A Japanese Connection
The Commissioner of Japan’s NPB, Ryozo Kato, resigned today as a result of continuing fall-out from the use of new baseballs this year in NPB. The reason for the brew-ha-ha really has nothing to do with new balls creating a mockery of the Japanese game by creating too much offense — NPB introduced new baseballs two years ago, which stymied offense and not surprisingly caused a two-year decline in NPB attendance. The new, new balls this year simply brought NPB offensive performance back to the level it had been at in 2010 and before.
That being said, a foreigner Wladimir Balentien has now set a new all-time single-season home run record with 58 and counting, and that could have something to do with the new, new balls still being an issue.
However, the main reason NPB’s commissioner resigned is the fact that NPB didn’t tell the players or anyone else that different baseballs were being used until well into the 2013 season. This non-disclosure put a bee in the bonnet of the NPB Players’ Association, normally a very docile labor organization.
Again, it’s hard to believe the new, new baseballs would have been a big deal if the owners simply told the players before the season that NPB was going back to livelier baseballs, given the extreme dominance of pitching and the resulting decline in the attendance the previous two seasons. Everyone has a vested interest in expanding professional baseball attendance, and there’s plenty of research out there that fans like more offense rather than less offense.
Also, except for Balentien’s exceptional 2013 season, there hasn’t been anything to suggest that the new, new baseballs are too lively. With only ten or 12 games left in the NPB season, only two players are hitting over .330 (Yuya Hosegawa at .350 and Balentien at .336) and except for Balentien, no one has hit more than 37 HRs. Frankly, I think Balentien is simply an exceptionally talented player who has greatly improved his strike zone discipline the last few seasons and is still in the prime of his career (he turned 29 in July).
My guess is that a major league team will sign Balentien this off-season and stick him in left field for at least the next couple of seasons, since a three-year deal for a total of $20 million is more than any Japanese team is likely to offer him, and that amount would be a relatively low-risk deal for an MLB club in light of Yoenis Cespedes‘ four-year $36 million deal two seasons ago. Balentien won’t hit 50+ HRs in the Show, but if he hits between 25 and 30 home runs a season and maintains a decent on-base percentage, he’d be a relative bargain at $7 million or $8 million a year.
Meanwhile, Seattle Mariners’ owner Hiroshi Yamauchi just died at age 85. He was the long-time principal officer of Nintendo Corporation, and his purchase of the Mariners in 1992 helped keep the franchise in Seattle. Yamauchi was a Japanese national who had never attended a baseball game at the time he bought the club and never attended a Mariners’ game after he made the purchase. MLB’s ownership group was initially reluctant to sell the M’s to a foreigner, but they relented after accusations of racism, and Yamauchi’s ownership opened the door for more top Japanese players to come to play in the U.S., starting with Ichiro Suzuki.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a 19 year old Japanese, right-handed pitching prospect named Takumi Numata. Numata was not well known even in Japan. He had been pitching in the Japanese industrial leagues, semi-pro teams owned and operated by Japanese corporations, which act as the NPB’s lower minor leagues since NPB teams have only a single farm club each.
There is controversy about Numata’s signing already, since under rules in effect between the Japanese industrial leagues and NPB, an NPB team cannot draft an industrial league player for three years if a player joins directly out of high school or two years if a player joins later. Numata graduated high school a year ago, went to college for a year, dropped out and joined an industrial league team, meaning his team had his rights for two full seasons.
There is an unwritten rule between NPB and MLB that MLB won’t poach very young Japanese talent until NPB has had a chance to sign the youngsters first. However, as an unwritten rule, there isn’t anything legal to stop the Dodgers from keeping Numata and bringing him to the U.S. However, it is likely that NPB and the Japanese industrial leagues will ban Numata from returning directly to either in the event his career in the U.S. is unsuccessful.