Tag Archives: Tomoyuki Sugano

I’ve got news for you

In each of the last years, players from the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants were required to walk across Japanese pro baseball’s busy postseason thoroughfare and for two straight years they were run over by a bus.

OK, it wasn’t a bus that hit them but the Pacific League’s Softbank Hawk. In two videos that @HinosatoYakyu uploaded to Twitter, ace pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano and the team’s captain, shortstop Hayato Sakamoto were asked what the difference was with SoftBank.

I guess when you get swept by the same team two years in a row after dominating your own league, it’s natural to ask what makes that other team so good, and find a simple solution. Giants manager Tatsunori Hara suggested that using the designated hitter would give the CL teams a fighting chance.

Here are my three most recent posts related to the gap between the leagues:

But hearing the Giants players speak almost makes it sound as if some people think the Hawks are the reason the Giants can’t win the Japan Series and not the general imbalance between the two leagues.

If you think that, then as Ray Charles sings in the Roy Alfred song, I’ve got news for you.

The Hawks, as the most dominant team in either league, are a reason the PL is stronger, but they aren’t the ONLY reason. How do we know? Because if we stripped the Hawks’ 214-126-14 interleague record, the other five PL teams would STILL be better in quality than the CL.

CL records vs the 5 weakest PL teams

YearsWinsLossesTiesWin Pct.Pyth.
’05-’0723623311.503.515
’08-’10176175 9.501.445
’11-’1315818419.462.440
’14-’16143153 4.483.457
’17-’191291374.485.471
“Pyth” represents the CL’s IL Pythagorean win pct. over each three-year period.

It’s not the bus that ran over the Giants that is the problem, but that the traffic in that road just moves too fast for CL teams to keep up, and if it wasn’t the Hawks, it would have been somebody else.

League, Interleague win. percentages since 2005

TeamLeague InterleagueIL +
Hawks.572.629+.057
Giants.547.525-.022
Lions.524.510-.014
Fighters.523.542+.019
Tigers.519.484-.035
Dragons.509.497-.012
Carp.493.436-.057
Marines.490.541+.051
Swallows.468.465-.003
Buffaloes.460.497+.037
Eagles.460.469+.009
BayStars.433.402-.031

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A new hope

Masahiro Tanaka is back, and Japanese baseball is celebrating as if one of the major leagues’ better players has decided Japan is the best place for him to play–because that is exactly what happened.

Tanaka’s return is a sign, although not the chauvinistic one some old farts would have you believe about the ethnic superiority of Japan’s game. I exaggerate but it seems some would tell us Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu ordained No. 2 batters be small middle infielders whose sacred duty is to execute sacrifice bunts.

What it does mean is that Japan can be a viable destination for players who are still in demand in the majors. In a sense, Tanaka is low-hanging fruit. He’s not among the majors’ very best, and he’s returning, temporarily at least, with his family to his homeland during a global health crisis from a country where racist behavior is once more tolerated by a sizable minority.

The challenge for Japanese baseball’s stakeholders, fans and advocates is to see Tanaka’s choice for what it isn’t, at least not yet: a global migration of talent that could change the face of the baseball playing world. Want to keep Japan’s best talent in Japan? Make Japan’s game better.

Not everyone wants to play in Japan, even when the money is better, that’s what free choice is all about. Matt Moore reportedly turned down much a much better offer from the SoftBank Hawks to play for the Phillies.

The idea is to make NPB open to and attractive to the world’s best talent, and to do that, NPB needs to make its business profitable at home and abroad.

Since 1957, there have been 12 pro teams in Japan. Sixty-four years later there are still 12 top-flight teams here. Japanese pro ball expanded from eight teams to 15 in 1950, but it was untenable without enough established local fan bases or suitable stadiums.

But the lesson derived from 1950’s hyper expansion was not that it was too early, but that 12 is the correct number for Japan, and so we have 12 and would have had 10 had it not been for the intervention of the fans and players.

That 2004 fan rebellion against contraction should not have been a surprise. Baseball is in peoples’ blood. When people in my Tokyo neighborhood find I write about baseball someone will bend my ear to rave about some second-year high school shortstop in far-away Wakayama Prefecture and invite me to play in their weekend league.

When Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League was the world’s best pro baseball for a time, people around the world could watch English broadcasts. When South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization opened for business, it did a deal with ESPN to broadcast games in English.

When Nippon Professional Baseball followed suit on June 19? Nothing. Pacific League TV did a little to make its Japanese language streaming service slightly more accessible to English speakers, but little else. Japanese baseball, as a body, can’t market its games because the Yomiuri Shimbun, which founded Japan’s first pro league–although not its first pro team, still holds sway over most of the Central League teams and the most risk-averse PL team.

The Giants’ goal, as it should be, is to win the Japan Series every year, something they were exceedingly good before a draft, introduced to deprive amateurs of their bargaining power, also introduced competitive balance. Japan’s pro baseball market is mature, and though growth is possible, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s mission is to make sure that growth does not come at the expense of its market share and influence.

For that reason, NPB does not allow joint marketing of licensed goods, or shared gates, or broadcast revenues. Because of the way Japan’s media market works, teams’ broadcasters only cover their home games. Road games belong to the home team, which is good for variety but not so good for building fan bases by having the same media partners covering home AND road games for the whole season.

When overseas broadcasters come knocking, NPB’s answer has been: “If you want to broadcast games you need to obtain the rights from each home team.” Want to air a digest of NPB highlights? Get permission from all 12 teams first.

If a Japanese network wants to go whole hog and bid on the Japan Series and turn it into its marquee event, it can’t. Japan Series rights, while technically allotted by NPB, are assigned by the home teams as part of their annual negotiations with their regular broadcasters and rubber-stamped by the other owners when they qualify for the season finale.

Now is the time to fix it, find a patch for the rules to allow an NPB committee to negotiate overseas broadcast rights, and then move on to the next issue, expansion – both in the number of teams and in talent. Increase to 16 teams and get rid of the active import player restriction.

If teams can make winning pay, there will be more incentive for the three clubs who rent their home parks to fix that no-win situation and allow two of them to invest more in the development of talent that is theirs for the taking because MLB is slashing salaries to the bone.

With Japan’s economic might, and passion for the game, there is no reason it should not have the world’s best pro baseball. There are educational system issues – particularly the one that tethers school kids to one sport for year-round practice, but Japan’s baseball organizing bodies are waking up to the health costs associated with year-round overtraining and excessive in-game demands on young pitchers’ arms.

Japanese society exists at the confluence of a nationalistic narcissism about its own racial superiority and uniqueness and a vibrant inferiority complex when comparing itself to the United States. Its style of small ball is considered suitable for players with smaller physiques and morally superior—a boundless dedication to practice and execution.

The flip side of that is a firm belief that imported players will always be bigger and stronger. In that model, Japan is always the overachieving underdog, never the favorite; the purest, the most dedicated to the craft, but never the best.

Tomoyuki Sugano’s decision to play for the Giants in Tokyo in 2021, and Masahiro Tanaka’s decision to return to Sendai with the Eagles, unleashed a wave of nationalistic pride, a middle finger to the majors. But until NPB sees that a bigger future is within its grasp, it will never be more than the small hustling kid on the playground who always plays but is always the last picked.

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Tanaka coming home

2-year, $17 million

Masahiro Tanaka will return to the Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League for the 2021 season on a two-year deal worth a reported 900 million ($8.6 million) Kyodo News (Japanese) reported after the club announced the signing.

Because Japanese contracts are not made public, their value is subject to speculation. This month, Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano reportedly signed for 800 million after he declined offers to sign with an MLB club via the posting system. That figure is being touted as a record for Japanese pro ball, but it’s not verifiable.

In a tweet that included a picture of him looking over the Eagles’ home ballpark while wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned on the back with “New York,” Tanaka said:

“At this time, I’ve accepted a contract from the Rakuten Eagles. I’d like to let you know my feelings and what led to this decision to play in Japan at the press conference we have planned.”

–Masahiro Tanaka

Eagles General Manager Kazuhisa Ishii confirmed Tuesday according to Kyodo News (Japanese) that talks have been proceeding but that nothing official has been offered. However, a Sponichi Annex story on Wednesday reported the team has already offered Tanaka a one-year contract, and that further details, including additional years, are now being hammered out.

