Fighters streak survives Otani sputter

So much of the news about the Nippon Ham Fighters this year has centered around Shohei Otani, whether he’s hitting or pitching or both. But on Sunday, the Fighters matched Nippon Professional Baseball’s longest win streak since Nippon Ham won 14 straight under current Astros bench coach Trey Hillman. And the 14th win came despite a poor outing from Otani.

Otani had won his previous seven starts, in which he batted in six of them — despite pitching in a DH league — and moonlighting on weekdays as the Fighters’ designated hitter. But on Sunday, out of the batting order for the first time since May, Otani allowed three runs in 6-1/3 innings, while giving up five hits, walking two, hitting one and striking out eight.




The Fighters came back from a five-run deficit to tie it in the ninth on a Kensuke Tanaka solo homer off Lotte Marines closer Yuji Nishino, and Brandon Laird hit his 25th home run of the Pacific League season in the 12th inning, without which the game would have ended in a 5-5 tie at Sapporo Dome.

Otani left the mound in the seventh with a ruptured blister on the middle finger of his right hand, and the Fighters are saying it is unlikely he’ll pitch in this weekend’s all-star games.

“I don’t know how it will turn out. I’ll try to recover to be able to pitch, but I fear it’s probably not possible. It’s looking bleak,” said Otani according to Kyodo News.

A Fighters trainer said there are no issues with him batting at the all-star games scheduled on Friday and Saturday — Otani is likely to be voted into one of the pregame home run derbies.

Manager Hideki Kuriyama said, “We’ll do our utmost for him to be able to pitch.”

If so, he’ll need to take things one step at a time. Famous for his batting as for his speed off the mound, umpire Yoshiharu Yamaguchi and Fighters catcher Shota Ono tested Otani’s reflexes with a different kind of challenge on Sunday:




The 1,172nd day after for Yoshinori Sato

The next step sometimes take a while. When Yakult Swallows flame thrower Yoshinori Sato left the mound on Sept. 3, 2011, little did he know his next start for the Central League club would not occur until Saturday night.

Nine months after becoming the fastest Japanese pitcher on record, with a fastball clocked at 161 kilometers per hour (100 mph), Sato began struggling with oblique muscle pain early in the 2011 season. And though he had a decent season — a 7-6 record with a 2.86 ERA in 15 games, in September, he suffered from stiffness in his shoulder that was diagnosed as rotator cuff trouble.

Here’s the youtube video of his fastest recorded pitch (against Terrmel Sledge).




The following year, more shoulder discomfort was followed by a fracture in his left shin. In 2014, he had the shoulder cleaned out, and pitched in the 2015 preseason. Last year, he was limited to just six farm games and was cut at the end of the season. Sato rejoined the team on a developmental contract — and worked his way back to the point where a team desperate for pitching, such as the Swallows, would want him.




His start against the Dragons, 1,171 days after his last first-team game, was not much to behold. Sato had some command of his pitches but not great velocity or location and surrendered six runs, five earned, in five-plus innings.

“I didn’t contribute to a win, but I left the start line, at last,” Sato, whose fastest pitch was clocked at 149 kph, told reporters after the game.

Here’s his first inning on Saturday:

Pitching coach Shingo Takatsu said, “This is the starting point. It will be OK if he can make steady progress from here.




Kanemoto goes old school with Fujinami

Having thrown 131 pitches through seven innings at rainy Koshien Stadium on Friday night, Hanshin Tigers manage Tomoaki Kanemoto sent right-hander Shintaro Fujinami back out to face the visitors in the top of the eighth inning. He allowed three runs on three hits and a walk, while hitting a batter before leaving the mound after 161 pitches.

After the game, Kanemoto said — according to Sankei Sports  that his purpose was to teach the 22-year-old a lesson.「(藤浪は)立ち上がりがすべて。四球から崩れて…。今日は何球投げようが、何点取られようが最後まで投げさせるつもりだった。(エースとしての)責任は感じてほしい。感じないといけないと思う。立場として」

Roughly translated: “The way he (Fujinami) opened the game was everything. The walks ruined him. My intent was that he was going to throw until the end, however many pitches he threw and however many runs he allowed. I want him to feel the responsibility (that comes with being an ace). I think that’s what he has to feel.”




