A Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast listener (@DarkMatter89) who spends time tracking the distances of home runs hit in Nippon Professional Baseball, suggested that last year’s home run increase (12.1 percent over 2017) has continued into 2019.
Let’s compare the data each year through April 29.
As many of you know, until 2011, NPB had no standard ball, but allowed clubs to use balls from up to three different approved sporting goods makers during the season, provided they used each ball in at least a third of their home games.
In 2011, a uniform NPB ball was put in play with the target coefficient of restitution set near the absolute minimum allowed by the rules. As a result the ball was very dead. The 2011 season was a terrible year for home runs, with the frequency per PA dropping nearly 40 percent.
That wasn’t readily apparent at the start of the season, for reasons related to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Two Pacific League stadiums were unready for Opening Day. The Rakuten Eagles’ home park and its facilities were earthquake damaged, while the Lotte Marines’ park suffered from a lack of running water because water mains in the reclaimed areas along Chiba Prefecture’s Tokyo bayside had ruptured.
As a result of that, the season started two weeks late, missing some of the season’s coldest early weather. Because of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, ballparks in the eastern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu were prohibited from playing night games in April. As a result, there were day games or home games played in smaller regional parks in western Japan. Until the second half of the season, parks in the areas affected by the electric power shortage were also required to use reduced lighting.
Because of those influences, the dead ball apocalypse was slow in revealing itself. Because the season started late, it also ended late with league play going until Oct. 25, making the overall home run figures worse than had the season gone from March to early October.
In 2013, a coup d’tat overthrew commissioner Ryozo Kato, who had introduced NPB’s first standard ball. It was started by a senior official, who is now in charge of NPB’s bureaucracy, in a conspiracy with ball manufacturer Mizuno, which had long catered to the wishes of the teams to produce baseballs that were exceedingly lively.
But the overall growth in home run figures are not exclusively related to the ball. After the 2014 season, the owner of the SoftBank Hawks recalled the club’s lively-ball power-rich past and ordered the fences brought in to facilitate that. Since then, the Eagles and Marines have both followed suit.
Lumping together two-year periods to lessen the effect of weather, home runs in the CL in 2018-2019 increased by 18.5 percent over 2016-2017. The PL during the same period is 27.7 percent.
So let’s turn to 2019 and look for park-by-park increases over 2018.
Main Park HRs through 4/27/2018
As I may have mentioned on the podcast, the Tigers had an absurdly low number of home runs at home last season, and this looks partly like a regression. Throw out Chiba, which changed this year, and you still get nine out of the 11 clubs seeing more home runs in their main parks.
Last year about this time, I reported that home runs were increasing much more than the increase in balls hit in the air, which showed a slight growth in 2018. So far this year, however, fly balls appear to be down, while strikeouts are following America’s model and still on the rise.
For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy or its cinematic offshoots, the story revolves around a world where 24 teenagers are selected each year to battle to the death for the entertainment of a wealthy capital that the 12 poorer outlying districts support with their labor once tried to overthrow.
Every part of the tournament is marketed nationwide, the
selection of the candidates, the training, the details of their struggles and finally
the deaths in the arena and the glorification of the winners. Collins has said
part of the idea came from the Roman practice of having gladiators fight for
Collins could also have drawn inspiration from Japan’s summer national high school baseball tournament, creating her dystopian arena as a stand in for Koshien Stadium, Japan’s high school baseball mecca.
There, a sport officially recognized place in the national
education system, is showcased, not as education but as mass entertainment.
In Collins’ world the real tragedy is not in the visible arena, but in the less visible system of brutality and authoritarianism that supports it, and the same is true in Japanese baseball. People are riveted to Koshien’s spectacle and care about the winners and losers. To a lesser degree, this is also true for prefectural tournaments, whose champions advance to that national arena.
Behind the scenes
Japan’s tragedy is in the system that supports the arena. At
the elementary and junior high levels, competition mimics the Koshien model in
the form of knockout tournaments in which a single loss equals heartbreak.
Through endless, mind-numbing practice and abuse of pitchers’ arms, boys learn
from a young age that the cost of victory is high and the bill often comes due
in the form of broken bodies.
At the summer nationals, small adjustments have been made for
the potential hazard of playing day after day in sweltering heat, rest days
have been added in the final stages and international tiebreak rules were
introduced in 2018 from the 13th inning to prevent overlong games.
With that, the rule that forced games from 2000 to 2017 to be replayed from the
start after 15-inning ties was abandoned.
But the Koshien ideal that demands maximum effort and commitment
remains ingrained and serves as a beacon informing an entire baseball culture that
losing is hateful and mistakes therefore unacceptable in practice or in games
from the moment a young child puts on a glove for the first time.
In December, Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball
federation, knowing that too many children were staying away from their sport
when there are safer and less burdensome alternatives to baseball, acted to set
For Niigata’s 2019 spring high school tournament, no player would
be able to take the mound in a new inning after he’d already thrown 100 pitches
in that game. The rule didn’t address practice time, pitching on consecutive
days or affect any competition outside of Niigata, but it was a challenge to
the status quo and to the idea that high school baseball is some kind of sacred
temple that must not be fiddled with.
