Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

What Happened to Byung-Ho Park?

August 14, 2017

Byung-ho Park still grinding away for the Rochester Red Wings of the AAA International League, but it’s really looking like he’s never going to be an MLB starter.

I was a big fan of Park’s performance in South Korea’s KBO, and after the success of Jung-ho Kang in MLB, I also thought that Park had what it took to be an MLB regular.  Even last year, when he underwhelmed at the major league level, he still hit with enough power in the Show and at AAA to suggest that with a few minor adjustments, and he might break through in 2017.

Park is currently slashing .260/.317/.424, leaving him with only the 36th highest OPS in the IL, with less than a month left in the regular season.  The batting average is an improvement from last year, but his power output has dropped sharply, as last year’s home runs have been doubles this season.

Park is a mediocre AAA player right now, who wouldn’t deserve even a September call-up, except for the fact that he’s got a guaranteed contract that runs two more seasons.  However, he’s long since been dropped from the Twins’ 40-man roster, so a September call-up seems unlikely, since it would require the Twins to pass someone else through waivers to create a roster space for Park.

Park is owed $3 million on his contract with the Twins for each of 2018 and 2019, and that latest word is that Park still wants to prove he can be a major league player.  It will also be hard for Park to command the same kind of money in the KBO, although with a reasonable buy-out from the Twins, he would probably be just as well off financially returning to South Korea.

While I still think it’s possible that Park can play better at AAA in 2018 and get another shot at the Show, Park is now 31, so his window is closing fast.

Kang’s success in MLB, and Hyun-soo Kim‘s, Dae-ho Lee‘s and Seung-hwan Oh‘s successes  in 2016 have probably caused me to over-estimate the current level of play in the KBO and the ability of the KBO’s best players to successfully jump to MLB.  Aside from Park’s failure so far, now that most of a season is in the books, Eric Thames, after a hot start, has come back down to earth, and looks a lot like the same player with normal age progression that he was before he went to the KBO for three seasons.

Eric Thames’s 2017 batting average is now almost exactly in line with his career batting average after his first two MLB seasons (2011-2012).  The only difference is that Thames walks more now and hits for more power, two skills that you would expect Thames to add as he matures as a hitter.

The main advantage of playing three seasons in the KBO appears to be that Thames got to play consistently in a league at least as good as the American AAA leagues, and he built up a lot of confidence by putting up consistently big numbers.  Thames also claims he made adjustments in South Korea that made him a more patient and disciplined hitter.  At the end of the day, though, he appears to be the same player he was in 2011-2012, only with more maturity and now well-developed old-hitter skills.

The fact that multiple KBO players have had MLB success in the last two seasons means that signing Park was a good risk for the Twins to take, even if Park never does pan out.  Some players will be able to make the necessary adjustments, but others won’t.  MLB teams will have to rely on scouting to determine who the best bets are, but even then in many cases you just don’t know if a player will succeed in MLB until he actually gets an opportunity to play in MLB.

Park’s high-profile failure means that MLB teams are going to be more careful about handing out similar contracts to KBO sluggers in the future, but it would be a mistake for MLB teams to give up on signing the best youngish KBO players in the future.  It is clear that the KBO can produce a least a few players with MLB talent every five or six seasons going forward.

What Do Players in the Mexican League Make?

July 30, 2017

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what the respective salary scales are throughout the world’s professional baseball leagues.  The Mexican (summer) League numbers were hard to find on line in English.  Thanks to Google Translate, I think I’ve been able to figure out what the current salary caps in this league now are.

The best information I’ve been able to find is that domestic veteran players (Mexican Nationals) max out at 150,000 pesos per month, or $8,450 per month at current exchange rates.  Foreign players cannot be paid more than either $6,000 or $6,500 per month for their first season of Mexican League baseball, but can eventually earn as much as $8,000 per month.  However, some of the Spanish language posts I read in translation asserted a belief that the best foreign players on the wealthiest Mexican League teams may be making more through rule-breaking, performance bonuses, free housing and other stipends.  Also, there are reportedly no state or federal taxes on salaries in Mexico.

The fact that Mexican League salaries are approximately 50% higher than I had previously thought they were explains a few things I had been wondering about.  Many foreign players, particularly Latin American players, play in the Mexican League for years after their careers in the MLB system end, something you don’t typically see in the Independent-A Atlantic League where salaries cap at $3,000 per month.  The talent flow is almost exclusively from the Atlantic League to the Mexican League, which makes sense if the salaries are significantly higher.

