Unusual, But Not Unprecedented: Tazawa's Red Sox Journey Has Been Made Before

by: Alex Speier on Sat, 12/06/2008 - 9:18am

On Thursday, Junichi Tazawa’s introduction as a Red Sox was major international news. A sizable contingent of media members gathered at Fenway Park to observe this unusual introduction of a heralded Japanese amateur who was making the leap to play Major League Baseball.

On Friday, the Indians announced in a press release that they had signed right-handed pitcher (and former Sox hurler) Tomo Ohka to a minor-league deal. There were no meet-the-press introductions. The news flickered across sports news tickers for a few moments before quickly disappearing.

The two signings seemed entirely unconnected. And yet there is plenty that Ohka can reveal about the Tazawa phenomenon.

“THIS IS NOT A PRECEDENT-SETTING DEAL”

Tazawa’s arrival is being treated as something that fundamentally alters the dynamics of the player pipeline between Japan and the United States. While there has been a steady influx of established players from the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League to Major League Baseball, the idea of a Japanese player heading to the U.S. without NPB experience seemed foreign.

It is not. In fact, almost exactly 10 years before the Sox signed Tazawa, the Sox received Ohka as “a gift” from the Yokohama BayStars. Ohka had played for Yokohama’s minor-league affiliate, but had never seen action in Japan’s highest level. Just as Tazawa will now have to do, Ohka had to travel a hard road through the minors in order to reach Boston.

Other Japanese amateurs who never had experience in even the NPB minor leagues have signed contracts with MLB teams. At Tazawa’s introductory press conference, Sox G.M. Theo Epstein arrived with a list of roughly 50 Japanese amateurs who had done so, players who had signed with more than 20 major-league teams.

The NPB cried foul in mid-November at the idea of Major League clubs scouting Tazawa and offering him a contract. Yet days later, the league named Tetsuya Yamaguchi of the Tokyo Giants the Rookie of the Year in the Central League.

Yamaguchi, a left-handed reliever, had been signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school and spent three seasons pitching for their Rookie Level team. He was unsuccessful in the States, but now, at 25, has emerged as a major contributor.

Similarly, G.G. Sato, currently a star outfielder for the Seibu Lions (Matsuzaka’s former team), signed with the Phillies out of his college in Japan in 2002, and played in the minors for three seasons before heading back to his native country.

No press releases were issued about a gentleman’s agreement (in which amateurs in the two countries are ostensibly off limits) in the case of those signings. Nor did anyone in Japan rebuke the Sox for signing pitcher Terumasa Matsuo out of an independent league unaffiliated with the NPB last year.

“We know the rules,” said Sox Vice-President/International Scouting Craig Shipley, who oversaw the Red Sox efforts to scout Tazawa in concert with Pacific Rim scouting coordinator Jon Deeble and with input from former Sox pitcher Al Nipper. “We’re very thorough in how we approach any potential acquisition. The agreement between the NPB and MLB, we’re well aware of the parameters of that agreement.”

“My personal opinion is that (the controversy surrounding Tazawa) has been blown totally out of proportion,” Shipley continued. “This is not a precedent-setting deal. Junichi Tazawa is not the first amateur from Japan to sign with a major-league club.”

Some teams, including the Yankees, decided not to pursue the pitcher out of respect for the gentleman’s agreement. But a scout of another major-league team interested in Tazawa made several inquiries with NPB teams about whether or not the pitcher was off limits, and was informed that the pitcher was fair game for MLB teams.

It was not until this year, after all, that Tazawa emerged as one of the elite prospects in Japan. He went 13-1 with a 0.80 ERA and 114 strikeouts against 15 walks in 113 innings in an industrial league that has become a steady supplier of NPB talent. As a result of that dominance, NPB officials were frustrated and disappointed by his request to be bypassed in Japan’s amateur draft.

But twice prior to 2008, Tazawa was draft eligible and went unselected by NPB teams. He was not a hyped prospect when the Sox started scouting him in November 2007.

While there has been some bluster in Japan about the inappropriate actions of MLB teams (including the Red Sox) in pursuing Tazawa, the situation is unlikely to have long-term repercussions for a team that has cultivated an excellent reputation in Japan.

Some in the NPB regard Tazawa as a traitor for bypassing their league for the opportunity to play in the U.S. But while the Sox may face some frosty responses in Japan to their signing of the pitcher, any hurt feelings will likely be put aside quickly.

