Tag Archives: Boston Red Sox

Tumbling Dice, K?

More than a year removed from his comeback player of the year season with the Chunichi Dragons, 39-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound at MetLife Dome, where 21 years earlier he got his pro start with the Seibu Lions.

Entering his sixth season in Japan since the SoftBank Hawks lured him away from MLB, Matsuzaka is a shadow of the pitcher who was called the “monster” when he turned pro out of Yokohama High School. His basic repertoire is now a fastball, a cutter, and a change — a forkball this year.

In 2018, Matsuzaka went 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA in Japan’s best pitcher’s park, Nagoya Dome, largely because he didn’t give up a lot of home runs and got more than his share of big outs after letting lots of runners on base.

Matsuzaka’s game is locating the fastball, getting hitters to miss-hit the cutter and sometimes swing and miss at the change. On Sunday, he also threw a decent slider and curve.

But 14 years and two days after he became a national hero for the second time in his baseball career by beating Cuba in San Diego to win the 2006 World Baseball Classic final and earn tournament MVP honors, Matsuzaka had no command to speak of.

He allowed four runs over five innings, and caught breaks when most of his mistakes were not hammered. He said recently he needs to work on the cutter, and he missed badly with most of the 24 I tracked. He couldn’t locate his fastball, or the change. The slider and curve were his best pitches.

The Lions, who in 2018 became the second league champion in NPB history to have the league’s worst ERA, repeated the feat a year ago.

Matsuzaka knows what he’s doing, and knows when to challenge hitters in the zone, but if he’s constantly behind in counts and can’t throw strikes, he might be too much of a burden even for the Lions’ powerful offense to carry.

Here’s a link to the Pacific League TV game highlights.

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020 – Pacific League’s best outfield tools

The search for the best outfield defensive tools on the planet brings us to Japan’s Pacific League and the top three in the 2019 voting for the three outfield Golden Gloves. I thought it would be easier to select a PL winner than in the CL, but I was wrong.

  • Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾
  • Takashi Ogino, Marines 荻野 貴司
  • Haruki NIshikawa, Fighters 西川 遥輝

Shogo Akiyama

Collection of Shogo Akiyama catches
Best PL throws from the outfield, starting with Akiyama at 1:07.

By default, Akiyama, whose metrics have been slipping year by year, is the PL winner of the tools challenge. Despite the ubiquity of PL TV, the league’s streaming service, I’m simply unable to find any video collections of Takashi Ogino or Haruki Nishikawa. Those who are interested more on Nishikawa can find my profile of him HERE, since he has expressed an interest in playing in the majors.

If you are interested in the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, my profile of the former Lions captain is HERE.

Conclusion and admission

My outfield tools surveys of four leagues, the National, American, Central and Pacific, has produced four finalists:

  • Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
  • Jackie Bradley, Jr, Boston Red Sox
  • Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
  • Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions

My choice for the best outfield tools in the world goes to Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. If I had to pick No. 2 it would be Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rationale

I tried to evaluate every outfielder on the following criteria:

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release
  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

I omitted “good hands” from consideration because all the candidates are exceptional at catching the ball. But having said that, Bradley is as good at that as anyone I’ve seen — and I grew up watching Willie Mays. I am hesitant to give out an 80 score, but let’s call it a 75.

Based on the video above, I’ve rated his arm strength is 75, his accuracy a 70. His footwork is as good as Kiermaier’s which is the best I’ve seen. But there’s a cherry on top, the grace and speed at which he transitions from catching to throwing is an 80. Again, he’s not AS good at scaling outfield walls as Lorenzo Cain, but nobody is. Having said that, Bradley is pretty darn close.

The other special thing about him is his jumps. He appears to be in motion before the batter swings. His raw speed gives him incredible range when he is right, and allows him to make up for guessing wrong.

An admission

I have less confidence in my Japanese choices in the outfield than I had in the infield, because while I’ve seen these guys a fair amount, I’ve been a writer, not a scout.

