Ramichan’s new office

Alex Ramirez in his office
Alex Ramirez in his new office

A few months into his new gig as DeNA BayStars manager, Alex Ramirez revealed Wednesday that the job is not as easy as it looks.

“Every day is a learning experience,” Ramirez said before his team played the Nippon Ham Fighters at Fighters Stadium in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture. “There are things no one tells you.”

Such as?

“The first time I went out to exchange the lineup card, we were playing the Swallows, and Manaka-san (manager Mitsuru Manaka) said, ‘Rami-chan, you’re the home team. You have to hand me your lineup first.’ And then when we were finished, we stood there and he said, ‘You have to shake the umpires’ hands first because you’re home.’

“Nobody tells you these things. The first few times I went out to make player changes, my interpreter went with me. After a few times, he said, ‘You can do it by yourself now.’ So I thought, ‘Yes. It’s not that hard.’ But the first time when I go up to the umpire by myself, my brain freezes and we have to call my interpreter over.”

“Now I’m OK, just do my best in my Japanese.”

Following the money

Heard of the house that Ruth built? This is the scoreboard that Darvish built.
Heard of the house that Ruth built? This is the scoreboard that Darvish built.

This photo is the answer to the question a listener to the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast asked last year: What did the Nippon Ham Fighters do with the $50 million posting fee they received for Yu Darvish.

According to Fighters chief executive Toshimasa Shimada, the answer is this scoreboard at the Fighters’ minor league facility in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture.

Another Giants pitcher done for gambling

It’s not that surprising that another Japanese player admitted to betting on baseball on Tuesday, since the Yomiuri Giants’ investigation last November consisted of asking everyone with the club whether or not they gambled.

Prior to Feb. 29, the team had declared the investigation done. That day the club received a call from weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, asking about details of Takagi’s involvement. Takagi’s name had not come up originally. He said he quit after losing roughly $7,000 in 2014 in bets on pro baseball games through the operator of a pub known only as “B-san.” Takagi, did however, introduce teammate Shoki Kasahara to B-san, and Kasahara introuduced to other minor league teammates.
The news broke after a gambler called the Giants in October and demanded the team pay one of the pitcher’s illegal gambling debts.

According to the Giants, Takagi said B-san visited him during autumn minicamp with an unkown man who promised to make sure the pitcher’s name would not come up in NPB’s investigation — if the pitcher were to give him a “souvenir.” Takagi said he rebuffed the offer of help.

The team said it was continuing to investigate although repeatedly said it was difficult since B-san failed to take their repeated calls. This is probably not the end of the trail since it is unlikely Takagi made the gambling connection without an introduction from someone he trusted in baseball.

On the announcement of Takagi’s involvement, Tsuneo Watanabe, the most powerful figure in Japanese baseball, resigned again. 11-1/2 years earlier, Watanabe — then the titular owner of the Central League club — joined several other owners in quitting after it was revealed their teams had been paying university pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba.

Within a year, Watanabe officially returned as the team’s supreme advisor. Although Watanabe’s dominance of Nippon Professional Baseball policy has slipped due to the rise of the rival Pacific League, as long as Watanabe remains alive, NPB as a whole will be unable to move forward as a whole in joint licensing and marketing ventures.

Since Watanabe has remained in charge despite having no official status within NPB since quitting as owner, his resignation as special advisor means nothing.

The boys of March

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata, NPB’s middle o the order guys, are asked about what they eat to stay big and strong.

The night before leaving to cover Nippon Professional Baseball’s reasonable facsimile of a national team play Taiwan in a two-game series, T, my wife, said, “I was told these games are meaningless.”

Certainly, no prize money or trophy goes to the winners at Nagoya Dome and Kyocera Dome Osaka. But for the Japanese, they represent the countdown to the next World Baseball Classic, something that is really, really important here.

In 2013, when Samurai Japan failed to win the WBC after two straight championships, alarm bells rang. Through 2012, NPB had made last-minute managing selections. Its first two managers were taken from NPB’s active managing ranks, but with no active skippers willing to step in in 2013, it went for a retiree. Koji Yamamoto hadn’t managed in years and hadn’t done that well when he did.

Probably figuring that if NPB couldn’t be bothered to actually find a real manager, none of Japan’s big leaguers who were asked to join came (Junichi Tazawa wasn’t asked) .  In the wake of Japan losing to Puerto Rico in the WBC semifinals, NPB opted for a regular manager and turned to Hiroki Kokubo, a well-respected veteran who had just retired but who had never managed.

With the union unhappy that only a fraction of the money from Japan-based sponsors who spend heavily in the WBC reached NPB and its union, NPB Enterprises was founded. The company manages the business of the “national team” and captures sponsorship income for the 47 months between WBC.

