Tag Archives: Shun Yamaguchi

Some black lives matter to SoftBank Hawks owner

Baseball may be a universal language, but when it comes to professional team owners, hypocrisy is the real lingua franca. And if actions speak louder than words, trouble may be in store for the SoftBank Hawks.

On June 3, SoftBank Group Corporation CEO Masayoshi Son took a bold step toward empowering entrepreneurs shackled by racial discrimination with the announcement his organization would establish a $100 million “Opportunity Growth Fund” the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

Racism is a deplorable thing. In order to break through the unfair world that hinders the success of blacks and Latin entrepreneurs, the SB Group will launch a $100 million (Opportunity Growth Fund) fund.

That is a truly admirable and righteous step for Son. But it raises questions about whether the owner of Japan’s best baseball team, the SoftBank Hawks, is as concerned about human rights on his own doorstep as he is in America. More specifically is it OK for the club to keep signing Cuban players who are denied adequate explanation of the deals they are entering into?

The man asking the question is Oscar Luis Colas, a powerful left-handed-hitting outfielder, who also throws in the mid-90s as a southpaw. He is now in the Dominican Republic having defected from Cuba. He now wants to fulfill his major league dream, but the Hawks have placed him on Nippon Professional Baseball’s restricted list, preventing him from going anywhere except back to Japan.

His agents, Charisse Dash and Alex Cotto, are appealing to the Hawks on the grounds that Cuban players are routinely signed without the implications of their contracts ever being explained to them or even the ability to review them in advance.

According to Colas, a few weeks after appearing in a 2017 showcase in Santiago de Cuba, he was summoned to Havana along with his mother who needed to sign his contract as he was an unmarried 18-year-old. When they arrived, they were shown the two contracts they needed to sign and received a cursory explanation.

One document was a standard contract and the other a supplemental attachment stipulating the full terms and obligations of both parties that named Cuba’s baseball federation as his agent. Colas and his mother said recently they understood that the standard non-roster developmental deal was renewable by SoftBank for up to three years.

The supplemental deal, however, ties him to SoftBank for an additional five years.

And though the deal is more lucrative than anything he could get from a major league team, Colas and his mother felt they were sold down the river by the federation without their knowledge.

According to Dash this is standard practice for players in Cuba.

“It is a commonality,” Dash said Saturday from the United States. “None of these players have their contracts adequately explained to them. I’m extremely confident that it never happens.”

A former executive who had dealings with the Cuban federation when it sought out NPB as a trading partner said, “I completely believe Colas’ story. The federation is the government, and it is eager to send players to Japan. The government sees the players as the property of the state.”

Dash cited a Cuban attorney she spoke to in a call with Colas’ mother, Karelia.

“The lawyer said, ‘It doesn’t happen. An athlete has no jurisdictional existence in Cuba,'” said Dash, who is seeking an amicable settlement with the Hawks that would be in both parties’ best interests.

The Hawks, however, have responded by saying in essence, “We have a deal. He has a lucrative contract. We expect him to honor it, period.”

So while Son can wave the Black Lives Matter flag, the team policy of saying “Whatever happens in Cuba stays in Cuba” is pretty standard for how Japanese baseball treats inexperienced Latin players of color and is more in line with what passes for race relations in Major League Baseball.

Sure, MLB loves to crow about Jackie Robinson’s triumph in breaking the color barrier. Yet, every Jackie Robinson day is complete without acknowledging that MLB itself was responsible for the barrier Robinson broke, or the fact that most clubs were not suddenly singing “kumbayah” but had to be dragged kicking and screaming into integration.

And in some respects, major league owners have found a soulmate in Masayoshi Son.

When he took over the Hawks in 2005, he was a man on a mission to have not the best baseball team in Japan, but in the world. One pillar of that is to never give away a single day of team control to a player.

Although service time manipulation is not really a custom in Japan yet, there is some indication the Hawks may have engaged in it last year to prevent their biggest star from becoming a free agent this November.

And now that the Yomiuri Giants have posted pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, the Hawks are Japan’s last holdout against the posting system.

Because the Cuban relationship benefits both the Cuban government, most players, and has become a pillar of five Hawks’ Japan titles in six years, SoftBank should be able to ask the Cubans to do more on their side to make sure a situation like Colas’ does not happen again.

That day of change, however, is not yet on the horizon. One NPB executive with knowledge of the Hawks’ business believes Son’s need for good PR could be the trigger.

“He hates bad press,” the exec said. “The second this thing looks like it’s going to blow up, he’ll put a stop to it. He doesn’t want to get torched in the media.”

“Unfortunately, because Colas is not Japanese, it’s not a story Japan’s media is interested in. They like to portray imported players as greedy and selfish and the teams as being weak for giving in to the their demands. If Colas were Japanese, the media wouldn’t stand for this shabby treatment. They’d be all over it. But he’s not and they’re not.”

Best 10 of the 2010s

I know one’s supposed to do these things before 2020, but Ione of the things about New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is that the trains run all night, and I was on the train, so it seemed like an optimal time. So here are my top 10 Japanese baseball stories of the past 10 years in chronological order.

