Tag Archives: draft

The new kids

There has been a lot of buzz about Hanshin Tigers newcomer 22-year-old infielder Teruaki Sato, the club’s powerfully built first pick last autumn. I’m not totally immune to the spring chatter, but he’s big fast and strong and making an impact. On this week’s TBS news program “Sunday Morning” Isao Harimoto said he keeps his weight too far back and is going to struggle once pitchers are throwing for real during the season.

Teruaki Sato

Most of the other talk has been about the Giants’ fifth draft pick, a high schooler named Yuto Akihiro. Akihiro, recently promoted to the first-team camp, is 2 meters tall, the tallest Japanese pro baseball player since pro wrestler Giant Baba pitched for the Giants in 1955, and also gives the Giants two players whose family names are common first names, the other being Shinnosuke Shigenobu.

Akihiro is ridiculously short to the ball for such a big guy, and he’s been making mince-meat of spring training pitching, but as a no-name low draft pick straight out of high school, does he have a tougher hill to climb than other players similarly situated?

I asked that question because of something a colleague once told me.

Yuto Akihiro

Giants, draft order and status

Ten years ago or so I interviewed Itaru Hashimoto, an up-and-coming Giants outfielder, whom my Yomiuri Shimbun colleague identified as a rarity, a low-round pick who turned pro out of high school who had a chance to earn a regular job. Hashimoto was the Giants’ fourth-round draft pick.

But is that really a thing?

If the Giants’ do have a bias against low-round picks out of high schools they should have lower career values than their low-round picks who turned pro after high school and lower values than those from other NPB teams.

I dug into my draft data base to look for the career win share totals of players drafted out of high school in the fourth round or higher, then grouped those based on whether they were signed by the Giants or other NPB teams. Using Bill James’ Win Shares as a measure of value with three win shares equaling one team.

Avg career win shares of H.S. draftees before 2010

The Giants’ lower picks out of high school have definitely been less valuable than those of other teams at every step. Of the 73 Giants in the survey, 13 had 10-plus win shares or 18 percent of the total with an average career value of 8.8 win shares.

Of the 684 non-Giants, 146 produced 10-plus career win shares, or 21 percent, not a great deal better than the Giants, but their average career value was 15.8, nearly twice as high.

So, compared to the rest of NPB’s low-round picks out of high school as a whole, it’s accurate to say the Giants are quite a bit worse at turning those picks into productive players.

RoundOther teams10+ WSGiants10+WS
4th2245%1125%
5th1720%821%
6th1419%1111%
7th-plus82%413%
Average career WS values of players signed out of high school prior to 2010, with the percentage of players with 10-plus career WS.

Avg career win shares of non-H.S. draftees before 2010

But if the Giants’ issue is an organizational bias against high school players, then we would expect their non-high school players to be more like the NPB norm.

Prior to 2010, the other 11 NPB teams signed 710 players who weren’t coming out of high school in the fourth round or lower. These players had an average career value of 17.6 win shares, while 233 or 33 percent produced 10 or more win shares.

The similar group of 70 players signed by the Giants produced an average of 11.6 career win shares, while 27 percent had 10 or more career win shares.

RoundOther teams10+ WSGiants10+ WS
4th2544%930%
5th1834%1633%
6th1125%1425%
7th-plus1322%719%
Average career WS values of players signed after leaving high school prior to 2010, with the percentage of players with 10-plus career WS.

It seems that while the Giants are worse at turning their high school draft picks into productive players, their guys who turned pro after high school have not done a whole lot better, but are a little closer to the NPB norms.

But while the Giants may have had an organizational bias against low-round high school picks, their real bias is more against lower-round picks, period. The table below shows the players taken, not by rounds, since the top rounds of Japanese drafts are really a jumble of different meanings, but I’ve ranked the draft picks, and split the top 36 players signed in each draft.

The picks of the litter

As the table below shows, the Giants have had a huge advantage over the rest of NPB in the results of their new guys taken in the first tier of the draft, and that is the ONLY advantage they have in the draft over their rivals.

