When most of us think of professional baseball, the only league that comes to mind is Major League Baseball. That’s where the best of the best come to play, which is why the MLB championship is known as the World Series.
But don’t underestimate the quality of baseball that is played in Japan! While many describe Nippon Professional Baseball as being an AAAA-league (higher caliber than minor league AAA in North America, but lower than MLB), the NPB is home to many great players, some of whom have either already played Major League Baseball or may in the future.
Japanese fans love their baseball as well. In fact, the NPB averaged the sixth-largest crowds per game of any league in the world last year, drawing nearly 30,000 fans on any given night. To put that into perspective, the crowd support for the NPB in 2017 was approximately 600 fans per game behind Major League Baseball, and ahead of the average cricket match in India as well as top-level soccer matches in Spain and Italy!
But what’s the best part about Nippon Professional Baseball? We can bet on it! In this Japanese baseball betting guide, we’ll go deeper into the NPB and cover everything you need to know in order to feel comfortable wagering on the action.
Although there are several high-caliber amateur leagues in Japan, Nippon Professional Baseball is the only major professional loop in the country.
First formed in 1936, the NPB currently features two leagues of six teams. The Central League is similar to MLB’s National League, consisting of the oldest squads in the NPB and not utilizing the designated hitter. The Pacific League is like MLB’s American League, a younger division that does feature the DH.
The NPB’s 146-game regular season begins in April and ends in October, after which the top three teams in each league advance to the playoffs. The first-place team in both the Central and Pacific League receive a bye to the best-of-five division final, where they face the winner of a best-of-three series between the second- and third-place finishers. The champions of each league then clash in the Japan Series, a best-of-seven series to determine the NPB champ.
Here’s a list of the dozen teams in the NPB, with their home city in parentheses:
The first thing to know about betting on Japanese baseball is that not all betting sites will offer it. Since Nippon Professional Baseball is a bit of a niche league that doesn’t generate much betting interest outside of Asia, many sportsbooks simply don’t consider posting and monitoring odds to be worthwhile.
Even if you do find a betting site that offers NPB betting lines, it’s not necessarily a great idea to quickly sign up, deposit cash, and start betting on Japanese baseball. Just like if you’re joining a betting site to wager on mainstream sports, you need to make sure that the sportsbook you’re dealing with has a solid history of paying winners, offers fair odds, and gives strong customer support.
Here are the sites we most recommend for betting on Japanese baseball:
As we just explained, Nippon Professional Baseball doesn’t draw a huge amount of betting action internationally. Because of that, even the betting sites that offer NPB betting don’t typically feature a wide selection of betting types.
Oddsmakers in North America are nearly as blind to Japanese baseball as the rest of us, so they like to keep things close to the vest with a limited amount of betting options. For example, you’re going to have a tough time finding futures odds for the Japan Series, and it’ll be even more difficult to find the player and game props that are widely available in Major League Baseball.
Fortunately, any site that does offer NPB wagering will have the traditional betting options that we’ve explained below.
When you bet on the baseball moneyline, you’re simply wagering on who you think will win the game.
Odds on the favorite will be accompanied by a minus (-) sign in front of them, informing you how much money you’d have to risk in order to win $100. Odds on the underdog will include a plus (+) sign, indicating your potential winnings on a $100 wager.
The run line in baseball is like the point spread in football and basketball, except that it’s generally always set at 1.5 because of how evenly- matched most baseball games are.
If you take the favorite on the -1.5 run line, they’ll have to win the game by 2 runs or more for you to cash your wager. That’s obviously harder to do than simply winning the game, but the benefit to you is a higher rate of return on your wager. In fact, taking the favorite on the -1.5 run line often results in a plus-money underdog price.
You can also take the underdog on the +1.5 run line if you anticipate a tight game but aren’t quite confident that the underdog will pull off the outright win. As long as the underdog doesn’t lose by 2 runs or more, you’ll win your bet. The downside is that you’ll often have to lay a significant amount of juice in order to buy this extra insurance.
Over/Under is a popular bet in any sport, and that includes the NPB. Instead of worrying about who wins the game or by how much, you get to bet on the number of runs that are scored in the game. Well, to be more specific, you’re wagering on whether the number of runs scored in the game is more (Over) or less (Under) than the projected total posted by the oddsmaker.
For reasons that we’ll get into later in this article, Over/Under totals in the NPB are generally a bit lower than what you’ll typically see in Major League Baseball. On the day this article was written, five of the six games on the board had an Over/Under of 7.5 or less, including a pair of 6.5 totals.
