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Want live baseball? Give the (Taiwan) Chinese Professional Baseball League a try!

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LIVE BASEBALL! THERE’S LIVE BASEBALL! (at 4am)

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Rakuten Monkeys v Fubon Guardians - CPBL
Rakuten Monkeys!
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

In Friday’s Rumblings, I linked to this story about baseball in Taiwan. On Saturday, I decided to watch one of the games because, well, baseball! Live baseball! At least, if you’re up at 4am. A friend on Facebook posted a link to this article from Time magazine about it. In it, was this Tweet.

Ok, I’m sold!

So I spent a decent chunk of today (ed note: story written Saturday) half-watching “live” (ed note: it wasn’t live either as I glossed over the date on the Tweet) baseball and half-doing other stuff, as I normally do during baseball season, and then writing about it.

I know very little about the CPBL or Taiwan so this is probably best looked at as a live Twitter stream from an outsider watching something new for the first time. If you want to follow along, just start watching on the Tweet above.

Pregame

Today’s game is between the Rakuten Monkeys and the Uni-President Lions. The teams appear to be sponsored like in NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball). Remember all the jokes about Trey Hillman coming from the Nippon Ham Fighters and how we wanted to see a Ham Fighter?

(yes, yes, killjoy, we get it: the sponsor was Nippon Ham and the mascot was the Fighters)

Japanese baseball team Nippon Ham Fighters
A Ham Fighter, indeed
Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Per wiki, Rakuten bought a CPBL team last winter and modeled their logo and uniforms after NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Only, of course, with an awesome monkey logo.

Meanwhile, the Uni-Lions are named after Uni-President Corporation. Again, per wiki:

Uni-President Enterprises Corporation is an international food conglomerate based in Tainan, Taiwan. It is the largest food production company in Taiwan as well as Asia, and has a significant market share in dairy product, foods and snacks, and beverages markets. It is also responsible for running Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Mister Donut and Carrefour in Taiwan

Speaking of 7-Eleven, about a half hour into the broadcast, one of the announcers mentioned he ate at a 7-Eleven last night because the previous game went long. Apparently, we missed a good game the night before. It went the limit as games in the league are limited to 12 innings before it’s called a draw.

The game was 7-7 through the ninth and the robot fans (more on them below) got free baseball. In the 10th, the Uni-Lions took an 8-7 lead before the DH for the Monkeys, Chu Yu-Hsien, tied it with his second homer of the game. In the twelfth, his third home run sent the team to its first franchise win.

I skipped through a bit of the pregame interviews as a lot of it was not in English. But the broadcast picks up about the 24 minute mark. Out come the Rakuten Girls, baseball cheerleaders. If you want to read about each of the Rakuten Girls, they have their own pages.

They performed what I would describe as a like a live hype video (?) to the a tune called “Rock You 10”. Get it? “Rak-u-ten”? It’s part rock, it’s part pop, and there’s a smattering of English in the refrain. They are not practicing social distancing. I found this music video online that sounds like the same tune and looks like a promo for the team:

First Inning

The announcers talk a bit about the night’s starting pitchers. Their cadence is a little off as I’m not sure if they have worked together before, if both are native English speakers, or if both have baseball as their primary sport. There are occasional pauses as they try to come up with the right words or banter. It’s a really fun listen so you don’t even notice after an inning or two. Some Googling tells me that the announcers are Richard Wang and Wayne McNeil.

In the first, the Uni-Lions get a home run while the Monkeys manufacture a run with a hit, a stolen base, and another hit. Check out about the 39th minute. After the home run, the team does a home run celebrating “ritual”, as the announcers call it. There’s another team home run dance at about 1:20.

If able, I always try to see the MLB games when they play in another country like when they open the season in Japan. It’s interesting to see the cultural idiosyncrasies that bleed into the broadcast. However, some things are just universal. There’s a lot of announcer chatter to pass time during slow innings. They told a story about how, as a kid, one player threw a great game the day after breaking all the school’s windows by throwing rocks at them and then blaming his brother. Ah, siblings. They talked about how there’s 4 months of compulsory military service in Taiwan. But the father of one of the announcers, a career military man, thought it should be the two years it used to be. What’s Taiwanese for “kids these days”?