With a manager and a structure for seeking sponsorship money, NPB is more committed to the WBC than anyone but the tournament’s organizing body World Baseball Classic Inc. While the results of the Taiwan games are not meaningful, it is a crucial time for Kokubo, his players and coaches.

“We are now less than a year away from the WBC, and we will only be with the players once before then,” batting coach Atsunori Inaba said Saturday. “This is a big time for us to improve our communication, and for the players to learn. You put the best players together in one place and they are going to pick up things up from each other. It makes them better, it makes the team better.”

It certainly helped Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who was coming off a mediocre effort in last autumn’s Premier 12, but was razor sharp in Saturday’s opener.

“This gave me a chance to be myself, to just focus on what I do while wearing the Japan flag on my uniform, having wound myself up too tight in the Premier 12 trying to do more than I could do,” Sugano said. “The next WBC is a huge target, and I want to build on this over the course of the season so that I can be selected next year.”

Yanagita puts on home run show

Yuki Yanagita put on a power show on Friday. In this video Yanagita is facing the Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Messenger and hits it well back into the seats in left for an opposite-field homer.

While he didn’t get all of that one, he did get all of this 149-kilometer fastball from Rafael Dolis.

Yanagita, the 2015 Pacific League MVP, has yet to fully recover from shoulder surgery he had after last year’s Japan Series but his home runs did more than just dent a couple of seats. They also left an impression on Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, who hit a record 868 in his career.

“That was something,” Oh said. “There’s a lot of value in hitting home runs that amaze the fans.”

NPB’s last Triple Crown winner hangs up his bat

Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who in 2004 became the seventh batter in NPB to win a triple crown, announced Tuesday that he was retiring after failing to get a tryout with a new team.

Matsunaka won two Pacific League MVP Awards, in 2000 and 2004. He didn’t really deserve the ’00 honor, but won as the premier player on the pennant-winning team–at the expense of Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui. Yet from 2004-2006, Matsunaka was Nippon Professional Baseball’s most dominant player.  In 2005, the award went to Hawks lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi, who went 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA that season. The following year’s award went to Michihiro Ogasawara, who led the Nippon Ham Fighters franchise to their first Japan Series in 16 years.

Matsunaka was complicated. For years, he was the team leader. When Julio Zuleta joined Daiei in 2003, he said Matsuzaka was the one who welcomed him with open arms and helped him a lot. Asked about that, Sadaharu Oh said he was grateful for the veteran’s presence because being chummy with players was something he wasn’t good at. Yet, Matsuzaka appeared to become a polarizing figure and was fairly easy to offend. Individuals who got on his bad side would get shut out.

While stocky and not overly fast, Matsunaka was a superb base runner, who it seems never misjudged his chances of scoring from third base on a fly ball — even though he would often go on fairly shallow flys. He is one of 26 players with 5,000-plus plate appearances who stole fewer than 35 career bases and hit fewer than 20 triples. Among that group of slowpokes, he scored 26.5 percent of the time he reached on a ball other than a home run. That figure is fourth behind LeRon Lee (.278), Masahiko Morino (.272) and Takeya Nakamura (.265). Although he didn’t attempt to steal often, Matsunaka was a 72 percent base stealer.

The second draft pick of the Daiei Hawks in 1996, Matsunaka was a key figure as the club led the PL’s regular season standings for five times between 1999 and 2005. The Hawks went to three Japan Series during that stretch and won two of them. Although he was a superb regular-season performer, Matsunaka always seemed to be pressing in the offseason and accomplished very little. When the PL introduced a playoff system in 2004, the Hawks lost the league title at home for two straight seasons.

NPB’s all-time fielding team: shortstops

This is the third part of a series on the best fielders in Japanese baseball history. Today will cover the shortstops, and ask what happened to most of the guys who played the position before 1980?

Hall of Famer Yoshio Yoshida is an easy favorite as the best-fielding shortstop to ever play in Japan. The shortstops are another odd list in that after Yoshida and Kenji Koike, the remaining eight are all contemporaries who have recently retired or will in the next few years. If one were to rank them only by fielding win shares,  only four of the top 10 would have careers that started before 1989.

If one ranked players by the number of times win shares considers a shortstop the best gold glove candidate, Yoshida dominated the Central League in the ’50s, Koike dominated the Pacific League in the ’70s. No one has really dominated a decade like they did, but most of the guys on the list had a stretch of four or five seasons when he was either the best in his league or a close second.

The numbers given with each player are: career fielding win shares at shortstop, total fielding win shares per 27 outs, WS golden gloves, actual golden gloves. These were first awarded in 1972 , so neither Yoshida nor Koike ever won one.

