Shohei Ohtani and his legion of fans are all happy he’s back on the field and playing baseball for the Los Angeles Angels. And though it’s a vast improvement of his time on the disabled list, Ohtani said Wednesday that he now finds himself in an unusual position, batting without concern for his next start on the mound.
Unable to pitch following the discovery of a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, Ohtani is just hitting and said pro ball’s standard division of labor between hitters and pitchers feels definitely substandard to him.
“Because my normal rhythm is batting while I’m also pitching, the other side of that is what I’m now doing feels unusual, ” he said after he had two hits in the Angels’ 7-4 win over the Seattle Mariners.
Speaking about his desire to both a year ago at the Nippon Ham Fighters camp in Okinawa, he told Kyodo News:
It’s not like ‘I really want to be a pitcher and hit, or that I am a batter who also pitches.’ That’s not it. I want to do both,” he said. “Since I began playing ball when I was little, I’ve wanted to do both. I started playing baseball not thinking, ‘I really want to be a great player as a pitcher,’ or ‘I want to be a great player as a hitter.’ I want to bat well. I want to pitch well. That’s the desire I’ve always had. For example, when it’s said, ‘if he focused on pitching, he’d be an even better pitcher so why doesn’t he do that?’ all I can say is that I really want to be a better hitter.
Although he is now prohibited from throwing in the bullpen as he continues to undergo treatment on his right elbow, Ohtani said that the DH always trumps DL.
“Playing is better than not playing,” he said. “Compared to the past three weeks, this is so much more fun. Now I’m preparing myself for when the time comes (and I can return to the bullpen.)”
Yusei Kikuchi may not be the best pitcher in Japan, but he is among the best. On top of that, he is expected to move to the majors after this season ends. Nine years after his eyes filled with tears when he announced he would turn his back on major league offers to sign with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Seibu Lions, Kikuchi has now grown into an elite starter in NPB, and is making the most of the TrackMan pitch tracking data the Lions have been using at the end of the 2016.
“Now I check each game’s data with our analysts, three or four points, my release point, my extension and so on,” he said Saturday, a night after he threw seven scoreless innings against the Pacific League-rival Lotte Marines. “It allows me to make adjustments, and as I make adjustments and see how they go in games, I get a sense for where I need to be.”
“My release point has been higher recently. I noticed in my game against the Giants (on June 8). It turned out to be 9 centimeters higher than a year ago. I worked on that by tilting my torso slightly and got it down to around 3 cm higher than last year in my last start against Chunichi (June 15). I haven’t seen the data for last night’s game, but I would bet that in my final inning, I was within a centimeter of the release point I want, which is 167 cm.”
“In the past, all I had to relay on was video. This is completely different because just looking at a video didn’t give you an exact figure. In the end it was always about feel.”
Many, including myself, have attributed Kikuchi’s dramatic improvement in strikeouts and control to his maturity, and his growing confidence that he can attack batters in the zone, but after striking out around 8 batters per nine innings through most of his career, the lefty hit 10.5 a year ago. Where he had walked over 10 percent of the batters he faced in his first three full seasons in the rotation, 2017 saw that drop to 7 percent. This season, it’s 6.
At the conclusion of this year’s interleague play on Thursday, the Pacific League’s cumulative record against the Central League 1,040 to 920 since interleague was created in 2005 as a part of the settlement of Japan’s only players strike so far.
For a long time, most of us simply assumed the leagues were relatively even in terms of quality. But the lack of CL championships in the Japan Series and the typically one-sided interleague results suggests that in some way that the PL simply has more talent. I was pretty slow to accept this until Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama answered my question about why the PL did so well by saying, “Don’t you think it’s because they’re just better than we are?”
Looking at NPB interleague games from 2009 to 2017 played in NPB’S 12 main parks, Tateyama’s observation appears to be correct. The first thing everyone seems to point to is the pitching.
In February 2006, then-Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman said it was tough for the PL teams because few PL pitchers threw really hard. Other than Australian Brad Thomas, Hillman said, his hardest thrower at the time was a pitcher who probably would be in Double-A in the U.S. (Yu Darvish), and that his hitters were not used to the velocity of the hard-throwing CL pitchers.
