Former big leaguer Litsch raising China’s game

Baseball is finding a home in some unlikely places around the world and one of them is China’s Yangtze River Valley, where Major League Baseball has established development centers in Wuxi, Changzhou and Nanjing.

There, pitching coach Jesse Litsch is passing on what he learned in a career that culminated in five big league seasons on the mound with the Toronto Blue Jays and is enjoying the experience to the fullest.

“It was a pleasant surprise, the way they (the Chinese students) wanted to play baseball, the way they present themselves on the fields,” Litsch told Kyodo News recently by telephone. “In the States, you don’t know what you’re going to get with some kids.”

“Here, they really appreciate it.”

Jim Small, MLB’s vice president for Asia and the Pacific, said last month that China was one of four areas MLB is targeting.

“We have really tried to focus on China and in Mexico, where baseball is underdeveloped, and in Europe and Brazil,” Small said. “We look at pockets, where we think we can go in and make a difference.”

MLB opened its first Chinese center at Wuxi’s Don Bei Tang school in 2009 and this past school year trained 85 student athletes, who now come from all parts of China.

Litsch, who last pitched in the majors in 2011, was hurt in spring training the following year and unable to return despite undergoing a host of procedures. After calling it quits in 2014, he was looking around for coaching jobs and found an offer online that brought him to China for a one-month trial last November.

“I sent a resume and it turned out it was with MLB,” Litsch said. “I went with the mindset of ‘Who knows?'”

“I had a few pro job offers. I turned them down because I felt I could make more of an impact here, show off more of my skills. As a pro, you’re doing things the system’s way.”

Since taking on this challenge, Litsch, who is all too familiar with various surgeries, has spent a lot of time learning best practices for young pitchers, and said one of the advantages of working with Chinese youngsters is that many of them are starting from scratch. They have few bad habits to unlearn and are keen to pick up whatever they can from their instructors.

But while there are many pitching mechanic pitfalls Litsch can help them avoid, so much is unknown about the best way to develop young pitchers in a time when there is an epidemic of elbow ligament injuries in the States.

“I went to a couple of my doctor buddies to get as much info as you can get,” said Litsch, who has a huge number of decisions to make regarding how to bring the youngsters along.

Assisting in the process is Jackson Zhou, a graduate of the program who now works as an interpreter.

“I started playing when I was nine years old and now it’s getting popular,” said Zhou, who graduated in 2014. “The staff is great. They help you a lot in baseball. I’m working with (head coach) Bill Thomas and Jesse and they’ve taught me so much about baseball and life.”

MLB’s program, which uses fields and facilities that would make many American junior college programs envious, began seeking talent in the area around Wuxi, home of this season’s China Baseball League champion Jiangsu Pegasus.

“The first recruiting class in 2009 consisted of 16 players, mostly from the local area of Wuxi,” said Rick Dell, MLB’s Director of Baseball Development Asia. “Since that time, we have expanded our recruiting to the four corners of China.”

“We have developed relationships in what we call ‘Independent Pockets’ throughout China…a Korean, American or local Chinese, working in an area wanting to do a good thing, organizes a baseball club. They have little support (but) we help them with our consulting. They develop players and we give them an opportunity. It is a win-win situation.”

Because students who attend are getting into universities, and have the opportunity to play abroad, interest is growing. Dell said they are now fielding requests for tryouts and not only from mainland China but also from Taiwan and South Korea.

“For some of these kids, it’s a 38-hour train ride from their hometowns,” Litsch said. “This is an adventure for me, but it’s an opportunity for life for them.”

Hiroshima and the international family

Forget the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball’s new “We Are Family” champions are the Hiroshima Carp.
Although a few teams have signed more foreign talent in recent years, Hiroshima’s family-oriented international operations are the envy of Nippon Professional Baseball.

The basic process is the same for every team: find good players and sign them. But the Carp go to greater lengths to get the process right under owner Hajime Matsuda and general manager Kiyoaki Suzuki. Part of the payoff is in the yearly performance of players like pitcher Kris Johnson and slugger Brad Eldred, who have helped power Hiroshima’s revival along with first-year pitchers Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens, but it has a human side that goes beyond individual numbers.

Suzuki said the ideas of family, loyalty and trust spring from the city’s nature, and that idea extends to the players’ families, for whom the Carp have established an office that looks after the players’ needs off the field.
“Hiroshima is a compact town, everyone is family,” Suzuki said.




“From searching out restaurants to various other things, we are able to respond to needs 24 hours a day, providing care for children and so on. They can call their interpreter 24 hours a day, wherever they are. If you take good care of a player’s wife and children, he can play with a sense of security.”

Former Carp pitchers Dennis Sarfate and Bryan Bullington are fans of what the team does. Asked if he would recommend the Carp to a friend wanting to play in Japan, Sarfate didn’t hesitate.