I’m trying to change that, of course, and my podcast colleague John E. Gibson could give a far more educated opinion about tools, because that has always been an after thought. Until now, my thinking has been, ‘Does he make the play or not? How often does he make plays? What are the context of the plays he made or didn’t make? Are they part of the story of this game or the story of that player or of Japanese baseball.

Gibson likes to talk about tools, but for the most part, they pretty much didn’t enter into my calculus. Which is kind of odd in a way, since the greater part of sports writing in Japan is obsessed with technical minutia about tools and skills. I preferred to write about how people grew and learned rather than why they decided to move their hands apart when the gripped the bat.

Anyway, I hope to remedy that indifference to specific skills going forward.

Scout Diary: Jan. 30, 2020 – American League’s best outfield tools

Who has the best outfield defensive tools in the world?

To find out, I’m looking at the leaders in award fielding honors in center field in four of the world’s top pro leagues. Today is a quick look at the three finalists for the American League’s 2019 Gold Glove in center field.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

  • Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
  • Mike Trout, Angels
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox

First up is Keven Kiermaier. In addition to the good hands, great jumps, speed and strong arm, his throwing mechanics are incredibly fluid. His feet are extremely quick, so even though he is ready to release the ball very quickly, his feet are set, allowing him to make hard accurate throws. Although he is fearless at the wall, he lacks the grace there Lorenzo Cain possesses, which puts Kiermaier in the same group with every other outfielder in the world.

Kevin Kiermaier

Mike Trout has the physical strength to leap at the wall and athleticism to make diving and tumbling catches look effortless. He may be a little faster than Kiermaier, but is not as fluid with his throws as the Rays’ glove wizard.

Mike Trout

Jackie Bradley Jr., however, is my pick for No. 1 in the AL. He can cover ground with the best of them and has the speed to recover when his aggressive jumps send him the wrong way. While his throwing mechanics are not as quite as smooth as Kiermaier’s — nobody’s are, he has the strength and flexibility to make any catch at any angle.

Jackie Bradley Jr.

Next we’ll start our look at Japan with the top three in the voting for the Central League’s 2019 Golden Glove.

Tuffy Rhodes: The beginning

On Tuesday, one of Japanese baseball’s all-time greats, Tuffy Rhodes, remained gathering dust in the middle of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players division voting results, omitted by more than 70 percent of the voters.

I spoke with Rhodes a year ago after Craig Calcattera wrote about Rhodes’ Hall of Fame slog, and Craig’s story sparked a small amount of outrage among Japanese fans. I expected to catch up with him in Phoenix last March and then write the interview but we never connected. Tuffy’s not a hermit, but he moves at his pace.

Here’s the first part of our interview — about how he got to Japan and what changed him. In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs.

“I’m the true definition of retired. I’m enjoying life,” he said, adding that the Hall of Fame debate doesn’t concern him.

“I try not to worry about things like that, that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Rhodes said his parents encouraged everyone in their family to play sports and he played everything. His favorite was basketball, but baseball represented an opportunity the others didn’t.

There was more of an opportunity, a way to take care of my family,” he said. “I was highly drafted (3rd round) by the Houston Astros, and the bonus worked well. Your minor league pay is like $700 a month, and you’ve got to have four or five roommates just to survive.”

“I made the major leagues at 21. I found it was easy to get to the major leagues but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability when everyone there had ability that was incredible. I learned it the hard way.”

He’s famous for his three-home run Opening Day against Dwight Gooden on April 4, 1994. However, Rhodes was 23 years old and the plan that season was for him to be the Chicago Cubs’ fourth outfielder.

“Glenallen Hill was hurt to start the season,” Rhodes said. “We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million. And I was making about $300,000, but Glen got hurt and that opened the door for me. When he got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench.”

The year before, Rhodes had really bloomed in Triple-A for both the Astros and Royals. His failure with the Cubs in 1994, however, exposed his inability to learn the game and adjust. The Cubs waved him, and he was picked up by the Red Sox. There, Roy Poitevint, who had created a cottage industry of funneling players to Japan, could shop him to a Japanese team.

