Roughly ten months ago I wrote a piece discussing what players get paid in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). yakyubaka.com provides the base salaries for every player in NPB for the last few seasons. Here is an update regarding NPB salaries during the 2013 season.
By my count, 88 players in NPB this season had base salaries (excluding signing bonuses and incentives) of 100 million or more yen (100 million yen at present exchange rates amounts to roughly $1.01 million). This is down from at least 92 such players in 2012 and the yen is weaker than it was a year ago, meaning times aren’t great for Japanese players. Also by my count, no more than 20 players made as much as $2.5 million playing in NPB this year.
The teams with the most 100 million yen players are the Yomiuri Giants (11), the Softbank Hawks (11), the Orix Buffaloes (10) and the Hanshin Tigers (9). The only surprise is here is the Buffaloes. The teams with the fewest 100 million players are the Hiroshima Carp (4), the Rakuten Golden Eagles (5) and the Seibu Lions (5), all small-revenue teams.
The list of the eleven or twelve best paid NPB players follows. [Note that the numbers are not entirely accurate, because signing and performances bonuses, which are often exceptionally large for foreign players, have not been fully taken into account.]
1. Shinnosuke Abe, Yomiuri Giants: 570 million yen ($5.76 million). A veteran NPB superstar who was NPB’s top all-around hitter in 2012 by a wide margin.
2. Toshiya Sugiuchi, Yomiuri Giants: 500 million yen ($5.05 million). Sugiuchi signed a four-year two billion yen deal with Yomiuri before the 2012 season. Some of that money is probably a signing bonus, because his base salary was listed at 350 million yen last year, compared to 500 million yen this year.
3. Masahiro Tanaka, Rakuten Golden Eagles: 400 million yen ($4.04 million). Currently the best pitcher in Japan by a wide margin, he’s currently 22-0 with a 1.22 ERA this season. Rakuten is a small revenue team and they will make a bundle if they do indeed post Tanaka to major league teams this off-season as everyone seems to expect. If not, Tanaka signed a three-year 1.2 billion yen deal before this season, so the Golden Eagles would pay him 400 million yen in 2014 in spite of his record-setting 2013 campaign.
3. Tetsuya Utsumi, Yomiuri Giants: 400 million yen ($4.04 million). A veteran ace for the big-money Giants, Utsumi signed a four-year, 1.6 billion yen deal with the Giants last off-season, rather than trying his luck in MLB.
5. Hitoki Iwase, Chunichi Dragons: 370 million yen ($3.74 million). The Mariano Rivera of today’s NPB, Iwase took an 80 million yen (more than $800,000) pay-cut this year, after posting a 2.29 ERA (his highest since 2008) and recording only 33 saves (his fewest since 2004) in 2012. So far this year, Iwase has a 1.86 ERA and 36 saves with about five regular season games remaining for the Dragons, close to his final numbers in 2011, so his salary should shoot back to the 425-to-450 million yen range in 2014.
6. Alex Ramirez, Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars: 350 million yen ($3.54 million). Ramirez is no longer considered a foreign player after 13 seasons in NPB. However, his NPB career appears to be over just shy of his 39th birthday. He batted .301 with 380 career home runs and 1,271 career RBIs in NPB.
7. Kazahiro Wada, Chunichi Dragons: 330 million yen ($3.34 million). Another veteran NPB star, Wada made the same salary in 2012 when he only the tenth best paid player in NPB.
8. Takeya Nakamura, Seibu Lions: 300 million yen ($3.03 million). NPB’s top Japanese home run hitter, Nakamura missed most of 2013 to injuries. He would normally take a big pay cut for his lost season, but it looks like he’ll be an NPB-only free agent this off-season, meaning that one of NPB’s wealthier teams could sign him for around what he made this year.
9. Kazuki Yoshimi, Chunichi Dragons: 290 million yen ($2.93 million). The Dragons’ ace blew out his arm this year, so he’s likely to take a steep pay-cut in 2014.
