By Sam Ceisler
Although Major League Baseball (MLB) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) are incredibly different leagues, my love affair with the Japanese game stemmed from my MLB fandom.
One of my favorite players growing up was Hideki Matsui. As a young fan, I couldn’t help but get excited every time Matsui launched a homer and announcer John Sterling yelled, “Sayonara!” The Yankees outfielder was also an essential piece of the team’s 2009 championship run, hitting for three home runs and a .615 batting average in the World Series against the Phillies.
While Matsui reigned over left field in New York, Ichiro Suzuki was having similar success in right field for the Seattle Mariners. At the same time, pitchers Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka were dominating from the mound.
These players all made their way to MLB after successful stints in their home country of Japan. Matsui was a 3-time NPB champion with the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants. Ichiro was a 3-time Pacific League MVP with the Orix BlueWave. Hideo Nomo was the Pacific League’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1990 with the Osaka Kintestsu Buffaloes.
Professional baseball clubs have been a facet of Japanese culture since the mid-1930s, but the Nippon Professional Baseball league was officially founded in 1950. It isn’t Japan’s only baseball league, but it is the most popular and has the highest level of play.
The Japanese game is slightly different from its American cousin. The sac bunt and other small ball tactics are still alive and well in NPB. NPB baseballs are also a bit smaller and stickier than MLB balls, which allows pitchers to create more movement on off-speed pitches. The league is comprised of two divisions, the Central League and the Pacific League, each containing six teams. Each team has an official mascot (or two, or three), and fight songs to be sung by the fans during each game. The atmosphere at almost every NPB game is electric and could be compared more closely to Premier League football than MLB.
The league’s history is as intricate as it is individual. There are famed winning streaks like the Yomiuri Giants nine straight championships during the 1960s and 70s. There have been famed losing streaks, strikes, scandals, rivalries and team mergers. But, above it all there’s a worldwide fanbase who love NPB and tune in for every game.
As I said before, my fandom for NPB came from my own love for NPB stars playing in the United States. Although in the past, other writers have weighed in about which NPB teams can be aligned with which MLB teams, I wanted to put my spin on things.
There’s no clear answer for which team is who, so we here at JapanBall reached out to the committed community of English-speaking NPB fans on social media to get their answers and crowdsource some ideas. Some users suggested we should just make comparisons based on jersey colors (like the Cincinnati Reds and Hiroshima Toyo Carp), but we wanted to dive a little deeper than that.
Some teams have more than one equivalency that makes sense, which we’ve done our best to list. This exercise is in no way definitive and is not meant to discourage you from learning about each NPB team’s unique and colorful history. The three main criteria we used to create this list were a team’s location, their championship history, and their relationship to other teams in NPB. By compiling information from these areas, the input of social media users and the opinions of a few former NPB players, we reached these selections.
Without further ado, here are your 12 Nippon Professional Baseball teams, and their best comparison from the American Major Leagues:
The Yomiuri Giants to New York Yankees connection makes a lot of sense for a handful of reasons. First and foremost, they are the two winningest teams in their respective leagues: the Giants are 22-time Japan Series champions, the Yankees are 27 time World Series champions. Both of these teams also have enjoyed waves of success with consecutive championships: the Giants had a nine year stretch of dominance from 1965-1973, while the Yankees have won three-straight championships in three different periods of their history.
Both of these teams play in their country’s biggest cities: Tokyo and New York. They are both known as big-money teams who spend freely and use their might to influence the league’s operations. They also both have a significant anti-culture from fans worldwide, where most people ascribe to a “love ‘em or hate ‘em” mentality.
As one Twitter user put it, in relation to the hugely popular Yomiuri Giants, the Yakult Swallows are stuck playing second fiddle in the big city. Like the Mets’ Citi Field to Yankee Stadium, the Swallows’ Jingu Stadium is just a train ride away from the Tokyo Dome. While the Swallows have enjoyed a few short periods of success over the years, they have finished below .500 for a majority of the organization’s history; they’re a team acquainted with struggle, another reason the New York Mets comparison fits here.