“Hiroshima would be my first recommendation because of the way they treat you off the field,” he said.
Bullington, who is out of baseball this season after four seasons in Hiroshima and one with the Orix Buffaloes, said his family made good use of the team’s resources and assistance.

“Every team has some sort of resource, perhaps a lot more reliance on the interpreter or someone else. But because the Carp have three or four people working full time, trying to manage your apartment scenario and bills, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, it is a little unique,” said Bullington.

“Especially that first year, we definitely used the guidebook for things to do with the kids, parks, pools that kind of stuff, and also trying new restaurants and stuff. They’ve done their research. It definitely helps having that type of info, and we used it a lot.”




Interperter Hirofumi Matsunaga (松長 洋文) said part of his job is taking sick children to the doctor.
“We always have female staff in the office, who speak English and can take care of the wives’ needs,” he said. “It’s us interpreters who usuallly do a lot of the other things like taking kids to the doctor.”
“They always seem to get sick when we’re on the road and on weekends, when hospitals aren’t open, so it’s hard to find one.”

But the players aren’t the only ones who appreciate Hiroshima’s special focus.
Former pitcher Erik Schullstrom, who finished his four years in Japan with the Carp in 2002, has been scouting for Hiroshima ever since. He and and former infielder Scott McClain scour the U.S. minor leagues for talent.

“I’m super happy,” Schullstrom said. “I’ve told the owner. I’m never going to leave my job. You can fire me. I’m never going to quit if I get offered another job, another club, a major league club, I will not take it. I’ll be working for the Carp forever. That’s how happy I am. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this organization. Mr. Matsuda has a relationship with my children. They go and visit him, and he treats them like they’re his own kids, or his grandkids or part of his family. He’s so generous. He’s just a great person to work for.”

American assistant general manager Jonathan Fine has been the team’s representative in the United States since 1994 after working briefly alongside Suzuki and Matsuda in the front office in 1989 and 1990. He said getting the right players starts with frank discussion among coaching staff and front office in Hiroshima to identify needs, continues with Schullstrom and McClain doing a thorough job of identifying players with skill and character, and the trust that permeates the operation allows him the ability to quickly go after the players the club wants.

“There have been a lot of changes in the (Japanese) work place the last 25 years, but the Carp remain a traditional Japanese company,” Fine said. “They are run that way and their people are treated that way. Loyalty is expected and loyalty is earned and rewarded. It’s rewarded in the ease of getting things done. Barriers come down, people can participate in conversations, frankly. Decisions can get made relatively quickly. We’ve been able to beat other NPB teams to the punch to get good players in the past because of the ability (to move quickly).”




Schullstrom said he looks for maturity, flexibility and – with pitchers – the ability to make Triple-A batters swing and miss. But another key factor is hunger and the desire to build a successful career in Japan.

“They need to be hungry. They need to be broke. It helps to have no money. I’m not kidding,” Schullstrom said. “Guys who have some money in the bank almost never do well. They’re not interested in it. They don’t want to jump through the hoops. Some of the things we see (in Japan) are bizarre. They’re totally foreign.”

“I would say (we want) guys who have hunger and some patience and ability and flexiblity in their personality. And you can see that. You can see guys: how they play, how they get along with other players. If they have a bad game, if they strike out four or five times in a game. You can look into the dugout, you see how guys are talking to each other. You watch Kris Johnson come off the mound after a bad inning. How is he behaving? How is he reacting? How is he running out to the mound the next inning? Is it consistent?”

Schullstrom pointed to difficulties that Eldred and former Carp slugger Greg LaRocca faced and how the team’s trust and patience allowed them to achieve success.




“Eldred got sent to the minor leagues and he could have pouted,” Schullstrom said. “You can react a bunch of different ways. But, if you stand tall and act like a man, good things can happen. Toledo (where he last played in Triple-A) is way better than being in the minor leagues with the Carp.”

“LaRocca got off to a terrible start for 3 weeks. And Koji Yamamoto was our manager and he just kept putting him in the 3 Hole. And he stunk. He kept grounding out to third and rolling over balls.”

“There are no expectations (from the media) in Hiroshima. The press is relatively friendly to the team. It’s not like Osaka. They (the team) showed patience and look what he did. He hit 40 home runs, batted .328 with 100 RBIs. If a foreigner starts to struggle after 10 days, you’re out in almost every other town. But in Hiroshima with the whole coaching situatation there’s more trust. Now we (scouts) have a little bit of a track record with having success, so the leash is even longer for those guys. And sometimes it takes a little longer. We can take some credit, Mac and I, but the majority of the credit goes to the people in Japan for making it easier to succeed in Hiroshima.”

Eldred said that not only do the Carp look after the player’s family but the team IS a family.