Rhodes caught the eye of the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ Minoru Ichihara, and the subsequent scene came straight out of the movie “Mr. Baseball,” when the Red Sox gave him the news.

“They said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news,'” Rhodes said. “I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and showed me the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights. I never lifted weights in the States. Oh my goodness, no.”

So he entered a world where his willingness to learn and maximize his potential was matched only by the desire of his coaches to teach him their game. The result was some tough love and a lot of magic.

“In Japan, the spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to do everything. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take an hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, Sasaki kantoku (manager) made me take batting practice for an hour by myself. Unbelievable.”

“Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

Like a lot of players who come to Japan, Rhodes did not start his first season on fire. But the Buffaloes gave him the time to figure things out.

“They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes,” he said. “I wasn’t on the Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.”

Were some things harder to get used to?

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard,” he said. “I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers.”

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America, we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”

Dice-K rolls back to Seibu

Another non-surprise this week was the Seibu Lions’ Tuesday announcement that the clulb had signed free agent right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who returns to his old stomping grounds at the Lions’ MetLife Dome just outside Tokyo.

The Kyodo News English language story is HERE.

After spending his final two seasons in the big leagues with the New York Mets as a long reliever and occasional starter, Matsuzaka joined the SoftBank Hawks in 2015, but his body broke down soon after making his preseason debut at historic Koshien Stadium. He ended up pitching one game in 2016 as a test to see if he would be useful in the postseason and allowed five runs, two earned, in one inning.

When his three-year contract with SoftBank expired, he left under peculiar circumstances. The Hawks released him but apparently wanted to give him a significantly lower salary than it had taken to lure him away from the majors three years before.

The reason for that speculation is that only one team, the Chunichi Dragons, gave him a tryout. This is kind of an old story in NPB, and I’m uncertain why, but the Dragons are the go-to team for players that other NPB clubs would like to black ball.

They were the only team to offer a tryout to Norihiro Nakamura after he left Orix in a contract dispute after his injury-plagued 2006 season. Nakamura was signed to a developmental contract by Chunichi. Ten other teams took a pass on getting a guy for next to nothing who would play eight more pro seasons — including five more as a regular.

Matsuzaka’s English language NPB page is HERE.

Although Matsuzaka did not pitch really well in 2018, he was relatively effective and was given NPB’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. The gap between good and effective had to do with his getting big outs with runners on base. When he was able to locate his cutter, Matsuzaka was reasonably effective, complimenting that with his changeup.

His good fortune did a U-turn this year, when he suffered a shoulder injury due to a fan’s overenthusiastic high-five during a meet and great at the Dragons’ spring training camp in Okinawa. Other issues followed and Matsuzaka was limited to just 5-1/3 innings.

Maverick Uehara runs his course

Former Yomiuri Giants ace and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement Monday in Tokyo, bringing an end to an entertaining and dynamic career in which he became the first Japanese player to register 100 wins, saves and holds.

At a press conference in which the 44-year-old worked in vain to hold back tears, saying he came into the season knowing it would be his last. Three months after the start of camp and unable to get batters out on the farm despite feeling fit, Uehara said he wanted to call it quits sooner rather than later – when a retirement press conference might be a distraction during the pennant race.

Read a transcript of Uehara’s retirement press conference in Tokyo HERE.

Uehara burst on the scene in 1999, going 20-4 for the Giants after he turned down the Angels, who were said to have offered a deal worth $9 million – about seven times what an NPB team could officially offer an amateur.

In 2005, he told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri (now the Japan News) the Giants guaranteed he would start on the first team, while the Angels would only go as far as handing him a Double-A opening. Between that, not having to be deal with a language barrier and whatever the Giants were offering under the table, Uehara signed his future away to Yomiuri.

Within a few years, however, Uehara was pushing the Giants for an early exit so he could play in the majors.

“Nine years needed for free agency in Japan is truly a long time, but as an amateur, you don’t think about that,” he told the Daily Yomiuri.

