The 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man is easily the most balanced all-around hitter in Japan see my profile of him HERE. He is expected to take a physical with the Reds in the coming days. In addition to the Reds, the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs were all reportedly interested in NPB’s single-season hit record holder.
The Reds are the only major league club that has never had a Japanese player on its active roster.
Pierce Johnson, whose power curve served him extremely well in his 2019 NPB debut season with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League, has agreed to a two-year deal with the San Diego Padres, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
A former No. 1 draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, Johnson’s curve was selected in a poll of CL players as the best in the league. According to Delta Graphs, Johnson threw his curve nearly half the time and was rated at over two wins per 100 pitches, and led all NPB pitchers in wins from his curve.
He joins the steady stream of players who come to Japan, learn some new adjustments or simply get a different perspective on things, and then find MLB teams eager to put those skills to the test.
When I saw this, I went back to Delta Graphs and saw that Johnson’s fastball was ranked 18th in effectiveness among the 120 or so pitchers with 50-plus innings in NPB last season. It was below average effectiveness in the States.
To say his curveball was effective because of the fastball is no surprise. This happened with Masahiro Tanaka in 2018. His slider and split became more effective because of his superior command of the four-seam fastball.
Again, as Bill points out, pitchers finding something in Japan is no longer news and one reason why a huge number of players are seeing Japan as a win-win situation.
Former San Diego Padres minor leaguers Tyler Higgins and Aderlin Rodriguez have signed with the Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s Pacific League, the club announced Monday according to online site fullcount.
HIggins, who began his career with the Miami Marlins, is a 28-year-old right-hander who has spent most of his career at Double-A. At Triple-A El Paso last year, where former Japan closer Akinori Otsuka served as a pitching coach, Higgins struck out 50 batters in 45-2/3 innings while issuing 13 walks and surrendering 13 home runs.
Rodriguez, who is from the Dominican Republic and turned 28 in November, is a right-handed hitter who hit 19 home runs in 289 plate appearances for El Paso while striking out 46 times and drawing 14 walks. It was his lone season in Triple-A.
The Buffaloes have also acquired veteran major league outfielder Adam Jones on a two-year deal, and are bringing back outfielder-first baseman Steven Moya, starting pitcher Andrew Albers and closer Brandon Dickson.
Lotte signs Dominican amateur Acosta: report
The Lotte Marines have signed hard-throwing Dominican amateur Jose Acosta to a developmental contract, the Hochi Shimbun reported Monday, citing informed sources.
According to the report, the acquisition of 25-year-old Acosta, who has no pro experience, and 30-year-old Venezuelan Jose Flores, who pitched this year for the Toyama Thunderbirds of the independent BC League, will be announced in the coming days.
Acosta, a 1.87-meter, 89-kilogram right-hander, pitched for his country in this summer’s Pan Am Games. His fastball has been recorded at 164 kilometers per hour. He also possesses an effective slider and change.
At a tryout in the Dominican, his average fastball velocity was 157 kph.
The 1.91-meter, 120-kg Flores, who throws in the 150-159 kph range, tried out for the club in October at the Pacific League club’s home park, Zozo Marine Stadium, in Chiba. He is also headed for a developmental contract, that does not count against the team’s 70-man roster and does not allow him to play on the top team.
The Toronto Blue Jays hit pay dirt on with what appears to be a cost-effective two-year contract for right-hander Shun Yamaguchi. The deal, as reported by Sankei Sports Wednesday morning in Japan, will be for $6 million.
Yamaguchi, who joined the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League three years ago as a free agent from the DeNA BayStars, is the first player ever posted by the Giants, Japan’s oldest pro team.
My profile of Yamaguchi is HERE. He is coming off a career year in 2019 when he tied for the Central League in wins with 15 as the Giants won their first pennant since 2013.
Although pundits are saying Yamaguchi could be effective as a reliever, should know that the reason he became a starter was that he developed a case of the yips as a reliever and became ineffective. The switch back to starter allowed him to develop his other pitches — a development that was accelerated during his time with the Giants.
Part of that metamorphosis was also likely due to his needing a new challenge, something pitching in the majors will provide in any context.
According to the SanSPo story, Yamaguchi will fly directly to Canada from Hawaii, where he had been with the rest of the Giants on their customary “victory vacation.”
Yamaguchi opens posting door for Sugano
The Giants had been staunchly opposed to using the posting system since the days of powerful former owner Tsuneo Watanabe but included a provision to post Yamaguchi as part of the three-year contract that saw him move from Yokohama to Tokyo. Since then, mixed signals have been coming from Yomiuri.
The same week the team’s owner passed off Yamaguchi’s posting as a one-time thing, Team president Tsukasa Imamura admitted the team had accepted the pitcher’s desire to be posted when he joined them as a free agent, saying, “no time was fixed for posting but that it was agreed to” according to a Daily Sports story.
Imamura added that it would now be incumbent on the team to evaluate other players’ wishes to be posted and named two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano as a player who might fit that bill, mentioning that the right-hander had already sacrificed a year of his pro career in order to join the Giants as an amateur.
