Ichiro, Shohei, Japan and the Negro Leagues

One of the winter meetings’ highlights was meeting Bob Kendrick, the president of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. At the mention of Shohei Ohtani, Mr. Kendrick’s face lit up, as it does on most topics related to baseball, and he talked about the parallels and links between the Negro Leagues, Japanese baseball and the majors.

Mr. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is keen to share America’s rich tradition of two-way players with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani.

While virtually every story about Ohtani’s remarkable season included a note that he was the last player since Babe Ruth to have done “X” as a pitcher and “Y” as a hitter. But that is the major league version of the story. It’s a big story, but it’s not the whole story.

“It’s a very important part of baseball and American history and a forgotten chapter of baseball and American history and that’s the rich, powerful and compelling story of the Negro Leagues which is documented, substantiated and celebrated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City,” Kendrick said.

“It (Ohtani’s arrival) gave us a chance to talk about those great two-way players who played in the Negro leagues. I’m hoping this season when they come to town that we may be able to get him by the museum. There’s this great history between the Negro leagues and Japan that most people don’t know.”

“The Philadelphia Royal Giants go to Japan in 1927, well before Ruth and his all-stars. We’ve got a wonderful game day magazine. We actually have an original but we have a version of it hanging on the wall, and I showed the original to Ichiro when he visited the museum.”


“He’s a fan of the game. He’s a historian of the game. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Negro Leagues would appeal to him. The first time he came to the museum, he snuck in and we didn’t even know he was there. One of the clerks in the gift shop saw the credit card slip where he had bought some stuff.”

Suzuki may not look like the guy who attends SABR meetings, but he pays attention to detail. This is evidenced by Suzuki honoring the history of old-time star George Sisler and reaching out to his family when he broke Sisler’s single-season hit record.

Kendrick said Suzuki was also drawn to the museum because of his bond with the museum’s founder, former Negro League star Buck O’Neil.

“When Buck O’Neil passed away, who sent flowers? Ichiro Suzuki,” Kendrick said. “The next year his translator called and said they wanted to meet with me. We sat in a conference room and started to describe his admiration for Buck. He goes into his bag and writes a significant personal check for the Negro Leagues Museum in memory of his friend Buck O’Neil. They were two kindred spirits bonded by the great game of baseball.”

“Probably, the reason that Ichiro and Buck hit it off so well is because Buck could understand the skepticism (about Ichiro). The Negro League players heard that same skepticism. Can you do that (get hits) over here? So what does he do here? He puts 3,000 more hits up.

“That was the same air of skepticism that followed those Negro League players as they moved into the major leagues. You put those numbers up in the Negro Leagues but the world just seemed to believe that the highest level you could play was the major leagues, so can you do that in the major leagues. So what do they do? They do that in the major leagues.”

Kendrick said the attraction went beyond that. Like Ohtani, when Suzuki arrived in the majors in 2001, people were saying he was a throwback to the days of Ty Cobb. A player whose game was everything but home runs. But Suzuki’s game would have been right at home in the Negro Leagues.

“Ichiro talked about how he admired Buck’s style,” Kendrick said. “Buck hung out at the ballpark all the time. When they were taking BP, Buck would be chatting up everybody, showing love like he always did.”

“He (Ichiro) was a Negro Leagues player. He would have been a big star in the Negro Leagues. There’s no question about it. And we don’t say that lightly, because of the way they played the game in the Negro Leagues. The way he played, hitting the ball in the gap, taking the extra bases, the speed, the defense, the style. He has flair. He absolutely could have played in the Negro Leagues.”

Ohtani, too, would have fit in, Kendrick said. And he issued an open invitation to the Los Angeles Angels star.

“It would be awesome to have Shohei come in,” he said. “And again amidst that same level of skepticism, here comes this kid, two-way playing in Japan, big-time star. Can you do it in the major leagues? He does it in the major leagues. But his success also led us down the path where others wanted to talk about the great two-way players of the Negro Leagues. Ohtani is not new.”

“When we started talking about guys like Bullet Joe Rogan, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, the list just went on and on of the great stars in the Negro Leagues who were two-way players. You have to understand that the roster sizes in the Negro Leagues weren’t as large as they were in the major leagues, so you needed those guys who were versatile. So the Negro Leagues had their fair share of great two-way players.”

