Saturday, March 3, 2018

NPB 101: Differences between baseball in Japan and MLB Part II



Thanks to the Shohei Ohtani effect, this blog was featured and seen through a writeup about his value. Crazy enough, that piece was written only one year into watching NPB for a full season. (We picked a team after the 2014 season and began following everything from that winter. Our first NPB game we've seen was Opening Day of 2015). 

There were plenty of obvious changes that the regulars would already notice, but I figured I should challenge myself to finding even more differences between both leagues. Whether it's rules, marketing, strategy or other details, there are plenty to spot that have nothing to do with language. 

Here are some more differences between NPB and MLB after watching the former for three years: 

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NPB has a 28-man roster, MLB has a 25 and 40-man roster.

If anyone is familiar with the NHL, NPB has a similar thing with healthy scratches. In total, there are 28 players on the top roster and three of them are scratched before the game, making only 25 of them eligible for the match. NPB teams get more flexibility with more position players and relievers, meaning it's easier to presumably scratch three starters.  

NPB also has no equivalent of a 40-man roster, where they instead of a 70-man roster totaling everyone under contract within the organization. 

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(Update): NPB has matched MLB with the catcher obstruction rule at the plate as well as reviewing/challenging plays with replays.

Home runs used to be the only thing reviewed prior to 2016, but NPB has been a copycat league when it comes to a few things. Only difference is that the challenge by a manager is called a "request" in Japanese. Umpires will still go on a microphone and explain the ruling with words like an NFL referee instead of a hand signal like their MLB counterparts. 

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Fans can bring their own food, drinks and even alcohol into some stadiums
Photo credit: @KFippin
Fans have the ability to bring their own food and even beer to the stadium depending on the team. If you do bring your own drink, it must be poured into a stadium cup. Re-entry can also happen in Japan. 

When it comes to MLB, re-entry is not permitted and food/drink policies have various discretion depending on the stadium. Some places don't even allow bottled water. There's also the experience of Beer Girls, where someone will pour you a cup at your seat. In the States, you'd likely get coffee this way from a random person. 

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Interleague play only happens for three weeks, similar to how MLB used to do it with an even number of teams in both leagues

The interleague schedule takes plays either at the end of May or beginning of June and runs for three weeks, with each team seeing the other six teams from the opposite league for a three-game series for a total of 18 games. This was similar to how MLB had interleague play before the Houston Astros moved to the American League in 2013. 

An interesting note on this is that the head-to-head record in this time between both leagues affects the draft positioning for October. The winning league will have its worst team draft first in the second round, followed by the worst team of the losing league, winning league's 5th place team etc. Similar to a waiver priority, the winning league earns the first selection, but not #1 overall draft pick. 

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Rained out makeup games mostly (but not always) happen in September or October towards the end of the season, MLB teams could play a day-night double header

Japan culturally functions on a different schedule. A double header is already out of teh question as one hasn't happened since the 1990s. Fans who had tickets for a called game will get their money back and it is re-scheduled into September or October instead. 

September has several gaps in it on purpose for makeup games to be possible and sometimes having more to complete in October takes away the thrill in a potential race for first place. The only exception is during the 18-game interleague play session, where the following week purposely has a blank slate for potential makeup games in that time. That week is only used for postponed interleague games. 

If a game goes past five innings and then it becomes too wet outside, it is called and the scoreboard determines the winner or a tie. (Though they might be forced to play if it's a playoff game)

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NPB has a similar group of players like an NFL practice squad

This unit is known as the "ikusei" or group of developmental players, who make slightly less than someone on the 70-man roster. An ikusei draft takes place after the main draft where teams can select as many players as they want. These ikusei are eligible to play in farm games, but must wear a triple digit jersey number to distinct that they're a developmental player. 

Unlike the NFL, where the practice squad players are free agents and can be signed to a 53-man roster, NPB teams cannot do this unless a trade happens. However, like the practice squad, these players are trying to earn their way to a 70-man roster spot and raise. 

