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Crossing The Pacific
The 1988 Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, Korea. Baseball was merely a “demonstration” sport but that didn’t mean that the competition wasn’t fierce. Eight teams participated in the tournament which saw a final game played between the United States and Japan. The US team – led by future Major Leaguers Robin Ventura, Jim Abbott, Andy Benes, and Tino Martinez – would win the game by a final score of 5-3. The Japanese squad fought hard, but ultimately had to settle for the silver medal. However, one player emerged as a star for the team and would become well known over the next several years both in Japan and around the globe.
After the conclusion of the Olympic games and before the start of the 1989 season, the Kintetsu Buffaloes selected right-handed pitcher Hideo Nomo in the first round of the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) draft. While he didn’t make his professional debut until the 1990 season, he didn’t waste any time making a name for himself as he posted an 18-8 record with an astonishing 287 strikeouts in 235 innings pitched. He would follow that campaign up with at least 17 wins over each of the next three seasons before shoulder trouble limited his 1994 season to just 8 wins. From 1990 through 1994 Nomo would go a combined 78-46, with 1,204 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA. His quirky windup – he twisted around so far he’d show his back to the batter before following through with his pitch – earned him the nickname, “The Tornado”, and he became immensely popular among Japanese fans.
At the conclusion of the 1994 season, Nomo got into a heated contract dispute with Buffaloes management. He and his agent, Don Nomura, sought a multi-year deal that would provide Nomo with the stability and income he felt he deserved. The Buffaloes, on the other hand, weren’t prepared to meet that desire and refused to give into the demand. A stalemate ensued which prompted Nomo and his agent to exploit a loophole in an agreement between MLB and NPB. Loosely put, the wording they would exploit stated that if a player voluntarily retired and decided to play again, there was nothing which forced that player to return to NPB. Without the multi-year contract he sought, Nomo retired from the NPB and signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on February 8, 1995.
Nomo would start the 1995 season with a month in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut on May 2, 1995 becoming the first Japanese born player in the Major Leagues since Masanori Murakami appeared for the San Francisco Giants in 1965 (Murakami spent parts of two seasons with San Francisco before returning to Japan to finish his career). Being the first prominent Japanese player in the Majors the pressure was immense for Nomo. Japanese fans would come to Dodger games in droves. Japanese media would follow him on the road. His starts would be broadcast live in Japan on a regular basis, despite the fact that with the time difference most games would air in the early morning hours.
Nomo’s rookie season would continue on to be a great success. He’d put up a 13-6 record over 28 starts and 191.1 innings pitched. He’d throw four complete games, three of them shutouts. With a 2.54 ERA and a league-leading 236 strikeouts he’d easily win the Rookie of the Year Award. The following season, 1996, would be another successful season that he’d finish with a 16-11 record, 3.19 ERA, and 234 strikeouts. Then in 1997 he’d go 14-12, 4.25 ERA, and 233 strikeouts.
But, after three solid seasons to start out his career, Nomo would hit a speed bump in 1998 that would begin a long stretch where he’d bounce from one team to the next. He would pitch for six organizations – Dodgers, Mets, Brewers, Tigers, Red Sox, back to the Dodgers, and Rays – over the next 8 seasons. He’d never spend more than a full season with any of them with the exception of the Dodgers (in both stints). After finishing the 2005 season in Tampa Bay he’d sign with the White Sox organization for 2006 but wouldn’t see any big league action. He would return briefly in 2008, appearing in a handful of games for the Royals before calling it a career.
Over the course of his career in the Majors, Nomo would go a combined 123-109, with 1,918 strikeouts and a 4.24 ERA. He’d lead the league in strikeouts twice and would throw two no-hitters (he is still the only Japanese pitcher to throw even one). Nomo would retire the all-time leader in wins amongst Asian born pitchers, a mark that was only recently broken by Chan Ho Park in the last week of the 2010 season. However, the biggest impact he had on baseball is likely the impact he had on Japanese players crossing the Pacific to play in the Major Leagues. Nomo opened previously unopened doors.
Nowadays there are two avenues that Japanese players may take in order to transition from the NPB to MLB. The first is free agency, which operates similarly to the free agent system here in MLB. Once players fulfill their NPB contracts – usually after their first 8 seasons in the league, unlike in MLB where it only takes 6 seasons - they have the right to declare free agency at which point they can sign with any interested team, either in the NPB, MLB, or any other professional league for that matter. The second is what has been called the posting system but we’ll get into that in more detail shortly. Free agency has seen a number of Japanese pitchers to move from NPB to MLB, most notably a pair of relievers that led the next wave after Nomo.
