Following Japanese Baseball, Part 2: Pro Yakyu Communities

» 06 March 2014 » In npb » 11 Comments

This is part 2 in a multi-part series. Part one on English-language news sources and blogs on Japanese baseball can be found here.

Back in the nascent years of Pro Yakyu otaku-ism, when I was interested in Japanese baseball but lacked the requisite language skills, I had one source of information: JapaneseBaseball.com. I discovered it one day in 1997 or ’98, when I decided to type japanesebaseball.com into Netscape’s location bar and see if there was anything there. To my great benefit, there was, and over the years I learned a lot from reading through the forum postings.

Communities are important; no one has a monopoly on information and ideas. This site is kind of like my own monologue but it’s benefited from the discussion contributions of commenters like passerby, EJH, and Westbaystars, to name a few; and the other writers who have written articles for the site. At it’s peak, JapaneseBaseball.com was a shining example of an online community, with many engaged posters, thoughtfully moderated by Westbaystars.

JapaneseBaseball.com’s forums haven’t gone away, but the aren’t quite as active as they once were. Over the past year or so, a couple of alternatives have emerged:

  • The Pro Yakyu Google+ group, curated by Michael Westbay. This group is open to the public, and I am member. This is a great way to stay on top of NPB news and podcasts.
  • An NPB Reddit community popped up last July probably in the last month or two (I discovered it via referral traffic). In addition to news postings, there are some community-oriented topics like this one.

It takes real work to maintain an online community, so my appreciation goes out to Westbay-san and the mystery man who moderates NPB Reddit. If you’re looking for more places to keep up with Japanese baseball, I heartily recommend all of the above options.

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Following Japanese Baseball, Part 1: Online Text

» 03 March 2014 » In npb » 21 Comments

Back when I announced my return to writing, one of the topics I intended to pursue was some guidelines for how to follow Japanese baseball without know the Japanese language. It took me almost a year to get to it, but here we are.

One of my frequently asked questions is “how can I follow Japanese baseball from the US?” I’m happy to say that thanks to the Web, it’s pretty doable. But unfortunately some of this stuff is fairly well-hidden, my hope is to have something of a guide available. My plan is to break this into three or four posts: this one for writers, another for Twitter, one for video, and then any miscellany if necessary.

On with the show. If you want to read up on NPB or Japanese baseball in general, you now have plenty of options. Here are my favorites:

The Beat

  • Japan Times columnist Wayne Graczyk is probably the dean of active Yakyu writers.
  • Robert Whiting is kind of the dean emeritus to Wayne’s dean. I don’t think he’s regularly publishing articles, but he does turn up from time to time.
  • The Japan Times has doubles its quality coverage with Jason Coskrey, who has also written for ESPN.
  • John Gibson writes for the Daily Yomiuri and One World Sports. I don’t think his Yomiuri work is online, but his One World Sports work is.
  • Jim Allen has been writing about Pro Yakyu since the mid-90’s. He’s currently with Kyodo, and I suspect his work is buried behind a paywall. But fear not! Because the next bullet point makes up for it.
  • Additionally, John and Jim host an excellent weekly podcast, which can be downloaded from iTunes or John’s page on Japanesebaseball.com. They were even kind enough to have me on a couple months ago.

The Blogosphere

  • Any summary of the Yakyu Blogosphere has to begin with Michael Westbay, the founder and operator of JapaneseBaseball.com. JapaneseBaseball.com has been an invaluable resource to me, particularly early on in my pursuit of Pro Yakyu knowledge in the late-90’s/early-00’s. Without JapaneseBaseball.com and it’s vibrant community, I never would have learned enough to start this site. Westbay-san also blogs, has written for Baseball Magazine, and did a video podcast throughout 2013.
  • Any summary of the Yakyu Blogosphere has to continue with Gen Sueyoshi and YakyuBaka.com. If you want a place to keep up with the daily and even hourly goings-on of Japanese baseball, YakyBaka.com is the single best resource available.
  • Deanna Rubin doesn’t seem to be actively updating her Marinerds site, but the archives are well worth a visit. You’ll tons of pics and information about college ball, ni-gun, indy leagues and minor league ball. Plus, Deanna got recognized by a reader last year when we went to the WBC final in San Francisco.
  • Japanese Baseball Cards is, helpfully, exactly what it sounds like.
  • I hadn’t looked at A Noboru Aota Fan’s Notes for years before writing this post, but it’s still going and still deeply historical.
  • Jan Benner’s blog covers baseball in Germany, Japan and the United States. Jan also contributed an article on German baseball to NPB Tracker a few years ago.
  • If you happen to speak Spanish, check out Claudio Rodriguez’s Beisbol Japanes.

