My favorite things

I wish I could get Julie Andrews out of my head. But after reading this story from the Sports Nippon, I can’t help but hear her tune from “The Sound of Music” about life’s little pleasures.

The offseason brings a quote flood streaming from players exiting team offices after negotiating next year’s contracts “I’m going to fight for a pennant next year” and “I still want to play (after being released” and “I’m going to play every game next season.”

It all gets quite numbing. Until you see these stories not as dull work for the reporters required to churn out five grafs but as something that is really beautiful about Japan’s game.

Today’s subtle nugget was about Hanshin Tigers shortstop Fumiya Hojo’s plans to bounce back from a partial dislocation of his left shoulder. Hojo earned the starting job with a brilliant rookie 2016 rookie campaign but then slumped for the next 1-1/2 seasons.

Hojo spent most of 2017 and the start of 2018 in the Western League, where he didn’t hit. BUT despite the WL being notoriously pitcher-friendly, Hojo drew 46 walks this year while striking out 38 times this year and posted a .391 OBP.

They brought him up to pinch hit, and that went about as well as it usually does. He didn’t hit and was sent back to the farm. When he came back up soon after on June 22, the Tigers were still in the pennant race, 4-1/2 games back, and they just started him at short, where Hojo just hit and hit and hit.

He didn’t draw walks like he had in the WL, but he did bat .322 in 239 at-bats, and post a .370 OBP. Then he got hurt.

But that’s not the story. Sorry for the buildup. The story is that he is going to continue working out in the offseason with Tetsuto Yamada, the star second baseman of the Central League-rival Yakult Swallows.

Yamada has now returned to the form that in 2015 saw him put up one of the best seasons in NPB history. For more than two years, Yamada slumped after getting hit in the back with a pitch in the summer of 2016.

What’s so cool about this, and a host of other stories just like this, is what really good guys so many players in Japan are. They help each other out, pick each other up, root for each other to do well.

“Last year, Yamada wasn’t any good,” Hojo said. “But he played really well again this year. “I want to pick his brain and understand the process.”

It reminds me of a similar story about Yomiuri Giants veteran Shinnosuke Abe taking a youngster with next to no experience under his wing in the offseason. The player was Hayato Sakamoto. Just up from the farm team as a relative unknown, Sakamoto had an at-bat that so impressed Abe that he invited him to join him on his annual winter training in Guam.

These are small stories, sure, but these human highlights are so hard to miss even when they’re in front of your face.

Trainer Yazawa’s journey comes full circle

Junko Yazawa, third from right, with the MLB training staff at Tokyo Dome in November.

Junko Yazawa has come full circle. Fifteen years after being told she was unqualified to be a pro baseball athletic trainer in Japan–because women are not allowed–Yazawa did just that in November.

Her first year with the Arizona Diamondbacks ended where her journey started, in Japan, when she was part of the medical staff of Major League Baseball’s postseason All-Star tour to her homeland. Despite being a big hit with the Diamondbacks staff, Yazawa is anything but an overnight success.

“I told him I wanted to be a baseball trainer, and he said, ‘You’re a female, so no way you can be one in Japan. No way.'”

Junko Yazawa

One year during a trip home, Yazawa, a certified athletic trainer in the United States and the daughter of a former pro ballplayer, asked Chunichi Dragons star Kosuke Fukudome to arrange an incognito visit to the training room at Nagoya Dome, the home park of her dad’s old club.

“I wanted to see the training room of a Japanese baseball club,” she said last March in Phoenix. “I was talking to the trainer and assistant trainer and they showed me around. One of the assistant trainers asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ I told him I wanted to be a baseball trainer, and he said, ‘You’re a female, so no way you can be one in Japan. No way.'”

“I went home and talked to my dad, and he said, ‘Of course.’ But I was already in the U.S. at that time. I had already been certified, so I was like ‘I can be one in the U.S.’ I was like, ‘Whatever.’”

Read the full story on Kyodo News Plus HERE.

Former White Sox Series champ Iguchi honored for off-field work

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman for the 2005 World Series champion Chicago White Sox, became the 40th recipient of the Golden Spirt Award in Japan on Monday for his contributions away from the field, according to the Nikkan Sports. He joins Hideki Matsui, Tsuyoshi Wada, Bobby Valentine, Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish as big leaguers who have been honored.

In 1997, he began donating wheelchairs in his hometown to Nishitokyo City Hall and has been involved in community support activities for 21 years. Iguchi’s efforts are highly appreciated. He has visited child care institutions and elderly nursing home facilities, supported areas afflicted by disaster, promoted sports and helped out local communities. He has also been involved the pink ribbon campaign in the fight against breast cancer.

“I believe that this award is not only for me but also for people who have supported me in each category, and I will continue to continue activities to give courage, emotion and hope,” Iguchi said. “As a baseball person I will continue to do my best for the development of the game.”