The first, and most notable of which was Kazuhiro Sasaki. Sasaki was originally drafted in the first round of the 1989 draft by the Yokohama Taiyo Whales (now (since 1993) known as the Yokohama Baystars). Sasaki would thrive as the closer for the Baystars team through the end of the 1999 season, winning the NPB Most Valuable Player Award for the 1998 season. For much of that time one of his bullpen counterparts was Takashi Saito, who would later come to MLB himself. Sasaki’s Japan totals would include 252 saves in 439 appearances, with an ERA of 2.41.
At the completion of the 1999 season, Sasaki opted to come to the Majors after signing with the Seattle Mariners. He would make his debut in just the second game of the 2000 season and would go on to put up a 2-5 record, 3.16 ERA, and saved 37 games while striking out 11.2 batters/9 innings pitched. He was an easy choice for American League Rookie of the Year. His time in Seattle would continue through the end of the 2003 season, in which he would miss most of June and July due to injury. Over 228 total career appearances he would save 129 games with a 3.14 ERA. Sasaki would return to Japan where he’d pitch two more seasons for Yokohama before ending his career.
Following next to Major League Baseball was Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Hasegawa was drafted the year after Sasaki by the Orix Blue Wave, where he’d become teammates with Ichiro Suzuki. Primarily a starter during his Japanese career, Hasegawa would win 12 games his rookie season, winning him Japan’s version of the Rookie of the Year Award. Between 1990 and 1996 he’d put up a 57-45 record with a 3.33 ERA.
Starting with the 1997 season he would join the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim where he’d move to the bullpen and work principally as a setup man. Five seasons in Anaheim would be followed by four more seasons in Seattle where he’d once again be teammates with Ichiro and would often pitch in games before Sasaki. Hasegawa took over closer duties while Sasaki dealt with injuries during that 2003 season. Overall he would produce a 45-43 record, 3.70 ERA, and 33 saves over 517 appearances.
While Sasaki and Hasegawa weren’t quite as big a story to the Japanese media as Nomo’s debut in MLB was, their transition to US baseball continued to fuel the belief that Japanese pitchers could indeed succeed here. Initially there was a great deal of speculation with regards to how Japanese pitchers could make such a transition. Sure, Nomo had success from an overall standpoint but what he had done was so unprecedented that people still didn’t know if he was merely an exception or the rule. To that point the only other starter who had come over from the NPB was Hideki Irabu, who success was so limited and sporadic many wonder how he managed to remain in Major League Baseball for as long as he did. Irabu was purchased by the San Diego Padres after the 1997 season. He refused to play for the Padres, stating he’d only pitch for the New York Yankees. After an unorthodox offseason trade and a poorly advised $12 Million contract, he would make his Yankee debut after just 8 minor league starts in 1997. He would play for the Yankees through the 1999 season before being traded to the Montreal Expos. Two seasons in Montreal and one more in Texas and Irabu was completely out of the game. His 34-35 career record and 5.15 ERA were massive disappointments from a pitcher who once was highly thought of in NPB. His work ethic also was consistently called into question – George Steinbrenner called him a “Fat Toad” after he failed to cover first base during a Yankee Spring Training game - which further ruined his once promising reputation. In the end the relative successes of Nomo, Sasaki, and Hasegawa - despite the failures of Irabu - actually led most MLB teams to believe that pitchers in Japan could be attractive options for teams here, both as starters or as relievers. Ultimately it was their success that lead to the MLB careers of Shingo Takatsu, Saito, Keiichi Yabu, Tomo Ohka, Masato Yoshii, Mac Suzuki, and many others.
It is true that Irabu is considered a disappointment for how he performed in MLB. In Japan, from 1988 through 1996, he was one of the better pitchers in the NPB. He led the Pacific League in wins in 1994, ERA in both 1995 and 1996, and routinely was atop the strikeout leader boards. But ultimately his impact on the game of baseball results not from anything he did, or didn’t, accomplish on the playing field. It is for his role in the development of the posting system utilized today between MLB and NPB.