National body shoots down Japan’s 1st high school baseball pitch limit

On Wednesday the Japan High School Baseball Federation asked Niigata Prefecture’s high school federation to reconsider the pitch limit it announced for this year’s spring prefectural tournament.

The rule, announced unilaterally by the Niigata body in December without consulting the national federation, would have prevented pitchers from working in another inning after they had thrown 100 pitches.

Niigata’s decision sent shockwaves through Japan, where the two iconic high school tournaments at historic Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka are the nation’s biggest spectacle, and marathon pitching efforts part of the lore.

In making its announcement in Osaka, the national federation said it would convene a panel of experts in April to study how to prevent pitching injuries. Although there had been some words of condemnation for Niigata acting on its own, the national federation’s decision should not be seen as an effort to turn back the clock. This month, Daichi Suzuki, the chief of Japan’s Sports Agency praised the bravery of Niigata’s authorities and called on the national high school federation to act.

Osamu Shimada, a high school vice principal in Niigata Prefecture who was the project leader behind the plan to curb injuries to baseball players, said by telephone, “We have pushed the hands of the clock forward.”

Shimada, who became a teacher and a high school baseball coach after his own playing career ended in university, said Niigata was uniquely situated to upset high school baseball’s apple cart.

“We were able to put together a committee of elementary, junior and senior high school baseball authorities. Because we are weak (in national tournaments) we could find common cause at all levels,” he said. “This is something other prefectures with strong local bodies couldn’t do.”

“We are a small prefecture in terms of population and the number of kids who want to play baseball is dwindling. We want to change that. but there are so many other sports one could play, so why would a young athlete choose a sport where a lot of players get hurt?”

“We don’t know that 100 pitches is the best solution, but our plan is to collect data, learn and move forward. We felt if we didn’t act it would be too late. There was a sense of urgency.”

Getting to the root of the problem

This is the second part of a series centering around my interview with a leading Tommy John surgeon in Japan, Dr. Kozo Furushima.

Dr. Furushima
Dr. Kozo Furushima

Amid all the talk of the first pitch limits in Japan’s high school baseball world, Japan’s national elementary school tournament quietly received a 70-pitch limit this year. Working with the reform-minded head of the Japan Rubber Baseball Federation, Toyomi Munakata, Furushima assisted in the drive for change in Japan’s dogma-driven baseball world.

In this part, Furushima discusses the changes to this year’s system and gets down to the nuts and bolts of Japan’s problem — endless practice among players at the youngest ages that lead to more serious injuries as players grow older.

“I’ve been studying this issue for 12 or 13 years, in different sports but mainly baseball,” Furushima said. “I’ve examined the injuries of 6,000 to 7,000 baseball players, with more than 2,000 surgeries on baseball players alone. Why is it that junior high school and high school kids have to have surgery? I was thinking that for a long time.”

In the interview, Dr. Furushima explains avulsion fractures, caused when the pull from a ligament yanks the part of the bone it is attached to free from its surrounding bone.

Avulsion fracture X-Rays

These medial elbow avulsion fractures, if allowed to rest, will heal naturally, he said.

“Compared to adults, kids recover more quickly,” Furushima said. “For example, if a child breaks a bone, it will heal about a week faster than that of an adult. Adult bones take a month to regrow, children take about three weeks.”

Unfortunately, with kids practicing their sports year round, the time required to rest is very difficult to get. Compounding this, he said, is that the fractures only cause pain when under extreme stress. They don’t hurt in day-to-day activities so sufferers may not even realize the need for rest and treatment.

Dr. Furushima believes that about half the kids playing youth baseball between the fifth and seventh grades may have suffered from medial elbow avulsion fractures. His facility performed a study, with coaches alert to the problem bringing in their teams for examination. Of the 406 players examined, 167 showed signs of the injury.

“We had 406 children come for tests as part of a study. They didn’t particularly want to come,” Furushima said. “Of them, 167 had a history of pain in their inner elbow, 41.1 percent. These players came with their teams, whose coaches had a good awareness of the situation. These were good teams and even then, 40 percent had a history of pain. I have to think that among the teams that would never participate, the percentage would be higher than the teams whose coaches would willingly take part.”

Youth player survey

Although the consequences of these injuries are not overwhelming when the kids are young, as their bones become mature and more rigid, the fractures that have not healed are going to be a problem, particularly for ballplayers who have to throw hard using joints in which the ligament is loose and not properly attached to the bone.