Team-Specific Blogs

  • Love the Chiba Lotte Marines? So does Steve Novosel.
  • The Hanshin-devoted Tiger Tails blog is a wee bit on the pessimistic side.
  • The TokyoSwallows.com is probably closest thing any NPB team has to an English-language online beat. The TS team of writers publishes notes on pretty much every game.
  • Edwin Dizon’s Koukou Yakyu rivals even the most detailed Japanese language high school baseball sites.
  • I hope Dan Kurtz doesn’t mind me lumping MyKBO.net in to this category.

Did I miss anyone? It wasn’t intentional. If I did, please drop me a line in the comments or via email.

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2014 NPB Payrolls

» 25 February 2014 » In npb » 18 Comments

Alright, here we go, it’s time for the always popular post on Japanese team payrolls.

This data comes from the February 3, 2014 edition of Shukan Baseball via their handy iOS appSasuga, Shu-be.

These payroll figures are a little different from MLB numbers in that each team’s payroll covers its entire 70-man shihaika roster. This includes minor leaguers, but not players on the ikusei roster. So the average per player is a bit lower than if it were narrowed down to the top 25 or 40 players. NPB is also a little more egalitarian in the sense that minor leaguers earn a livable wage off.

My US dollar figures are based on an exchange rate of JPY102.5/$1, which was the market rate at the of writing. The Yen has weakened against the US Dollar by about 10 percent over the last year, so take the conversions with a grain of salt.

And aside from that, I’ll let the data speak for itself:

Team League Payroll JPY Payroll USD Average Per Player
Yomiuri Central ¥4,659,100,000 $45.45m 63 players, avg ¥73.95m/$721k
Softbank Pacific ¥4,000,300,000 $39m 65 players, avg ¥61.54/$600k
Hanshin Central ¥3,235,500,000 $31.56m 66 players, avg ¥49.05m/$478k
Rakuten Pacific ¥2,789,800,000 $27.22m 62 players, avg ¥45m/$439k
Chunichi Central ¥2,633,000,000 $25.69m 68 players, avg ¥38.36m/$374k
Lotte Pacific 2,491,450,000 $24.3m 64 players, avg ¥38.93m/$380k
Nippon Ham Pacific ¥2,410,500,000 $23.5m 67 players, avg ¥35.84m/$349k
Orix Pacific ¥2,397,250,000 $23.38m 67 players, avg ¥35.78m/$349k
Yakult Central ¥2,386,200,000 $23.28m 66 players avg ¥36.15m/$353k
Seibu Pacific ¥2,242,600,000 $21.88m 65 players avg ¥34.50m/$340k
Hiroshima Central ¥2,061,170,000 $20.1m 66 players, avg ¥31.23m/$305k
DeNA Central ¥1,9270,000,000 $18.8m 65 players, avg ¥29.65m/$290k

To add context, here are some interesting facts about NPB salaries:

  • 91 NPB players make JPY100m (about $1m) or above. 65 are Japanese, 26 are foreign.
  • Japan’s highest-paid player is Yomiuri catcher Shinnosuke Abe at JPY600m ($6m). He actually turned down a higher salary for Yomiuri, because he felt he was not ready to surpass the JPY610m that Hideki Matsui made in his final season with the Giants.
  • The highest paid foreign player is Rakuten’s Andruw Jones, at JPY400m. I believe he’s being paid in dollars, in the amount of $3.8m. To get a better idea of how foreign players are paid, read this post.
  • The lowest paid shihaika roster player is Rakuten rookie pitcher Ryuta Konno, at JPY4.4m ($44k).