2013: It’s the ball stupid

Six weeks into the 2013 season and everyone noticed it. Home runs were jumping and the players union, worrying about pitchers failing to collect on their incentives, asked what was going on. Commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “Nothing. The ball is the same uniform ball we introduced in 2011.”

His disloyal lieutenant, Atsushi Ihara, stood there and let his boss tell that knowing full well that he had conspired with the Mizuno Corporation to introduce a livelier ball without the commissioner’s consent or knowledge. Ihara, one of four people involved, came from the Yomiuri Shimbun — owner of Japan’s most influential team and the leading opponent of the commissioner — whose new ball cut home runs and who had introduced a third-party panel to adjudicate player arbitration cases.

So Ihara let his boss hang himself in public. And then later came clean that he and his immediate superior, who was not a Yomiuri guy, had switched out the balls. Ihara’s boss was fired, the commissioner was ousted and Ihara, the fox, was put in charge of the henhouse.

2013: Masahiro Tanaka, Senichi Hoshino and the Eagles

Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and didn’t lose all year until Game 6 of the Japan Series. After that complete game, he earned the save in Game 7 as the city of Sendai — struck by a killer earthquake and tsunami two years earlier — won its first Japan Series.

Manager Senichi Hoshino, who had lost his three previous Japan Series as manager of the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he lost interest after winning the Central League pennant because his mission in life had been to beat the league-rival Giants. But in 2013, as Pacific League champions with NPB’s newest franchise, he faced the Giants and beat them in seven.

2014-2016: Tetsuto Yamada

From July 2014 through July 2016, the Yakult Swallows second baseman may have been the best player on the planet. He wasn’t a very good fielder in 2014 but took steps forward the next year when he was the CL MVP and led the consistently bad Swallows to the pennant.

His 2015 season was the 10th best in NPB history as measured by win shares and adjusted for era. His run came to a screeching halt in August 2016, when he was on his way to an even better season, but was hit in the back by a pitch that threw him off his game for nearly two seasons. Because of his stellar 2016 start, he became the first player in NPB history to record multiple seasons with a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals — even though he was an offensive zero the last two months of the season.

2015-2016: Giants stung by gambling scandal

Toward the end of the 2015 season, three Yomiuri Giants minor league pitchers were found guilty of betting on baseball — including games by their own team, although not in games they played in. The following March, a fourth pitcher, Kyosuke Takagi, revealed he, too, had been betting on games.

The first three players were all given indefinite suspensions and fired. In March 2016, Kyosuke Takagi also admitted to gambling. The only pitcher of the four of any quality, Takagi was let back into the game after a one-year suspension, following a recent pattern in which athletes who break the rules in Japan receive punishment inversely proportionate to how successful they are as competitors.

2016: Shohei Ohtani

If Yamada was the best for a 25-month span, 2016 cemented Ohtani’s place as the most intriguing player in the world. Ohtani had his first “Babe Ruth season” in 2014 with 10-plus wins and 10-plus home runs, but 2016, when he often batted as the pitcher in games when his manager could have used the DH was magical.

That summer, the Tokyo Sports Kisha Club, which organizes the voting for Japan’s postseason awards, made a rule change that allowed writers to cast Best Nine votes for the same player at multiple positions — provided one was a pitcher. The Ohtani rule allowed him to be win two Best Nine Awards, as the Pacific League’s best pitcher and best designated hitter.

His signature game came against the SoftBank Hawks — the team his Fighters came from behind to beat in the pennant race. Ohtani threw eight scoreless innings, opened the game with a leadoff homer and scored Nippon Ham’s other run in a 2-0 victory. Although he rolled his ankle running the bases in the Japan Series, he capped his year batting for Japan by hitting a ball into the ceiling panels at Tokyo Dome in November’s international series.

2016: Hiroshima Carp end their drought

In 2015, Hiroki Kuroda returned from the major leagues and even without Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, the Carp’s young talented core snapped a 24-year drought, winning their first CL title since 1991.

The Carp went on to win three-straight CL championships, the longest streak in club history. When the club failed to win its fourth straight pennant and finished out of the postseason in 2019, manager Koichi Ogata resigned.

2019: Ichiro Suzuki retires in Japan

The only better script would have been for Suzuki to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for another MVP and a World Series championship.

2010-2019: The CL status as a 2nd-class league is confirmed

The PL won nine Japan Series in the decade, the only time either league had ever done that. It equaled the best 10-year stretch by either league—when the Yomiuri Giants won nine straight from 1965 to 1973 bookended by PL titles.

2010-2019: The SoftBank Hawks

Never mind that the Hawks opened the decade by losing the playoffs’ final stage for the 4th time in 7 years to the third-place Lotte Marines. Softbank’s six Japan Series titles from 2011 t0 2019 under two different managers made them the team of the decade.

2019: The Giants discover the posting system

In November 2019, Shun Yamaguchi was posted by the Yomiuri Giants, who along with the Hawks have been the most critical of NPB’s posting agreement with MLB. When approached for comment about the impending news, the Giants’ official response was “that’s a rumor” and “speculation.”