It also explains something that I had noticed this year.  Taiwanese CPBL teams seem to have a strong preference for signing Atlantic League players over Mexican League players, even though the best foreign pitchers in the latter league are succeeding against a higher level of competition.  This is particularly the case once the CPBL season has started.

Atlantic League players can presumably be signed for much lower initial contracts than better paid Mexican League foreign stars, particularly in light of the fact that success in the CPBL would eventually lead to annual or monthly contracts considerably larger than either the Atlantic League or the Mexican League, plus a chance to move up to even bigger salaries in South Korea’s KBO or Japan’s NPB.

Also, Mexican League teams typically charge much larger transfer fees for their players’ rights than do Atlantic League teams.  Part of the reason Atlantic League and other Independent-A teams are able to pay such modest salaries is that they allow their successful players to move up to better baseball pay-days for only nominal transfer fees the moment a better opportunity comes along.

I would guestimate that the current transfer fee for an Atlantic League player is around $5,000, and a small percentage of that (20-25%) may go the player.  Mexican League teams are far more reluctant to sell their players in season if they believe those players will help them make the post-season.

What’s Wrong with Tetsuto Yamada?

July 30, 2017

As of last off-season, Tetsuto Yamada was the best Japanese position player prospect for MLB purposes since Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui.  In his age 22 and 23 seasons, he hit .329 and .304 with on-base percentages of .416 and .425, blasted 38 home runs both seasons and stole a total of 64 bases in 70 attempts.   His age 21 season was almost as good, and he’s a middle infielder to boot!

In fact, Yamada was on pace to have an even better season in 2017, but nagging minor injuries slowed him down late in the season.

This year, however, Yamada has had something of a lost season.  He’s currently batting only .225, dead last among the 30 qualifiers in NPB’s Central League.  He’s still hitting for power and drawing walks, so his .759 OPS is not atrocious.  Still, it represents a tremendous drop from his output the three previous seasons.

I’ve waited all year long for Yamada to get hot, but it hasn’t happened.  He’s played in all 93 of his team’s (the Yakult Swallows) games, so if he’s still hurt, it has to be the type of lingering minor injury that hasn’t effected his ability to play every single game.

If NPB pitchers have found a hole in his swing, it was a long time coming — one has to think that they would have found it sooner, since he’s now in his fifth season as a starting player.  My go-to site for NPB baseball news in English, Yakyu DB, has been engaged in something of a conspiracy of silence about Yamada’s 2017 season, since I haven’t even been able to find even one mention of Yamada this season.

I tend to think that opposing teams have been steadfastly pitching around him, and he’s had a hard time adjusting to it.  Even hitting dead last, he was leading his league in walks until very recently when he was passed by Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, another top Japanese MLB prospect who is not playing as well as did in 2015 or 2016 but who has gotten hot recently.

The Swallows have been awful this year, holding the Central League’s worst record only two years after finishing with the league’s best record.  The Swallows’ hitting is poor, and the only other truly dangerous hitter on the team, Wladimir Balentien wasn’t hitting with his usual power until about two weeks ago.  As of today’s game, Balentien has hit home runs in five consecutive games and now has 20 HRs on the season after having only 10 or 11 fifteen days ago.

The upshot is that Yamada has probably been feeling a tremendous amount of pressure, as the team’s brightest star, to help his team win.  The fact that he’s played every single one of his team’s games in spite of his struggles suggests his team believes they can’t give him even one game off to clear his head and rest his body.

NPB pitchers have also had no reason to throw Yamada any more strikes than they absolutely had to, and Yamada has probably been swinging at pitches he shouldn’t be swinging at in order to make something happen for his team.

Now that Balentien is finally slugging again, it’s possible that Yamada may start seeing better pitches and will hit better in the Swallows’ remaining 50 games.  However, no matter how hot Yamada might get, his final season numbers are going to seem very anomalous with his career to date.

The thing is, Yamada only just turned 25 thirteen days ago.  So long as his 2017 season isn’t the result of a physical problem, this lost season could actually be good for Yamada’s development as a player.  There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth during and immediately after Bryce Harper‘s 2016 season, but a year later he’s right back to where he was in 2015 when he was the National League’s undisputed MVP.  As a recent gatorade commercial points out, players and people generally tend to learn more from their failures than their successes.