The Swallows mascot is a beloved, red-faced swallow named Tsubakuro, who is known as a bit of a troublemaker. You can see plenty of videos on YouTube of Tsubakuro and his younger sister, Tsubami, messing around with other team’s mascots and cheer squads. Mr. Met, who also roots for the hometeam along with a female companion, also causes his own fair share of trouble, which led to his being featured in a number of “This is SportsCenter” commercials throughout the 2000s. Both of these teams have dedicated fanbases who have gotten used to being the stepchild to a hugely successful crosstown rival. They are storied franchises with a lot of grit, and that’s why many people associate the Tokyo Yakult Swallows with the New York Mets.
This comparison led the way on our social media poll, with multiple users weighing in to compare the Hanshin Tigers to the Chicago Cubs. The Tigers home of Osaka is similar to Chicago in that these cities are known for unique cuisines and vibrant entertainment scenes. The Tigers, much like the Cubs, also have a cross-town competitor who we’ll discuss in the Pacific League section of this article.
Other points of comparison between the teams include their historic playing fields: Koshien Stadium and Wrigley Field; Koshien stadium has a thick layer of ivy running around the outside of the ballpark, much like the outfield walls of Wrigley field. Both of these teams also have famous curses that they’ve had to overcome. The Cubs’ Curse of the Billy Goat may have prevented them from winning a World Series for 71 years, while the Hanshin Tigers are still attempting to overcome the “Curse of the Colonel.” They earned the curse when fans tossed a statue of KFC’s Colonel Sanders off a bridge to celebrate the Tigers’ 1985 Central League pennant (check out this article from Tigers fanatic and JapanBall contributor Trevor Raichura for more). Granted, the Curse of the Colonel seems to have been overhyped by foreign fans. The point of the story is not that there’s an actual curse, but that the Tigers have an embattled fanbase who continue to show up for their team year after year despite their at-times lackluster success.
Despite these similarities, some members of the NPB community felt that the Tigers should instead be compared to the Boston Red Sox, because both teams have to continuously battle with their more-popular and more-successful division rivals – the Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees, respectively. Further, the Red Sox and Tigers have both dealt with long periods of poor play in their history that fans like to attribute to a famous curse (for Boston, the Curse of the Bambino).
The general consensus on social media surrounding the Yokohama DeNA BayStars is that they are a scrappy AL East team, leading us to compare them to the Baltimore Orioles. The BayStars are a middle of the pack team in performance and payroll but regularly have to compete with powerhouses like the Giants. The same can be said for the Orioles competing with the Yankees. Despite this, both teams have succeeded in winning championships multiple times in the past. The BayStars two Japan Series titles came close to 40 years apart, while the Orioles success was a bit more compressed; the team’s three championships occurred over a 17-year span.
The Orioles and BayStars both play just outside of their nation’s capitals. They are also two of their league’s original teams. The BayStars were known as the Taiyo Whales when they joined the NPB’s expanded Central League in 1950. The Orioles were present in 1900, and known as the Milwaukee Brewers, at the advent of the MLB’s American league. Another point of comparison is that both team’s ballparks, Yokohama Stadium and Camden Yards, are appreciated by fans around their respective leagues
In line with the Orioles comparison, some community members said that the BayStars remind them of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. However, because the Rays and Jays are both expansion franchises, I felt that the Orioles comparison fit more closely.
Although in previous comparisons I’ve likened NPB’s Central League to the AL East, the pedigree and history of the Central League also makes it tantamount to the AL Central. This is why I believe the Cleveland Indians make a good foil for the Chunichi Dragons. Both the Dragons and the Indians franchises had early success; the Indians two championships occurred in 1920 and 1948 and the Dragons won their first Japan Series in 1954. The Dragons’ home city of Nagoya is much bigger than Cleveland, however these cities are the largest in their respective regions; Nagoya is the capital of the Aichi prefecture, while Cleveland is the most populous city in Ohio.
Granted, this comparison is weaker than some of the others I’ve been able to make. Online contributors also likened the Chunichi Dragons to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals.
Our final Central League team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, remind a number of other NPB fans and me of the Seattle Mariners. First and foremost, both of these teams struggled mightily in the early days of their franchises. The Carp joined NPB in 1949 but were unable to win their first championship until 1979. The Mariners joined MLB in 1977 and are still chasing their first World Series win.