In the MRIs below, the loose ligaments in the previously injured elbow can be seen as a squiggly line.

Injury consequences

Find the full story on Kyodo News HERE.

The introduction to the series was posted on Feb. 17.

All graphics courtesy of Dr. Furushima, Keiyu Orthopaedic Hospital Sports Medical Center.

Elementary steps in war against injury

This past week, the civil war brewing within Japanese baseball over rules to protect pitchers’ arms heated up. On Thursday, the Japan Rubber Baseball Association adopted 70-pitch limits for the national elementary school baseball tournament this summer, and the rule did not pass without a fight.

Prefectural and regional federations will have a year to adopt the rule.

The national federation announced the following guidelines:

Guidelines

  1. All players will be limited to 70 throws at full strength per day in practice and 300 a week.
  2. Practice will be limited to six days a week, and not more than three hours in one day.
  3. Players should not appear in more than 100 games a year.

The chief executive of the national federation, Toyomi Munakata, said that over the past five years, national tournament games saw an average of 100 pitches thrown per team.

“I want to protect the rights of the children and their enjoyment of baseball,” Munakata said. “Through enactment of a pitch limit, I want coaches to change their policies.”

Same old song and dance

He said there was opposition from some on the federation’s board of councilors, who cited a phrase commonly heard the past two months “we can’t enforce such a rule because there aren’t enough pitchers.”

This was an objection heard frequently in December when Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation announced it would introduce pitch limits at its spring tournament and moved ahead without seeking approval from the national federation.

The crux of the problem

On Saturday, Dr. Kozo Furushima, Japan’s most prominent Tommy John surgeon, told me that young pitchers are susceptible to suffering inner elbow fractures from placing too much stress on the elbow of the yet-immature bones in their elbows.

“Adults’ bones are hard and the ligaments are a big concern, but when children are in elementary school and junior high school, it is the other way around,” Furushima said. “The bones in children’s joints contain a lot of cartilage and are not rigid. The part of the bone where the ligament attaches can be pulled away from the rest of the bone, creating a fracture.

“Children will not feel pain or be hindered in ordinary activities but when they put a lot of stress on the damaged elbow, they will feel pain. And those that go untreated will often result in injuries later as the joints mature.

Furushima is the chief of the Sports Medical Center of Keiyu Orthopaedic Hospital in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. He said that of the 301 youngsters treated at his facility for inner elbow disorders, 81.3 percent reported practicing an average of five or more hours every Saturday and Sunday. The group of patients practicing 3 to 5 hours made up another 12.6 percent of the group.

“It’s not just pitching in games, but how much and how hard kids are throwing in practice,” he said.

The next phase of the debate is poised for the coming week, when the national high school federation is expected to lower the boom on authorities in Niigata for acting on their own to enforce pitch limits.

Strike while the iron is hot

While we’re on the subject of called balls and strikes in Nippon Professional Baseball, @Student_murmur has done a nice study in Delta Graphs about how the count affects umpires calls, which you can find in Japanese HERE.

Lacking pitch tracking data and having to depend on Mark I eyeball technology, the researcher drew a line around the strike zone in different counts where calls went 50-50. It’s no surprise that the smallest zone accompanies the 0-2 count, and the largest the 3-0 count.

The data from 2017 and 2018 collected by Delta Graphs looks fairly consistent and are consistent with the findings of John Walsh in 2010, which you can find HERE. Walsh found that the area of the strike zone’s vertical plane in MLB was 3.52 square feet with a 3-0 count and 2.42 square feet with an 0-2 count.

The last post here dealt with pitch locations derived from Nikkan Sports’ pitch-by-pitch data in 2018. These consisted of designated as inside the edge of the zone and outside the edge. I labeled them all borderline pitches, either borderline ball locations or borderline strike locations.

Looking at pitches in these two border zones that were called balls and strikes on 3-0, 0-2 and all other counts in 2018 produces the following tables, where 78 percent of all borderline pitches were called balls in counts other than 3-0 and 0-2. In 3-0 counts it was 60 percent. In 0-2 counts it was 92 percent.

We need to understand that in this study and the Delta Graphs one, the data points are being observed by someone else’s eyeballs and recorded by someone else’s hands. Also, pitchers can worry less about balls and strikes in certain counts. Unfortunately, the same seems to go for umpires.

