The lucky ones and 2 unlucky ones

Yesterday, I mentioned some of Japan’s best minor league hitters and the (perhaps) surprising fact that Ichiro Suzuki was the best 19-year-old minor leaguer NPB has ever had. Suzuki reached that dubious pinnacle because A) He was really, really good, and B) Then Orix BlueWave manager Shozo Doi didn’t think he could hit. Because of the lack of belief in him, Suzuki was able to establish in the minors what a good hitter he was.

Had Doi continued to manage the BlueWave for several more years instead of being replaced in 1994 by Akira Ogi, Suzuki’s career might easily have looked more like — Teppei Tsuchiya’s. Teppei, as he became known after he was sold to Rakuten, had proved on the Chunichi Dragons farm club at a young age that he could hit. Once he got a chance in Sendai, he became one of the Eagles’ best players.




Because Suzuki’s manager didn’t believe in him, he spent an inordinate amount of time proving how good he was down there. While there are precious few players as good as Ichiro wasting their time on the farm, there are lots of real good players who never get half a chance.

If you look at all minor league hitters since 1991, who were: under 27, with an offensive winning percentage of.700 or better over two seasons in a minimum of 400 plate appearances, and who had at least 400 PAs in one of their next two seasons with the first team, you get the following players sorted by their second big year. Note that Kensuke Tanaka and Akinori Iwamura each had a third big year in the minors…

  • Ichiro Suzuki 1993 Orix, 19.2 years old – MVP (3)
  • Katsuhiro Nishiura 1996 Nippon Ham, 21.1
  • Akinori Iwamura 1998 Yakult, 18.9
  • Nobuhiko Matsunaka 1998 Daiei, 24.0 – MVP(2)
  • Akinori Iwamura 1999 Yakult, 19.9
  • Shogo Akada 2002 Seibu, 21.3
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2004 Nippon Ham, 22.6
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2005 Nippon Ham, 23.6
  • Yoshio Itoi 2007 Nippon Ham, 25.4
  • Tomotaka Sakaguchi 2007 Orix, 22.5
  • Kazuhiro Hatakeyama 2007 Yakult, 24.3
  • Ginji Akaminai, 2011 Rakuten, 22.8
  • Katsuya Kakunaka, 2011 Lotte, 23.6
  • Akira Nakamura, 2012 SoftBank, 22.2
  • Yuki Yanagita, 2012 SoftBank, 23.2 – MVP(1)
  • Itaru Hashimoto, 2013 Yomiuri, 22.7

Most of these guys need no introduction, most of them have won Best IX awards. In addition to the actual MVP winners, Iwamura deserved to win win one, while Yanagita was robbed in 2014. Two players who might be less familiar are Katsuhiro Nishiura, and Itaru Hashimoto.

Nishimura had one shot at regular playing time in 1998 and hit 20 homers and stole 18 bases but batted .245. The next year, the Fighters gave his playing time to Michihiro Ogasawara. Hashimoto has played well, but he’s had injury problems and the Giants have rarely given regular jobs to guys to low draft picks out of high school.




The list of minor leaguers who are just as good offensively as these guys, but who get far fewer opportunities at the first team is HUGE.

I’ll assume few of you know about Yukio Kinugawa, whose first-team career consisted of 53 at-bats over 50 games with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yakult Swallows. He was a slugging catcher who was converted to an outfielder-first baseman. For three seasons, from the age of 23 to 25, he was a minor league terror. The only player in his age group who was AS good as Kinugawa was Takeshi Omori, a famous minor league slugger and first baseman in the same generation whom the Giants gave up on after a handful of games. Ironically enough, for 1-1/2 years, before his trade to Yakult, Kinugawa and Omori were teammates on the Buffaloes Western League club.




Kinugawa in the minors was similar to Kazuhiro Hatakeyama and Ryota Arai–  in his days with Chunichi years before Hanshin showed the Dragons Arai was a pretty good hitter. Kinugawa was better at his age than Tomoaki Kanemoto and better than Nobuhiko Matsunaka. This is not saying Kinugawa could have been better, but neither Kintetsu nor Yakult seemed very interested in seeing how good he could be.

Ichiro Suzuki, Akinori Iwamura & other NPB minor league stars

Ichiro Suzuki is some day going to be the first player to begin his career in NPB and end up in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Akinori Iwamura won’t make it, but people familiar with his career in Japan know what a good ballplayer he was.

I recently re-added the minor league batting and pitching data from 1991 to 2001 to my data base — I lost my originals about 20 years ago in a hard disk crash — and asked which under-20 minor league hitter (minimum 200 PA) had the best seasons with offensive winning percentages over .700.