“If a guy is new and struggles for 10 games, some teams forget about them,” Eldred said. “It’s nice to have a team that brought you here because they know you’ve got talent, and they’re expecting you to do a lot. It’s nice that they’re willing to give you as many opportunities as they can.”

“They (the Carp) always treated me very well. My second year, I had an injury and broke my hand and missed some time. I didn’t play as well as I liked, but they trusted in me and brought me back and I had a really good (third) year. That shows loyalty to their players. Once you’ve built up some time and become part of their family, they really treat you the right way. I think it’s a big family organization.”

When players arrive in Hiroshima, they have to prove themselves, and they have to put up with lots of things that are different, but Eldred and Jackson were used to playing abroad from winter ball and came in with open minds.




“I talked to other players and knew what to expect. Then when you get here, you see how helpful everyone is and how nice it is. It is very easy to trust them and be comfortable,” Jackson said.

“When I played in Mexico, when I played in Venezuela, I saw stuff I never thought I’d see, and here it’s a little bit more extreme, because baseball is so big here.”

It’s not easy coming to a different country and a different culture, but whatever the Carp can do to make it easier, they do and they do it in style, and everyone feels that the owner has his finger on the pulse of the team.

“It helps to have an owner who is involved and knows what’s going on,” Eldred said. “He takes care of us foreign players really well. When we have family or friends in town he always sends us out for a nice Japanese dinner. It’s kind of cool for him to take care of us like that. You never expect something like that, but he thinks of us.”

Sports agent Alan Nero, who represents Eldred, called Matsuda, “an outstanding individual.”

“He’s let players move on to other teams where they had better opportunities,” Nero said. “That’s very unusual. Most teams wouldn’t do that.”




Former Carp reliever Kam Mickolio, who has spent the past two seasons with the Rakuten Eagles, said, “I loved playing in Hiroshima. The owner is awesome.”

“Because of all they do, and how they are willing to structure contracts, the Carp are able to sign players for a lot less money than it would take for them to sign with any other team,” he said.

What Matsuda and the Carp have built is special and other teams have taken notice. Sarfate said the Hawks have built a similar program to take care of players’ families and Mickolio said the Eagles are doing the same.

“Rakuten’s always asking about what they do in Hiroshima, because they want to model their program after what the Carp do,” Mickolio said.

It’s not hard, but it’s not something that happens overnight. It takes time and trust to develop the bonds of loyalty that makes a system like the Carp’s sing. And it takes someone at the very top to give it a heart and soul.




NPB’s best of 2016

It’s award time again and so here are some thoughts about the best of the best in Nippon Professional Baseball.

The MVPs

@JBWPodcast has had a crush on second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Hiroshima Carp because of his clutch fielding. Kikuchi had a career year at the plate in 2016. According to Bill James Win Shares, he was the Carp’s most valuable hitter and NPB’s most valuable fielder. His fielding is so eye-catching that it’s easy to vote for him. But is he the most valuable player in the CL? Three players have more win shares:

  1. Tetsuya Yamada 36
  2. Hayato Sakamoto 34
  3. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo 32
  4. Ryosuke Kikuchi 28

No one makes as many big defensive plays as Kikuchi, and to do it on grass when everyone else plays on plastic makes it that much more impressive. These big plays can be game changers in the same way that a late-inning relief effort or a clutch hit can be. Sometimes they will tip a game from a loss to a win, but the clutch performances don’t do the bulk of the heavy lifting.




If Kikuchi makes a huge play that saves a run, it can turn a close game, but the one play doesn’t win the entire game. Lots of other things have to happen, and the people who do those things deserve credit, too. What I’m trying to say is if he turns 10 games around with his glove, it doesn’t mean he won 10 games with his glove.

Finishing high in the standings is important, and I’m willing to discount Yamada’s share of the Yakult Swallows’ successes because of that. But that’s a huge gap for Kikuchi to overcome to match the big three.

My standard test for MVP is this: If you had to fill out a team to win a pennant, and all players were considered to be the same age, who would you want more based on what they did THIS past season? Who would be your first choice? The numbers above are opinions of a system that attributes team wins to its individual players. I think it’s clear that Kikuchi was not as valuable as Yamada, but where these four rank is really difficult.

I’m inclined to go for Hayato Sakamoto as MVP rather than Yamada, but I wouldn’t really fault anyone for ranking any of the four in any order.




The Pacific League is the flip side to this. The player who lead the PL in win shares, played for the league champion Nippon Ham Fighters. The PL’s elite three according to win shares were more or less in a dead heat and all playing for the top three clubs.

  1. Shohei Otani 32
  2. Yuki Yanagita 32
  3. Katsuya Kakunaka 32

With Otani winning the league, he’s a no-brainer.