The award ceremony coincided with Iguchi’s 44th birthday, and two surprise guests helped him celebrate. Mr. Takuya Matsumoto, who supported heart transplant surgery in the United States during Iguchi’s time with the Chicago White Sox era, and Dr. Shunei Kyo, the head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital, presented the skipper with a flowers and a cake.

SoftBank Hawks chairman and Hall of Fame slugger Sadaharu Oh, and Yomiuri Giants batting coach Sadao Yoshimura, were honored with special prizes and were also in attendance.

When stars align: How an astrophysicist unraveled a baseball mystery

Dr. Meredith Wills understands the music of the spheres.

One of the best baseball stories I heard this year had little to do with people swinging at pitches, running the bases, chasing down batted balls or wins and losses. It was about how much baseball interacts with individuals’ lives and how their lives can interact with baseball.

On June 6, 2019 Shohei Ohtani was sidelined with yet another blister, and because of a baseball- and knitting-loving astrophysicist, we now understand more about why Ohtani’s blister developed.

Although a shock to his many fans, Ohtani’s injury represented just another data point in an increasingly frequent problem. Since 2016 more and more major league pitchers have been dealing with blisters on their pitching hands, but what was different about Ohtani’s was not the nature of the injury, but its timing.

Only hours before he was forced from the mound at Angels Stadium, someone at last had an answer for the blisters.

Enter Dr. Meredith Wills, an astrophysicist who had made a career of studying the cause of solar storms. Major League Baseball believed its ball had not changed, but Wills discovered the laces on current balls were thicker, and the likely cause of the surge in both home runs and blisters.

You can find my original story on Kyodo News’ free website HERE.

What’s up with Dice K?

A lot if you must ask.

Remember Daisuke Matsuzaka? Remember the gyro ball? OK. Well let’s forget about that.

Matsuzaka won NPB’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was remarkably good with remarkably little. In his first year with the Chunichi Dragons, Matsuzaka went 6-4 in 11 starts, the most he’s made since going 1-7 for the Red Sox the season after having Tommy John surgery.

He had a 3.74 ERA — never mind that he made nine of those starts at home in the Central League’s best pitchers’ park. On average, 2,064 more fans came to Nagoya Dome when Dice K was starting.

Matsuzaka threw his four-seamer 15 percent of the time, according to analytic site Delta Graphs, with an average velocity of 138.8 kph (86.2 mph). His main pitch was his cutter.

After earning 15 million yen ($132,000) this past season, Matsuzaka received a raise to 80 million ($704,000) for 2019.

He ranked 54th among 62 CL pitchers with 50-plus innings pitched in WHIP, but was dynamite with runners on second and third or with the bases loaded, allowing one six RBIs and one hit (a home run) over 21 plate appearances.

Lions’ Akiyama set up for 2019 free agency

Shogo Akiyama
Shogo Akiyama, center, appears set to follow teammate Kazuo Matsui (left) to the majors.

Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama turned down a multiyear contract extension on Monday, a move that will make the 30-year-old eligible for international free agency a year from now. Last month, Akiyama won his fifth Golden Glove and his third Pacific League Best Nine Award. He finished in the voting for PL MVP. The left-handed hitter became eligible for domestic free agency after the 2017 season, but signed a two-year contract to remain with the Lions. “He didn’t say he had any particular plans right now (for next year),” Seibu Senior Director Hisanobu Watanabe said. The Lions have lost three key players from 2018, when they won the PL for the first time in 10 years. Second baseman Hideto Asamura, the runner-up in the MVP voting left as a free agent for the PL’s Rakuten Eagles, while Ginjiro Sumitani, the former No. 1 catcher, filed for free agency and joined the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants. On Monday, the Lions filed the paperwork needed to post lefty Yusei Kikuchi. “Losing that many key players means that everyone’s going to have more opportunities,” Akiyama said after meeting with team officials. “For me, next season is going to be one of challenges.”

Kikuchi to keep it simple this time

Nine years after a tearful press conference where he put his major league ambitions on hold, Yusei Kikuchi said Sunday he is not going to be distracted by the highs and lows surrounding his upcoming negotiations with big league clubs.

The day before his posting, he appeared back in the city of Hanamaki, in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, with two of his Seibu Lions teammates to participate in an event.

“I’m not going to be on an emotional roller coaster,” Kikuchi said about the posting according to Nikkan Sports. “The negotiating period is 30 days and a lot of unexpected things are likely to happen I suppose, so I’m going to train and prepare so that I can produce next season.”

What MLB scouts think of Yusei Kikuchi
Yusei Kikuchi video

Kikuchi, who graduated from Hanamaki Higashi High School just before Shohei Ohtani entered as a freshman, joined the Lions of NPB’S Pacific League despite announcing that his goal had been to play in the major leagues and not turn pro in Japan.

