All posts by Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

Getting the chop

December is the end of the year and the time for cutting ties with former players.

These are the foreign players who were released and not re-signed by their teams.

2019

Pacific League

Seibu Lions

SoftBank Hawks

Rakuten Eagles

Lotte Marines

Nippon Ham Fighters

Orix Buffaloes

Central League

Yomiuri Giants

DeNA BayStars

Hanshin Tigers

Randy Messenger
Rafael Dolis
Pierce Johnson
Efren Navarro
Yangervis Solarte

Hiroshima Carp

Chunichi Dragons

Yakult Swallows

Ichiro ready to go back to school

Ichiro Suzuki completed a workshop on Sunday needed to qualify as an amateur for the purpose of teaching baseball in schools. He joined a group of 125 former ballplayers according to Kyodo News that included former Hiroshima Carp star Tomonori Maeda. Other media reported that former Chunichi Dragons manager Shigekazu Mori also participated in the class.

Participants who then pass a Feb. 7 screening by Japan’s student baseball association will be allowed to teach their trade to school children.

On Sunday, Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto spoke out about Japan’s peculiar situation which is an artifact of the historically frosty relations between Japan’s pros and amateurs.

The kotatsu league: Tigers sign minor league righty Gunkel

A day after they concluded a contract for 2020 with lefty Onelki Garcia, the Hanshin Tigers announced they have added Miami Marlins minor league right-hander Joe Gunkel.

The 27-year-old comes out of the Marlins organization. In four Triple-A seasons, Gunkel posted a 3.77 ERA. He struck out 6.23 batters per nine innings while walking 1.19 and allowing a little more than one home run per nine.

In a statement released by the Tigers, Gunkel said he was excited to be playing in Japan after hearing how good Japanese baseball was from former teammate and Yakult Swallows reliever Scott McGough.

Japanese-only free agency needs a 2nd look

Number magazine’s website “Number Web” posed an interesting question that speaks to the heart of one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s paradoxes — how come teams losing top foreign stars to another NPB club cannot receive compensation?

The answer is of course that foreign-registered players, unlike Japanese, cannot be reserved unless they agree to a contract for the following season. They are in essence free agents the minute their contractual obligation to a team ends. The Number Web article uses Wladimir Balentien‘s impending move to the three-time Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks as an example because — according to NPB’s silliest rule — he has acquired the right to file for free agency.

Thus, one could argue that the Yakult Swallows, for whom he played nine seasons, are losing a free agent but receiving zip in return. But using Balentien as an example is ridiculous. What about Onelki Garcia? He went 13-9 for the Chunichi Dragons in 2018 on a one-year deal and then decided to split to the Hanshin Tigers when Chunichi wanted to re-sign him.

Heck, the Yomiuri Giants’ back-to-back 2008 and 2009 pennants were built on the backs of stealing players the Swallows had scouted and signed. Pitchers Seth Greisinger went 30-15 over those two seasons, while Dicky Gonzalez was 15-2 in 2009 — the year he moved to Yomiuri from Yakult. Left fielder Alex Ramirez moved four stops down the Chuo Line to Tokyo Dome and won back-to-back Central League MVP Awards.

The Swallows response to the talent drain was to begin offering lucrative long-term contracts, starting with Balentien, reliever Tony Barnette and outfielder Lastings Milledge. The latter deal didn’t pan out, but the contracts for Balentien and Barnette were instrumental in Yakult’s 2015 pennant.

Free agency was the baby of the Yomiuri Giants — a plan for Japan’s most prestigious team to snap up as much previously unavailable talent as possible. But this winter, Giants Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara has railed against compensation that annually costs his club a player here and a player there.

Since the Giants are the biggest talent poachers in NPB, they would likely dig in their heels at the thought of having to shell out even more for foreign talent just because it’s easier to get Japan-ready talent from the Swallows than it is to actually find it yourself.

Hall of Fame time again for 2020

I don’t mean to be rude but it’s time for many of my fellow Hall of Fame voters to get their thumbs out of their butts and use their heads for a change.

A player needs to be named on 75 percent of the ballots, and voters this year are able to select up to seven players. Frankly speaking, anyone who doesn’t think Tuffy Rhodes is the best available player is a moron.

Here is a list of NPB’s 10 best players who are not in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame based on career win shares:

NameStatus2019 pctHigh PctCareer Win Shares
Ichiro SuzukiNot eligible581
Kazuo MatsuiNot eligible378
Kosuke FukudomeActive367
Kazuhiro KiyoharaNot on ballotNA22.6365
Masahiro DoiNot on ballot355
Shinnosuke AbeNot eligible349
Taira FujitaNot on ballot322
Tadahito IguchiNot eligible321
Takashi ToritaniActive 321
Michio AritoNot on ballot310

As I mentioned this time a year ago, Masahiro Doi slipped through the eligibility cracks because of his long coaching career and it remains uncertain if he will get another chance. Kazuhiro Kiyohara has not been included on the ballot since the vote for the 2016 class following his drug conviction, while Taira Fujita and Michio Arita were apparently passed over because of their poor relationships with the press during their stints as managers of the Hanshin Tigers and Lotte Orions, respectively.