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NPB has only one main farm team, MLB has a long hierarchy

From the 70-man roster, NPB only has their ichi-gun (first team) and ni-gun (second team). MLB has AAA, AA, three levels of Single-A and a rookie league. If you're a farm player, you must compete with several others for playing time being crammed in ni-gun. 

A few NPB teams circumvent having a 70-man roster by drafting several ikusei players and creating a san-gun (third team) with an extra coaching staff to develop them. It costs quite a bit of money and time to organize this, but there is no rule breaking to have a larger quantity of players if they're willing to pay for it. 

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NPB players taken off the 28-man roster must be away for at least 10 days, MLB must designate for assignment or use an option or place on the disabled list for their 25-man roster

There is no "DFA" in NPB unless they outright release a player and put him on waivers. They can take a guy off the roster for any reason from performance, making room for someone else or injury without a disabled list needed. Another interesting reason is to cut a starting pitcher's service time by a few days as there is an extended break ahead where they're not needed. The only requirement is that the player must be off the ichi-gun for 10 days at minimum. 

This also means you don't need to worry about being out of options or scrambling with players like how the Los Angeles Dodgers did in 2017. It's like the 10-day DL, but more simplified. 

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Ichi-gun players do not need to be taken off the roster in order to play in a ni-gun game

If a team wants to get a bench player some work, they can participate in a farm game at anytime without a transaction needed. It's not unheard of for a player to partake in a ni-gun game for the day and an ichi-gun game at night if the former isn't far away. A few teams have their farm stadium very close to the ichi-gun stadium.  

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Some farm games are free

Yes, you read that right. Some farm stadiums are often the size of a sandlot as they're usually in the day time. Anyone can watch and attend at no cost where usually hundreds will show up. Sometimes the farm team will occupy the ichi-gun's stadium on occasion if there's no main game there. 

In MLB, most farm teams are far from their MLB counterparts, meaning only baseball fans who live in other areas or even different states can see their players and prospects in person unless they travel.

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NPB minimizes overshifting, MLB uses it

Spray charts are available in NPB, but teams don't implement it on the field as crazy as we see in MLB with one fielder alone on one side of the infield. If an overshift happened, there would likely be a counter to this with bunting or even a different method of approach to a heavy pull hitter. 

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NPB a foreign player cap, MLB does not

For NPB, players that are foreign can only exceed up to four on the 28-man roster. That could be up to three pitchers and a position player or vice versa, but not four of each unit. Teams can have as many players under contract as they want, but only four at the ichi-gun at a time. If some team has several imports they want to use, they could end up rotating a few every 10 days by taking them off and putting someone else on.  

You don't need to be born in Japan to become a roster foreigner. Several players were born elsewhere (Daikan Yoh, Nien Ting Wu), but went to high school/university in Japan. Essentially, if you are drafted by an NPB team, you do not count against the foreigner cap. 

A fun bonus rule for the longtime imports is if they reach nine years of service time, they will no longer count against the foreign roster cap and are deemed "Japanese player" status. Alex Ramirez, Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes have reached this distinction in the past. 

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Spring training is often headlined by heavy bullpen session workouts by the pitchers

While we already talked about how NPB players will work out to death before and after the games as well as the season, spring training is where things become reported. It's common for a veteran pitcher to throw hundreds of pitches in one session and it's not rare to see as many as 200 or more. From intrasquad games to irregular locations (like the Fighters being in Arizona), the bullpen sessions get all the news with how many a pitcher might throw. 

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Pitch count means less for a starting pitcher during a game

An NPB manager won't take a starter out because threw 100 pitches. It's not uncommon to see guys go 120 if they feel the vibe of the game is good. This is due to starting pitchers going only once a week in a 6-man rotation as opposed to every 4-5 days.

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Winning the pennant in Japan is being the best regular season team in each league (like the #1 seed). 

