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Masa’s Choice

Masahiro Tanaka on Saturday explained reasons for his abrupt return to the Rakuten Eagles just a few days before the team’s spring training camp was to open on Monday. I’m sure what he said was true, but it probably wasn’t the whole story.

Having said that, I doubt Japan’s media wanted the whole story. They want players to talk about player things: championships, fans, organizations, competition, contracts, teammates and so on. Tanaka mentioned the coronavirus once in his press conference, but not his family at all, which is fine but probably limits our understanding of the whole picture.

But let’s move on from that, and talk about 2021. Tanaka’s decision may not have been earth-shaking, but Japan definitely rocked. Most Japanese major leaguers only return to Japan when offers back home far outweigh the available MLB options.

Hiroki Kuroda reportedly left millions on the table to return to Japan. Tsuyoshi Wada and Daisuke Matsuzaka still had some value in the majors but nothing like the big guarantees SoftBank was offering.

Below are the five best seasons produced in NPB by Japanese former major leaguers. None of these were remotely close to their best prior to their leaving Japan, which is to be expected since most were past their primes when they left. I was surprised to see that the two best seasons were produced by post-Tommy John guys.

NameTeamReturnedYearAgeWS value
Tsuyoshi WadaHawks201620163512.8
Kyuji FujikawaTigers201620193812.2
Kazuhisa IshiiSwallows200620063211.8
Ryota IgarashiHawks201320143511.4
Hiroki KurodaCarp201520154010.8

The funny thing from Saturday’s presser was Kazuhisa Ishii’s reminder that he still has a few more career wins than Tanaka. The former lefty does indeed, but Ishii pitched until he was 39 and his total career value is about three-fourths of Tanaka’s to date.

They both returned to Japan for their age 32 seasons after disappointing results the previous year in the big leagues, but Tanaka has been better at every step of his career along the way. Ishii was a lefty but Tanaka is two months younger at this stage.

People still remember the pre-elbow sprain Tanaka, who ran off 36 straight quality starts from Aug. 26, 2012 until he took the loss in Game 6 of the Japan Series, snapping a streak of winning 30 consecutive regular and postseason decisions. We remember that Tanaka bounced back from the Game 6 complete-game loss to save Game 7 and clinch Rakuten’s first, and so-far only, Japan Series championship.

But he’s not that pitcher anymore. He was a master of adjustments then, and no doubt is even craftier now, but the good fastball is not quite what it was, and I have to think the hitters in Japan, particularly in the Pacific League, are better than they were eight years ago.

The big difference, I suspect, is going to be how well he adjusts to batters who thrive on testing pitchers’ sanity, by poking good pitches foul and rarely trying to drive them. Japanese baseball is in some respects a different kind of challenge for pitchers and hitters.

Because it is baseball, it is hard, and will eat up and chew out some of the world’s best if they take their feet off the gas for more than instant. I doubt Tanaka’s transition will be as smooth as everyone expects, but because he is smart and highly motivated, I expect he can get over those hurdles better than anyone.

It’s going to be fun.

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A new hope

Masahiro Tanaka is back, and Japanese baseball is celebrating as if one of the major leagues’ better players has decided Japan is the best place for him to play–because that is exactly what happened.

Tanaka’s return is a sign, although not the chauvinistic one some old farts would have you believe about the ethnic superiority of Japan’s game. I exaggerate but it seems some would tell us Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu ordained No. 2 batters be small middle infielders whose sacred duty is to execute sacrifice bunts.

What it does mean is that Japan can be a viable destination for players who are still in demand in the majors. In a sense, Tanaka is low-hanging fruit. He’s not among the majors’ very best, and he’s returning, temporarily at least, with his family to his homeland during a global health crisis from a country where racist behavior is once more tolerated by a sizable minority.

The challenge for Japanese baseball’s stakeholders, fans and advocates is to see Tanaka’s choice for what it isn’t, at least not yet: a global migration of talent that could change the face of the baseball playing world. Want to keep Japan’s best talent in Japan? Make Japan’s game better.

Not everyone wants to play in Japan, even when the money is better, that’s what free choice is all about. Matt Moore reportedly turned down much a much better offer from the SoftBank Hawks to play for the Phillies.

The idea is to make NPB open to and attractive to the world’s best talent, and to do that, NPB needs to make its business profitable at home and abroad.

