To most baseball fans following last offseason’s constipated pitching market, the will-he-or-won’t-he Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes seemed to take forever to resolve. To the Yankees, who eventually inked Tanaka to a $155 million deal, that drawn-out posting saga was merely the last lap of a much longer process — the scratch at the end of a seven-year itch. The Yankees, general manager Brian Cashman revealed, had been evaluating Tanaka since 2007, when he was an 18-year-old rookie starter for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. They watched him face major league hitters in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. They attended 15 of his starts in his final season in Nippon Professional Baseball. They sent a major league advance scout to see him in the NPB playoffs. All in all, they received reports on Tanaka from 11 members of their organization, and those reports said: “Sign him.”
We know a tremendous amount about how MLB teams enrich their rosters by raiding NPB’s. The ways in which NPB teams replenish their rosters, however, almost constitute a black box. For example: On December 26, two days after news broke that the Tanaka bidding was about to begin, 30-year-old free-agent right-hander Guillermo Moscoso signed with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars of NPB’s Central League. Moscoso had spent time in the majors from 2009 through 2013, but the stories about his big move were bare-bones: no quotes, no salary, just the basics from his Baseball-Reference.com page. The articles included some “what,” but no “how” or “why.”
Admittedly, the players who relocate from the U.S. to Japan aren’t as talented or intriguing as Tanaka. They’re generally faded former major leaguers, up-and-down guys on the fringes of 40-man rosters, or minor league lifers. A post pops up somewhere to say they’ve accepted an offer, without any fanfare or posting fee, and we move on without considering the mysterious process that wiped them off the American baseball map. But why did the team pick that particular player? What did some scout see? And how is it that some exports who never made their mark in the majors reach exalted status in their new setting, like Kal-El after escaping from Krypton? How did Wladimir Balentien, who hardly hit in the big leagues, break the single-season home run record by smacking 60 for the Yakult Swallows last season?
Obtaining permission to pose these questions to an NPB team requires faxing a message in Japanese, a moderately high hurdle if you don’t speak the language and haven’t sent a fax since the rest of the world discovered scanners and email. Even then, few teams are eager to talk about the process of procuring foreign talent, an area in which many organizations want to protect a perceived competitive advantage. However, one team was willing to dish: Moscoso’s new club, Yokohama.
The BayStars, the former team of Kazuhiro Sasaki, Takashi Saito, and Tomo Ohka, might be the NPB club you’re least likely to know. When I asked Jason Coskrey, who covers NPB for the Japan Times, and Patrick Newman, the proprietor of NPB Tracker, to compare the BayStars to an MLB team, they both offered the same pick: the Padres. The BayStars’ history goes back to the beginning of the Central League in 1950, but it isn’t exactly storied: They’ve suffered the most last-place finishes and won the pennant (and the Japan Series) only twice, in 1960 and 1998.1 Before 1993, the BayStars, who were then owned by a seafood company, were known as the Whales; they changed the name, Wikipedia claims, because “some superstitious fans had believed that dead whales put a curse onto the team, preventing the Whales from winning championships.” The whales would have had a bigger beef than the billy goats, but according to the Japan Times’s Wayne Graczyk, the name change was really a response to public protests. The BayStars can’t blame all their worries on ghost whales.
Yokohama is in fifth place in the Central League this season, but according to Newman, the BayStars are “showing some signs of life under new ownership.”2 Two such signs are the team’s creative in-game promotions and its predictably strange new mascot, a cylindrical hamster with a star-shaped face and decent dance moves. Another, more important sign, at least from a competitive standpoint, is the BayStars’ splashy addition of Yulieski Gurriel,3 a two-time MVP in Cuba whom many scouts considered a strong candidate to play in the majors after he distinguished himself in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Gurriel, who signed with Yokohama in mid-May, debuted in June, turned 30 in June, hit .340/.400/.621 with six homers in his first 115 plate appearances, and looked like he had a chance to become the Central League’s first foreign-born rookie of the year before suffering a possibly season-ending injury late last month.
Despite the injury, Gurriel’s instant success highlights the importance of international scouting for NPB teams. To protect domestic players from being forced out of their own league, NPB restricts teams to four foreign-born players on the active roster.4 However, that 16 percent of the roster often makes an outsize impact: Four of the six current Central League home run leaders are foreign-born former major leaguers, and hitting on a single player like that can significantly alter a club’s outlook.
To search for those sluggers, the BayStars employ two full-time scouts in the United States, both of whom keep an eye on the majors but concentrate on Triple-A. They don’t scout lower leagues, because in most cases, they’re looking for immediate impact, not development projects. Former MLB and NPB player Luis Lopez is based in New York and covers the International League, while former minor league manager and pitching coach Lyle Yates, who lives in Los Angeles, patrols the Pacific Coast League. According to Shun Kakazu, the BayStars’ director of international operations, most NPB teams have between one and three full-time Stateside scouts. According to one NPB source, only two teams have no full-time scouts in the U.S.; they compensate by sending people in Kakazu’s position on months-long overseas scouting trips.
