What is going on in Japan?

This is the text of a speech I gave in March to the Japan American Society of Chicago, entitled: “What Japanese Baseball Brings to the World.”

Last winter’s record MLB contracts to Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have brought fans of America’s two major leagues into contact with the idea that Japan’s two major leagues can produce some of the best baseball players in the world.

Although this is not a new idea, Ohtani’s $700 million deal, the most valuable contract in the history of team sports, and Yamamoto’s $325 million, the most valuable ever given to a pitcher, have validated the talk of Japanese players’ prowess in ways that even the World Baseball Classic and scouting reports haven’t.

In the language Americans understand, that of concrete dollars and cents, these contracts have spelled out how valuable players coming out of a radically different pro baseball context can be, and force people to ask, “what the heck is going on over there?”

That difference between Japan’s and America’s baseball worlds and the value it creates for baseball around the world is the focus of today’s talk, because if Japanese baseball did not exist, or if the relationship between MLB and Japan were different, there would be no Shohei Ohtani in the sense that we know him now as perhaps the best human to ever play the game.

This is a story about Japan and Japanese baseball, but also about how diversity and the free flow of ideas drives growth. To start with, I want to describe the parallel baseball universes of in North America and Japan.

In 1975, the major leagues in both Japan and America were advancing along parallel tracks, both content selling tickets and broadcast rights to games. In Japan, meanwhile, its teams–branded with corporate names–were reaping huge amounts advertising value with the parent companies writing off operating losses as tax deductions.

Both systems benefitted from a labor system that forced players to accept whatever salary their teams offered them or quit baseball. However, in 1976, Labor action by the MLB players association forced MLB owners to find radical new ways to secure profits, including the nefarious practice of extorting stadium and real estate handouts from local governments.

Japan on the other hand, faced no such crisis. Its free agency was designed by its most powerful team, the Yomiuri Giants, to benefit itself and was shoved down the throats of the other owners in 1993 so that the Giants could scoop up the nation’s best veteran players.

The former Yomiuri executive who oversaw its final approval said “Japan’s free agency was created on the belief that no Japanese player would be good enough to play in MLB.” This was a belief shared by MLB.

Goodness, we’ve come a long way.

The free agency that MLB owners declared would “destroy baseball” instead sparked a monumental increase in team revenues. While Japanese baseball, facing no similar crisis, has clung to the business model it created in 1950. As a result the Japanese pro baseball business has progressed in baby steps, and its style of play remains anchored in history.

Japan’s individual players have used advances in technology to become some of the world’s best. On top of that, Japanese players come armed with skills that are rarely taught in MLB because they come out of a different context.

Because of this the world is now alerted to the possibility that Japan must be doing something right.

30 years ago it was commonly believed MLB had nothing to learn from Japan, not a single thing, that an American manager tossing aside Japan’s obsolete tactics and training would guarantee a pennant winner.

We have since learned from the experience of four different American managers and one Venezuelan that that simply isn’t true, and in 2014 I got a shock.

At the MLB winter meetings that December in San Diego, I heard many from the media and from teams questioning the paths MLB had gone down and wondering if they should adopt ideas from Japan, notably a six-game weekly schedule and a Japanese style playoff system that gave added importance to the regular season. After years of “Japan can’t teach MLB anything,” just hearing that nearly knocked me off my feet.

So what’s happened?

MLB’s homogenization has decreased its sources of diversity and has restricted its pathways to its game’s growth.

This is a process that started a century ago with the colonization of vibrant local markets, and transformation of the minor league teams that served them into player processing plants,

More than ever, the necessary diversity is coming from independent major leagues overseas, such as Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central and Pacific leagues, South Korea’s KBO, the Korea Baseball Organization, and Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League.

While some American fans see these circuits as little more than farm leagues that should be obligated to surrender their best players to their quote unquote “big leagues,” overseas major leagues’ independence and vitality means they do things differently, creating new strands of baseball DNA that allow for the sport to evolve.

I don’t want to make it sound like Japan has got it right where South Korea and Taiwan have failed. Japan’s pro baseball has benefitted from a huge head start over its Asian neighbors, and has much to learn from them and from MLB.

What Japanese baseball is like

The image of Japanese baseball is one of excessive practice, harsh discipline, a strong grasp of fundamentals, and a belief in the pre-eminence of small-ball as exemplified by its two big national high school tournaments at Koshien Stadium which will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Aug. 1.

How it got that way is a long and fascinating story that would push this talk beyond the bounds of human patience, but when the first pro league arrived in 1936, a decade after Japan’s first pro teams failed, its teams embodied the same style as the amateurs.

