Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano on Tuesday won his ninth-straight decision since Nippon Professional Baseball’s season got under way on June 19, fueling talk by Japanese sports’ ultimate scandal rag, Tokyo Sports that the Giants are now thinking about when and how to post the right-hander.
For those unfamiliar with Sugano, he is one of the faster starting pitchers in Japan, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball according to analytics site Delta Graphs is 92.5 mph, but that is with plus command. He also has superb command of two pitches with plus movement, his splitter and slider. Think Yu Darvish with less velocity and less than a dozen different pitchers but with consistently better location.
He will be eligible for free agency after the 2021 season, so there is a chance the Giants will go against their history and post him this autumn.
Not if but when
Since the Tokyo Sports story is the only report on the subject, one would be wise to ignore it, but the topic of when Sugano will move to the U.S. majors is one that gets asked A LOT. After all, the winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan’s most-impressive starting pitcher in 2017 and 2018, threatened to go to MLB if a team other than the Yomiuri Giants drafted him out of university.
Although it is said Sugano’s first choice would have been MLB rather than the Giants, the pull of family ties — his uncle, Tatsunori Hara, managed the team — proved too strong to ignore.
After the Nippon Ham Fighters won his negotiating rights in the 2011 draft, Sugano stayed out of baseball for a year so he would be eligible for the following season’s draft. At that time, the Giants had vowed never to post a player, so it was believed that Sugano would need nine years of service time to qualify for international free agency after the 2021 season at the earliest.
Yamaguchi becomes No. 1
But things have since changed. Last winter, the Giants posted right-hander Shun Yamaguchi. The Giants knew the move was coming and delayed making the announcement as long as they could. But MLB teams were already hearing about it, ostensibly from Yamaguchi’s agent, and the Giants finally made the announcement just before the start of MLB’s general managers meetings, when it was certain to be revealed.
The funny thing about Yamaguchi’s posting was at least one Yomiuri executive calling it an exception that had nothing to do with team policy. What eventually came out was that the team was contractually obligated to post Yamaguchi, after agreeing to that in his supplemental contract.
The hidden game of NPB contracts
While most fans may see the Giants decision to post Sugano as a matter of the team’s respect for his service, and there may be something to that, a more likely consideration would be whether he can require them to do so.
NPB contracts are one-year deals that stipulate a player’s salary for the following year and how it will be paid. When players agree to multiyear contracts, those contracts are referred to as supplemental contracts, riders, or side agreements. Nippon Professional Baseball does not handle these. They are strictly between the player and the team and their details are rarely made public.
Teams that post players may be doing so out of respect and honor but unlike deals in MLB, they are not micromanaged through the filter of the CBA, and could include basically anything that does not violate the terms of NPB’s charter. They couldn’t for example, promise to make a player an owner, or lend him to another team, since those acts are prohibited. But huge undisclosed bonuses? Sure. Promises to post or grant free agency under certain conditions? No problem.
Unless he is hurt and unable to play more than half of the 2021 season, Sugano will be free to walk then. Prior to Yamaguchi’s posting one could not imagine the Giants posting a player, but they DID agree to a deal that required them to do so in order to sign Yamaguchi. Sugano might have that kind of clause in his side deal as well, although we’re unlikely ever to find out.
The only thing we will know is that if Sugano does walk four months from now, the Giants will couch their decisions in terms of how they did at as a sign of respect for the individual and not because they were contractually obligated to do so.
Kenji Akashi now has one home run for each of his 17 pro seasons. His sixth-inning solo shot broke a 4-4 tie and helped end Zach Neal’s string of winning decisions at 13 on Friday, when the SoftBank Hawks beat the Seibu Lions 5-4 at Fukuoka’s PayPay Dome.
Hawks right-hander Nao Higashihama survived two no-out walks to open the second inning but not a center-cut 3-1 two-seam fastball to Hotaka Yamakawa, who opened the scoring with his 12th homer of the year. Shuta Tonosaki followed with Seibu’s second hit, and Takeya Nakamura capped the inning with a two-run home run with a flat-straight fastball down the pipe that the six-time home run champ got off the end of the barrel but still drove 10 rows back in left field.
Neal (2-1), however, gave away the lead in the home half of the third.
After Takuya Kai’s one-out miss-hit infield single, Ukyo Shuto barreled up a low first-pitch two-seamer and nearly took off Neal’s head with his single. Neal then hung a 1-0 two-seamer up in the zone to Kenta Imamiya, who drove it off the center field wall for a two-run triple.
