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A Brief Guide to Japanese Baseball

The roots of Japanese professional baseball are traced back to 1934, where the first league was established known as the Greater Japan Tokyo Baseball Club. In 1936, the league was called the Japanese Baseball League, where it operated until 1949. It wasn't until 1950 that Nippon Professional Baseball officially formed.

The Roots of Japanese Baseball

Horace Wilson - 1874 / 内田 九一 / Public domain
Horace Wilson – 1874 / 内田 九一 / Public domain

1871

After the civil war, a man from Gorham, Maine, by the name of Horace Wilson, fled to Japan in 1871, where he taught at what is now Tokyo University. During a class break, he showed his students a game he liked from back home, which in turn, introduced baseball to Japan. By the end of the 19th century, baseball in Japan had become both the most watched and played sport.

Nippon Professional Baseball formed in 1950

Nippon Professional Baseball presents the highest quality competition throughout the world after Major League Baseball. There are currently 12 teams in the league, separated between two divisions, the Central League and the Pacific League. With a similar schedule to MLB, the NPB training camp begins in March, with the regular season stretching from late March until October.

The World Series Equivalent 

Each division participates in the Climax Series while striving to reach the Nippon Series, equivalent to the World Series. While MLB went to the best-of-seven format in 1985, Nippon Professional Baseball has used the best-of-seven structure since 1950.

The Scandals of the Nippon Professional Baseball League

Masaaki Ikenaga
Masaaki Ikenaga (Nishitetsu Lions) was banned for life in 1970 for his part to play in The Black Mist Scandal only to be reinstated in 2005

The Black Mist Scandal

Between 1969 and 1971, the Black Mist Scandal shook the NPB league. Several members of the Nishitetsu Lions, who are now called the Saitama Seibu Lions, were taking bribes from members of the yakuza, who are a criminal organization, infamous for extortion, blackmail, and gambling. The players of the Nishitetsu Lions were receiving kickbacks from the gang to throw games. The consequences for the players involved ranged from 1-year to lifetime bans. After the story broke of the baseball scandal, it was soon learned that the Black Mist Scandal players were similarly involved in match-fixing in the motocross world. To limit the before-mentioned circumstances from occurring in the future, the NPB proposed new regulations to prevent cheating and dishonest tactics. Because of the Black Mist Scandal, the ties between players and the yakuza have progressively lessened. 

The Japanese Astro’s Cheating Scandal

Similar to the Astro’s Cheating Scandal in MLB, the NPB had a similar scandal in 1998. The management of the Daiei Hawks, which are now called the SoftBank Hawks, were indicted for monitoring signs of the opposing catcher while relaying the signs via walkie talkie to fans, who used signals to give the batter the awareness of the upcoming pitch. The result of the inquiry exonerated the Hawks, as the investigation was inconclusive.

Notable Japanese Players To Have Made It To The MLB

Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui

Hideki Matsui
New York Yankees Hideki Matsui batting against the Baltimore Orioles during a baseball game Thursday, June 28, 2007 in Baltimore – Keith Allison / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

The success of Hideki Matsui during his high school baseball career allowed him to compete with the Yomiuri Giants straight out of high school. He played for the Giants for ten years before leaping the majors, where he played seven prominent seasons for the New York Yankees. Matsui played a vital role in the New York Yankees 2009 World Series Championship team. While he also played for the Angels, Athletics, and Rays, Matsui will always be known as a Yankee and would sign a one-day contract with the New York Yankees while announcing his retirement. 

A Tribute to Matsui

Hideki’s father and older brother created a tribute to Matsui’s career, which exhibits his career from his little league days to the NPB to MLB. Matsui comes from a very warm family, where the museum is located in Hideki’s hometown of Nomi. He has several awards on display at the museum as one of the most accomplished baseball players that have come out of Japan. Because of his fans’ passion from Japan and America, the museum is presented bilingually for his supporters. While Matsui appreciates his family’s vision, he can’t get behind an essay he wrote from elementary school being on display, where he still pleads to have it lifted from the exhibit.

Matsui on the Differences Between NPB & MLB

While playing in both the NPB and MLB, Matsui says the two leagues are rather similar. He yields that the leagues’ only differences are the countries they play in, the language spoke, the distinct cultures, and the varied atmospheres. Matsui expressed he only had to make one adjustment to his game, which was getting accustomed to MLB pitchers and how they approach you as a player.

Matsui Chooses MLB Over a Higher Salary Offer in Japan

While playing for the Yomiuri Giants in the NPB, Matsui batted .304 while belting 332 HRs and 889 RBIs. Matsui was a three-time MVP of the NPB, as well as a three-time Japan Series Champion. Matsui was offered a record 6-year, $64 million offer from the Yomiuri Giants with an average annual salary of $10.6 million, but decided to sign with the Yankees regardless, even though he only received a three-year deal, worth $21 million, with an annual salary of $7 million. However, Matsui’s ensuing contract with the Yankees was 4-years, $52 million, with an average yearly salary of $13 million.

The First Japanese Player to Hit 100 Major League Home Runs

Hideki Matsui was overlooked for Rookie of the Year in 2002, and lost by a narrow margin. A few voters didn’t consider Hideki Matsui as a rookie due to playing ten years professionally in the NPB. In his major league career, Matsui averaged .282 while cracking 175 HRs and knocking in 760 RBIs. Hideki Matsui also became the first Japanese player to hit 100 major league home runs.

2000 Hits

Matsui is in the Golden Players Club, which is a tremendous achievement in Japan, for reaching 2,000 hits in his career between both MLB and NPB. He was also inducted to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame while receiving 91.3% of the votes. While Hideki Matsui is a retired baseball player, he stays quite close to the game as he continues to be an instrumental coach for the Yomiuri Giants.

Shohei “Sho Time” Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani
Ohtani batting in 2019 for the Angels – Erik Drost / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

While Ohtani planned to go straight to MLB out of high school, he was picked in the NPB draft by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters anyway, with the team hoping that he would play for them. Luckily for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani decided to stay with the club before making a move to MLB. A two-way generational talent from Japan, Shohei Ohtani went 42-15, with an ERA of 2.52, and an average of 10.3 K/9 over five seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. With his most dominant season as a hitter in 2016, he batted .322, with 22 HRs and 67 RBIs over 104 games.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 

On December 8th, 2017, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels. He became the 1st player in MLB history with 35 home runs, and 15 stolen bases in his first 162 career games. While making a significant impression in the league, Ohtani became the American League Rookie of the Year in 2018, regardless of being shut down and needing Tommy John Surgery. With his return in 2019, Ohtani had the 5th highest exit velocity in the majors last season at 92.8 mph and was the 6th fastest out of the batter’s box to 1st base at a clip of 4.05 seconds.

Extreme Workload

Shohei aims to get 20 starts, and 400 plate appearances per season, which is a workload that took such a toll on Babe Ruth, that he ceased being a two-way player. For Ohtani to accomplish this, the Los Angeles Angels regularly perform strength and flexibility tests on Ohtani, while also keeping advanced tabs on him. The team monitors his energy level, sleep schedule, and diet. Since the team has a baseline of his patterns, if Ohtani deviates more than 5% from his reference level, the team would begin to limit his workload. 

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