NPB March 29 as it happened

After 179 innings to start the season, the Pacific League had its first home runs on Tuesday, when Daichi Suzuki of the Lotte Marines muscled up to put two over the fence in Chiba in a 12-2 butt-kicking of Rakuten, that was uglier than the score looked. Once the Eagles were behind they played and pitched badly.

In Fukuoka, Seibu Lions ace Takayuki Kishi got his season started with seven scoreless innings against the SoftBank Hawks. Kishi, who was pushed back from the home opening series against Orix so he could pitch against the two-time defending Japan Series champs, improved his ERA at Fukuoka Dome to 2.16.

Last autumn, former teammate Dennis Sarfate said Seibu keeps its home mound soft and sandy for submarine right-hander Kazuhisa Makita, and Kishi’s ERA there is higher than at any main park in the PL. I’d show you a table of Kishi’s career, but my table-making plug in isn’t cooperating tonight. Anyway, he’s 35-22 with a 2.61 ERA at the other main PL parks, and only slightly better at home (44-27, 3.72 ERA).

The game saw former Chicago Cub lefty Tsuyoshi Wada pitching in Fukuoka Dome for the first time since 2011. Watching Lions batters swat his pitches this way and that, you could almost here him saying under his breath, “what’s wrong with these guys? How do you expect me to get anybody out when they don’t try to hit everything out of the park?”

In Sapporo, ace pitcher Shohei Otani was in the batting order as designated hitter for the first time in the young season. His sac fly made it 2-0 in the Fighters’ home opener. Leading 5-0, he cleared the fence in left center for a three-run homer and finished his night with an RBI single. Five RBIs were his career high. The game ended in a 13-3 blood letting of the Orix Buffaloes, who fell to 1-3.

In the Central League, the Yomiuri Giants rolled to their fourth straight win under new manager Yoshinobu Takahashi and putting a damper on former teammate Alex Ramirez’s home opener as new manager of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

There were highlights for the BayStars, however, as their top draft pick, lefty Shota Imanaga struck out nine batters in seven innings, but missed with some fat pitches and surrendered three home runs in the 6-2 loss. The BayStars showed some fight in the ninth, when closer Hirokazu Sawamura was forced to come in and get the final out.

At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the league champion Yakult Swallows also showed some fight in the ninth inning, when rookie Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto left his young right-hander Shintaro Fujinami in the game to throw 149 pitches in 8-2/3 innings and also had to call on his closer, Marcos Mateo — who survived some iffy control to shut the door on a 6-2 win. The Swallows have now lost four straight games to start the season for the first time in nine years.

At Nagoya Dome, the Hiroshima Carp blew a two-run lead, when the Chunichi Dragons scored four times in the sixth against loser Yusuke Nomura (0-1), and Brazil international Oscar Nakaoshi. Cuban Dayan Viciedo helped spark the winning rally with a one-out double and scored the tying run.

21-year-old Dragons right-hander Shunta Wakamatsu (1-0) got some mileage out of his trademark changeup to strike out 10 batters in six innings.

Opening weekend

Fernando Seguignol and Takaaki Ishibashi reliving their favorite scene from the movie "Major League" last Friday at QVC Marine Field.
Fernando Seguignol and Takaaki Ishibashi reliving their favorite scene from the movie “Major League” last Friday at QVC Marine Field.

It was great catching up with Fernando Seguignol the other day at QVC Marine Field before the Chiba Lotte Marines opened the season against the Nippon Ham Fighters. As we were talking on the field, I noticed Takaaki Ishibashi was a few feet behind us in front of the visiting dugout, where he had his picture taken with Fighters cleanup hitter Sho Nakata.

So I asked Segi if he wanted to have his picture with Ishibashi, to which he replied, “I saw it 12 times,” and proceeded to mimic Ishibashi’s iconic pose from the movie. Ishibashi was gracious to pose with Segi as you see.

Seguignol is currently in Japan, scouting for the Cubs, which means his job has switched from looking for guys on the margin who might produce in Japan to looking for guys in Japan who might have value in the majors. Perhaps like this guy:

And the original…

The Yomiuri Giants are NPB’s only undefeated team after the first weekend of games, having swept the Central League champion Yakult Swallows at Tokyo Dome. The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines had a shot going into Sunday, but each dropped a one-run decision.

A year ag0, the Orix Buffaloes opened their season to the highest of expectations, only to be swept in three straight at Seibu Prince Dome. Brandon Dickson, who a year ago filled in for rehabbing ace Chihiro Kaneko, allowed a run in seven innings on Opening Day as the Buffaloes suffered a 1-0 loss. Dickson was back on the mound a year later trying to keep the Buffaloes from being swept again.