Like the old days before a playoff existed, you had to come in first to go to the World Series. Japan still uses that title if you come in first place. However, there is still a playoff called the Climax Series where the second and third place teams duke it out in a best two of out of three series. The winner of that then faces the pennant winner in a best four of seven with a one-game disadvantage and all games on the road, where it favors the #1 seed. 

In the past, it used to be a best three out of five when the top seed would not have a one-game advantage. With lower seeded teams advancing in the early stages of the Climax Series, NPB changed it to favor the pennant winner and rewarding them for a grueling regular season, where you see the same five other teams in your league 25 times each. 

So a second or third place team can become Central or Pacific League champions go to the Japan Series and be champions without a pennant. 

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Winning the pennant earns a parade and a trip, even without a Japan Series championship

That is not a typo, a parade is given to the city of the teams who win the pennant and those teams will go somewhere in December as part of a victory trip. Hawaii is a common destination, but they've gone elsewhere too. There could be as many as three professional baseball-related parades after the NPB season if a non-pennant winner takes the Japan Series. 

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Japan has a "hero interview", which is public for the stadium audience to hear



When the game is over and there is a winner, a hero interview takes place almost immediately after the game on a microphone for those at home and in the stadium to listen. Obviously it's the player of the game speaking, but you'll hear it on an open mic. If the home team wins, multiple players are interviewed depending on the game. If the away team wins, there will only be one player from the winning team interviewed, but it is still public on an open mic. 

In the States, interviews are done by the local broadcast for those watching on TV or listening on radio, but the stadium audience will usually not hear it unless it's a playoff or major game. 

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NPB's trade deadline and any trades are about as active as the NFL's is, almost non-existent 

July 31 is usually a big deal for MLB as teams will make their moves to buy or sell. This is also a deadline in NPB for trades, but the activity isn't huge. Teams do not make blockbuster deals in today's game unless something special or irregular happens (i.e. disgruntled player). They feel they shouldn't be giving up talent to get talent and would rather keep their most talented players until free agency.

When it comes to trades in Japan, they will usually go with a lateral move by sending an expendable player for another team's expendable player as a sign of cheap depth. Majority of these trades are calculated as almost even on paper, making it even tougher to analyze. 

Think about the time Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop were sent to the Chicago Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger going to the Baltimore Orioles. On paper, that was a lateral trade with marginal players, but it ended up being a best case scenario for Chicago. In NPB, it's likely we won't see a trade end up being that lopsided, but can have the same idea of not winning nor losing a deal coming into it. 

The last blockbuster deal was when OF Yoshio Itoi was traded in his prime to the Orix Buffaloes as the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters felt all sorts of panic and headache at the time not knowing if they should pay him or not. (Crazy enough, Shohei Ohtani was just drafted by the team and they convinced him to sign months prior to this trade). 

This deadline also serves a purpose for any late season transactions such as signing another import or promoting any ikusei to be eligible for the postseason. A few foreign signings could happen in July depending on team needs/desires. 

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Free agency is also minimal in NPB

In MLB, we see players come and go once they reach the seven years of service time. In Japan, NPB teams will often hang on to their best players, making it easier for them to spend their entire career with one team. While some will test the market and want a higher payday, NPB teams would rather invest in their best guys as they're already being marketed. If anything, fans will at least get to know a decent player for 7-8 years before free agency and he won't be on a trade block anytime soon. 

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Free agent compensation comes in the form of cash and a player in NPB, MLB compensation comes in the form of a draft pick

When a player reaches seven years of service time, he can exercise his domestic FA option and put himself on the market in Japan. He earns an international FA option after nine years, something Yoshihisa Hirano, Tadahito Iguchi, Munenori Kawasaki and Hideki Matsui had to do. 