Niigata’s modest plan generated a tremendous backlash, with almost all of the responses falling into three categories:
Forcing a team to take its best pitcher out of the game will make public schools with fewer good pitchers uncompetitive, making the spectacle less interesting.
Batters will train to foul off more pitches to get the opposing starter out of the game, making games boring.
It would eliminate marathon pitching feats that are a staple of tournament’s lore, crushing — for most pitchers – their lone chance at glory, further reducing the quality of the spectacle.
Some in the public supported the Niigata initiative, but they were drowned out by the chorus – including some from the national federation – that don’t want anyone messing with the ritual human sacrifice.
Japan’s High School Baseball Association authorities didn’t
appreciate a local body overstepping its bounds and announcing rules without
consulting their betters. In February, the national association instructed
Niigata to “reconsider,” and the plan was withdrawn. After Niigata’s bold move
drew praise from Japan Sports Agency chief Daichi Suzuki, the national
association announced a blue-ribbon panel to study reform and health
A reporter who covered the proceedings told a Tokyo
symposium on April 23 about an exchange he had with a national association
executive at the time.
“He told me, ‘How do you know throwing more than 100 pitches
is harmful? What evidence do you have? We are instituting a day off between
games,’” the reporter said. “Is having a rest day between two 150-pitch games really
OK? How can we possibly allow that?”
The Cambio Meeting symposium was the third annual meeting of
a group dedicated to reinvigorating baseball in Japan from at its lowest levels
by promoting education and rules to limit abuses. This year’s principle speaker,
Dr. Kozo Furushima, has performed more than 1,200 surgeries on elbows and
shoulders – mostly belonging to youth baseball.
Furushima told of a patient in junior high school, who had
pitched his youth team to the semifinals of Saitama’s prefectural tournament, and
about how his right elbow was deformed with three different injuries in
comparison with his normal left elbow.
“Because his team couldn’t win if he didn’t pitch, he
pitched every game and had been doing so for four years,” Furushima said. “His
pain had started one week earlier. We needed him to extend his arm as far as he
could for the X-Ray and he couldn’t. Some with the same injuries can’t bend
“Those injuries did not occur one week before. It was
obviously not something that occurred suddenly because he was pitching in pain.
The lesson from that is that just because you’re not in pain doesn’t mean
you’re not hurt and not vulnerable.”
“This young man dreamed of being a pro, and now when I look
at these (pictures of his arm), it makes my head hurt.”
Furushima presented research results that indicated, in declining order, four factors for increased injury among young pitchers.
Pitching competitively for eight or more months a year, 5.05 times normal
Frequently pitching with arm fatigue, 4.04 times
80-plus pitches per game, 3.83 times
Throwing fastballs over 85 miles per hour, 2.58 times
One inspiration for the symposium has been regular travel by Furushima and others to the Dominican Republic, a country with a population of less than 11 million that has produced roughly 150 active players in North America with major league experience. Japan, with a population of nearly 127 million, currently has less than 1,000 players playing professionally around the world.
During his time as Lotte Marines manager, Bobby Valentine
was puzzled about why a nation as large as Japan that is so passionate about
baseball and has such high levels of economic and educational achievement and
public safety does not produce more of the world’s best players. Why, he asked,
should America or the Dominican Republic be better at producing baseball
players than Japan?
Furushima, who has performed ultrasound examinations on
youth players in Japan as well as Japan’s Under-12 team, found one reason: injuries
to young players. He examined youngsters in the Dominican and found far fewer
injuries than among Japanese players the same age.
What Furushima and his fellow travelers discovered in the Dominican Republic was a youth baseball environment far removed from the highly pressurized Japanese norm.
Future MLB Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, asked in March about
his baseball training in the Dominican, contradicted one of Furushima’s
assertions that coaches there never yell at players.
“Oh, I got yelled at,” he told Japanese media in Tempe,
Arizona. “But the job of the coach is to not give the kids reason to give up on
sports. They have to treat the boys as individuals, help them grow, encourage
their love for the game.”
Ryunosuke Seno, one of the symposium’s leaders, won national
“Boys League” championships in 1999 and 2000 as manager of Osaka’s Sakai Big
Boys baseball club. Since then, however, he has gone from an old-school hard-ass
coach to reform advocate.
“As manager, I had hard practices, I’d get angry, sometimes use physical punishment. We won a championship and celebrated. It was an exceptionally strong team, and what happened to the players on such a strong team? One would expect players like that to…go on to play pro ball, be good ballplayers. But that wasn’t the case. They quit baseball or got hurt. They were saying, ‘I’m done with baseball. I’m full of it. I’m tired of it.’ Guys were burned out, a lot of them.”
“I thought I’d been coaching correctly. But was carrying out
my duties like that right? A lot of the kids on the championship team quit
playing in high school. When I looked at kids playing on other teams, this guy
hurt his elbow, that guy had surgery or quit. There were an amazing number of
those kids. I began to question the purpose of what I was doing.”
Seno and his colleagues are now advocating rules that will, among other things, limit pitches in games and the amount of time teams are allowed to practice and take those decisions out of the hands of coaches who simply don’t know any other way than the old way.