RankOther teamsGiants
1-125264%8667%
13-243651%2429%
25-363040%3141%

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The development gap

The shape of talent

One cause that was suggested for the gap was that CL teams look for players with more polished skills while PL clubs are more likely to go with players who have higher physical potential.

On Twitter, Brian Cartwright suggested it was a correctable issue if CL teams did a better job of evaluating and developing their talent. If that is the case, a study of value from the draft would reveal a talent gap leaning toward the PL, and it does.

In my story on the Hawks’ odds of winning this year’s Japan Series, I made a conservative estimate that the six PL teams would combine for a .530 winning percentage if thrown into a balanced schedule among all 12 teams.

“We don’t know how much better the Pacific League is than the Central League, but over the history of interleague play, the PL teams have a .532 winning percentage. Over the previous five seasons, the PL winning percentage was .555, and the PL’s Pythagorean winning percentage is .559.”

Jim’s Series odds

A note about using win shares

I’m going to measure individual player output using Bill James’ Win Shares. This system gives each team 3 win shares for a win. These are then divided between the offense, fielding and pitching. Those are assigned to individual teammates based on individual performance.

This method has pros and cons, but since a league’s win share total can’t exceed 3 times its total wins, one league outperforming another doesn’t show up in win shares except in interleague. The two leagues each played 120 games in 2020 with no interleague, and had the same number of wins (counting ties as two halves of a win), so even though the PL is evidently stronger, win shares won’t reveal it. What it does reveal is the relative shape of the talent in the two leagues.

And from a glance at the careers of players signed since NPB adopted its draft, it’s clear that the PL teams are now Japan’s draft kings.

Drafting and development

The draft began in 1965, and including undrafted amateur free agents, the career value of domestic players signed by CL teams was more than that of players signed by PL teams over the first 28 years. Over the last 28 years, that trend has reversed.

So while the two leagues have essentially equal access to domestic talent, domestic talent has become become a larger share of the PL’s overall talent base.

Draft yearsCL valuePL valuePL / CL
1965 – 197814,04013,1520.94
1979 – 199215,62914,2570.91
1993 – 200614,06715,5391.10
2007 – 20184,2224,9971.18
Value expressed in career value as calculated using Bill James’ Win Shares, and includes MLB WS

I did not know this trend existed at all. Did you? It should have been obvious, I suppose. From 1966 to 1979, the CL went 12-4 in the Japan Series. From 1980 to 2007, the two leagues split the Series 14-14. Since then the PL has lead 11-2.

Do CL clubs appease Giants in draft?

Another issue people in the game for a long time mentioned is the custom of CL teams sometimes shying away from competing with the Giants for amateur talent.

This latter assumption, if true, doesn’t appear to be a big deal now, although that may have more to do with teams not being able to sign top corporate and college players before the draft — something that had been in play from 1993 to 2006.

Although the Giants have the most value in Japan from their No. 1 picks since 2000, and the most total value from their picks 1-5 than any other CL team, this latter edge is not huge. The Tigers, BayStars and Swallows have all done nearly as well.

But looking at the overall amount of domestic talent taken from the draft, the PL has compiled a huge advantage. Using Bill James’ Win Shares, players signed out of the draft from 2000 to 2018 by PL teams have produced 9,046 win shares, or 3,015 wins — some of those are with other teams including some in MLB. Players signed by CL teams out of the draft during the same period, have produced 8,315 WS, or 2,770 wins.

Skeletons in the closet

NPB entered the 2007 season under a cloud when the guy assigned by the Seibu Lions’ parent company to take over the team decided to be of service to baseball by having a look into the team’s player acquisition closet and sweeping out the skeletons.

The boss assigned a third-party investigation to the task and found a long history of abuses of the system by Seibu and other clubs. Instead of being celebrated for creating an atmosphere of transparency, Seibu was punished for bringing the game’s disrepute into the light.

However, that also ended the systems where pro teams could agree to sign up to two corporate or college stars before the draft at the cost of reducing their access to high school talent, making the draft more of a crapshoot.

The Seibu Lions’ crusade for transparency cost them in 2007, when they were barred from the first two rounds of the high school draft. But embarrassing NPB and forcing it to eliminate the old draft system has done nothing to slow the PL’s dramatic improvement in drafting and developing domestic talent.