If a player who used his option had a top-10 salary on the team in the last year (not counting foreign player salaries in that ranking), then he will be a Type B free agent. A Type A free agent would have a top-3 salary. Anyone ranked outside the top ten in salary will be a Type C free agent with no compensation awarded. There are also players who are cut well-before the seven years that have no compensation. 

Assuming the player signs with another team, the team that loses him can choose a cash + player or more cash option. The team signing the player must create a list of 28 protected players (foreigners not included or needed), where those who are unprotected can be exposed and claimed.

The list for Type A and B free agents are as follows: 

Type B: 60% of the player's salary from the previous year OR 40% of the player's salary from the previous year and an unprotected player.  

Type A: 80% of the player's salary from the previous year OR 50% of the player's salary from the previous year and an unprotected player.  

A team cannot sign more than two Type A and/or B free agents in one offeseason, but there is no cap on Type C free agents.  

While slightly outdated, more can be read here. A typical offseason will have about 7-8 players using their FA option while many will choose to stay with their current team. 

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Tie games will exist in the postseason, not just regular season

A game is called officially after 12 innings no matter the score in Japan. This makes it nearly impossible to see a position player on the mound and more incentive for a manager to player their better relievers earlier in the game than later if it's still tied.  

While a tie can happen in the early stages, it favors the team with the higher seed. In the Japan Series, another game could be added on if no team has four wins after seven games. If that happens Game 8 and beyond will have no limits, meaning there could be as many as 14 games if the first seven are all ties. 

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NPB clings to distinct stats, MLB may look at the bigger picture

Ever hit .300 with 30 HRs and 30 stolen bases? It's not just the 30-30 club, but more known as the "Triple-3" as they say in Japan. If a guy breaks a league record, he could win the MVP award even if his team was awful. Japanese voters want something flashy, as it plays a role in winning MVP of the month awards and more. This includes wins, a very low ERA, win PCT, a high batting average, high RBIs etc. 

In 2013, Wladimir Balentien broke the single-season home run record with 60, where the previous number was at 55. He won the MVP award in a landslide. For 2017, Dennis Sarfate set a new record in saves with 54, where the previous high was 48. He ended up winning an MVP Award as well as the Shoriki Award, something a foreign player never won up to that point. 

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Milestones are recognized during the game, which includes a brief stoppage for a photo opportunity



If a player gets a nice even number amount of hits in his career (say 1,000) or 1,500 doubles, 300 home runs, there will likely be recognition when it happens no matter who is hosting the game. As the video shows above, Hideto Asamura hit his 1,000th career hit which drew a short stoppage. 

Other things might be recognized briefly with a flower bouquet and no poster, such as playing their 1,000th career game. This can be seen away or at home. In the States, only the home team will get public recognition for something unless it's major. You'd have to hear radio or a broadcast to be aware of this if you're in the stadium. 

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Japan makes marketing merchandise for accomplishments, milestones and big moments. MLB will mostly market holidays


It's common in NPB to make money grabbing merchandise when something big happens. Sometimes it's a walkoff hit or a record being broken. Three home runs in a game? You'll get merchandise! 

When Shohei Ohtani would hit 100 mph (160 km/h) on the gun, the scoreboard would glow a special color to recognize it. There were shirts to commemorate him throwing the fastest pitch in NPB at 165 kph. 

However, even some simple moments like a player's first hit or win is also commemorated with a T-shirt or baseball. Even a commemorative shirt can exist for a retiring player who isn't famous. The shirt above commemorated Takumi Kuriyama's walkoff HR, which was the first of the season for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2017. Video of that can be seen here: 




In MLB, some events such as a no-hitter or perfect game might be commemorated, but much of their merchandise will come from holidays or big events like the All-Star game. Today, we're seeing apparel for holidays like St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and more. NPB has their share of this, but nothing compared to the accomplishments. 


One funny moment was when Wladimir Balentien forced a game delay because of a bird dropping a fish on the field, causing a bad odor. Even some of the most simple quirks could be marketed into a T-shirt. 