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with 0-2 counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
0-2Strike Zone1182183
0-2Ball Zone2,12242,126
0-2Total2,1231862,309
Percent91.94%8.06%

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with 3-0 counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
3-0Strike Zone0349349
3-0Ball Zone5243527
3-0Total524352876
Percent59.82%40.18%

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with all other counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
OtherStrike Zone211,06011,062
OtherBall Zone39,50413539,639
OtherTotal39,50611,19550,701
Percent77.92%22.08%

Problems with punch-outs

The other day HERE I tried to answer the question whether foreign hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball have larger strike zones or not by looking at the percentage of strikeouts that are decided by a called third strike.

Having done that, I realized that individual variation makes such an analysis really, really murky. Some players hack, some are more disciplined. Pitchers that lack a good swing-and-miss pitch should conceivably have a higher CST (Called Third Strike) percentage.

Still, the study did lead to an interesting observation about the nature of Japan’s two leagues. As some of you know, either the Pacific League is the stronger of Japan’s two leagues or it’s just really, really good at hiding that fact, considering how poorly Central League teams do in interleague play and in the Japan Series.

The umpire merger

From 2003 until 2010, Pacific League position players were taking called third strikes in 20.53 percent of their strikeouts. In the Central League, the percentage was 22.84. The PL was dominated at the time by huge ballparks, where home runs were less frequent.

Since the umpires of the two leagues merged from the start of thew 2011 season, the PL called-third-strike percentage rose to 21.57, while the CL’s dropped slightly to 22.73.

The managers

In the previous article, I suggested that managers might be affecting how often called third strikes went their teams’ ways. But that was probably incorrect, for the same reason that judging individual hitters is fraught with danger. Unless you have the photographic evidence of the pitches in question, you can’t really tell.

Managers WILL effect the number of third strikes called against their team because of their batting and pitching policies. A look at how each manager’s team did relative to its league, shows that from 2003 to 2018 shows some interesting stuff, but it’s just that: interesting stuff.

Consider curmudgeonly “kantoku” Katsuya Nomura. His Rakuten Eagles struck out 3,369 times over his four seasons in charge, and his players went down on called third strikes 6.03 percent more often than the league, his Eagles were taken out of at-bats by umpires 203 extra times.

Anyway, the manager whose teams have ostensibly benefited the most from the umpires’ calls were Hisanobu Watanabe (Seibu Lions) with 92 fewer called third strikes on his hitters and 106 extra called strikes for his pitchers. No. 2 on this list (2003-2018) is Trey Hillman overall +194, and Koichi Ogata (+186). At the other end are: Nomura (-242), Hideki Kuriyama (-239), Akinobu Okada (-137) and Bobby Valentine (-136).

That’s interesting, but if you look at those Eagles hitters, what do you see? Tons of walks, few strikeouts. That was a team led on offense by Takeshi Yamasaki, a power hitter who frustrated managers and teammates by taking tons of called third strikes. He rarely swung at a two-strike pitch if he thought it might be outside of his zone, often putting his fate in the umps’ hands.

Again, I don’t think there is anything the least bit instructive about those. I just thought they were fun. But as mentioned above, managers can have a real effect on how their teams play. Take the DeNA BayStars, for example.

The Alex Ramirez effect

When Alex Ramirez took over the DeNA BayStars in 2015, his most public policy was telling his players to “swing at the first strike.”

What happens when batters execute this tactic? Here’s what happened in 2018, comparing the results of 17,792 plate appearances started by a swing or a first-pitch ball (as the 2015 BayStars were instructed to execute), and the the 48,046 PAs in which the first pitch was taken.

OptionPAAvg.OBPSlug
Swing 1st-pitch strike, take 1st-pitch ball17,792.272.305.424
Take 1st pitch regardless48,046.251.336.392

There is overlap of course, since first-pitch balls fall into both camps. But those looking to drill the first strike hit for average and more power, but paid for it in more outs and a lower on-base percentage. This goes a little bit in explaining the career of Ramirez — a guy who hit for good average, became the first foreign-registered player with 2,000 hits, and hit for good power, but didn’t draw walks unless he had to.

Not pulling your leg

The big news out of Nippon Professional Baseball’s spring training on Tuesday was that Daisuke Matsuzaka is suffering from right-shoulder inflammation.