Speaking to media this week, Ishii told reporters that the No. 18, typically associated with being an ace pitcher in Japan was Tanaka’s right.

“The Eagles’ No. 18 belongs to no one else but Tanaka,” Ishii said.

Tanaka turned pro with the Eagles out of high school. He won 28-straight regular season decisions from 2012 through the end of the 2013 season. After Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish had each attracted $50-million posting of fees, Tanaka was poised to earn the Eagles a windfall of perhaps twice that much until MLB backed out of the posting agreement and capped the Eagles’ fee at $20 million.

Tanaka, stung by that, suggested he contribute to the team financially for which he was rebuked by MLB for a potential violation of the posting agreement terms. Since he moved to the New York Yankees in 2014, he has trained each winter at the Eagles’ facility.

When the pandemic shut down MLB’s training camps last March, Tanaka remained in Florida with his family, but returned abruptly to Japan, suggesting only that the move was out of concern for his family’s safety — both from the virus and other issues.

Read Kyodo News’ English story.

With spring training due to start in Japan’ on Monday, Feb. 1, Ishii said according to the Kyodo story that Tanaka would likely arrive in camp prior to the start of the first preseason game on Feb. 23

Tanaka will be in store for some of the added pressure that dogged the Eagles in 2011, after much of the region was devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left in excess of 15,000 dead and triggered a nuclear disaster.

The story was first reported by Sankei Sports, which said that team president Yozo Tachibana had been involved.

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Sugano’s wake

Perhaps it was a slow news week, because Sunday’s headlines were filled with people giving opinions worth two yen on the meaning of Tomoyuki Sugano’s return to Japan rather than sign the contract that would have moved him closer to achieving his goal of pitching in the majors.

On Jan. 14, Sugano signed a contract reportedly worth a little less than $8 million a year and it is said that incentives could bring it’s total value close to $10 million.

Since before Sugano’s posting-system deadline, people have been telling me that if you want to go, you go, no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts.” But at this online press conferences on Jan. 10 and again on Jan. 14, the normally ultra-poised Sugano was said to have gotten frosty at some of the questions.

I’ve heard from people who tell me Sugano is crazy to think next year he’ll be in a better situation, and who laugh at any suggestion that his principle motivation for coming back was money.

Blowhard and hard ass former manager Tatsuro Hirooka expressed satisfaction that Sugano had turned down offers from MLB teams that look down on Japanese talent. In December, if anyone doubted Hirooka’s serious old fart credentials, he proved them by saying Sugano lacks sufficient love for the Giants — as proved by his request to be posted.

Perhaps I’m no different. I, too, see Sugano’s decision as a symbol for something bigger, his right to choose. A lot of players have had spectacular fulfilling careers in Japan. For all its faults and flaws, it is still a wonderful place to live and work.

To see Sugano’s decision as symbolic of a failure on his part or of Japan’s superiority is ludicrous. We don’t all make the right decisions, I certainly don’t. But who the heck are we to say we know what is best for Sugano and then ridicule him for making up his own mind?

I don’t pretend to know what would be best for his life and for his personal happiness, growth, health and satisfaction, so I’ll share what he said on the 14th:

“Some are of the opinion that if you go over via the posting system, you should take what you are offered. The decision is mine, because it’s my life.”

–Tomoyuki Sugano

I would have loved to see how well Sugano would have done, but I think he knows a hell of a lot more about what is in his best interest than I do.

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Darvish: don’t expect MLB penny-pinching to stop

Yu Darvish, who last week came close to being a San Diego Padres teammate with Tomoyuki Sugano, shared some thoughts about major league baseball’s free-agent market and what it means for Japanese players aspiring to play for MLB teams.

We may never know all the factors that went into Sugano’s decision to walk away from the Padres offer with two minutes to go before the posting-system deadline expired on Thursday. Sugano on Sunday described some of his feelings, which Kyodo News reported in English.

Sugano sought advice from both Darvish and Kenta Maeda about various conditions, and the Padres were simply not going to offer enough to overcome whatever concerns he might have had about playing in the States.