On Saturday, when Fujinami goes out and begins to inventory the inflammation, his arm will know exactly what it felt like to be an ace back in the days when Kanemoto was coming up as a young player in the mid 1990s. In those days, former Carp player and manager Marty Brown said he recalled Kanemoto and other rookies being taken to the side and having balls thrown at them to instruct them. Hooray for old school



It was the highest pitch count of the season and the highest by a pitcher not named Hideaki “Don’t take the ball from me, I know where you live” Wakui in nearly eight years. There have been 10, 160-pitch games since the start of the 2006 season, and Fujinami’s start brought on some serious nostalgia. One of the things that fascinated me about NPB when I arrived here 30-plus years ago was the inclusion of pitch counts in the daily box scores that were printed in the different daily sports papers.

Ten years later, when I began writing analytical guides to Japanese baseball, I asked people in the game, “Why do you let pitchers throw so many pitches?” The answer I often got was a surprise.

“We know it is bad for the pitchers’ arms, but this is what we do in Japan.”




Obviously, that is no longer the answer, perhaps because of the large number of outstanding young pitchers in the 1990s whose arms did not last long enough for them to become good veteran pitchers — at least without Tommy John surgery.

Looking through my 1997 Guide to Japanese Baseball, I see 12 games between 170-199 pitches in 1996, and 51 games with between 150-169 pitches. Including Friday’s little gem, there have 47 games (nine by Wakui) since the start of the 2006 season in which a starter was allowed to throw 150+ pitches, that’s 12 times less common than they were 20 years ago. I’m just guessing, but if I look at my first guide, published in 1994, there would be some 200-pitch games.




Side-armer Aoyagi gives Tigers new look

As John E. Gibson is fond of saying, NPB’s month-long interleague season from the end of May is a time for testing out new players against the other league, and such was the case for Koyo Aoyagi. After three interleague starts and one relief appearance the Hanshin Tigers side-armer was deemed ready for Central League opponents.

The right-hander, whose fastball was sitting at 141 kilometers per hour (87 mph) had some trouble locating, but good action on his two-seamer, his change and slider against the Yomiuri Giants on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome in a 6-0 Tigers victory.




The 22-year-old Aoyagi, the Tigers’ fifth pick out of Teikyo University last autumn, worked inside consistently and walked four hitters over seven innings, while striking out six.

“I was extremely nervous, but was able to relax after my teammates scored some early runs for me (two in the first),” Aoyagi said.

As has been the case this season, the win saw some productive at-bats by young Tigers hitters, in this case 23-year-olds Taiga Egoshi and Masahiro Nakatani.

In Thursday’s other CL game, DeNA BayStars outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutusgo became the first left-handed hitter in franchise history to reach 20 homers in three straight seasons, as he brought DeNA from behind with a three-run homer and an RBI single in a 5-3 win over the Yakult Swallows.




In the Pacific League, the league-leading Sho Iwasaki threw his first shutout in five years as the SoftBank Hawks spoiled the return of Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko, who surrendered home runs to Seiichi Uchikawa and Nobuhiro Matsuda at Kyocera Dome in Osaka. Iwasaki went 6-2 in 2011, when NPB forced all teams to use the same ball and chose a particularly dead one. When the ball was livened up in 2013, Iwasaki’s ERA floated up to the point where he became barely usable.

Except for a one-out single and a walk before Uchikawa came to the plate in the first, Kaneko was solid for Orix, allowing three hits and a walk, while striking out seven over seven innings.

In the other PL game, the Lotte Marines beat the Seibu Lions 4-3, getting their second straight solid effort from right-hander Yuki Karakawa.




Tough night for Kuroda, Tateyama

Wednesday night was supposed to be a crowning achievement for Hiroki Kuroda, his 200th career win in top-flight pro ball. But the Chunichi Dragons were not having any of it in their home game in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

“We didn’t want to be the ones he beat for his 200th win, so to Mr. Kuroda I want to say, ‘Please get it next week,'” Dragons captain Ryosuke Hirata said on the postgame hero podium after a 4-1 victory over the Central League-leading Carp.




Kuroda, who fell to 6-4 as he failed to win his third straight decision, allowed three runs, two earned, in six innings. He didn’t walk a batter but did strike out two.

“The bottom line is that when I left pitches up in the zone, they put good swings on them,” Kuroda said according to Kyodo News.

Until Kuroda reaches the milestone, Hideo Nomo remains the only Japanese pitcher to work in the majors and reach 200 wins.
“As a ballplayer, I’m not catching up with Mr. Nomo, but I might feel so if I look only at that number. To have come even a little closer to a great pitcher, then it makes me happy to have played baseball.”

