Though MLB free agency has moved at a snail’s pace for many this winter, there was one group of players who cashed in early: free agents coming to the majors from Asia’s two largest professional leagues, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization and the Korea Baseball Organization.
Led by Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package worth $325 million, teams have spent over $530 million on players who, in most cases, have never played an inning in the big leagues.
That kind of guaranteed payday was unheard of even just a few offseasons ago. In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese-born position player to join MLB, signing a three-year, $14 million contract with the Seattle Mariners as the first Japanese-born position player to join MLB. Adjusted for inflation, that deal would be worth just $24 million today — for a player who’s a lock to make the Hall of Fame next year.
“If he was coming over today, he’d sign for at least $150 million,” one agent said. “Probably more.”
So what has changed? Why are teams willing to give out that kind of sum to players who have never hit or thrown a major league pitch — or to those returning from Japan or Korea after struggling in MLB?
According to front office executives and agents involved in many of these deals, the market for these players this winter was years in the making.
The biggest change in talent evaluation since Ichiro signed his deal is simple: the ease of finding information on players in leagues across the world has improved.
Previously viewed as around the equivalent of the high minor leagues, the competition in the Japanese and Korean leagues — and more importantly how teams track performance — has grown exponentially. It has provided more certainty than ever about players.
“The world has shrunk,” said Rod Blunck, senior adviser of contracts for the Octagon Agency. “Even 10 years ago, streaming wasn’t available. Now you can watch everything.”
Though pitchers and hitters in Japan and Korea aren’t facing major-league-caliber counterparts in their respective leagues, a spin rate or release point there is the same spin rate or release point here. Teams don’t just have to rely on potentially flawed surface-level stats anymore.
“The advancements in scouting, especially the technology, have increased the ability for teams to dig into the talent and skill of those players like never before,” said Joel Wolfe, who represents Yamamoto. “Of the twelve teams in the NPB, eight have Trackman or Hawk-Eye.
“Every front office can see the analysis of every pitch thrown, every start, immediately after the data comes in as if, for example, Yamamoto or whoever pitched against the Reds yesterday.”
More data means more certainty in decision-making.
Octagon represents left-hander Shota Imanaga, who signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Chicago Cubs last month. Blunck might have overprepared in advance of talks with the team.
“All the information on Imanaga I had that I thought was so important, they had also,” he said. ” All the same metrics that we have here [at the agency], they have there. They can compare apples to apples now.”
Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins summed it up this way: “More things can be measured now. The more we can, we can use that data to test hypotheses. The more we can test hypotheses, the more we can remove some doubt. Then we’re more willing to take on some more risk.”
Wolfe, who also represents outfielder Seiya Suzuki and pitchers Kodai Senga and Yu Darvish, was asked what’s changed just in the time since Darvish came to MLB from the NPB, signing a six-year, $60 million deal with the Texas Rangers in 2012.
“A lot has changed over the last decade and some has stayed the same,” Wolfe said. “The thing that has stayed the same is the way teams value the history, training methods, diligence and discipline of Japanese players, culturally. These players are known to be religious about baseball. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the technology. We can measure everything now.”
The WBC effect
This offseason, the World Baseball Classic — which began in 2006, and is played once every three or four years — played a part, too. The 2023 tournament provided major league front offices with a look at international players that they normally don’t get leading up to their respective seasons overseas, in a high-pressure environment that gave a small taste of what players can expect in MLB. And executives were watching closely as some of the world’s best players shined.
“It just gave us a more fully formed objective opinion to layer on with the data,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said. “Having both of those things helps increase conviction level in how someone is going to perform back here in the big leagues. The WBC helped with that.”
It was only 7.1 innings across two games, but Yamamoto’s participation at the WBC last spring gave teams a baseline to work with as he approached his platform season in the NPB. He wasn’t the only one getting exposure: Imanaga and lefty Yuki Matsui both appeared in games for Team Japan while outfielder Jung Hoo Lee wowed scouts and executives in the tournament, going 6-for-14 with a .500 on-base percentage for Korea. All signed major league deals this offseason.
“Once the WBC happened, the whole world realized the value of Japanese pitchers,” Wolfe said. “Then executives see it more and more when they go over there and experience it firsthand.”
The returning player
One of the deals out of the KBO this year came from a player who has played in MLB — just not successfully.