“If you’re limited to two hours practice, that’s the rule,
not the coach’s fault,” Seno said. “Tomorrow is the final, but because players
can’t pitch on consecutive days, today’s pitcher can’t pitch again. That’s the
fault of the rule, not the manager. But if there are no rules, the managers are
thinking, ‘We want to win, he can pitch.’ And the child will say, ‘OK.’”
“It’s going to take a real long time before coaches realize
you can’t force kids to practice so much. That’s because coaches don’t think
what they’re doing is wrong. If a player is fatigued or in pain, the coach will
ask if they’re OK. But the boys are trained to tough it out. So asking a player
if he’s OK is akin to ordering a soldier in battle to charge.”
Although Niigata’s initiative failed to make concrete
headway, it helped push the conversation. In January, the Japan Rubber Baseball
Association, which oversees school tournaments for elementary, junior high and
girls teams, announced a 70-pitch limit for this year’s national elementary
“That is 100 times more important than the Niigata
proposal,” Seno said.
That’s because while high school ball is the tip of Japan’s
abusive baseball coaching iceberg, and the number of elementary and junior high
school players is shrinking more rapidly than the nation’s declining birth rate,
and eroding the base that high school and pro ball depend on.
“You’d think playing baseball is cheap for kids, but it isn’t,” a long-time youth coach said. “There is a huge burden on parents to come and provide lunches for the long practices, and the medical bills can be extravagant.”
One of the nation’s more progressive teams is the Tokyo
Aoyama Club, which has one national little senior hardball championships for
junior high school boys. Tokyo Aoyama leases its own grounds with a dormitory
an hour drive from Tokyo, where kids practice virtually every day they aren’t
in school. But when they play in tournaments, game experience rather than
victory at all costs is the focus. Pitchers are not allowed to pitch on
consecutive days and their pitch counts are monitored.
Still, the training is Spartan, with lots of running and
strength training and the rules strict.
“They had a 1-kilogram bento rule,” said a woman whose son
played with the club five years earlier. “The wanted you to eat so they could
grow stronger. They would weigh the lunch boxes and if they weren’t heavy
enough, the kids would get sent home.”
“Everyone was forced to eat that huge meal. My son was big,
so it was no problem. But you’d see smaller boys crying because they couldn’t
and then throwing up when they tried.”
At the Cambio Meeting symposium, one speaker who works for
an NPB team, cited rapidly falling numbers of elementary and junior high school
players across the country and predicted that even more high schools would soon
find it difficult to field teams.
“One problem is that Japanese youth baseball is not fun,” he
said. “Grounds are hard to secure, so little time is actually spent playing.
Mostly kids are running. It is demanding and considered hard, and there are
lots of hurdles to entry at the lowest level.”
“It needs to be made something the kids will want to come
back and do more of. It needs to be fun.”
Dr. Furushima, however, said fun is not the old-school
“The old way is to shout at the boys and even hit them when
they don’t do something the right way. But little boys who’ve never really
played aren’t good at it when they start, so of course they make lots of
mistakes, so many coaches who think they’re helping and doing the right thing will
yell at them.”
“In high schools, if a pitcher gives up a lot of hits, there
are cases where he is sent to the sidelines to throw a 250-pitch bullpen as
“It really drives home the idea of how little hold the
concept of human rights has in Japan.”
On this past week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, a listener asked:
Who had the single most dominant season in the Heisei era (1989 to April 30, 2019)?
Who was the best player of the Heisei era in NPB?
To recap our answers, we split on Question 1. John (@JBWPodcast) Gibson answered Masahiro Tanaka‘s 2013, 24-0 MVP season for the Rakuten Eagles, while I had Tetsuto Yamada‘s 2015 MVP season at second base for the Yakult Swallows, which ranks — according to Bill James’ win shares — as the seventh most valuable season in Japanese pro baseball history.
The Heisei Most Dominant Season Award
Tanaka’s season ranks 457th overall among all players in history, and second behind Hall of Famer Masaki Saito’s 1989 season for the Yomiuri Giants. But if one thinks about how the game has changed, Tanaka’s season is pretty darn remarkable.
The quality of play in NPB has increased steadily along with the number of pitches needed to get batters out. Saito, who is a big strong guy like Tanaka had a season that was a little better but required 33 more innings to accomplish.
In terms of how much Tanaka accomplished per inning pitched, his 2013 season is third in Japanese baseball history, behind two more Hall of Famers, Masaichi Kaneda (1958, Kokutetsu Swallows) and Tadashi Sugiura (1959, Nankai Hawks) during Japan’s most pitcher-friendly years since the end of World War II.
John, for those of you who haven’t heard it, brought up Wladimir Balentien‘s 60-home run 2013 season, but Win Shares has that ranked right behind Hotaka Yamakawa‘s MVP season last year for the Seibu Lions and the 28th most valuable during the Heisei era.
The Heisei MVP Award
John and I both picked Tomoaki Kanemoto as the Heisei MVP, which came as a shock to Mr. Gibson. The question excluded Ichiro Suzuki, but if I valued his MLB win shares at 1.2 per NPB WS, he ranks as the undisputed Heisei king. Through that somewhat conservative formula, Suzuki’s 540 ranks him third in Japanese baseball history, far behind the run-away leader, Sadaharu Oh (723 WS) and catcher Katsuya Nomura (581). Because the bulk of Suzuki’s win shares come from MLB, he would shoot past Nomura if each WS was valued at 1.5 per NPB win share.
