Where EAST meets the Northwest
Shohei Ohtani. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ichiro Suzuki. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
BASEBALL BARGAINS. Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Ichiro Suzuki
of the Seattle Mariners participate in Major League Baseball (MLB) games on
opening day in Oakland and Seattle, respectively, on March 29, 2018. Both
athletes played on teams in Japanís Nippon Professional Baseball before moving
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #7 (April 2, 2018), page 13.
The newest and oldest Japanese MLB players are both bargains
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Compensation has been one of the main challenges surrounding players who move
from Japanís Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to Major League Baseball (MLB).
For every successful pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda or Koji Uehara, thereís a
high-flying pitching bust like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Irabu. And while
there have been plenty of pitching successes, very few NPB hitters at any price
have succeeded in MLB.
This season, one NPB player who is outstanding at both pitching and hitting
will try to become the next Babe Ruth, while another former NPB player will
return to the team where he first made his mark in MLB. And both have proven to
In the modern game, baseball is divided into pitchers and hitters, and
players almost never do both well. The cringe-inducing sight of a pitcher
flailing ineffectively at the plate has become so commonplace that teams in both
MLBís American League and NPBís Pacific League use a designated hitter to hit
for the pitcher.
The last player to be a top-ranked pitcher and hitter was Babe Ruth. More
than a hundred years ago, he began his career as a lights-out lefty for the
Boston Red Sox. After he led the league in home runs for two straight seasons,
Boston traded him to the New York Yankees, who took him off the mound and put
him in the field, where he made history by crushing 665 of his 714 career home
We may see Ruthís equal in Shohei Ohtani, a 23-year-old who had spent his
professional career so far with the NPB Nippon Ham Fighters. In five seasons,
the flame-throwing righty notched a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA (Earned Run
Average) and a 1.08 WHIP (Walks & Hits per Innings Pitched). He also struck out
more than a batter per inning with a pitching repertoire that includes a
100-mile-per-hour fastball complemented by a devastating slider and splitter.
Any MLB team would be interested in a player like that ó especially one who
is so young ó but Ohtani is a force at the plate too. Hitting lefty, Ohtani
collected 48 home runs and 70 doubles along with a .286 average in 1,170 plate
appearances. When Ohtani wasnít pitching, Nippon put Ohtani in the outfield or
at designated hitter to keep his dangerous bat in the lineup.
This combination of skills makes Ohtani an anomaly on either side of the
Pacific. Since the 1960s, there has never been a pitcher who regularly played in
the field or at designated hitter. So when the Ham Fighters agreed to post him
for MLB teams to sign, Ohtani became one of the most-coveted free agents on the
Incredibly, however, Ohtaniís youth hindered his contract, thanks to MLBís
collective-bargaining agreement. This agreement restricts players under age 25
to the league-minimum salary, while also capping the signing bonuses available
to international players. As a result, the Los Angeles Angels signed Ohtani to a
two-year contract in December worth around $4 million.
Thatís chump change compared to what other NPB pitchers have been paid in
MLB. Daisuke Matsuzaka signed a six-year contract for more than $52 million with
the Boston Red Sox in 2007, and Masahiro Tanaka signed a six-year, $114-million
contract with the Yankees in 2014. And neither possessed Ohtaniís prodigious
Even the two other less-heralded NPB pitchers who signed with MLB teams this
season are making as much as, or more, than Ohtani. Relievers Yoshihisa Hirano
and Kazuhisa Makita each signed two-year deals worth $6 million and $3.8 million
with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres, respectively.
Claiming to be uninterested in money, Ohtani said he signed with the Angels
because he "just felt something click." But when his deal expires and he becomes
eligible for a bigger contract, Ohtaniís pay should be more in line with his
value ó assuming he meets expectations in MLB.
Arguably, Ohtani might never have gotten the chance to sign any MLB contract
if it hadnít been for Ichiro Suzuki, the first NPB position player to come to
MLB. Since he arrived in Seattle in 2001, Ichiroís accomplishments have been too
numerous to mention, but they include winning Rookie of the Year and Most
Valuable Player in the same season, breaking George Sislerís "unbreakable"
84-year-old record for the most hits in a season, and collecting his 3,000th hit
at age 42.
When he first arrived in the league, however, Ichiro was also undervalued.
Because he was the first NPB hitter in MLB, many doubted whether he could hit
MLB pitching. So his first Mariners contract was worth around $4 million per
year, at a time when the average MLB salary was about $2.2 million, and the
highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, made $22 million.
Even after Ichiro had proven himself, his salary remained relatively modest.
His three-year deal in 2004 was worth about $11 million annually, and his
five-year contract in 2008 earned him about $18 million annually. The
league-average contract in both years was around $3 million, and Rodriguez
remained the best-paid player both seasons, earning about $22 million in 2004
and $28 million in 2008.
While Ichiro might not have deserved to be the best-paid player, he certainly
earned less than he might have if heíd sold his talent to the highest bidder, as
Rodriguez had. Ichiro was a bargain for the Mariners because he valued loyalty
over money, just as Ohtani and other Japanese MLB players have chosen teams that
made them feel comfortable over teams that may have paid them more.
In his latest one-year deal, Ichiro is making just $750,000, with performance
incentives that could double the contractís value. While that may seem like a
paltry sum, Ichiro is 44 years old and well past his prime. He hit just .255
last season on 215 plate appearances in 136 games, 22 as a starter. Those are
all career lows, except for his batting average, which is second only to his
.229 in 2015, his first season in the National League.
This year, back in the American League and familiar Safeco Field, Ichiro
might rebound slightly from last yearís performance, but his days are numbered.
Regardless, he remains as a reminder to Ohtani that itís possible for NPB
players to exceed expectations and become one of the best-performing, if not
best-paid, players in the game.
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