A year ago, Alex Ramirez said the opposite, that the PL pitchers–particularly the relievers–throw harder, and that makes it harder for the CL hitters to adjust. This appears to be the case at the moment. According to analysis site Delta Graphs PL fastballs are 0.6 KPH faster on average than the CL heaters, although the site doesn’t permit comparisons of starters and relievers.
The big problem with comparing the leagues is context. It doesn’t help just to look at raw numbers, because the two leagues’ parks, and the DH, affect run scoring differently. The biggest issue is perhaps the ballpark contexts. Until recently, the PL was dominated by huge parks with vast outfields and high walls, where home runs were scarce and speed was at more of a premium. That has changed in recent years with the switch in the CL from small Hiroshima Citizens’ Stadium to more spacious Mazda Stadium, and by the Hawks and Eagles both decreasing the home-run distances by adding field seats inside the outfield wall.
If one looks only at the same main stadiums, and how each home team fares against visitors in league and interleague play in the same part of the season, then perhaps one can get a clearer picture. NPB’s interleague used to run from the middle of May to the middle of June, and now occupies the first 2-1/2 weeks of June in its new 18-game format.
Most speculation has been that PL pitching is superior. If that is the sole cause, one would expect the CL pitchers to do as well against visiting PL hitters in interleague as they do against visiting CL batters in May and June. To study this, a data set was constructed of all non-pitcher plate appearances in the 12 main parks in May and June from 2009 — when Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium opened — to 2017.
The data does not prove PL pitching staffs and defenses are superior but suggests that may be the case, but it also indicates that PL teams are better at hitting, playing defense and have superior speed in the outfield.
PL home teams scored 3 percent more runs per 27 outs against visiting CL defenses in May and June than against PL visitors. In contrast, the CL teams score 9 percent fewer runs in their home parks against PL visitors than they do against their regular CL rivals. These findings are consistent with the idea that PL pitching is superior.
The data suggests PL offenses are also better than those in the CL. CL home teams allow 4 percent more runs per 27 outs when the visitor is from the PL, while PL pitching staffs have far less trouble with visiting CL teams than PL visitors in May and June, allowing 14 percent fewer runs per 27 outs.
In terms of getting hits on balls in play, home offenses in both leagues do better against interleague opponents who rarely visit their parks. The PL home batters had an edge in this area, a 3 percent increase in interleague batting average on balls in play, while CL home offenses’ BABIPs improved by 1 percent against PL visitors.
There is, however, a huge difference in what goes on when the visiting team is at bat in interleague play.
Visiting PL teams in interleague batted .310 on balls in play against CL home defenses that held their own CL league opponents to a .296 average. PL home defenses, on the other hand, surrendered a .306 BABIP to PL teams, a .290 BABIP to visiting CL teams.
Like visiting defenses, hitters also seem to have trouble in the unfamiliar parks of their interleague opponents striking out more and walking less.
It’s at home where the difference is obvious. At home in interleague, CL hitters’ strikeouts rose by 13 percent against visiting PL pitchers, while PL hitters’ Ks were 2 percent less frequent when a CL club was in town.
Built for speed
One comment often heard about the PL teams is that they’re faster — especially in the outfield, a necessity in a league with lots of large turf outfields. PL home teams allow 8 percent fewer doubles and 8 percent fewer triples against CL visitors than against PL visitors. Central League home teams surrender triples 8 percent more often against PL teams than against CL opponents.
When PL teams host interleague games, their batters’ triples and doubles increase. When CL teams host, their doubles and triples decrease.
Although PL teams appear to have a speed edge in interleague, the one area where CL teams actually do better is in preventing stolen bases. Stolen bases percentages go down for visitors in interleague, with the PL being hit slightly harder. At home, CL teams actually improved their stolen base success rate, while PL interleague hosts were less successful stealing bases than they were in league play.
As mentioned before, the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association has asked NPB about changes to the baseball since a number of players have reported that the ball seems to be carrying more for them this year. Today, the union’s secretary general, Tadahito Mori, said he had not asked NPB for the data, and had not yet considered conducting its own study to explain the increase in home runs, but that the union executive may consider that possibility going forward.