Ever since the NPB expanded to two leagues in 1950, the Pacific League has held a slight upper hand on its Central League counterparts.
While it’s true that 35 of 67 champions in Japan Series history have come from the Central, 22 of those crowns were won by the Yomiuri Giants (including nine straight from 1965-73). The Pacific has dominated the Japan Series recently, claiming the last five titles and seven of eight.
And in interleague play, which began in 2005, teams from the Pacific League own a record of 981-872 against Central League opponents. The Pacific has won the season series every year but one, and has won 56 more games than the Central over the past five seasons.
As we mentioned earlier, the only difference between the two leagues is that the Pacific uses the designated hitter, and the Central does not. We’re not sure that means anything from a betting perspective, however. Pacific League teams averaged just 0.02 more runs per game than Central League squads in 2017, and actually averaged 0.02 runs per game less than the Central the previous year.
Over the years, Nippon Professional Baseball has been both a breeding ground for Japanese talent and a place for past and future Major League Baseball players to work on their game.
Although Masanori Murakami was the first Japanese player to go from the NPB to the Majors in 1964, it wasn’t until Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers 31 years later that the exodus of Japanese stars to North America really began. Ichiro Suzuki enjoyed the most success of any NPB alumni to migrate to MLB, but Hideki Matsui, Koji Uehara, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Hisashi Iwakuma carved out some pretty impressive careers in the United States as well. MLB fans also have Japan to thank for Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ sensational rookie pitcher/designated hitter.
Meanwhile, one year in Japan was enough to transform Cecil Fielder from an ordinary MLB hitter into a 50-homer man in the 1980s, and Hall of Famer Goose Gossage spent 1990 in Japan before returning to MLB for four more seasons.
Here are the top current NPB players that you need to be aware of, whether they end up playing in Major League Baseball someday or not.
Now that Shohei Ohtani is gone, Yusei Kikuchi may be the best pitcher that the NPB has to offer.
Over his first seven seasons, the left-hander went 60-44 with a 2.76 ERA, and that’s including a mediocre 2014 campaign when he was recovering from a shoulder injury that cut short his 2013 season. Kikuchi can run his fastball up there at 98 miles per hour and also throws a mean slider, change-up, and curveball.
Don’t be surprised if we see him in the Majors as early as 2019. In the meantime, expect to lay a favorite price whenever Kikuchi is taking the hill.
Yamada “struggled” in 2017, putting up 25 doubles, 24 homers, and 78 runs batted in while hitting .247. But his performance before that, combined with his youth (Yamada was 25 at the start of the 2018 campaign), means he still needs to be mentioned in any list of the top players in Nippon Professional Baseball.
In Yamada’s first full season as a 21-year-old, he hit .324 with 39 doubles, 29 home runs, and 89 runs batted in. He was even better the following year, raking it to the tune of .329 and driving in 100 runs en route to the 2015 Central League MVP award, and he hit 38 homers in both 2015 and ’16.
Yamada accepted a significant pay cut following the 2017 season, mostly because he was confident that he’d earn back the difference in salary through incentive bonuses.
If you follow international baseball at all, you’re probably already aware of Tsutsugo’s abilities. He hit .364 during the opening round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic to earn Pool B MVP status, and his three homers in the first six games of the tournament helped Japan race off to a 6-0 start before eventually bowing out in the semis to the United States.
Tsutsugo hasn’t had much difficulty handling NPB pitches throughout his young career, either. He led the Central League in home runs and RBI in 2016, a season in which he was also named MVP of the All-Star Game.
Like any league, certain teams in Nippon Professional Baseball have enjoyed more success than others over the years. Here’s a look at three franchises who stand out the most in this department.
The Giants are to the NPB what the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball, clearly the most successful franchise in the league’s history.
Not only does Yomiuri’s 22 titles represent more than one-third of the championships ever awarded in the Japan Series, but the Giants have also been to the finals more than half of the time (34 of 67). That dominance has been slowed recently, however, with the Giants winning only two titles since 2002 and appearing in the final on just two other occasions.
Similar to the Yankees, the Giants have the advantage of massive financial resources at their disposal since they are owned by media conglomerate Yomiuri Group. Numerous Giants alumni have gone on to play in Major League Baseball, including Hideki Matsui, Koji Uehara, and Hideki Okajima.
Saitama is the second-winningest franchise in the history of the NPB, claiming 13 Japan Series titles and reaching the final on eight other occasions.