When Lopez goes to games, he hopes to see a younger version of himself. The 49-year-old former first baseman was a career .318/.366/.481 Triple-A hitter, but he played only 41 games in the big leagues, from 1990 to 1991. Like any player who almost made it in the majors, he can now envision ways he would have: if he hadn’t been blocked by Eddie Murray and overtaken by Eric Karros in L.A., if he hadn’t hurt his elbow in Cleveland, if the strike hadn’t stopped play when it did. Some mixture of skill and circumstance conspired against him, however, and in 1996, the then-31-year-old joined the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and found the Central League to his liking. Over six seasons in Japan, he hit .303/.350/.506 and twice reached 30 homers before retiring in 2002. “Balentien, maybe myself, Alex [Ramirez], a couple other guys, we kind of went right when we needed to go,” Lopez says. “We were right there maturing, and we just kind of fell into it. It all clicked for us.”
Now, Lopez’s job is to find current Triple-A players who look capable of clicking the same way. He sees every Independent League team at least twice over the course of a season. He completes his first circuit before July, attempting to see everyone in case the BayStars need midseason reinforcements. In the second half, he starts cherry-picking players at the positions that he, Kakazu, Yates, and GM Shigeru Takada expect to have to fill the following season. Eventually, Lopez becomes a quasi stalker, shadowing the player or players he thinks would be the best fit. “It gets tricky because they get called up or they get sent down,” Lopez says. “I’ll fly to a city and go to the park and, next thing you know, he’s been sent down or called up. So you’ve got to follow him, but that’s part of the scouting gig.” Trips to Japan are also on the itinerary, always during spring training and often during organizational meetings at the end of the year.
Lopez is primarily looking for pitchers, outfielders, and corner infielders. Catchers are problematic because of the language barrier; middle infielders are less desirable because they lack power. As Lopez puts it, “If you’re going to bring a foreigner over, why not bring someone who can hit home runs?” The sweet spot for pitching is “a guy that has good command and spots the ball, [and] can throw 90-92.” Lopez would love to sign someone with nastier stuff, but he knows he’s shopping at the outlet store, where every item has a flaw. “If we go any [faster],” he says, “they’re probably in the big leagues anyway.”
The BayStars use statistics to supplement their scouts’ reports. “For us, the most important factor in evaluating players is scouting reports by [Lopez and Yates], whose opinions we trust most,” Kakazu says. “With that said, we do take stats into consideration. We have analyzed the past performances of recent foreign players and how their Triple-A and MLB stats correlate to their NPB stats, so that we can predict how our candidates might do if they come to Japan.”
Both Kakazu and Lopez stress all of the things that set Japanese baseball apart, particularly for pitchers, that can complicate those projections: the mound, the ball, the bunting, the strike zone, the schedule, the different approach to pitch sequencing, the emphasis on controlling the running game and on picking up opposing players’ tells. The cultural adjustment to Japan can be just as jarring, and so in addition to studying physical skills, Lopez also tries to assess whether each player has the makeup and mental agility to be a BayStar. He does that in part via direct observation, “by looking at them playing, their hustle, how they go out there and take BP, how they work and go about business.” However, he also relies on networking. “I talk to other scouts; I try to talk to other people I know in the organization and some of the coaches,” Lopez says. “They’ll say he’s a good guy and a hard worker, or they’ll say this guy is high-maintenance, he’s a dog, things like that. That’s pretty much all we can do.” If the player is a free agent, the BayStars can also conduct an interview. “Sometimes I go there and tell them, ‘Hey, this is what Japanese baseball is,’” Kakazu says. “I’ll ask them some questions and see if they will be able to adjust.”
Tampering rules prevent scouts or NPB team personnel from attempting to seduce players who are under contract with another organization, so Lopez can’t just walk up to someone he likes and ask if he’s interested in being a BayStar. Instead, Lopez has to put himself in the player’s shoes, or simply remember what it was like to occupy his own when he was buried behind Murray.
“Let’s say a guy goes up and down all year round; he might be a minor league six-year free agent,” Lopez explains. “You look at the pitching staff of a major league team, and he may be their sixth or seventh starter, which is why he’s in Triple-A. If we like him, we’ll have our guys inquire to the major league teams and go through Major League Baseball. Then we can see if the team would like to sell him or not. Most of the time, we’re pretty much on the money when we think a guy is knocking on the door but doesn’t have a chance and a team doesn’t really want to trade him, but they’ll sell him to Japan. … Sometimes a team says no, we want to keep him for depth. Then we move on to the next guy.”