The starting pitcher for the Uni-Lions is former MLB pitcher Donn Roach. By my count, he has played for 19(!) different teams in an 11 year career. In the MLB, he had 39 innings split between the Padres, Cubs, and Mariners from 2014-2016 and bounced around the minor league systems of nine different franchises. One announcer mentions his career “grand slam”, having played in the MLB, KBO (Korea), NPB (Japan), and now CPBL (Taiwan).

Rakuten Monkeys v Uni-President Lions - CPBL
Donn Roach, starting pitcher
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

The broadcasters know they have a new audience so they clarify that teams in the CPBL can have four “imports”, including three on the team and one in the “minors” with only two on the field at a time. But the bulk of the players are Taiwanese.

The first inning ends at about 1:00 out of the 4:30 running time.

Early Innings

Not a lot of sabermetrics have made it to the CPBL broadcast (yet). They talked a lot about pitcher wins, fielding percentage, batting average - the type of stats you’re used to from a game 20 years ago. Then again, that’s not much different than the Royals broadcasts.

However, the production values on the broadcast are really good. They have legit score graphics and a ball strike box. They show quite a few slow motion replays. It looks like a broadcast on par with some of the regional networks like Fox Sports Kansas City. There are some international differences like the stat box showing kph. The announcers talk about having a conversion chart to know that 150 kph is equal to 92 mph. Around the 3 hour mark, they mention that fans might be screaming at the broadcast like they should know these conversions by heart but, in all awesomeness, one of the announcers responded “but we don’t want to know it anymore” (Team metric system!).

A couple of other league notes: There’s a DH, as mentioned earlier. Also, the league has replay challenges and you can see one in the 8th (about 3:58). It’s a bit funny as the game has already been decided by that point. There’s a balk of no consequence in the top of the ninth, too.

Rakuten Monkeys v Fubon Guardians - CPBL
Rakuten Girls, Cardboard Cutouts, and Robot Fans
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

The empty crowd is definitely surreal. There’s a nice shot of the crowd a little after 59 minutes. A Rakuten Girl is surrounded by the fake fan cutouts, which are an interesting promo.

One of the sites I read a bit about while writing this was CPBL Stats. One of their stories talks about the robots and other “fans”:

To prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, a few weeks ago, the CPBL followed Taiwan’s CDC guideline and decided to begin the 2020 season in empty stadiums. On April 7, the Rakuten Monkeys announced they are going to set up robot mannequins in the stands dressed up as fans.

According to the Monkeys’ general manager, they will put 500 “new fans” at the stadium. Among those 500 “fans”, a few of them will be robots. “Since we are not allowed to have any fans in attendance, we might as well have some fun with it,” said the Monkeys’ general manager Justin Liu. “We went with 500 robot mannequins to comply with the current CDC guideline.”

There’s also a robot band around 1:09 but I couldn’t find a story about them online. Around 2:05, they mention a little more about them and drum playing in Taiwanese baseball.

Want an answer to the question you didn’t know you needed an answer to? YES, YOU, TOO, CAN HAVE A CARDBOARD CUTOUT OF YOURSELF IN THE CROWD! For about $200 (5900 Taiwan dollars), you can be in the crowd. Near as I can tell, using bad Google translate, you pay $200 in the team shop, send them a picture, they make it into a cardboard fan, and then they’ll send it to you. Again, per Google translate: “Although it is not your real person but has your sincerity, it will be taken home to commemorate after the epidemic!”. I badly want to do this but I don’t think they ship internationally.

Rakuten Monkeys v CTBC Brothers - CPBL Opening Game
Robot drummers!
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

In the second or third inning, there’s talk about the coronavirus. Some of staff have masks. The announcers talk about having to take temperatures multiple times on the way in. They mention the day was a good day with no new cases in the country but they also talk about not letting down their guard. They praise their government for doing a good job, which seems to be the international consensus on Taiwan’s handling of the crisis. One of the promotional airplanes has a face mask on it.