In many ways, the baseball Japan has aspired to and still reveres, is the dead-ball small-ball baseball played in MLB when Babe Ruth hit 29 home runs for the Boston Red Sox in 1919.

Teams understand the value of home runs and crave them, but they still act as if praising power hitting too much is an act of heresy.

Japan’s seniority culture can make it a taboo to publicly criticize accepted practice, since that can be interpreted as an attack on one’s predecessors. It’s not that one can’t veer away from accepted practice, but one must find excuses for doing so, instead of saying “what everyone is doing is wrong.”

In 1994, Rikuo Nemoto, the manager of the Daiei Hawks succeeded with a slugging outfielder batting second instead of the small slap-hitting bunter doctrine called for, Nemoto said, “I wish I had one of those guys. I just have to suffer with the talent I’ve got.”

When Hiroshi Gondo, the most successful manager in the history of the Yokohama BayStars franchise said it was stupid to have players running around the field to warm up before games shouting “1,2,1,2” as teams did then—he was fired.

Individuals learn that one advances within one’s social or work group in Japan at the expense of peers who mess up. What Japan calls “quality control” is partly a learned paranoia about making mistakes.

One mistake is flouting doctrine, even when it works it is suspect, while executing doctrine, even when it makes little sense, is acceptable.

Between seniority and fault-finding and other social influences, Japan has proudly hung on to and refined elements of baseball that have long died out in MLB. Players there learn to bunt, how to foul off pitches and go the other way, to take good leads on the bases, to have really good command of their pitches and, especially for pitchers, to play really good defense.

Unfortunately, a cultural dynamic that praises the past also made it possible for Japan to take a huge wrong turn in the 1970s and 80s, when a well-meaning manager believed baseball could adopt Japanese quality control methods. Tatsuro Hirooka exaggerated certain elements of his former manager’s systems, and tried to refine baseball so that every stance, motion, technique and tactic could be codified and reproduced to eliminate variation and mistakes.

This movement, called “kanri yakyu” or controlled baseball, led to the most boring, predictable game on the planet. Sacrifice bunts went from being an important tool of Japanese offense to a religion, with each game becoming a liturgy and a sermon on how Japanese should play.

Until the 1970s, Japanese baseball was a moveable feast, a proving ground of widely various styles, most famously career home run leader Sadaharu Oh’s flamingo batting stance. Kanri yakyu taught that there was a correct “one size fits all” answer to every problem the game poses, and that being different meant doing it wrong.

Japan still believes that one-run tactics are the essence of baseball, but it has emerged from its dark age of denigrating unorthodox styles largely due to Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki, and the manager who unleashed their rare talents and unique styles on Japan and the world, Akira Ogi.

Nomo, Ichiro and Ogi magic

I’ll assume you know who Nomo and Ichiro are, so I’ll briefly tell you about Ogi. He was a solid infielder of modest accomplishments who played and coached for the most unorthodox manager of his day, Osamu Mihara, and who had no use for dogma whatsoever. Ogi said to both Nomo and Ichiro, “do it your way.”

Ichiro spent the first two years of his pro baseball career terrorizing minor league pitching to a historic degree because his first pro manager “knew” no one could ever succeed in Japan’s majors with Ichiro’s approach. When Ogi became his manager, Ichiro won three straight MVPs and seven straight PL batting championships.

Not only did Nomo and Ichiro shatter the notion in America and Japan that all Japanese baseball was inferior to all American baseball but they subverted the notion that only coaches knew what was best for players, and that the right way for every player could only be known by one’s superiors and dispensed to the players from above.

Nomo and Ichiro are one reason why Japan’s rigid baseball hierarchy has become a little more flexible with coaches more and more expected to adapt to players, rather than the other way around. This opened Japanese baseball to the idea that individual variation was a feature not a bug.

The next step in the process has been informational exchange.

The learning curve

Although a foundational idea behind kanri yakyu was a belief that baseball could be perfected based on things already known, individual players have always sought more, and Americans have been keen teachers for such willing pupils.

American teams touring Japan and Japanese teams doing their spring training in America and forming working agreements with MLB teams sparked huge interest here in other methods and approaches.

In the days before Nomo became the first Japanese to play in MLB by design, the tours were a reminder that while some Japanese players were outstanding athletes, there was a large talent gap. Japanese players, taking pride in their craft, learned what they could from the visitors.