What’s unusual is that his club, the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons, believe it was caused at a meet-and-greet at the club’s training camp in Chatan, Okinawa prefecture, when a fan pulled on the right-hander’s arm.

The 38-year-old Matsuzaka later reported stiffness in the shoulder and is now prohibited from throwing.

Although he wasn’t really effective last season, Matsuzaka — who had surgery on that shoulder in August 2015 — excelled at pitching out of trouble last year and finished with a 6-4 record en route to winning NPB’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Is that an award one actually wins?

There was no word from the Dragons about the nature of the fan encounter. Was the fan in question challenging Matsuzaka to an arm wrestle? Was he falling over backward only to be saved by our hero reaching out to grab him?

Either way, the pitcher, who in 1999 took part in one of Japan’s ubiquitous all-star game home run derbies was seen taking healthy cuts in one of the indoor batting cages in lieu of pitching practice.

The “Gaijin Zone”

A building block of anecdotal descriptions about Japanese baseball is the “Gaijin strike zone.” This implies that foreign hitters in NPB have wider strike zones. A look at play-by-play data since 2003 suggests that such a phenomenon does exist, but primarily for first-year hitters and that from the second season the effect seems negligible.

Former Hanshin Tiger and Orix BlueWave pitcher Ryan Vogelsong said, according to a 2015 Fox Sports story, felt hitters had a smaller strike zone when facing foreign pitchers. This appears to be true in general.

The hypothesis

With access to pitch tracking data, one could ascertain precisely whether or not foreign player get more calls that are outliers, more called balls in the strike zone for pitchers, more called strikes out of the zone for batters.

The data available, however, includes–in all but a few cases–whether a third strike is swung at and missed, bunted and fouled or called.

If there is a gaijin strike zone, we should expect to see two things:

  1. Foreign hitters’ share of called third strikes is higher than that of domestic hitters.
  2. Foreign pitchers get a smaller share of their strikeouts on called third strikes than domestic pitchers.

The data

The simple answer is that overall, the third-strike analysis does not support the hypothesis that foreign hitters do worse than domestic hitters in called third strikes. But it does support the hypothesis that foreign pitchers might be pitching to smaller strike zones.

From 2003 to 2018 against foreign pitchers, 20.6 percent of foreign hitters’ non-bunt strikeouts were called. Domestic hitters’ called-third-strike percentage was 21.5.

During the same period, against domestic pitchers, foreign hitters’ called-third-strike percentage increased to 21.0. Versus non-foreign pitchers, the domestic hitters’ called-third-strike percentage rose to 22.2 percent.

Hitters vs Pitchers called-third-strike percentages, 2003-2018

 Domestic HittersForeign Hitters
vs Domestic Pitchers22.221.0
vs Foreign Pitchers21.520.6

Take that rookie

If the foreign strike zone does exist for hitters, it appears to be significant for first-year players. First-year foreign hitters had a 23.0 called-third-strike percentage, second-year players 20.9, third-year players 20.0. Whether that’s a reflection of their not knowing the ways of NPB or their status is uncertain, because first-year domestic players get called out infrequently (20.4 percent).

This raises two questions. 1) Do foreign hitters get called out less often because they swing and miss more? 2) Do foreign pitchers get fewer called third strikes because they are better at missing bats?

When one speaks to Japanese players about the trials they went through to secure first-team playing time, the most common theme is the (often justifiable) fear that striking out will earn them a return trip to the farm team. They tend to hack early and often, trying to both get a hit and stave off falling behind in the count. Clearly, the longer domestic players have been competing at the top level, the more often they take called third strikes.

With foreign hitters, it appears to be a one-year adjustment as the called-third -strike percentages plummet after the first season and remain low afterward.

Called-third-strike percents, 1st 6 years, 2003-2018

SeasonDomestic HittersForeign Hitters
1st20.423.0
2nd20.820.3
3rd20.420.6
4th21.720.4
5th23.220.1
6th22.518.4

Other comments

Again, what’s needed is pitch specific data, seeing what pitches hitters are laying off outside the zone that are being called strikes, and what pitches are being thrown by whom inside the zone that are being called balls.

Speaking to Tuffy Rhodes recently, he reiterated a common complaint among foreign players, not that the umpiring was inconsistent, but that some umpires acted arrogantly, giving idiotic rationals for missed called strikes, “It’s because you’re tall.”

