EO: This week’s The Conversation is with David Klopfenstein, otherwise known as Yakyu Night Owl. David is a big fan of Japanese baseball, something I and, I would imagine, lots of others have very little knowledge of. Of course, we’ve heard of Ichiro, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka but I thought it would be interesting to get to know a bit more about the professional game in Japan. David, I wondered if you could first of all tell me what first attracted you to the Nippon League?
DK: My first exposure to baseball in Japan was Sports Illustrated. When I was 7, Frank Deford wrote an article on Sadaharu Oh and the legendary slugger appeared on the cover. The timing was absolutely perfect. It was the first summer I spent following the Mariners. Baseball was quickly becoming a big part of my life. When the issue appeared on the news stand, I was instantly intrigued by the game overseas too. It would take years to be able to follow teams in Japan, but the seeds were sown very early.
EO: I had to remind myself of the number. For those that don’t know, Oh hit 868 Home Runs during his career. Don’t they play fewer games in a Japanese season too? What are the main differences between the Nippon League and MLB? Are the ballparks smaller? I would assume they are with that astronomical figure!
DK: Yes, NPB plays fewer games in a season than MLB. They also travel shorter distances. On the other hand, a wintertime activity called “Spring Camp” starts on the first of February and ends weeks before spring actually begins. Teams practice longer and more often than their contemporaries. Upper tier talents and members of the national team are expected to stay in playing shape all year-long. A day off during the season doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in other top leagues. Game days are longer and busier too. In terms of fatigue over the course of a campaign, it would not be fair to call it any easier. Different, but not any easier. In the past, training regimens in Japan were even more rigorous and demanding.
Comparing the impact of home run kings is difficult. Even between MLB players, it isn’t always apples to apples. JAWS is the best way to end that argument among those in Cooperstown, but for other leagues there are so many differences that a true head to head comparison is almost impossible. It can be a really fun exercise, but I think no amount of study will tell the whole story. There are just too many moving parts. Condition and composition of the ball, type of bat, average strength of opponents, size of parks, distance of home runs, atmospheric conditions, and the feats of power hitting peers provide some context. Since we are modern men of leisure, one also has to note a difference between performances enhanced by a fresh cup of green tea, handfuls of greenies, and clandestine athletic recovery medications developed in a laboratory.
However, when discussing slugging achievements in the context of their times, I think Josh Gibson, Sadaharu Oh, and Katsuya Nomura can be revered in the same breath as Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. This may sound like heresy, but arguing that neither Gibson nor Oh nor Nomura would have been successful in MLB ignores the reality that none of them were given the opportunity. Only an elite handful of players have ever hit over 600 home runs at the very highest level they could reach in their era. Whether they spent a career in the Negro Leagues or Nippon Professional Baseball doesn’t make it less remarkable. Anyone who doubts Oh specifically should research what was said by his colleagues and contemporaries across the pond. A great slugger is a great slugger. These men are immortals for solid reasons. All of them earned their enduring reputations.
Ballpark size is often cited when looking at NPB statistics, but stadium dimensions in MLB have also played a charitable role over the years. Some iconic big league parks were quite friendly down the lines even if center field was a huge prairie. Like a ball clearing the Green Monster at Fenway, or parking one way out in the 200 level of the Kingdome, there is nothing cheap about a back screen shot at Koshien, or a home run ball nicking the support structure in the roof of Fukuoka Dome on the way toward the upper rows. It’s a true moon shot regardless. In reality, both of those NPB parks are less forgiving historically than the MLB stadiums cited as examples. Differences in average dimensions between current NPB and MLB parks are overstated, but the reputation persists. The way baseballs were made also has a lot to do with how records are perceived in both leagues. With so many stateside reporters and writers assuming that his record-breaking success was due to a livelier ball and tiny parks, it was difficult to get the truth out when Balentien surpassed Oh and set a brand new mark. In fact, Coco had a monster year facing a deader standardized ball that had actually suppressed home run rates.
EO: Aaahhh, Wladimir Balentien, once a not very good hitter coming through the Seattle Mariners system. Always had power and his 60 home runs broke Oh’s long-standing single season NPB record. Is it quite often the case that failed MLB players succeed over there or is that too simplistic an assumption to make?
DK: It’s a natural assumption for MLB fans to make, but it isn’t exactly true. Studying the all-time list of imports with MLB experience, there is an awful lot of failure mixed with a few true success stories. League average guys with attitudes regularly made fools of themselves either on the field or off. Some flops in the past came home and talked trash, but abject failures have become less verbose now that their dismal numbers are easily found by the public. Some big veteran MLB names still have the misfortune of brief NPB careers ended by injury. It would be interesting to see the average success rates for overseas players. Even though there are great careers to consider, it can’t be very high.