A reader asked whether launch angles might be contributing to the location, and there appears to be some of that going on, since groundouts are decreasing slightly across NPB. More as this develops.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, who spent nearly all of his time with the SoftBank Hawks the past three seasons on their farm team nursing one injury or another, was deactivated by the Chunichi Dragons after suffering from back spasms prior to Sunday’s game against his old club, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions. His back issue flared up while he was in the bullpen.
Matsuzaka has been a great story this year because he’s been able to get a lot of big outs despite having control issues and only one reliable pitch, his cut fastball. According to Deltagraphs Matsuzaka is throwing the cutter 41 percent of the time, while his average fastball velocity has been 139.1 kph (86.4 mph).
The cutter is a great pitch in Japan because most pitchers don’t throw it, and he is using it to stay away from barrels and mixing it with a slider that has been very tight on occasion and an occasional change, which has been dynamite.
NPB all-star voting being what he is, he’s leading in the voting for Central League starting pitchers because everyone loves nostalgia and he’s actually been useful when no one expected him to be.
He currently has a 3-3 record, which sounds ominous, since that’s how he finished his last two big league seasons with the Mets.
After three seasons with SoftBank, he was released. But there seems to be more to the story than that. Word is the Hawks wanted him to sign a different contract for much less money. Instead, he walked, but soon found that when players walk away from their teams like that, few other clubs show any interest in signing them.
This happened with an aging Norihiro Nakamura, when he left the Orix Buffaloes after the 2006 season in a contract dispute. Like Matsuzaka, Nakamura asked every club for a tryout, but was turned down by every team except the Chunichi Dragons. Nakamura, by the way, was the 2007 Japan Series MVP and continued playing for another six years — eight years after no one except Chunichi was interested out of deference to the way he left Orix.
If Major League Baseball telling you in May, “The ball isn’t juiced, it only flies farther,” made you wonder whether the world was going mad, I say welcome to NPB, where that kind of pretzel logic would seem run of the mill.
On Sunday, the Yakult Swallows clinched the championship of the annual spring interleague competition. Except, for some reason, when the format was switched from 24 games to 18 in 2015, some bright person decided that the championship team will no longer be known as the “champion” (優勝チーム), but rather as “the team with the highest winning percentage” (最高勝率チーム).
In general, that is all well and good, except with only 18 games, it is very easy that two teams can finish with the same winning percentage, as happened in 2017, when the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp) both finished at 12-6. The first tiebreaker to determine which team wins the 5 million yen first prize (roughly $48,000), is head-to-head results. Barring one of NPB’s ubiquitous ties, that is fairly easy to figure out. So last year, one team, the Hawks were declared to have the highest winning percentage .667 based on their head-to-head record in interleague, and the Carp (.667), the second highest winning percentage.
I would report that it doesn’t get stupider than this.
But I would be lying.
The epitome of Japanese baseball language logic is the “Climax Series.”
This event was introduced in 2007. After 4 years of complaining about the stupidity of the Pacific League’s playoffs, which the CL argued detracted from the pennant race, the CL wanted in. They simply got tired of watching most of the PL teams play meaningful September games in front of sizable crowds, at the same time that half the CL teams were out of contention and not drawing.
It wouldn’t do to have the CL’s new brilliant plan be just called “The Playoffs” as the PL had labeled its two-tier postseason championship tournament. It also wouldn’t do to have the Climax Series decide the league championship — as it had in the PL from 2004 to 2006.
So the CL decided that their version of the playoffs would not determine the league championship (the pinnacle of the regular season) but would in fact select the league’s representative to the Japan Series (the pinnacle of NPB’s entire season). And into the valley between these two high points, the CL brain trust inserted a two-stage playoff that would serve as the quarterfinals and semifinals for the Japan Series tournament. And instead of calling them what they are, these bright boys decided to call it the “Climax Series.”
They could have spit out a dozen better names that more accurately reflect what is going on, but perhaps, calling a preliminary a climax is perhaps appropriate. One can only imagine the decision making that took place. About a week before the decision needed to be made, some big shot with the Yomiuri Giants probably said, “Climax! Perfect!” So in his raw enthusiasm he pushed forward, began ordering promotional material, putting out hard copy and before anyone knew it, the name was everywhere and NPB was stuck with “Climax” all over its face.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that Masataka Nashida announced he was stepping down as manager of the Rakuten Eagles. After winning championships with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and again with the Nippon Ham Fighters, that the Eagles’ continued poor results would eventually cause him to step aside.
