He’s not the 1st

When Nippon Ham’s Hiromi Ito pitched against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday, June 6, the announcers talked about the right-hander’s roots as the first Fighters’ top draft pick from Hokkaido. The remarkable thing is that Ito is not the first pro ballplayer from his village in Hokkaido, where all-star reliever Koki Morita grew up.

Morita, who died of cancer at the age of 45, was a classmate of Ito’s father when they were children, and like the younger Ito, Morita was signed after being selected in the first round of NPB’s draft. But unlike Ito, he wasn’t the Taiyo Whales’ (currently the DeNA BayStars) first pick in 1987.

The NPB draft is a strange animal that is constantly evolving and regressing. Since it was introduced in the mid-1960s to rob amateurs of their negotiating rights, one principle has been a guiding factor — that it should not become an engine of competitive balance.

From the mid-1990s until 2006, elite college and corporate league players were free to sell their services to the highest bidders but other than that period, teams have been given an equal shot at signing any player in a given round through a lottery that has nothing to do with the waiver order.

NPB under the table

The way this works now in the first round, and the way it has often worked in the first and other rounds in the past has been to have each team secretly nominate its pick for that round. These are then announced. The rights to each player chosen by more than one team are assigned by lot, with a representative from each team, often the manager, going up to the front of the room and picking a card out of a box.

You can’t always get what you want…

Teams that fail to get their man, then secretly nominate alternate selections, and the rights of players named by more than one team are again assigned by lottery.

I had this discussion with John E. Gibson a couple of weeks ago on the podcast, when I said it was hard for me to say “Hayato Sakamoto was the Giants’ first pick in the 2006 draft,” because the Giants weren’t going after him. Their target that year was Naomichi Donoue, who has never been much more than a utility infielder for the Chunichi Dragons. Sakamoto was their first-round signing, but he wasn’t their first pick. We know this because they said he wasn’t.

Morita’s case has long fascinated me because, like Sakamoto, he wasn’t the first pick, and in Morita’s case, the club could have done much, much worse had they gotten who they wished for, Kazushige Nagashima, the dreadful son of Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima.

One night I watched Kazushige on TV, and he politely told the story about how his preference was to play in Yokohama for the Whales rather than in Tokyo for the Swallows.

Be careful what you wish for

The table below lists the most fortunate draft “failures” in the last 40 years. Hikaru Takano was a useful pitcher for a time. But Hisanobu Watanabe was an ace for a championship team. It may be too early to pronounce Kotaro Kiyomiya a failure, but I’ll bet the Fighters would happily trade him and a half dozen other players to get Munetaka Murakami.

1982YomiuriMasaki SaitoDaisuke Araki (Yak)
1983SeibuHisanobu WatanabeHikaru Takano (Yak)
1987HanshinKoji NodaKen Kawashima (Hir)
1987TaiyoKoki MoritaKazushige Nagashima (Yak)
2005OrixTakahiro OkadaTakanobu Tsujiuchi (Yom)
2006YomiuriHayato SakamotoNaomichi Donoue
2010RakutenTakahiro ShiomiYuki Saito (Nip)
2010YakultTetsuto YamadaTakahiro Shiomi, Yuki Saito
2017YakultMunetaka MurakamiKotaro Kiyomiya (Nip)

With that I’ll leave you with this catchy Sammy Davis Jr. tune.

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