Looking at this limited data set, I am inclined to think the following:

  • That the umpiring doesn’t vary a lot between foreign and Japanese hitters, but that foreign pitchers might have something to complain about.
  • Any extreme effect on foreign hitters appears to be a first-year phenomenon.
  • I didn’t discuss it here, because I want to look at more data, but I’m inclined to believe that until the Central and Pacific leagues’ umpires were merged together in 2011, they operated extremely differently in deciding called third strikes. The umpires in the more popular and powerful CL appeared to call third strikes less often on players whose managers were famously ornery, such as Marty Brown or Senichi Hoshino. The PL umps appear to have done the opposite and punished the managers who gave them the most trouble, such as Katsuya Nomura.

The man behind the curtain

Tsutomu Jinji
Tsutomu Jinji, Ph.D., shown at December’s baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas.

Yusei Kikuchi gets all the credit for remaking himself on the mound the past three seasons. But when he decided he wanted even more to work with before he moved to the major leagues, he called on Professor Tsutomu Jinji, and his company, Next Base Inc. Working with TrackMan data, Kikuchi began absorbing more and more information about his pitches and mechanics in 2019.

In my Kyodo News interview you can find HERE, Dr. Jinji talks about Kikuchi’s dilemma last season — What to do when you suddenly have Japan’s top left-handed fastball but your strikeout pitch has always been your slider.

Jinji began working in pro baseball with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles in 2015, where he was brought in by the team’s owner to work with pitchers only to get caught in the crossfire from coaches who treated him like an intruder. He went through a version of that with Kikuchi, when the pitcher added the TrackMan analysis to the discussions he had with his regular catcher, Ginjiro Sumitani.

“His catcher would say, ‘That pitch was good,’ but when we compared that to the data to reach a consensus, it resulted in disagreements,” Jinji said.

“Kikuchi would say, Ginjiro said it was like this, but ‘how was it really?’ And that’s how the conversations would begin. We reconciled his feel for the pitch, the catcher’s sense of it and the TrackMan data. Up until then, it was just those two guys, but after we added another tool to translate what happened, he (Kikuchi) came to believe that TrackMan was more accurate than his catcher’s senses. Eventually, he was able to use TrackMan to express his feel for his pitches.”

Jinji called Kikuchi a fast learner and attacked new information the way he’s tackled the English language and learning about nutrition and conditioning. Jinji suggested that some of that had to do with his background, coming from the same school attended by Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani.

“Hanamaki Higashi High School is one of the schools that demand their players think, and more players from such places seem to be better at acquiring other knowledge,” Jinji said.

The idea that players should be taught to think for themselves is just now building some momentum. While Kikuchi is more of the lead-by-example type, he is symbolic of the movement that DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is now advocating.

You can read more on the Kyodo News website.

Japan’s “Major League”

This is a collection of anecdotes that don’t explain but do give some context behind the Chiba Lotte Marines’ bizarre 2009 season.

The year an owner threw a season

With MLB teams all but locking out free agents in name of higher profits, much has been made of teams tanking to save money at the expense of winning. Joe Posnansky recently wrote how the antagonist of the movie “Major League,” Rachel Phelps, the fictitious owner of the Cleveland Indians, was a genius who was ahead of her time, by trying to lose games.

But it actually happened in Japan.

During the 2008 season, the acting owner of the Chiba Lotte Marines, Akio Shigemitsu, bought into the idea Bobby Valentine, who was under contract through the 2009 season for $5 million a year, could be driven out without being paid. The scheme was fiendish and simple. Valentine’s contract contained a clause stipulating that should he criticize the team’s management, he could be fired without compensation.

If the top executives could sabotage the season enough to make Valentine criticize the organization, he could be fired without cost and it would be mission accomplished.

The tale of Bobby Valentine

The plot, ostensibly hatched by former team executive Ryuzo Setoyama, had complicated roots that author Robert Whiting explains in some detail in a four-part 2010 series published in the Japan Times. Setoyama was technically Valentine’s boss, but after winning the Japan Series in 2005, it was clear how far out of the loop he was. Valentine was being wooed by at least one MLB team, rumored to be the Dodgers, who wanted him to manage in 2006.

Setoyama told the media Valentine couldn’t go anywhere since he was under contract — since that had been published in the papers when Valentine returned to Lotte for 2004. Setoyama did not know the truth.

