Major League Baseball has been seeing a major influx of Japanese players recently, as U.S. teams have started to speak with their pocketbooks in an attempt to pry talent away from the Nippon Leagues. For all of the attention lavished on a Daisuke Matsuzaka, there is an Akinori Iwamura who signs for much less but provides immediate impact. I became aware of Mike Plugh, a baseball writer living in Japan, when he commented on Digital Headbutt a while back. He is the creator of Matsuzaka Watch and other blogs focusing on Nippon baseball, and he writes for Baseball Prospectus as well. In an effort to peek behind the curtain of international baseball, I asked him a few questions about the similarities and differences that define the sport in Japan and the U.S.
Here are my questions (in bold) along with his generous and precise replies:
Baseball takes a backseat to the NFL in the U.S. Is it at least the national pastime of Japan?
Baseball is most definitely the national pastime of Japan. From amateur to industrial league to the professional circuit, Japanese people digest a lot of baseball year round. I believe that Sumo is the official national sport, but the popularity of baseball is unparalleled.
The Pacific League plays 136 games, while the Central plays 146.
Do the two leagues compete for players (like the ABA/NBA or USFL/NFL once upon a time)?
The two leagues are more like the NL and AL. It’s all under the umbrella of the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), like the National and American are under MLB.
Does this create any controversy as to which player is the best in a statistical category?
There is no controversy. The Japanese aren’t nearly as into advanced metrics as Americans. I suppose there is a small minority of people who care, but by and large I think the numbers are taken in the context of the individual leagues, rather than scrutinized for what they mean overall. Baseball is a game of process, a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Of course, winning and losing are the overriding goals, but getting there is very very important to the Japanese.
Is there a championship of Japan, like the World Series?
Yes. The Japan Series is exactly like the World Series. Central champs play Pacific champs in a best of 7.
When American players come over to play in Japan, are they embraced?
American players are not automatically embraced. It really depends on the reputation of the player, but most Americans coming to play in Japan haven’t established much of a track record back home. The fans take a wait and see approach before latching on to their new imports. They’ve seen too many come and go after failing miserably.
What is the hardest thing for an American player in Japan to get used to?
I think the hardest thing to adjust to for Americans here is the structure of the team meetings, workouts, and all the rules that go with being a professional here. Players are employees of the parent companies in effect, and as such they have to be good representatives. They are the face of the company to the public. Japanese baseball clubs are much more like the orderly, military-like football clubs in the US, although they’ve lightened up a lot in recent years.
Are the parent companies sporting consortiums, or corporations that just happen to own teams as part of their holdings?
The parent companies are largely independent businesses. For example, Yomiuri Shimbun (newspaper and media), Hanshin Railways (freight and railroads), Seibu (hotels, bus lines, trains, and a department store), SoftBank (software, communications, cellular phones). The funniest one to me is the Nippon Ham Fighters parent company who are a meat products manufacturer. Also the Yakult Swallows seem like a team with a bird nickname, but it’s a double-entendre for the yogurt beverage that is the mainstay of the company. If any of those companies experiences financial hardship the team suffers. The Daiei department store chain used to own the Fukuoka Hawks. The parent company went bankrupt, and they spent a lot of the team revenues trying to stay afloat. In the end they couldn’t pay the rent on the stadium and they couldn’t continue to be aggressive with free agency, so they sold the team to SoftBank. SoftBank has infused the team with money as a way to generate interest in their products, and the team is full of talented players top to bottom.
What is the hardest thing Japanese players have to learn in MLB?
I think this really depends on the player, but I think there are two main things. First, players have to figure out how to “stay Japanese” while living and traveling extensively across America. By that, I mean they have to figure out how to get the foods they are familiar with, tap into the various Japanese communities and resources for Japanese ex-pats in the US. The Japanese are very particular about their own way of life, so it’s a factor. Second, I think Japanese players need to figure out how to train and practice in a way that suits their comfort level. Japanese players practice very hard every day, and spend a lot more hours on the physical part of preparation that their US counterparts. It’s drilled into them from elementary school that practicing as hard as possible, as much as possible, will lead you down the road to perfection. In the US, player tend to “pace themselves” a bit more, and that can be a tough adjustment.
I had heard that Japanese baseball was somewhat less aggressive than the U.S. version. That managers didn’t like to go for extra bases, etc. Is that true, or is it a thing of the past?
Teams are a little more aggressive these days, but the Japanese believe strongly in the idea of sacrifice. Sacrificing your individual self and goals for the larger collective is not only a cultural viewpoint, but also extends to the baseball field. There is still a 1960’s National League mentality with many teams. If you are facing a good pitcher and get the leadoff runner on in the 1st, you don’t think twice about it. You bunt. I’ve seen teams sac bunt twice in certain situations. There are some American managers over here who are managing like 2000s National League managers, so there is an evolution, but it will never look like the AL.
Do Japanese fans play fantasy baseball?
Not that I know of.
Do Japanese players/fans chafe at the perception that their top league is sort of a glorified farm league for MLB?
I think the owners are the most upset about the perception that the NPB is a glorified farm team. The players probably don’t see it that way, since most of them are stuck in 10-year mandatory service contracts before they are granted free agency. The older fans are worried, but the younger fans genuinely enjoy seeing their heroes play in the world’s toughest league. The owners have a financial interest that scares them. The players don’t get a fair deal, so they are losing their sense of loyalty. The older fans remember when the game was at its peak popularity. The younger fans increasingly look at the NPB as a mildly interesting collection of teams that are run by greedy old men, who care more about funding the parent company than they do about building a great league. And, they’re right.