Below are the top 10 players who are eligible to be inducted this year in the players division. Tuffy Rhodes not only had the best career of any foreign player in NPB history, but he also won an MVP award and became only the second batter to hit 55 home runs after Sadaharu Oh. Hiroki Kokubo comes close to him in career value because he played until he was old enough to manage Japan’s national team — the same goes for the next two guys on the list. In terms of peak value, the only player who can compare with Rhodes in terms of sustained high performance is catcher Kenji Jojima.

NameTimes on ballot2019 pctHigh pctCareer WS
Tuffy Rhodes6th29.639.6298
Hiroki Kokubo2nd32.132.1296
Norihiro Nakamura1st290
Takeshi Yamasaki2nd11.311.3287
Takuro Ishii3rd24.824.8281
Atsunori Inaba1st279
Kenji Jojima3rd15.115.1270
Tomonori Maeda2nd29.629.6243
Alex Ramirez2nd40.440.4230
Kenjiro Nomura7th37.239.6227

Here are the top five in last year’s balloting:

Name2019 PctCareer Ws
Kazuyoshi Tatsunami *77 .4302
Shingo Takatsu60.6113
Masahiro Kawai50.7137
Shinya Miyamoto41.2187
Alex Ramirez40.4230

The voters clearly got the best available player not yet in the Hall of Fame a year ago, but after that it was a mess. Takatsu, at least, at one point was Japan’s career saves leader. Ramirez won two MVP awards and was clearly the best of this bunch, but his career value last year was seventh among the available candidates, and five of those others finished behind him in the voting.

Here are the top 10 players who are eligible to be inducted this year in the experts division,. The Hall of Fame does not publish old records of voting, so these are based on the results I’ve received attending press conferences announcing the votes.

NameTimes on ballot2019 pctHigh pctCareer WS
Koichi TabuchiAt least 7th64.764.7301
Hideji KatoAt least 5th23.032.0290
Masayuki Kakefu2nd30.830.8286
Isao Shibata3rd26.326.3275
Atsushi NagaikeAt least 7th17.323.6240
Hiromu Matsuoka3rd7.513.1238
Mitsuhiro AdachiAt least 5th14.323.0221
Shigeru Takada1st177
Masayuki DobashiAt least 7th24.126.8171
Yoshinori Sato1st166

The top five in last year’s expert division vote were:

Name2019 pctCareer WSOther notes
Hiroshi Gondo *76.797Success as coach, manager
Koichi Tabuchi64.7301
Randy Bass63.21322 Triple Crowns, MVP
Masayuki Kakefu30.8286
Keiji Osawa30.1Success as manager

Rhodes is not an all-time, hands-down, no-question Hall of Famer. But the few players who had better careers than him who are not in the Hall of Fame, Kiyohara, Doi, Arito and Fujita, are bizarre exceptions. None of the players on the ballot have close to his credentials, and in this age of information, one would hope that would make a difference.

Of the 19 players who led their league in 10-plus offensive categories and won six or more Best Nine Awards are out of the Hall of Fame? Three. These are Rhodes, Masayuki Kakefu and Atsushi Nagaike. Kakefu had a longer career than Rhodes with less peak value but he was a quality player and deserves to make it through the expert’s division.

Japan’s baseball civil war

On Friday, Ichiro Suzuki took the first step in going back to school when he attended a seven-hour seminar on getting certified to teach baseball to children in school. The course, a relatively new one, was created to prevent uncontrolled contact between professionals and amateurs.

On Sunday morning, Japanese baseball’s curmudgeon in chief, Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto, took umbrage with the system, calling it foolish that the sport’s top craftsman have to bow and scrape to amateurs who couldn’t carry their jockstraps.

“It’s all nonsense These people, whose (baseball) technical knowledge is the best in the country are going to be teaching people who lack that knowledge. It’s not like they’re going to be school teachers. They’ll be teaching ballplayers.”

Isao Harimoto in his Dec. 15 guest spot on TBS network’s “Sunday Morning.'”

It is a generalization, but to some degree, Japan runs on personal relationships between individuals within the same group. While baseball exists as a larger identifying group, its various segments made up of pros, amateur administrators and educators jealously guard their turf. Each has its own bureaucracy that excels at creating boundaries and enforcing them.

By its very existence, pro baseball is a threat to amateur ball because it exists beyond the amateurs’ control. But because all pros pass through amateur ball before turning pro, conflict and distrust are inevitable.