Free agency

Free agency started in Japan after the 1993 season, but until 2005, it was essentially one-way traffic. Atsunori Inaba changed that.

He left the Yakult Swallows ostensibly for MLB, but signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006 after failing to get a guaranteed contract overseas. Prior to Inaba, the total value from CL players moving to the PL was 12 win shares. Going the other way, players produced 190 for CL teams after leaving the PL via free agency.

Inaba had an MVP-caliber season for the Fighters in 2006, and after that year, the free agent scoreboard stood at 196-35 in favor of the CL. Things really began changing in 2011, when Seiichi Uchikawa, left the BayStars for the SoftBank Hawks.

Since 2006 the score is 477-436, but that’s even counting two players in the PL column who high-tailed it back to the PL after spending a brief time with the Giants, Hiroki Kokubo and Saburo Omura.

Import export business

Leaving on a jet plane

After the 1994 season, Hideo Nomo dropped the PL’s Kintetsu Buffaloes like a bad habit. His move began to put another dent in the PL’s growing talent surplus.

Players who left PL teams to play in the majors have produced 1,112 major league win shares from 1995 to 2019. The CL graduates produced 791 win shares in the big leagues during that time. The top of the list is Ichiro Suzuki at 324, followed by Hideki Matsui (150) and Nomo (123).

Three former CL players are next in line — Hiroki Kuroda (81), Norichika Aoki (78) and Koji Uehara (76) but it hasn’t been updated for 2020, when Yu Darvish pulled even with Kuroda. Masahiro Tanaka (69) will pass those three former CL guys if he has three more productive seasons.

Foreign trade

Because of the nature of win shares, the value of a league’s important talent is essentially the flip side of domestic talent within that league. Thus, if the win shares attributed to domestic players increases in a league, the number of win shares that go to imports must decrease. That give us table below.

The same would be true if a bunch of extremely talented left-handed hitters suddenly peaked at the same time in a league. The right-handed hitters wouldn’t get worse, but as a group, they would create a smaller share of the league’s wins.

I suspect that the imported talent base in the PL is actually quite stable, and that the gap is not nearly as large now as it looks.

YearsCL valuePL value
1966 – 19791,4981,761
1980 – 19933,9594,243
1994 – 20073,0492,445
2008 – 20192,8542,219
WS values from imported players

Move it on over

A parallel to the movement of free agent talent is the value of imported players in the league other than the one they first signed in. Since 2008, the Pacific League, long a supplier of imported talent to the Central League, has had a cumulative trade surplus since 2008.

Years CL WS value from PLPL WS value from CL
1966 – 197910989
1980 – 199314940
1994 – 2007219131
2008 – 2019201252
WS values from imported players

Conclusion

The big difference between the two leagues right now is, as my Twitter follower suggested, simply a matter of talent evaluation and development, that has seen PL teams do a better job of drafting and developing domestic amateurs than the CL.

This appears to have been going on for some time, but for a long time was counterbalanced by what used to be a large drain of free agent talent from the PL to the CL, and by the PL’s losing more talent to the major leagues.

The PL for as long as I remember has been the more innovative league, and is has long been aware of the need to replace the talent lost to the CL and MLB. As mentioned in the previous article, the PL has taken more strides toward making baseball pay in Japan. And as the PL teams get better at both managing their businesses and organizing their talent, then it is going to be a tough slog for the CL to catch up.

Uehara takes aim at system again

On Thursday, former major leaguer Koji Uehara took aim at the posting system in a column for Yahoo Sports.

Readers will probably know I’ve been a big fan of Uehara’s wildcat stances for players’ rights and against Japanese baseball’s status quo. When Tsuneo Watanabe, then the Yomiuri Giants’ autocratic owner said he’d release any player who was so low as to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent an agent. The team didn’t release their ace as Watanabe promised, saying the lawyer who negotiated on Uehara’s behalf wasn’t an agent but a “consultant.”

Going postal

In the wake of the Giants’ posting of pitcher Shun Yamaguchi a year ago, and their current ace, Tomoyuki Sugano, this winter, Uehara recalled his own experience with that process and said the system needs to be fixed to make it less arbitrary.