In 1964 the Nankai Hawks and San Francisco Giants agreed on an exchange where three Japanese prospects would participate in the Giants minor league system to gain experience. One of these pitchers, Murakami, impressed Giants management enough that he would end up being promoted to the Majors later that year. They wanted to purchase the rights to Murakami after the 1965 season, but his NPB organization refused to agree to such a transaction. The dispute led to a working agreement between MLB and NPB in 1967 which essentially was a “hands-off” policy.
Once the Nomo and Irabu incidents took place, the working relationship between MLB and NPB was strained. A third incident would follow, in 1998. Alfonso Soriano had trained at an NPB Dominican Academy before moving up the ranks and onto the Hiroshima Carp’s main roster at the end of the 1997 season. He requested a raise that offseason and would be denied. He employed Nomura as his agent – the same agent Nomo and Irabu worked with – and was advised to exploit the same loophole that had allowed Nomo to move to the MLB a few years before. After some tenuous discussions between MLB and NPB he was finally declared a free agent in June 1998 at which point he signed with the Yankees.
It was after these three incidents that the current posting system was developed to protect the NPB teams from losing their players to MLB without any compensation. The process behind the posting system is actually fairly simple. A player in NPB wishes to play in MLB but he is still under contract with his NPB team. He must notify his NPB team of this request and if they agree he can then be made available during the following posting period which runs each year from November 1 through March 1. If the team agrees, they notify the MLB Commissioner’s Office who then informs the 30 MLB organizations. Over the next four days a silent auction is held during which each team may submit a sealed bid for the rights to negotiate with the player and his agent.
The highest big is then turned over to the player’s NPB team and the player and winning MLB organization then have 30 days to negotiate a contract. If the two sides are able to come to an agreement on a contract, the original bid is transferred to the NPB team as essentially a transfer fee. If an agreement cannot be reached, the player’s rights will remain with his NPB team. In the future he may be reposted through the same process.
There have been 13 players that have undergone the posting system since 1999, of which 10 have actually transitioned from Japan to the US. The system itself, however, has been highly criticized over the years because it doesn’t provide many benefits to the player involved. For instance, they are only free to negotiate with the team that submits the highest bid which limits that player’s leverage and flexibility. Additionally, if the player has no interest in playing for the team with the winning bid they have zero recourse. It has even been suggested that the system creates a “take it or leave it” approach because the player ultimately must decide between accepting a deal to play for an MLB team they don’t with to play for, or return to their Japanese team for at least one more year. It also opens the door for the possibility of a player being low-balled in the contract negotiations because it is known that their options are limited. Marty Kuehnert of The Japan Times wrote about the very subject in 2000 while Ichiro was going through the process. The final line from his article reads as follows:
Have no fear, Ichiro will be a huge success in MLB. The only question is whether the lousy system he is forced to use will allow him to go this year to a team with which he would really like to play, and if he will get any type of fair return for his unprecedented (for a Japanese) talents.
Criticisms of the posting system truly came to a head during the 2006-2007 offseason. Rumors swirled early that one of Japan’s top pitchers, Daisuke Matsuzaka, would be posted. Speculation began to run rampant on how much the winning bid would end up being with many believing it would fall in the neighborhood of $30 Million – twice the previous record high paid by Seattle for the rights to negotiate with Ichiro in 2000. At the conclusion of the silent auction part of the posting process, the winning bid came from the Boston Red Sox at the tune of $51.1 Million. The figure shocked both American and Japanese baseball executives even before it was later learned that they had outbid the next highest submission by over $11 Million.
Negotiations between the two sides immediately got off to a rough start that would continue nearly until the end of the 30 day negotiation period. As such, both sides were publicly criticized for their actions and intentions throughout the process. The Red Sox were accused of making such a high posting bid solely to keep Matsuzaka away from the Yankees. It was perceived by some that they intentionally offered a contract below the perceived market value because they truly didn’t want Matsuzaka to sign. Meanwhile, Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, was pegged as being equally to blame. He was accused of using the situation as a soapbox against the posting system in general. His argument was that with only one team able to negotiate, his player’s best interests can’t be fulfilled. He stated that without a true marketplace to negotiate within there was no way he could get his client his true market value because teams insisted on offering a lower valued contract due to the high posting fee they would have to pay on top. He even threatened to simply take Matsuzaka back to Japan if his demands weren’t met. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian summed up the situation best in an article posted in December 2006:
This case was made more complex by the presence of Boras, who is brilliant, fearless, and willing to challenge any system if it restricts a player from maximum earning potential. But Boras couldn’t be at his relentless best in this negotiation because he didn’t have his usual leverage. If Matsuzaka hadn’t signed with the Red Sox, his only option was to go back to the Lions, who held his rights through the 2008 season, which he had no interest in doing, and the Lions didn’t want him back because they were financially troubled and needed the $51.1 Million posting fee.