If we allowed MLB win shares, Kanemoto would finish third, right behind Hideki Matsui.
Anyway, here are the top Heisei win share seasons:
In a land where sports editors pretty much dictate that the top news of every game is who got the game-winning RBI, a lot of things fly under the radar and go unreported by the media.
The game-winning RBI “hero” is so ingrained here that a bad swing at a fat pitch is praised as “great hitting” if it gets the job done. Never mind that the guy swung and missed at Ball 4 on the previous pitch or that the runner on third had drawn a 10-pitch walk, stole second, and put himself in position to score by taking third on a flyout to medium-deep right field.
A quick scan through stories from Wednesday’s action found this gem of a headline:
“Shimauchi’s small ball philosophy ‘Batting .300 is not important’ a rejection of eternal No. 4 hitter tradition.”
It’s a hard one to translate because the Japanese verb “tsunagu” means to connect or preserve, and in baseball is typically a synonym for a “productive out” or doing the little things to improve a scoring opportunity rather than trying to drive the ball. It implies sacrificing, hitting behind the runner, focusing on making contact.
I’d guess that roughly a third of postgame on-field “hero interviews” involving hitters include the following exchange:
Interviewer: “That was some hit you had there. What were your thoughts there?”
Player: “I was focused on keeping the rally going (play small ball) but I got a good swing on the ball and got a good result.”
But in Japan, if a No. 4 hitter says he doesn’t care about batting .300, it’s kind of weird. Mind you, the Eagles’ got blown out so Shimauchi was giving his thoughts to reporters and not announcing his nonchalance in front of the fans.
The reporter thought it fit to repeat another iconoclastic remark when Shimauchi said he did a good job of hitting on a ball that caught for an out that didn’t contribute to the scoreline.
“Like (the home run I hit in) the first inning, the ball I hit (for an out) in the ninth was from a good at-bat,” Shimauchi said in an expression bordering on yakyu heresy.
“Batting .300 is unimportant. I’d rather have a .400 on-base percentage.”
The story concludes with the reporter adding that Shimauchi is third in the league in on-base percentage and with this “unabashed” philosophy is contributing to the team.
Mind you, the reporter was covering the losing team in a blowout, so there’s always that. But still, couldn’t he do it without the condescension?
pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.
Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.
In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Ideally, he’d like
to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as
a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door
before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of
a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can
only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in
lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB
club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a
$20 million posting fee.
So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.
Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.
The NPB advantage
If a teenager is
really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to
start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of
world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the
majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some
of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little
better but more experienced than he is.
But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.
Upsetting the applecart
In 2013, the wall
of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and
said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to
sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher,
Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and
changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent,
hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and
the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created
a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.
Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices
will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants
to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes
to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done.
He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on
That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.
talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor.
But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t.
Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank
Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an
18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need
to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want
to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way
The problem with
that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent,
will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the
next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that
will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly
At the heart of
the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair
market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in
America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new
CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the
amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB
clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same
as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.
Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani — a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.
Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.
If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.
The comic history of player agents in NPB
The story of
agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by
Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese
players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”
But as much as
owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most
powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former
Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”
One of Japan’s
most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the
leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal,
where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired
an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.
Then came pitcher
Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo,
who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a
second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan
Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to
negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but
Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was
only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.
The years went by
and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it
again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club
for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer
from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune
would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his
leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an
agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”
But that kind of
newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired
attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many
times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only
for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago, and agents are now commonplace.
Since two-thirds of the 30 major league teams are now trailing high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who has repeatedly hit 100 mph, one has to wonder if he will be Japan’s first top high school prospect to move directly to the major leagues.
While that has never been an easy thing to try, it’s harder now because of Major League Baseball’s new rules. The same collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association that dictated foreign amateurs be denied fair market value for their services has an additional barrier to Japanese amateurs.
The registration barrier
Before an international amateur can sign with a big league club between July 2, 2019, to June 15, 2020, he needs to register with MLB by May 15. Which is a problem for Japanese high school students, because it comes right after the start of the school year on April 1.
According to the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a high school player registering for the MLB international signing period would be prohibited from playing for his team. And since Sasaki aspires to take part in the national summer championship, whose finals are at historic Koshien Stadium, some consider that a deal breaker.
Another issue is the Tazawa Rule. Named after reliever Junichi Tazawa, the rule virtually bans amateur stars who sign directly with MLB teams from ever playing professionally in Japan or playing for the Japanese national team. The rule was a last-ditch attempt to bully Tazawa into not signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2008 but has done nothing except generate ill will.
Last summer the registration issue caused a minor tempest within JABA because corporate league club Panasonic failed to notify JABA that pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa had registered and had continued to play for his club.
Japanese officials didn’t become aware of this until Yoshikawa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks immediately before he was scheduled to pitch for Japan in the Asian Games.
The posting-free agent barrier
If Sasaki declines to register as expected, he will have the option of taking part in Nippon Professional Baseball’s October amateur draft, with an eye to being posted at the age of 25. The problem with that is finding a team willing to do that.
Two clubs, the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, have asserted their opposition to the posting system, and have never allowed a player to walk. Without being posted, he will have to accumulate nine years of service time before qualifying for international free agency.