Since 1957, there have been 12 pro teams in Japan. Sixty-four years later there are still 12 top-flight teams here. Japanese pro ball expanded from eight teams to 15 in 1950, but it was untenable without enough established local fan bases or suitable stadiums.

But the lesson derived from 1950’s hyper expansion was not that it was too early, but that 12 is the correct number for Japan, and so we have 12 and would have had 10 had it not been for the intervention of the fans and players.

That 2004 fan rebellion against contraction should not have been a surprise. Baseball is in peoples’ blood. When people in my Tokyo neighborhood find I write about baseball someone will bend my ear to rave about some second-year high school shortstop in far-away Wakayama Prefecture and invite me to play in their weekend league.

When Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League was the world’s best pro baseball for a time, people around the world could watch English broadcasts. When South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization opened for business, it did a deal with ESPN to broadcast games in English.

When Nippon Professional Baseball followed suit on June 19? Nothing. Pacific League TV did a little to make its Japanese language streaming service slightly more accessible to English speakers, but little else. Japanese baseball, as a body, can’t market its games because the Yomiuri Shimbun, which founded Japan’s first pro league–although not its first pro team, still holds sway over most of the Central League teams and the most risk-averse PL team.

The Giants’ goal, as it should be, is to win the Japan Series every year, something they were exceedingly good before a draft, introduced to deprive amateurs of their bargaining power, also introduced competitive balance. Japan’s pro baseball market is mature, and though growth is possible, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s mission is to make sure that growth does not come at the expense of its market share and influence.

For that reason, NPB does not allow joint marketing of licensed goods, or shared gates, or broadcast revenues. Because of the way Japan’s media market works, teams’ broadcasters only cover their home games. Road games belong to the home team, which is good for variety but not so good for building fan bases by having the same media partners covering home AND road games for the whole season.

When overseas broadcasters come knocking, NPB’s answer has been: “If you want to broadcast games you need to obtain the rights from each home team.” Want to air a digest of NPB highlights? Get permission from all 12 teams first.

If a Japanese network wants to go whole hog and bid on the Japan Series and turn it into its marquee event, it can’t. Japan Series rights, while technically allotted by NPB, are assigned by the home teams as part of their annual negotiations with their regular broadcasters and rubber-stamped by the other owners when they qualify for the season finale.

Now is the time to fix it, find a patch for the rules to allow an NPB committee to negotiate overseas broadcast rights, and then move on to the next issue, expansion – both in the number of teams and in talent. Increase to 16 teams and get rid of the active import player restriction.

If teams can make winning pay, there will be more incentive for the three clubs who rent their home parks to fix that no-win situation and allow two of them to invest more in the development of talent that is theirs for the taking because MLB is slashing salaries to the bone.

With Japan’s economic might, and passion for the game, there is no reason it should not have the world’s best pro baseball. There are educational system issues – particularly the one that tethers school kids to one sport for year-round practice, but Japan’s baseball organizing bodies are waking up to the health costs associated with year-round overtraining and excessive in-game demands on young pitchers’ arms.

Japanese society exists at the confluence of a nationalistic narcissism about its own racial superiority and uniqueness and a vibrant inferiority complex when comparing itself to the United States. Its style of small ball is considered suitable for players with smaller physiques and morally superior—a boundless dedication to practice and execution.

The flip side of that is a firm belief that imported players will always be bigger and stronger. In that model, Japan is always the overachieving underdog, never the favorite; the purest, the most dedicated to the craft, but never the best.

Tomoyuki Sugano’s decision to play for the Giants in Tokyo in 2021, and Masahiro Tanaka’s decision to return to Sendai with the Eagles, unleashed a wave of nationalistic pride, a middle finger to the majors. But until NPB sees that a bigger future is within its grasp, it will never be more than the small hustling kid on the playground who always plays but is always the last picked.

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Sugano’s wake

Perhaps it was a slow news week, because Sunday’s headlines were filled with people giving opinions worth two yen on the meaning of Tomoyuki Sugano’s return to Japan rather than sign the contract that would have moved him closer to achieving his goal of pitching in the majors.

On Jan. 14, Sugano signed a contract reportedly worth a little less than $8 million a year and it is said that incentives could bring it’s total value close to $10 million.

Since before Sugano’s posting-system deadline, people have been telling me that if you want to go, you go, no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts.” But at this online press conferences on Jan. 10 and again on Jan. 14, the normally ultra-poised Sugano was said to have gotten frosty at some of the questions.