I’ll delve into why Japanese baseball salaries aren’t higher in a later article.

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Maeda, Through the Lens of His Predecessors

» 24 February 2014 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 8 Comments

In recent weeks, I’ve written about some of the better MLB prospects who are currently active in Japan, and looked back at some of skills that have translated well from NPB to MLB. Now we’ll see how Japan’s Next Top Pitcher, Kenta Maeda, stacks up against his most recent predecessors.

Maeda let the cat out of the bag during his 2014 contract negotiations that he wants to play in MLB in the future, leading to widespread speculation that he’ll be posted following this season. Let’s assume, for the sake of this article, that he enjoys another Maeda-esque season in 2014 and is indeed posted after the season. What will he bring to the MLB negotiating table? Here’s my breakdown of his strengths and weaknesses:

Maeda’s strengths:

  • A fastball that won’t be a liability at the MLB level.
  • An ability to locate at least two breaking pitches, a slider and a changeup.
  • He gets his curve into the strike zone as well.
  • An ability to suppress hits. Maeda has allowed just 7.51 per 9IP over his 1116.1 inning career. In 2013, he allowed just 6.61 hits per 9IP.
  • Health and durability. Maeda has never had a serious injury, and has topped 175 IP in each of the last five seasons.
  • Consistency. Maeda’s WHIPs over the last four years: 0.98, 1.02, 0.99, 0.99.

Maeda’s weaknesses:

  • Overall his stuff is just not as whiff-inducing as Yu Darvish’s or Masahiro Tanaka’s.
  • He has lacked the eye-popping K:BB ratios of guys like Tanaka, Koji Uehara or Colby Lewis, though he is no slouch at about 5:1.
  • I’ve noticed he can nibble a bit.
  • On my list, Maeda’s build and stuff resemble’s Kenshin Kawakami’s more than anyone else.

I started off being pretty lukewarm on Maeda, but I’ve warmed up quite a bit. He doesn’t measure up to Darvish or Tanaka, but that’s setting the bar pretty impossibly high. Kawakami might be the best comparable among NPB starters who have made it to MLB in the last five years, but Maeda is younger, healthier and more consistent than Kawakami was. And let’s also remember that Kawakami was something like an average National League starter in his first MLB season. My guess is that Maeda can hack it in MLB, though he’s probably a mid-rotation guy.

Of course, the 2014 season hasn’t yet begun, and anything can happen. But I don’t really expect Maeda to deviate much from the consistent performance he’s shown over the last five years.

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What If Japanese Players Were Compensated With Equity?

» 17 February 2014 » In npb, something else, sports business » 3 Comments

When Rakuten was mulling over what to do with Masahiro Tanaka last December, a thought occurred to me: what if Rakuten came up with a compensation package that included company stock? Obviously Rakuten was never going to approach what Tanaka ultimately got from the Yankees, but if they had offered him, say, a grant of one million shares in Rakuten (TYO: 4755), that would have been a little more creative than just offering to double his salary. Of course in the end they did neither.

Unlike Major League teams, which are mostly owned by groups of wealthy individuals, Japanese baseball clubs are mostly subsidiaries of large corporations. While a few clubs are significant sources of revenue, many are operated as marketing loss leaders for their parent corporations. Rakuten’s Golden Eagles club, for example, seems to fit in to the latter category.

In my industry (technology/software), it’s commonplace to compensate employees with company equity, usually in the form of incentive stock options or restricted stock units. Japanese companies seem to prefer cash bonuses as variable compensation, but that bit of reality wasn’t enough to dissuade me from this thought exercise:

What if Japanese teams partially compensated their players with company stock? Would the players be better or worse off?

