In the immediate wake of Japan’s World Baseball Classic championship, Robert Whiting expressed some valid objective takes in a Substack post “WBC title is great for Japan, but NPB needs to concentrate on enhancing its product going forward.”
The tone of his post was a bit of a downer after riding a buzz for the past three days, having been at the most-watched baseball game in history. But if one really thinks about it, and how Japan’s best player, Shohei Ohtani, became the accidental two-way star MLB and NPB loves but neither wanted, one realizes Japan could easily learn the wrong lesson from its triumph.
His points, as I understand them, are:
- The lively individualistic approach exhibited by Japan in the WBC will not loosen Japan’s embrace of paint-by-numbers solutions to baseball situations.
- The WBC is fun, but it’s just an exhibition and doesn’t prove which team is the best.
- Japanese pro baseball could be so much better than it is, and that should be its focus to be better at marketing and building its product, and that the DeNA signing of Trevor Bauer is a step in the right direction.
These points have some validity, but also need context that is more than, “The way MLB does things is better.” That’s not exactly what Bob is arguing, but much of his rationale does use MLB as a benchmark for comparison.
Today, I’ll address the last of those points and explore it in depth, not so much as a rebuttal but as a way of understanding where my friend really nails it. I was going to go with this from start to finish, but 8,000 words in one go is too much for anyone.
Bob is an extremely good researcher, and like many of us has long been immersed in “MLB knows best” arguments that used to be the standard argument from every import player coming to NPB.
MLB does have a longer history than NPB and infrastructural advantages. Bob describes how MLB’s profits, once on a par with NPB’s, are now in orbit, while Japan is still struggling with the sound barrier.
He’s not wrong about how NPB has fallen behind, but it implies that of the two backward pro baseball business circa 1970, MLB showed resolve and ingenuity in solving its problems and NPB didn’t. It kind of misses the point that MLB didn’t want to break out of its mediocrity but was dragged out of it kicking and screaming like a two-year-old.
MLB only displayed that resolve and ingenuity because it was forced to. NPB, on the other hand, remains more or less happily mediocre, because its own obsolete business plan has not faced the same kind of existential threat.
Like me, Bob is heavily invested in Japan’s game, its culture, and its history. When he or Bobby Valentine or I think about Japanese baseball, we see huge potential: the possibility to create a baseball product that leaves MLB in the dust, where the best players in the world will be drawn to Japan.
While his diatribe sounds like an attack on the WBC, it is an expression of tough love, a hope that somehow, Japan will get its act together without having to face hurricane winds like those that in 1975 wiped out one of the foundations of MLB’s 90-year-old business model and forced it to move forward.
With no choice but to accept a new reality, MLB eventually rolled with it. This is similar to how its culture that fundamentally rejected the idea that a pro baseball player could excel at both hitting and pitching could, accidentally be presented with Shohei Ohtani, and then do an about face and celebrate him as the best thing ever.
Forbidden fruit saves the day
When MLB was forced to accept free agency, owners and baseball people expressed the belief that it would kill off their business. Fortunately for them, they were as wrong about that as they were about Shohei Ohtani.
It’s unknown how many MLB teams would have been interested in letting Ohtani bat in 2018 if he hadn’t had the leverage to demand a chance. My guess would be zero.
Immediately after Ohtani signed with the Angels, Ohtani’s first MLB manager, Mike Scioscia, expressed doubt he would be able to slot into the DH role at the 2017 winter meetings, since “the DH needs to be one of your better hitters.”
Ohtani is a two-way player because the Nippon Ham Fighters offered that option to him as a high school senior as part of their last-ditch effort to dissuade him from signing with an MLB team, something that would absolutely positively require he focus on pitching. In 2018, teams were only willing to give Ohtani a chance to hit so they could secure his services as a pitcher.
MLB’s business renaissance was like Ohtani batting, a benefit MLB didn’t expect and didn’t want, but rather something that was forced upon it.
In 1975, when MLB’s traditional business model of reserving players for ever without having to pay free market salaries was eliminated, owners publicly announced that the free agency that resulted from arbitrator Peter Seitz’s decision would destroy the business of baseball.
Forced to create a new business model, MLB slowly began leveraging its monopoly status to develop new revenue streams. MLB’s financials leaped past NPB because free agency destroyed its old business and forced it to create a new one. The same thing hasn’t happened in Japan.
Japan’s Central League, with some support from the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions, has dug in its heels to defend a system that was, like MLB’s was before free agency, petty, obsolete and inefficient. NPB got a small dose of kind of crisis in 2004, when its owners’ arrogance allowed them to walk into a labor dispute assured that players would not be able to oppose them, only to be disproved by a labor court.
The ensuing settlement opened the door for some amount of change, which CL owners dreaded, such as interleague play and adopting the Pacific League’s playoff system, two things that have proven to be a huge success.
This is where another Shohei Ohtani comparison is valuable, since Japanese baseball loves to pat itself on the back to claim Ohtani as its own. But that is like MLB congratulating itself for creating the free agency that destroyed its old business model. Like MLB, no NPB team would have dreamed that anyone could do what Ohtani has done. It was, in their minds, impossible.
Former Fighters executive Toshimasa Shimada said the team was also looking at Ohtani as a hitter, but I’d bet you 1,000 yen that if they were it was as a backup plan in case, like their hard-throwing star outfielder Yoshio Itoi–drafted as a marquee pitching prospect–Ohtani never mastered his command on the mound.
The danger of self-congratulation
If, like NPB, one is smugly happy with the way things are, winning a World Baseball Classic championship with the help of a player, Shohei Ohtani, that its system never wanted to produce, is a two-edged sword.
The championship will spark increased interest in baseball but at the cost of reassuring the masters of an obsolete mediocre system that they are not driving off a cliff but doing things the right way, and that continuing on their current path will lead to more success rather than a crash.
Next time, I’ll address some of his other arguments, before moving on to where and how Japan can accelerate its current pace of change.