What Do American Players Make in Japan?

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJune 19, 2009

TOKYO - MARCH 22:  Pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa #22 of Hanshin Tigers pitches during preseason friendly between Boston Red Sox and Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo Dome on March 22, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

One of my regular readers (yes, there are few of them) asked me what American players make in Japan.  Here’s my response:

The short answer on what U.S. players make in Japan is that it varies.  Scott McClain, the 37 year old former Fresno Grizzly, signed a contract with the Hiroshima Carp that will pay him $210,000 (approximately, depends on exchange rates).  I don’t know if that’s for the rest of the season or pro-rated, but I would guess the former.

The biggest Gaijin stars make good money.  In his top earning seasons, Tuffy Rhodes made roughly between $4.5M and $5M, while Alex Cabrera made about $5M to $5.5M.  They are the two most recent and best foreign stars ever, so I doubt anyone has made more.

Actually, that is not necessarily true.  If you want to make the best money in Japan, be the best foreign player in the league playing for the Yomiuri Giants.  The Giants have a reputation for being cheap in spite of vastly higher revenues than any other team in Japan, but they will shell out for the best.  Alex Ramirez is making more than $5M this year for the Giants, because the yen is so strong against the dollar.

If you are really interested, you can go to japanesebaseball.com and find out what every single player currently playing in NPB has made per year in Yen since about 2000.  [BTW, it's a great site, although I look at it less now that NPB has its own English language website.  Also, I notice in looking at the site for purposes of this article, they aren't providing the same amount of information for players who are now retired as they once did.  Too bad, although the site is faster to down-load than it used to be.]

Actually, North American players in Japan make more than Japanese players do.  However, Japanese companies generally want Japanese stars for advertizing purposes, so Japanese players make more money for endorsements than foreign players do.

The biggest contract ever offered by a Japanese team to a player was the $61M for ten years that the Yomiuiri Giants (the NY Yankees of Japanese baseball in terms of revenues) offered to Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui, the year before he came to the states.  Matsui is making $13M this year for the Yankees, so the very best Japanese players can make far more coming to the U.S., than playing in Japan.

For example, when Kosuke Fukudome signed a $48M four year contract with the Cubs, it is doubtful that any Japanese team, except possibly the Yomuiri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers, could have offered him even half as much for the same four years.

After Japan, there really are no other countries where 4-A players can make more money than they make in AAA ball.  For example, my best estimate is that Scott McClain, because of his age, his current skill level, and past major league experience, was making between $60,000 and $75,000 pro-rated for the time he spent with the AAA Fresno Grizzlies this year.  Of course, he would get the major league minimum for any time spent on a major league roster (currently $400,000 per year, pro-rated for the time actually spent on the major league roster).

U.S. players often play in Korea, Taiwan or Mexico, if they are no longer considered good enough to start on a AAA roster.  If the player has never played in the majors at all, he may make more in these countries than in the States.

The biggest advantage to playing in Korea or Taiwan is that if you are really good, a Japanese team will offer you a contract.  An American player named Tyrone Woods, who could hit but never played even a single game in the majors, went to Korea, set the single season HR record there, and then signed with the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2003.  He put in six fantastic seasons in Japan before retiring at age 39 after the 2008 season.  He had four years in Japan where he made between approximately $4.2M and $6M each year.

Players below the AAA level in the U.S. make very little.  The Atlantic League is by far the best paying of the Independent A leagues.  From what I have recently read, an typical salary in the Atlantic League for a player with substantial professional experience is about $3,000 per month for a 5.5 month season.  Players in AA ball probably make similar salaries.

The Northern League and the American Association typically pay around $1,200 per month for a five month season, with the other Independent A leagues paying less.  The major league organizations start at about $1,200 to $1,500 a month for the lowest levels of the minor leagues.  That’s why amatuer players who sign with a major league organization get signing bonuses.