Rakuten Monkeys v Fubon Guardians - CPBL
Coronavirus very much still on their minds
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

There’s a lot of MLB talk. One of the announcers talks about skipping class to see Ted Williams. Later on they talk about Bryce Harper and how some were happy to see the Nats win last year without Harper. They call one of the Rakuten players “their Dee Gordon”.

Lest you think Taiwanese announcers are immune to international baseball cliches, they mention Chu Yu-Hsien is on pace for 360 home runs after his three homer game on Opening Day. After the Uni-Lions had taken a 2-1 lead, Roach starts to falter in the fourth. He gets two hard outs but then gives up two straight hits. Up walks Chu. No doubter. 4-2 Rakuten.

A little bit of a spoiler but I love the bluster from the Twitter account. “HR King of the World” and @MikeTrout. Nice! And, yes, he’s uniform #85. FYI: There are no 80s of any kind in Royals history and only 4 #85s in MLB history.

Middle Innings

During a bumpy fifth, Roach is sent to the showers. During the inning. a sac bunt was attempted and they mention that CPBL doesn’t “have a lot of small ball” and how they want to play the “American way”. They talk about the nine home runs in the previous night’s game and how the bullpen game can be an adventure with lots of late inning scoring.

CPBL Stats had a nice little primer about the league.

To start, the CPBL is a very hitter-friendly league. It is not uncommon to see teams putting more than ten runs on the scoreboard. The reasons are partly due to the lack of high-tier pitchers, stacked lineup, smaller strike zone and hitter-pitcher familiarity.

There were some “juiced ball” allegations in the 2016 season where the number of home runs spiked to 2.5 per game. From 2017 onward, it returned to a more reasonable range between 1.6 to 2.1 per game.

For those of you hate bunting, then you are coming to the right place. These days, the CPBL players rarely lay down a bunt, instead of doing that, they prefer swinging for the fences or put the ball in play and hope for the best.

Roach almost escaped the fifth with no damage but a hit fell just out of the reach of the Uni-Lions center fielder, plating a pair. They ruled it a hit, which it probably would have been in MLB, too. However, a good MLB center fielder would have had it. Lorenzo Cain would have looked good doing it, too.

Division Series - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Kansas City Royals - Game Three
This is a shameless Lorenzo Cain picture from the 2014 ALDS. I love LoCain. That is all.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Also from the aforementioned CPBL Stats primer, it sounds like this is about AA level.

This is probably one of the most asked questions about the CPBL. In my personal opinion and from talking with MLB scouts, foreign players, the CPBL’s skill level on an average day is very close to Double-A, maybe go down to Single-A on its worst day. The reason being, most of the time, foreign players or Taiwanese players who returned from the MLB system needed to be at least Double-A to have success in the CPBL. Taiwanese players with less than Double-A experience generally struggled in the CPBL.

Using a group of 38 players that returned from the MLB system that never reached to Double-A as our sample group, 10% of this group achieved borderline average performance in the CPBL, and only 2% of them became top-tier players. To sums it up, 90% of the players with less than Double-A experience will fail to have a career in the CPBL.

Another method to measure the skill level is to use the CPBL exports to the MLB system. In most case, CPBL players tend to begin in Double-A or Triple-A. We are using Ni Fu-Te, Tsao Chin-Hui and other foreign players who returned to the MLB system as examples.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers
Your 2013 CPBL ERA leader, Andy Sisco

I found a couple of former Royals who have played in the CPBL recently.

2012 Royal RP Ryan Verdugo played with the Uni-Lions in 2018 and 2019. He tossed the first perfect game in CPBL history. Sadly, he signed with a team in the Mexican League over the winter or else we might have seen him in one of these games.

One time Royals setup man Andy Sisco (2005-2006) played in the CPBL from 2013-2016. In 2013: “Despite only playing for the first half, Sisco led the league in ERA with 2.70 in 133 and 1/3 innings.” Looks like he even had a CPBL baseball card.

Finally, the most famous Taiwanese player in MLB history, former Royal Chien-Ming Wang, signed on as a coach of the Fubon Guardians last season. He never played in the CPBL, though.

