The Other Japanese Bubble

In response to the Irabu ordeal, Nippon Baseball created the posting system, which allowed American franchises to compete in a blind auction for potential imports and separated the negotiations between the teams from contract negotiations with the player.  The first Japanese player to test the system was Ichiro Suzuki.  The Mariners paid a rather hefty price, $13 Million, just for the opportunity to negotiate with him prior to the 2001 season.  The recent memory of Irabu, combined with Ichiro’s slender frame and unorthodox approach, fostered widespread skepticism.  Ichiro’s performance was historic, as we all remember.  And not only for what he did on the field.  MLB franchises saw that not only were the best players from Japan able to adjust to the American game, they brought Japanese baseball fans with them, opening up new revenue streams and creating international branding opportunities.  Teams, especially teams from large markets with sizable Asian-American populations, started clambering for their own Ichiros, willing to hand out large posting fees and/or enormous contracts for players with no major-league experience, and sometimes very little professional baseball experience.

The sad truth, however, is that, as yet, despite annual bouts of giddiness regarding players from Kazuo Matsui to Kenji Johjima to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, no new Ichiro has been found.  There are a lot of things about the Japanese Invasion which have been very good for the game.  The larger the pool of players, scouts, and fans, the better the competition.  Moreover, the flow of talent has not been one-directional.  Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong are the two most recent examples of American players who made extraordinary strides while playing in Japan and translated the lessons they learned into success upon returning home.  But in an era of increasing focus on “Moneyball,” fiscal accountability, and internal player development, we have been remiss in making the following admission: On the whole, in terms of their production on the field, Japanese players have been a bad investment.

Here are the twenty players who have earned the most money after jumping over from Nippon:

Note: Players in bold are still active, so WAR could improve before the end of contract; in a few cases (for instance, Nishioka), substantially.  WAR number are from FanGraphs.  Investment figures, rounded to the nearest $100,000, come from BB-Ref., as well as Cot’s Contracts, and include posting fees when applicable.

What jumps out at me about this table is the fact that a full decade later, Ichiro and Nomo are still the best Japanese players ever…and nobody else has even come close.  Meanwhile, competition between clubs in New York, Chicago, Boston, and L.A. to secure marketable players from the Nippon leagues led to escalating posting fees and longer contract commitments.  As a result, five of the ten most expensive Japanese players now look like financial catastrophes.  Even Hideki Matsui, who most of us probably consider a success story, has earned only about 70% of what he’s been paid (according to FanGraphs valuation tools).

There are a number of reasons why success has been so rare.  Japanese players generally arrive at a later age, closer to the decline phase of their career.  It takes more money to sign them, not only because the competition is steep, but because they already have nice salaries and endorsement deals in their home country.  And, because they are already recognized professionals, teams can’t exploit the rules which apply to amateur free agents, rules which severely mitigate risk.  Japanese players have also grown accustomed to certain routines (for instance, more practices, longer rest for pitchers, a shorter season, less travel) which have to be altered when they move.

Again, the courting of Japanese fans and, in turn, the courting of advertising dollars from Japanese companies at American ballparks and on local sports networks is a pursuit which improves the game in the long run.  However, we cannot expect the progression to be wholly and steadily uphill.  These revenue streams will open widest and stay open longest when players succeed.  The Mets aren’t getting any delayed gratification out of Kaz Matsui.

The bubble reached its peak in 2006.  That year featured enormous posting fees for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa, as well as Godzilla’s $52 Million extension, and the Mariners signing of Johjima.  All told, nearly $200 Million was spent on those four players that offseason.  In the aftermath, it appears teams have grown a little more gunshy.  Nishioka, despite coming off a record-breaking season in Japan in 2010, garnered a posting fee of only about 10% of what Dice-K got in ’06.

While ignoring the biggest names, several teams have looked to Nippon to find veteran pitchers to slide into the bullpen or the back of the rotation.  Frequently, such players, while not generating much press, are cheaper than their American counterparts.  Takashi Saito, Koji Uehara, Hisanori Takahashi, and Hideki Okajima all came to the States when they were well into their 30s and filled minor roles that might have otherwise been filled by LaTroy Hawkins or Darren Oliver at double the price.

The recent trend towards conservatism is going to get tested this offseason, as Yu Darvish, a 25-year-old who’s already seven seasons deep in his professional career, is presumed to be making the trans-Pacific jump with the help of super-agent Scott Boras.  Is he the next Ichiro or the next Irabu?

It may depend on where he lands.

In my mind, the five greatest Japanese success stories are Ichiro, Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito, and Tomo Ohka.  The first four played the majority of their careers on the West Coast.

The biggest busts are Igawa, Fukudome, Matsui, Irabu, Kenshin Kawakami, and Kaz Ishii.  All but Ishii played east of the Mississippi.

About Matt Seybold

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

11 thoughts on “The Other Japanese Bubble

  1. I'm sorry, but calling Matsui one of the biggest busts is just plain stupid. In terms of real production, the guy has averaged 24 homers and 103 RBI's while batting .287 over his career in the MLB. In other words, in his prime, Matsui was a fine #5 hitter for the Yankees, while being a versatile outfield piece, pre-injuries. Also, they couldn't have beat the Phillies without him in '09. So to call him an outright bust while comparing him to Kawakami, Igawa, and Fukudome is just a downright negligent way to describe Matsui's impact on the ballclubs on which he played.

    • The assertion is correct! Kazuo Matsui is one of the biggest busts! Furthermore he never played for the Yankees.

    • My apologies. I assumed that he was referring to Hideki, not Kaz based on his analysis of Hideki above. If he's talking about Kaz, then I absolutely agree. But if he's talking about Hideki, I stand by my coment above.

    • Should have made that clearer. Kaz was among my biggest busts. I would argue that our perception of Hideki is probably better than the reality, but I would not characterize him as a "bust."

  2. Kaz Sasaki did a nice job as Seattle's closer from 2000-2003, but he played his age 32-35 seasons in MLB, so we didn't see him at his peak.

  3. Great post. Would you consider Hideki Matsui as a success? I would actually put him over Ohka in the five success stories, but I can see why Ohka is there b/c of his relatively low expectation.

    • Godzilla had a nice career and, I think, we you consider both his on-field production and the part he played in growing the Yankee's global brand, it's a great story. However, the Yankees paid a premium for him, which was why I favored Ohka, Saito, etc.

      • I remember Hideki Matsui's first contract being 3 years, $21 million, paying out $6, $7, and $8 in those years. Considering what he did the first three years, that payment doesn't seem out of line.