Service time conundrum

The SoftBank Hawks apparently did not manipulate Yuki Yanagita’s service time in 2019 in order to discourage him from moving to the major leagues as a free agent, the players union said Thursday.

Satoru Kato, an official of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, said that while Yanagita’s case was cause for concern, it was not the only concern the union has about Japanese clubs manipulating service time.

Yanagita, easily the best player in Japan over the past seven years, suffered a leg injury in 2019, missed more than half of the season, and fell 10 days shy of the 145 needed to register his eighth year of first-team service time. That prevented him from qualifying to file for international free agency after the 2020 season, as he had planned.

Kato said Yanagita and his agent approached the union about the issue, so he spoke with the club and all sides were satisfied the Hawks did not prolong his rehab period for the purpose of denying him a year of service time — or perhaps it was just a case where there was not enough of a smoking gun to show the Hawks had acted improperly.

“They contacted us with their concerns and we talked to the team,” Kato said. “In this case it appears they did not keep him inactive for that purpose. But it isn’t like teams don’t push the limits, particularly with starting pitchers, calling them up to make one start every 10 days.”

“We’ve had to talk to teams about things like that a lot. But at the same time, we have to inform the players, because many of them don’t know what it means for them.”

Kato didn’t spell out which teams he might have spoken to about this but if one looked for a young pitcher who was starting every 10th or 11th day and being deactivated between starts, that would look suspicious.

Like this:

  • Aug. 20 Activated: 5 IP, 6 K, 1 ER, Aug. 21 deactivated
  • Aug. 31 Activated: 5 IP, 2 K, 2 ER, Sept. 1 deactivated
  • Sept. 12 Activated: 4-2/3 IP, 3 K, 4 ER, Sept. 13 deactivated
  • Sept. 26 Activated: 5 IP, 5 K, 2 ER, Sept. 27 deactivated
  • Oct. 9 Activated: 4 IP, 4 K, 5 ER, Season ends.

This is the 2017 activation history of one team’s 2016 fourth-round draft pick out of high school. The pitcher in question posted a 0.27 ERA in the 33-2/3 Western League innings that season and has since had three full years of service time

But despite making five starts for the Orix Buffaloes between Aug. 20 and Oct. 9, Yoshinobu Yamamoto amassed just five days of service time in his rookie season.

This isn’t an issue at the moment, but if one of Japan’s premier pitchers, should suffer an injury that causes him to miss half a season, those 45 days of service time could cost him a year before he files for free agency.

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