The 1.95-meter right-hander was unable to hold his early three-run lead with his control off and the Lions able to hit ground balls around shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who looked really good when he could drop to one knee, scoop up  a grounder hit straight to him and snap a throw off to second. When forced to get good jumps and reads, he looked like it had been four years since he was the Lions’ regular shortstop.

Luis Cruz shows off his near miss

Luis Cruz sat in the Yomiuri Giants’ dugout on Saturday explaining that he lacks the power to hit home runs when he just barely misses the sweet spot –showing the mark on his bat left by his seventh inning double on Opening Day.

Cruz just missed on Opening Day, but launched a three-run homer 15 rows back in left on Saturday afternoon. The Giants got past the Swallows 3-1 on Friday and pretty much embarassed the Central League champs 10-5 on Saturday in their first two games under Yoshinobu Takahashi.

In Hiroshima, new DeNA BayStars skipper Alex Ramirez got his first win, a 2-1 decision over the Carp, who started 2015 CL ERA leader Kris Johnson. The BayStars got a two-run single from rookie second baseman Tatsuhiro Shibata and seven scoreless innings from Shoichi Ino, who was named to fill in on Opening Day just a few days before.

The Carp recovered the next day, when Hiroki Kuroda got hit but gutted it out with runners in scoring position to hold DeNA to just a run in seven innings. One of Ramirez’s two priorities has been to sharpen his catchers’ pitch-calling skills and improve situational play. They lost the second game at Mazda Stadium 3-1 , so the situational hitting seems to be just as big a problem for both teams, as it was for the Carp last year.

In Osaka, future Hall of Famer Tomoaki Kanemoto split his first two games in charge of the Hanshin Tigers, winning 7-3 on Saturday after dropping Friday’s opener 5-2 to the Chunichi Dragons.

The big star of the series so far has been Chunichi’s Cuban first baseman Dayan Viciedo, who was 2-for-5 with a two-run jack in the opener and 3-for-4 with a solo homer the following day.

In the Pacific League, the SoftBank Hawks pursuit of a third straight Japan Series championship began with a loss in the Sendai home of the Rakuten Eagles, who finished last in each of the previous two seasons.

Hawks “Ace” Tadashi Settsu got hammered for six runs in five innings in the opener, in which Jonny Gomes made his Japan debut with two runs and three walks in a 7-3 as veteran skipper Masataka Nashida won his first game with his third club. The Eagles came from behind in the eighth inning against Rick van den Hurk in the second game, which ended in a 3-3 tie after finishing the maximum 12 innings. Zelous Wheeler, playing in left for the Eagles, made a gutsy catch in the 10th inning to put the damper on the Hawks’ best late-inning scoring opportunity.

Alfredo Despaigne was one of the heroes of both of the Chiba Lotte Marines’ first two wins over the Nippon Ham Fighters in Chiba, driving in the game-winning run in both games. The Marines got three early runs off Shohei Otani, who was hitting 160 kph (99 mph) despite a temperature at game time just above freezing. The Marines took the opener 3-2, and came from behind to win the next day 6-4, in which Despaigne — having attended his first spring training in his third Japanese season — went 3-for-4 with two doubles.

“Cuban pitching is so different from Japanese pitching,” he said Friday. “So being here longer before the season has made it easier.”

After setting Japan’s single-season hit record last season, with the media making the necessary fuss about his hit total, one wonders if anyone was put out by the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama only getting an RBI double on Friday but drawing three walks and scoring two runs in the Lions’ come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Orix Buffaloes at Seibu Prince Dome.

Akiyama was back “in form” the next day, when the Lions overcame a 5-0 first-inning deficit to beat the Buffaloes 9-5 with Akiyama scoring twice again, but this time with three hits — probably to the great relief of those who want to write about whether he can break his own record this season.

Time for good old-fashioned witch hunt

Kyosuke Takagi speaks to the press on March 9

OK. Saying the Yomiuri Giants should change their game-starting theme music at Tokyo Dome to the Who’s “You Better You Bet” was seriously in bad taste.

The thought occurred when a new story on Tuesday suggested Giants players were betting on their games after a fashion. But the more one learns about, the less one is inclined to lump it together under the rubric of the same gambling scandal that has haunted the Giants since the autumn.

The news was that for the past three-plus seasons, a Giants player giving a pre-game pep talk to his peers would be rewarded by a 5,000 yen gift from each teammate after a win. Should the team lose, the would-be motivational speaker would pay his colleagues 1,000 yen apiece. Both NPB and the Giants organization were aware of this practice last autumn but determined it wasn’t of any importance to the critical issue of whether players were gambling on baseball (the correct decision) and decided not to make it public (the wrong decision).

Since Kyosuke Takagi last week became the fourth Giants pitcher to admit to losing some serious money with gamblers from betting on pro games, every thing that remotely seems like somehow it might smell of controversy is being held up as an example of evil wrongdoing.