In a recorded message, Darvish said he didn’t intend to talk about Sugano’s situation, but felt to compelled to speak his mind about the current player market in the majors–one thing Sugano did complain about.

Here’s what Darvish had to say:

“These past years the free agent market has been incredibly slow. …The number of teams that don’t want to spend a lot of money has really increased. Now there’s also the coronavirus issue, and teams that have money are saying they don’t, so now the market is incredibly bad.”

“When I was a free agent in 2017, my agent said he’d never seen it so bad. But it’s worse now. In 2017, I got my money and my guarantees, but the players making plans now? The idea you could do really well and strive and get one free agent payday? That suddenly vanished.”

“It’s tough, but you know the teams aren’t going to be able to make up their coronavirus losses in a single season, so I think this situation is going to drag on for years. Japanese players coming here as free agents are not going to get the amounts they used to get. That’s how I’m looking at the current posting and free agent situation.”

Sugano expects to try again next year, when he won’t be hampered by a posting system deadline, but if Darvish is right, and he probably is, the situation a year from now could easily be worse.

Sugano’s decision

Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano will be back in Japan for 2021, and though he probably is not the best pitcher in Japan right now as some in the U.S. media have labeled him in the crush for hyperbola, he’s not far from the best.

I speculated on some of the reasons why a Japanese star should not just leap into a major league deal, and Sugano himself cited the direction MLB is going during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, Japan got a bit of perspective.

“It wasn’t something I could be 100 percent satisfied,” Sugano told Japan’s media.

His agent, Joel Wolfe, had a media availability, a portion of which was aired on TV in Japan and that clip was then shared on Twitter.

  • Wolfe: “It was very tough.”
  • How many teams made a clear offer?
  • Wolfe: “Six. He had several four-year offers, three-year offers and two-year offers.. Our expectation and his expectation what a fair contract was a bit different. And I ended up having to call that general manager with two minutes to go. “
  • Wolfe: “He was able to draw on his relationships with (Yu) Darvish and (Kenta) Maeda. They all offered so much assistance and advice. I don’t think he will ever regret…”
  • Wolfe: “I think the major league teams are really going to regret…”

Although Wolfe implied money kept the two sides apart, it could well be that the money offered was not enough to outweigh Sugano’s concerns about playing in the States now.

Waseda University manager Satoru Komiyama, for years the workhorse of the Lotte Marines rotation, and briefly a New York Met, threw in his two cents. In a Facebook comment, he said considerations of money shouldn’t matter if one really desires to work from a major league mound. He suggested that agents, not players, were the ones who made a big deal about contract value.

Here’s a Kyodo News‘ 2019 interview with Komiyama

When veteran Japanese stars take pay cuts to play in the majors, or who turn their back on minor-league deals to return to lucrative contracts with their old teams in Japan, there are questions.

I have questioned the quick U-turns of Takashi Toritani, Nobuhiro Matsuda and Ryosuke Kikuchi. Each espoused a great desire to play abroad, but at the same time prioritized a happy exit from their Japanese clubs. None of them would negotiate past a certain date, they said, because that would leave their clubs back home in a bind about whether or not they would be available for the upcoming season.

To be sure, Matsuda’s case was unusual. A Japanese attorney negotiating his next contract with the Hawks complicated his American agent’s negotiations by talking directly to the San Diego Padres’ people on the ground in Fukuoka.

Every deal, however, is unique in its way because every player has different concerns for his career, for his life off the field and for his family. It’s probably never JUST about money.

Sugano really wanted to play in the majors. Either that or he’s been really good at making people think that for years.

On Sunday, SoftBank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, who would have given some part of his anatomy for a chance to play in the majors when he was young, told TBS network’s Sunday Morning, “He absolutely wanted to go.”

“I believe he wanted to see how well his pitching skill would play in America.”

Sugano has reportedly received a four-year offer from Yomiuri with annual opt-outs allowing him to go a year from now if he likes, although he could also sign a one-year deal and file for international free agency if he can compile the necessary service time.

“Is next year the best chance for him given his age? I think so,” Oh said. “But I think he really wanted to do it now.”