If the player’s parent club OKs the contact, the BayStars let the combination of money and opportunity talk. Most Triple-A players earn $2,150 a month, and even veterans’ salaries top out in the low six figures annually, so the raise to a typical foreign-born NPB player’s take — between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on the résumé — is a serious selling point.
A higher salary wasn’t always sufficient incentive, however. “Fifteen years ago, I think it used to be much harder for us to get a player,” Kakazu says. “We kind of had to ask them to come and convince them to come to Japan. But right now, with all the players coming from Japan to the States … I think the players in the States, they have started seeing Japan as a very attractive option. It’s easier now. There are many, many players that are approaching us saying, ‘Please bring me to Japan.’”
The only time the pitch won’t work, Kakazu says, is when “they can smell the chance of getting promoted to the big leagues. Then it’s hard for us to convince them to come.” However, while going to Japan was once regarded as a one-way trip, players know that today, the stay can be temporary. “So many MLB scouts come over here to scout Japanese and American players,” says Kakazu, who has scouted in Japan for the San Francisco Giants. “Their reports are in the database for MLB teams. It’s much easier for [players] to go back and forth.” That was the case for Nyjer Morgan, who went one-and-done with the BayStars last year, playing well enough to earn an offer from the Indians in January.
Unfortunately for the BayStars, they aren’t the only team browsing. Although Lopez tries to find hidden gems, other clubs can sense the same opportunities, and at times there’s intense competition. Yokohama might be outbid by the Yomiuri Giants, the so-called “Yankees of Japan” whose pennant count has climbed to 35, or simply beaten to the punch by another Japanese or Korean club that needs a player at the same position.
Moscoso, who’s pitched to a 3.53 ERA in his first 15 starts for Yokohama, didn’t get away. The BayStars scouted Moscoso in 2012 and 2013, but as long as he was getting some looks in the big leagues, he wasn’t willing to walk away. At the end of last season, San Francisco removed him from its 40-man roster, making him a free agent. Although the Giants planned to extend an invitation to spring training, the uncertainty made Moscoso receptive to the idea of starting over in NPB, a possibility he’d discussed with Hisanori Takahashi during a stint in the Cubs system months before.
“When we make an offer, we make it through his agent,” Kakazu says. “We don’t have to do anything special and go out and send flowers to him or anything like that. It was just a number that we talked.”
That number: an estimated $850,000, plus $300,000 in incentives and the opportunity to remain in the rotation. It was a better deal than Moscoso could count on receiving in the States, so he agreed, despite his anxiety about the food, the language, and the pressure to produce right away.
Moscoso is single, which can be a lonely life in NPB. “All the players I know here, all the foreign players, are married and have kids. And you stay here a long time. You get here January 25 … all the way to October 5 or October 10, so it’s a long 10 months.”
However, the club made him comfortable, which Kakazu considers as important as good scouting. “As soon as you arrive, you’ve got everything,” Moscoso says. “You’ve got a translator right away, a cell phone so you can get in contact with your family, and then as soon as I got out here to Yokohama, my apartment was ready.” He’s happy with his decision not to try to fight for a spot with San Francisco, and he hopes to stay with the BayStars.
Moscoso is pitching as the BayStars expected, but whether they’re moving from MLB to NPB or vice versa, some players’ performance defies what the stats and scouts project. Kakazu agrees with the statistical consensus that the talent level in NPB lies somewhere between Triple-A and the majors, but in some cases, that difference appears to be dramatic enough to upset an equilibrium, completely sapping some players of their powers (such as Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hiroyuki Nakajima, two Japanese stars who flopped in the U.S.) and infusing others (such as Balentien) with new ones. “It’s a weird thing,” Kakazu says.
ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski offered a theory via email. “The players from the US that translate the best over there are kind of the opposite ones to the NPB guys who do well here,” writes Szymborski, who created the ZiPS projection system, which translates stats between leagues to forecast the performance of foreign players. “The ‘three true outcomes’ guys fare the best — take any fourth/fifth outfielder type that’s a fringe major leaguer with good power and they have a reasonable shot at success there. Brad Eldred, Wladimir Balentien, Wily Mo Pena aren’t surprising success stories over there. My hypothesis is that a baseball culture that still has a bias against strikeouts and for putting the ball in play/pitching to contact is a good fit for guys like that, that are fairly easy outs when you go right at them.”
Kakazu concedes that Balentien’s team, the Swallows, have the best track record when it comes to picking foreign players, but he believes Yokohama’s process is just as sound. A discovery even half as big as Balentien could propel the BayStars to their first winning season since 2001. “There must be a secret,” Kakazu says. “And we’re trying to figure that out.”
Illustration by John W. Tomac