To explore the question, I took a player drafted at some point over the last ten years from each team owned by a publicly-traded company, and estimated how much money they’d have today if they had taken 10% of their draft signing bonus in company stock. I deliberately chose first round picks that haven’t panned out for this exercise.

The results are below, but before we get to them, here are some points to remember:

  • This is a thought exercise. I’m not suggesting that anyone should do this.
  • The starting share value is the closing price on December 1 of the year the player was drafted.
  • Share values are as of market close on February 14, 2014.
  • Lotte, Seibu, Yomiuri, and Chunichi are privately held, so they aren’t included here.
  • The currency unit is Japanese yen. If you’re more comfortable with US dollars, JPY 100m is about $1m, and JPY 10m is about $100k.
  • I didn’t account for dividends, and fortunately none of these stocks split over the periods I looked at.
  • If you find mistakes in my calculations please let me know.
  • I cheated for DeNA. Kota Suda was drafted and played his rookie season under Yokohama’s previous Tokyo Broadcasting System ownership. But this is a thought exercise, and it wouldn’t be fun looking at TBS’s stock, or a very recent DeNA draftee. So we’re clear, I denoted Suda with **.
Team/Parent Corporation Player Year Drafted Signing Bonus 2014 Share Value (est) % Change Notes
Rakuten Shingo Matsuzki 2005 JPY 80m JPY 13.504m 68.8% It was a pain to get this data, since Rakuten switched from the JASDAQ to the Tokyo Stock Exchange
Softbank Shingo Tatsumi 2008 JPY 100m JPY 47.596m 475.96% Softbank is the clear financial winner here
Orix Daisuke Nobue 2006 JPY 70m JPY 3.6211m -48.32% Orix took a beating in the financial crisis of 2008 but followed the market up a bit in 2013
Nippon Ham (Nippon Meat Packers) Ken Miyamoto 2006 JPY 90m JPY 11.574m 28.6% Stagnant until Abenomics kicked in in 2013
Hanshin (Hankyu Hanshin Holdings) Ikketsu Sho 2008 JPY 100m JPY 10.905m 9.05% Hankyu/Hanshin an old, mature business
Hiroshima (Mazda) Michito Miyazaki 2006 JPY100m JPY 6.097m -39.13% Mazda is profitable, but share price was diluted by a large public offering in 2012
Yokohama DeNA** Kota Suda 2010 JPY 100m JPY 8.764m -12.36% DeNA seems to be performing well financially but in an inherently risky market (mobile games)
Yakult Mikinori Katoh 2007 JPY 100m JPY 17.721m 77.21% Yakult finished in last in the standings in 2013, but the parent company’s stock surged

To my surprise, most of the players would have come out ahead, with only Orix and Mazda really taking a beating. And even then, both were casualties of the 2008 global financial crisis and clawed back share value in 2013.

It’s not much of a surprise to see Softbank and Rakuten at the top of the growth table, as both are giants consolidating positions of global leadership in their industries (mainly telecommunications and e-commerce, respectively). It is a bit of a surprise to see Yakult up there, I haven’t looked into that one. I thought DeNA would have grown more, but they do seem to have a diversification problem and are in a notoriously fickle market (mobile games).

It would be irresponsible to write a post like this and not point out that much of the growth listed here happened in 2013, fueled by Abenomics monetary policy. While Abenomics seems to have coincided with stock market growth, there has also been some volatility, and it obviously remains to be seen if it leads to the end of Japan’s long problem with stagnation.

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Who’s Next?

» 15 February 2014 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » 15 Comments

Within minutes of Masahiro Tanaka signing with the Yankees, I started getting questions on Twitter about the next star out of Japan.

The short answer is that there’s no one of Tanaka’s caliber that we’ll see in MLB in the next few years.The longer answer is that there are a number of interesting pitchers currently active in Japan who could eventually wind up in North America. Here are the ones I’m watching most closely.

