitors umpires used to review the calls.

The low point came when a foul ball call was overturned and a tie-breaking, 10th-inning home run given to the Hawks’ Akira Nakamura that led to a SoftBank victory over Orix. After the game, the umpires realized the poor quality of the video had led them to believe the ball was fair when they first reviewed it.

Looking back on NPB 9 years later

In Las Vegas for the winter meetings on Sunday, I caught up with Paul Pupo, who spent six years as the head of analytics for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League under manager Bobby Valentine. Pupo, who lives in Las Vegas, talked about what the journey meant for his family.

“I always harken back to the fact that I was able to bring my wife back to her ancestral home in Yokohama,” Pupo said. “Because my wife was born in Nagoya and spent her childhood in Yokohama. My brother married her sister, and we all got together in Japan and it gathered our family together.”

“The second thing was to be able to share a world championship, what we called a world championship with Bobby, my best friend in Japan in 2005. The exhilaration of winning with Bobby — I’ve known him since 1968 — and to be able to share that with him was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

“I’ll never forget the feeling of winning a championship, which is really a short-lived experience for one day. You run around the infield and outfield. You’re a champion for one day, and then you have to defend it.”

Pupo, whose love of the game hasn’t diminished since he was a player at Gonzaga University, said that despite watching five or six MLB games a day, he still has time to follow NPB.

“I follow it all the time,” he said. “I still enjoy it. I feel a connection to it. I watched it the other day when I heard about the new left-handed pitcher coming over (Yusei Kikuchi). I watched him and the noise of the ballpark came back to me. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I forgot that it was that loud.”

Pupo talked about the players, he remembered, and one seemed to stand out more than anyone, former Seibu Lions and Chunichi Dragons outfielder Kazuhiro Wada.

“I used to watch that guy swing, I loved his swing. It was unreal what he could do,” Pupo said.

Japan’s Hall of Fame middle infielders

This is the fourth part of a series about this year’s Hall of Fame candidates.

Shortstop Kenjiro Nomura finished seventh in the voting a year ago, and is now fourth among players still on this winter’s ballot.

Including Nomura, Kazuyoshi Tatsunami (2B) and Masahiro Kawai, this year’s players’ ballot has five middle infielders on it. The other two are shortstops Takuro Ishii and Shinya Miyamoto.

Let’s look at who the hall has inducted and passed over.

The best middle infielder by career total of Bill James’ Win Shares is shortstop Yasumitsu Toyoda (352) is in. Shortstop Taira Fujita (322), with longer productive career but slightly less peak value, is out.

Toyoda’s predecessor as Hanshin Tigers shortstop, Yoshio Yoshida (312), is third, and he’s in. He also managed the Tigers to their only Japan Series championship in 1985, and his nine Best Nine awards are the most among any NPB middle infielder.

Tatsunami (302) is a 1990s version of Fujita, although he was never a viable MVP candidate — Win Shares ranks his best season NPB’s 61st best by a second baseman. He is followed by shortstop Hiroyuki Yamazaki (287), who was a good match for Tatsunami, a reliable solid player whose career failed to last quite as long.

Shortstop Takuro Ishii (281) is also a very similar player to Tatsunami with nearly as many career hits, a little less power, more speed. In his ballot debut last year, Ishii was selected by 19.3 percent of the voters.

Second baseman Morimichi Takagi, seventh with 271 career win shares, is in the hall, and his career is very similar to Tatsunami, Yamazaki and Ishii a really good player who never had an MVP-caliber season.

By the time we get past Takagi, the only middle infielders in the hall are guys who were good players but were elected as managers who won multiple pennants: Tatsuro Hirooka, Akira Ogi and Takeshi Koba.

View data on Japan’s top middle infielders whose career ended after 1959 with at least 1,000 career hits, sorted by career win shares. The headings are mostly self explanatory, with “leading” indicating how many times the player led his league in an offensive category. Golden gloves have been awarded since 1972. The year under “HOF” is the year that player was inducted.

Nomura is a wonderful guy and helped build the Hiroshima Carp into pennant contenders as a manager, but it’s
This brings us to Nomura, who hit for average, had power, stole bases. His two MVP-caliber seasons shaped our image of him as a super star, but he was inconsistent.

Miyamoto played 19 seasons despite debuting at the age of 24. He won 10 Golden Gloves, the most of any middle infielder, but wasn’t a really good offensive player.
hard to see either him or Miyamoto as Hall of Famers regardless of whether or not you decide middle infielders have been unfairly represented. This goes for Masahiro Kawai, too.

The big injustice is obviously Fujita, who didn’t help his cause from his time as Hanshin manager. Then, he was most famous for getting into a feud with Tsuyoshi Shinjo’s mother.

I’m inclined to call Takagi the lower limit, find a way to get Fujita, Tatsunami and perhaps Yamazaki in, and draw the line there.

It’s no snub to be considered good enough to be on the ballot. So many players never get that far.

Wang set to join Fighters on 3-year deal

The Nippon Ham Fighters have reached an agreement on a three-year deal with 25-year-old Taiwan outfielder Wang Po-jung on Friday according to the Nikkan Sports.

You can see the original Japanese version HERE.

The contract for Wang, who has batted over .400 twice in his brief career, is worth a reported 400 million yen ($887,000) with additional incentives. His salary next year will be 90 million yen.

“They showed me respect, and are giving me a chance to perform on a new stage, and I am grateful,” Wang said in a statement released by the Fighters.

The Lamigo Monkeys’ star won CPBL’s triple crown in 2017, and has led the league in on-base percentage the past three seasons.

“I’m honored to be the first player from Taiwan pro baseball to join NPB through the overseas transfer system, although some pressure comes with that.”

“Going forward, I will pull my weight and not forget the desire I’m coming in with.”

Speaking at the Fighters’ minor league facility in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, Nippon Ham General Manager Hiroshi Yoshimura said that Wang’s age was a factor in the acquisition according to the Nikkan Sports.

“His age is the key to his coming to grips with Japanese baseball,” Yoshimura said. “Because he’s young, we expect him to get even better. We’d like him to be playing in our new ballpark (due to open in 2023).”