Despite the steady decline in traffic to this site during it’s two years of idleness, one page that has attracted a steady stream of visitors is Ryo Shinkawa’s 2009 post on Japan’s independent leagues. Since that post is nearly five years old, I thought I’d attempt to come up with an update. I got a big helping hand from Brandon Mann, who spent the 2013 season with the Shinano Grandserows of the BC League and took the time to answer some questions about his experiences there. Thank you Brandon for your input.
Indy ball got its start in Japan in 2005, when former Seibu Lions star Hiromichi Ishige founded the four-team Shikoku Island League. The league did well enough to spawn an imitator in the Hokuriku region, the Baseball Challenge League (BC League), which started play in 2007. A third league, the Kansai Independent Baseball League, operated from 2008 to 2013, and has been supplanted by the Baseball First League, which is scheduled to play its first season this year.
The Indy leagues have become a source of talent for NPB, though a rather meagre one compared to amateur baseball and MLB and it’s affiliated minor leagues. 2012 Pacific League batting champion Katsuya Kakunaka stands out as far and away the most successful NPB player to have gotten his start in the Indy leagues, but his success seems more directly attributable to development as a pro. Kakunaka spent one year in the Island League, where he batted .253.
Some foreign players have used the Indy leagues as a path to NPB, to some success. Over the last few seasons, Francisco Caraballo, Alex Maestri and Steve Hammond signed with Orix; Edison Barrios signed with Softbank; and Chris Carter played in the BC League to prove he was healthy, which worked well enough to get him a return engagement with Seibu. Of the five players mentioned here, only Barrios lacked experience playing at 1A or above. Maestri has fared the best, and is going into his third season with the Buffaloes.
More interestingly, at least to me as an observer, is the number of players the Indy league teams have imported from non-traditional baseball countries. Some notable examples: the BC League’s Gunma Diamond Pegasus had French players Frederic Hanvi and Felix Brown, Nepal’s Iswor Thapa spent a couple seasons in the Kansai League, and last year Kagawa of the Island League signed Burmese lefty Zaw Zaw Oo. None of these players fared well, but that’s almost not important. Just the fact that they were there is something, enough to be a tiny step forward in baseball’s growth in Asia.
This post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the fact that Tomo Ohka reinvented himself as a knuckleballer in the BC League, which led to a minor league deal with the Blue Jays. Ohka isn’t alone in: Brandon Mann parlayed his tenure with the Grandserows into a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Red Sox and Indians have signed Japanese Indy ball prospects in the last year. So over the last five years, Japan’s Indy leagues have definitely cemented their place in the global baseball community.
That’s about where my insight into Japan’s Indy leagues ends, so I asked Brandon about his experiences.
NPB Tracker: How do American/foreign players hook on with Indy League teams?
Brandon Mann: In my situation I asked my agent if he could get me on an Indy team there. After getting released by the Nationals all i wanted was to be back in Japan. Some of my friends who have played there did a BC league tryout in California.
(ed. note: I found American tryout information for the Shikoku Island League here and the BC League here. Both tryouts have already happened, but it gives you an idea of what to expect for next year. The BC League is having a tryout in Gunma Prefecture on February 15.)
NT: I read years ago that the top pay for the Island League was about JPY 200,000 ($2000) per month. Is that accurate for the BC League?
BM: I can’t speak for Japanese players, but I was making $2,500 with incentives each month. My American teammates were making around 1,000 a month.
(ed. note: I spent some time looking into this, and found that Island League pays from JPY 100,000 to JPY 400,000 per month, and the BC League seems to start around JPY 150,000 per month, plus another JPY 50,000 in bonuses.)
NT: What is the level of play? How does it compare to US Indy ball or NPB’s ni-gun level?
BM: This is a question I get asked all the time. It’s hard to explain the level of play, because for me it was probably my worse year of my career statistically speaking. I usually explain it like this. Indy ball in the states or ni-gun NPB has much better players but the BC is more intense. Those players want it more than anyone I’ve ever played with. Baseball is truly life to these players.
NT: What are the living accommodations like?
BM: The team provided all of us foreigners with two bedroom apartments that we shared. It was about a 15 minute walk to the field which we would walk everyday. There was a Aeon across the street and that was about it for eating.
NT: Is there much of an NPB/MLB scouting presence at BC League games?
BM: I think that I saw a Boston Red Sox and a Texas rangers scout once last season. As with NPB there would be scouts depending on who was pitching usually. The coaches would tell me when they were there for me. To give an idea, most games there would be no scouts, and then we had 8-9 scouts at some games.
NT: Was it fun?
BM: Making no money, hanging banners up before every game, doing my own laundry, walking to the field and back ever day, and making no money? I loved every second of it to be honest. I absolutely love Japan and it was excited to experience a new part of life in Japan. Last season helped me to get signed with my current team and it honestly gave me a work ethic I never knew I could have.