“The Sox are perhaps the biggest baseball brand in the world at the moment,” said Jim Masteralexis, the agent who represented Ohka when he was with the Sox. “The NPB league may be annoyed but they will soon forget this and move on in my view.”

NOW COMES THE HARD PART

Though not unprecedented, Tazawa’s decision to begin his professional career in the U.S. still could represent a major development. If he succeeds, then the number of players who want to follow his path could swell quickly from the current numbers.

Naturally, the fact that Tazawa was given such substantial offers (before accepting a three-year, $3.3 million major-league contract, Tazawa reportedly received offers for nearly twice that amount from other clubs) suggests that the 22-year-old has the arsenal to succeed.

Though some teams scouted him as a hurler with three pitches, the Sox describe Tazawa as a four-pitch pitcher (fastball, split, slider, curve) with an impressive ability to spot his fastball. He views his slider as his out pitch, though his split has also shown the makings of a swing-and-miss pitch to both righties and lefties.

But pure stuff is only part of the equation, particularly given the uniquely difficult terrain that Tazawa must travel to reach the majors. To this point, while there have been Japanese players to go from the NPB to the minors, only Ohka has successfully climbed the ladder to reach the majors and stick.

The issues of cultural assimilation that were thoroughly examined when Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima joined the Red Sox for the 2007 season are magnified for minor-league prospects, who often play in cities where familiar food can be hard to come by, and where Japanese speakers are few.

The Sox were mindful of the difficulties a player faces coming from a foreign country to debut in the minors, most likely with Double-A Portland. Yet they became convinced that Tazawa has the makeup to navigate the challenge.

“He is a very good competitor on the field, and also prepares very well. Those are attributes you look for and should help him in his transition,” said Shipley. “That said, that doesn’t mean the transition is going to be easy. The easy part is signing. The hard part is going out there and being successful.”

Ohka made that discovery during his lonely path to the majors. While he was treated as one of the top prospects in the Sox system, and was treated with the same respect accorded to American top prospects, few accommodations were made to assist his cultural assimilation to the U.S.

At the time, the organization did not have Japanese-speaking staff members. Ohka did not have a translator, and there was not a program in place for formal English-language instruction.

“The Sox did not really help Ohka with the transition to America. Frankly, I did with the help of several Japanese graduate students from the UMass Sport Management program,” said Masteralexis. “They became Ohka's extended family. To his credit, Ohka adjusted on his own with our help.”

Tazawa will experience a very different model that the Sox have developed, not only for Matsuzaka and Okajima, but also for minor leaguers such as Matsuo (from Japan) and Taiwanese prospects such as Che-Hsuan Lin and Chih-Hsien Chiang.

The Sox are now sensitive to the needs of players who are foreign-born players who are coming to the U.S. for the first time. The team has made a point of hiring polyglot trainers for its major- and minor-league teams. Tazawa will have a full-time, dedicated translator. He will receive English-language instruction, as well as nutritional guidance. The team has been mindful of creating an infrastructure to help players succeed even as they make a challenging transition.

“There is a structure. This is not the first Japanese player we’ve had in our system,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “Knowledge is sort of power here. We’re growing more accustomed to what the customs are. We have better awareness, whether for those starting at the major-league level or those like Matsuo starting at the minor-league level. We know sort of what some of the base needs are going to be coming in.

“It’s not some sort of elaborate laboratory that we’re working in here. It’s the base needs of a human being who doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t eat the food and maybe has never been to the United States before.”

Shipley met with Tazawa roughly two weeks ago, following the conclusion of his season for Eneos Oil. At the time, he was able to sell the pitcher on the merits of both that structure for dealing with cultural change as well as the merits of a player development system that, more broadly, has created a steady flow of major-league pitchers.

Those elements were significant selling points for Tazawa. The 22-year-old is mindful that, of the Japanese amateurs to come to the U.S., there is not a significant track record of success. For that reason, he chose a club that now, a decade after Ohka’s arrival, seems to offer a strong foundation for him to reach his goals.

“There are three main reasons (for signing with the Red Sox),” Tazawa said through a translator. “One is the development program, which I think is excellent. Another factor is that there are Japanese players here as well as Japanese staff and Japanese speakers who are part of the Red Sox organization. The third reason is that the Red Sox were the first team to scout me.”

“It’s true that not many (Japanese amateur) players have moved up to the major leagues,” he added. “However, I believe strongly in the (Red Sox) development program, and I believe in myself that I can make it to the majors.”

Alex Speier is a senior writer for WEEI.com.