After Nomo’s debut with the Dodgers in 1995, those tours took on a whole new meaning as Japanese saw them as a chance to see whether they might have what it takes to play in MLB. When Ichiro joined the Seattle Mariners, there was a Japanese player on TV virtually every morning, and the exposure of Japanese kids and adult players to MLB increased exponentially, expanding the world view of young ballplayers to include the possibility of playing in MLB.

This has energized many young Japanese to learn more than what their coaches tell them, not just so they can have careers in pro baseball, but so they can be the best in the world, and these kids, trained to practice, are incredibly motivated to perfect solutions.

Independence and evolution

That’s where Shohei Ohtani comes in. He wanted to be the best in the world. And though he wanted to both pitch and hit, that was something pro baseball doctrine worldwide had eradicated and declared impossible long before he was born. And while Japan would like to take credit as the country that developed him, even now, the Japanese baseball establishment wants nothing to do with two-way players.

Ohtani wanted to turn pro with an MLB team that would never let him bat, and when the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him, they only offered a two-way option so that they could keep him in Japan. Had he not wanted to be the best player in the world, and not wanted to go to MLB, no NPB team ever would have allowed a high schooler with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball to bat.

But because MLB and NPB operate independently, and because Japanese players raised in an environment where intense practice is the norm are now aiming to be the best in the world, the worm has definitely turned.

NPB is at a crossroads, but not the one many have pointed out – which is that it will wither as its best players leave the nest as soon as they can to go to MLB. That’s because for every player who leaves, it seems that every year there are two equally motivated and talented youngsters who want to take his place in Japan.

The sky could be Japanese baseball’s limit

The crossroads is that Japanese pro baseball has all the resources it needs to surpass MLB as the best baseball competition in the world.

The difference in quality between Japan and MLB is depth and the developmental knowhow needed to assist players from vastly different baseball backgrounds. As far as depth is concerned, every NPB team has one or more players who would be MLB all-stars, and several more who would be MLB regulars, but also several who would struggle to get out of Double A in America.

Japanese teams are required to have one minor league team, although several have two, and the SoftBank Hawks, the only NPB team that now aspires to be the best in the world, now have four. Japan also limits the number of imports to four active players per team.

On the plus side, Japan has a powerful economy, excellent infrastructure, and a large population that is at least on a par with the Dominican Republic and Cuba in its unsurpassed love for baseball. So why hasn’t its leagues become the best in the world?

Why don’t they? That answer is simple.

Those 11 owners paid a lot for their NPB franchises, and they’ve already got what they paid for. Daily exposure of their corporate name in the print and broadcast media that brings in immense advertising value and the ability to write off the losses on the parent company taxes.

Baseball ownership in the slow lane

Essentially, NPB owners are like the bulk of MLB owners, content for their teams to be second- or third-rate if it means getting the guaranteed corporate benefits they signed on for.

The bright side is that the future of Japanese baseball talent is only going to get brighter and brighter. The declining population means youth federations and leagues are beginning to consider player health. For generations, Japanese amateur baseball has essentially consumed a huge number of its best pitchers in every age group. That dynamic is just now beginning to change.

Japan’s rules also allow NPB teams to outbid every MLB team for every top amateur player in the world. This is because MLB, in its belief that no top Latin or American amateur prospect would choose to turn pro in Japan, has turned its amateur draft and its international signing system into something resembling a fantasy baseball draft, in which each team has a prescribed amount of money to spend.

Because Japanese teams have no such limits, the Giants and Hawks have begun snapping up Dominican youngsters groomed by MLB teams that can’t offer the money Japan can. This year the Nippon Ham Fighters outbid MLB teams for Taiwan’s top high school pitcher.

If the Giants’ young Domincans begin developing into top-level pros, the pressure to do away with the current limit of four imports on the active roster will become strong.

If Japan’s parent companies begin importing knowhow and investing in minor leagues, and begin building their own world class stadiums, Japan could, within a decade become the favored destination for baseball players seeking to compete against the world’s best, while retaining most of its top domestic talent.

I don’t see this happening for one reason. The problem is that becoming the world’s best would require huge investments, and Japan’s owners currently have what they want and are not interested.

Each club advertises its parent company to a massive degree, and generates tax deductions when it loses money.

With the exception of SoftBank Hawks owner Masayoshi Son, NPB’s owners are not unlike the owners of most MLB teams now, content to be second- or third-rate if it means getting the guaranteed benefits they signed on for.

That lack of interest will ensure that no matter how big Japan’s stars become on the world stage, the very best will continue to hightail it to MLB the first chance they get.

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