Since 1998, there has been a limit of only four foreign players on the roster of each NPB baseball team, with (since 2002) no more than three pitchers or three position players on the roster at a time. I’ve long been writing that these rules ought to be changed to allow more foreign players in NPB, primarily because it would mean a better product on the baseball field for NPB fans.
The main arguments, as I understand them, against allowing more foreign players on NPB teams are as follows. First, it is sometimes suggested that Japanese baseball fans don’t want more foreign players on NPB rosters because they want to see mainly Japanese players play (or at least NPB owners are afraid the fans feel this way) and that if an unlimited number of foreign players were allowed, NPB would quickly be overwhelmingly made up of foreign players. I don’t think either of these contentions has much merit.
The suggestion that Japanese baseball fans are essentially too racist to pay to see potentially better baseball if that baseball is played by a higher percentage of foreigners doesn’t seem to me to be very likely. Fans want to see the best players possible, and major Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osake/Kyoto/Kobe, where seven of the league’s 12 teams play, are major cosmopolitan cities where people are used to seeing and dealing with foreigners.
The idea that the NPB game would become dominated by foreigners doesn’t seem likely either. There simply aren’t enough good foreign players in the NPB’s price range to take jobs away from highly talented and less expensive Japanese players. There are only so many 4-A and marginal major league players good enough to play in NPB.
Most players from the Americas good enough to spend the majority of each season on a major league roster generally are not interested in playing in Japan, even if they could potentially make more money as big stars there. For those not quite good enough to spend significant time on a major league roster each season, few are good enough to succeed in Japan. While we see new 4-A and marginal major league players of a certain age (usually 28 to 31, when they’re future major league prospects have dimmed) succeed in NPB every year, we also see many fail.
The same goes for other sources of talent. South Korea’s KBO is now giving Korean free agents multi-million dollar deals, which means that only the very best like Dae Ho Lee and Seung-hwan Oh are good enough to justify the salaries it takes to get them to leave South Korea. Further, expensive foreigners simply aren’t going to displace similarly talented, less expensive Japanese players on the bottom 15 slots of each NPB roster.
The most likely real reason for limiting the number of foreign players is that teams simply don’t want to spend money on them. It’s usually suggested that more foreign players would ruin competitive balance because only the three or four wealthiest teams (Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers, Softbank Hawks and Chunichi Dragons) would be able to afford additional foreign players on their rosters.
However, there isn’t any competitive balance under the current foreign player limits. If a poor NPB team develops a major foreign star, that star usually jumps to one of the rich teams after a couple of seasons, since foreign players aren’t bound by the eight- and nine-year free agency requirements that apply to Japanese players. Meanwhile, the wealthier NPB teams are now stock-piling foreigners on their minor league rosters, where there are no limits, so that if a foreigner doesn’t perform on the major league club, the team can quickly call up a replacement for that roster spot.
I think I have a solution that would both allow for more foreign players and also improve competitive balance. For each foreign player on a team’s roster above the currently allowed four players, the team would pay a fee into a pool, say, for example $3,000 per player per game. These pooled funds would be split at the end of the season based on shares earned for each game during the season in which a team had no more than four foreign players on its roster. Further, any money received by a team from the pool would have to be spent on foreign player salaries.
So, for example, if the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and Softbank Hawks each kept six foreign players on their major league rosters throughout the season, each team would pay $864,000 into the pool [(6-4) x $3,000 x 144 games = $864,000]. If the league’s nine other teams each maintained only four foreign players on their major league rosters, each team would receive $288,000 which they would then have to spend on foreign players, which would both enable them to sign better foreign players in the first place and make it easier to hold onto the best foreign players they develop.
Obviously, the amount of the pool payments would be subject to negotiation between the league’s teams. Also, I expect that almost immediately teams would keep different numbers of foreign players on their major league rosters as each season progresses based on their needs at the moment.
Opposition to such a scheme would most likely come from the richest rather than the poorest teams, because it is the rich teams that would be the ones who would see overall team salaries (plus pool payments) rise if they elect to sign more foreign players. However, the rich Japanese teams, particularly the Yomiuri Giants, have never had a problem maintaining fiscal discipline when they choose to do so. The Giants are the one team in NPB that has the revenues to pay salaries commensurate with MLB teams, but the Giants simply elect not to do so.
In the long run, however, I think that further internationalizing Japanese baseball and putting a better product on the field means greater future revenues for NPB. While the relative sizes of the Japanese and U.S. economies mean that it’s highly unlikely NPB will ever be quite as good as MLB, NPB can get a lot closer than it is now and thus share in what is becoming an ever more international sports market.