Nik Yasko looks at the effects of Japanese players leaving for the Big Leagues
Japan US Baseball: The Exodus Continues
In recent years, the awarding of the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year award to Japanese players has become somewhat controversial. Some argue that Japanese baseball players should not be declared Rookie of the Year because to do so shows a lack of respect for Japanese pro baseball.
After all, the argument goes, these guys have been playing in a top quality pro league for years, and are therefore not really rookies. Is Japanese pro baseball really that good? It doesn't seem so.
Japanese players who have tried their luck in the United States, and who have succeeded, have without exception been among the very best Japanese players, while non-Japanese players who succeed in Japan are historically career minor leaguers without the skills to crack a major league lineup back in the US.
Japanese Home Run Record
Current Yomiuri Giant Tuffy Rhodes, former Hanshin Tiger Bass, current Seibu Lion Cabrera, and ex-Giant Sadaharu Oh share the Japanese league single season record home run record.
The reason none of the foreign three surpassed Oh (who himself is not a Japanese citizen) is probably that, once a non-Japanese batter nears an important record held by a Japanese person, or half-Japanese person, then pitchers refuse to throw strikes to that batter, often on the manager's orders.
Rhodes and many others also claim that there is a special gaijin [foreigner] strike zone that puts them at a disadvantage throughout the season. This sort of unfair treatment would not happen in American Major League Baseball.
American players in Japanese baseball
Although great foreign players in Japan, from Bass to Tom O'Malley to Bobby Rose to Leron Lee, are at best usually fringe major leaguers, there are exceptions. Ex-Giant Warren Cromartie had a very respectable major league career before crossing the Pacific in the Eighties, and former Minnesota Twin Shane Mack was a lifetime .290 hitter who played well for a couple of years with the Giants in the Nineties.
Occasionally, an injured or clearly washed-up MLB star such as Mike Greenwell, Dave Nillson or Bill Madlock will try for a comeback here, but life as a gaijin suketto (foreign helper), as they are called in the Japanese press, holds little appeal for players used to red-carpet treatment, and the experiment usually ends badly.
When former Yokohama Bay Star Bobby Rose, arguable the best baseball player in Japan in the Nineties, ended an ill-advised comeback attempt with the Chiba Lotte Marines a couple of years ago, the sports dailies responded by listing him, along with Greenwell and a couple of others, as a "foreigner who caused a lot of trouble".
Although Mexican, South American, Cuban and Puerto Rican players have been starring in the majors for decades, no one claims that the leagues there are anywhere near the level of MLB. In fact, the exodus of top stars from Japan to America suggests that Japanese players have a desire to test their skills in a more competitive arena.
And this has been a one-sided migration. MLB stars don't talk about going to Japan to test their skills against the best players in the world. If anything, the drift of Japanese stars to the U.S. has left the gap between American and Japanese ball wider than ever. The Giants are clearly not the same team without Hideki Matsui, and the once-popular Orix Blue Wave have been in the doldrums since Ichiro's departure.
Hideo Nomo started a trend of leaving Japan for the US; a trend that many here feared would result in the Japanese league becoming a sort of American minor league, much like the Mexican leagues. To a certain extent, this has happened, though naturally it is difficult for Japanese baseball and the public to swallow that unpalatable fact. Instead, they dwell in minute detail on the success of their exports.
A member of the Japanese media records every jumping jack, every warm-up throw of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui. Meanwhile, the game here becomes ever more gray and unexciting. One possible solution would be to do away with the quota system hiring foreigners, allowing for an influx of new and different types of players. Foreign players who are not power hitters, however, do not fit the Japanese conception of what a non-Japanese player should be. For now, each team is limited to four foreigners apiece, two pitchers and two position players.
If it is difficult for foreigners to come here, it also remains difficult for players to leave. Current Yomiuri Giant star pitcher Koji Uehara has openly declared his desire to play overseas, but under the rules now in place, has another five years to go before being able to do so.
To avoid having to wait, the logical step for American clubs is to recruit promising young Japanese players before they enter the stifling world of Japanese pro ball, as they did with Mac Suzuki. In fact, many MLB teams now quietly send scouts to the high school tournaments to look for future Ichiros among the high school ranks. They do so quietly because they fear alienating Japanese clubs who may be their negotiating partners for some future star.