Another point of comparison between these two teams are the breadth of iconic players to have played for their franchises. Alex Rodriguez started his career with the Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki was the face of Seattle from 2001-2011, and I’d be remiss not to mention Ken Griffey Jr.’s time with the team. The Hiroshima Carp won their three championships thanks to superstars like the Iron Man Sachio Kinugasa and 4-time league home run king Koji Yamamoto. They currently feature all-world outfielder Seiya Suzuki and, in the past, a number of incredible Carp players have also gone on to MLB, such as pitchers Hiroki Kuroda and Kenta Maeda.
A number of other teams could also be considered to be equivalent to the Carp. Some fans suggested we take the easy comparison between the Carp and Cincinnati Reds’ similar logos, but that felt too superficial. The Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates were a few other suggestions put forward. However, the Seattle Mariners still seem to be the best fit.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and San Francisco Giants are two of the most successful franchises in their country’s major leagues. For both of these teams, championships come in bunches; the Hawks have won the Japan Series each of the past three years, and three of San Francisco’s eight championships occurred between 2010 and 2014. Stemming from their ownership groups, a major factor in the recent success both teams have enjoyed is their willingness to spend big on major signings and contracts.
Like the San Francisco Giants, who moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, the Hawks moved from Osaka to their current home in Fukuoka in 1988. Another fun connection between these two teams are their roles in bringing Japanese players into the MLB. In 1964 the Hawks sent 20-year old pitching prospect Masanori “Mashi” Murakami to the San Francisco Giants, where he became the first Japanese player to appear in an American major league game. Mashi played in nine games that season, pitching 15 innings for 15 strikeouts and a 1.80 ERA.
The Hawks have also been compared to the Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds. All of these teams have dedicated fan bases and a penchant for developing young talent. However, because of the past connections and their similar championship experience, I feel that the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are most similar to the San Francisco Giants.
The comparison between the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and the Arizona Diamondbacks is one of my favorites on this entire list. For starters, they’re both expansion teams. The Diamondbacks joined MLB in 1998 and the Golden Eagles were created in 2005 to fill the void that the Orix BlueWave / Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes merger had created. The Golden Eagles and Diamondbacks jersey colors aren’t too far apart either!
Both of these young franchises have also already won a championship thanks to some ace pitching. The Diamondbacks owe Randy Johnson for their 2001 World Series win. The Big Unit pitched in 3 games of the World Series for a 1.04 ERA and 3 wins. Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 during the team’s 2013 championship season. Tanaka was also called in for the save during the ninth inning of game seven during that year’s Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants.
However, the early success that both of these franchises enjoyed was short-lived. Neither team has made it back to their respective championship series since their winning seasons.
The comparison between the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Minnesota Twins not only draws on geography, but a shared past. The Fighters and Twins are both three-time champions and both of these teams, when founded, were named the Senators. The Minnesota Twins got their start as the Washington Senators, and played in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. The Fighters played in Tokyo as the Senators for the 1946 season before the team was sold and renamed.
Both of these teams later moved from their nation’s capitals to large, chilly northern cities. The Twins relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the 1961 season. The Fighters left Tokyo and settled into their new home of Sapporo in 2004.
Members of the NPB community online also compared the Fighters to the Seattle Mariners. Seattle is a similarly isolated northern city like Sapporo, and both of these teams have been lucky enough to host some true superstars. As we discussed, players like Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. got their starts in Seattle. Current MLB superstars Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani both started their careers with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. However, the Mariners have never won a championship. Because of the shared championship pedigree between the Fighters and the Twins, I felt that this comparison was more fitting.
The comparison between the Chiba Lotte Marines and Oakland Athletics is another one of my favorites on this list and works out for a number of reasons. For starters, ZOZO Marine Stadium is on the east side of Tokyo Bay, and the Oakland Coliseum is on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. The Marines have four championships compared to the Athletics nine World Series wins.
These two bay-area teams are original members of their leagues who have moved multiple times. When the Marines were founded in 1950, they were known as the Mainichi Orions. They were renamed multiple times and moved from Tokyo, up to Sendai, and then down to Kawasaki, before settling down in 1992 and taking the name Chiba Lotte Marines. Similarly, the Philadelphia Athletics were founded in 1901, and moved to Kansas City in 1955. In 1968, the Athletics moved to their current home in Oakland.