Japhet Amador Slugs Three Home Runs in NPB Game

July 24, 2017

Two days ago huge Mexican slugger Japhet Amador launched three home runs in a game in Japan, making him the fourth player to have a 3-HR game in NPB this season.

Amador is fairly well known to those who follow international baseball the last five or ten years as one of the few young players in the Mexican League (summer) who could really hit but who never broke through to MLB success.

MLB teams didn’t like Amador for a couple of reasons.  First, his Mexican League team, the Mexico City Red Devils, wanted a couple of million dollars for his rights.  MLB teams generally didn’t think Amador was worth it because of his size (he’s listed as 6’4″ and somewhere between 297 and 310 lbs), his lack of defensive value, and the suspicion that his hitting prowess in Mexico was based primarily on the fact that he rarely, if ever, saw major league stuff.  Any young Mexican pitcher with a major league fastball and any semblance of command gets acquired by an MLB organization very quickly.

Amador had brief trials in the Houston Astros’ system in 2013 and 2014, but he generally failed to impress.  In 2016, the Rakuten Golden Eagles acquired his rights (I’d guess the Mexico City Reds received close to $1 million for Amador’s rights from Rakuten, on top of a likely $1.2M-2M they got from the Astros in 2013, of which Amador probably received somewhere around 25%).   Amador has been paid roughly $275,000 for each of his two NPB seasons, which is low for a foreign major league NPB player, but is likely about ten times per year what he was making playing in Mexico and likely reflects that the Golden Eagles had to pay a significant amount for his rights.

Amador hit with enough power in 2016 for Rakuten to bring him back in 2017.  This year has been a struggle for Amador, as Japanese pitchers have learned to pitch to his weaknesses.  Even with the 3-HR game, giving him 13 dingers on the season, he’s still slashing only .229/.305/.404.

What has kept Amador around this long is that Rakuten is having a great season this year in spite of Amador’s relatively modest contributions and also that NPB teams want their foreign imports to hit for power, which Amador certainly does.  Over parts of two seasons in Japan, he’s slugged 22 HRs in 407 plate appearances.  However, Amador has only eight other extra base hits, including a surprising two triples, and has also grounded into 18 double plays.

I’m doubtful that Amador will return to Japan in 2018, unless the recent 3-HR game truly constitutes real improvement, rather than the more likely one-off great game from a hitter who can certainly hit the ball a long way if he squares a mistake pitch up.  If his Japanese career ends, Amador can always return to Mexico, where he’ll likely be able to play professionally until his big body can’t handle the strains any more.

Kenta Maeda — Every 10th Day Starter?

July 21, 2017

I’ve been a fan of the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda for a long time.  I followed his career closely in Japan, where he was a great pitcher at the top of the class just behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.  I definitely thought he was good enough to be a successful major league pitcher.

I also liked Maeda because he was a small right-hander, and I was a small right-handed player in my playing days, now oh so long ago.  Like Tim Lincecum, Maeda was small, but he could pitch, and I felt there ought to be a place his talents in MLB.

From the beginning MLB teams were suspicious of Meda because of his size.  The Dodgers signed him on a deal that guaranteed him only $25 million over eight years, but was chock full of incentives if he could prove he could be a successful MLB starter.

Last season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided pretty quickly that Maeda’s innings had to be strictly limited.  While at the time I thought that this might reflect some latent MLB prejudice against small right-handers, on further analysis, I was probably wrong.

Roberts is literally the product of an American Marine and a Japanese woman his father met while serving in Japan.  (I, and probably lots of other baseball afficionados, had assumed that the Dodgers’ manager was the son of Panamanian ball player Dave Roberts, who was playing in Japan the year and the year before the now manager was born.)  The Dodgers’ manager was a below average sized major leaguer in his own day.

Instead, Roberts decided quickly and probably accurately that it would be tough for a pitcher Maeda’s size to start every fifth game.  In fact, this has been a problem for all Japanese pitchers moving to MLB, including those with MLB-sized bodies like Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma (it’s been a problem for a lot of American-born pitchers too.)  In Japan, starters typically start only once a week, because so many games are washed out during the wet Japanese summer months.

This season, Maeda has been the victim of the new home run trend, and he’s been in and out of the Dodgers’ talent-packed starting rotation.  He’s become basically a spot starter (and spot reliever), starting when the team doesn’t have an extra game off to rest the other starters.

