Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Pan Wei-Lun Sets CPBL Record with 142 Career Wins

September 11, 2019

Right-hander Pan Wei-lun set Taiwan’s CPBL record with 142 career wins two days ago, and no one outside of Taiwan had any idea.

I thought that Pan entered the 2019 season as the CPBL’s all-time wins leader, because he is the all-time leader on the CPBL’s own website, at least as far as all the stats the CPBL publishes indicate.  Ah, but it’s more complicated than that.

The CPBL includes stats from the competing Taiwan Major League (TML) which operated for six seasons between 1997 and 2003, before the TML folded/merged with the CPBL.  Two major leagues in tiny Taiwan?  Yes, baseball is that popular in the former Japanese colony and United States ally/dependent.

Unfortunately, two major gambling scandals in Taiwan pro-baseball’s 30 year history have prevented Taiwanese pro-baseball from drawing the fans Taiwanese baseball fandom otherwise deserves, and Taiwan isn’t and has never been big enough to reasonably support to separate pro baseball leagues.  It’s a shame, but if the CPBL can stay clean on the gambling front, it can one day grow to being a league a shade lower than South Korea’s KBO, rather than a shade better than Mexico’s LMB.

Early CPBL ace Chen Yi-Hsen won 92 games in the CPBL and 49 games in the TML (thanks CPBL Stats).  The CPBL counts TML stats for purposes of its all-time records, but does not publish TML records, which makes it just about impossible for anyone who does not speak Mandarin to figure it all out.

142 career wins isn’t a whole lot as a record for a league (or two) that has been in existence for 30 seasons.  However, history again explains it.  Taiwanese pro-baseball started play in 1990, by which time extensive relief pitching was part of the professional game everywhere.  Additionally, the CPBL hasn’t had the revenue streams necessary to prevent MLB and Japan’s NPB from routinely poaching all of the best Taiwanese amateur talent, especially pitching, since the CPBL’s inception.

Pan Wei-lun;’s career is pretty much what I would expect the best CPBL pitcher to look like.  Pan doesn’t have the kind of elite stuff that would have made his signing by an MLB or NPB organization a foregone conclusion.  But he really knows how to pitch.

Like a lot of pitchers without terrific stuff but who really know how to pitch, Pan was a CPBL ace from his age 21 through 28 seasons (2003-2010), but then he experienced a series of nagging injuries.  However, he didn’t have a career ending injury, and he was just healthy and hitter-fooling enough that he has continued to pitch through 17 CPBL seasons.  Since 2010, Pan only been truly healthy (in terms of actual innings pitched) in 2015 and this season, but when he can pitch, he’s always been good enough for his team, the 7/11 Uni-Lions, to keep him around until the wheels truly and finally fall off.

Pan now has a 142-87 career record with a 3.24 ERA in what has been, for most of his career anyway, an extreme hitters’ league.  MLB major league pitchers I might compare Pan to are Mike Flanagan, Ray Sadecki and John Candelaria.


NPB’s Kodei Senga Throws No-Hitter

September 7, 2019

In a game that is going to get general managers throughout MLB pricking up their ears, NPB ace Kodei Senga threw a no-hitter today as his SoftBank Hawks beat the Chiba Lotte Marines 2-0.  Senga walked three and plunked a batter, while also striking out 12.  His fastball reportedly touched 98.8 mph.

Senga asked to be posted for MLB teams last off-season, but alas, he plays for one of NPB’s three rich teams, and the Hawks refused to post him.  Senga has been kind of up and down this season.  He is now 12-7 and his 205 strikeouts (in 160.1 IP) leads all NPB pitchers by more than 40.  However, his 2.92 ERA is only 6th best out of 13 qualifiers.  As in MLB, NPB starters aren’t going as deep into games as they did even a few years ago.

Senga has allowed only 120 hits, but he’s given up 17 dingers and 68 walks.  Still, he’s pretty clearly got MLB major league stuff, and he’ll get a big contract from an MLB team when he’s able to cross the wide Pacific, certainly more than the four-year $24M offer that would probably be the best the Hawks would offer him as a true free agent.  Senga is still only 26 years old this season.

If you haven’t already guessed, Senga is at this moment the top NPB pitching prospect for MLB.

Munetaka Murakami Sets Japanese Under-20 Home Run Record

September 4, 2019

Yakult Swallows’ 1Bman Munetaka Murakami hit his 32nd home run of the 2019 NPB season today, setting a new record for most home runs in a season by a player under age 20.  Home runs are definitely up in NPB this season, as, I would speculate, launch angles, three true outcomes and extensive defensive shifting have reached the Japanese professional game.  Even so, it’s an impressive record to set.

Will we see Murakami in the MLB majors one day?  That remains to be seen.  Murakami’s .227 batting average is the lowest among qualifiers in NPB’s Central League, and his 166 Ks in only 526 plate appearances both suggest he has to improve significantly before he becomes an legitimate MLB prospect.  Also, home run hitting is the skill that translates least well from NPB to MLB.

Working in Murakami’s favor, however, is that he could reasonably be available to MLB teams as young as his age 26 season, just as he would be coming into what should be his prime.  That would be 2026, so in the mean time all we can do is wait and see how his NPB career develops.