Although the Marines and Athletics have both struggled to fill the seats at games in the past, their fanbases are known as some of the loudest and most faithful in their respective leagues. Both teams have also benefitted from the help of some outside-the-box thinking, and some larger than life personalities in the team’s leadership. Billy Beane of the Athletics was the subject of the book and the film, “Moneyball,” thanks to his innovative analytics-based approach to baseball. The Marines have an equal to Beane in Bobby Valentine. The American manager eschewed the traditional Japanese style of play, moving away from the sac bunt and holding shorter practices, endearing him to fans but putting him in a contentious position with the Marines’ owners. In 2005, Valentine became the first foreign manager ever to win a Japan Series title.
Another reason the Athletics comparison fits is that both of these teams have to compete for attention with larger franchises in their area. Each year the Athletics have to deal with their crosstown rival, the San Francisco Giants, and the Marines are up against the four other Tokyo-area teams. For this reason, social media users also suggested that the Los Angeles Angels would be a fitting comparison. However, the Angels lack of championship success, and their status as an expansion team, led me to believe that the Athletics were the most logical choice.
The Saitama Seibu Lions are one of the Pacific League’s original teams and remind many fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Lions and Giants, much like the Yankees and Dodgers, have a lengthy playoff history and rivalry; the Lions and Giants have played each other in the Japan Series nine times, while the Yankees and Dodgers have met in the World Series in eleven different seasons. But, in truth, the Lions are a much more successful franchise than the Dodgers. While the Dodgers have won six world series titles, the Lions are 13-time Japan Series champions, which includes three separate three-peats.
Like the Dodgers, the Lions moved across the country at one point in their storied history. The team was originally based in towards the south of Japan in Fukuoka, but they now play in Tokorozawa, Saitama, outside of Tokyo. Both teams have also leaned heavily on pitchers in the past. The only retired number for the Lions is Kazuhisa Inao’s #24, while the list of famous Dodgers pitchers could go on for pages (Tommy John, Orel Hershiser, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to name a few). Both of these teams have also seen immense success with their homegrown prospects like the Lions’ Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kazuo Matsui, and the Dodgers’ Mike Piazza, Clayton Kershaw and current crop of young stars.
Due to this success with homegrown talent, a number of fans also compared the Lions to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds have enjoyed periods of sustained success during their history, similar to the Lion’s three separate three-peats.
I teased this comparison in the Central League section of the article; if we’re comparing the Hanshin Tigers to the Chicago Cubs, then I’d consider their crosstown rivals, the Orix Buffaloes, to be tantamount to the Chicago White Sox.
Like the White Sox in MLB, the Orix Buffaloes are one of NPB’s original teams. Originally simply named “Hankyu” after their parent corporation, they eventually became the Hankyu Braves and then, after being sold to Orix in 1988, the Orix Braves and then the Orix BlueWave. Then, in 2004, the BlueWave merged with the floundering Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and formed the current team, the Orix Buffaloes.
Both the White Sox, and the old Braves / BlueWave / Buffaloes have enjoyed brief periods of success in the past. For example, the White Sox are three-time World Series winners. The Buffaloes managed to carry the success from their first Japan Series championship into the next two seasons, becoming only the third team in NPB history to three-peat (1975-1977).
However, both teams have also experienced periods of great difficulty. Under manager Yukio Nishimoto, the Buffaloes lost a heartbreaking five Japan Series to the Yomiuri Giants during the 1960s and 70s. The Chicago White Sox were mired in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, which keeps some of their most famous players out of the Hall of Fame to this day.
In our online poll, the Buffaloes were also compared to the Mariners because both teams have a history of developing talented players. Ichiro Suzuki played for the old BlueWave while Hideo Nomo pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. However, since the Mariners have never won a World Series, the White Sox felt like a better fit for the Orix Buffaloes.
Who to pick?
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to tell which NPB team you’ll most enjoy rooting for. Do you want a classic team with a lot of past success, like the Yomiuri Giants? Or, do you want a newcomer to the league with the potential for future greatness, like the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles?
Are you looking for a win-now team to jump on the bandwagon with, like the three-time defending champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks? Or, maybe you want a team with a high ceiling for the future, like the Orix Buffaloes and Hiroshima Carp.
If you’re still undecided, feel free to check out the team information page on our website and do some of your own research to help with the decision. Regardless of the team that you choose to cheer for, you’ll be welcomed with open arms into that fan base, and into the worldwide NPB community.
Feel free to leave us a comment below and let us know who your new favorite team is, and make sure you come back to JapanBall.com for discussion, stats, and all the rest of your NPB needs.