“It was a great place for me to go and get a ton of innings and work on my stuff,” said new White Sox pitcher Erick Fedde, who signed a 2-year, $15 million deal in December. “The goal going over there was of course to come back to the big leagues.”
Fedde was a first-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2014 but in 102 career games, including 88 starts, he compiled a 5.41 ERA before being non-tendered after the 2022 season. He made $2.15 million that final year in Washington before signing with the NC Dinos in the KBO last year.
He added a sweeper to his repertoire just in time for his 2023 season, when he went 20-6 with a 2.00 ERA over 30 starts in Korea. In the span of 12 months, Fedde won the MVP and the Korean league equivalent of the Cy Young before signing with the White Sox.
Whether it be current pitchers such as Fedde, Merrill Kelly and Miles Mikolas, or past hitters including Cecil Fielder and Gabe Kapler, excelling in Japan or Korea has long been a path to reviving a struggling career. Kelly helped the Arizona Diamondbacks to the World Series in his fifth season after returning from four seasons in the KBO.
“I think teams started to see tangible impact before Merrill, but it certainly is another point along the spectrum of, there is real value in players gaining experiences over there and it translates,” Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said.
White Sox GM Chris Getz said Kelly was indeed a data point for him in his pursuit of Fedde, but he didn’t commit based solely on players who came before him. Getz was asked if it was Fedde’s pitch arsenal or simply his numbers that convinced the team he could have success this time around in MLB.
“The combination of both,” Getz answered. “When you look at the projection system and have the ability to get a better understanding, is it going to translate? Should it translate? There was enough support there to feel like we should go and get Erick Fedde.
“He was the most feared pitcher in that league, and the numbers show it.”
Through technology, improved scouting and simply a better-played game in the NPB and KBO, MLB teams are bringing those players to their own organizations at a successful rate.
Many believe questions about how to best adjust to MLB and life in the United States have now surpassed those about whether a player coming over from those leagues can play in the majors.
Analytics don’t show if an American diet or playing across multiple time zones for the first time or simply living in a foreign country will have an adverse impact on a player. Now, MLB organizations are looking inward to make that transition comfortable.
Suzuki’s first season with the Cubs in 2022 is a good example. His performance was sporadic, and his adjustment to the big leagues came slowly. The team, player and his agent identified his new diet as a concern. He wasn’t the best version of himself in that first year so they attacked a solvable problem.
In 2023, it wasn’t an issue.
“Team infrastructures have gotten better at helping players from different cultures assimilate to cities and teams and the MLB style of play,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been doing it here [in Chicago].”
But, undoubtedly, the Cubs and other teams would like to eliminate that transition period as much as possible. Why take a year to figure things out?
Wolfe thinks Senga’s first season with the Mets will be a template for those that come after him. He didn’t need much time to get acclimated, compiling a 2.98 ERA in 29 starts in 2023. How the Mets handled his transition is another data point.
“Players there [in Japan or Korea] are used to a seven-man rotation and one time zone,” Wolfe said. “That adjustment might be the bigger question. But it can be solved with money, effort and communication.
The Dodgers, while signing Yamamoto to that massive deal, addressed those questions as well, and came away satisfied.
“We don’t have concerns that he’s not going to make the transition effectively,” Gomes said. “And getting to know the person and who he surrounds himself with, on top of what he brings on the mound, is a lot where that comfortable level comes from. Of course, you can’t know everything.”
And that’s true on the field, too. If it was truly apples to apples, Fedde’s season (20-6, 2.00, 209 K’s) in the KBO would have translated to a bigger contract. While spin rates and velo translate, that’s not necessarily the case for the caliber of player faced.
“The competition isn’t quite the major leagues, but each team had a couple of major league hitters,” Fedde said. “Not quite as much power, but they work in different ways.”
While the margin for error in assessing players has been greatly reduced, it will never be an exact science.
But following the money has been a good indication where the sport is going, and teams from the A’s to the Dodgers are investing in players who have played in the NPB and KBO. The world took notice when Los Angeles committed more than $1 billion on players this winter who grew up in the game overseas — the best indication yet of how the market is growing.
“We have more coverage from scouting to information and technology than ever before,” Gomes said. “Being able to break down players that are performing well wherever in the world they are. There’s just a greater level of comfort in making investments in players coming over here or coming back here. We’re glad we did.”