It’s also worth noting that today Swallows’ 2Bman Tetsuto Yamada hit his 200th NPB HR, and the SoftBank Hawks’ DH Alfredo Despaigne hit his 150th NPB HR.  The odds are good we could see Yamada in MLB in 2020, his age 27 season.  Despaigne is a Cuban who has not defected, so he’ll stay in Japan indefinitely under a deal worked out between the Hawks, Despaigne and the Cuban government.

MLB Bans Players from Playing in the Venezuelan Winter League

August 23, 2019

MLB has banned all of its major and minor league players from playing in Venezuela next winter, in keeping with Trump’s embargo on Venezuela’s failed “Bolivarian Socialist” state.  MLB is waiting for guidance from the Trump Administration on whether letting minor league players make some real money playing winter ball, at least compared to their paltry minor league salaries, actually violates the embargo, but MLB has decided to act now just in case.

I suspect that playing in the LVBP does violate the government embargo, at least as a practical matter, because it has always more or less been common knowledge that since the Venezuelan economy went south in 2013, the government has been increasingly subsidizing winter baseball as low-cost public entertainment with money from the State oil company PDVSA.

Will a reduction in LVBP performance level this winter significantly hasten Maduro’s fall?  I doubt it.  Venezuela still has enough domestic talent, even without MLB minor leaguers  (major league stars are barred by their individual teams from playing in the winter leagues so the players won’t get hurt while they’re under contract) to put on an entertaining level of play.  Plus, the LVBP can still sign other Caribbean players not likely to play in the MLB system going forward.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have any fondness or sympathy for Maduro, a tin-pot dictator if ever there was one.  It’s just that the people most likely to suffer from MLB’s decision will be Venezuelan baseball fans; the 20 to 30 MLB minor leaguers who often make as much money or more playing for 2.5 months in Venezuela as they do in the 5.5 month minor league season; and the Venezuelan players who want to play in front of their home fans and have no responsibility for the Maduro regime’s actions.

According to above, players can make $10,000 to $50,000 for the LVBP season.  I’d guestimate that because of Venezuela’s economic problems, most foreign or MLB minor league players who play in LVBP make $20,000 or less for the season.  Meanwhile, an MLB minor league player who has reached AAA but not the majors and has less than seven years of minor league service could be paid as little as $2,150.00 per month in 2018.  That’s about $12,000 for a full AAA season.

Independent-A league stars make up a significant portion of players who play in the Caribbean Winter Leagues now.  They need the money just as bad with salaries capping at $3,000 per month (five month season) in the Atlantic League and around $2,200 per month (4.5 months) in the American Association.  It’s unlikely the Indy-A leagues will take a position since they don’t have much control over players once their seasons end.  As such, each of these players will have to make his own decision whether playing in Venezuela is worth the possible legal consequences.

As a final issue, raised the possibility that Maduro could bar MLB teams from signing Venezuelan amateurs, particularly those under 18, as retaliation for MLB’s move.  I suspect, though, that if Maduro does bar such signings, he may still let young Venezuelan players go to the Dominican Republic to train, where they could sign with MLB teams.  Maduro has to realize that remittances from abroad are one of the only things keeping Venezuela’s economy from complete collapse.

An Interesting Off-Season Awaits Josh Lindblom

August 21, 2019

Ace Josh Lindblom currently has a 19-1 record in South Korea’s KBO.  He’s leading his league in wins, ERA (2.03) and strikeouts (152 in 155 IP). He’s pitching so exceptionally well (even though the KBO has not been the hitters’ league this season it was in years’ past), is reporting that “MLB scouts have been attending [his] KBO starts in droves.”  He is now 34-5 in the KBO since the beginning of the 2018 season(!)

The upshot is that Lindblom is going to have an exciting upcoming off-season.  There is nothing a player wants more than to be desired and have options.  I’m sure Lindblom’s agent has already printed out the post for later reference.

Lindblom will be going into his age 33 season in 2020, which is old in terms of drawing serious interest from an MLB team.  On the other hand, Lindblom has a much stronger past MLB track record than most foreign KBO pitchers.  Lindblom pitched in 114 major league games across parts of five MLB seasons and posted a very respectable 4.10 ERA with decent ratios, although he made only six major league starts.

Lindblom plays for the KBO’s wealthiest team — the Doosan Bears — and KBO rules on foreign player contracts changed last off-season.  New foreign players or foreign players switching KBO teams cannot be paid more than $1M for their first contract.  However, KBO teams are now allowed to sign foreign players to multi-year contracts for the first time.

The highest salary paid to a foreign player by a KBO team to date is the $2.2M or $2.3M the Doosan Bears paid Dustin Nippert in 2017, coming off a 2016 Nippert season not unlike Lindblom’s 2019.  This season, Lindblom has a base salary of $1.77M plus $150,000 in performance incentives he’s likely to earn in full.