The majority of that damage was done during a 12-year stretch from 1982-94. The Lions went to the Japan Series every year but twice two during that stretch, winning eight titles and earning the nickname of “Invincible Seiku.”.
However, Saitama has fallen upon harder times since winning its last title in 2008, missing the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and not claiming a Pacific League pennant in nearly a decade.
Who says that money can’t buy championships? The success of the Hawks over the past 10 years can be directly attributed to the 2005 purchase of the team by SoftBank, giving the franchise much deeper pockets to work with than it had under previous owner Daiei Inc.
Since the sale, the Hawks have become the dominant team of the 2010s, winning three of the last four Japan Series and four since 2011. In the club’s all-time history, Fukuoka has claimed eight NPB championships and been a finalist nine other times.
Theoretically, there are several differences between Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball that might impact the approach you take when betting on Japanese games.
For starters, the baseball used in NPB is slightly smaller than the one that is used in America. You may immediately think that a smaller baseball would mean more strikeouts and fewer balls in play, but the strikeout rate in Japanese baseball is actually pretty similar to what we see in Major League Baseball. Part of that may be due to the fact that the strike zone in NPB is notoriously tight (especially for foreign pitchers), which obviously favors the hitters. In fact, statistics show that walks are more common in MLB.
Another significant difference between NPB and MLB games is the size of the field. While the exact dimensions of MLB fields vary and NPB stadiums are symmetrical, a good rule of thumb is that the fences at Japanese parks are generally 10 feet closer than they are in North American yards (except for center field, where NPB parks are 400 feet away). Again, you may conclude that this would have an impact on scoring (closer fences meaning more home runs), but NPB stadiums also feature more foul ground than their MLB counterparts, leading to more outs.
So what’s the bottom line here? Are NPB games really that different from Major League Baseball when it comes to betting? Well, the only way to know for sure is to look at the exact statistics, and there is one area in which Nippon Professional Baseball does differ significantly from MLB:
In 2017, Japanese teams averaged 4.03 runs per game, while MLB squads averaged 4.65 runs per outing. Multiply each team’s average by two (since there are two teams in each game), and you can see that the average number of runs scored in an NPB contest was 8.06, more than a run’s difference from the 9.30 average in Major League Baseball games. That may not sound like much, but that’s nearly a 15% difference!
Lower-scoring games can affect your NPB betting strategy in a couple of ways. Besides the obvious extra value on the “Under,”, the +1.5 run line also becomes a greater weapon in Japanese baseball. After all, the fewer runs that are scored in a game, the less it’s likely that the favorite will win by a comfortable margin.
Be sure to check out our baseball betting strategy guides for more tips on betting baseball, whether it be in Japan or North America.
We’ve already acknowledged that Nippon Professional Baseball is a lower caliber of baseball than what we see in the Majors, that it can be difficult to find betting lines on the NPB, and that most of us aren’t very familiar with the league.
So why would you want to bet on it?
Well, there are actually a couple of really good reasons.
Yes, there will be a bit of a learning curve to betting on Japanese baseball. You’ll have to familiarize yourself with all of the teams and players, not to mention the style of game itself.
But if you’re willing to put in that work and research, it won’t take long before you know the NPB better than the oddsmakers, who aren’t willing to commit that much time to a sport that doesn’t generate much action. It’ll also be easier to make money betting in a smaller market that doesn’t have that many sharp players, giving you a better chance on of finding value in the lines.
Betting on afternoon baseball games is a great way to add some excitement to your work day. Just imagine what it would be like if you could bet on games in the morning as well!
Well, that’s exactly what betting on Japanese baseball does for you. Thanks to the time difference between Asia and North America, most NPB games will already be in progress when you’re having your breakfast or commuting to work.
If you love betting on baseball, having more baseball to bet on can never be a bad thing!
It’s entirely possible to make money betting on Nippon Professional Baseball. In fact, it’s probably easier to profit betting on the NPB than it is wagering on mainstream leagues like the NFL, NBA, or MLB.
But until you get familiar with the teams, players, and style of play in the NPB, make sure to keep your initial wagers small. Remember, it often takes thousands of hours of experience in something to become an expert, and you don’t want to burn up your betting bankroll by going too big too quickly on a league you don’t know that much about.
Keep track of how successful you are, and once you notice that you’re consistently ahead of the bookmakers, you can start to increase your wager size at that point. As long as you’re using one of the best Nippon Professional Baseball betting sites (ideally one of the sites that we recommend), you should have a great chance to make some money betting on Japanese baseball!