Valentine was adored in Japan and wanted to stay, but said he had to deal with daily calls from his mentor, Tommy Lasorda.

“He’s saying, ‘What’s the matter with you, Bobby? You’re a big fish! You’re not going to be happy in a small pond,'” Valentine said during the 2005 Asian club championships when his future was fodder for daily speculation in Japan’s ubiquitous sports papers.

When told that Setoyama was holding court with reporters down the hall telling them Valentine, couldn’t leave if he wanted, Valentine said with a grin, “We’ll see.”

Feudal Japan

When Valentine was made defacto general manager, he got new insight into the ways of Japanese baseball. This included how the team was forced to accede to demands of a local organized crime group. Another sore spot was how the team’s autumn mini camp location was determined by the amount of money local leaders stuffed into envelopes at dinners where team officials were wined and dined during inspection trips.

By holding the mini camp at the team’s home park, Chiba Marine Stadium, the club saved a ton of money and was opposed by those who depended on the graft for income.

From his perspective, Japanese teams were being run like domains from Japan’s feudal era, where tax collectors bought their positions and pocketed the difference between the amount they could collect and the amount their lords demanded. One team official, Valentine said, had entertained guests in luxury boxes at team expense.

“He’s giving tours of the ballpark now,” Valentine said. “He used to vice president of drinking and fucking.'”

Valentine’s ridicule came from genuine outrage because he loved Japan. He admired Japan’s passion for baseball and the players and coaches’ dedication and wanted the business side to match that effort. The graft and scams grated on him and he was a fountain of ideas to reform the business–one of which, the expansion of minor league playing opportunities–has had a huge impact on Japan’s talent base.

To achieve his purposes, he and Setoyama established what Valentine thought was a productive partnership. As the team’s official representative on the Pacific League’s board of directors and the NPB executive committee, Setoyama could present reforms Valentine wanted discussed.

But in the middle of the 2008 season, Setoyama went on walk about.

It was not exactly clear what…Setoyama’s motives were, whether he was so frustrated that he really did intend to quit, or whether his threat to resign in 2008 was just a ploy to get skipper Bobby Valentine to leave and save the team some of Valentine’s salary.

Robert Whiting

The first shoe dropped that winter, when Valentine was summoned back for an emergency conference. He’d reportedly spoken with the agent of a South Korean player, at the 2008 baseball winter meetings in the United States. Lotte to the press that Valentine had raised suspicions of tampering as the player in question was not a free agent.

“The meeting was a setup,” Valentine said. “I was tipped off by a phone call before I went in that the plan was to make me angry and maybe even take a swing at someone, so they could fire me.”

At the meeting, Valentine was told he was being stripped of his general manager duties, and that a number of his trusted subordinates were being reassigned within the organization.

Akira Ishikawa, who had worked with Setoyama with the powerhouse Hawks before Setoyama was fired, was brought in as a top executive–ostensibly so the Marines could sign Tadahito Iguchi. Ishikawa had signed Iguchi to his first pro contract and he had gone on to be one of the best Japanese players of his generation. But Iguchi had just turned 35, and had posted a .292 on-base percentage in 2008, when he suffered the first injury of his career.

The move was a surprise because Valentine was not involved and had already groomed a young second baseman, Shunichi Nemoto, to take over second. For the first time in his career, Valentine took a job away from a promising younger player to give it to a veteran past his prime. However, Iguchi exceeded expectations and Valentine, to his credit, gushed, “We knew he was a good player, but what we didn’t know was what a great teammate he is.”

But more surprises were in store.

After working on a play to lure opposing pitchers into balking a runner from third base home, the Marines successfully executed it early in the season only for the umpires to ignore the balk, and Valentine argued the balk with a fair amount of indignation.

The next day, Ishikawa went to the umpires room to apologize for Valentine’s behavior. A team staff member rushed in to the skipper’s office to inform him. Valentine excused himself and from the next room, only raised voices could be heard.

“What kind of shit is this?” Valentine asked when he returned and explained the situation. “What team executive sides with the umpires against his team’s interests?”

“They had the video playing. I demonstrated what the pitcher did. I said, ‘Is this a balk?’ They said it was. So why wasn’t it a balk last night? ‘Because.’ That’s what they said. ‘Because.'”