NY Mets at Kansas City
We might have had a bit too much fun with sophomoric “Insert Wang” jokes around here
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Late Innings

The Uni-Lions bullpen was roughed up as the Monkeys hung crooked numbers in four consecutive innings: three in the fourth, two in the fifth, two in the sixth, and seven in the seventh. All seven runs in the seventh come with two outs, including Chu’s HR #5. One of the announcers even does the Chris Berman “back, back, back, back, gone” on that one.

Rakuten Monkeys v Uni-President Lions - CPBL
The surreal game rolls on
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

As we’ve reached the “and so on” portion of the game, I start looking up other things about the league.

Looks like the average salary is about $60K, with the minimum being about $28K. No idea about cost of living. Taiwan’s per capita income is about $25K (nominal) but the is the equivalent of $55K (PPP).

Want to get some Rakuten Monkeys gear? Here’s the shop. I wonder what shipping runs? They don’t have anything with the cute monkey logo, though.

If you’re a (degenerate) gambler and looking for some action, you can totally put some money down on CPBL games.

Speaking of which, remember the juiced ball scandal mentioned above? Apparently, the CPBL has had some problems with game fixing scandals in the past. Just looking at the summaries on wikipedia, there have been continual problems with local gangs and gambling. How about these lines?

The first scandal was the “August 3 Incident”, when a group of weapon-carrying local gang members rushed into a Taichung hotel and threatened five Brother Elephants players, including star pitcher Chen Yi-Hsin, in order for them to cooperate with the gang and fix games for their gambling business on the evening of August 3, 1996. CPBL reported the incident to the police immediately and the gang members were soon arrested, but rumors about game fixing swirled in Taiwan.

In June 1997, only two Taiwanese players on the roster of the China Times Eagles were not involved in any sort of scandal, and the rest of the league had to lend their players to the Eagles so that they could finish out the season.

(In 2005) The circumstances of this scandal remain unclear, with the lack of evidence and confessions, and the fact that (prosecutor) Hsu Wei-Yueh himself was later arrested for his involvement in bribery scandals, which led to his trial and sentence in 2005.

The day after the final game of the 2009 Taiwan Series authorities raided the Brother Elephants’ dormitory in Taipei and ordered several players to report to the prosecutors’ office for questioning regarding game-fixing allegations. In the following weeks, multiple players from the Brother Elephants, Sinon Bulls, and La New Bears were questioned, and some of them were arrested and eventually charged. Furthermore, Elephants manager Shin Nakagomi was also charged and later pled guilty in exchange for being released and allowed to return to Japan. Some of the convicted players were given prison sentences ranging from one to four years.

Denouement

The Monkeys went on to win 15-3 and Chu Yu-Hsien is named MVP of the game. No Salvy Splash, but every MLB team needs to have a little MVP stand with a baseball cheer squad, mascots, and a small trophy presentation after the game.

Rakuten Monkeys v Uni-President Lions - CPBL
5 HRs in 2 games for game MVP Chu. Tuffy Rhodes, eat your heart out!
Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images

This was weird. Sure, the league was halfway around the world and had slightly different rules and unfamiliar players, but the language of baseball is universal. The weird part was no fans in the middle of a pandemic. Most of all, it was a total delight and made my Saturday! I can see myself watching more games, especially with no other games going on.

I’d love to do game threads. Unfortunately, looking at the league schedule, the games are at either 4:05 or 5:35 AM(!) Royals time so they’re at a less than ideal time. As an aside, why hasn’t ESPN or FOX Sports or someone picked up the rights to these games? I can’t think they’re expensive and it’s not like they’re showing anything that gets great ratings at 4 am.

If you want to watch these games, check out the Eleven Sports twitter feed. You wouldn’t be alone. There were over 1 million viewers for Saturday morning’s game. The Taiwanese President thanked everyone for watching:

Ed note: I’m not sure when the next Eleven Sports broadcast is as the 20th is an off day and they had so far only done Monkeys home games. The next one of those isn’t until May 1st.