  1. Yoshio Yoshida, Tigers, 1953-1969: 106-.547, 8,*
  2. Kenji Koike, , 1961-1974: 90-.668, 7,*
  3. Hirokazu Ibata, Dragons, 1998-2015: 84-.480, 6, 6
  4. Takuro Ishii, BayStars, 1989-2012: 91-.439, 2, 1
  5. Kazuo Matsui, Lions-Eagles, 1994-present: 88-.473, 4, 4
  6. Makoto Kosaka, Marines, 1997-2010: 76-.597, 5, 4
  7. Makoto Kaneko, Fighters, 1994-2014: 70-.509, 5, 1
  8. Takashi Toritani, Tigers, 2004-present: 83-.483, 4, 1
  9. Masahiro Kawai, Giants, 1984-2006: 69-.498, 4, 6
  10. Shinya Miyamoto, Swallows, 1995-2013: 73-.412, 2, 6

Three of the players on this list spent significant time at other positions. This is the normal practice for good offensive players at the end of their careers, but it only applies to No. 10, Shinya Miyamoto, who won three Golden Gloves at third base.

No. 4, Takuro Ishii, began his career as a pitcher, before becoming a Golden Glove-winning third baseman, before being converted to short. Makoto Kaneko was a rookie of the year and golden glove winner at second before being moved to shortstop, where he appears to have been undervalued in the voting.

Kazuo Matsui is now an outfielder, and he forfeited his chance to move higher in the rankings by spending seven years in the States. Matsui earned 23 fielding win shares in the majors, mostly at second, but add that to his NPB totals at all positions and he would shoot past Yoshida in terms of total fielding win shares in his career.

Another player who has been undervalued in the voting is Takashi Toritani of the Tigers. Toritani, however, was hurt two years ago and his range went from really good to really poor and if he keeps playing short, he might drop off the list. He’s going to keep playing somewhere because he’s a great hitter, but his range appears to be a serious issue.

Hiroshima’s hot corner


Hector Luna appears headed to Hiroshima after three seasons with the Central League-rival Chunichi Dragons.

Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times @JCoskrey tweeted today that the Hiroshima Carp were moving to sign former Chunichi Dragon third baseman Hector Luna and commented that it would be a good pick up for them.  He is probably spot on because the Carp offense at third base was easily Japan’s worst.

If you look at NPB offenses as a whole in 2015, ranking them by OPS of the starters of the nine positions on the field, you get the following order: 1B: .759, 3B: 734, RF: .730, LF: .723, 2B: .696, SS: .655, C: .584, P: .248.

The .613 OPS posted by Hiroshima’s starting third baseman was not only the worst by any team in NPB. Not only that, but because the Carp catchers were more productive than the NPB norm this year, Hiroshima got less offense at third base than any other position — except the pitchers. Except when Tetsuya Kokubo started, the Carp third basemen kicked the pitchers’ butts.

However, when you say “Carp,” the first word that comes to mind is “defense.” When you say “2015 Carp,” the word is “worse than expected defense,” which is also what comes to mind if you say “Hector Luna at third base.” But you know what, that’s just an impression. Even in an off year, Hiroshima’s fielding was about average.

The Carp were a fairly well-balanced team last year with very good starting pitching thanks to Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda. A few of their hitters had terrible seasons, and Brad Eldred started the season hurt. If their pitching takes a step backward without Maeda, but the offense rebounds and they get a good year from Luna and Eldred, their fielding should be enough to get them into the postseason.

My defensive nature when it comes to word association games aside, I think Luna will be, as Jason stated, a good acquisition.

The Boys of Winter

Terry Collins had a lot to smile about at the winter meetings.

While there are plenty of news junkies this week in Nashville at the baseball winter meetings, the absolute best part is running into people you’ve known for a long time or have wanted to meet for a long time. On Tuesday, I spoke briefly with former Orix manager Terry Collins, who is now riding high and aiming higher with the NL champion New York Mets.

My story for Kyodo News is here.

Later that day, burdened by the jet lag albatross, I ran into former Triple Crown-winner Boomer Wells and former Seibu Lion Terry Whitfield. Boomer’s the greatest and as usual had several stories to make my day. Terry is someone I’d wanted to talk to ever since fate steered me toward Japan. I had been a fan of his with the San Francisco Giants, and I remember him coming back to the Dodgers after he left Seibu.

I also ran into Charlie Manuel, who told me that what he got out of Japan was the lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around Charlie Manuel — which we now know is true, because science has proved it revolves around Boomer Wells.

Boomer Wells

Nippon Ham Fighters scout Matt Winters, whose quest for beer nirvana is awe-inspiring, said he’s “trying to catch up with Boomer,” which seemed an impossible chase, given Boomer’s inspired start. But Boomer, the former New York Jets lineman and Japanese baseball legend, is being a sport and has slimmed down considerably, looking much fitter than he has in a long time. Man that was good to see.