With Akira Nakamura at the plate, Yuki Yanagita walked and stole second and Nakamura singled in one run to tie it. Neal made a decent 1-2 pitch to the next hitter, but Ryoya Kurihara put a prototypical inside-out, left-handed swing on the low two-seamer and knocked it between third and short for an RBI single and a 4-3 Hawks lead. Yanagita’s run was his 32nd of the month, tying an NPB record.
Corey Spangenberg, who’d doubled, tripled and homered the night before, homered off reliever Shinya Kayama to tie it in the sixth. Higashihama struck out Nakamura with his 95th pitch to open the inning, and with two left-handed hitters due up, the Hawks turned to a south paw.
Kayama got veteran Takumi Kuriyama to fly out on his first slider, and then threw five-straight to Spangenberg. The last one missed down and in and Spangenberg bounced it off the top of the permanent wall in right for his fifth homer.
Again, the Hawks struck back. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Neal missed with a straight two-seam fastball up and over the plate, and Akashi drilled it into the “home run terrace,” the Casa de Pepe’s outfield field seats.
Kayama (1-0) earned the in relief for two-thirds of an inning of work, while Rei Takahashi, Livan Moinelo and Yuito Mori each supplied another scoreless inning, with Mori earning his ninth save.
Smells like team spirit in Sapporo
The Orix Buffaloes laid a big seventh inning on Nippon Ham Fighters ace Kohei Arihara to snap a tie game and earn a 7-2 win at Sapporo Dome.
Prior to the game, the Buffaloes activated infielder Shuhei Fukuda, who emerged as their regular second baseman in 2019, and outfielder Steven Moya. Both played key roles in what can only be described as a team win. Fukuda was the only Buffalo to score more than one run, while seven different players drove in one each, and five relievers combined for five scoreless innings in support of starter Tsubasa Sakakibara.
Moya who was 14-for-39 with eight walks in the pitcher-friendly Western League drove in Orix’s first run with a smash off the glove of first baseman Sho Nakata that he legged out for a fourth-inning RBI double. Buffaloes catcher Kenya Wakatsuki homered to tie it 2-2 in the fifth.
Singles by Masataka Yoshida and Moya put runners on the corners with two outs, but one of manager Norifumi Nishimura’s favorite plays, the delayed double steal of home backfired when catcher Shingo Usami faked a throw to second and caught Yoshida off third base.
Sakakibara’s trouble with the walk this season haunted him again. Two of the seven runners he handed free passes to in his four-plus innings scored to give the Fighters a 2-0 lead. A first-inning leadoff walk, a sacrifice and a Kensuke Kondo single opened the scoring. Taishi Ota cashed in a run with a single in the third following a pair of two-out walks.
After six serviceable innings from Arihara (1-5) things went sideways in the seventh.
Mune opened with a single and Wakatsuki doubled him to third. Ryoichi Adachi singled to break the tie, and No. 9 hitter Hayato Nishiura doubled in Wakatsuki from third. Arihara was yanked afte getting his first out on a liner to third, and Fukuda singled in a run. Yoshida delivered a sac fly, and Adam Jones doubled in Fukuda off Kazutomo Iguchi, the third Fighters pitcher of the inning. Moya walked before Mune made the final out.
Tyler Higgins and Brandon Dickson each worked around a single to pitch a scoreless inning and close it out.
Arihara, who had aspired to pitch in the majors next year, allowed six runs on 10 hits. He struck out six without issuing a walk.
Tamura, Marines get Ishikawa his 1st win
Tatsuhiro Tamura twice put Lotte in front, the second time for good with a two-out, two-run bases-loaded single that made a winner out of the Marines’ Opening Day starter, Ayumu Ishikawa (1-2), in a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Rakuten Eagles at Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium.
Eagles right-hander Takahiro Norimoto (3-3), who also pitched on Opening Day for his club, had his splitter working better than it has all season when he struck out two in a 1-2-3 first, but after that he stopped missing bats and what started as a blitzkrieg became a war of attrition between the two starters.
Tamura’s second-inning double plated the game’s first run, but Ryosuke Tatsumi’s third-inning leadoff homer tied it, and back-to-back doubles by former Marines captain Daichi Suzuki and Eigoro Mori put the Eagles in front. It stayed that way until the roof caved in on Norimoto in the sixth.
