One year ago, outfielder Tetsuya Matsumoto appeared in just three games for the Yomiuri Giants. Pitcher Wirfin Obispo wasn’t even a real member of the team.
Yet both played a big role in the club’s most recent Japan Series victory, rising from relative obscurity to shine on the NPB’s biggest stage.
They are the byproducts of the Giants’ laudable recent use of the NPB’s ikusei system.
Matsumoto in particular was a major success, becoming the first former ikusei draftee to win a Golden Glove after capturing the award this season.
“I had some tough times,” Matsumoto told the Japanese media. “But to win an award like this makes me think it was worth it.”
Matsumoto made a diving play in center field in Game 6 of the Japan Series, and covered a lot of ground to make a number of nice plays throughout the series.
“When I’m going after the ball, I’m concentrating,” Matsumoto said. “I’m not thinking about what happens afterward. Because I got my body strong, I could make some tough plays.”
Japanese baseball’s ikusei program is one of the development systems in place for NPB squads. Teams with more than 65 contracted members can sign players to ikusei contracts and allow them to develop on the ni-gun (minor league) level.
Ikusei players are given triple-digit uniform numbers and can only play with the farm team unless they make the 70-man roster, at which point they’re given a regular contract and double-digit number.
Ikusei players can be tendered regular contracts before and during the season prior to the end of July. The deadline is March for foreign players over 26.
Often initially thought to be too small or not strong enough, etc., to play professionally, ikusei players sometimes rise though the ranks to find success.
The New York Yankee-esque Giants may be an unlikely place to go trolling for feel-good stories. But instead of throwing money at their problems, this year the Giants went to the farm and harvested untapped talent to patrol center field and help fill out the rotation.
Matsumoto is an unassuming, soft-spoken 25-year old who hails from Yamanashi Prefecture. He has a small 170-cm, 66-kg frame and, at first glance, it’s easy to see why there initially wasn’t any room for him in the loaded Yomiuri outfield.
But when the opportunity opened up in center field this season, he responded in grand fashion. Matsumoto batted .293 in 129 games, and led the team with 27 sacrifices and stole 16 bases, in addition to winning a Golden Glove.
He was one of the surprises of the postseason, batting .367 against the Chunichi Dragons in the Central League Climax Series and tied Shinnosuke Abe with a team-high .304 average in the Japan Series.
If Matsumoto came out of left field, Obispo came out of nowhere.
The 25-year-old Dominican signed a developmental contract in 2007 and spent the better part of two years with the farm team. Before coming to Japan, he started 14 games for the Cincinnati Reds’ Dominican Summer League affiliate in 2006, going 4-5 with a 2.04 ERA.
He was given his shot with the top team this season and impressed the club to the point that had the Japan Series gone to a deciding seventh game, Obispo would have been the starter.
Obispo was 6-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 14 appearances, including one complete-game victory, for the Giants. He won the clinching game of the Climax Series and was the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the Japan Series.
Two diamonds in the rough aren’t likely to make the Giants abandon their free-spending ways in the future. But if the team continues to have success developing it’s own talent, as also evidenced by non-ikusei youngsters Hayato Sakamoto and Yoshiyuki Kamei, there’ll be more Japan Series hardware on the way in the near future.