Eight days later it was a done deal. Then followed the fun stuff as first one executive said it was a “one-off deal” and that the team had not changed its policy, having been obligated by contract to post Yamaguchi, which is pretty dumb, since the Giants agreed to that contract in the first place when they took him on as a free agent three years before.

The move makes it virtually impossible that the club will be able to keep ace and two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano much longer and not post him.

Yamaguchi concludes Blue Jays deal

Right-hander Shun Yamaguchi has concluded his two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, Kyodo News has reported, citing an official source.

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.

Yamaguchi 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, people should know he became a starter after developing a case of the yips as a reliever. The switch back to starter allowed him to push the reset button and 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.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale was the first to report that Yamaguchi’s contract was completed with the Blue Jays as well as the salary info.

Free agent center fielder Akiyama could have deal this year: Report

Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Friday the Cincinnati Reds have put a multiyear offer on the table for free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, and are the top candidate to sign the 31-year-old, citing multiple major league sources.

The Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs have all been tied to the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the two-time defending champions of Japan’s Pacific League. Those teams met with Akiyama at December’s baseball winter meetings in San Diego.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kikuchi, a record-setting glove wizard, has roughly a week to sign before his rights revert to the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Yamaguchi, too, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

The kotatsu league: Yamaguchi poised to sign with Blue Jays

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.

My profile of Sugano is HERE.

Tigers done with Dolis, close to Edwards deal

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.

Dolis’ English language NPB player page is HERE.

Here’s an interview with Fujikawa from this summer.

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.

The video says “1st start” but it was Edwards’ first game in relief.

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.

Tsutsugo introduced by Rays

Here’s an English language wrap of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo‘s introductory presser with the Tampa Bay Rays.

My Tsutsugo profile is HERE.

The kotatsu league: Tigers conclude Bour hunt, Giants rearm

The Hanshin Tigers on Saturday announced they have acquired 31-year-old slugging infielder Justin Bour on a one-year deal reported at $2.5 million according to Kyodo News (in Japanese).

One interesting thing about Bour is that according to Fangraphs he has a fastball hitter with a history of success against curveballs. While most of the curves he sees in Japan will be a little different from those he was more used to in the States, it suggests some ability to adjust off the fastball. He will see really good breaking balls, and it would be no surprise if he still has good success once he gets his timing down — until the locals wise up and become more selective.

When the deal was first agreed to, Tigers head of baseball operations Osamu Tanimoto compared Bour to former Tigers icon Randy Bass because of his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field — potentially negating the impact of the jet stream blowing in from Osaka Bay that holds up fly balls hit to right field at Koshien Stadium.

As a matter of interest HERE are how NPB’s different main parks affect the frequency of home runs hit by left- and right-handed hitters — with the higher figures indicating how much harder it is to hit home runs based on which side of the plate the batter bats from.

Sanchez to Giants

On Friday, the Yomiuri Giants announced they had concluded a contract with 30-year-old right-handed pitcher Angel Sanchez, who went 17-5 with a 2.62 ERA last season for the SK Wyverns of KBO. Sanchez was in his second season in South Korea. His two-year contract with the Central League champs will pay him approximately $3 million for the first year according to Kyodo News Japanese language site.

The Giants are going to lose their best pitcher from 2019, Shun Yamaguchi unless the right-hander fails to sign an MLB contract by the end of his 30-day posting window.

In a statement released by the team, Sanchez, who is from the Dominican Republic, said coming to Japan had been a dream of his since he was a child and that he was eager to learn the language so he could communicate with fans and teammates.

Bolsinger still available

Mike Bolsinger, who was released this month after his second season with the Lotte Marines, surprisingly remains on the market. Following a 2018 debut campaign in which nearly everything went right and he finished with a 13-2 record, Bolsinger was 4-6 in 2019 with an ERA 1.5 runs higher than the year before.

Although Zozo Marine Stadium had new turf in 2019, Bolsinger suffered from a foot injury through the first half of the season, when he went 1-3 with a 4.87 ERA over 57-1/3 IP through June. During that stretch, he allowed 12 homers and walked 34 batters. From July, he was 3-3 with a 4.34 ERA while walking 18 batters over 45-2/3 innings and allowing two home runs.

Take him to the SoftBank

This should trigger your “small sample size” alarm, but Bolsinger is 4-2 in his seven starts against the three-time defending Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks with 1.41 ERA and an average game score of 62.7.

To show you he’s human, the two-time defending PL champion Seibu Lions batters have treated Bolsinger like he doesn’t walk on water, handing him a 6.81 ERA and a 3-2 record over eight starts. Still, that’s 15 starts against the Marines’ two toughest opponents out of 35 career starts against the five other PL teams.

As I pointed out somewhere, that besides the foot issue, Bolsinger’s biggest shift from 2018 was in how often batted balls found holes against him. Opponents batted .278 against him on balls in play a year ago and .295 through June — when he was not pitching well. From July, when he had stopped giving up walks and home runs, opponents’ Babip was .329.

I’m biased because Bolsinger is a good guy, and easy to talk to, but those are the facts. The team that picks him up should get a bargain and results somewhere in between what he did in 2018 and 2019.