Hiromi Oka drew a leadoff walk, and Leonys Martin was hit by a pitch. Some poor base running cost the Marines an out and a run when Oka was gunned down trying to score from second on a drive to the wall in right. A sac fly from Seiya Inoue, however, tied it. A single and a walk loaded the bases for Tamura. A 3-2 fastball down the pipe was shot back through the box and into center to put the Marines in front.
Yudai Fujioka followed with an RBI single off lefty Wataru Karashima. Former Eagle Frank Herrmann surrendered two runs in the eighth on a Yasuhito Uchida home run, but Naoya Masuda earned his 10th save with a scoreless ninth.
Norimoto allowed five runs on six hits, three walks and a hit batsman over six innings. He struck out six.
Rookie Marines cleanup hitter Hisanori Yasuda continued to do what he’s done all season, hit rockets. He went 3-for-3 with a double and a walk.
Enter the ‘Sands Man’ as Jerry saves Tigers
Tigers left fielder Jerry Sands made a game-saving catch in the 10th-inning to start an inning-ending double play, depriving the DeNA BayStars of their chance to win as Hanshin held on for a 3-3 tie at Koshien Stadium.
With two on and one out in the 10th, the final inning allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tigers outfield was playing in as is customarily done in Japan to cut off the run at the plate, when Yamato Maeda drove a ball that looked like it would get over Sands’ head for at least a one-run double.
But the former Dodger, who came within a foot of denying the BayStars the tying run with a diving catch in the seventh, hauled it in. The relay throw was on the money to double the runner off second.
Tigers catcher Ryutaro Umeno opened the scoring with a three-run home run in a fourth inning in which BayStars pitcher Taiga Kamichatani gave his outfielders a workout.
Sands’ drive was caught off the wall by center fielder Takayuki Kajitani for the second out, while right fielder Tyler Austin leaped for a long drive but failed to haul in a double off the bat of Yusuke Oyama. After Justin Bour walked, Kamichatani missed up with a cutter away and Umeno hit it off the end of the bat to right center. Kajitani gave chase but he would have needed a ticket to catch this one.
Austin became the second BayStar with a hit off side-armer Koyo Aoyagi when he smoked a grounder past first to open the sixth with a double. He went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a groundout to put the visitors on the board.
Austin ran full speed into the right field wall in the bottom of the inning trying to catch a Justin Bour drive that went for a double but stayed in the game as Kamichatani stranded two to keep it close and allow the BayStars to tie it in the seventh.
Toshihiro Miyazaki opened with a double, and with one out and two on, Koki Yamashita batted for Kamichatani and singled in a run when Sands dove but fell just short of making the catch in left. Aoyagi was pulled after 90 pitches and exciteable right-hander Kosuke Baba took over. Baba retired Kajitani for the first time all night by fanning him on six pitches.
With two outs, Austin lined a good 3-2 fastball past third to tie it.
Tigers pitcher Joe Gunkel nearly gave the game away in the eighth, when he surrendered three singles, but he made a terrific catch on a line drive and was able to shot put the ball to first to complete a double play that allowed him to strand two runners.
Giants get past Carp rookie
After a wild but hitless three innings against the Yomiuri Giants, Hiroshima Carp rookie Masato Morishita decided to focus on throwing strikes and it proved to be his downfall in a 2-1 loss at Tokyo Dome.
Morishita (2-2) survived five walks and a hit batsman over three scoreless innings. With a one-run lead in the fourth after Ryoma Nishikawa’s second home run in two nights, the rookie threw strikes, and the Giants hit them.
Naoki Yoshikawa’s compact swing on a 1-2 fastball opened the door with one out. After a sacrifice by starting pitcher Seishu Hatake, Yoshiyuki Kamei also stayed compact and smashed an 0-1 fastball away up the middle for an RBI single.
Hayato Sakamoto mashed an 0-2 inside fastball for another single. Yoshihiro Maru turned on a 2-1 cutter and lashed it for a single and a 2-1 lead.
Hatake was ejected in the fifth for a dangerous pitch, when Carp catcher Tsubasa Aizawa failed to duck a fastball and it glanced off the top of his helmet.
These ejections are automatic, but he nearly got out of the way, leading one to wonder that if the hitter had better reflexes, Hatake’s pitch would not have struck the batter in the head, and thus wouldn’t have been classified as a “kikenkyu” and he wouldn’t have been ejected.
