Tag Archives: Hideo Nomo

Liar’s poker

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.

Lies

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.

Incompetence

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.

More lies

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.

Filling up with the ‘Gasoline Tank’

Testuya Yoneda, one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s pitching marvels from back in the day, spoke in an interview with the Nikkan Sports. The 81-year-old, who won 350 games in a career mostly spent with the Pacific League’s Hankyu Braves — before they became a dynasty in the middle of the 1960s — is second on Japan’s all-time wins list.

His nickname during his playing days was the “Gasoline Tank,” which Yoneda said Hall of Famer Noboru Aota stuck him with because of how much the pitcher could drink.

The interview is HERE, but here are some snippet translations from this wonderful interview. But first an anecdote…

Oh those foreigners…

I hadn’t thought about Yoneda since Jeremy Powell was roasted in the Japanese media for ostensibly signing contracts with both the Orix Buffaloes and the SoftBank Hawks in 2008. The drift of much of the commentary at the time was that only a foreigner would be so underhanded as to do such a thing.

In fact, Powell had reached an initial agreement with Orix, which then wanted to modify it due to concerns over an MRI of his right arm. He refused to accept those changes and instead signed with SoftBank.

What people neglected to mention at that time was that prior to NPB’s draft, a lot of player signed contracts to play with more than one team, and Yoneda, a Hall of Famer, is the best example. He signed out of high school with the Hanshin Tigers and then had a change of heart and signed with the Braves.

Another famous double contract problem was that of Masanori Murakami, who was obliged to sign with the San Francisco Giants, and who was conned into signing with the Nankai Hawks, who refused to accept that they had forfeited their rights to the young lefty.

The point of those comments is that times change, conditions change, and what’s normal for one player may be alien to another 20 years later.

Back in the day…

The interview is a snapshot of “back in the day” reminiscence that one used to get an earful every October at the Sawamura Award announcements.

Here goes:

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: But it is said that if you pitch a lot, shoulder and elbow troubles will follow…

Yoneda: “It is true that the ball is heavy and if you keep throwing it will put you under a lot of stress. But the answer to that is to build bodies that can bear that stress. If we don’t create pitchers who are able to throw, then the current low level will persist.”

Q: You are dissatisfied?

Yoneda: “Just look it. Everyone stands up straight and basically only uses their upper body to throw.”

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: Are you opposed to those who say marathon bullpen sessions are unneccessary?

Yoneda: “If pitchers don’t throw, they’ll never master their control. A pitcher’s livelihood is being able to pitch low and also inside.”

Q: So pitchers shouldn’t pitch up in the zone?

Yoneda: “No that’s not the point. The balls pitchers today throw high in the zone are all mistakes. It’s no good doing that unless it is part of your plan.”

Q: So control is essential?

Yoneda: “If you throw 300 pitches in camp, you’ll be able to throw 150 in a game. In my day I threw between 2,500 and 3,000 pitches in camp.”

For the record

Just out of curiosity, I looked up Yoneda’s career pitching logs. He did in fact throw 150-pitch games, 22 to be exact, and another nine of 145-149 during his 22-year career.

As I’ve written before, it is extremely hard to compare pitchers then with those of more recent vintage, because the usage is different. Before the pitch count fever hit Japan about 15 years ago, 150-pitch starts were vastly more common than in Yoneda’s day.

Take Hideo Nomo, for example. Nomo pitched only five NPB seasons and threw 23 150-pitch games, and also had nine more of 145-149 pitches. And we know what happened to his arm after four years, he couldn’t play without pain.

Or take another recent Hall of Famer, Masaki Saito. Perhaps from Yoneda’s view, Saito’s 180 career wins with the best Central League team of his generation must have been disappointing. The big right-hander pitched 18 seasons, although injuries kept him from getting to 200 wins. He threw 21 150-pitch games in his career, and another five from 145-149.

Carter Stewart can change the world

Carter Stewart hasn’t thrown a baseball in anger as a member of the SoftBank Hawks, but his arrival in Japan, as the first big-name American amateur to turn pro with a Japanese team, could cause a ripple effect through baseball’s labor markets. It could mean an end to the posting system or more money for U.S. amateurs from MLB.

