With the fervor of the greatest World Baseball Classic ever finally dying down, it has become more and more obvious how international of a sport baseball has become. The title of World Champion or even World Series becomes less and less factual every single year as the sport booms in popularity across the globe. While people discuss putting teams in London or Paris, I think they are looking at the wrong side of Eurasia; it is time for MLB to expand into Japan.
Why MLB in Japan makes sense
In general, the general public sees Japanese baseball as a step lower than MLB but a step higher than the Minor Leagues. Functionally, however, it is not. In 2019, NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball — the top Japanese Baseball League) averaged more fans per game than MLB, then obviously the world fell apart thanks to a pandemic.
Even in 2022, when attendance was still recovering from the pandemic, NPB brought in 24,558 fans per game compared to MLB’s 26,567 fans per game. If you break up the NPB by league, the Central League had over 28,000 fans per game compared to the Pacific League’s 20,000 fans per game.
For the record, the lowest average attendance in NPB last year was the Saitama Seibu Lions at 16,837 fans per game, higher than six MLB teams (Oakland, Miami, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cleveland … and just barely below Baltimore)! The top-attended NPB team, the historic Hanshin Tigers, brought in an average of 36,370 fans, which would be sixth in MLB behind Los Angeles (Dodgers), St. Louis, New York (Yankees), Atlanta, and just barely San Diego.
Because of its popularity, MLB has made it a point to reach out to Japan for several series and events over the years. The most prominent of which are the MLB All-Star series and, of course, the World Baseball Classic, both of which have proven to be extremely successful in Japan. You would expect the United States to steamroll Japanese baseball in a series like that. The stereotype is that Japanese baseball is below MLB, yet when they play each other, it appears they perform on a more even footing. Let’s look at both series.
First, the World Baseball Classic. In poetic fashion, Shohei Ohtani struck out his teammate Mike Trout to crown Team Japan as true World Champions. Team USA had built one of the best rosters ever for this tournament, and yet team Japan, with only five MLB players on their roster, won. But that was a single game. What about a series? How about looking at the MLB Japan All-Star Series next?
Every few years, MLB sends a team of players to Japan to play anywhere between a five- to eight-game series against the NPB All-Star team (now the Samurai Japan national team). The team MLB sends is not its true All-Star team. The teams consist of some All-Stars, but others choose not to risk injury and step out. That said, MLB does send a competitive team to Japan every time.
In 2018, the MLB Japan All-Stars team was headlined by players such as J.T. Realmuto, Ronald Acuña Jr, Carlos Santana, Mitch Haniger, Kirby Yates, and Kenta Maeda. The position players on this team accrued a massive 46.4 bWAR during the 2018 season. If this was a real MLB team, it would have been the best offensive team since the ’27 Yankees (I checked). The true trouble for this team was pitching. The pitchers on this team had combined for only 9.7 bWAR. Teams are less likely to want their high-level pitchers to attend events like this because of injury risk. Even with the players who dropped, the pitching staff that was sent would still have been better than 10 other teams in 2022 (right around the same level as Kansas City last year).
All of that explaining to tell you that this top-tier MLB-Level team lost five games to Japan with only one win.
The competition is there naturally. NPB has developed Hall of Fame caliber players, like Ichiro Suzuki and now Shohei Ohtani, and it is time for MLB to take them seriously.