9. Tadashi Settsu, Softbank Hawks: 290 million yen ($2.93 million). With only four years of NPB service going into the 2013 season, he’s relatively inexperienced to be paid this well by an NPB team. However, the Hawks are relatively affluent.
11. Andruw Jones, Rakuten Golden Eagles: 250 million to 300 million yen. Jones signed a one-year deal with the Golden Eagles last off-season for a reported $3.5 million, including signing and performance bonuses, which he has probably earned after a strong season in Japan.
Honorable Mention. Dae Ho Lee, Orix Buffaloes: 250 million yen ($2.53 million). Lee signed a two-year, 760 million yent deal, including signing bonus and performance bonuses (which he has probably earned given the two seasons he’s had) with Orix before the 2012 season, which comes out to 380 million yen a year or $3.84 million per year. Needless to say, Lee is hoping to re-sign with Orix on similar terms this coming off-season.
As I noted last year, most of the highest paid NPB players are aging veteran superstars with ten or more full seasons of NPB service. This harkens back to the days before MLB free agency when all the players played under one-year contracts and the highest paid players were veteran superstars like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. In NPB, free agency rules are much harsher for the players than in MLB, and few players are able to command more than one-year contracts.
As I also noted last year, NPB has an unwritten rule that 500 million yen is the highest salary any player can receive, and for an unwritten rule, it’s pretty well enforced. Also according to yakyubaka.com, prior to Shinnosuke Abe and Toshiya Sugiuchi this year, only eight NPB players have ever received salaries of 500 million yen or more in a season: Ichiro Suzuki, Kazahiro Sasaki, Hideki Matsui, Norihiro Nakamura, Kenji Johjima, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Tomoaki Kanemoto and Yu Darvish.
That’s a pretty terrific list of players. Only Sasaki (650) and Matsui (610) have earned 600 million or more yen in a season. However, more 500 million and perhaps even 600 million yen salaries are likely in the relatively near future as the wealthiest NPB teams, the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers, give out bigger contracts to prevent their best players from fleeing into the waiting arms of MLB.
Because there is this de facto cap on salaries in NPB, the very best players want to play in MLB, not necessarily for the immediate financial gains, but rather because if they can establish themselves as stars in the U.S. (like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Hiroki Kuroda), they can make far more money on their second or third MLB contract than they could ever make in Japan. The problem for most of them is that they are already past age 30 when they cross the ocean. [Needless to say, some of them also want to test their skills against the world’s best, and most don’t miss NPB’s more onerous training regimens.]
Again as I noted last year, foreign players are not as well paid in NPB as you might expect. Given that NPB teams may only carry four foreign players on their active roster at any given time, which means that foreign players are generally better than average NPB players, one would think the best gaijin players would be among NPB’s highest paid players. Generally, they are not.
Since foreign players rarely have long (eight or ten year) NPB careers, they generally aren’t paid as well as the veteran Japanese stars who lead the pack in compensation. Also, foreign players often don’t have a lot of leverage because they aren’t good enough to be starters in MLB and couldn’t earn NPB salaries no matter how well they play professionally in Taiwan or Korea.
After Dae Ho Lee and Andruw Jones (as noted above, Alex Ramirez is no longer considered a “foreign player” under NPB team-limit rules because he has more than ten years of NPB service), the highest paid foreign players were the Softbank Hawks’ Vicente Padilla (261 million to 264 million yen, but reported as $3.25 million in U.S. press), the Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton (the man who broke Ichiro’s NPB single-season hits record in his first season in Japan is reportedly making 246 million yen (about $2.5 million) in what is now his fourth NPB season) and the Yomiuri Giants’ D.J. Houlton (somewhere between 220 million and 270 million, probably depending on whether signing and performance bonuses are counted — Houlton has won 62 games in six seasons as an NPB starter, which is pretty good given that NPB starters typically get only 25 to 28 starts per season). Padilla almost certainly won’t return to Japan in 2014 since he wasn’t successful there this year.