Saturday, December 28, 2013

Japanese Posting

This past year, major league baseball came to a new agreement with the Nippon Professional Baseball league concerning the offer of Japanese players to play in the United States.  Before this year, MLB teams were notified of a player being offered, and they would bid for the right to offer the player a contract.  The highest bidder then had 30 days to come to an agreement with the player - as a result, a lot of money changed hands.  For instance, the Boston Red Sox won the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka by paying the Seibu Lions $51,111,111 - collectable only if the Red Sox and Dice K came to an agreement.  They did (to the tune of 6 years, $52 million), but there were some parties unhappy with the agreement.  For one, since the bidding process was expensive, it limited the number of MLB teams who were capable of offering that money.  Japanese players weren't happy with the arrangement either - many thought if the posting figure was lower, the rest of the money would end up in the player's contract.  As a result, a new agreement was struck:  if a player were to be posted, the NLB team would be given $20 million, at which point all those offering the $20 million would then compete for the player's services.

The first player to be offered under this new agreement is Masahiro Tanaka, an exceptional pitcher with the Rakuten Eagles.  This past year, Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA.  Based on the success of Yu Darvish, I would expect Tanaka's salary to be in excess of seven figures.

Unfortunately, we are repeating history...and I worry that this is the end of Japanese baseball as we know it.  Those who worry about the health of the game should worry, though I think most will not.  About a hundred years ago, we went through the same thing.

The minor leagues as we know them today have been in existence since the 1930s, when Branch Rickey organized one for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Until then, the minor leagues were independent - teams struggling to make ends meet, looking for talent on their own, and trying to win the championship of whatever league they played in.  One of the better "minor" leagues was the International League, which had an owner of incredible scouting talent named Jack Dunn.  Dunn owned the Baltimore Orioles, which had success on the field but none at the box office.  The Federal League was attempting to become a third major league, and their team in Baltimore (the Terrapins) drove Dunn to move his team to Richmond.  To avoid losing money, Dunn was also forced to sell his prize star Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox for around $25,000.  After the Federal League folded, Dunn moved the Orioles back to Baltimore and vowed to never sell another player (he believed Ruth was worth much, MUCH more than Dunn sold him for).  Over the next ten years, Dunn accumulated a massive amount of talent, and won seven straight championships from 1919-1926.  His teams won over 100 games each year, burying the competition and causing fans to lose interest early in the season, resulting in lost revenue for the other owners. 

The rest of the league was jealous of Dunn's success...and the major leagues jealous of Dunn's talent.  To thwart his successes (and ability to avoid selling his talent), the International League and MLB entered into an agreement in 1925 to allow the purchase of IL stars for $5,000.  Dunn didn't sign on initially - he sold Lefty Grove to the Philadelphia Athletics for $100,600 that year.

Following that agreement, slowly but surely the minor leagues lost their independence.  While most will believe the health of baseball is better than ever, there are signs that all is not well. 

  • Television ratings are getting worse.  Regular season games on national TV fail to draw 2% of the audience, and among younger audiences draw even less.  The postseason games ratings are lower than regular season NFL games, and they are getting worse.
  • MLB attendance peaked in 2007 before the economic recession, and they haven't come back.  What's worse is as the baseball supporters get older and older, the chances of winning the younger generation's hearts will be more and more difficult.
Why?  Some suggest it's the pace of the game, but Joe Posnanski thinks the issue is much broader than that.   He thinks (and I tend to agree) that the game has become regional - fans are interested only in their local clubs, but at the minor league level (where they don't keep players, try to win, or attempt to build a following) interest is waning.  As Posnanski points out, last year's minor league attendance totaled 41 million...just above where it was in 1949.  1949??!!  The United States population that year was 149 million...while this year it is about 313 million, less than half of what it is today. 

The minor leagues are locked into an agreement with MLB, and this may be causing interest in the sport to wane.  As baseball looks to become a more international game, I don't think MLB should be creating a minor league overseas - a league that has been incredibly successful without selling players to the "major leagues".

If Japan simply becomes a farm system for the MLB, I think this will be bad for the health of the sport...and the MLB.

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