There was a fear that Boras might try to turn Matsuzaka into the Japanese version of Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s reserve clause, and helped bring about free agency.
Boras might do that someday with another Japanese player, but it was probably too late, and would have been too costly, to attempt such a major change during the course of these negotiations. And ultimately, it all worked out. The Red Sox got a guy who, veteran baseball men insist, has a chance to be the ace of the rotation immediately. Matsuzaka got what he wanted, a chance to play in the Major Leagues. And the Lions got their $51.1 Million.
Ultimately a contract would be agreed upon in the final hours. Boras had been seeking a deal worth at least $100 Million. The Red Sox countered with multiple offers believed to be in the $40-60 Million range. In the end, they agreed on a 6 year, $52 Million contract. Including the posting fee into consideration the organization agreed to pay a total of $103 Million for Matsuzaka’s services. With such a high total amount, many within baseball believe the posting system was flawed because it would take small and mid-market organizations out of the equation altogether. To make matters worse, the situation seemed to inflate the posting bids for another pitcher, Kei Igawa, just two weeks later.
The bidding for Igawa resulted in a win for the Yankees, with a final bid of $26 Million. A lengthy negotiation period followed which was completely overshadowed by continuous talk about what kind of impact Matsuzaka might have on the Red Sox rotation. However, before the end of the signing period the Yankees and Igawa were able to come to an agreement on a 5 year, $20 Million contract – ultimately spending half that of the Red Sox when including the posting fee. Despite the difference between the posting fees and contracts, both the Red Sox and Yankee organizations were highly criticized throughout the process for flexing their financial muscles. For example, the posting fee paid by the Yankees topped the entire payroll (at the time) for the Florida Marlins. Yet not a cent of that fee went towards the player’s salary. Yankee GM Brian Cashman would admit that the posting system needed change:
The posting system has existed for a few years now, and this year with the rather unique situation of the high posting fees, we are all looking at it. Those are things both sides, Major League Baseball and the Japanese baseball officials, will go back to their think tanks and re-evaluate. Trying to find a better way is everyone’s goal in the long run.
Cashman made the aforementioned comments shortly after arriving in Japan a few weeks after the Igawa signing. He, Yankee Team President Randy Levine, and officials from a number of Japanese clubs began discussions regarding the posting system. Without consent from both MLB and NPB officials there could be no changes to the system but these discussions hoped to at least start that process. To date, no changes have been formally made.
Beyond both being posted and transitioning to the Major Leagues during the 2006 offseason, Matsuzaka and Igawa have a great deal in common from their playing days in Japan. Both were drafted at the top of the first round in the 1998 draft with Matsuzaka being taken #1 overall and Igawa being selected at #2. Both also won Japan’s equivalent to the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Awards – Matsuzaka in 2001, Igawa in 2003.
Matsuzaka also won the Pacific League Rookie of the Year Award in 1999. He started the All Star Game that season and would end up leading the league in wins. In just a short amount of time he made an impact and a name for himself. Just a few starts into the season Matsuzaka was set to face the Orix Blue Wave and their star player, Ichiro. Ichiro had become one of the greatest players in the league at this point in time and his popularity had already started to spread across the globe. Against Matsuzaka, Ichiro would go 0 for 3, with three strikeouts and a walk. The performance proved that he belonged in the professional league. He’d finish the season with a 16-5 record and 2.60 ERA. In his career in Japan he would go a combined 108-60, with 72 complete games, 1,355 strikeouts, and a 2.95 ERA.
Igawa, meanwhile, also had a successful career before moving to the US. His best season came in 2003 when he finished with a 20-5 record, 179 strikeouts, and a league leading ERA of 2.80. He went into a bit of a slump over the next two seasons which led to a great deal of fan criticism for his inability to maintain such a high level of performance. Igawa would finish his Japanese career with a 86-60 record, 3.14 ERA, and 1,174 strikeouts.