The non-conformity barrier
In the past, teams have allowed players to leave via the posting system. Also, some players have announced they would not sign with certain clubs before the NPB draft. But as far as I’m aware, no player has made an early posting a condition of his signing. To do that, he might need the help of a good agent — something else NPB teams have never faced in dealing with drafted amateurs.
Of course, Sasaki could still go through the draft, and failing to get an offer he likes could register in May 2020 and sign with an MLB club a few months later.
Having registered with MLB, whatever NPB team holds his rights would be under more pressure to really negotiate instead of bluster or posture since NPB does not award compensation draft picks for players who refuse to sign.
This is the first of a two-part series on the Roki Sasaki dilemma.
Four years after his bat kept him in the Seibu Lions lineup when his defense behind the plate would not, 23-year-old Tomoya Mori has gone from pleading for an opportunity to catch to becoming the club’s everyday backstop.
The Lions No. 1 draft pick in 2013 out of high school powerhouse Osaka Toin, Mori had trouble with passed balls in his 2014 rookie year in the minors. But having destroyed minor league pitching with his bat, the Lions made Mori their designated hitter in 2015, but didn’t play a single game behind the plate.
But Mori worked hard that offseason and in camp and caught 33 games from 2015 to 2016 as a backup to two-time Golden Glove winner Ginjiro Sumitani. A year ago, Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji made Mori his No. 1 catcher.
Mori hit like an MVP when he was in the lineup as a catcher as the Lions won the Pacific League, overcoming the PL’s worst ERA with a 792-run battering ram of an offense.
“That (being an everyday catcher) has always been my goal.
Last year, manager Tsuji stuck with me, and I’m grateful to him for that,” Mori
said in an April interview. “Because of that, I feel I have to produce good
results this season.”
“I believe catching is pretty hard, and so it’s worth doing –if only for that reason alone. So I want to not only catch but play that position for all I’m worth.”
“Last season, the batters really helped us out. That’s something I thought about all season. My theme for this entire season is to be part of a battery that gives us a chance to win games. Even if it only happens once, I want to be a part of a game where people say the battery won it for us. For their part, the pitchers share in that desire.”
“First and foremost is getting results. Getting those
demands we shut down our opponents. The biggest issue from last year was the
quality of our battery work when everything fell apart after we gave up the
Although Mori did not call all the pitches last year, he said he had to share responsibility for the outcomes.
“No (I don’t call every pitch). But if I put down a sign, I have to take some responsibility for that,” he said. “But rather than trying to assign blame to the catcher or to the pitcher that we think of those as mistakes by the battery.”
So how do you minimize those mistakes?
“Communication is important, whether or not you get a batter out or not, if you’re always talking about pitch selection, then you don’t have to say it because you are in sync,” he said. “Having a battery that is thinking along the same lines is a big factor in getting batters out.”
He said there are times when he gets a bad feeling from the pitcher’s body language about a pitch.
“Those times, I think, ‘Oh, no. This is going to get hit,'” he said. “So sometimes, I’ll think I’ll want a pitch that might lead to a walk but will avoid giving up an extra-base hit. Of course, you plan to change the pitch selection based depending on the situation.”
One situation where Mori’s performance definitely looked like he was uncomfortable last year was at designated hitter, where he hit like a catcher — a .318 OBP with a .330 slugging average. When he caught, his OBP was .396 and he slugged .420.
“I wasn’t aware of that until some people in the media pointed it out,” he said. “After that I started thinking that maybe I did feel a little different as a DH, but it wasn’t like I wanted to change things or tried to do anything differently.”
Also see my thoughts on Mori as a candidate for the PL’s top catcher last year.
Kodai Senga didn’t get his wish over the winter when he asked the SoftBank Hawks to allow him to pitch in the majors. But rather than dwell upon it, he remade himself over the winter with a little help from Yu Darvish.
The right-hander has come a long way since every NPB club passed on him until the Hawks selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 developmental draft. A total of 68 players were taken in the regular portion of the draft, and another 21 were taken in the developmental draft, before Senga, who was 90th out of 97 drafted that day.
You can read my interview with Senga for Kyodo News HERE.
Matt Murton knows a few things about role reversal, having
gone from phenom to role player for the Chicago Cubs and from record-setting
hero to villain in his six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central
‘Win or lose, they find a way to put me on the front page,’
he quipped in his final season here.
Murton debuted with Hanshin in 2010 and proved a quick study
in the ways of Japan’s game. His precise and rigorous pregame practice blew
away manager Akinobu Mayumi. And when he began challenging to break Ichiro
Suzuki’s 16-year-old single-season hit record, he seemed a worthy heir. When he
did set a new record, Murton did it in a season that was 14 games longer, but
Suzuki said that didn’t make it less of an accomplishment.
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people. And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back.”
Matt Murton to Kyodo News in 2015
But what should have been the happiest of times turned into
a depressing slog, a stellar season overshadowed by hyper expectations. When Murton
finally got hit No. 211, the weight of the world came off his shoulders. At the
end, a season begun as a way to learn lessons needed to restart his major
league career instead created an unbreakable molecular bond between player and country.