When the Giants’ windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe told the media that he would fire any player who asked to be posted, Uehara demanded to be posted. When Watanabe threatened to release any player with the temerity to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent his agent, only for the Giants to deny that Uehara’s representative was in fact an agent.

When Japanese players aquire the service time needed to file for free agency, NPB alerts the media, and reporters descend on them, only to hear, “We’re in the middle of the season. My only focus is on winning a championship.”

Not Uehara.

“I’m going to the majors,” he said during the middle of the 2008 season, a mediocre year that went downhill after he broke the taboo of talking about free agency during the season.

In 1999, he won the Central League’s rookie of the year award and winning the Sawamura Award as Nippon Professional Baseball’s most impressive starting pitcher.

At the end of the season, with the Giants out of the pennant race, Uehara made a meme of himself by protesting a Japanese baseball custom of not competing in order to assist a teammate’s pursuit of an individual title.

With Hideki Matsui pursuing the CL home run title, Uehara was ordered to walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberton Petagine. Uehara, showed his bent for idealism and tears by crying on the mound, and his distaste for the order by kicking the dirt on the mound after Petagine trotted to first base.

The following year Uehara began suffering the first of a long series of leg injuries but bounced back to be one of the league’s top pitchers from 2002 to 2004. For two years after that Uehara battled more injuries and in 2007 was sent to the bullpen, where he was dynamite as the Giants despite constantly lobbying for a return to the rotation that his fitness wouldn’t justify.

He got a brief shot at starting in 2008 but failed badly, and chose the Baltimore Orioles the following season because they promised him a chance to start in 2009. Traded to the Texas Rangers in 2011, the following season, he was in a pitching staff with two former NPB strikeout leaders, Colby Lewis and Yu Darvish, as well as his high school teammate, Yoshinori Tateyama.

In high school, Tateyama had been the ace, while Uehara who had run track in junior high, was an outfielder, whose principle mound role came as a senior as a batting practice pitcher. He didn’t begin pitching in earnest until he entered university, where he went to earn a teaching credential.

Uehara’s stay with the Rangers, however, was brief. He was cut loose after a poor run of results at the end of the 2012 season and available to the Red Sox at a bargain price and finished seventh in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

After one last season in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Uehara, at 42 with 95 MLB saves under his belt said he would retire rather than return to NPB, but in March he admitted that he was not ready to give up the life of a pro ballplayer and signed with Yomiuri.

He pitched in 36 games last year for the Giants, going 0-5 with 14 holds and no saves. Last October, he had surgery to clean out his left knee. The Giants released him and re-signed him for 2019 after he was declared fit.

Although he said he was fit all spring, he was ineffective. Through April, he toiled with the Giants’ minor leaguers. He struck out 10 batters in nine innings in the Eastern League but allowed four runs. At his retirement press conference on Monday, he said he’d come into the 2019 season knowing it would be his last. That knowledge, he said, hindered his search for the extra gear he might have had that would turn his year around.

“If you have a next year, then you work even harder,” he said. “This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. As one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.”

Koji Uehara retirement presser

「本日をもちまして、21年間の現役生活を終えたいな、と思います。えー……(涙をぬぐう。約10秒言葉に詰まる)。これまで自分に関わってくれた人、方々に感謝したいと思います。ありがとうございました」

Uehara: “Today, I’m calling an end to my active career of 21 years. I would like to thank those who’ve been on this journey with me.”


-引退を決めた今の胸の内は

上原: まぁ、もうちょっとやりたかったなという、そういう思いです。

–Your feelings today, having decided to retire?

Uehara: “Well, what I think is that I wanted to keep going a little longer.”

-引退を決めてからの心境の変化は

上原 自分が決めた以上、もうユニホームを着ることはないわけですから。気持ちを切り替えていかなければと今は思っています。

–How has your state of mind changed since your decision to retire?

Uehara: “Having made my decision, I won’t be putting on that uniform again. I believe now I need to change my mindset.”

