Yusei Kikuchi: Next Japanese Import?

Jay Yencich · September 30, 2009 at 12:47 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

We are now a few weeks removed from the historic event of Ichiro recording his ninth consecutive season with two hundred or more hits. Aside from the usual bumps leading up to the milestone, these events have become commonplace, and so it’s strange to think now that a decade has passed since the second wave of Japanese imports started proving themselves in the states. While something of a curiosity then, met with some initial derision from the scouting world, they’re well on their way to becoming an institution.

Free agency and the posting system have not yet proven to be the death of the NPB or any of the surrounding leagues, a claim that was perhaps exaggerated at the time, but it has become increasingly common for teams to bypass the usual limitations by finding some way to grab prep players. This has been talked about in Korea and Taiwan for years as being a talent drain, but recently it’s come up as an issue in Japan as well, where the Mariners signed Kenta Suda out of Hideo Nomo’s baseball program a few years ago and the Red Sox made waves by signing Junichi Tazawa, who snuck through by joining up with a lesser unaffiliated league and then insisting that he not be drafted. The trend looks to continue this winter as left-hander Yusei Kikuchi is deciding between the MLB and the NPB, a move that is will have some repercussions as he’s eighteen, whereas Tazawa was twenty-two at the time, and he would be going number one in their draft otherwise. The Mariners, as ever, are linked to Kikuchi.

Though baseball has again been nixed from the Olympic schedule, losing out to rugby and golf for the 2016 games, the international presence is ever on the rise, with the World Baseball Classic essentially filling that role on the stage. South Africa and China have both funded programs to popularize the game in their own countries, India recently produced its first two prospects, and the Caribbean Leagues continue to go strong all throughout the winter. The relationship with Japan, however, is still quite different, with its own established history going back more than half a century and a schedule that conflicts with the MLB season. You can’t blame players like Tazawa and Kikuchi for wanting to come over, but their choices are putting a strain on the current arrangement. Along with the emergence of new markets in the coming decades, we’re also likely to see a restructuring of the setup between the MLB and NPB, if the latter is going to remain competitive.

Comments

23 Responses to “Yusei Kikuchi: Next Japanese Import?”

  1. joser on September 30th, 2009 12:56 pm

    I know this crosses all sorts of cultural minefields, but maybe the NPB needs to set up baseball academies across Latin America, and even Asia, and start drafting international prospects into their league?

  2. Mike Snow on September 30th, 2009 12:59 pm

    I’m thinking there might be some interesting lessons to find in the history of the PCL, since before the Dodgers and Giants moved west, accompanied by the conquest of the independent minor leagues by the modern farm system, it had a somewhat similar dynamic with the major leagues. Even the distance might be deemed comparable given the travel options of the time, although the cultural distance is undoubtedly greater for Japan.

  3. JH on September 30th, 2009 1:11 pm

    Joser: the Japanese league actually already has a presence in the Dominican. Alfonso Soriano signed with a Japanese team as a teenager and then hopped over to MLB. They have a tough time recruiting for obvious reasons, but they’re there.

  4. lailaihei on September 30th, 2009 1:12 pm

    This makes me want to watch Major again and catch up with the recent episodes…

    Anyway I like the idea of taking talented Japanese players (like Suda and Kikuchi) out of high school. It seems like an undervalued market.

    It is interesting, though, to see what will happen to the NPB as a result. I personally don’t think that there will be a ton of Japanese players coming to the US to the point where it makes the NPB uncompetitive. A lot of Japanese people would never consider leaving Japan, even if it meant they could make some more money in their baseball careers. It’s not comparable to Latin America in this sense.

    Another thing is that people in Japan watch the NPB despite it is a weaker league than the MLB. There are people in the US who follow MLS soccer despite it’s not even close to the top competition in the world, right? I just don’t see the NPB becoming uncompetitive, even without a restructure.

  5. Typical Idiot Fan on September 30th, 2009 1:30 pm

    This makes me want to watch Major again and catch up with the recent episodes…

    Currently watching Cross Game, myself.

    Two trains of thought:

    1). MLB wants the best players for their teams to help them win the World Series. NPB wants the best players for their teams to help them win their championship. Since we watch and support MLB, our interest lies in seeing the best with our teams. Obviously, we look at the NPB, and Japan in general, and see them as a lesser league that can be mined for prospects, not as a league with equal rights to try to keep their players.