In 2005, when he requested Yomiuri post him, the Giants blasted their star in public, calling him “selfish” and a player “who does whatever he wants.”

“I don’t want to complain (about my treatment). What I want is a standardized system. Currently, a player can ask to be posted and if the team can say ‘No’ and that discussion is over in one minute.”

–former major leaguer Koji Uehara

That might be OK if players could choose to play for a team that will post them, but most are not in that position.

Uehara argues for giving a player the right to post himself after eight years of service time. This takes the coy game of players being sly about their desires to play in the States, and simply allows a player to say “I’m going” and be done with it.

From pillar to posting system

He said the issue is that posting is 100 percent up to teams and that clubs with deep pockets like Yomiuri and the SoftBank Hawks, can afford to let their free agents go to the States without compensation, while other clubs, who have posted their stars, can’t.

The irony in Yomiuri’s rejecting the posting system for 20 years is that by forcing other teams to accept free agency, Yomiuri unwittingly created a door for Japanese stars to move to the majors without compensation. Not long after free agency was introduced, Hideo Nomo’s success in MLB created a market for Japanese talent. Once that happened, Japanese teams on tighter budgets to get value for stars before they went to the majors as free agents.

No quick fixes

But while it’s easy to say, let’s have automatic posting after eight years of service time, it’s just a patch on a particularly ugly system of labor control that is a legacy of America’s Gilded Age.

The pitcher recently argued for automatic free agency, which would instantly make every player with the necessary service time a free agent. In both cases, he aims to let the system shoulder the burden that players now must carry on their own shoulders of whether to file for free agency or to ask their team to be posted.

And though his solutions are simple to grasp, they would require major changes to the rules, and since the Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association is relatively powerless, the owners are in no hurry to undertake systematic reform.

Even if change improves the business, the effort needed eats up time and energy. Besides, as long as things function the way they’re supposed to — even if that way makes no sense — no one in baseball thinks there’s a problem.

The solution at hand

Actually, players don’t need any kind of structural change to force teams to post them, as the SoftBank Hawks could likely tell you. They do, however, need the guts as amateurs to say, “Do it or else.”

A year ago, the Hawks and the Giants passed over a generational talent in the draft, 100-mph high school pitcher Roki Sasaki. The pitcher, who could have opted to turn pro in the States, met with teams interested in him prior to the draft and may well have demanded a contractual agreement to be posted.

This is something that amateurs have a right to do in Japan that they don’t have when turning pro with major league clubs, because of the shape and structure of NPB contracts. The risk, of course, is that teams will discard their draft picks and refuse to sign them — Japanese teams receive no compensation picks for unsigned draft picks.

Having individuals buck the system and make individual demands, as Uehara did, is what he’s aiming to avoid. But simply putting a patch on pro baseball’s autocratic norms won’t change the deeper problem.

The real problem

The problem is not the posting system, but the draft and reserve clause. These deny amateur ballplayers the right to freely negotiate and then tie them to their teams indefinitely.

The current system paints this as normal. Even fans, who would shudder at submitting to that kind of control over their own careers, consider it’s OK for ballplayers to have no choice or freedom, because, well, “It’s normal.”

An ideal solution

But there’s no reason why a more normal framework wouldn’t work, and pro soccer is a great model.

Teams and players can negotiate with whoever they like and agree to fixed-length contracts from Day 1. Players can move when they themselves and both teams agree to the terms, without any of this “players cannot claim any of the money involved in the transfer” nonsense.

Rosters could be limited to keep wealthy teams from hoarding the best talent, while development issues could be solved by having real minor leagues with the same rights over their players that the top flight leagues enjoy.

Applying a normal solution to the radically abnormal pro baseball situation we take for granted may be hard to fathom, but that’s no reason it wouldn’t work. It would be different, and difference in baseball is often interpreted to mean bad, but an organic, humanistic system could be a whole lot better.

I don’t know about you, but I’d find it a lot easier to support Individuals and teams that come together organically instead of having their movements within the system structured the way mazes structure the movement of laboratory rats.

It’s not like it will ever happen, but the world would be a saner and more reasonable place if people didn’t think that autocracy.

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