Viciedo rescues Dragons, Ono
Dayan Viciedo made it a one-run game with a two-run fourth-inning double, and singled in the tying run in a two-run sixth as the Chunichi Dragons came from behind to beat the Yakult Swallows 5-3 at Nagoya Dome.
Dragons lefty Yudai Ono (1-3) allowed one base runner through three innings, a one-out solo home run to Yasutaka Shiomi. But a one-out walk in the fourth was followed by a straight high fastball to 20-year-old slugger Munetaka Murakami, who belted his sixth home run.
With one out and two on in the bottom of the inning, Viciedo drove a ball to the wall in center that Kotaro Yamasaki leaped for but missed to make it a 3-2 game.
Swallows rookie Daiki Yoshida allowed two runs on two walks and three hits over five innings but did not figure in the decision. Thirty-five-year-old lefty Masato Nakazawa entered in the sixth and allowed both batters he faced to reach. After Viciedo tied it, Toshiki Abe drove in the go-ahead run.
Ono completed the game, striking out 10, walking two and allowing five hits.
Free-agent eligible Ono claims not to think
Chunichi Dragons lefty Yudai Ono on Friday amassed the necessary service time to file for domestic free agency this autumn and played his part in the accompanying media ritual to perfection.
When NPB informs news outlets that a player earns the right to file durning the next filing period, reporters due their duty and ask the individual about his plans for the future.
Ono then read his lines to perfection: “I haven’t given any thought to things happening down the road. My priority is to concentrate on the season.”
The famous exception to this ritual, Koji Uehara, who three days after securing his rights to international free agency told the media he would leave for the major leagues at the end of the season, lost his next three starts to start the 2008 season 0-4.
To be fair, Uehara’s body was not up to being a starter anymore. He had saved 32 games the year before but disliked being a reliever. It was only out of consideration for his service to the team that he was allowed another shot at the rotation. But after three more poor starts, he was not given another opportunity to start for four months.
Buffaloes call up Moya, Dragons drop Ishikawa
The Orix Buffaloes activated outfielder Steven Moya on Friday, a day after first baseman Aderlin Rodriguez was deactivated after being hit by a pitch.
Moya is in his third season. He played in 64 games for the Buffaloes last season after a trade brought him over from the Chunichi Dragons. The Buffaloes also activated Shuhei Fukuda, who became their regular second baseman last season. Fukuda has yet to play on the first team this year but was dynamite at the plate in his four Western League games.
Meanwhile, the Dragons have deactivated third baseman Takaya Ishikawa. He was with the first team while captain Shuhei Takahashi was deactivated due to pain in his left hamstring.
Although the 19-year-old Ishikawa has begun to look confident and assertive at the plate, Takahashi’s return means he is being sent down to amass playing time
With just three days to go before Opening Day, labor and management settled on multiplying each day on the active roster this year by 1.3 so that the shortened season will not hurt players needing to accumulate service time toward free agency.
The result came in the third negotiating session between the Japan Pro Baseball Players Association and Nippon Professional Baseball. The season, shortened from 143 games to 120, will take place over a span of 151 days instead of 190.
The active rosters will also be expanded from 29 to 31, to allow players more rest in order to stave off COVID-19, which will also allow one or two more players each day to accumulate days toward the 145 needed to count as one year toward free agency.
Full international free agency requires nine years, while players who turned pro after leaving a Japanese high school can file for domestic free agency after seven, while those who go from junior high or high school to the pros need eight years to move to another NPB club under their own power.
One additional imported player can be carried on the active rosters this year, although the prohibition against having four pitchers or four position players will remain.
The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.
To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”
Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?
Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.
I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.
In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.
Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.
To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.
In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.
“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”
Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.
With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.
If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.
The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).
After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”
While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.
The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.
Second baseman Tetsuto Yamada ostensibly became the highest-paid player in the history of the Yakult Swallows, Kyodo News (Japanese) reported in its online edition Tuesday. The 27-year-old is the only player in NPB history to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 30 steals more than once in his career.
He accomplished the feat for the third time in 2018. In 2019,
he went 33-for-36 as a base stealer with 35 home runs, but only batted. 271.