Just how well have Japanese players performed in the U.S.? Many have failed. Masao Kida, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Hideki Irabu and Mac Suzuki have all returned to Japan after posting poor numbers overseas. And of the successes, no Japanese player has exceeded his statistical Japanese league performance while playing in the major leagues. Even Ichiro's success has been somewhat muted. Ichiro's on-base percentage in Japan was an astounding .421.
In America, he has posted a very good but not great .373 mark. His on-base percentage last year was sixth best on his team, a mark that prompted current manager Bob Melvin to talk to him this spring about becoming a team player and taking more pitches.
When Ichiro slumped in the second half of last season, MLB Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan speculated that the Japanese star is overly concerned with his hit total, and swings at bad pitches in order to pad his numbers. Ironically, this habit has led to a yearly decrease in batting average. Unless Ichiro grows more patient at the plate, this trend is likely to continue.
ESPN also ranked the presentation of the 2001 MVP award to Ichiro (when he ranked 35th overall in MLB on-base percentage) over Jason Giambi and teammate Bob Boone, as one of the great injustices in recent award history. ESPN senior writer Rob Neyer's summation of Ichiro as "overrated but good" is probably the most accurate summation of this player's performance.
As for Hideki Matsui, he hit fifty homers during his final year in Japan, but only sixteen in the States, an eye-popping drop-off. His slugging average is well over one hundred points below his Japan total. Still, he played a very solid left field for the Yankees last year and knocked in 106 runs.
This year, however, since the Yankees have picked up sluggers Greg Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez, Matsui will bat sixth, seventh or second most of the time, and his production will suffer accordingly. An Asian export to watch for power production plays for the Florida Marlins. Six foot five inch Korean Hee Seop Choi, combines adroit defense with a hulking presence at the plate.
Regarding "little Matsui" of the Mets, it is too early to tell, although in the early going he seems to be having trouble with breaking pitches. Look for an across the board decline in performance, especially concerning his power numbers, but for the Japanese media to declare his play a huge success. It is necessary that they do so, since there is a faction here that sees Japanese players abroad as involved in a sort of racial competition with players in MLB.
Among pitchers, Hideo Nomo remains a consistent winner, while Tomo Oka of the Expos remains inconsistent, and Kazuhisa Ishii lacks control but has the ability to become a star. Ichiro teammate and reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki was doing very well and was looking forward to a long career as a successful closer, but injuries and "family concerns" forced a premature return to Japan. The local media reports that Sasaki's wife was concerned about reports of infidelity and demanded he come home.
When evaluating players, numbers have never been that important to the Japanese fan or the Japanese media. Baseball in Japan is not usually viewed analytically, but, as the Daily Yomiuri's Jim Allen has pointed out, it is seen as a sort of martial art that is tied up with what it means to be Japanese, much like sumo or karate. This approach helps to explain why games here are advertised as contests of will between two (Japanese) managers.
The focus on the manager begins in junior high school, where baseball players are taught not to think but to obey, to react automatically to events on the field. So they practice even late into the night, day after day. As a result, they become very good at conserving energy.
Japanese baseball is seen as moral exercise, a lesson in endurance, and those who wish to succeed must have the proper spiritual approach. The unspoken view in Japan is that only those who have 100 percent Japaneseness running in their veins can master this approach.
In the same way that the accomplishments of sumo greats Akebono and Musashimaru would be viewed very differently had they come from Aomori instead of Hawaii, so too are the records of foreign baseball players downplayed. How often does a foreign player occupy the coveted cleanup slot in the line-up? Becoming a team's number four batter is viewed as an honor in Japan, an honor that is usually given to the team's resident Japanese icon.
When Rhodes was let go by the Kintetsu Buffaloes last season, club ownership said that they were hesitant to re-sign him because they had "never signed a foreigner to a long-term contract before." Imagine the fuss if an American club refused to sign a player for similar reasons. Yet the practice of firing foreigners who may even be the main offensive force of their respective teams is common.
If foreign players are soon fired and soon forgotten, they have fat bank accounts to make up for it. A choice between making forty thousand in the American minors or ten times that amount in Japan is an easy one. Rhodes, in a recent New York Times interview, admits that he never could have earned as much money in the States as he has in Japan.
Rhodes' comments on how he is ostracized by teammates, alternately criticized and ignored by the press, but praised by fans who paint their faces black, echo those written by Cromartie in his book Slugging It Out in Japan, written nearly two decades ago. Japanese baseball: don't look for it to change any time soon.