Hoping to land the next Ichiro? Learning the NPB is a good place to start.
Ah’this is my favourite time of the year. The grass is greening, birds are singing and Jared Fernandez has just completed his first 3 km run for his new team, the Hiroshima Carp.
Hello, RotoRob readers. My name is Tim McLeod and welcome to my universe and the wonderful world of Nippon Professional Baseball, and in particular, my fascination with player movement to Major League Baseball.
So’just how did I get interested in all this? I’m glad you asked.
Back in the fall of 2003, after a successful run in an AL-only money league, I felt it was time to head in a different direction, so I accepted an invite to join my first auction format league.
The NABL, brainchild of David ‘Mad Cow’ Greiner, welcomed me with open arms and very little else. It’s a 12-team (two six-team divisions) mixed 5×5 league that features an off site message board and is competently run by the computer whiz and commish-for-life Dann Chow.
As an expansion team, I needed an ‘edge’ and I needed it very quickly if I was going to be competitive in this environment. So I hit the ‘Net and started finding a lot of information about a second baseman from the Daiei Hawks over in Japan named Tad Iguchi, and the prospect of his coming to MLB intrigued me.
The next thing you knew, I started reading more and more and began exploring the world of Japanese baseball.
Of course, everyone knew of the successes of Ichiro Suzuki, Kaz Sasaki, Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo, but the idea of actually trying to add players like this to my roster before they came to the majors was something I had never thought about. Perhaps this might provide me with the advantage I had been looking for in the new league.
In the fall of 2005, Peter Kreutzer of askrotoman.com and Editor in Chief of the Fantasy Baseball Guide, created a wiki at his site looking for any regulars interested in helping out on the 2006 Guide.
At this time, Kenji Johjima was in the process of heading to MLB and I had developed a liking to a young pitcher by the name of Daisuke Matsuzaka who was looking at a posting to MLB. I provided him with some info and Peter must have liked what I gave him, because he asked me back to help again with the 2007 Guide, an opportunity I’m certainly thankful for.
Japanese Baseball: The Basics
Nippon Professional Baseball is made up of 12 teams split into two leagues, the Central and Pacific. Much the same as MLB, the Pacific League uses a DH, while the Central uses the traditional format with pitchers hitting. The teams play a 142-game schedule from April through the end of September, while interleague play between the divisions takes place in May and June of each year. The winner of the playoffs in both the Central and Pacific meet for the Japan Series to crown the Champion of Japanese ball each October.
Major differences between the NPB and MLB include a six-man rotation for pitching staffs and a slightly smaller baseball. Another rather large difference is that if a game is tied at the end of nine innings, up to an additional three innings are added with games still tied at the end of 12 innings declared a tie. The parks are a bit smaller than MLB, with an average dimension of 380 to 400 feet in straightaway centre field and approximately 320 feet down the lines.
The fundamentals are certainly stressed as is conditioning. Baseball in Japan tends to be more of a team game. Finally, each team is currently allowed four imports or ‘gaijin’ players.
How to Scout Japanese Talent
When looking at NPB players and assessing the possibility of them heading to the majors, there are two very important factors to be considered. First of all, you need to understand that free agency is granted after nine years, and second, you have wrap your head around the posting system.
The posting system is currently the only way for NPB players to head to North America prior to their attaining free agency and it’s been one of the most misunderstood topics of this past offseason. Time and time again I read on message boards people writing the ‘paying $50 million just to talk to the guy” statement.
The posting system is both a complex and simple process and I believe the explanation outlined at baseball reference helps. What, in fact, MLB teams are buying is the 30-day window to bargain exclusively with the player, and no money changes hands until a successful signing takes place.
One other important item to consider here when looking at the NPB and posting is that the Yomiuri Giants’ current stance is that they refuse to accept and acknowledge the posting system. If you’re considering possible talent from this team, free agency is the only option at this time that would allow a player from Yomiuri to come over to this side of the world.
The key to scouting Japanese players is to read, read, and read. This a very speculative process, and the safest bet is to find a site and try and follow on a regular basis. Bob Bavasi’s site (Japanball.com) is probably the best, as it cuts to the chase and gets feeds from major papers on a regular basis. Michael Westbay’s message board (Japaneseball.com) is a great source of info when you’re seeking more detail, and it also offers great reader input.
Neither of these sites deal with the fantasy side of things, however, it is my understanding that Michael is planning to expand into this area in the future.
The Daily Yomiuri is a top-notch paper featuring lead baseball writer Jim Allen, who’s very well respected.
The leg work involved can be extremely time-consuming, but personally, I find the rewards very gratifying. Once my media guide arrives, for example, I will start going through any five- to seven-year players and begin searching to see if any have expressed an interest in MLB, then look for team reactions and start monitoring.
The easiest are the ones like Norichika Aoki who have publicly stated their desires, but even then, looking forward you still don’t know when exactly it is going to happen. Team successes and the influence of the big dollars paid in posting fees this year both have a bearing on future postings. Free agents also have their own list of concerns as well. Are they serious about heading to MLB or just using the threat as contract leverage in their own league? Age then also becomes a factor as most players are in their early 30s before they attain free agency.