    2). In the end, what kind of rights to players really have? If the NPB puts on rules and restrictions preventing their countrymen from coming to the states until after the NPB has had their turn with them, can we really be so critical? After all, our current system imposed on first year amateur players acquired in the Rule 4 draft has similar restrictions. The international free agency market is somewhat better, but still has a lot of control rules.

    Ponder ponder ponder…

  6. Dobbs on September 30th, 2009 1:47 pm

    “Another thing is that people in Japan watch the NPB despite it is a weaker league than the MLB.”

    Last I checked, people go to all sorts of minor league games just to watch baseball and root for their hometown, even when most of the players won’t be back the next year.

    But yeah, I watch MLS because I like watching soccer and the Sounders are our home team. But like the MLB, Europe has all the star players and that tends to be where a lot of the best US players end up too.

  7. Steve Nelson on September 30th, 2009 2:05 pm

    1). MLB wants the best players for their teams to help them win the World Series. NPB wants the best players for their teams to help them win their championship. Since we watch and support MLB, our interest lies in seeing the best with our teams. Obviously, we look at the NPB, and Japan in general, and see them as a lesser league that can be mined for prospects, not as a league with equal rights to try to keep their players.

    It’s now evident that the talent gap between Japan and North America is not very great, if there is any gap at all. I believe the stage is set for Japanese teams to begin mining North America for talent.

  8. marc w on September 30th, 2009 2:29 pm

    Nitpick: “history going back more than half a century.”
    Take out ‘half’ in that sentence.

    So Jay/JH – do we have any data on the number of kids coming over after high school? I keep thinking that the Mac Suzuki situation was potentially more destabilizing to the NPB than Hideo Nomo coming over, but I don’t know. If a couple of the top amateur talents skip the NPB draft each year, that’s one thing; a trend hinting at the NPB getting the leftovers of their own national talent pool some time in the future…. that’d be scary.

  9. TranquilPsychosis on September 30th, 2009 2:43 pm

    Nitpick: “history going back more than half a century.”
    Take out ‘half’ in that sentence.

    NPB has been around for more than 100 years?

  10. wchen on September 30th, 2009 2:55 pm

    I did a paper on this topic last year. I looked at how the departure of Japanese stars such as Ichiro and Dice-K affected the level of play in Japan (using Davenport translations). I found that there was a significant drop in the play of NPB after the floodgates opened around 2001. How this actually affected the finances or fan bases of the NPB teams, I don’t know, but it was very clear that the league was getting worse.

    Something the NPB might want to consider: They currently only allow something like 2 foreign players on each team. By opening up to more foreign born players, they would probably see and increase in the level of play. The Italian league put a nationality rule and place and saw revenues plummet as well as the quality of baseball. You might find the opposite affect if you took away this rule.

  11. Mike G. on September 30th, 2009 4:02 pm

    It’s two position players and two picthers, so four altogether. Also I believe that foreign players that were brought up through the systems don’t count against the “quota”.

    Whether the league should open up further has been argued ad-nauseam other places.

  12. Mike G. on September 30th, 2009 4:05 pm

    Well, I was a bit off as well, click here for any clarification on the rule.

  13. Jay Yencich on September 30th, 2009 4:25 pm

    Nitpick: “history going back more than half a century.”
    Take out ‘half’ in that sentence.

    I was going with the NPB as the NPB, which has been around since 1950. I know about the Japan Baseball League before that, going back to about 1935, and there were a few existing teams that transitioned over from that but… eh… it was kind of like saying that Major League Baseball has been around since 1876 because that’s when the National League began.

    So Jay/JH – do we have any data on the number of kids coming over after high school? I keep thinking that the Mac Suzuki situation was potentially more destabilizing to the NPB than Hideo Nomo coming over, but I don’t know. If a couple of the top amateur talents skip the NPB draft each year, that’s one thing; a trend hinting at the NPB getting the leftovers of their own national talent pool some time in the future…. that’d be scary.

    I don’t know where to point to hard data on that, I thought I saw something at one point on East Windup Chronicle, but now I can’t find it. I do know that Korea was pretty upset about Jung Young-il going to the Angels in 2006 and also unhappy with us signing Choi Ji-man this year. There would be more as you go back, Choo, Kim and the like. It’s similar in Taiwan, but the leagues there have suffered more financial difficulties, so it’s hard to say. The teams in play there couldn’t make better offers, as far as money or even workplace environment. Both leagues seem to have more difficulty adapting than the NPB has had, and there’s also been the earlier talent drain.