Say it again: “This is MLB’s fault”

Although the Hawks signing Stewart is news, it is not a new story. His signing is made possible by MLB and its union conspiring to deprive amateur players of the right to fair value for their service, and MLB’s choice to further clamp down on the below-subsistence wages paid to minor league players.

Without those two factors, no Japanese club is going to spend what it would be worth to lure a top amateur to NPB, at least not as long as the economic structure in NPB continues without significant change.

But with MLB’s draft signing pool bonuses, draft slot values, and the criminal level of pay in the minor leagues, Japanese teams can now pay the best American amateurs less than they’re worth but vastly more than MLB clubs can.

Sure, there’s a limit on having four players on each team’s active roster in Japan, but NPB clubs could theoretically have up to 52 foreign players under contract, not including those on developmental contracts, who don’t count against each organization’s 70-man official roster.

Japan was in a similar bind 25 years ago

A quarter of a century ago, Nippon Professional Baseball’s owners were bullied into allowing the Yomiuri Giants sign their big name veteran stars by agreeing to the introduction of free agency after the 1993 season.

What was intended as a way for the country’s biggest-name franchise to enrich itself at the expense of its business partners became something else altogether within two years. The free agent system was predicated on owners’ belief that competition in the majors was too hard for Japanese players.

Unfortunately, for the NPB owners, that belief was proved wrong in the most dramatic fashion by pitcher Hideo Nomo.

Jean Afterman, then working with Nomo’s agent Don Nomura, found the loophole needed to punish NPB for its arrogance. Because NPB rules considered Japanese players to be inferior and incapable of playing in the majors, they were permitted to play abroad after retiring in Japan.

So Nomo “retired” and became Japan’s first free agent import to the major leagues. Although NPB closed that loophole within a few years, the free agent route that was meant to enrich the Yomiuri Giants with Japan’s top talent, soon became a highway for Japanese stars to leave for the major leagues.

This could be something big — or not

The question then is whether this type of deal will become a supply line for Japanese baseball to upgrade its talent base at the expense of MLB.

In order for that to happen, Japanese teams will need to handle the players and develop them in a sustainable relationship with MLB so the international rules don’t change at the whim of MLB and its union.

The Japanese side of the equation

The SoftBank Hawks were perfectly placed for this kind of venture. They have the money, the infrastructure, the patience, and the will. Since SoftBank’s founder Masayoshi Son took over the club in 2005, he has aspired to field the world’s best baseball team and has frequently pestered his staff to sign the biggest names available.

Son has repeatedly challenge major league owners to an international championship series between the NPB and MLB champs, something that will happen the second MLB owners think it’s profitable.

The Hawks have invested heavily in development and in their medical side. While other clubs expect first-year pros to make an immediate impact, Hawks newcomers have to slog their way through an impressive logjam of minor league talent to even get a shot at the top.

The Hawks are an exception, but with the will, a few other teams, the PL’s Rakuten Eagles and the CL’s Giants, Hiroshima Carp and DeNA BayStars could join them in a true money ball campaign — exploiting the sizeable gap between what MLB requires amateurs be paid and what they are worth to Japanese teams. In 2023, when the Nippon Ham Fighters open their new stadium outside Sapporo and begin generating huge amounts of revenue, they could become players as well.

The Carp probably won’t go down this road, although they are well situated to expand into MLB’s Dominican Republic player pool because of their academy in that country. Hiroshima is focused on recycling talented players who fail in their first shot with big league clubs but are not willing to see their baseball dreams die.

But for now, it’s just the Hawks.

The MLB side of the equation

The market solution on the MLB side is to increase the amount of the signing bonus pools and draft slot allocations so that those amounts at least equal the value of those players to NPB teams — eliminating the demand for those players by raising the prices.

But that’s not what MLB does, and doing so would require negotiations with its union to alter the details of the CBA.

The posting system, however, is not included in the CBA. Though the agreement must conform to the CBA and the union must sign off on it — as it did in December 2017. But because either MLB or NPB can back out of the deal with a few months notice, it’s an easy way for either side to fire a shot across the bow.

With the union’s cooperation, MLB could also take more drastic measures, such as instituting its own “Tazawa Rule” — named for Junichi Tazawa, because it effectively banned him from playing in NPB because he turned pro with the Boston Red Sox rather than submit to NPB’s draft. MLB could banish players who turn pro in Japan, but that seems like too drastic of a solution, and the Tazawa Rule hasn’t prevented Japanese from following his path.