Former prosecutor Katsuhiko Kumazaki, the person currently occupying NPB’s commissioners office, said: “Even though this does not qualify as a violation of the baseball charter, we cannot permit it, and it was one of the root causes of the gambling scandal involving Giants pitchers.”

How’s that for logic? And Kumazaki was a really, really famous prosecutor.

Now in the hysteria to root any connection between money and pro baseball players, the custom of fining players small amounts for messing up in practice has come under scrutiny.

The media is acting as if this kind of thing was a deep, dark secret, a skeleton in NPB’s 12 closets. But once those are all rooted out, how long will it be before the media expresses outrage at the practice of “fight money,” the cash payments teams pay to contributing players after a win. Virtually every reporter knows about the custom, but when it does become public — as it just might in the current hysteria — the media can be guaranteed to act with sufficient self righteous fury.

NPB officially enters 19th century

Hiroshima’s Ryuhei Matsuyama slides into Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura on Tuesday at Jingu Stadium.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016, is a date we can remember as the day Japanese baseball caught up with one of baseball’s oldest rules — the obstruction rule that prohibits blocking a base without the ball and dates back to at least 1857. The rule is older than the Yomiuri Giants, older than pro baseball in Japan — which despite Yomiuri propaganda predates the Giants by more than a decade, older than the first game ever played here.

Yet since it was systematically ignored here, the decision over the winter to enforce the existing statutes have led to obstruction being called a “new rule.”

On Tuesday, Yakult Swallows catcher Nakamura was set to block home plate with the ball, but he dropped it. While in the process of picking it up, he was obstructing the base. Hiroshima Carp base runner Ryuhei Matsuyama slid home and was tagged out. After Carp skipper Koichi Ogata protested on the grounds of Nakamura violating the novel 150-year-old rule, the umpire crew chief called for a video review. Upon review Matsuyama was safe, a run was in and Nakamura was warned that another violation of Japan’s suddenly sacred sanction against obstructing home plate would result in his ejection.

Fooled again by WBC website

It’s problematic for a reporter, but I’m one of those people who is constantly confused by dates and times. It’s been said successful people tend to think they’re right and others are wrong. But if you’re like me and continually get days and dates mixed up, it’s easy to assume that you’re the one who’s wrong.

In 2009, after double checking, triple checking and body checking my travel dates for the World Baseball Classic quarterfinals and finals and then purchasing my non-refundable air tickets, I found I had the dates wrong.

A few days before the start of the competition, I checked the WBC website for something, only to find out the dates I thought I needed to travel on were off by one day. So I called the airline and for $300 I had my tickets changed. The next day, I checked the website again to find that the dates had reverted to the ones I had originally planned my travel around.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was caught out, as some MLB staff in Tokyo told me there had been a temporary problem with the website.

A few weeks ago, it happened again. For a few days, the teams in the WBC qualifying groups were re-arranged. While explaining to a colleague that Brazil is a “strategic pocket” in MLB’s international plans, I wanted to show him how Brazil had been moved out of the tough Central and South American qualifying group they advanced from last time. But lo and behold, the website said that instead of being in Brooklyn in September, trying to qualify against Israel, Pakistan and Britain, the Brazilians were competing in Panama City.

How did I get that wrong?

Checked again today and saw that the old groups had returned. Are they being hacked? Is someone messing with the website to see if anyone is paying attention?

Kyuji Fujikawa: Start me up

Kyuji Fujikawa

The Central League rival Yomiuri Giants used to take the field at Tokyo Dome in to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” but it would work just as well for Hanshin Tigers returnee Kyuji Fujikawa. With 220 NPB saves under his belt, the right-hander is being groomed for a return to the mound as a starter for the first time since 2003.

On Sunday, Fujikawa threw five hitless innings against the Nippon Ham Fighters in his second spring start. My colleague at Kyodo wrote, “Fujikawa mixed in a lot of breaking balls,” with “a lot” for Fujikawa meaning four curves in 55 pitches, although an occasional cutter and two-seamer also appeared.

After a lifetime of getting swings and misses by shifting between his forkball and four-seam fastball, Fujikawa preached the gospel according to Crash:

“If you take a long-term view, it’s good to have balance, throw a variety of pitches and get batters to put the ball in play. Going forward, I think that is going to be essential.”

Sho Nakata of the Fighters said, “Rather than being fast, his pitches felt fast.”

How’s that for a complement?

In other news around NPB, Seibu Lions right-hander Kona Takahashi got hammered in an Eastern League game and his status as a member of the Lions starting rotation is currently on hold.

And just when you thought his name wouldn’t pop up again for a while, three scoreless innings in the same game has put the Fighters’ Yuki Saito back in the media’s radar. Another game or two should fix that.