I’ve heard from people who tell me Sugano is crazy to think next year he’ll be in a better situation, and who laugh at any suggestion that his principle motivation for coming back was money.

Blowhard and hard ass former manager Tatsuro Hirooka expressed satisfaction that Sugano had turned down offers from MLB teams that look down on Japanese talent. In December, if anyone doubted Hirooka’s serious old fart credentials, he proved them by saying Sugano lacks sufficient love for the Giants — as proved by his request to be posted.

Perhaps I’m no different. I, too, see Sugano’s decision as a symbol for something bigger, his right to choose. A lot of players have had spectacular fulfilling careers in Japan. For all its faults and flaws, it is still a wonderful place to live and work.

To see Sugano’s decision as symbolic of a failure on his part or of Japan’s superiority is ludicrous. We don’t all make the right decisions, I certainly don’t. But who the heck are we to say we know what is best for Sugano and then ridicule him for making up his own mind?

I don’t pretend to know what would be best for his life and for his personal happiness, growth, health and satisfaction, so I’ll share what he said on the 14th:

“Some are of the opinion that if you go over via the posting system, you should take what you are offered. The decision is mine, because it’s my life.”

–Tomoyuki Sugano

I would have loved to see how well Sugano would have done, but I think he knows a hell of a lot more about what is in his best interest than I do.

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Points of view

Was I ever wrong.

I thought the 2021 Hall of Fame votes were clearly in the rearview mirror until today’s story about Nobuhiko Matsunaka coaching the Lotte Marines in spring training.

When rushing to cast my Hall of Fame vote, I admit only glancing at the ballot’s pitchers on the ballot and may have underestimated what good arguments some of them have for inclusion. Yet, there was little doubt in my mind Matsunaka was the best choice of the bunch, a guy the Players’ Division voters should have intentionally walked into the Hall of Fame.

When I saw the story about Matsunaka, however, it reminded me that he was named on a piddly 17 percent of the ballots, and the way voting can be skewed by how “journalists” see a player. That’s because Matsunaka was complicated.

It wasn’t just his triple crown stats that made him such a strong candidate. There are players who are always alert on the field, who over and over make good decisions on tough plays. That was Matsunaka — at least the part of his game that constantly amazed me — his ability to advance on fly balls that many faster players would never have risked.

He is a big guy who was never overly fast, but I never saw a player so good at scoring from third on flies hit so shallow into the outfield. Matsunaka was, for a while at least, the team’s unofficial morale officer. When Julio Zuleta first arrived with the team, he told me Matsunaka took him under his wing to provide some of the extra support that new guys — particularly new imports — often need.

Trey Hillman said Matsunaka was one of the two players, the other was Takeshi Yamasaki, who always greeted him at the start of a series, showing him the kind of respect players often give to opposing Japanese managers.

So that was one side. Matsunaka’s other side was that he could be prickly. Once at spring training, while wandering through the Hawks’ indoor practice facility, I decided to break the ice with him with humor. My Japanese then was pretty crappy, but I don’t think it would have mattered. I asked Matsunaka, who was wearing a phiten necklace the size of an ox collar, if it was big enough for him. He said something under his breath and stalked off. That was the last time he spoke to me.

A year or so later, a colleague who’d covered the Hawks for years with their local paper, Nishinihon Sports, told me that Matsunaka was no longer the big guy, that he was overrated and all the young players saw shortstop Munenori Kawasaki as the team leader.

I don’t know if it’s related to anything, but Matsunaka signed a six-year contract with the Hawks before the 2006 WBC. When Japan advanced to the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, he told reporters that nobody on the team had better dare see it as a chance to show off for major league scouts.

Years later, when Zuleta joined the Marines, we talked about Matsunaka again, but his opinion of his former teammate had shifted. I mentioned his hustle and judgment on the bases, and Zuleta rolled his eyes and said, “You better look again.”

As injuries took their toll, Matsunaka became a bench player after the 2009 season and wasn’t productive after 2011. The team would have loved to dump him but those things involve huge PR hits, so they hung with him.

As a player, the only possible cloud on Matsunaka’s legacy was his complete inability during his best years to perform in the postseason. At the very end, he snapped out of it. But it was painful to watch the country’s best hitter do so badly when everyone was watching. It didn’t help that the Hawks during those years were managed by Sadaharu Oh. Oh is one of the people I admire most in the world, but he was a terrible manager in big games.