Maeda has been remarkably successful in this role.  Through June 9, pitching as part of the regular five-man rotation, Maeda had a 4.95 ERA.  Since then he’s made five starts on average eight days apart, and he’s allowed more than one run in a start only once, on a day when he had only four full days’ rest since his previous start.

I’ve been following MLB since 1978, which is pretty much the entire era of five-man pitching staffs.  Many is the time I’ve seen teams try to use 4+-man rotations, basically skipping the fifth man every time there was an extra day off that allowed the other four starters their normal rest.

This strategy has almost never worked.  The fifth starter was routinely skipped because he really wasn’t an adequate starter at all.  The fifth starter, who wasn’t any good to begin with, tended to be even worse when he didn’t pitch regularly.  Also, one of the other four adequate or better starters tended to get hurt at some point in the season, which rendered the strategy completely ineffective.

This season, the Dodgers are so deep with talent that they have the starters, the bullpen, and the pitcher in Maeda to make this strategy work well for the first time I can remember.  Maeda is a veteran pitcher who can be still be effective starting every eight to 12 games, plus the occasional one or so inning relief appearance in between, who may well benefit from starting half as often as the typical MLB starter.

Maeda has also been willing to give the team whatever it needs, even though the infrequent starts hit him directly in the pocketbook because of his incentive-laden contract.  Apparently, Maeda is mature enough to realize that he’s making more in the U.S. than he would have made if he’d stayed in Japan.  Plus, the reasonable likelihood of a World Series check and ring probably do a great deal to assuage any hurt feelings Maeda might otherwise have.

I’m a strong believer that managers need to be extremely flexible in terms of using the actual players they have on their rosters, with their specific skill sets and specific weaknesses, in order to tease out as many regular season wins as they possibly can in any given season. Managers’ jobs are too tenuous not to do every single thing within their power to win ball games.

Managers often aren’t flexible in large part because the players demand consistency in their roles (and the players are now well better paid than the managers), and because there are certain well-established notions about how managers should use their players, built up over generations, and known to the sportswriters who cover the games like professionals.  It’s the reason that teams without great closers generally do not elect to use bullpens-by-committee based on match-ups, even though this would make a great deal of sense if you don’t have a true closer.

Roberts may well end up sending in Maeda for every fifth start if somebody else in the starting rotation gets hurt.  I’m just trying to point out that using Maeda on a less regular basis seems to be working very well for the Dodgers and that Maeda might be exactly the pitcher to make such a strategy work.  The 2017 Dodgers are currently on a pace to win 113 games.  It’s hard to find fault with that.

James Loney Going to South Korea

July 18, 2017

James Loney has signed a contract with the LG Twins of South Korea’s KBO on a deal that will pay him $350,000 for the remainder of the 2017 season.  Loney is a relatively high profile signing for the KBO, and $350,000 is a relatively high salary for a player signing this late in the KBO season.

It’s worth noting, though, that the money Loney is being paid is probably not his primary motivation in going to South Korea to play.  Loney has made more than $37 million in his pro career to date, so he probably doesn’t need the extra $350,000 that much.  Instead, Loney just wants to keep playing, since at age 33, he’s not especially old for a player of his past career accomplishments.

I have no idea whether Loney’s got much left in the tank.  He played relatively well in 2016, but was pretty awful in trials totaling only 18 games with the Tigers’ and Braves’ AAA teams earlier this season (.218 batting average and .608 OPS in 70 plate appearances).  The LG Twins will surely find out if he can still compete at the KBO level.

I’ve been following Taiwan’s CPBL closely this season.  It’s a league that, like the KBO a few years ago, signs almost exclusively pitchers for its three foreign player roster spots per team.  These pitchers pretty much all come to the CPBL after great performances in the Mexican League (summer), the independent-A Atlantic League or the Latin American winter leagues or after washing out of AAA, the KBO or Japan’s NPB.  One or two great seasons in the CPBL, and these pitchers generally move up to the KBO, NPB or back to AAA.

The CPBL pays well better than the Mexican or Atlantic Leagues, roughly the same or a little more per month than the Latin American winter leagues (but for a much longer summer season) and considerably less than the KBO or NPB.

The competition for talent across the three Asian major leagues is fierce and largely defined by each league’s salary structure.  NPB is far wealthier than the KBO, but has more roster spaces available for foreign players; and many NPB teams stash additional foreign players on their minor league clubs so that they can quickly fill an available roster space if a foreign player on the major league roster gets hurt or is ineffective.