  1. Ichiro Suzuki (19.2 years old), Orix 1993, 214 PA, .883
  2. Akinori Iwamura (18.9), Yakult 1998, 430, .810
  3. Seiji Uebayashi (19.4), SoftBank 2015, 332, .799
  4. Akinori Iwamura (17.9), Yakult 1997, 297, .785
  5. Ichiro Suzuki (18.2 years old), Orix 1992, 270, .784
  6. Kensuke Kondo (19.4), Nippon Ham 2013, 227, .781
  7. Tomoya Mori (18.4), Seibu 2014, 257, .755
  8. Hisashi Takayama (19.1) Seibu 2001, 343, .708





Suzuki took a nice jump forward in 1993 and the next year took another when he won the first of his three straight PL MVP Awards. Most of the rest of the guys you know, although some of you may have forgotten Hisashi Takayama. He was an outfielder without outstanding speed or power and had one chance to play regularly at the age of 28 in 2010, when he played quite well, but was otherwise a guy on the fringe. Takayama’s minor league season at the age of 20 was the 10th best by a player aged 20-21 since 1991, so it’s fair to say Seibu REALLY missed the boat on him.

When Hisanobu Watanabe was promoted from farm manager in 2008, Takayama was one of the guys he gave a shot to in the spring, but at the age of 26 he needed an ally and didn’t have one. Then batting coach Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, wasn’t a fan of Takayama’s and insisted on keeping hustling and likeable-but-underqualified Kenta Matsusaka as his right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder.

Uebayashi, who is mentioned here, is someone who lacks some plate discipline but who does everything else fairly well but has yet to break into SoftBank’s regular lineup. Had he played for Nippon Ham, however, like Kensuke Kondo, he’d no doubt have a job by now. Mori, it seems is caught in a crunch as well, he’s probably a better hitter than the other guys who are taking his playing time, but he needs to go out and prove.

The best minor league season for a player aged 20 was by Lotte’s Toshiaki Imae in 2004, a year before he became the Marines’ regular third baseman for a decade. At age 21, the best was by Ken Suzuki of the Seibu Lions in 1991. Suzuki went on to be a DH-third baseman for the Lions pennant-winning teams in ’97 and ’98 and a corner infielder with Yakult in 2001.







Japan trying to do right thing at home

 

Tigers catcher Haraguchi was ruled to have been blocking the base line here. The only thing that was in runner Seiji Kobayashi's path was a glove with the ball in it.
Tigers catcher Fumihito Haraguchi was ruled to have been blocking the base line here. Of course, the only thing that was in runner Seiji Kobayashi’s path was a glove with the ball in it but rules are rules

Watching the implementation of NPB’s new collision rule for a couple of months has been pretty painful. We’ve seen gun-shy catchers setting up for throws 10 feet from home plate to protect themselves from trigger-happy umpires and then be unable to reach the runner and make a tag.

Another scene that has played out twice in the past week was when a player not obstructing the baseline in any sense of the word was found to have violated the rule about fielders being in the baseline unless a throw takes them there. It looks stupid as all get out in both cases, since the runner had clear access to home base in each case, was tagged easily, and called out by the home plate ump — only to have crew chief Masanobu Sugiyama overturn the calls on video review.

The majors, which would like to get rid of all collisions but can’t seem to say so, have resorted to trying to define the scope under which “hard-nosed, old-time baseball crashes” can still occur and is struggling. In Japan, however, the mandate was to eliminate collisions at home plate, so the rules went beyond MLB’s. Unlike MLB, a fielder has no right to stand between a runner and home plate — even when he has the ball in his possession. The catcher can NEVER block home plate and the runner cannot initiate contact with a player covering home.

The only exception is when the umpire rules that the act of catching a ball puts the fielder in the baseline.

Osamu Ino, the gentleman who chairs NPB’s umpiring technical committee, and by the way also sits on Japan’s Rules Committee — NPB’s rules can’t be changed unless the amateurs sign off on it — tried to explain the process to me two days after the first out at home was overturned on video review by Suginaga.

“We wanted to get rid of collisions, the players union wanted that, too,” Ino said. “We thought about just adopting MLB’s rules, but we were concerned that if there was a way to block the plate or obstruct the base path with the ball, Japanese players would do it and collisions would still occur. I think it is something to do with our national character.”

What he was saying was not that Japanese players would cheat, but that a crystal clear definition of what was legal and what wasn’t was needed.

Then a wonderful quote came today from Japan rugby international Kensuke Hatakeyama and I suddenly understood Ino’s dilemma. After playing overseas the past few months, Hatakeyama made a number of observations, including this priceless one to my colleagues from Kyodo News in England a few days ago. He’s talking about the importance of teaching Japanese the right way to do something. (I’ll post the original Japanese at the end so anyone who has a better take on the quote can chip in.)

“If you go in the wrong direction, the Japanese will collectively go that way and that’s that. If a coach says (to Japanese) to cross on a red light, Japanese will mistakenly walk into the street and ‘Wham’ get run over.”