After coming to MLB, that is where the similarities to their respective careers ended. Matsuzaka has gone 46-27 with a 4.18 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts/9 innings over 98 career starts. He has missed some time, most of the 2009 season, due to injuries that many think stem from his unwillingness to alter his workout habits. Matsuzaka has often dealt with control issues that have caused many Red Sox fans to wonder why the organization made such an investment to bring him to Boston. He has, however, led the Japan team to victory in each of the first two World Baseball Classics and was named MVP of both tournaments.
Igawa started the 2007 season on the Yankees roster but after 14 mediocre appearances he was optioned to the minor leagues where the team felt a change to his mechanics was necessary. He would return to New York for two brief appearances the following season before beginning what would be an extended period with AAA Scranton. Shortly before the end of the 2008 season he was removed from the 40 man roster. In 16 total MLB appearances he has a 2-4 record with a 6.66 ERA. However, in Scranton he’s become the career leader in wins for the team. Overall in the minor leagues he is 33-23, with a 3.83 ERA and improved peripheral numbers.
Like many of their counterparts that came before them (and many that have come after, for that matter) the mix of success and failure that Matsuzaka and Igawa have experienced has done little to affect the overall desire of NPB players to come to MLB to continue their careers. Since they arrived in Major League Baseball there has not been a player come across the Pacific via the posting system but there have been a number come over via free agency – Ryoto Igarishi, Koji Uehara, Hisanori Takahashi, Kenshin Kawakami, Hiroki Kiroda, Junichi Tazawa and Hideki Okajima.
With the offseasons in both MLB and NPB upon us, there are already a number of rumors swirling about potential Japanese pitchers coming to Major League Baseball. Yoshinori Tateyama, a 34 year old right-handed relief pitcher, reportedly wants to come to the US via free agency. He has been quoted in Japanese sources (the article is originally written in Japanese but there is an option to translate to English, fair warning the translation is poor) as saying that he’s been directly inspired by Uehara, Kawakami, and others. A more accurate translation to the previously linked article and news of some other rumors came courtesy (via email) of Patrick Newman. Newman maintains a blog of his own, NPB Tracker, which discusses the NPB fairly thoroughly for those who have interest but fail to speak or read Japanese. He also occasionally contributes over at FanGraphs.
Newman also provides word that Hisashi Iwakuma is likely to be posted within the next few weeks by his NPB team. Iwakuma also participated on the World Baseball Classic teams alongside Matsuzaka. He currently is 101-62 with a 3.32 ERA in his NPB career, spanning from 2000 through 2010. He won Japan’s Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards in 2008 after going 21-4 with 159 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA.
Finally, there is the ongoing question and speculation regarding Yu Darvish. For anyone who has not yet heard of Darvish, I’d like to first direct you to an article Newman posted in 2008 about the budding star. Darvish quickly established himself as a premier pitcher in Japan while still in high school, similarly to how Matsuzaka first came to fame within the country. There were even reports of a number of MLB teams scouting him going back to his years in junior high.
After being drafted in 2004, he has quickly proven that the hype was warranted over the course of his short career. Through the end of the 2010 season he holds a career mark of 75-32, with 45 complete games, a 2.12 ERA, and 974 strikeouts. He won the Cy Young Award in 2007 after a 15-5 season, with 210 strikeouts and a 1.82 ERA. He also took home Pacific League MVP honors that year, as well as in 2009 when he again went 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA. He also participated on Japan’s 2009 World Baseball Classic team.
Numerous teams in Major League Baseball have already reportedly made trips to Japan to scout Darvish over the past few years. In fact, there have been reports that both the Washington Nationals and Yankees have each made 10 scouting trips apiece. Until he is posted, however, the list of potentially interested parties is merely speculation. Recent rumors speculate that he’ll be posted this winter but Newman thinks it won’t be until after the 2011 season.
The history of Japanese pitchers transitioning from NPB to MLB is rich with examples despite the fact that players have been making such a move for only the past 10-15 years. Yet, as history shows us, despite an equal share of successes and failures there is no slowing down to the true globalization of the game of baseball. The NPB has long been considered the most prominent professional league outside of the United States and for good reason. As time continues, the impact the NPB has on Major League organizations will continue to thrive and develop as more and more players make the transition and cross the Pacific.
* A special thank you goes to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker for sharing some insight, thoughts, and links that were used in writing this post.