Still, there may be a kernel of truth to that assumption. Until the not so distant past, there seemed to be something of a pattern for the few who built a solid reputation in NPB. It was often a player blocked in a depth chart at AAA until they were long in the tooth by prospect standards, and/or saw limited action in MLB, and/or never quite fit the long-term plans of an organization, and/or were underestimated by a team for non-baseball reasons like nationality and race. Some guys find themselves and add another level to their game after coming to Japan, but it isn’t enough to work hard and make a few concessions to a new paradigm. For every Alex Ramírez there are easily a thousand careers like Bryan LaHair.
While other parts of his game were criticized, nobody ever doubted Coco Balentien had big league power. He still does.
EO: One thing that has always interested me, certainly since Ichiro came over to the Mariners in 2001, is how the posting process works in Japan and how it is that some stars choose to come to the majors. Ichiro was very much a long-established star in Japan when he came across, as was Hideki Matsui when he joined the Yankees. However, more recently we’ve had Yu Darvish, who, whilst undoubtedly a big name already, was still in the infancy of his baseball life.
I know the system has been changed a number of times. Where are we now and is it more of the player’s own decision today than it has been in the past? Or is it very much at the whim of the clubs to see how much they can get for a talent?
DK: It would be hard to explain the posting process in any detail and keep it brief. I’ll defer to folks with much more knowledge.
Japan Baseball Weekly episode 3.40 is indispensable. Pioneering agent Don Nomura and John E. Gibson discussed the posting system: http://www.japanesebaseball.com/audio/JBP_Pod_Vol._3.40.Don_Nomura_interview,_Posting_System.mp3
Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker mulled over consequences of new changes before Ma-kun signed with the Yankees. His thoughts are still good at providing context for the moment: http://www.npbtracker.com/2013/12/a-conversation-about-the-posting-system-with-my-brain/
To dig into the details, the archives of Yakyu Baka are incredibly valuable: http://yakyubaka.com/tag/posting-system/
EO: Does the Japanese sports fan take a great deal of interest and pride in how their fellow countrymen do in the Major Leagues? I remember an enormous number of them watching Ichiro throughout his time in the Pacific North West.
I suppose I can compare it to David Beckham playing in MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy. It increased awareness and interest in football/soccer in the U.S. hugely. However, he was and is an enormous star name, both sporting and in the celebrity world. Other players such as Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe have garnered far fewer column inches. The impending arrival of Steven Gerrrard and Frank Lampard will boost coverage once again so I suppose I’m half answering my question in that it depends on the size of the star as to the level of coverage.
Let me go a different route!!! What is the level of interest in MLB from the average baseball fan in Japan? Is the local league the be all and end all? Do Japanese fans tend to follow a team in MLB or more their own players?
DK: Baseball has been the national pastime in Japan for a very long time. Amateur teams have competed internationally for over a hundred years. It’s probably safe to say that fans have followed players and clubs on their journeys overseas as long as newspapers have covered the sport.
While Masanori Murakami took the first step half a century ago, it was a long wait to see Japanese talent regularly in MLB. It represented a huge step to have guys like Hideo Nomo, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Tadahito Iguchi succeed in the big leagues. It’s hard to believe that when those men first took the field in the United States, a fan could not easily find up to the minute information in Japanese. You couldn’t even watch a reliable stream by subscription. For foreign talents, not just from Japan, it’s a nice that fans at home can follow every move live on more than just television. Of course, baseball fans regardless of their background enjoy more than just homegrown talent.
This is a golden age for baseball in that respect. So many cultures have played the sport since the 1800s and every local variation has something unique to offer. Social media has broadened the reach globally. Teams have seen the growing benefits of reaching out. I think there will come a day when US fans are regularly enjoying the many flavors of baseball available all over the world. MLB will be part of a buffet, not the only thing on the menu. NPB can share the traditions and appeal to future generations outside Japan too. (In many respects, it’s already that way for international soccer, or rather football fans who follow clubs and players all over the place.)
EO: It’s certainly one of the best things of the world we live in today that we are able to follow more and more sports and leagues around the world much more easily than before.
One final question. Are there one or two names to watch out for fans of Major League teams, guys who are poised to come over or you’d like to see in the bigs, guys who could make a major impact for a team?
DK: Before tackling your final question, I do want to return to touch on something you asked earlier about the biggest differences between MLB & NPB. There are a number of notable differences, but I’ll focus one just one: The profile of the game at the high school level.
No other country has legacy tournaments like Koshien. After a century, it remains the biggest and oldest on the planet. The history goes back far enough that practically every region in Japan boasts ball players or teams that became household names to one extent or another. Dice-K, Ma-kun, and Yu were all part of excited discussions among professional baseball fans long before drawing their first check. In this era of instant media, there is the potential for a prep player to become a superstar before they’ve decided between the draft or a college career.
One current talent that has captured the attention of scouts and fans alike since high school is Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. The lingering question is whether he will concentrate on pitching, or pursue a career in the outfield. He has the tools to do both, but at some point, the decision will probably have to be made. If he continues to develop and stays healthy, there will be a solid market should the club decide to post in the future.
David can be found writing at Best Coast Ball and on Twitter @yakyunightowl.