Kenta Maeda RHP starter, Hiroshima Carp: Maeda is Tanaka’s heir apparent as Japan’s best pitcher, but he grades well below Ma-Kun as an MLB prospect, both on pure stuff and statistical dominance. On this list, he compares most closely to Kenshin Kawakami, but with the advantages of youth and health. A reasonable expectation is that he’ll be a viable mid/back rotation starter for someone. Maeda is expected to be posted following the 2014 season, so we should see him in MLB in 2015.

Chihiro Kaneko RHP starter, Orix Buffaloes: Kaneko is pretty good, but for whatever reason, frequently overlooked in discussions about Japan’s best pitchers. He’s a bit less consistent than Maeda, but has more breaking stuff and generates a few more whiffs. Kaneko is eligible for domestic, NPB-only free agency after the 2014 season, and there are already rumors that Yomiuri is going to go after him. If he wants to play in MLB it likely wouldn’t be until 2016 at the soonest.

Seung-Hwan Oh RHP closer, Hanshin Tigers: 2014 will be Oh’s first year in NPB, having spent his career to this point in Korea. He was expected to move to MLB this past offseason, but wound up signing a two-year deal with Hanshin instead. The thought is that he could move on to MLB at the conclusion of his contract, so that would be 2016. I haven’t seen Oh yet so I haven’t formed an opinion of him as a prospect.

Hideaki Wakui, RHP starter, Chiba Lotte Marines: A few years ago, Wakui would have ranked among Japan’s better MLB prospects, but now he’s a bit of a question mark. He hit his peak in 2009, winning the Sawamura Award, but overuse, a contentious relationship with his team, girl trouble, and possible conditioning problems has resulted in several steps backward. I’ve been hearing for years that Wakui wants to move to MLB; he signed a two-year contract with Lotte this offseason where he could rebuild value.

Takuya Asao, RHP reliever, Chunichi Dragons: Asao was so dominant in 2011 that won the 2011 Central League MVP Award, despite pitching in middle relief. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been the same since, suffering from shoulder discomfort and pitching 30 and 30.2 in 2012 and 2013 respectively. If he’s healthy, there’s no doubt his stuff — mid-90s fastball, hard splitter, funky palmball — is good enough for MLB. He’s a few years away from free agency so we’ll see what happens.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP starter, Seibu Lions: Kikuchi made waves in 2009 for considering forgoing NPB to sign with an MLB club. He ultimately remained in Japan, and was drafted by Seibu. In 2013, Kikuchi was in the midst of making good on the potential that made him such a hot commodity as a high school prospect when he was stricken with shoulder inflammation and lost for the season. It obviously remains to be seen how he’ll fare when he returns, but so far he’s at least show that he can turn his ability in to results. Kikuchi is at least six years away from free agency.

Shohei Ohtani RHP starter/OF, Nippon Ham Fighters: Here’s where it gets interesting. Like Kikuchi, Ohtani also showed an interest in jumping right to MLB out of high school. Unlike Kikuchi, he seemed intent on actually doing it, but Nippon Ham drafted him anyway and eventually convinced him to sign. Despite flashing 100mph heat in high school, Ohtani opened the 2013 season as Nippon Ham’s starting right fielder. A few months later, he made his ichi-gun debut on the mound, and pitched 61.2 innings, becoming the first nitouryu (double-bladed) player since Yozo Nagabuchi in 1968. Ohtani’s offseason training centered on pitching, but he’ll reportedly continue to play both positions this season. Nippon Ham has been publicly supportive of sending Ohtani to MLB after a few years of seasoning, but of course that was before this posting system nonsense took place.

Shintaro Fujinami RHP starter, Hanshin Tigers: Ohtani’s 2013 rookie brethren Fujinami might not be as flashy, but he’s a lot more polished. Fujinami opened the 2013 as Hanshin’s third starter, and essentially stuck in the rotation for the duration of the season, an impressive feat for an 18 year-old. At this point, Fujinami probably has the best potential of any pitcher on this list. He already shows polish and pitchability, and he’s extremely lanky 6’7. As he fills out and adds strength, it’s reasonable to expect that he could develop a bit more fastball velocity, and handle more innings pitched. At age 19 he’s a long way away from free agency and MLB, but if 2013 is any indication fans on both sides of the Pacific have a lot to look forward to.

