NPB’s Free Agent System


I want to apologize for misleading anybody about the free agent status of Yuki Yanagita. The 30-year-old SoftBank Hawks center fielder was eligible to file for domestic free agency this past week but did not, unlike Hiroshima Carp center fielder Yoshihiro Maru, who did. My confusion stemmed from Maru having come out of high school and needing eight years of service to be eligible for domestic free agency.

Every player needs nine years to file for international free agency, but unlike Maru, Yanagita came out of university and needs only seven years for domestic freedom. I was thinking, while focusing on the Japan MLB All-Star game in front of me, was that if Maru’s eligible next year to go abroad, so would Yanagita. Two twitter followers pointed out that this was incorrect as Yanagita had signed a three-year contract after the 2017 season, so couldn’t play abroad until 2021.

With that self abasement out of the way, let’s define free agency as it currently exists in NPB.

Defining service time

NPB defines a year of service time as one year with 145 or more days on the first-team roster with two exceptions.

  1. Players who spent at least 145 days on the first-team roster in the previous year, will be credited with up to 60 days between the time he suffers an on-field injury and appears in a minor league rehab game.
  2.  Players who fail to achieve 145 days in a single year, can add those days to days from other years with fewer than 145 to create a full year’s service.
  3. Starting pitchers who pitch within one week of the start of the season, and who pitch within one week of the start of the All-Star series and within one week of the end of the series are not docked service time for being deactivated.

By the way, if anyone needs to know exactly when a player is set to be a free agent, I’m available for a fee to scour NPB’s records and let you know. I asked colleagues at work and that is the only way to  know until NPB presents its fans with a summer of …

Stupid questions

At some point in the season in which a player needs 145 or fewer service days to qualify for free agency, NPB will inform the media that the player has qualified so that he can be bombarded with dumb questions about his future that so far only one player has given an interesting answer to.

This parade goes on all year as first one player than another is pestered. Th player who said, “I’m out of here as soon as I can file and I’m going to the majors,” was Koji Uehara. Everybody else says, “I am focused on the pennant race and I will make that decision when the time comes.”

The time comes

Players with the required service time have seven business days from the end of the Japan Series at the end of October or the beginning of November in which to declare their intent. The day after the deadline, players exercising their option are free to negotiate with any teams, including their present one.

Domestic free agency…

… comes with a catch: compensation. A team losing a player to a domestic rival gets compensation if the player is among the 10 highest-paid Japan-registered players on its roster. The three highest-paid on a team’s payroll are designated “Class A” players for purposes of compensation, while those ranking fourth through 10th are designated as “Class B.”

Teams signing “A” and “B” players must draw up a list of 28 protected players — that must include players on with multiyear contracts that extend beyond the following season (1). Roster players — other than those registered as foreign players and newly drafted players (2) — not on the list are eligible to be taken by the team losing those players.

Teams losing players can look over the list of players to choose from, ask for their contract details (2) and decide whether to take only compensation, 80 percent for Class As, 60 percent for Class Bs, or a player and compensation (50 percent and 40 percent, respectively).  The compensation for players who have previously been free agents is reduced — encouraging more teams to take players for those guys.

The three-year itch

Any player filing for free agency abandons his right to file again for another three years. By opting for domestic free agency, Yoshihiro Maru — who could have moved to the majors a year from now, cannot now move until after the 2021 season. Of course, there is another option. He could sign a deal with a team that is willing to rent him, sign him to a one-year deal and then post him — although the posting market for Japanese position players is not a very lucrative one for the NPB teams at the moment.

Speaking of posting …

… it probably never would have been a big thing if it hadn’t been for Japanese baseball’s universal belief in 1993 that no Japanese player was good enough to play in the major leagues. Once Hideo Nomo disproved that in 1995, the free agent system became an exit through which Japanese stars could depart with their teams getting zero compensation.

The free agent system that the Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe forced everyone to accept in order that he could scoop up big-name veterans meant players who signing overseas would earn zero compensation for their clubs — necessitating a posting system that Yomiuri has ridiculed and derided since Day 1 like the biggest toxic waste producer ridiculing the toxic waste disposal industry.


(1) Multiyear contracts are deals between a team and a player, that are not filed with NPB, although NPB is typically informed of their existence. They are, in essence, personal service contracts. 

(2) Thanks to Kozo Ota (@kojaxs) for reminding me about the foreign-player, new-draftee exemption.

(3) The details of player salaries are really not known in the industry until a player trade or purchase or compensation move is in the works. Then the team looking to acquire a player will find out what kind of contract they are taking on. NPB doesn’t always know, and the union doesn’t always know, a former team official told me.

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