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THE HOT CORNER / Good help sometimes hard to find

by Jim Allen (Feb 11, 2010)

Two constant complaints have echoed throughout the history of pro baseball: There is never enough pitching, and players make too much money. In Japan, one could add "good help is hard to find"--at least when it comes to foreign players.

Over the past three years, the average salary for a first-year foreign player was 55.9 million yen a year. With nearly every company and individual feeling the current economic pinch, teams should be interested in knowing what they're getting.

If one takes the group of 71 Japanese players earning similar salaries--between 50 yen and 60 million yen a year--over the same three-year period, how would their productivity compare?

Using Bill James' Win Shares system to estimate each player's contribution to his team's wins, one can answer that question as well as see how well each club is doing in the expensive import market.

One organization, the Hanshin Tigers, has been so inept that it makes all of Nippon Professional Baseball look bad. Over the past three years, the Tigers' nine debutantes cost 880 million yen in first-year salaries, while contributing 5-2/3 wins--that's 156.7 million yen per win.

For those of you scoring at home, NPB's other 11 teams averaged 45.1 million yen per win from first-year foreign helpers. Even this figure, however, compares poorly with Japanese players in the 50-60 million yen salary bracket. The 71 Japanese players in the study produced one win for every 30 million yen in salary.

Of course, the foreign pool can be fished frequently to fill specific holes. Teams should be willing to open their wallets for imports in order to get something unavailable in Japan.

When former Carp player Marty Brown returned to manage Hiroshima starting in 2005, he spoke confidently of his ability to tap into this market and bring in the right players.

It's something a foreign manager should be confident about--the ability to draw on his experience and his network back home. Even so, one tends to become numb to many of the things coaches and managers say.

For example, when then Yomiuri Giants head coach Yoshitaka Katori said in March of 2002 that manager Tatsunori Hara was going to give his minor leaguers chances, it sounded like the kind of lip service coaches love to dish out. The Giants had a tradition of ignoring the farm team and it seemed unlikely the unimaginative rookie skipper would swerve from that.

Yet, Katori was spot on.

Hara won the league that season with strong contributions from several fringe players. Since returning in 2006, Hara's commitment to his minor Giants has revitalized the once-lost organization.

Brown, too, proved he knew exactly what he was talking about.

Over the past three seasons, Hiroshima's first-year foreign production (15-1/3 wins) was second best in Japan. While that aspect of his performance failed to win him points with the Carp owner, it may have been one reason why he landed on his feet so quickly with Rakuten.

The only club to get more value from first-year foreign players has been Tokyo Yakult. The Swallows had a pair of big debut seasons in 2007: right-hander Seth Greisinger and outfielder Aaron Guiel. In 2008, they brought in closer Lim Chang Yong. Last season the Birds added first baseman Jamie D'Antona.

The Swallows have had good results without spending big. Over the last three years, they've paid their migrant laborers just 21.8 million yen per win. Only the Chunichi Dragons got more bang for their first-year buck, paying just 21 million yen per win. First baseman Tony Blanco's monster debut season in 2009 cost the Dragons just 27.6 million yen in salary.

Toward the bottom of the import market sit the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where former manager Katsuya Nomura was reportedly involved in a struggle with the front office over foreign acquisitions, supposedly about which agents' players would be welcome.

Whether that story is true or not, having Brown in town gives the Eagles access to more talent and increases the chances they'll remain in the playoff hunt.

In this case, good help was not so hard to find.


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