On May 4, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and the National League’s New York Mets became the latest to dip into an international partnership that people often see as being one-sided, with benefits accruing mostly to the Japanese team.
Seeing the baseball world from both sides
There are precious few people with first-hand knowledge of how front offices work in both Japan and the major leagues, and one of those, Randy Smith spoke recently about the potential that awaits MLB clubs who want to expand their horizons in Japan and think outside the box.
Currently wearing two hats, as senior advisor to Nippon Ham Fighters general manager Hiroshi Yoshimura and as an international scout for the Texas Rangers, Smith spoke by phone from Sapporo about the two clubs’ working relationship and what can be learned through cooperation.
“It depends on the two groups,” Smith, a former general manager with both the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres, said recently by phone from Sapporo. “What do the parties want to get out of it?”
Things, he said, have come a long way since the tie-ups largely meant MLB scouts would have someone to help them with their itineraries in Japan.
The Fighters and Rangers
“The relationship the Fighters have with the Rangers is unique because of the two organizations’ thought processes.”
The product is a relationship (between Yoshimura and Rangers GM Jon Daniels) in which both sides are open to learning lessons. While Japanese teams are considered to be far behind their MLB counterparts in analytics, Smith said the Rangers are open to the possibility they might learn something in Japan from Nippon Ham.
“It’s about asking questions. And that goes back to the people who are involved,” Smith said, adding that some MLB innovations originated in Japan.
“Some of the stuff they do, MLB may not say where it came from. But the massage, and some of the medical stuff that’s done now, came from here.”
“The Fighters are one of the more analytical clubs here. You can see that from the way they treat their foreign players.”
Smith cited the team’s handling of third baseman Brandon Laird as an example of the Fighters’ advanced understanding. In 2015, Laird struggled to hit for average in his debut season. But the club stuck with him, gave him the opportunity to make adjustments when many other Japanese teams would have banished him to the farm club for good.
Changing awareness of NPB’s quality
It’s become obvious over the past 10 years that open-minded adaptable can expand and develop their skills in Japan and often increase their value in the MLB labor market.
“In the past, if you came to Japan as a player, your career was considered over,” Smith said. “But now because we have good information and access to modern technology we know more. Guys come, learn the split, or pick up something.”
He said that his extended time in Japan has opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before, when he was focused on high-impact target players and failed to take stock of the forest surrounding those prize trees.
“I used to come over, and I’m seeing the targets,” Smith said. “The last three years, I’m watching everybody in the PL, seeing the depth. It’s been educational for me. There’s a lot of pitching depth, more than people realize.”
Smith said that while Japanese players have been able to take part in instructional leagues in the States, the exchange agreements that once saw NPB clubs sending youngsters to Single-A ball to experience another side to the game are unlikely to make a comeback.
He also said that there is virtually no chance an MLB team could take advantage of NPB’s universe to season young players, although he agreed such a program would have its benefits.
“A lot can be gained from playing here,” he said. “Playing in Japan is a great way to develop a hitter.”