  14. Matt the Dragon on September 30th, 2009 4:26 pm

    NPB has been around for more than 100 years?

    Umm, no. If I recall correctly it was formed in 1950 and the JBL before that was in the early 30s.

  15. Chris_From_Bothell on September 30th, 2009 4:29 pm

    …but it has become increasingly common for teams to bypass the usual limitations by finding some way to grab prep players. This has been talked about in Korea and Taiwan for years as being a talent drain…

    Have we really seen an influx of quality players from Korea and Taiwan? I’ve actually wondered why the prominent names from e.g. the World Baseball Classic weren’t being more aggressively pursued. Maybe there’s more of them still in the minors, or in the NL, and I just never noticed. It just seems like there’s much more talent over there that would be great to bring here, esp. to west coast teams.

  16. Jay Yencich on September 30th, 2009 4:43 pm

    Have we really seen an influx of quality players from Korea and Taiwan?

    We know about Baek and Choo, obviously (Choo’s pretty good, if you’re not selectively blocking that part of your memory), but there’s also been Jae-kuk Ryu and Jung Bong, and Hee Seop Choi, I guess, though none have been what we thought they would be.

    Taiwan had Wang with the Yankees, and we had Chia-an Huang who had fascinating talent and off field issues that completely wrecked him. There’s also Yung-chi Chen, us, with the Athletics last I checked, who could have been a competent middle infielder if not for leg injuries. More recently, Che-hsuan Lin is well-liked in the Boston system, the Dodgers have Chin-lung Hu, who has been with the big club off and on since 2007, and the Tigers signed Fu-te Ni in the offseason, which was a big deal. More players are signed out of Taiwan every year, it’s just that we held off for a few years after Kuo-hui Lo and the Huang debacle.

    I’m going back and forth between the westernized rendering of names and the traditional one, sorry.

  17. marc w on September 30th, 2009 5:11 pm

    “it was kind of like saying that Major League Baseball has been around since 1876 because that’s when the National League began.”

    I think it’d be accurate to say that pro baseball, or baseball in general, dates from 1876. The founding of the NPB isn’t really an analogous situation with South Africa or Italy, though. It’s not like Japan discovered baseball in the post-war era, which the sentence could’ve implied (I know you know this, Jay…). That is, South Africa/Italy are in baseball development where Japan was ~1900 or so. The date the NPB was created isn’t as relevant, IMO.

    And for prospect guys, you gotta include Chin-Hui Tsao from the Rockies. Looked like he was on his way, but was derailed by injuries. I still think Korea and to a lesser extent Taiwan are going to send more and more decent players here. You’re already seeing it, of course.

  18. Jay Yencich on September 30th, 2009 6:14 pm

    Right, right. I included the NPB date because I thought it was worth accounting for having one, continuously operating league there for generations. That’s rarely if ever the case elsewhere, but I can see where some could get the post-war thing mixed up in there, when it’s been there since the late 19th century.

  19. huhwhat on September 30th, 2009 7:02 pm

    Chan Ho Park wasn’t so bad early in his career with LA.

  20. kenshabby on September 30th, 2009 9:11 pm

    Jeez, golf as an Olympic sport. What’s next, curling? Oh wait…

  21. mln on September 30th, 2009 9:45 pm

    “We know about Baek and Choo, obviously (Choo’s pretty good, if you’re not selectively blocking that part of your memory), but there’s also been Jae-kuk Ryu and Jung Bong, and Hee Seop Choi, I guess, though none have been what we thought they would be.”

    Who is this Choo fellow of whom you speak? I hope the Mariners are pursuing him if he’s pretty good. :)

  22. Jay Yencich on October 1st, 2009 8:22 am

    So, DrNaka at MarinerCentral tracked down some videos of Kikuchi.

    In-game action

    The throwing motion looks pretty easy. No real violence to it even though he’s getting it up there on the gun. He’s definitely more of a thrower at this stage and seemed to be just trying to get the gun to light up a time or two, but there were a few balls that were spotted almost perfectly.

    There’s also another video of his daily routines. My Japanese is pretty rusty, but it seems like he has a good work ethic and is pretty well grounded and humble, at least when there’s a camera pointed at him.

  23. dchappelle on October 1st, 2009 4:04 pm

    Jay, anywhere easy to go for potential NPB players that will be posted or are free agents? I used to always go to Jim Albright at baseballguru (his MLB equiv stats are quite helpful) but it seems his updates don’t come out until most of the top guys are signed.

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