-引退の決断のきっかけは

上原 もう今年で辞めることは最初から決めていたことなんで。3カ月が僕の中では勝負と思っていた。2月、3月、4月と練習する中で、1度も1軍に上がることなく、2軍で試合に投げさせてもらっても、抑えていないという葛藤もありましたし、8月、9月になるとチームが首位争いするという状況の中で、自分がこういう会見をするのは違うという思いがあったので、早く終わろうと思った。

–What was the impetus behind your decision to retire?

Uehara: “I had already decided that I would quit this year, and in my mind I felt three months would be make or break. February, March, April I trained, but was never called up to the top team. And when I was given opportunities to pitch on the farm, even then I couldn’t get guys out. I thought it would be best to do it earlier rather than later. In August or September, with the team embroiled in the pennant race, calling a press conference like this would be quite a different thing from this.”

-心と体のズレはあったか?

上原 手術して、体自体は良い調子というかね、全然投げられる状態ですけど。その状態の中で2軍戦で通用していなかったというのが、自分の中で気持ち的に後ろ向きになったのかなと思ってます。

–Did you feel there was a gap between your mental image and your physical condition?

Uehara: “After surgery (left knee cleaning in October), my physical condition was good and I was able to throw fine. But even in that condition, it didn’t play in the minor league games. In my mind I thought I was going backwards.

-後ろ向きになった瞬間はこれまであったか

上原 何回かありましたけど。来年があるのであれば、もうちょっと頑張ろうと、今年1年やろうという気持ちになりましたけど、来年はもうないというのは自分の中で決めてましたから、うーん、やっぱり気持ちと体がなかなか一致しませんでしたというところですね。

–Have you had that feeling before that you were going backwards?

Uehara: “A number of times. If you have a next year, then you work even harder. This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. And as one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.

-同学年の福浦との対戦もあった。あれもきっかけ?

上原 福浦と対戦できたというのは僕の中で、すごくうれしかったこと。あと西武戦で稼頭央監督の目の前で投げられたのというのは、僕の中ではいい思い出と言ったらおかしいですけど、僕の中でこれでいいのかなと思いましたね。

–Last year you pitched against (Lotte’s) Kazuya Fukuura, who’s the same age as you. Did that trigger anything?

Uehara: “I was so thrilled to be able to face him. I also pitched against Seibu in front of Kazuo Matsui. It may sound strange to say those were good memories, but those things made me really happy.”

-どんな道のりだった

上原 まぁ、ケガばっかりの、中途半端だったかなと思いますね。

–How would you describe the path you took?

Uehara: “Well, it seems like I was always injured, so I think I only went halfway.”

-雑草魂で貫いた姿に感動したファンは多い

上原 手を抜いて投げたことはないですし、今年に限っても、若い選手と一緒に練習しましたし、抜いて練習してたことは自分のなかで一切無かったんで。そういう姿を見て、励みになってくれたらすごくうれしいことですね。

–A lot of fans were inspired by your tough, gritty attitude.

Uehara: “I never cut corners when I pitched. As far as this year, I trained alongside the young players, and never took shortcuts in practice. I’m really happy if others were encouraged by that.”

-「トリプル100」の記録はどう受け止める。

上原 それに関しては、中途半端かなと。どのポジションで全うしたわけでなく。中途半端に先発、中継ぎ、抑えとやっちゃったかなと思います。

— How is your triple-100 accomplishment received? (100 wins, 100 holds, 100 saves)

Uehara: “In regards to that, it’s kind of a mediocre achievement. I didn’t really succeed at any one thing. It’s mediocrity as a starter, as a middle reliever and as a closer.”

-野球を終えたこれからどうする

上原 正直、まだ何も考えてないです。明日からどうしようかなぁという感じです。

–Going forward, what comes after baseball?

Uehara: “Honestly, I haven’t thought of anything. I have a feeling that from tomorrow I’ll ask myself what I should do.”

-チームへのメッセージを

上原 今、首位争いしている中で、こんなことになって申し訳ないなと思います。でも、本当にチームは良い感じできているので、このままみんな頑張ってほしいなと思います。

–Do you have a message for your team?

Uehara: “Right now, we’re competing for the lead, so I apologize for doing this kind of thing. But having said that, the team has a really good feel to it. I hope they can keep doing well like this.”

