I’ve spent most of my writing time this week over at FanGraphs, profiling some of Japan’s better players. In researching that set of articles, I came across this post I wrote in early 2009, before Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami had signed with MLB clubs. Looking back at this, I don’t think I’d change the set of conclusions that I originally drew, but I will add the observation that this trend has hurt the overall depth of the league. Another interesting thing to note is that 11 of the 26 players listed here have returned to NPB, several since this article was written: Johjima, Iguchi, Kobayashi, Yabuta, Taguchi, Yabu and Fukumori.
Time to close out this series with some conclusions. I fear that I may be oversimplifying this a bit, but I’m looking for macro trends with this. These are casual observations, I didn’t do any hard research.
1. Most of the teams that lost a star to MLB took some kind of a hit in the standings. With the exception of Hiroshima, the teams losing the top 10 players listed below took years to replace the production they lost, and some still haven’t. It’s also important to remember that none of these departures happened in a vacuum; there were other things that affected the performance of each team, but overall the lose of these players has hurt their former teams competitively.
2. The only team that really took a popularity hit after losing a star to MLB was the Giants after losing Matsui. I bought walk-up tickets to a Giants game in 2005, which would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Of course, while the Giants were down, the Tigers and Dragons were both up and have enjoyed competitive success and popularity since the early part of the decade. SoftBank has been less competitive since losing Johjima, but has not suffered at the gate. The team is actually adding 6000 seats to the Yahoo Dome for next season to help meet demand.
3. Signing foreign talent to replace departed stars doesn’t seem to work. Teams will often sign foreign players to fill the holes left by departed stars, but when the do so, they’re losing the opportunity to add depth at other positions with those roster spots. I can’t think of an example where a foreign star was a long-term replacement for an MLB bound star. Colby Lewis was great as Hiroki Kuroda’s replacement in 2008, but so was Kevin Hodges a few years ago and he flamed out after a single season.
4. Losing talent to MLB has a trickle-down impact on the smaller market teams. As an example, Hanshin may have been content with their outfield had Shinjo stuck around, but two years after he left they signed Tomoaki Kanemoto away from the Carp to play left field. Kanemoto has gone on to become a legend for the Tigers while the Carp have only recently begun to show signs of life. Hanshin and Yomiuri can spend to fill their holes, while smaller market teams like Hiroshima cannot.
5. On the positive side, stars moving to MLB has opened up (or could potentially open) spots for younger players, in a league where there is no rule 5 draft and blocked prospects and depth guys are seldom traded. We haven’t seen too many cases of prospects jumping in and filling the shoes of the top 10 guys I’ve listed below, but others have stepped in for 11-26.
Overall, I don’t think this trend is killing NPB. Attendance is stable, and Japan Series television ratings were up this year (mostly because the Giants played in it). Many of the players who have made the leap to MLB have actually been pretty successful, which has greatly improved the credibility of NPB overseas. On the downside, the loss of star players has hurt the competitive depth of the affected teams, and led many to question the viability of the league. I seeing the loss of these star players as an “Oakland A’s-ing” of the league — the A’s have gotten by with smart management, an ability to exploit market inefficiencies and a willingness to continually reinvent the team on the field. The A’s style doesn’t translate to the Japanese game completely, but the underlying principles of thrift and creativity are important for a group of teams that generally is not going to compete with MLB financially.
Below is a list of all the players I looked at, ranked in order of how much I think their departure affected their previous team and the league. For me, there are really about three or four classes: Matsui and Johjima, Iwamura through Iguchi, and everyone else. You can possibly put Matsui, Kobayashi and Yabuta in their own class as well, as guys who were quickly replaced but did leave a gap in their absences.
|Rank||Player||Team||Year||Record Before||Record After||Impact|
|15||Hideki Okajima||Nippon Ham||2007||82-54-0||79-60-5||Low|
|25||Yusaku Iriki*||Nippon Ham||2006||62-71-3||82-54-0||Low|
* I forgot about both these guys when compiling the original lists. Mori was successfully posted and signed with Tampa Bay, but got hurt in his first spring training and was never heard from again. Iriki played in the Mets and Blue Jays organizations, but got busted for PED usage and never reached the Majors. He resurfaced with Yokohama in 2008, but retired after the season.
** I left out Yukinaga Maeda as well.