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Fanfest happens after the NPB season, MLB teams have theirs before the season and spring training

Fanfest is known as "Thanks Festa" in Japan where the players do their share of fan service in November, as opposed to January or February in North America. Besides a simple Q&A, players will partake in games and do things that would be viewed as crazy in the States. 

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If you are a college student, you must graduate in order to make yourself eligible for the NPB Draft

It's common in MLB for teams to draft a player before he graduates assuming he has stock. That player can then decide if he wants to stay in school or sign with the team. Japan requires graduation for University players. 

High school graduates are also eligible for the draft. The draft itself happens in October and while many will go undrafted, the timing works in Japan's school system as students at both levels will graduate in March, giving any students the option to pursue a different baseball job, go to college (if out of HS) or more. 

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Besides independent leagues, Japan also has industrial leagues, where players can be drafted out of either

Industrial Leagues are also known as "corporate ball" in Japan, where the players will be part of a company and also play for their baseball team. There are several companies in Japan that have a baseball team, from cars (Honda, Toyota etc.) to electronics (Panasonic, Yamaha) to even train companies. These guys are working individuals known as Shakaijin as they work a day job (which could be white or blue collar), then play baseball at night. 

Unlike filing paperwork for a high school or college senior to make themselves draft eligible, shakaijin only need to wait three years removed from high school or two years removed from college to be eligible without any declaration needed. Some guys like Kazuhisa Makita can be drafted as late as 26 years old. Best yet, making a baseball career in corporate ball isn't bad because of the pay and even pension for some as they have a job, instead of rotting under almost no pay in the minor leagues. 

Junichi Tazawa took this path and played for three years with a team out of high school. Even though he was draft eligible, teams backed off when he announced his intention to leave for MLB. 

Players can also be drafted out of an independent league, though they aren't common in a draft class. They can shortcut their way to NPB with only one year needed removed from high school. 

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Rookie hazing? More like rookie training

When rookies are drafted in the fall, which is right before the Japan Series, they will prepare themselves for rookie camp. The rookie camp takes place in January and while it's not mandatory, all draft picks will show up to make a good impression on the team staff. They move into a dormitory/facility whether it's an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old shakaijin and begin work right away. 

Rookies are sometimes recognized at the Thanks Festa with a special Q&A or display of actions, but no reports of hazing. In MLB, any rookies that play in their first season up in the big leagues will get a hazing, where they have to dress up as something silly for the final road trip, often wearing this in public. 

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Teams conduct a mandatory fall camp when the regular season is over

For all teams, they participate in the Phoenix League when the postseason is going on as a way for players to get work. A playoff team will likely have reserves participate while a team that failed to get in the postseason will have several players go down to Miyazaki prefecture. It's not a punishment, but just another way for players to get work. 

Even after the season is over, many players under contract will stay at the team facility to practice and train on their own time. There is no relaxing in the offseason for some.

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Amateur level baseball has more significance and history than professional baseball in Japan

Thanks to some history and the game being brought over in the late 1800s, Japan's organized games started in the early 20th Century and the University level has more history with some rivalries developing as early as 1903. 

Summer Koshien is the most well-known national high school tournament across the country being around since 1915. This is a tournament where pitchers become legends given its significance. Masahiro Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka are more famous for their high school careers than what they did at the pro level. 

Scouts from North America will also be at this tournament evaluating talent. It's a place where some can up their stock and become a first round draft pick later. 

The professional league of NPB we know today has been around since 1950, though a few teams started their existence after the 1934 USA tour of Japan, where Babe Ruth was the centerpiece of it all. 

The NCAA College World Series puts Omaha on the map and diehard baseball fans appreciate the game, but the coverage is not as significant as Japan for their amateur level baseball. 

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There you have it, after thinking about it and coming up with even more differences from observation and watching without repeating our original article, this is what I could come up with. Did I miss even more? Let me know in the comments below. 

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