Yet, within two years, when Murton and the rest of the
Kansai region’s most popular club failed to meet expectations, everything around
him had changed. In 2013, when a reporter insinuated he hadn’t been trying hard
in the outfield, Murton sarcastically said he didn’t like pitcher Atsushi Nomi
— who was on the mound when Murton failed to throw out a runner at the plate.
Not only did the regional sports media, who report every
scrap of Tigers news, turn on him, but his words were splashed across the front
page of every sports daily in Japan.
“You can’t go back and you can’t change it,” Murton, now an
assistant in baseball operations for the Cubs, said this spring in Mesa,
“I think for me specifically, it became kind of polarizing. We are playing for a team that was very visible. Given what I was able to accomplish as an individual in unison with our team in our first year, it puts you in a place of being very visible as a foreign player, and any misstep or anything that happened along the way was magnified. I feel that some of it wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be, some of it could have been handled differently. It was probably a combination of all of the above.”
Breaking Ichiro’s hit record
In retrospect, 2010 can be seen as a lesson about one aspect
of the dynamic between Japanese groups and their individual members. Because
Japan emphasizes group success and failure, it can be a surprise that
league-leading achievements and individual awards take on so much importance.
One trick is to look at those things as credits to the group
ledger, because they raise the profile of the group as a whole. This may help
explain why teams sometimes do whatever they can to boost individuals
accomplishments even to the detriment of team wins. It used to be common to intentionally
walking opposing hitters – regardless of the game situation – if it assists a
teammate’s effort to win an individual title, provided the team had nothing to
The introduction of playoffs in the Pacific League in 2004
and the Central League in 2007 has reduced the number of meaningless games, so
there are fewer chances to witness those farces. But having a sense that
individual accomplishments are to teams is important in getting a feel for the
pressure Murton felt as he approached Suzuki’s record.
“I felt that if I didn’t get it, I would be a failure, that
I would be letting my team down,” Murton told The Daily Yomiuri that October as
the Tigers prepared to begin the playoffs.
Ironically, he said, the solution came when looking at the problem in a different light.
“What’s so funny about that is I go back to that individual moment
in 2010, when I had a chance at Jingu (Stadium) to get a base hit on a changeup
up the middle and set the single-season hit record,” he said. “I remember the
feelings I had coming into the game. There was an expectation, whether it was
the media or people talking about it, whatever it was, to accomplish something
as an individual. So I felt that there were these external pressures that I had
to carry with me.”
“I’ll never forget that moment because on that day, it was bases loaded, and all of a sudden it came over me, ‘This isn’t about me getting a hit. It’s about knocking my teammates in.’ My thinking transferred from individual result to team success. When I was able to transfer my thinking to more of a group mentality, and living in the moment and competing as a team, the individual success came.”
“If we make it all about self, we oftentimes can find ourselves living at the address of thinking about factors we don’t need to be thinking about. When we keep it simple about the competition in the moment and how to help our team, the individual numbers take care of themselves.”
That was 2010, the last year of loosely regulated baseballs
in Japan. That year, offensive numbers did more than take care of themselves. They
took care of fellow Tiger Craig Brazell. The Tigers first baseman hit 47 homers
that season, despite playing at Koshien Stadium, where the vast power alleys
make it one of Japan’s toughest home run parks.
That power output secured Brazell a hefty three-year extension good times seemed just around the corner for Hanshin.
“I don’t like Nomi”
Like nearly every hitter in Japan, 2011 was a letdown for
Murton. After more than a decade of barely regulated balls, Nippon Professional
Baseball for the first time introduced a uniform baseball. The new ball was
intended to as dead as possible, and it was.
In addition to the deader ball, that season saw umpires from
Japan’s two top-flight circuits, the Central and Pacific leagues merged for the
first time. Games in Eastern Japan were also played with reduced lighting for
much of the season after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in
nuclear meltdowns and created a power shortage.
Across NPB, batting averages dropped by 8 percent and there
were 41 percent fewer homers. Murton’s offense took a hit, but he still went on
to win his second straight Central League Best Nine Award in the outfield. That
earned him a contract extension, but after finishing in fourth place, the
Tigers replaced manager Mayumi with Yutaka Wada.
Under Wada, the club did not flounder, but try as they
might, the Tigers couldn’t climb above .500. It didn’t help that older Tigers
players were not batting as well as expected and Brazell’s power evaporated after
2010. Nor did it help that Murton was guilty of a couple of careless plays in
Suddenly, the news among the sports papers feeding the
Tigers’ massive fan base began find fault with the team’s foreign players. Part
of Hanshin’s dynamic is the extreme degree the club worries about its press
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot
of people who are not baseball people,” Murton told Kyodo News in 2015. “And
then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be
very cognizant of their back. In my experience, they (the team) allow that to
infiltrate the organization.”
One of the Hanshin beat writers in 2012 has suggested that Wada and his coaches had caved in to media pressure for a scapegoat and the Tigers threw the foreign players to the wolves.
Murton found himself running a daily gauntlet of
insinuations masquerading as post-game questions. And on June 9, after the
Tigers lost their interleague game against the PL’s Orix Buffaloes 6-1, he’d
Murton went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting
average to .231 for the season, but the question was about his defense. With
the Tigers losing 1-0 in the fourth, Murton’s throw home on a two-out single to
right was unable to nail the runner at the plate or prevent the batter from
advancing to second.