I know I haven’t really resolved a method to my madness, but it all revolves around time and effort. The capsule I wrote for the 2006 Guide on Matsuzaka was probably the result of 25 hours cumulative work and research. Anyhow, I hope this helps somewhat, but the best advice I can give is find a site and/or sites and follow it on a regular basis.
Other than the sites discussed above, I would recommend the following as being good reads. All of these sites are great resources and can provide the reader with just about everything one would want to know or have access to know on the NPB:
Japanese Baseball Daily: This is a great site for looking at very detailed day-to-day happenings around the NPB. It’s broken down by division and has a huge database on player stats and past info. If you’re looking for stats, the Data Warehouse is the place.
Baseball Guru: Jim Albright does a great review on NPB free agents, posted players and players to watch from a fantasy perspective.
Japanese Ballplayers: This site is dedicated to listing current and past Asian players who have played at the major league level and current minor leaguers in North America. It also has a future watch column that lists players who may be on their way to MLB, but it’s not the most thorough source as it tends to be incomplete.
There certainly are more out there, but any of the above is a good place to start. The message board at Michael Westbay’s site is always a great place to get feedback from fans of the NPB.
Players to Watch
And now let’s take a quick look at some of the potential future crop of NPB players that could possibly be wearing a MLB uniform in the future. Just remember, this is a very speculative process and it is also very early in the 2007 season (any player who wants to be posted has to wait until the season is over).
Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chunichi Dragons — Hits for power and average, steals a few bases and plays great defense. Reminds me of Bernie Williams and there’s a very good chance of seeing this 2006 MVP in 2008.
Koji Uehara, SP, Yomiuri Giants ‘ Does the number string of 21, 22, 23, 23, 23, 28, 22, 24 mean anything to you? If you guessed these are Uehara’s walks per year for his full professional career, you’re right. He’s a control artist extraordinaire and unlike Carlos Silva in Minnesota, he actually misses a bat or two. Uehara has expressed an interest in playing MLB and there’s a good possibility we will have the opportunity to see him very soon.
Hiroki Kuroda, SP, Hiroshima Toyo Carp ‘ He was a most sought after free agent at the conclusion of the 2006 season, but he re-signed with Hiroshima for four years. Note that Kuroda has an out clause, but even so, file this one under long shots and keep the name handy just in case.
Hiritoshi Ishii, RP, Tokyo Yakult Swallows ‘ He’s spending most of 2007 rehabbing after shoulder surgery. Ishii had expressed an interest in posting after the 2005 season, and depending on health issues, is a name worth keeping filed away for future reference.
Shinnosuke Abe, C, Yomiuri Giants — Another Japanese catcher in MLB? His homers have tailed off drastically from his high of 33 in 2004. Abe is a free agent possibility for 2009, but unless the offensive side of game rebounds, he’s a long shot at best.
Kenshin Kawakami, SP, Chunichi Dragons ‘ Kawakami, the former ROY and Sawamura Award winner, tied with the since departed Kei Igawa for the league lead in Ks in 2006. He’s a long shot, but so was Igawa about a year or so ago.
Kazumi Saitoh, SP, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — The ‘man’ in NPB now that Dice-K has departed, although he was arguably already the biggest stud. The two-time Sawamura Award winner has it all. Last year, he went 18-5 and won all four major pitching awards. Saitoh has stated his desire to remain in Japan, but has very little left to prove and I wouldn’t rule out a future possible posting.
Marc Kroon, RP, Yokohama Bay Stars — A North American heading home? Kroon signed a two-year deal in the offseason, but will he decide to show off that 100 mph heat at the conclusion of his current deal? He is definitely worth monitoring.
Norichika Aoki, OF, Tokyo Yakult Swallows — This 25-year-old phenom has already stated his intentions about playing in the majors and his team is cautiously supporting that decision. In his first two full seasons, Aoki has amassed 394 hits, while stealing 41 bases last year alone. Remind you of anyone? If you have the roster space, grab him while you can.
Sho Nakata, SP/OF ‘ Nakata is a highly-touted 17-year-old highschooler. Rumour has it both the Mets and Twins have scouted him heavily. He hit 71 HRs in his high school career, and in the first round of this year’s Koshien HS baseball tourney, he tossed a seven-inning one-hit shutout with nine Ks.
Kyuji Fujikawa, RP, Hanshin Tigers — Went 5-0 with 17 saves for Hanshin in 2006 with an amazing 13.84 K/9.
Yu Darvish, SP, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ‘ Darvish is a Nippon Ham righthander who’s coming off a very strong sophomore campaign in 2006. Any possibilities of seeing him in MLB is a long ways down the road, but he is definitely a name to be filed away for future reference. Here’s what Manager Trey Hillman had to say about Darvish.
At this time I would like to thank the many excellent writers reporting on the daily happenings around the NPB. Keep up the great work, guys!
Thanks Rob, for giving me the time and opportunity to explore this facet of the NPB with you and your many readers. Good fortunes to all heading into the 2007 season.