Roki Sasaki & the revolution

“Roki Sasaki & the revolution” sounds like the name of the pitcher’s post-baseball garage band, but I digress. The Sasaki story, such has it is, has stirred up emotions.

There has been anger toward the hard-throwing right-hander for the temerity of thinking he might leave the Japan and the Lotte Marines before custom says he should.

There has been talk that the whole story must be concocted since the idea that a team might let an extremely valuable player leave for a transfer fee that barely registers is impossible for some to comprehend.

I apologize for being fascinated with the story. This is not because I am advocating for Sasaki to leave the Marines in the lurch, but because I advocate for labor rights everywhere, and it is every player’s right to use whatever leverage he can.

After all, turning pro requires players enter a system in which most have virtually zero options and no say in their working conditions for nine-plus years, an unequal and inequitable system that management is perfectly content to exploit at every turn.

This time around I will address the story’s latest iteration, as well as a larger meaning for Japanese pro baseball, a revolution as it were.

Where the story sits now

Shukan Bunshun has summed up the story so far, mostly what has been reported by Sponichi Annex. The story reasserted that an acquaintance of the Sasaki family had leaked word of a clause in Sasaki’s supplemental contract that required the team to post him upon demand.

What was new was:

The Marines declining to comment on the existence of such an agreement.

An NPB executive saying that such a clause would be problematic for the future of NPB if top amateurs began forcing teams’ hands. There was no suggestion that such an agreement would in any way be against NPB rules.

The “no comment” is an acknowledgement that either communications director doesn’t know whether one exists or not or will not confirm it if he does know one exists. If one did not exist, the team could flatly deny it, and that ostensibly would be the end of it.

When I tweeted in November 2019 that the Giants would post Shun Yamaguchi – two weeks before the story broke in the Japanese media, their communications director denied it would happen. Since it did happen, this means the PR guy was either:

  1. Lying.
  2. Asserting something he didn’t know to be true.
  3. Being lied to by the team.

I cannot confirm the source of the Sponichi story, but I can confirm several other points. The story did include one red herring. “Sasaki’s negotiations were difficult, as evidenced by the fact that he was the last first-round pick in the 2019 draft class to sign” is hardly evidence.

I believe the negotiations were difficult, just as I believe every team that drafted him knew in advance that he would demand some contract language requiring his team to post him – hence two teams that had never posted a player at that point,

SoftBank and Yomiuri, declined to select him, as did Orix, which hadn’t posted a player since Ichiro Suzuki. But saying his tardy agreement was evidence is nonsense since two other first-round picks signed in the days leading up to Sasaki’s deal.

Recently, former all-star second baseman Yutaka Takagi suggested a need for rule changes to prevent this kind of thing from being repeated.

I do not disagree with Takagi, but one must realize that Japan’s labor law makes it impossible for NPB to make those changes unilaterally.

Stop bitching and start a revolution

An even better solution would be for players to take the initiative, using NPB’s existing rules to radically alter the balance of power within Japanese pro baseball.

As Mr. Takagi suggests, NPB might want to change its rules to eliminate the kind of leverage a top amateur can now used to make an early escape to MLB.

There are two ways to do this. Both would be difficult.

  • Get the Yomiuri Giants to accept the idea of compensation picks in the next draft for teams that fail to sign players they win the rights to.
  • Negotiate with the union to place limits on supplemental contracts.

As laid out in previous discussions, many teams have argued for compensation picks, but every move over the years appears to have been blocked by Yomiuri. Having no compensation picks creates a high cost to teams who win the negotiating rights to those players who only want to play for the Giants.

Allowing compensation picks would encourage more teams to poach those players the Giants think they have a clear shot at.

Compensation picks would create a fairer system, but Yomiuri has not historically been interested in a fairer system.

The players union could use any new restrictions NPB wants on supplemental contracts as a bargaining chip in its effort to create a more player-friendly free agency.

However, if the union wants to play for a big inning instead of bunting for one run, it could educate and encourage amateurs as a way of fundamentally altering the current one-sided system.

When Shohei Ohtani was an amateur, he was in a unique position with one foot pointed toward the airport and one hand holding a pen ready to turn pro with an MLB team.

Roki Sasaki’s position was no less favorable, with the Marines forced to chose between no top draft pick or a huge profit from ticket, concession, merchandise and advertising sales with the possibility he might leave before he turns 25.

But what if one year, every amateur draft pick did publicly what Sasaki likely did in secret: tell the team owning his negotiating rights that the cost of signing him would be to guarantee an opt out that would allow them to bypass the owner-initiated free agency.

Before anyone shouts, “That would be against the rules,” let me point out that such contracts are as common as bat boys at an NPB game.

The only import players who don’t have limitations on the number of years teams can employ them are those who signed without the help of an agent, such as former Fighter Carlos Mirabal or Taiwan right-hander Hsu Ming-chieh.

Such contracts are less common among amateurs, but there are no rules against them, as evidenced by Carter Stewart Jr. and the

Of course, it would throw NPB owners into a panic. There’s nothing wrong with that.

NPB’s parent company’s are happy the way things are with most of them writing off their operating losses as tax deductions while reaping many times that amount in the form of advertising and name recognition.

It will never happen unfortunately, because it is easier for the selfish monied interests of 12 parent companies to outlast 90 to a 100 unemployed youngsters. but if the amateurs did succeed in threatening the system, it might give the companies owning teams a reason to change the way they do business.

Prior to the day MLB had to begin paying fair market value for veteran free agents, MLB and NPB were on fairly equal financial footing. But the instant MLB forced free agency upon itself by failing to compromise, and began complaining that “baseball is doomed,” it had to begin reinventing itself

Sure what it has become is not all that pretty, but in economic terms MLB has grown by leaps and bounds while Japan has continued to crawl and drool on the floor.

If amateurs were to hold out and throw NPB into chaos, something new and better would be bound to emerge out of necessity.

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