The Nippon-Ham Fighters did it again.
Their assistant general manager joyfully thrust the winning lottery ticket in the air at last fall’s amateur draft, after he beat out six other teams in the drawing for a prized high school slugger.
It was a particularly cheerful moment for the Fighters because they were on the verge of losing their star two-way player Shohei Ohtani to the Los Angeles Angels.
With one fortuitous draw of an envelope, the Fighters redirected their fan base’s attention to the country’s most intriguing prospect, 18-year-old Kotaro Kiyomiya, whose 111 home runs are the most in a high school career.
The last time the Fighters lost a star to Major League Baseball was when the ace pitcher Yu Darvish used the posting system to sign with the Texas Rangers before the 2012 season. Later that year, the Fighters filled his oversized shoes by drafting the most coveted high schooler of the time: Ohtani.
The Fighters’ sustainability underscores the state of Nippon Professional Baseball. The sport is healthy enough that when its great players seek greener fields, they are seamlessly replaced by a new generation of budding stars.
“I’m not worried in the least that Ohtani’s departure will in any way lower the level of play in Japan,” said Ted Heid, an executive in the Seattle Mariners’ Pacific Rim operations, who has been scouting Japanese players for more than two decades. “I’m still very excited by Japanese baseball and excited to see how young, talented players who have been drafted into their game develop over the next five or so years.”
Indicators of baseball’s popularity in Japan are strong. The National High School Baseball Tournament is preparing for its centennial celebration later this year, and the Tokyo Organizing Committee got baseball reinstated as a medal sport for the 2020 Olympics.
Ohtani confounded American expectations by coming to Major League Baseball at 23, instead of waiting for a bigger payday in two years, when his salary would not have been constrained by the league’s international signing rules for players under 25. Already with five years of pro experience in Japan, he is seven years younger than the average age of the 56 Japanese players to debut in M.L.B. before him.
With wins in his first two pitching starts and three home runs in his first four games as designated hitter, Ohtani is quickly quieting those who doubted that anyone other than Babe Ruth could thrive playing both ways. His next impact may be inspiring players with an interest in Major League Baseball to consider going at a younger age.
But the pipeline from Japan has noticeably slowed down. The streak of at least one new Japanese player debuting in North America’s top league every year since Hideo Nomo with the Dodgers in 1995 ended last season at 22. A new one has already begun this year with the Padres’ Kazuhisa Makita and the Diamondbacks’ Yoshihisa Hirano joining Ohtani in M.L.B.
But pitching has long been Japan’s forte. No position player from Japan has debuted in M.L.B. since 2013, far and away the longest drought since Ichiro Suzuki first played in Seattle in 2001.
Setting aside Ohtani’s two-way aspirations — he has been used as a designated hitter this season but not in the field — Suzuki, now 44 and back in Seattle, is the lone position player from Japan in the big leagues.
“Kazuo Matsui was the best middle infielder of his time,” said Aki Inose, a longtime baseball commentator in Japan. “I think Japanese people were shocked when his game didn’t translate, and that had a big impact on other position players’ thoughts about trying to make the jump to America.”
Mets fans remember Matsui all too well. Considered the answer at shortstop when he signed in 2004, the Mets shifted Jose Reyes to second base. Unable to fulfill his potential, Matsui was traded to the Colorado Rockies during his third season.
He performed his best after the trade, batting near .300 with an on-base percentage of .350 in 2007 and ’08. Matsui played seven M.L.B. seasons, the fourth-longest stint for a Japanese position player behind Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and So Taguchi. Matsui returned to Japan in 2011 and at 42 is a player-coach for his original team, the Seibu Lions.
M.L.B.’s reliance on power, a longtime shortcoming in Japan, helps explain why more position players have not come, but Heid said Japanese infielders, in particular, were at a disadvantage.
“They play on all-dirt infields,” he said. “From an early age and then growing up through high school, it’s an all-dirt infield, so they never really practice with grass infields that are the norm in the U.S. Middle infielders in Japan don’t have to have great range because the ball gets through the infield so quickly.”
The journey of one of the few infielders to follow Matsui underscores that. Munenori Kawasaki signed with Seattle in 2012. At 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, he had a typical Japanese physique, and he was popular for his determination and positive spirit. Despite just one career home run, he persevered, willing himself into lineups for five consecutive seasons, playing games for the Mariners, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago Cubs.
Kawasaki had more at-bats in Class AAA than in the majors, but he was intent on staying in North America. He was doing this in his mid-30s as he was starting a family. Few players who have achieved stardom are willing to toil in the minors at that stage of their careers and lives.
“As Japanese, we take pride in the strong fundamentals we are taught growing up,” said Kawasaki, who returned to Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last year and announced his retirement a few weeks ago. “But the flip side is we are not encouraged to make backhanded plays, jumping throws off balance, et cetera. In the minors I watched guys do it and practiced every day. When I finally made an out from shortstop on a running, backhanded stop where I twisted my body in midair and threw underhanded all the way to first, it was the happiest moment for me. Who cares if it was the minor leagues? As a professional baseball player, I made a big league play and became confident I could do it again.”
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