On the same night, another veteran was also denied a place in the spotlight. The Yakult Swallows’ Shohei Tateyama, who returned to the mound last year after his third Tommy John surgery, started this season 0-2 before having his right elbow cleaned out with an arthroscope in April. He returned to the mound earlier than expected and was in line for his first win — until a 3-2 pitch to Elian Herrera was rocketed over the wall in Yokohama Stadium in the eighth inning.

The grand slam was Herrera’s first homer in Japan. Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki surrendered two runs in the ninth, but the DeNA BayStars held on for an 8-7 win over last year’s CL champions.




Homecoming week on CL mounds

Hiroki Kuroda has won 79 games in his major league career and he enters Wednesday night’s Central League game between his Hiroshima Carp and the Chunichi Dragons with 120 wins in Nippon Professional Baseball. While neither total is in itself worthy of much notice, as we learned in the case of Ichiro Suzuki and the number 4,257, a number can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.




In this case, Kuroda’s next win will give him a sum of 200 — Japan’s iconic pitching-wins milestone, upon which an old geezer will rush onto the field and present him with a blazer and welcome him into the Showa Meikyukai — the society of famous players from Japan’s Showa era that also includes batters with 2,000 career hits. (I’m guessing their going to have to rename it the Showa-Heisei Meikyukai in another 10 years when Hayato Sakamoto and Tetsuto Yamada reach 2,000 since they weren’t born in Japan’s Heisei era.)

Anyway, Kuroda was a hugely underrated pitcher before he left Hiroshima for the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent. Pitching in a home run-friendly park, with a lousy defense and no offense to speak of behind him, Kuroda was considered one of the CL’s better pitchers — but not really as good as those first-tier studs such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara, Kazumi Saito, Kei Igawa or Kenshin Kawakami — guys who won Sawamura Awards playing for teams with powerful offenses and good defenses behind them.

About the time Kuroda was going to the States, I did a study comparing him to the Chunichi Dragons’ Kawakami, who was a terrific pitcher. In games at the home parks of the CL’s three other teams, with vastly better run support because Chunichi’s offense was really good, Kawakami’s ERA was more than a run higher than Kuroda’s and his win-loss record no better.




The other pitcher who regularly ranked among the best in the Central League a decade ago, was another right-hander who played in a good home run park (Yokohama Stadium) with a lousy offense and precious little fielding behind him. That was Daisuke Miura, who is currently a player-coach with the BayStars with the emphasis on “coach.” According to manager Alex Ramirez, Miura is slated to get his first start of the season in the coming days.

To add to the drama in the CL’s starting pitching announcements, side-armer Shohei Tateyama of the Yakult Swallows, a three-time loser of the Tommy John elbow sweepstakes, is taking to the mound tonight after having the elbow cleaned out with an arthroscope in April. This weekend, the Swallows will also see the second coming of Yoshinori Sato. Once the hardest throwing Japanese pitcher in NPB, Sato will be taking the mound for the first time in five years.




Lou Piniella and the legend of Ichiro

I had the opportunity yesterday (Tuesday, July 5 in the U.S.) to take part in a conference call with Lou Piniella on the subject of Ichiro Suzuki. It was very gracious of Piniella to share his time and his thoughts.

Until Shohei Otani REALLY developed as a hitter this season, Ichiro was the most entertaining NPB player since Shigeo Nagashima (I assume. I wasn’t in Japan then). Suzuki is likely to get a hit every time he’s at bat. His groundouts are rarely routine. On base, he’s a threat to steal or do something special and he is such a good fielder that you want to see him catching and throwing as much as possible. In other words, the only time he’s not exciting is when he’s on the bench. I get that.




But calling him a great leadoff man, and that his on-base percentages were “off the charts” as Piniella did, was just his being a gentleman. Ichiro. Although he regularly posted batting averages near the top of the AL lists during his time with the Mariners, nearly a third of Suzuki’s career walks were intentional (180 of 617). Take those 180 intentional walks away and replace them with a 180 plate appearances in which he hits and walks at his usual rate and you have a great leadoff man, whose on-base percentages are off the charts, with a .341 career on-base percentage.




Ichiro’s .340 average this season is not all that special in the context of his career — although it is when you consider he’s 42-years-old. What is special is his .413 OBP. The only time he did better than that in a full season was 2004, when he had 262 hits — and was intentionally walked 19 times.

So here’s to the new and improved, and better-late-than-never Ichiro, the great leadoff man with an on-base-percentage that is off the charts.




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.

Nishiura 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。”