Asked if he had tried to throw the runner out at the plate,
Murton, who had spent much of his professional career trying to reign in his
temper, didn’t get overtly angry, but that hardly mattered.
His “I don’t like Nomi,” offered as a joke, transformed the
Tigers irritating media into a personal pestilence.
The sports dailies called for Murton’s head, and parent
company stockholders called for Murton’s dismissal. The fans who went to the
ballpark, those who actually witnessed his attitude and effort, stuck with him,
but the media had a circus to report on and wasn’t going to give it up easily.
“It was frustration, and the question that was asked and I didn’t understand,” Murton said. “I think the question was questioning integrity or how hard you were trying to do or whatever, so it was tough. But that probably wasn’t the right way to respond. But it was certainly in jest, a joke. Therein lies a cultural lesson that our jokes don’t always translate.”
Cultural collisions at home and abroad
Having learned sarcasm doesn’t travel, Murton crossed
another cultural divide in 2013, when he twice slammed into Yakult Swallows
catchers. Japanese catchers had been trained to block the plate without the
ball, and then duck and cover in case runners tried to bowl them over. Umpires
did not require tags on such plays, demanding catchers only hold on to the ball.
Most, but not all, collisions on Japanese base paths have
involved foreign base runners, who had been taught since childhood that
separating catchers from the ball was the base runner’s duty to his team.
On the same day Yakult Swallows catcher Masahiko Tanaka
returned to duty months after an earlier collision with Murton, the Tigers
outfielder slammed into Swallows veteran Ryoji Aikawa at Jingu. Aikawa himself had
been sidelined early in the season in a collision with a different runner, and
was not in a forgiving mood. Shoving and F-bombs ensued at home plate, Murton
was ejected, and his transformation from famous to infamous was complete.
The following spring, instead of pulling out the “This is
how baseball is played” excuse, Murton said he would be fine with rules that
prohibited catchers without the ball from blocking the plate and prevented
runners from trying to dislodge the ball rather than reach home.
“If that’s the rule, then the catcher doesn’t get hurt and I
as the runner don’t get hurt,” he said.
“I’m very passionate and driven. We can sit here and make excuses all day long, but excuses are a hindrance to growth. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to be raw. We’ve got to be vulnerable and realize we do have some shortcomings and that there are plenty of ways to learn from previous experiences.”
Needless to say, Japan provided Murton with lots of grist
for that mill. And though he first came here to acquire skills with which he
could relaunch his major league career, he got more than he bargained for.
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there, the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled
with the enthusiasm and the support of the people. This is very unique. Chicago,
I think (is one of) a few markets that present similar type feeling from a
player’s perspective. But on a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the
opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is
very unique and a lot can be learned and it’s a place that as an American or a
foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool
experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never
want to shut the door on that.”
Murton said that was true even when things went awry in ways
he couldn’t fathom at the time. Three-plus years later, having finally retired and
moved on to a team-building career, Murton has gained more perspective.
“It’s always easier once you are removed from an environment
to be able to look at it more objectively. The same is true in regards to
competition. What competition does in terms in the sense of the heightened
sense of our emotions and our responses, those are all a factor,” he said.
“Culturally, you would feel things or sense things that
really weren’t there. I look back on things and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have
been so taken back by whatever it was, A, B, C or D.’ I think there were times
when the feelings were warranted and made sense, but the responses you always
wish were different.”
While there’s no going back to the way things were, Murton
said his family thinks of Japan a lot. He lives in the Nashville area and is
involved with the Japanese community there, and his wife longs for the
simplicity of life on Kobe’s Rokko Island, where everything they needed was no
more than a short walk away.
“I came back this past September and I was only there for
four days,” Murton said. “My two older ones asked on that trip if they could
go, and they’ve more recently verbalized that they want to go back. It’s
something that will happen, when we make sense of when that time is right for
the younger kids and for us as a family.”
“You walk away from experiences and you want to do it in a
way that you’re wanting more,” he said. “It’s a part of you. It’s a season in
your life. It’s a chapter. It doesn’t change your identity or future, but that
will always be a part of you and that will never change, so there’s gratitude
for the experience and the relationships.”
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there (in Japan), the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out
basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people.”
While Japanese baseball is not major league baseball, it
represents some things that are hard to find in the majors, and he wasn’t
talking about 3-1 sliders, 2-0 curveballs or 100-pitch bullpens but engagement.
“I think there are a few (major league) markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective,” Murton said, noting that playing in Chicago has a similar vibe. “On a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned. And it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”
Words for the wise
For those wishing to share that, and who are lucky enough to
be in the right place at the right time when a Japanese club has its eyes on then,
Murton has some advice.
“The first thing would be to be prepared for a challenge
physically. If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t quite understand the
level of competition,” he said. “No. 1 is you have to prepare your body and
your mind. Never forget who you are, but take that America mindset or whatever
it is from whatever country you are from and check it at the door.”
“Kind of embrace the culture on the field and off the field. Right off the bat, there are going to be things done differently that maybe doesn’t make sense to you. That’s OK, because the feelings that you have are probably not any different from other guys that have played before you. Be aware that some of those situations are going to create feelings that are going to make it hard for you to understand.”