“I didn’t think he’d be able to hit major league pitchers just like that,” the lefty said. “I thought they would be able to shut him down.”

Yet like Ohtani after him, Kikuchi stayed, and his move to the majors is once more on the front burner.

“I’ve had this target in mind ever since the first winter after I entered high school,” Kikuchi said according to Sports Nippon referring to the idea sown by his high school manager. “Mr. (Hiroshi) Sasaki set that target before me, ‘High School and then the majors.’ It’s been 12 years since then and I’m pretty happy that this opportunity is finally here.”

With about 3,000 people in attendance to hear him and teammates Shuta Tonosaki and Pacific League MVP Hotaka Yamakawa speak, Kikuchi was asked about Ohtani’s success.

“I didn’t think he’d be able to hit major league pitchers just like that,” the lefty said. “I thought they would be able to shut him down.”

Norimoto: Olympics before MLB

Four-time Pacific League strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto has been on major leaguer radars for years but now they are going to have to wait a little longer. With baseball in the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, and NPB — like other pro leagues in Asia — sending their best players, Norimoto is now putting a priority on playing for Japan in 2020 the Nikkan Sports reported Sunday.

MLB scouts I’ve spoken with have said they like the 1.78-meter Rakuten Eagles starter more as a reliever.

According to the report, Norimoto said he thought it would be amazing if in the future his daughter could bring her boyfriend to their home and show him an Olympic gold medal.

Hall of Fame Candidates: Tatsunami

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is entering his fifth year on the ballot for Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and presents something of a dilemma.

He entered the ballot with a very healthy 35.2 percent. Since then he’s increased every year and last year finished with 65.8 percent. It was his third straight year with over 50 percent. Over the past five years, there have been three other players who were still on the ballot after receiving 50 percent of the vote the first time in the previous year. All three were elected. Only Tatsunami seems stuck in limbo, taking baby steps.

Tatsunami was the Central League’s rookie of the year and won a Golden Glove at shortstop for the Chunichi Dragons in 1988. His 2,480 career hits are eighth-most in NPB history. No player with that many hits has failed to make the Hall of Fame, but none of the players in that group are remotely similar to Tatsunami, who was a singles and doubles hitter and finished with 171 home runs.

He won three straight Golden Gloves at second base from 1995 to 1997, and another in 2003 at third base.
But playing in the same league with Yokohama’s Bobby Rose, Tatsunami only won one Best Nine Award at second base and one at third. He twice led the league in runs scored, but that’s it.

Tatsunami was a terrific, consistent productive player but never the best player on his team, never a candidate for an MVP award, rarely considered the best player at his position. His claim to fame is that he is among the first of the current generation of more durable players. Playing well for 22 seasons enabled him to amass a huge number of hits, which is his primary claim for entry into the Hall of Fame.

Bill James’ win shares credits him with 302.4, which is 23rd all time among position players who’ve been retired for five years or more. Of the 22 ahead of him, 19 are in the Hall of Fame. But again, most of those players are different animals. They were far more productive hitters, making one think that Tatsunami doesn’t really belong in the Hall of Fame. With the exception of Japan’s stolen base king Yutaka Fukumoto, they were all power hitters.

But there is another side to that story. Except for Fukumoto and Katsuya Nomura, the seven players with more hits were all corner infielders and outfielders. Sure Tatsunami ended up at third base, but nearly three quarters of his career was spent at second or short, making him an outlier. Tatsunami was a good second baseman and a good hitter for a long time

Outside the entrance to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the wall is adorned with a relief of about 20 to 30 ballplayers. I doubt if anyone intended it, but it is a microcosm of the Hall of Fame membership. Sixty percent of the guys are swinging a bat. There is one fielder, one base runner, and the rest are pitchers. Defensive value is something that doesn’t get a lot of play.

These are the most similar players who have been considered for the Hall of Fame. All of them were really good players. The current Hall of Famers are marked with an asterisk:

  • Hiroyuki Yamazaki
  • Morimichi Takagi*
  • Tsutomu Wakamatsu*
  • Taira Fujita
  • Isao Shibata
  • Takuro Ishii

Wakamatsu and Shibata were outfielders of similar quality. Shibata was a superb fielder and base stealer. Wakamatsu a better average hitter. Why one is in and the other out is a mystery to me.

The other guys were all middle infielders of similar quality. Takagi was probably not as good a player as Tatsunami but was a better fielder as was Ishii, who is currently on the ballot last year, and was named on 19.3 percent of the ballots. There’s not a lot separating him from Tatsunami, although Ishii got a slower start, since he turned pro as a pitcher and is one of two players in Japanese pro ball history to win a game as a pitcher and collect 2,000 career hits.

Why Takagi is in the hall of fame and Yamazaki and Fujita are not is, again a good question. It’s a borderline group not in that they are not worthy, but in the sense that the Hall of Fame voters have chosen to overlook most players like them.