When I began getting paid to write about Japanese baseball in 1998, I had to learn how to talk to players and managers and get material for stories despite my horrible Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was perhaps the first manager to welcome my silly questions with open arms, and in 2000 Nashida became another.
Nashida, a former catcher who played his whole career with the Osaka-based Kintetsu Buffaloes, had been successful as Kintetsu’s minor league manager before moving up to the big chair. Nashida was one of those managers who would meet reporters before every game. The questions were often about the comings and goings of fringe players, the prospects of the new rookie, follow-ups on incidents from the previous day’s game and so on.
Not being a beat writer, but one who would go to the park once a week to write a game story and collect material for my column in the Daily Yomiuri, most of those questions went over my head and my attention would occasionally wander. It was those times, when I might be staring at the dugout ceiling, that Nashida would pounce.
“That’s the way they do it in the majors, isn’t it?” he’d ask me, always when I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.
More often than not, I’d say, “No, not always” to a question that could well have been whether or not big leaguers ate raw squirrel meat before games. I was basically a nobody, but like Oh, and Lions manager Haruki Ihara, Nashida tried his best to explain things to me. I sincerely wanted to understand how Japanese baseball was the way it was, and he offered his time and insight.
He once explained what it meant to be a coach in Japanese baseball.
“The coach’s job is of course to prepare players to win games,” he told me. “But they are also like lightning rods. When a player makes a mistake, the coach is expected to show how tough he is in dealing with mistakes and correcting them — not for the player’s sake or for the team’s sake, but so the coach himself won’t be criticized in the media.”
“If a pitcher gives up a base hit on an 0-2 count, the battery coach is asked why he didn’t order a pitch that was too far out of the zone to be hit.”
I asked, “You’re a former catcher. Do you like those meaningless 0-2 pitches?”
“Me? No. I hated them when I was a catcher, and I hate them now when I’m a manager.”
“Then why do your coaches still ask the catcher to call for them?”
“It’s their job, unfortunately. Part of their job is to not be criticized the next day in the papers. It is what it is.”
Nashida had the look of a man who sincerely loved his players, and under him, a lot of Kintetsu and Nippon Ham players blossomed. As one of the Pacific League’s two Osaka-area clubs at the time, the Buffaloes took on a lot of journeyman rejects from the Hanshin Tigers. Having escaped from the Koshien pressure cooker, Nashida trusted them, taught them and let them find themselves, and many contributed to the Buffaloes’ 2001 pennant.
I love seeing a perfect bunt as much as the next fan, but hate the obligatory, let’s-take-a-bullet-for-the-sake-of-Japanese-winning-baseball-first-inning sacrifice as much as any of you, I’m sure.
Although the sacrifice bunt is celebrated as the epitome of Japanese baseball dogma, it’s popular now like it never was back in the day. Small ball has always been close to the heart of Japanese ball, but the bunt REALLY became popular in the late 1970s when former players of legendary Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami began taking over one NPB club after another.
The irony is that the bunt reached its most popular peak in the 1980s, when offense and home runs were at an all-time high and spearheaded by then Seibu Lions manager Tatsuro Hirooka. That’s when “the bunt IS Japanese baseball” was REALLY born. It’s not some age-old doctrine but a revisionist history — an explanation after the fact about how a policy that didn’t exist at the time of a perceived “golden age” was the secret to that era’s quality.
In that respect Hirooka’s popularization of the bunt is reminiscent of Japan’s belief that bushido was a code warriors of a purer era lived by, when in fact it was a code meant as a wakeup call to to men of samurai lineage who were warriors in name and social status only. It was a code that didn’t describe reality, but was rather a set of moral ideals for warriors in a society without war to aspire to.
Japan’s funny about the past. If one glorifies one’s famous predecessors, that goes over really well, whether it’s true or not. In fact, it’s something of a cottage industry that is hard to assail. If I tell you the Giants who won nine-straight Japan Series did so because of the sacrifice bunt, and you say it’s not true, your words can be perceived as criticism of a legend of the game.
The most famous example recent example of this was former BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo. The man, who asked his players to call him “Gondo-san” (Mr. Gondo) rather than Manager Gondo, was an iconoclast. He attacked a lot of Japanese pro baseball traditions as being moronic and a waste of time and was tossed out on his ear — despite a very successful run as skipper.
Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.
Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.
Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.
Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.
In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).
Visitors, 1st inning, Runner on 1B 2016: 187 chances, 54 attempts (29%) with a .537 win pct 2017: 57 chances, 14 attempts (25%) with a .357 win pct.
Home teams, 1st inning, Runner on 1B, scoreless game 2016: 194 chances, 77 attempts (40%) with a .622 win pct 2017: 58 chances, 11 attempts (19%) with a .364 win pct.
For years prior to its introduction, NPB’s six Pacific League teams lobbied for some form of interleague play against the six teams of the then-more popular Central League. These pleas were scoffed at by the charismatic but blowhard generalissimo who ran the Yomiuri Shimbun and held huge sway over NPB policy, Tsuneo Watanabe.
“You only want to make money off games with the Giants. Who’d pay to see Lotte play Chunichi? It’s a joke,” he said in various ways every time the issue was brought up. At that time, sale of terrestrial TV rights for each CL team’s 13 home games against the Giants provided the bulk of each CL team’s annual operating expenses, and none of them were in a hurry to replace a few of those games for home contests against unfashionable PL teams — until the mid-1990s that meant all PL teams with the exception of the Seibu Lions, whose golden age petered out in 1995.
What forced interleague to become a reality was the chaos caused in 2004, when NPB authorized a merger between two PL teams, the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The merger would leave a five-team PL and a huge scheduling mess, so all that summer, while owners plotted how they were going to move into the future with 11 or even 10 teams forming a single league, Japan’s docile players union located its spine and took action. When players took exception with the owners’ plans to contract NPB, Watanabe in his typical fashion, said, “Who cares what they think? They are only athletes.”
The players, needless to say, took umbrage with that remark, and Hall of Fame Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, then the head of the Nippon Pro Baseball Players Association, began negotiating to stop the contraction. The then commissioner, Yasuchika Negoro, urged owners to ignore the players, convincing them the players had no right to protest. In essence the former bureaucrat said, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. I personally wrote those labor laws.”
Unfortunately, the labor courts disagreed, slammed NPB for dealing in bad faith, Japan’s only baseball strike occurred, and NPB caved in. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave became the Orix Buffaloes, but NPB agreed to expedite a process for an expansion team that would keep the PL at six teams. Owners had argued this was impossible to do between the summer of 2004 and the autumn, when a new club would have to take part in NPB’s amateur draft.
Another provision of the settlement was the introduction of interleague play — in order to help the PL teams survive. At first it consisted of 12, three-game series, two each against each team in the opposing league.
Interleague play in NPB is a little oasis between the start of the season and the all-star break, and all the interleague games are completed before league play resumes through the end of the regular season.
“We would have been happy with 18,” former Nippon Ham executive Toshimasa Shimada said. “But they offered 36 and we took it.”
Two years later, the CL pushed for a change to 24 games, and 12, two-game series, calling the original 36-game format they came up with “intolerable.” The CL’s next brilliant idea, a 24-game setup proved even worse, because it meant teams were sometimes off on Friday, a prime day for baseball, and a more hectic travel schedule. So in 2013, the CL once more said, “This 24-game interleague format is ridiculous,” mindful not to mention that it was their idea in the first place.
The real problem of interleague has been the perception that the CL clubs just simply aren’t as competitive as the PL teams. This has been fairly obvious in the Japan Series as well, which the CL has won just 3 times since 2003. So far, only one CL team, the Giants has led the interleague standings, and entering play on Friday, heading into the final few games in PL parks, the interleague-leading Yakult Swallows were the only CL team without a losing record against the PL.
Despite the CL’s mediocre showing and predictions of gloom and doom, average interleague attendance has increased every year but one since it’s inception in 2005. That year was 2011, when Japan was reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. Through the games of June 14, attendance had increased this season by an average of 1,349, although that will deccline a little next week when the rainout makeups are figured into the equation.
This year, both leagues have drawn more for their interleague games than they have for games against league rivals prior to the start of interleague in June: 33,208 to 33,112 for the CL, 27,841 to 26,024 for the PL.
