NOTE: Although it is true that imported players are treated differently when it comes to their ability to move to other teams as they wish, it is not true as stated below that these are structural rules. I am currently working on an updated version that will explain this phenomenon.
When Wayne Graczyk began writing his Japanese Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide, he used to include the career records of every imported player to sign in Nippon Professional Baseball since the start of the two-league era in 1950. For a long time, teams were only allowed two imports on their 70-man organizational roster, so that was relatively easy.
But when that restriction was lifted in 1996 in favor of an active-roster limit, Wayne was bound to eventually run out of space in his guide.
Imported vs domestic
When one sees a pattern repeated over and over and over, one comes to suspect a rule is at work, driving that pattern. Sometimes, however, the most plausible explanations are the incorrect ones. And so it was with my interpretation of why the rules governing team control didn’t seem to apply to imported players. I assumed the rules governing them were different somehow.
A Japanese player, whether an amateur or professional, enters Nippon Professtional Baseball through its annual draft if they have never played in NPB before. All other players are free agents, able to negotiate and sign with whatever team they choose. Imported players will often come to Japan with one team and then freely move on to another.
The free agent rules are not simple. Basically, it requires nine years of active service time on the first team. But there is a sub class of free agency, domestic free agency, available only to domestic amateurs who enter through the draft.
Players turning pro through the draft out of high school, they need eight years of first-team service time before they can move to another NPB team on their own power. Domestic amateurs turning pro after being out of high school, as a corporate leaguer or university student for example, can move within NPB after seven years on the first team.
Import players are not included in either of those two groups, so they need nine years to become free agents. But, one asks, how come no player other than Taiwan pitche Hsu Ming-chieh ever filed for free agency before changing teams? How can imported players just pack up and go?
That superficial answer is the nature of NPB contracts, but the real reason is that Nippon Professional Baseball is based on an agreement that is frequently modified to suit the needs of the year, with rules added and deleted like rooms being added on to a house without consideration for an overall plan. The Pro Baseball Agreement is essentially a flimsy scaffolding that specifies the duties of administrators, teams, players, officials, and regulates the manner in which teams and players can take part in the business.
Player contracts are strictly regulated and uniform. Every player signs the same one-year contract prior to showing up in camp, or he doesn’t play. However, virtually every player contract comes with an attachment, a contract specifying the team’s and the player’s additional obligations and commitments. These are enforcable binding contracts provided they don’t violate the stipulations of the Pro Baseball Agreement, such as giving a player a share of team ownership which is specifically prohibited or allowing them to play for another team at the same time.
When a player enters NPB, it is common for him to sign a uniform player contract and a supplemental contract, with bonuses, incentives and so on. Import players, and professional free agents are virtually always represented by an agent and for that reason apparently, virtually always have language in those contracts that details the conditions under which a team can renew a player’s contract.
This is the custom. Imported players are treated differently because it is customary to do so, and it is customary for their agents to get definite language in their contracts to guarantee it.
This is analogous to the acceptance of player agents. Until 2001, many Japanese teams refused to negotiate with player agents, saying it was against the rules. But it wasn’t against the rules, it was simply not customary. When the players union threatened to sue them over it, the teams backed down and established rules governing player agents.
In addition to the rules engraved in the Pro Baseball Agreement, there are additional sub agreements governing free agency, the draft convention, and a set of prohibitions regarding players to be drafted as well as the uniform player contract and the uniform developmental player contract, and the NPB-MLB agreement.
There are also a series of conventions, the most infamous of which is the “Tazawa Rule” which is not actually a rule, but a formal agreement not to sign any player who turns pro outside Japan after not participating in the NPB draft.
Players who wish to do so will not be signed for a number of years specified in the agreement. But there is no penalty if a team breaks the rule, although if Junichi Tazawa were to enter NPB, he would have to do so via the draft since he has never signed a pro contract here.
It might be enforceable, however, if teams leaned on the commissioner not to accept his registration to particpate in the draft, but it would be problematic.
Another famous convention is the contract limits on first-year pros. Clubs have decided amongst themselves to limit their salaries to 15 million yen, their signing bonuses to 100 million yen, and their maximum payout from incentives to 50 million yen.
Teams won’t report exceeding those limits, although the salary is stipulated in the uniform player contract and would be hard to conceal. But signing bonuses and incentive clauses in supplemental contracts are not published or officially reported to NPB or the players union. Exceeding those limits simply means the teams are fudging on rules that were in fact made to be broken.
If a player Japanese player has a supplemental contract, it could easily stipulate the conditions under which his team would have to post the player to the major leagues. This was alluded to last November, when the Giants announced the posting of pitcher Shun Yamaguchi. There was a whole lot of confusion among team executives in formulating an explanation for how a club that denounced the posting system was in fact posting a player. One executive described it as a one-off accident that would not change team policy and that the Giant were “forced into it.” Another pointed out the obvious, that it would influence decisions about other players.
The only way the Giants were forced into posting Yamaguchi was if the team signed a contract requiring them to post him, which it turned out they had.
This raises an uncomfortable question. How many of the players that have used the posting system to move to the majors did so because their teams were obligated to do so?
It may not square with the image of the players as being obedient, loyal modern samurai or the owners who post players as being gracious and humanistic. But if you are Masahiro Tanaka, or Shohei Ohtani or Roki Sasaki and an amateur with leverage, why wouldn’t you use it? And if a team didn’t have to part with its best players, why would it?
|Years||70-man roster||Active roster|
|1952 – 1965||3||3|
|1966 – 1980||2||2|
|1981 – 1993||3||2|
|1994 – 1995||3||3(1)|
|1996 – 1997||unlimited||3(1)|
|1998 – 2001||unlimited||4(1)|
|2002 – present||unlimited||4(2)|
(2) – No more than three pitchers or position players
What about imported amateurs?
What about them?
There are no guidelines to limit the salaries of imported amateurs, so that is no hurdle, and if a alaries for first-year domestic amateurs are capped in NPB, and there are guidelines, but not rules, limiting how much domestic amateurs can receive in signing bonuses and incentives, although these have historically been flouted by teams with deep pockets.
The combination of those two situations means a top American or Latin American amateur prospect (let’s call him Carter Stewart Jr for argument’s sake), whose contract and signing bonuses are severely restricted by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement, can receive fair market value in Japan and sign contracts that will not subject them to nine years of service time a Japanese amateur is expected to achieve before achieving free agency.