Dice-K apologizes for golf

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been rehabbing since a fan injured him with an overzealous high five during spring training in February, apologized on Friday for playing golf the day before.

The Chunichi Dragons indicated Thursday that the former Boston Red Sox and New York Mets pitcher would face a penalty for breaking team rules, which got his former Japan teammate Yu Darvish up in arms about Japanese baseball’s repressive customs.

“I made trouble through my careless acts,” Matsuzaka told reporters at Nagoya Stadium, where he rejoined the Dragons farm team after a trip to the Tokyo area for treatment.

The team prohibits players from playing golf on practice days, even though Matsuzaka was not scheduled to join his teammates in their practice over 200 miles away in Nagoya.

On Monday, Matsuzaka threw his first bullpen since February, and was slated this week to throw batting practice. “I need to refocus and concentrate on baseball,” he said.

“I will give my best effort so I can contribute to the team as soon as possible.”

Injured and rehabbing players in Japan are expected to be monk-like in their devotion to “returning to the team as soon as possible.” And clubs typically do not make such players available for interviews regardless of their actual availability.

Yu Darvish hit out at the custom on Twitter.

“Of course, it would be no good if he lied to the team and skipped out on his treatment to play golf, but nobody was writing that. But playing golf either before or after his treatment is no big deal. Simply put, the restrictions placed on injured players in Japan are oppressive.”

Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish via Twitter on the subject of rehabbing pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka being punished for playing golf.

International walls of Jericho

Since two-thirds of the 30 major league teams are now trailing high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who has repeatedly hit 100 mph, one has to wonder if he will be Japan’s first top high school prospect to move directly to the major leagues.

While that has never been an easy thing to try, it’s harder now because of Major League Baseball’s new rules. The same collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association that dictated foreign amateurs be denied fair market value for their services has an additional barrier to Japanese amateurs.

The registration barrier

Before an international amateur can sign with a big league club between July 2, 2019, to June 15, 2020, he needs to register with MLB by May 15. Which is a problem for Japanese high school students, because it comes right after the start of the school year on April 1.

According to the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a high school player registering for the MLB international signing period would be prohibited from playing for his team. And since Sasaki aspires to take part in the national summer championship, whose finals are at historic Koshien Stadium, some consider that a deal breaker.

Another issue is the Tazawa Rule. Named after reliever Junichi Tazawa, the rule virtually bans amateur stars who sign directly with MLB teams from ever playing professionally in Japan or playing for the Japanese national team. The rule was a last-ditch attempt to bully Tazawa into not signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2008 but has done nothing except generate ill will.

Last summer the registration issue caused a minor tempest within JABA because corporate league club Panasonic failed to notify JABA that pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa had registered and had continued to play for his club.

Japanese officials didn’t become aware of this until Yoshikawa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks immediately before he was scheduled to pitch for Japan in the Asian Games.

The posting-free agent barrier

If Sasaki declines to register as expected, he will have the option of taking part in Nippon Professional Baseball’s October amateur draft, with an eye to being posted at the age of 25. The problem with that is finding a team willing to do that.

Two clubs, the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, have asserted their opposition to the posting system, and have never allowed a player to walk. Without being posted, he will have to accumulate nine years of service time before qualifying for international free agency.

The non-conformity barrier

In the past, teams have allowed players to leave via the posting system. Also, some players have announced they would not sign with certain clubs before the NPB draft. But as far as I’m aware, no player has made an early posting a condition of his signing. To do that, he might need the help of a good agent — something else NPB teams have never faced in dealing with drafted amateurs.

Of course, Sasaki could still go through the draft, and failing to get an offer he likes could register in May 2020 and sign with an MLB club a few months later.

Having registered with MLB, whatever NPB team holds his rights would be under more pressure to really negotiate instead of bluster or posture since NPB does not award compensation draft picks for players who refuse to sign.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Roki Sasaki dilemma.

Part 2, “Becoming a Modern Day Joshua” is HERE.