Without the rule change, Lindblom would probably be looking at a $2M contract for 2020 with a team option for $2M for 2021 and a $500,000 buyout, so a $2.5M guarantee for one season.  With the rule change (but KBO revenues probably down), Lindblom is most likely looking at a two-year contract with a $4M guarantee from the Bears.  Even with the rule change, I don’t see the Bears taking more than baby steps on a long-term contract for a foreign player, particularly one going into his age 33 season.

Because of his age and lack of NPB experience, I don’t see a Japanese team beating the Bears on a $4M guarantee.  To an MLB team, however, $4M is not big money.  An MLB won’t pay that much if they don’t have to, but if only one of the 30 MLB teams likes Lindblom, two years and a $4M guarantee is easily matched.

Former KBO ace Merrill Kelly signed a two year deal with a $5.5M guarantee with the Diamondbacks last off-season.  He hasn’t been great, but fangraphs says his value has been $11.9M so far this season, so he’s been a bargain.  Kelly is three years younger this year than Lindblom will be in 2020, and Kelly had better strikeout rates in the KBO than Lindblom.  However, Lindblom has a much better past MLB major league record, and his accomplishments the last two KBO seasons speak for themselves.

If an MLB team thinks Lindblom is worth a $4M guarantee, I think he’ll be back in the U.S. in 2020.  If not, he’s likely to get a record-setting KBO contract that will set a precedent for KBO foreign players going forward.

Conspiracy Theory

August 18, 2019

The best current KBO hitter not to have gotten a shot at playing in the MLB system is SK Wyverns’ 3B Choi Jeong.  The internet stories I read in 2013 indicated that Choi could play the hot corner on defense; and he certainly hit a ton.

In his ninth season with the Wyverns, he got off to a slow start in 2014.  The Wyverns sent Choi down about a third of the way into the season, even though his OPS was still well above .700.  The KBO was until the 2019 season a hitters’ league.  I’d have let Choi play through his still not unproductive slump.

Maybe the Wyverns wanted to hold onto Choi, and that is part of the reason the Wyverns sent Choi down when they did.  Choi spent about a third of the season in the KBO minor league, and hit like himself upon his return to the majors.  Still, the damage had been done.

Choi played only 82 of the 126 Wyverns’ games that season, and his OPS was “only” .907.  That wasn’t good enough to interest MLB teams in the off-season when Choi was going into his age 28 season.

That was Choi’s MLB opportunity, and he missed it.  Choi also got hurt in 2015.   He was still a tremendous hitter in both 2016 and 2017.  And the Wyverns won the 2018 Korea Series, even though Choi’s OPS was back down to .915 (on a .244 batting average!?!) and he missed 29 of the Wyverns’ 144 games.

Although Choi lost his shot as an MLB star, the Wyverns gave him a six-year roughly $9.4 million contract before the 2019 season coming off a four-year $7.7M deal after the send-down season — so Choi will not be going home hungry any time soon.  And I haven’t even mentioned the endorsement deals Choi no doubt gets in Incheon, a city of now about 3 million people.

Maybe the SK Wyverns and Choi Jeong were meant for each other.

One of the Problems with a Small League

August 15, 2019

I’ve been writing about Taiwan’s CPBL since around November 2013.  During that time, the CPBL has been a tiny four-team circuit.  It was once much bigger, and there was even a second Taiwanese major league for a about six season in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  However, several different gambling scandals hurt the popularity of pro ball in Taiwan deeply.

One of the problems with a four-team league is that it’s easier for one team to get a disproportionate share of the best players and thus totally dominate the league.  Right now, the Lamigo Monkeys have dominated the CPBL for several seasons.

In 2018, the Monkeys set a CPBL record for most wins in a season (73-47), and they have now won five consecutive half-season titles — the CPBL plays a split season with two 60-game halves — and the Monkeys are now back in first place in the second half of the 2019 season.

In 2018, the Monkeys were great on both offense and defense.  This year, the Monkey’s pitching hasn’t been as good, but the Monkeys’ starting line-up is much better than any of the circuit’s other three teams.  The top five qualifiers in terms of batting averages are Monkeys.  The top four qualifiers in terms of on-base percentage are Monkeys, as are the top four qualified slugging leaders.

The Monkeys have won four of the last five Taiwan Series and five of the last seven.   It makes me think of the New York Yankees from 1921-1928 and 1932-1939, although the Yankees played in a then eight-team American League.

It isn’t good for a major league to have one team completely dominate year after year.  Competition keeps the fans of every team engaged.  That said, Taiwan is small enough that fans don’t necessarily have to follow the (most) local team, and CPBL teams often play in multiple cities as their home team during any given season.

The CPBL will be adding a new major team in 2021, the Wei-Chuan Dragons, a team re-established from the CPBL’s more expansive glory days.  Scheduling issues with a five-team league means that a sixth CPBL team is likely by 2023-2025.

For the last several years, I have been of the opinion that Taiwan should be able to support six major league teams.  There are five major metropolitan areas in Taiwan, and greater Taipei should be able to support two teams playing on every day of the baseball calendar — one team home and one away.

Baseball attendance is enhanced by rivalries between communities, and I suspect that six CPBL teams playing in the five largest metro areas should all be able to make a living.  A six team league would also make it about 50% harder for one team, like the Monkeys, to completely dominate the league for a period of years.