So that’s why we’re seeing these enormous “negotiating fees” for players like Daisuke Matsuzaka?
The only reason for the enormous fees are the law of supply and demand. There is a demand for talented and polished ballplayers, especially pitchers. The Japanese have the supply. Put billion dollar American corporations together with stretched-thin Japanese corporations with desirable assets, and you have a gold mine.
Americans have gone crazy for Matsuzaka, but from what I hear, it’s even more insane in Japan.
Yes, the students who were in high school at the same time as Matsuzaka are often referred to as The Matsuzaka Generation by sportswriters here. This comes up particularly frequently when discussing the other high school players of the same graduating class, although it extends to “civilians” as well. Kind of crazy how popular he is…..
What is the process for getting to the major leagues in Japan? Are there minor league teams? College teams? Do kids come straight out of school?
If you are good enough to be drafted in the 1st round of the amateur draft, you’ll probably be thrown to the wolves right away. There are minor leagues, but they are generally not that developed or useful. They merely hold onto talented draftees until an opening presents itself on the big club. There are a lot of college teams. Amateur baseball is huge in Japan, and the college circuit gets a lot of attention. The aforementioned Yuki Saito is so popular that the Tokyo Big Six League (Japan’s Ivy League) will have all its games televised for the first time this year. I suppose the best players either enter the pros straight out of high school at 18, or they attend university. The minors aren’t as great an option. The one other way to get to the big clubs is via the industrial leagues. Tokyo Gas and Electric, Toyota, YKK, and a million other companies field teams of players that missed the cut in the amateur draft, and didn’t go to college. Those teams aren’t all that good, and the best players are usually marginal pros at best.
Kosuke Fukudome is an outfielder with the Chunichi Dragons that will be headed to the US via free agency after this season. He is famous for a .400+ OBP, a million doubles, and a cannon throwing arm. The Yomiuri Giants’ ace Koji Uehara will also be coming via free agency, and while he’s in his early 30’s, he’ll be plenty good enough to garner a lucrative contract and make a fairly strong impact on whichever division he enters. Outside those two players, there’s always a group of people wringing their hands at the prospect of a posting or two. The names bandied about are Yakult’s Ichiro-esque outfielder Norichika Aoki, Nippon Ham’s 20-year old ace Yu Darvish, and SoftBank Hawks’ ace Kazumi Saito. I have no indication that any of them will be posted, but if I had to guess, I’d say that only Saito will realistically be available at the end of the year. Finally, Waseda University freshman ace Yuki Saito will probably jump directly to the Majors when he graduates in 4 years. He’s like a mini-Matsuzaka and should be fun to watch in college.
Does it seem likely that U.S. clubs will begin negotiating with Japanese players straight out of college – sort of “snap them up” before they can get locked in?
Yes. Yuki Saito may be the first to actually make the move in 4 years, but the MLB clubs have been trying for a generation. Koji Uehara, the Giants ace, was offered a contract out of college to play for the Angels but was intensely pressured to play for Yomiuri instead. There is far less meaning to that pressure in 2007, although it still exists. The precedent for good players to go to the Majors has been set, and evolves every year. College players will start to come very soon.
The baseball stadiums in Japan are almost all built by the municipalities and the teams have to pay top dollar to rent them every year. It’s a major operating expense. Some of the stadiums are famous domes, others are smaller Fenway-like band boxes with an air of tradition. Other ballparks are a part of larger “entertainment complexes” with shopping and theme parks and the works.
What is ballpark food in Japan? Does anyone sing “Take me out to the Ballgame?”
Ballpark food in Japan is largely regional, but includes a lot of beer, hot dogs, and other Western style ballpark fare. You can bring in your own food in many cases, which is unthinkable to Americans. Local food like yaki-soba noodles, ramen, yakitori, onigiri (rice balls), and of course sake can be found in most parks. The Japanese LOVE to eat, and the ballpark is a fun way to get your fill while taking in a game. There is no “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, but teams have fight songs galore. Part of the Japanese baseball experience is the “oendan” or cheering section. It’s a tradition that goes back to junior high and high schools, and extends to the pros. A bunch of wild and crazy fans decked out in team colors meet regularly, practice, and coordinate their efforts. They effectively lead the cheering in the stadium for everyone to follow. There are songs, chants, and a lot of flag waving. They also sell “oendan sticks” which are either plastic clubs or clackers that make tremendous amounts of noise and let the opposition know whose house it is.
Which Japanese player will most likely be the first in the U.S. baseball hall of fame?
That’s a very tough question. Most of the guys arrive so late in their careers, they can’t possibly put enough service time in to qualify. I’d give Matsuzaka an outside shot at it. He’s only 26, so he could conceivably put up enough numbers to merit induction. Outside of Daisuke, I’d throw Yuki Saito into the conversation. It’s way way too early to know whether he’ll even make a serviceable Major Leaguer, but he looks good so far and could jump into the action at 22 years old with a lot of talent. If it isn’t one of those two players, he isn’t on the radar yet.
I’d like to once again thank Mike for taking the time to answer my extensive list of questions. Keep this info in mind as we see more and more Japanese imports plying their trade in the MLB.