Johnny Gomes hit his second homer of the spring for the Rakuten Eagles, while Jason Pridie hit a come-from-behind two-run shot for the Hiroshima Carp, to hand Hiroki Kuroda a pre-season win.

In Fukuoka, the two-time defending champion SoftBank Hawks improved to 9-0 with three ties in the spring with Shota Takeda saying he wants to be efficient with his pitches so that he has the gas to strike batters out with runners on third. The rationale is that since Japan’s umpires will no longer ignore the rule against catchers blocking the plate without the ball, infield grounders will more easily result in runs being scored.

Nakajima signs with Buffaloes

Hiroyuki Nakajima showing what he picked up in the minors.
Hiroyuki Nakajima showing what he picked up in the minors.

It’s been a while since Hiroyuki Nakajima played shortstop. But with the Orix Buffaloes’ good glove Ryoichi Adachi still being treated for colitis, Nakajima is set to encore at the position he made his own for a decade with the Seibu Lions.

I was keen to ask Nakaji about this on Saturday, when I visited Seibu Dome, but he found a good reason to decline. The former Oakland A’s farmhand had something more important to do — sign autographs. At least one guy in Japan gets it.

A critical piece of equipment on a frigid day at Seibu Prince Dome... a space heater.
A critical piece of equipment on a frigid day at Seibu Prince Dome… a space heater.

Matt Murton hopes to complete rare return trip from Japan to majors

An MLB journeyman who found stardom in Japan, Matt Murton is wearing a Cubs jersey for the first time since 2008 this spring, with hopes of catching on in the majors one more time.

Source: Matt Murton hopes to complete rare return trip from Japan to majors

Spent a great afternoon with Matt in Nashville in December, when he revealed some things he had learned about hitting in Japan and about himself.

A tale of two cities

With the season around the corner, it’s time for predictions, something I’m not overly fond of doing, but people ask and so one has to offer something — if only to give people something to criticize. My predictions last year were guessed based on these categories:

  • Performance of younger and older teams
  • Performance based on previous season’s finish
  • Performance based on minor league team strength
  • The most basic components of a team’s record: bases earned and surrendered, outs made on offense and defense.

That guesstimate had the Yomiuri Giants finishing last in the Central League because: first place teams tend to decline, as do older teams. Despite Yomiuri’s 2014 record, they won more games than expected based on their runs scored and allowed, and scored more runs than their bases earned and outs made would have predicted, while allowing fewer runs than their opponents’ outs and bases would have predicted.

Those predictions had the Carp first, the Swallows second, BayStars third (I think), then the Dragons, Tigers, Giants in that order. While the Tigers lived a charmed existence and finished third by a miracle — a lazy call by the umpires on a video review, the Giants overcame a lot of adversity to finish second.

The Giants, as a rule, don’t finish last, and there’s a reason for that, but how big is the effect that keeps the Giants from collapsing when everything says they should?

While trying to work on this year’s predictions, I discovered that a team’s offensive performance (relative to the league) is to a greater or lesser degree predictable based on two factors, the age of the players who produce the runs in the previous year and the degree to which the offense rose above the league the season before. Young teams tend to improve more as do teams that underperform offensively.

But here’s the kicker. There’s a huge gap among teams. While the total balances out to around zero for all teams, there are franchises that generally exceed expectations, and others for who rarely fail to meet them.

You probably see where this is going.

From 1990 through 2015, the Yomiuri Giants’ offense has produced an average of seven more wins a season than the formula that works for NPB teams as a whole would predict. But if the Giants are plus-seven wins, it stands to figure that the rest of NPB, on the average,  fails to meet expectations.

Of course, this is just one side of the picture. If you look at some managers, you can see they improved the offense at the expense of the defense and overall balance. It doesn’t help much if you give the runs you gain on offense away in the next inning.

In addition to the Giants, three other teams since 1990 have showed a strong inclination to overachieve offensively, the Hawks (+ five offensive wins a season), the Dragons four and the Lions three.

It shouldn’t take too many guesses to identify the dead weight that allows the leagues to balance and a few teams to overshoot their predictions. Give yourself a prize if you said the BayStars. Nobody has been as good as the BayStars have been bad, missing their offensive predictions by an annual 9-1/2 games a year. The Eagles are at -4, the Marines and Fighters around 3, while the Tigers, Carp, Swallows, Buffaloes have been very close to their predictions the past 26 seasons.

The Dragons’ effect was mostly the result of former manager Hiromitsu Ochiai, and Chunichi is now smack in the middle. Because a huge part of the Yakult Swallows’ offense last season came from Tetsuto Yamada, the team’s run production was the youngest in either league.

I haven’t had a chance to look into pitching and defense, but it would be cool if it works the same way.

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.”