Two recent signings in the KBO have me thinking about the different rules that apply to foreign players in Japan’s NPB and South Korea’s KBO. Starting around 2011, KBO teams have been aggressively seeking to sign foreign players of the caliber who previously signed exclusively with NPB teams. To do so, they have had to pony up initial one-year contracts as good or even better than what NPB teams are offering.
It has certainly worked. The caliber of play in the KBO since 2010 has definitely improved, as KBO teams may now sign up to three foreign players to play on the field at one time and they are paying for the best talent available, at least in terms of what KBO teams can afford to pay in light of average league attendance that is only a little over 12,000 per game.
However, once a foreign player signs with a KBO team, he is effectively locked in with that team for the rest of his KBO future. As a result, future salary increases for successful KBO performance are much more modest than in NPB.
What has me thinking about this is the recent signings of Eric Hacker and Xavier Scruggs by the NC Dinos. Both players reportedly signed for an even $1 million for 2017. The contract amounts have a lot more to do with each player’s leverage than past performance.
Hacker has put in four full seasons with the Dinos, as one of the first foreign players they signed up joining the KBO as an expansion team in 2013. Hacker was arguably the best pitcher in the KBO in 2015, when he went 19-5 and finished first in wins and winning percentage, second in ERA and fifth in strikeouts. Based on that performance, he received a $900,000 contract for 2016, roughly half of what some new foreign pitchers with more leverage received that off-season from other KBO teams.
In 2016, Hacker missed about eight starts to injury, but still went 13-3 and led the Dinos to their first Korea Series appearance, in which the team lost to the Doosan Bears. That earned him only a $100,000 raise for 2017.
Nick Evans is another foreign player who had a fine season for the Champion and relatively wealthy Doosan Bears in 2016 and re-signed for only a modest raise that will pay him less than $1 million for 2017, despite his strong 2016 performance. Similarly, Hector Noesi had an excellent first season in KBO in 2016, when he was one of the league’s top starters, but he re-signed for 2017 for the same $1.7 million he received last year when he had the leverage to command an initial contract of this size.
Meanwhile, Scruggs, who will be a KBO rookie in 2017, got the same $1 million from the Dinos that Hacker received, solely because Scruggs had to be convinced to join the KBO in the first place and the market for new foreign player has gone up sharply the last few seasons. The upshot is that foreign players joining the KBO need to get the big contract up front, because yearly salary increases are modest, and the initial contract sets the floor for future contracts.
As I write this, the Doosan Bears have yet to announce a deal with their foreign ace Dustin Nippert. Nippert’s 2016 season, his sixth in the KBO, was one of the best seasons by a pitcher in KBO history. Nippert went 22-3, led the league in wins and ERA and propelled the Bears to their second consecutive Korea Series title.
My educated guess is that Nippert feels he deserves a record-setting $2 million contract (foreign players are only officially allowed to sign one year deals), and the Doosan Bears don’t want to give it to him, because they know he doesn’t have many other good options. Nippert will be 36 in 2017, so he’s a little old to attempt a return to MLB or to try his luck in NPB. Aside from that, Nippert has married a Korean woman and gone on record stating he wants to finish his professional career as a Doosan Bear.
KBO free agent Choi Hyung-woo signed a record-setting four-year $8.5 million contract this off-season, so if Nippert is seeking $2 million for one year, the ask is entirely reasonable. However, Choi was a free agent with all the leverage that entails.
It is entirely possible that foreign players could be deemed free agents after nine KBO seasons. However, no foreign player has yet earned nine full seasons of service time in KBO’s history, so for the time being that is a moot point.
In Japan’s NPB teams, initial contracts for foreign players are rarely higher than recent KBO initial contracts. However, foreign players can often leave their original NPB teams after two or three seasons and effectively become NPB free agents. This off-season, for example, it is virtually certain that Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne will leave the Chiba Lotte Marines, his team for the first three seasons of his NPB career, to sign a deal for more money with the wealthier SoftBank Hawks.
The upshot is that foreign players in NPB are better remunerated for past performance, since NPB teams want to hold on to their best foreign players. NPB has its own effective salary cap of about 600 million yen ($5.1 million), but that’s a lot better than what a superstar can earn in the KBO.