Pro clubs have signed corporate league players during their league season in violation of agreements between the pros and the corporate leagues (see the Yanagawa affair) Since Nippon Professional Baseball held its first amateur draft in November 1965, pro clubs have attempted on occasion to gain the future loyalty of amateur prospects by secretly paying them and their coaches.

For those reasons, the amateur side prohibits professionals from coaching amateurs. Pros in Japan are even barred from teaching baseball to children who are playing amateur ball, something Suzuki addressed in his Japanese language retirement press conference.

“In Japan there is a peculiar situation, in that a wall exists between amateurs and pros. Even now, how is it, that rule? I wonder. Isn’t it still complicated? To take an extreme example, if I have a child in high school, there had been a rule that I couldn’t teach him. Am I wrong? That’s why it feels weird. Today as the former Ichiro, if it were small kids, or junior high school or high school or maybe even college students I would be interested (in managing).”

Ichiro Suzuki during his March 23 retirement press conference in Tokyo

The first of the four-part Ichiro Suzuki presser translated into English is HERE.

The need to observe boundaries extends to rules. NPB cannot change its own playing rules without consulting the amateur federations and getting approval by Japan’s Rule Committee. The pros may have the loudest voice in the room, but theirs is not the only voice. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it is peculiar.

The kotatsu league: Tigers conclude Bour hunt, Giants rearm

The Hanshin Tigers on Saturday announced they have acquired 31-year-old slugging infielder Justin Bour on a one-year deal reported at $2.5 million according to Kyodo News (in Japanese).

One interesting thing about Bour is that according to Fangraphs he has a fastball hitter with a history of success against curveballs. While most of the curves he sees in Japan will be a little different from those he was more used to in the States, it suggests some ability to adjust off the fastball. He will see really good breaking balls, and it would be no surprise if he still has good success once he gets his timing down — until the locals wise up and become more selective.

When the deal was first agreed to, Tigers head of baseball operations Osamu Tanimoto compared Bour to former Tigers icon Randy Bass because of his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field — potentially negating the impact of the jet stream blowing in from Osaka Bay that holds up fly balls hit to right field at Koshien Stadium.

As a matter of interest HERE are how NPB’s different main parks affect the frequency of home runs hit by left- and right-handed hitters — with the higher figures indicating how much harder it is to hit home runs based on which side of the plate the batter bats from.

Sanchez to Giants

On Friday, the Yomiuri Giants announced they had concluded a contract with 30-year-old right-handed pitcher Angel Sanchez, who went 17-5 with a 2.62 ERA last season for the SK Wyverns of KBO. Sanchez was in his second season in South Korea. His two-year contract with the Central League champs will pay him approximately $3 million for the first year according to Kyodo News Japanese language site.

The Giants are going to lose their best pitcher from 2019, Shun Yamaguchi unless the right-hander fails to sign an MLB contract by the end of his 30-day posting window.

In a statement released by the team, Sanchez, who is from the Dominican Republic, said coming to Japan had been a dream of his since he was a child and that he was eager to learn the language so he could communicate with fans and teammates.

Bolsinger still available

Mike Bolsinger, who was released this month after his second season with the Lotte Marines, surprisingly remains on the market. Following a 2018 debut campaign in which nearly everything went right and he finished with a 13-2 record, Bolsinger was 4-6 in 2019 with an ERA 1.5 runs higher than the year before.

Although Zozo Marine Stadium had new turf in 2019, Bolsinger suffered from a foot injury through the first half of the season, when he went 1-3 with a 4.87 ERA over 57-1/3 IP through June. During that stretch, he allowed 12 homers and walked 34 batters. From July, he was 3-3 with a 4.34 ERA while walking 18 batters over 45-2/3 innings and allowing two home runs.

Take him to the SoftBank

This should trigger your “small sample size” alarm, but Bolsinger is 4-2 in his seven starts against the three-time defending Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks with 1.41 ERA and an average game score of 62.7.

To show you he’s human, the two-time defending PL champion Seibu Lions batters have treated Bolsinger like he doesn’t walk on water, handing him a 6.81 ERA and a 3-2 record over eight starts. Still, that’s 15 starts against the Marines’ two toughest opponents out of 35 career starts against the five other PL teams.

As I pointed out somewhere, that besides the foot issue, Bolsinger’s biggest shift from 2018 was in how often batted balls found holes against him. Opponents batted .278 against him on balls in play a year ago and .295 through June — when he was not pitching well. From July, when he had stopped giving up walks and home runs, opponents’ Babip was .329.

I’m biased because Bolsinger is a good guy, and easy to talk to, but those are the facts. The team that picks him up should get a bargain and results somewhere in between what he did in 2018 and 2019.