“But just live at the address of showing up every day,
caring for people and love the game. If you can do those things, embrace the
culture and the unique opportunity you have. You’re one of a very select few,
so just try and make the most of that.”
But that is the hindsight of six seasons of seeing foreign
players come and go. One early surprise in 2010 was seeing coaches’ brows
furrow when he’d spend an entire batting practice working on fundamentals.
Murton wasn’t yet used to Japanese baseball’s love of material results, where a
fluke single on a bad swing can be declared a good sign, while good swings and
hard-hit outs can be a cause for concern.
“Normally, I come to camp thinking, ‘I’m going to work the
backside of the field, and I’m going to get my swings in,’ because that was the
mentality you had coming from America,” Murton said. “If you’re a hitter (in
Japan), the first day go ahead and try to hit some home runs, try to let them
know you can do it. Then everyone will relax and you can go back to doing what
you’ve got to do. So yes, that is the one other piece of advice I’d probably
That and perhaps, save the sarcasm for home.
“I had a chance to see him (Nomi) for dinner this past
September, and I gave him a nice hug,” Murton said.
“That was always going to be a thing,” Murton said. “I still
can’t believe to this day that it took on this life of its own. And part of
that is my own fault.”
When he retired as a pro in 2017, Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman for the Chicago White Sox’s 2005 World Series champs, said he someday hopes to be back in a Sox uniform.
“Yes. That’s my dream,” the second-year Lotte Marines
manager said in March.
Iguchi returned to Japanese baseball in 2009 after four years in the majors, and though his career appeared all but over at the time, he went on to play 10 more seasons before retiring in 2017. From there, he moved straight into the manager’s chair at Zozo Marine Stadium. He said it was not an easy decision to make that jump, but didn’t want to throw away the edge of knowing what his players were capable of by having been on the front lines with them.
Iguchi said the biggest skill he takes into managing is
communication and cited his former Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen as his biggest
“In some sense, he (Guillen) is kind of crazy,” Iguchi said.
“But he communicates well and is charismatic.”
“Having been with the players here as a teammate when I was
still playing and speaking with them on the bench, I think I’d established good
communication with them.”
How about the motivation side?
“He (Guillen) has the ability to motivate people. That’s something I think I lack,” Iguchi said.
One of just a handful of Japanese position players to go to
the majors, Iguchi said he gained some insight into the differences between
Japan’s game and America’s.
Coaching in Japan and America
“I could understand how the internal conditions differed between organizations here and there,” he said. “Japanese coaches are always teaching you how to do things. Over there, they are more like advisers, taking a supporting role. Japanese players generally wait for what a coach has to say. Over there, you do things on your own and when you don’t understand, you might seek advice.”
“In Japan, the coach does all the talking. So, I think there
are a lot of Japanese players who don’t really understand their own strengths.”
As part of his plan to revitalize the Marines and build a
foundation for the future, Iguchi wants to adopt a more hands-off approach to
young players from this season, although one expects it won’t be easy.
“There is something about Japanese baseball that makes
coaches want to teach too much,” he said, although he will have a willing ally
in the form of pitching coach Masato Yoshii, also a former big leaguer.
In his final year as a player, the Marines finished dead last in Japan’s Pacific League. in 2018, they escaped the cellar by two games. Iguchi said that as a rookie manager, he may have hurt his win total by sticking too long with less proven players, but he hoped those investments pay dividends down the road.
For someone who played 21 years, perhaps it’s natural for Iguchi to have a long-term vision, one that contrasts with the win-now mentality that some here see as a cancer in Japan’s beloved sport.
Changes are coming
Activists trying to protect the arms of elementary and
junior high school kids believe that teaching the youngest kids that winning is
the only thing that matters encourages abusive excessive practice and leads to
burnout and arm injuries. They are calling for pitch and practice limits, and
Iguchi said such rules are inevitable.
“That’s the era we’re in,” he said. “These days we are
concerned with how many days a guy throws. It’s the same in America. That’s
where we are headed so I don’t think there’s any going back.
“When I was in elementary school, I hit off a tee at home
all the time. I think long practice hours just for the sake of winning might be
a problem. If the purpose is to learn teamwork and communication with others,
then long hours are well spent I think.”
“We do have to be concerned about kids’ health. I played
rubber ball baseball when I was in elementary school. So many players never
went on to play at a higher level because they ruined their shoulders or
elbows. I think was lucky I wasn’t a pitcher. For the coaches to coerce the
kids is something I am not sure about, but I want people to strive more and
more to be No. 1.”
That’s something Iguchi has ample experience with, having
won three PL pennants with the Hawks a Japan Series title with the Marines and,
of course, the 2005 World Series win in Chicago.
2005, making it look easy
Oddly enough, that championship kind of snuck up on Iguchi,
who was simply too busy playing hard to see the bigger picture going on around
“I was just going as hard as I could for the whole season, and it was more a feeling that I did all I could rather than a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “Perhaps had we not won the first year and then won the second, then I would have been happier. But I was just going from start to finish, and didn’t really have a grasp for what was happening.”
And after he accomplishes his mission in Chiba, east of Tokyo, Iguchi may turn his gaze again to the south side.