Nippon Professional Baseball said Monday it will abolish a rule that forces amateurs who skipped its draft to pursue an immediate career overseas to wait two or three seasons after returning to Japan before they are eligible to play in NPB.
Former Boston Red Sox right-hander Junichi Tazawa stirred controversy in 2008 when he declared he would go straight to the majors from Nippon Oil in the corporate league, leading to the introduction of the rule aimed at preventing other top amateur prospects following suit.
Infamously known as the “Tazawa Rule,” it ensured players who headed overseas straight after high school were ineligible to play in NPB for three years upon their return home, while those who headed offshore as university or corporate league players were banned for two years.
Tazawa helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013 and had a short stint with the Miami Marlins before he spent time in the minors. He had a 21-26 record with 374 strikeouts and a 4.12 ERA over 388 games in the majors.
The right-handed reliever, released from his minor league contract in March with the Cincinnati Reds, was forced to look for offers elsewhere after the MiLB season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 34-year-old in July ended up signing with the Saitama Musashi Heat Bears in the independent Route Inn Baseball Challenge League.
With the abolition of the rule, Tazawa, is now eligible for this year’s NPB draft.
“I’m really happy the decision was made to abolish the rule,” Tazawa said through his team. “Hopefully I can play on the NPB stage should there be a team that wants me. I’ll be pitching the best I can here for now to achieve that.”
NPB Secretary General Atsushi Ihara said the rule had been reviewed since Tazawa returned home.
He cited an improvement in youth development and training environment within the NPB as well as increase pay for players joining the pro-ranks in Japan.
The minimum annual salary for players under contract at NPB is set at ¥4.2 million ($40,000), while sources close to the matter said the average in the U.S. minor leagues is around ¥2.2 million ($20,700).
Tazawa was the last top amateur player to opt for the majors, with Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani and Seattle Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi both choosing to start their careers in Japan before heading to the big leagues.
“It’s good a rule that makes youngsters feel let down by will no longer be there,” said Japan Professional Baseball Players Associations Secretary General Tadahito Mori.
“It’s a good thing for Japanese baseball’s popularity to have players who made their names overseas return home and lift the standard.”