By Jim Allen
Ever since talking with Tsuyoshi Wada last summer, I’ve had this curiosity about two-seam fastballs in Japan. The former Chicago Cub said he’s kind of on a mission to popularize the pitch in Nippon Professional Baseball — because Japanese hitters need to see it so they can hit foreign pitchers who feature it.
Until very recently, I thought the principle reason for the lack of two-seamers in Japan was the ball. The ball in the majors seems to give extra movement to straight pitches — essentially making them less straight. But talking to people who’ve pitched here and in the States during the winter meetings, I was told that Japan’s mounds are the biggest obstacle to a good two-seamer*.
According to Matt Skrmetta and Takashi Saito, a good two-seamer requires a good downward plane to begin with and the combination of low, soft mounds and pitchers that are shorter in stature makes that difficult to reproduce.
” Japanese mounds tend to be flatter and softer,” Saito said.
“In Japan, because the mounds are flat, a two-seamer doesn’t sink, it flattens out and runs, kind of like a shuto**. In America, you have a greater height difference that gives you sink, like a forkball. Because of that, those pitches outside become really hard to hit. The pitches are hard and can eat you up. Those are really nasty.”
Saito said he was stunned the first time he saw big leaguers bringing their good two-seamers in the bullpen.
“They were more spectacular than forkballs.”
Those comments brought to mind Japanese mounds. I haven’t heard reports on all the mounds — upcoming project alert — but those at Sapporo Dome and Tokyo Dome have received good reports from foreign pitchers. No one has anything nice to say about the hill at Koshien Stadium, but the one that really interested me was Seibu Lions’. MetLife Dome — the ballpark formally known as Prince– used to have a famously soft, sandy mound.
That came to my attention watching Luis Mendoza, then with the Fighters, vigorously landscaping the slope with his cleats between pitches. I asked former Lion Dennis Sarfate about that and he said that Seibu kept it soft out of deference for submariner Kazuhisa Makita despite it not suiting the Lions’ ace at the time, Takayuki Kishi.
After Sarfate mentioned that during the 2015 Japan Series, I checked and found that Kishi pitched relatively poorly at home. Kishi left the Lions as a free agent after the 2016 season to pitch with his hometown Rakuten Eagles — after the Lions told him in negotiations they had given the right-hander their final offer and he could take it or leave it. Way to go guys.
Anyway, what’s interesting now is that according to Delta Graphs the Lions suddenly shifted from having NPB’s second-lowest percentage of two-seamers thrown in 2016 to the highest in 2017, largely thanks to Brian Wolfe.
The reason this who topic came up in the first place was the hyperbola in Japan the past year about the “moving fastballs” major leaguers were throwing in the World Baseball Classic. The only major leaguer on the Japan roster, Norichika Aoki, was brought in partly to educate his fellow hitters about this secret weapon.
But if Japanese teams decide to standardize their mounds, as they’ve standardized the ball in a process that involved kicking, screaming and a coup d’etat, then it will add one more dimension to Japan’s game. Hey I love the game here and I loved the idiosyncracies of having five different kinds of balls, but it didn’t really make the game any more interesting.
*-I stay away from using “sinker” in Japan, since that implies a different pitch, essentially a changeup thrown by a right-hander with sink and arm-side fade.
**-The “shuto” is a fastball thrown slightly off center and cut to get more arm-side run. Essentially a reverse cutter.