Former Giants ace and major league closer Koji Uehara on Thursday raised a novel criticism of Japanese baseball’s free agency system. He took exception not with the absurd service time requirements, but how the system’s mechanisms turn it into a public loyalty test.
The Japanese system was established by owners who had been strong-armed by the Yomiuri Giants. Yomiuri wanted to be able to skim the cream of the nation’s veteran talent each year and couldn’t conceive that Japanese players might use it to play in the majors since the very idea was inconceivable to their social Darwinist mind-sets.
The system that went into effect in the winter of 1993-1994 so that the Giants could plunder other teams’ rosters and drive up salaries, requires eligible players to file for free agency. Players who do so may negotiate with any team but may not exercise that right again until they acquire an additional four years of service time.
Uehara believes that filing or not filing for free agency therefore becomes a public loyalty test, where players who announce they are not filing, or who are filing with the intent of re-signing with their existing clubs, are branded as being loyal, while others in some cases, are mocked in the press as being traitors.
“I don’t want players to make their decision about free agency based on it being an invisible measure of their loyalty to the team.”
Uehara’s solution is superficially a simple one: Make every player with enough service time a free agent.
This small change, however, would force a drastic overhaul of the system. Players with enough service time would be free to leave whenever their contracts expire. The four-years of service time needed to refile would be scrapped. The notion of free-agent compensation would have to be reconsidered. Yet there is a bigger hurdle, the simple desire to keep the game the way it is.
Uehara also said automatic free agency would keep rival teams from approaching players in secret and encouraging them to jump ship.
“I’ve heard that before players make their decisions to file, other teams contact them on the sly trying to encourage them,” Uehara wrote. “But if there was no choice for players to make about whether or not to declare themselves free agents, then there would be no benefit to teams to contact players in secret. It would be transparent.”
Transparency, however, is not something Japanese pro baseball really excels at. Japanese baseball’s greatest advocate of transparency, former commissioner Ryozo Kato, ended confusion about the balls in play by instituting a standard uniform ball everyone could understand. But his desire to put things in the open was met by a backlash which ended up in his being ousted in a palace coup.
The owners simply don’t want to do anything differently if they don’t have to, but being hesitant to change is not always a bad thing.
Japanese teams market marginal players to their fan bases, and stars are only traded under exceptional circumstances. It’s part of the fabric that sees players as more than employees and hired guns. A change to a more matter-of-fact system like MLB’s might also encourage the adoption of MLB’s more unpalatable practices such as the wage slavery of minor leaguers and pre-arbitration major leaguers.
There’s nothing wrong with being business-like, but when being business-like means elevating promoting baseball games to sets of ruthless spreadsheet-driven transactions, then you risk losing what you’re trying to protect.
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