Oh and Matsunaka were an interesting combination. Oh told me he relied on the slugger to be the warm and friendly face of the team to newcomers because his own phobia about being too close to the players. The skipper, now the SoftBank Hawks chairman, is so well respected that I wonder if some players wanted to win big games so badly for him that they tightened up. I could certainly see that happening with Matsunaka.

My point is that if you look at what Matsunaka actually did, be the best player on a team that won three Japan Series, and led the PL in regular season wins five times, that’s plenty. I’m guessing that in addition to his ability to play baseball, he also had a talent for pissing people off, but that’s just a guess.

I wrote in this week’s newsletter that unlike America’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan’s doesn’t have huge elephant-in-the-room issues balancing players’ PED use, domestic violence and sexual assault with their career value to determine their worthiness. I mentioned Craig Calcaterra, who has had enough of the whole exercise and decided he doesn’t care anymore about what being a Hall of Famer means.

“if one does not need the Hall of Fame to assess baseball greatness, and if the Hall of Fame is hopelessly ill-equipped to assess the character of players, why should anyone care about an institution that not only tries to do both of those things, but tries to mash them together into a single assessment?! “

–Craig Calcaterra in his Dec. 31, 2020, “Cup of Coffee” newsletter.

We do things much more simply in Japan, at least for now.

It seems to me that Japan’s standard is to vote for players who were kind to you and don’t vote for those who told you to piss off.

That’s not because Japan doesn’t or didn’t have those same problems, but because Japan’s problems are not well known. That’s how things work. Abuse is a huge problem in societies, but many assume that because it rarely makes the news in Japan, it doesn’t exist. In a kind of Trumpian chauvinist bravado, use that lack of reporting as the reason to praise the Japanese for their innate moral character.

Former Japan Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu once told his South Korean counterpart that no Koreans had been brought to Japan to serve as forced labor during or before World War II because there was no record of such a thing. This prompted a flood of 50-year-old documents from Japanese companies confirming their rosters of conscripted Korean laborers. Kaifu then committed political suicide by issuing an apology to South Korea.

Times change, and it’s hard to predict when information that had been hiding in plain sight will flood the landscape and force a reckoning or at least encourage people that a reckoning is in order.

Before long Japan will no doubt catch up in its awareness of claims of sexual assault and domestic violence — even against ballplayers. At some point — and we might already be there without my knowing it due to the lack of public dialog about the voting — voters may ask “How good does a player have to be to get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer despite credible allegations of domestic violence?”

Beat writers know a lot more about players’ lives than guys like me who poke around and talk to people on different teams when I have time. Who knows? Perhaps some players’ poor performance in the voting is due to beat writers expressing their wrath about things that aren’t public knowledge.

Before writing this, I was optimistic Japan’s voters will find a better solution to the problem than those in the States have, but four years ago I also held some naive sliver of hope that Donald Trump wouldn’t be a total dumpster fire as president.

Having thought about it again, @craigcalcaterra may be right.

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Fix the hall

With the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame failing to elect a former pro player for the first time since it went two straight years in 1986 and 1987, people are asking what the heck is wrong.

It’s not a shortage of good candidates. In three years, the Players’ division has managed to elect only longtime Chunichi Dragons second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, while arguably the best candidate, Tuffy Rhodes, treaded water in the middle of the ballot.

This year’s ballot was both larger, increasing from 21 candidates to 30, and better stocked with players who had huge careers.

This year’s results

Reliever Shingo Takatsu and outfielder Alex Ramirez, each got the same number of votes as they did last year, but it’s not true that everyone who voted for them a year ago did so again, because I didn’t. But Masahiro Kawai, a perplexing high flyer dropped from 218 to 210, while Rhodes crashed from 102 to 61.

This year’s poor outcome, however, might encourage some changes to the way things are done.

What can be done

I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a concrete solution, like changing the way the ballots are structured or voted, but while the whole process is administered efficiently and above board, it is a closed circuit.

Baseball writers who cover players during their careers then vote on those players. The results are then announced to the media and only then relayed to the public through that media filter. The event is a press conference in the long narrow hall where the plaques are hung, and as wonderful as the surroundings are, it’s not a good venue for a press conference.

Unlike the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, Japan’s wonderful museum at Tokyo Dome is closed on the day results are announced. TV cameras are there to record the introductory speeches and the speeches of those being enshrined — or their survivors.

The only public part of the enshrinement process is when new members are presented with their plaques at Game 1 of the annual all-star series. There are fans in the crowd, but there’s no time for anything more than a wave to them.