Former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato revolutionized Japnese baseball and was kicked out for his troubles.By Jim Allen
I owe my podcast partner John Gibson an apology. Earlier this year, he felt home runs were really flying this year, and I wasn’t able to see it in the data. SoftBank Hawks Dennis Sarfate told me the same thing, that miss-hit balls were really carrying this year.
I was wrong and they were right.
Since juiced balls became the vogue in NPB starting in the late 1990s, Japan has gone through two efforts to deaden the balls, the first in 2005 — after it became obvious to fans that Mizuno was producing high flyers, and the last in 2011 when NPB adopted a standard ball for the first time.
Looking at all NPB games through June 13 from the past 15 seasons, home runs are more frequent now than at any time since 2005.
The Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association has since asked NPB for data on the resiliency of its official balls. In a May 21 working session, NPB told union representatives that tests revealed nothing unusual, that the standard measure used to evaluate how lively balls are, the coefficient of restitution, was within allowable limits.
According to Joseph Aylward, who spends a lot of time and energy tracking home runs in NPB, the average distances on balls over the fence have been gradually increasing at least early in the season through June 13:
2016: 119.1 meters 2017: 120.3 m 2018: 120.9 m
All fine and dandy, but how much energy a ball retains after its collision with a bat is only part of the equation, as MLB recently reported. The increase in major league home runs was due not to a livelier ball but due to the balls having less drag. MLB was unable, however, to explain why this was the case, since the materials used had not changed.
On June 6, Dr. Meredith Wills‘ groundbreaking research originally published in The Athletic on how major league balls made of essentially the same materials can be changed radically by just a 9 percent increase in the thickness of the thread used to stitch the cover together.
Japan has always had issues with MLB, and whatever rules MLB enacts are soon copied in Japan within a year or two. So perhaps when MLB balls began flying farther, NPB owners became envious.
One twitter follower has since commented that with the weather this season seeming to be somewhat colder than usual home runs should be down instead of up and was curious whether indoor-outdoor splits were available. Well they are. For this purpose, the roofed stadium formerly known as Seibu Prince Dome is counted as outdoors since it is an outdoor park with a roof that shields it from the rain but not the heat or cold.
Bingo. Or since we’re in Japan perhaps “当たった”(Atatta) is preferable.
I haven’t seen the MLB data, but strikeouts and home runs are way up, and more so in Japan’s indoor stadiums than in parks more susceptible to the weather. If it is the ball, when the summer heats up, we may see some historic home run production.
Two years ago, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked if MLB’s ball had been altered to make it livelier without telling anyone, he reminded everyone about what a dangerous move that can be.
“There are certain mistakes in life that if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you are not inclined to make,” Manfred said according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “There was a scandal in Japan over the baseball being changed that cost the commissioner his job. I like my current gig, so I think you can rest assured that the baseball is the same as it was last year.”
The incident he referred to was the 2013 ouster of commissioner Ryozo Kato, who radicalized NPB owners by instituting a uniform ball two years earlier and bringing Japanese baseball out of a kind of warring-states chaos in which teams could chose balls from up to three different accepted manufacturers per season.
This was a huge improvement for NPB, but the target coefficient of restitution specs for the ball were set at the bottom end of the allowable range, meaning many balls were less lively than they should have. Teams complained about the lack of offense, but Kato wanted to stay with those specs for three full seasons before evaluating the situation. Although he said he had great support from Japan’s most powerful team, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, his assistant secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, was one of those who engineered Kato’s downfall.
Although every commissioner has been essentially picked by Yomiuri, Kato had fallen out of favor with owners by instituting a fairer arbitration system for salary disputes that involved third party arbitrators. In 2011, the panel infuriated owners by rejecting the Seibu Lions’ ridiculous argument in their salary dispute with pitcher Hideaki Wakui.
At the end of the 2012 season, Ihara coordinated with his boss and sporting goods maker Mizuno to switch to a more lively ball, and kept it a secret from Kato, even after the commissioner was grilled about a ball switch when balls began jumping out of the park again.
Kato was forced to reverse himself in public when he found out the truth, and was replaced by a more owner-friendly commissioner. Kato, and his secretary general, a man who hadn’t worked for Yomiuri, took the fall for the switch, and Ihara was promoted to secretary general and has since run the show run under Kato’s two successors.