Gaslight

There’s no doubt the team was gaslighting their manager, trying to turn individual players against him and of sabotaging the team’s efforts by turning the players against him, criticizing him in the press and demoralizing the support staff of video analysts and batting practice pitchers by depriving them of an important source of income — the cash bonuses called “fight money” teams distribute after wins.

Valentine had made a point of including the analysts and batting practice pitchers and others in these payouts to recognize their contributions. Several of them confirmed that this practice was suspended by Ishikawa and Setoyama in 2009 because fight money was suspended.

Recognizing that the guys depended on the cash supplements to pay bills, Valentine began paying them out of pocket, which they also confirmed.

As the season wore on, Valentine didn’t know who was with him or against him, and every time he was criticized in the press, he was dogged after the game by two cub reporters brought in to record any complaints he might make about the team — that would result in immediate forfeiture of his pay.

In a weekend day game, banners in the stands urged Lotte ownership to keep Valentine and fire Setoyama. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, whom Valentine believed had been bought off by Setoyama and his gang to oppose him in the clubhouse, was selected by Ishikawa to give the on-fielder “hero interview.”

Nishioka launched into a speech about how the fans should be more positive to set a good example for the children in attendance.

Nobody in Japan had better tools than Nishioka, which Valentine freely admitted. He is an upbeat guy, who Matt Murton credited with lightning the stodgy atmosphere at the Hanshin Tigers in 2014 in their run to the Japan Series. But Nishioka is a guy, who despite his obvious ability, was only a great ballplayer at times, and Valentine ripped the shortstop’s hypocrisy over concern about the children.

“I was surprised he even knows children comes to the games, because he never sees them when they try to get his autograph,” Valentine said.

The team struggled to a .446 winning percentage, the Marines worst since 1994, the year before the first time Valentine had been hired to run Lotte and steered them in their dramatic 1995 pennant challenge.

Although the fans loved him, and the team executives decertified the most vocal of his support groups, he finally recognized nothing he could do would bring back the Marines he’d known from 2004 to 2008.

The aftermath

In 1995, Valentine was blamed for losing the pennant by then-general manager Tatsuro Hirooka and fired after one year despite the Marines posting their best record in 11 seasons. The following year, Shigemitsu fired Hirooka.

The 2010 aftermath was similar in some ways, although it took a year longer to play out. The 2010 season started with a hint about what was to come.

Longtime Tokyo sportswriter Wayne Graczyk informed other writers that something was amiss with Lotte in the spring of 2010. Graczyk purchased head shots of players for his annual media guide and fan handbook. When he asked how he should pay for the photos, he was directed to transfer the cash into a personal account of Setoyama’s.

The Marines finished third that year, qualifying for the playoffs by winning their last three regular season games and then climbing Japan’s rigged playoff system to knock off the second-place Seibu Lions and the league champion SoftBank Hawks before winning the Japan Series.

It was great for the fans, who had suffered through so much in 2009, but seeing the team tossing Shigemitsu in the “doage” celebration ceremony after he had signed off on a plan throw the 2009 season in order to save a fraction of Valentine’s $5 million salary was repugnant.

In the wake of their triumph, the Marines took a page out of their 1996 playbook and blamed Valentine for holding the team back. A reporter for the Nikkan Sports, wittingly or not, participated in the smear. He wrote that ending Valentine’s prohibition on “nagekomi” extra-long bullpen sessions, had given the Marines championship-caliber pitching.

This story was inaccurate and stupid on so many levels that it was laughable. Former Marines pitcher Satoru Komiyama said Valentine had not prohibited Japan’s beloved marathon bullpen sessions, but had restricted them to pitchers with sufficient core strength. The Marines pitching in 2010 was worse than it had been under Valentine, and a pitcher whose extensive spring training throwing was held up as an example of what was right with the new regime had missed most of the 2010 season with arm trouble.

The crash came in 2011. One hint that year was bringing in a foreign player whose past performance in the majors and minors made one wonder why the Marines would spend a dollar on him.

There are plentiful stories of foreign players with ostensibly little value who are offered more than their worth on the open market with Japanese team executives taking kickbacks to secure the deals. This had the markings of such a case, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what’s wishful thinking or stupidity and not plain corruption.

When the Marines finished last for the first time since 1998, and Ishikawa and Setoyama were handed their walking papers under suspicious circumstances, reportedly having to with unusual use of team funds.