Rafael Dolis, the closer for the CL’s Hanshin Tigers until Kyuji Fujikawa‘s ninth-inning resurrection this past summer, is apparently moving on in search of a major league contract according to this story in the Daily Sports, which said the Tigers gave up on contract talks on Tuesday.
After saving 88 games over the previous 2-1/2 seasons, Dolis lost two games in June and was removed from the ninth-inning firing line and replaced by the remarkable Kyuji Fujikawa in July.
Except for a few hiccups, the 31-year-old Dolis was essentially as effective in 2019 as he had been in his three previous seasons.
In related news, the Daily Sports also reported with 31-year-old right-hander Jon Edwards. In 49 major league games as a reliever with the Rangers, Padres and Indians, Edwards is 2-0 with a 3.67 ERA over 41-2/3 innings.
He has a 3.08 ERA over 131-1/3 career Triple-A innings with 30 saves and an 11-4 record. His 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings this year with Columbus was the worst figure of his Triple-A career. Using the lively major league ball introduced this season in Triple-A, Edwards allowed seven of his 10 career home runs over 49 innings.
Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.
The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.
In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.
“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”
“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”
“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”
Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.
He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.
On setting standards to protect youth players’ health
With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.
“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”
“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”
“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”
Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.
“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”
“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”
Leveling the playing field, literally
On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”
Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.
“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”
“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”
On the meaning of Koshien
Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.
“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”
“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”
On the manners of Japanese baseball culture
“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”
On an Asian winter meetings
“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.
“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”
“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”
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
“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
“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
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.”
On Saturday, the Seibu Lions and New York Mets announced a partnership running through the 2021 season, that the defending Pacific League champions see as a way to boost themselves into the 21st century.
What the Japanese get
Of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues, the Central and Pacific, the PL is considered the more innovative, the Lions have a reputation for being more hidebound.
“Their parent company’s main business is railroad. And the most important thing for a railroad is that it is predictable and reliable,” former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato said once. “For that reason, railroad-owned teams tend to be conservative, and the Lions are more often than not siding with the older established CL clubs.
These deals, which are pretty common, allow for sharing information and technology, that the Lions hope will improve their scouting, medical and business capabilities
The Lions said the deal will open the door for their coaches to take part in spring training and instructional league games in the States.
Some of these partnerships have had a huge impact. Twenty years ago, the tie-up between the San Diego Padres and the PL’s Lotte Marines sparked the introduction of the posting system, when the Marines assigned Hideki Irabu to the Padres in exchange for pitcher Shane Dennis and outfielder Jason Thompson.
Sixteen years ago, the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters were transformed as a result of their long term partnership with the New York Yankees. For years, Fighters players and coaches had attended minicamps in the States. And when Nippon Ham announced its team would move to Sapporo, they signed longtime Columbus Clippers manager Trey Hillman to run the club.
The organization was transformed under the leadership of Toshimasa Shimada, who created Japan’s first major league-style front office, but HIllman was a valued contributor in that process, and his finger prints are all over the way the team goes about its business 12 years after he left.
In a traditional Japanese team, the manager signs off on all changes in scouting, medical and fitness policy. This was revolutionary. Teams typically innovate by hiring managers who want to implement changes in those areas. When the SoftBank Hawks hired Kimiyasu Kudo, who studies sports science, much more was demanded of the team’s medical and training staff.
That’s the norm. In a baseball culture where players are told what to do, and managers rarely innovate, pro ballplayers need instruction in strength training and conditioning, but while all clubs have excellent facilities, few place any demands on the players to actually employ them in a productive manner. Japan’s amateur baseball culture generally glosses over nutrition, rest and strength education, and few pro teams do any better.
In 2015, when Kudo took over the Hawks, and the CL’s Yakult Swallows hired SoftBank’s minor league training coach, the two clubs met in the Japan Series and I began asking other clubs about their training innovation.
“I’ve been here five years, and we haven’t changed a single thing,” a Lions conditioning coach told me in 2016.
What the MLB teams get
What’s in it for the Mets is a bigger question.
There are a lot of skills Japanese baseball can teach individuals, and having good coaches in camp and in the instructional league could potentially be valuable.
Unfortunately, those skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but rather taught here and practiced in the context of Japanese competition. You can help someone locate their secondary pitches better and play better defense off the mound, but people here learn that because they are prerequisites.
The best outcome might be to have Kazuo Matsui go and coach in the Mets’ minor league system on loan, in the same way that former Ranger and Padre Akinori Otsuka is now on loan to San Diego from the CL’s Chunichi Dragons.
Very often the MLB partners talk about “scouting information” but that is likely going to be very limited to players who are bound for the States and foreign players in Japan who might return to the majors.
There is no chance the Mets could leverage this deal to improve their chances of signing Japanese amateurs, although I can definitely hear some bright person in the Mets front office selling this deal because of the importance of signing 100-mph high school pitcher Roki Sasaki.
If the Mets act like a major league club that knows everything, then they will be putting themselves in the same place as a player who comes to Japan “knowing” that because he’s played in the majors, he can just profit from what he’s already accomplished without learning anything new.
In that case, the Mets will also be leaving at the first opportunity.
But on the other hand, if the Mets approach this like they were players coming here to restart careers and ask “what can we learn that will make us better,” then the Lions deal could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.