Tomohiro Anraku RHP starter Saibi High School: Anraku’s still a high school student, but he’s an interesting prospect. Clearly the top player in last year’s spring Koshien Sembatsu tournament, he was famously pitched into the ground by his manager. The bodily wear he sustained from the effort led to worse performances later in the year, and his stock as an NPB draft prospect has dropped. We don’t know what 2014 holds, but it’s conceivable that he could follow in Kikuchi and Ohtani’s footsteps as a player who tests the MLB waters out of high school.

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160 Pitches? Let’s Ask Masahiro

» 11 February 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 8 Comments

Much has been written about Masahiro Tanaka’s famous two-day, 175-pitch Nippon Series pitch-a-thon. If you’re reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Pretty much all the commentary in the North American media has been that Tanaka throwing 160 pitches in a start (a loss no less), and then 15 in relief the next day is, at best, a bit of a question mark, and, at worst, a sign of abuse or overuse. It seems that few that have provided commentary cite primary sources, or even saw the games.

I was traveling on the days that games 6 and 7 took place, and I didn’t see game 6 live, but I did catch the tail end of game 7, including Tanaka’s relief appearance. He certainly did look worn out, but not quite worryingly so. What was a little odd was that of his 15 pitches, about 10 were splitters, and only two or three were fastballs. His velocity was okay, but didn’t approach his peak. In retrospect, Tanaka and Rakuten were fortunate that he was able to shut down the Giants when he did, as continuing to pitch could have been disastrous.

What’s getting lost in the shuffle a bit is that Tanaka voluntarily kept himself in game six, and made himself available for game seven. There are plenty of times when it’s totally reasonable to criticize Japanese managers for overworking pitchers, but I’m not sure this is one of them. It’s not unreasonable to fault Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino for risking injuring Tanaka, but in this case I don’t blame him. Put yourself in his shoes: you’ve got a real shot at winning your first Nippon Series, you’ve got the best pitcher in the league, he’s telling you he’s ready to go, and this is your last chance to use him. What would you do?

With that commentary out of the way, let’s take a look at what Hoshino and Tanaka had to say about this at the time it happened.

Hoshino after game 6, on wanting to remove Tanaka after throwing 120 pitches: “He wasn’t in the mood to be replaced, and he himself was planning on going. He felt like he wanted to be on the mound until the end.”

Hoshino after game 6 again: “I think it’s an ace’s will. This could be his last day to pitch in front of the fans, so there’s also that. It’s wonderful. The fans would be very happy to see Tanaka lose. Well, no they wouldn’t.”

Tanaka after game 6: “I want to do what I can.”

Hoshino during game 7 (really this is Sponichi’s reporting with a quote from Hoshino): “Hoshino asked him numerous times ‘are you really okay?’ but his determination was unchanged.”

Tanaka after game 7: “I was feeling depressed because my pitching yesterday was so pathetic. So I prepared myself in the bullpen, with the feeling that I would be ready to go any time, if I was to be put in the game. I want to show my appreciation for my teammates and fans, who set this stage.”

Tanaka, after game 7 again: “I had some fatigue, but since we’ve come this far I couldn’t just say that, so I pitched with the feeling that this would be the end.”

Hoshino, prior to the Asia Series: “Tanaka, Norimoto, and Mima aren’t going (in the Asia Series). You’d call me dumb if I had them pitch here.”

My opinion is that Tanaka’s game 6 and 7 workload was more gutsy than risky. I think Tanaka felt like he could do it, so he went for it, and it was more like a calculated risk than recklessness.

And one last thing: Tanaka was just the sixth pitcher in NPB history to throw over 160 pitches in a Japan Series game. The most recent prior to Tanaka? Ephemeral Pittsburgh Pirate Masumi Kuwata, who threw 167 pitches in game 5 of the 1994 Series.