The first thing to do is take the private process and make the fans a part of it.

Hold the induction ceremony outdoors and invite the public. Give honorees more than a day or two to prepare their remarks. Give their fans time to show up. Make it an event that for one day stops baseball time in its tracks.

Give voters a chance to go public

Look I may be wrong when I say Masahiro Kawai– whom I loved as the Yomiuri Giants infield anchor at short for years–is not really deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame. I’m wrong a lot. But if you think he is, why not tell everyone your reasoning?

Sure, full disclosure might bring abuse from the public, but it would ensure more careful deliberation by voters. How about we go halfway, and have the ballot committees give voters the chance to make their votes public. Then we can have a debate and I can learn stuff and the public can be more involved.

Of course, every writer has that option in this day and age, but I may be the only one who uses it other than a few Hall of Famers who take to the press each year to issue proclamations on who is and isn’t up to THEIR standards.

My podcast partner John E. Gibson complains about the lack of standards, but neither of thinks that’s really the problem, but I like the idea of looking at who is in and what the current candidates have in common with most of them.

If we don’t find a positive way to solve it, I’m sure the Hall of Fame can come up with a “solution” that causes more problems.

A little background

The first nine members were selected by the special committee, and that group included only one former professional player, the Yomiuri Giants’ first Japanese ace, Eiji Sawamura. The following year, his Russian teammate, Victor Starffin, became the first player to be selected by the competitors’ ballot in 1960.

The competitors’ ballot, considered anyone and everyone who played amateur or professional ball, managed, coached or umpired until it was disbanded after 2007 in favor of two competitors’ divisions, the players’ division for recent retirees and the experts’ division for those who hadn’t played in 21 years.

At least until 1965, former players still in uniform could be elected, since the manager of the Nishitetsu Lions, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi was elected in 1964. The next year, the Hall inducted the managers of the Yomiuri Giants, Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Nankai Hawks Kazuto Tsuruoka.

Perhaps someone didn’t like the idea of Hall of Famers in uniform, because from 1966 to 1996 nobody was allowed on the ballot who had been active as a player, manager or coach in the past five seasons.

Thus, Sadaharu Oh, who last played in 1980 and then coached and managed until 1988, couldn’t be considered until 1994. It created a huge logjam as guys like Oh, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao, Katsuya Nomura and Shigeo Nagashima had to leave the game for five years before they could go in the Hall of Fame.

The Players’ division can now consider guys in uniform if they haven’t played for five years, while the experts’ division can handle anyone out of uniform for six months, and can consider other contributions to the game. The special committee is now how non-players and amateurs get in. It used to be the last resort for players, and players selected by the special committee are not considered competitors, even if they did little else but play.

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Darvish: don’t expect MLB penny-pinching to stop

Yu Darvish, who last week came close to being a San Diego Padres teammate with Tomoyuki Sugano, shared some thoughts about major league baseball’s free-agent market and what it means for Japanese players aspiring to play for MLB teams.

We may never know all the factors that went into Sugano’s decision to walk away from the Padres offer with two minutes to go before the posting-system deadline expired on Thursday. Sugano on Sunday described some of his feelings, which Kyodo News reported in English.

Sugano sought advice from both Darvish and Kenta Maeda about various conditions, and the Padres were simply not going to offer enough to overcome whatever concerns he might have had about playing in the States.

In a recorded message, Darvish said he didn’t intend to talk about Sugano’s situation, but felt to compelled to speak his mind about the current player market in the majors–one thing Sugano did complain about.

Here’s what Darvish had to say:

“These past years the free agent market has been incredibly slow. …The number of teams that don’t want to spend a lot of money has really increased. Now there’s also the coronavirus issue, and teams that have money are saying they don’t, so now the market is incredibly bad.”

“When I was a free agent in 2017, my agent said he’d never seen it so bad. But it’s worse now. In 2017, I got my money and my guarantees, but the players making plans now? The idea you could do really well and strive and get one free agent payday? That suddenly vanished.”

“It’s tough, but you know the teams aren’t going to be able to make up their coronavirus losses in a single season, so I think this situation is going to drag on for years. Japanese players coming here as free agents are not going to get the amounts they used to get. That’s how I’m looking at the current posting and free agent situation.”

Sugano expects to try again next year, when he won’t be hampered by a posting system deadline, but if Darvish is right, and he probably is, the situation a year from now could easily be worse.