NPB and the KBO compete for the 4-A players who aren’t quite good enough to play with any regularity in MLB.  The KBO is now offering as much or more to rookie foreign players as NPB teams are, although success in NPB (which is harder to achieve than in the KBO, since it is a better league) can ultimately mean annual salaries three times what KBO teams can or will pay its best foreign veterans.

Also, KBO and CPBL teams no longer sign foreign relief pitchers, because their salary scales are such that they want more valuable starting pitchers for the money required to sign foreigners and to fill the restricted number of roster spaces.  NPB, which is considerably wealthier and which finds it more difficult to find 4-A players good enough to succeed in NPB (the world’s best leagues after MLB), routinely sign foreign relievers.  In fact, this has been an extremely successful strategy for NPB, with several NPB teams sporting foreigners as both their closers and top set-up men this season.

The most money ever offered to foreigners in the CPBL is the $60,000 per month the EDA Rhinos offered Manny Ramirez to remain in Taiwan for the second half of the 2013 season (which Manny turned down), and the $56,000 per month ($6,000 of which was performance incentives) to Freddy Garcia in 2014.  Manny had a huge impact on attendance and merchandise sales during his half-season in Taiwan, leading to the relatively huge second half offer (he was paid only $25,000 per month for the half season he actually played), and almost certainly being responsible for the huge offer Garcia, another big-name former MLB star, received the next season.

However, although Garcia’s first start drew about three times the typical CPBL game attendance, Garcia pitched well but was not completely dominant after that, and no CPBL team has signed a foreign player with Garcia’s MLB credentials since 2014.  It’s worth noting that while both Ramirez and Garcia played well in Taiwan, neither one was head and shoulders above the other top players in the league in their respective seasons.  The CPBL has apparently decided that for the time being, it can find pitchers who are good enough from the sources I mention above, who do not command the kind of salaries former major league stars command.

 

What Do Players in Taiwan’s CPBL Make? 2017 Update

June 29, 2017

About three years ago, I wrote a post which stated that foreign stars in Taiwan’s CPBL typically make around $150,000 a season.  I now think that this estimate is probably on the high side for all but established foreign stars.

I suspect that the lowest paid foreign players in the CPBL probably make as little as $7,500 to $10,000 per month for a six month long season, based on the fact that the Independent-A Atlantic League and the Mexican League (summer), from which the CPBL routinely draws talent, pay far less.  The Atlantic League maximum is still $3,000 per month for a 5.5 month season, and I reasonably believe that the maximum Mexican League salary is about 100,000 pesos (about $5,550) per month for a 4.5 month season.

At those rates, $7,500 to $10,000 per month would be a substantial raise (more than double) for any players coming out of these leagues to play in the CPBL.  Needless to say, CPBL teams need to pay just enough to convince players from the Americas to travel half way around the world to play baseball in Taiwan.

Established foreign CPBL stars like Mike Loree and Orlando Roman could well be making significantly more than $150,000 a year now.  However, they are playing in their 5th and 4th CPBL seasons respectively this year, and foreign players generally do not last or stay long in this league.  I have to assume that the CPBL is like other Asian pro leagues, where veteran service is typically required for a max level contract.

It’s worth noting, however, that Mike Loree left the CPBL to pitch in the KBO’s minor league in 2014 for a reported $200,000.  That would strongly suggest that Loree’s CPBL team offered him less money in spite of the fine season he had in 2013.

The cite CPBL English provides some useful information on top CPBL salaries.  Before the 2016 season,  then 12-year veteran star Lin Chih Sheng signed a reported three-year deal that will pay him as much as 15 million New Taiwan dollars (about $498,500 at current exchange rates) per year, although 20% of the contract is performance bonuses.  That set a record for largest total value of contract in CPBL history, but I don’t know if anyone topped that this past off-season.

The best foreign pitchers (all foreign players in the CPBL are currently pitchers) could thus now be making well over $150,000 per season, particularly once they’ve pitched two full seasons in Taiwan.

Additional relevant information from CPBL English is that 1st round CPBL draft picks are now receiving signing bonuses as high as NT$5.6 million ($186,100) but starting salaries of only $2,700 to $3,300 per month.  You’d need a large signing bonus to live on that, particularly since a lot of draft picks are coming out of Taiwanese Universities.