The plays at Seibu Prince Dome a week ago Friday and at Koshien Stadium on Wednesday, caused numerous heads to turn. But it seems that after decades of being instructed to ignore the obstruction rule at home plate, the umpires have been instructed clearly to interpret the rule as follows:

Neither the third base line including home plate can be occupied by a fielder. Because of this, fielders cannot prepare to make tags as they would at any other base. They not only have to give the runner a clear path to the base, but it has to be the prescribed path.

In the case of Wednesday’s game. Hanshin Tigers catcher Fumihito Haraguchi was straddling the plate. The base line was open, home plate was open. He gave the runner a lane to the plate, unfortunately the lane he provided was between his legs — and thus according to NPB’s narrow interpretation, he was risking a collision — which is of course nonsense. But Hatakeyama’s thoughts helped me understand how Japanese umpires could pretend obstruction wasn’t in the rule book last year, while now pointing to the rule book and enforcing the new rule to the 10th decimal place.

On Thursday, Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka engaged the media with a 20-minute discussion about the rule and its interpretation.

“It’s very ambiguous,” he said — meaning there is a gap between the wording 0f giving the runner a clear lane — and the unwritten prescription that the lane is the third base line and all the air space above it.

“This implementation is Japanese. We tend to be anal retentive in these things.”

Next year, NPB will outlaw interference by runners on fielders attempting to make throws, which is the way the game is going, more toward speed and athleticism and less toward collisions in the name of “playing the game the right way.”

In MLB, ostensibly a runner has free reign to wreck havoc on middle infielders’ bodies PROVIDED he makes a bona fide slide into second base and never gives up the bag. Eventually, that sort of language will be replaced by what they’re trying to do in Japan, which is make a rule that states clearly that the purpose is to avoid injury and interference at the bag.

Ino said it will take a few iterations to get the home plate collision rule right, but at least the goal of Japan’s rule is clearly stated.

 

–Hatakeyama: “間違った方向に進めてしまうと、日本人はみんなまとまってそっちに行ってしまうので。赤信号を『これは進め』って教えたら、日本人は間違って行って『ボーン』とはねられると思う。”

Welcome to Npbspeak

The Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984 has  Newspeak as its official language which is used to transmit to the proletariat the wisdom of Big Brother. Japanese professional baseball in a nifty parallel, has Npbspeak to guide fans according to the will of its shogun, former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe.

Take Tokyo Dome and its infamous official capacity for baseball of 55,000. Through 1984 — oops 2004 — reporters obligingly include references to crowds of 55,000 at the park in their Npbspeak. In the 28 Japan Series games — when attendance is actually counted, crowd figures ranged from 43,848 to 48,342, yet nobody in the mainstream media noticed anything unusual about that. Except for Robert Whiting and a few others, no one was publicly saying: “Hey this place looks full, how come it’s not 55,000?” Because  Watanabe said, “Tokyo Dome’s capacity is 55,000,” where they thinking, “hmm must not be a sell out.”?





At Game 2 of the 1996 Series against Ichiro Suzuki’s Orix BlueWave the place was jammed and sounded like you were inside a jet engine, but somehow nobody mentioned anything incongruous about an announced crowd of 45,806 without any empty seats at a park reported as holding 55,000.

About that time I called the Seibu Lions to ask how come Seibu Stadium could hold 50,000 fans for a holiday sellout against the Kintetsu Buffaloes, but max out at just 31,883 against the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. It sure wasn’t the cost of tickets, because at that timea Lions Series game ticket cost only 50 percent more than for a regular season game. The Lions answered: “During the Japan Series, the fire department prevents us from seating proles — fans — in the aisles.”

Right.





Then in 2005, after the players went out on strike and the proles stood behind them in their fight against the owners, Nippon Professional Baseball teams decided to announce attendance figures that “approximated reality,” whatever that means. In Nagoya, the Chunichi Dragons apparently only admitted fans in blocks of 100 that year, since all their announced attendances that season ended in “00.”

On Opening Day, April 1, 2005, the automatons who had been dutifully reporting Tokyo Dome had been filled with 55,000 fans, reported a full house of 43,684. Since that day, the highest announced attendance has been 46,831.

“Tokyo Dome’s maximum capacity is 46,831. It has always been 46,831.”

SO when NPB announced there would be new rules this year — NPBspeak grammar required at least one “new” rule be an existing one. Baseball has prohibited catchers without the ball from obstructing runners for over 150 years. Yet the practice was accepted in both MLB and NPB despite clearly being against the rules. Rather than admit it hadn’t been enforcing the rule, which is an NPB tradition, a rule — a redundant duplication of the old one — was included in the new package so that it could be called “new” so the proles wouldn’t notice.