The posting system

Ironically, punishing the Hawks by eliminating the posting system might be part of SoftBank’s grand plan, since the club has never used it and is opposed to its existence. That being said, the Hawks can use the posting process as part of their plan with Stewart.

If the deal is for six years, from June 2019 to June 2025, Stewart will qualify as an international free agent under current rules on Nov. 3, 2024, exactly when the posting period begins. If Stewart develops and has value, he will have options. SoftBank being SoftBank, they’d prefer Stewart to stay in Japan and sign an extension, but without an extension, Carter would be able to move to the States as a free agent when his contract expires.

Using the posting system prior to the 2025 season would allow the Hawks to recoup all the costs incurred with signing and training Stewart and essentially get paid to benefit from all his contributions. It’s also the reason why other clubs might jump on this train. They could make a profit signing and posting American amateurs, and eliminating the posting system would put a damper on that part of the business.

Still, the Hawks would be happy to see the posting system gone, because if it remains in place and Stewart has that option, SoftBank will have a hard time denying the requests of its Japanese stars, read Kodai Senga, who want to leave early.

But sooner or later, the Hawks are going to have to fall in line and post players if the system remains in place. That’s because at some point they’ll want to sign a player who will only work for a club that promises an early exit to the majors, read Roki Sasaki.null

The Shohei Ohtani example

Shohei Ohtani is one reason why MLB would like to weaken the posting system and raise the age of international free agency. If Japan’s best amateurs think it’s easier to get to the majors through free agency by going through NPB and the posting system, it will be even harder for MLB to sign kids like Roki Sasaki, which is the big league’s ultimate wet dream.

Being major league baseball, they think no one can teach professionals the way they can be prepared through in the minor leagues with all the soul-sapping crappy treatment that entails. But the real reason is the control that comes with signing amateurs. MLB is all about control, if it weren’t we wouldn’t see blatant service time manipulation.

If Japanese teams could take the best high school stars and promise to post them at the age of 23 so they could be international free agents, everyone would benefit, the NPB teams, the players, MLB. The only thing it would cost the MLB teams is control, and they put an awfully high value on that.

The problem is that by worrying so much about control, MLB guys lose sight of one fact, that Japan is a great place to learn how to play baseball.

The advantage of a Japanese education

There are things players won’t see in Japan, like a lot of 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, but other than that, you name it and Japanese baseball has it.

When a player ventures out of the minors and into Central and Pacific league, he faces some incredible pitchers, guys who can locate their fastball and then use NPB’s stickier baseball to throw some of the wickedest breaking balls in the world. Because the talent depth is thinner, there are pitchers who lack command and control, too, guys who throw more fat pitches that can be exploited.

“A lot can be gained from playing here. Playing in Japan is a great way to develop a hitter. Look what happened with Shohei Ohtani. He’s an elite hitter and an elite pitcher. That couldn’t have happened in the States.”

Former Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres GM Randy Smith

For a pitcher, there is less pressure from lineups where every batter is trying to take you deep, but those batters are there along with guys who can foul off one good pitch after another, and are really, really hard to strike out.

Players also get used to playing in pressure situations in meaningful games in front of large crowds. If minor league baseball are less meaningful because one goal of every player is to get promoted, NPB games are more meaningful because they are all about winning, and there is value in that.

The other side is the fanatical amount of discipline and practice, which can be a good thing if a player embraces it. Another advantage is a good diet, a place to live in the team dormitory, a healthy diet and easy access to training facilities.

What this means for Carter Stewart

It means an opportunity to learn more about pitching than he would ever learn in the United States. If there is a weakness in the Japanese system, it is that so many talented pitchers never survive the nation’s old-school youth baseball traditions.

Some NPB training methods are obsolete, and most pro coaches tend to teach players to follow established models rather than find what works best for them as individuals. In that, however, there are messages worth learning if one can handle the often authoritarian way in which those messages are delivered. If Stewart can handle that, remain humble, remember that he is coming to learn and improve, he will excel to the degree he is physically and mentally able to handle.

Simply by reaching out to Stewart, the Hawks have instantly changed the way MLB views Japan since this is something it considered impossible. If Stewart succeeds and comes out of this as a world-class player, that will be a further shock to MLB owners who have shown little but disdain for Japanese baseball.

Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.