Nippon Professional Baseball is the top league in Japan.
Called Puro Yakyu, meaning “professional baseball,” NPB is known as the Japan League or Japanese baseball outside the Land of the Rising Sun.
The organization consists of two six-team circuits, the Central League and Pacific League.
The Central League is comprised of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Yomiuri Giants, Yokohama DeNA Baystars, Hanshin Tigers, Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Chunichi Dragons.
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Chiba Lotte Marines, Saitama Seibu Lions, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and ORIX Buffaloes make up the Pacific League.
The NPB season resembles that of MLB.
Spring training is known as “preseason,” and takes place in March. Regular season games begin around April 1, and All-Star Games are played in July.
The regular season ends in October, followed by playoffs. The postseason begins with a Climax Series, a three-team playoff system introduced in the Pacific League in 2004.
The teams with the second and third-best records in each league play in a three-game first stage set, with the winner advancing to a five-game final against the league’s top team.
Champions from the Central and Pacific Leagues then meet in the Japan Series, a best-of-seven affair to determine the Nippon title.
First played in 1950, the Japanese Fall Classic has been won by the Central League champ 35 times, while the Pacific winner has taken 30 Japan Series titles.
The winner of the Japan Series becomes the country’s representative in the annual Asia Series, a tournament that includes winners from the top professional baseball leagues in Australia, China, Korea and Europe.
The Tokyo area in eastern Japan hosts five teams: the Giants, Swallows, Lions, Marines and Baystars. Japan’s most popular ball club is the Giants.
Considered “The New York Yankees of Japan,” the Giants have won the most Nippon Series championships , including nine straight between 1965 and 1973.
Owned by media conglomerate Yomiuri, the Giants play in the 45,000-seat Tokyo Dome, the largest in the Nippon circuit.
The Giants’ fiercest rivals are the Hanshin Tigers, who play in Koshien Stadium, Japan’s Fenway Park. Giants – Tigers games in Hanshin are like Yankees –Red Sox clashes at Fenway.
Tokyo’s oldest and most traditional ballpark is Jingu Stadium, home of the Yukult Swallows.
The Seibu Lions – the Invincible Seibu — dominated the Pacific League from 1982 to 1998, winning 13 pennants and eight Japan Series titles. The Baystars play in cozy Yokohama Stadium, next to Tokyo’s Chinatown district.
Baseball experts describe Nippon Professional Baseball as AAAA – less competitive than MLB but better than Triple-A minor league baseball.
Baseball, samurai style, relies more on off-speed pitching than fastballs, and team harmony is stressed over individual achievements.
Power hitters are in short supply in Japan, and the baseball is harder and is wound more tightly than its American counterpart.
The strike zone is smaller, as is the playing field. Five Nippon league teams play in ballparks whose dimensions are so small they are in violation of the American Official Baseball Rules.
NPB teams play six games per week, with every Monday off. The regular season is 146 games long.
Like MLB’s National League, Japan’s Central League plays a purer brand of baseball and uses no Designated Hitter, while the Pacific League does.
Unlike North American baseball, Japanese games may end in a tie [former MLB commissioner Bud Selig must love NPB].
If the score is tied after nine innings of play, up to three additional innings may be played.
If there is no winner after 12, the game is declared a tie [except during the Japan Series, when games continue until there is a winner]. No new inning may commence once the game has gone three-and-a-half hours.
Most Japanese teams use a six-man pitching rotation, as opposed to the five-man rotations used in MLB.
Rosters are comprised of 28 players, three of which are deemed ineligible by the manager before each game. Generally, the pitcher who started the most recent game is one of the three declared to be ineligible.
The Japanese Baseball League was the country’s first baseball circuit and operated from 1936 to 1949. In 1950, it reorganized as NPB.
There are also two minor leagues in Japan, the Eastern League and Western League. Until 1993, baseball was the country’s only sport.
Since then, the J.League – Japan’s version of the NFL—has emerged, as has professional soccer.
Japan has produced several superb players. Sadaharu Oh – Mister Oh – played 22 seasons for the Giants. The greatest star in Japanese baseball history retired with a lifetime batting average of .301, with 868 homers and 2,170 RBI.
By contrast, Hank Aaron hit 755 career home runs and Babe Ruth belted 714.
Aaron has the most RBI in history, with 2,297, while The Bambino is second, with 2,213. Ichiro Suzuki broke in with the ORIX Buffaloes at 18.
After collecting 1,278 hits in Japan, Ichiro bolted for America, where he has gathered more than 3,000 additional hits in MLB.
In 2016, Suzuki collected his 4,257th hit as a professional, surpassing Pete Rose for most of all time. Hideo Nomo left Japan for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.
He pitched 14 big league seasons, twice leading the league in strikeouts while tossing two no-hitters. Hideki Matsui starred for the Yankees for seven seasons.
The first power hitter from Japan to succeed in the majors, “Godzilla” was MVP of the 2009 World Series.
The best player to come from the Land of the Rising Sun may be arriving in America for the 2018 season. Shohei Otani is the “Babe Ruth of Japan.”Like Ruth, he is two-way player who dominates both at the plate and on the mound. The 6’-4” right-hander throws triple-digit fastballs and clouts mammoth homers.
In March 2017, the 22-year old launched a blast so far, it went through the roof at the Tokyo Dome. When not pitching, Otani plays the outfield. In 2016, Otani led the Nippon League in both ERA and OPS.
Throughout its history, NPB has imposed gaijin waku, limiting the number of non-Japanese members per team.
Teams may not have more than four foreign players – including the manager and/or coaching staff – on a their 25-man rosters, and they cannot all be pitchers nor all be position players.
More than 600 Americans have played NPB, but few last more than a single season in Japan. Foreign culture, language barrier and loneliness come into play.
Some ex-major leaguers have found success in the Orient. Tuffy Rhodes and Warren Cromartie were both big in Japan.
Former Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel became a star in Nippon, joining Yakult at 32 and playing six NPB seasons. From 1977 to 1980, Manuel averaged better than 41 homers a season.
Bobby Valentine and Trey Hillman have each guided teams to NPB titles, and Americans hold several Nippon League batting records, including highest lifetime average [Leron Lee, .334] and highest single-season average [Randy Bass, .389].
Today is Game 4 of the 2017 Japan Series between the Yokohama DeNA Baystars and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Yokohama Stadium.