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Japan’s Independent Leagues 2014

» 09 February 2014 » In international baseball, something else » 13 Comments

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.

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Starting Pitcher Skills

» 01 February 2014 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about Masahiro Tanaka and how he might perform in year one of his newly-minted mega deal.

My theory is that observable skills are a better predictor of MLB success than statistics. As an example, a pitcher with good control of an obvious out pitch is a better bet than a pitcher who is good all around, but lacks a dominant skill. This might sound obvious, but the media and casual baseball conversation centers around Tanaka’s 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA, rather than his ability to suppress walks and home runs.

So, I took a look back on the group of starters that have moved from NPB to MLB on Major League contracts since I began writing in mid-2008.

1st MLB Season Pitcher Strengths Weaknesses MLB fWAR
2014 Masahiro Tanaka suppressed walks, great splitter, good slider, healthy not quite Darvish ?
2012 Yu Darvish dominant in every way year after year The legacy of Daisuke Matsuzaka 9.8
2012 Hisashi Iwakuma great splitter, groundball machine, limited home runs injured in 2011, didn’t look like himself 4.8
2012 Wei-Yin Chen lefty who at one time showed electric stuff, dominant in 2009 had regressed quite a bit by 2011 4.3
2012 Tsuyoshi Wada decent control, decent changeup undersized; poor fastball velocity; looked spent at the end of 2011 0
2010 Colby Lewis phenomenal K:BB ratio, good arm was improvement in control due to him or the league? 9.6 (post return)
2009 Kenshin Kawakami great cutter, innings eater not much upside beyond #3 starter 2.4
2009 Koji Uehara phenomenal K:BB ratio, great splitter injury history, could he handle starting? 8.8 (mostly in relief)

My first reaction is that this is pretty good group. Wada was a bit of a bust, but he was injured. Kawakami comes the closest to being evidence of my theory, as he didn’t really dominate any statistical category, but I think he could have shown more if the Braves hadn’t buried him. The rest of these pitchers have either met or exceeded expectations since moving to MLB.

This seems to bode pretty well for Tanaka, as he shows two above average pitches and dominated a number of statistical categories in NPB. We’ll see how it bodes for the pitchers who are currently active in Japan in a follow up article in the next couple of days, assuming the writing gods smile upon me.

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Really Good Stuff

» 27 January 2014 » In npb, something else » 5 Comments

Japanese TV never fails to entertain. During my most recent trip to Japan, I saw things like a girl dressed in a French maid’s outfit, water skiing down a river to deliver an omelette to a guy on a boat; and a guy ride a horse through a false wall in an office building in on some unsuspecting business men in a meeting.

But the thing I’d like to share with you is this short clip from the New Year’s Eve Kyokugen program, from a segment where former Seibu and Yomiuri slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara was attempting to hit a final home run to honor his aging mother. Kiyohara was to face off against four all-time great NPB pitchers, getting three at-bats against each one.

Kiyohara’s first opponent was former Lotte ace, Choji Murata. When I saw Murata, I thought to myself “ahh, I hope he doesn’t just go up there and throw batting practice.”

I wasn’t disappointed. Murata is 64 years old, but still hits 135 kmph (83 mph) on the gun. He attacked Kiyohara with a series of fastballs, and the only solid contact Kiyohara managed was a foul ball. Then, with Kiyohara down 1-2 on his last at-bat, Murata dropped this splitter on him:

murata

(helpfully gif’ed by one of the netizens on 2ch.net)

Sick. Murata is 64 years old. Oh, I already said that. Well, he’s also a Tommy John survivor; in 1983 he became the first notably Japanese pitcher to undergo the procedure. And Murata must be in great shape to repeat those mechanics at age 64.

It was a little disappointing that Kiyohara couldn’t handle Murata’s best stuff, but that just showed it was a competition; he was going to have to earn that home run. We changed to the typical New Year’s Eve boxing matches after Murata, but I found out later that Kiyohara got his home run off lefty Hideyuki Awano. Happily ever after.

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