Despite that slight hiccup, Yamada received a 70 million yen pay increase for
2020 after turning down a multiyear contract. This opens the door for him to
file for domestic free agency next November or even ask the Swallows to post
As Japan’s premier second baseman since he broke out in the
second half of the 2014 season at the age of 21, some have wondered if Yamada
might ask Yakult to post him, and he did express some positive feelings about
such a move. Since then, the lingering effects of being hit by a pitch in
August 2016, and a quiet multiyear commitment to the team muted talk of a major
Despite the injury that reduced his production to fairly
pedestrian levels for nearly two seasons, Yamada’s peak value is unmatched
among NPB second baseman, a position where Japan has traditionally obsessed
about fielding and preferred slap hitters. His best three seasons using Bill
James’ win shares rank 10th in NPB history. The value of his best
five-year span is 15th. Both are tops at his position in Japanese
pro baseball history.
Although he is not shy and retiring like notable busts like
pitcher Kei Igawa and second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, Yamada seems content, like
Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, to be a superstar in Japan. If Yamada
does remain in Japan, expect the Giants or his hometown Hanshin Tigers to make
a serious run at him next season along with the SoftBank Hawks, who have not
had a big gun at second since Tadahito Iguchi left after the 2004 season.
Yamada’s 2019 salary was reportedly the highest the club had
ever paid a Japanese player, while next year’s deal eclipses the 450 million
paid to first baseman Roberto Petagine after he was the CL’s MVP in 2001.
Second to none: NPB’s top-10 second basemen
The following table gives my estimate of the top-10 second basemen in the history of Japanese professional baseball, based on: Each player’s ranking among all players in total career win shares, the value of their five-best consecutive seasons, and the total of their three best seasons — all as measured by Bill James’ win shares.
I don’t have win shares data prior to 1946. With those numbers, Chiba, who began playing in 1938 might move up a little closer to Yamada.
A day after they concluded a contract for 2020 with lefty Onelki Garcia, the Hanshin Tigers announced they have added Miami Marlins minor league right-hander Joe Gunkel.
The 27-year-old comes out of the Marlins organization. In four Triple-A seasons, Gunkel posted a 3.77 ERA. He struck out 6.23 batters per nine innings while walking 1.19 and allowing a little more than one home run per nine.
In a statement released by the Tigers, Gunkel said he was excited to be playing in Japan after hearing how good Japanese baseball was from former teammate and Yakult Swallows reliever Scott McGough.
Japanese-only free agency needs a 2nd look
Number magazine’s website “Number Web” posed an interesting question that speaks to the heart of one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s paradoxes — how come teams losing top foreign stars to another NPB club cannot receive compensation?
The answer is of course that foreign-registered players, unlike Japanese, cannot be reserved unless they agree to a contract for the following season. They are in essence free agents the minute their contractual obligation to a team ends. The Number Web article uses Wladimir Balentien‘s impending move to the three-time Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks as an example because — according to NPB’s silliest rule — he has acquired the right to file for free agency.
Thus, one could argue that the Yakult Swallows, for whom he played nine seasons, are losing a free agent but receiving zip in return. But using Balentien as an example is ridiculous. What about Onelki Garcia? He went 13-9 for the Chunichi Dragons in 2018 on a one-year deal and then decided to split to the Hanshin Tigers when Chunichi wanted to re-sign him.
Heck, the Yomiuri Giants’ back-to-back 2008 and 2009 pennants were built on the backs of stealing players the Swallows had scouted and signed. Pitchers Seth Greisinger went 30-15 over those two seasons, while Dicky Gonzalez was 15-2 in 2009 — the year he moved to Yomiuri from Yakult. Left fielder Alex Ramirez moved four stops down the Chuo Line to Tokyo Dome and won back-to-back Central League MVP Awards.
The Swallows response to the talent drain was to begin offering lucrative long-term contracts, starting with Balentien, reliever Tony Barnette and outfielder Lastings Milledge. The latter deal didn’t pan out, but the contracts for Balentien and Barnette were instrumental in Yakult’s 2015 pennant.
Free agency was the baby of the Yomiuri Giants — a plan for Japan’s most prestigious team to snap up as much previously unavailable talent as possible. But this winter, Giants Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara has railed against compensation that annually costs his club a player here and a player there.
Since the Giants are the biggest talent poachers in NPB, they would likely dig in their heels at the thought of having to shell out even more for foreign talent just because it’s easier to get Japan-ready talent from the Swallows than it is to actually find it yourself.