Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020: The question about Junya Nishi

Today’s topic is right-handed pitcher Junya Nishi, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick last autumn. Nishi, a Hiroshima native, played for Soshigakuen HS in Okayama and is a distant relative of Tigers pitcher Yuki Nishi.

Haven’t heard anyone talk about Nishi’s hitting, but he’s got real power. I asked longtime former Dodgers scout Hank Jones, one of the instructors in the Scouting and General Manager course at Sports Management World Wide, what teams did back in the day when guys had hitting AND pitching tools back in the day before Shohei Ohtani.

Essentially, Jones said, “Let him prove he can’t hit. If he can’t then he’s a pitcher.”

But now that we’re living in the post-Ohtani world, one would think any team would at least consider a novel approach to a player with such obvious talent.

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Physically, Nishi resembles Ron Cey, although he is a little taller than Cey. His pitching motion makes it look like he’s constantly overexerting himself, and his follow through is violent rather than smooth.

The pitcher

In the pitching video below, the announcer reports Nishi as saying his balance is off when his cap comes off his head — which it does frequently. When he bats, it looks like his lower body imparts very little of the impressive power he generates.

Here’s a first-round national championship game in 2018, when Nishi was a month shy of his 17th birthday. He touched 91.3 mph in this game with 40 command. He has since been recorded at 93.2, which would make his velocity a 60. He has a slider with depth and 50 command, a curve that he doesn’t command well what appeared to be a splitter with arm-side run and good depth.

Junya Nishi’s 16 strikeouts in the national championships as a 16-year-old.

The video below is an analysis of his motion and deliveries against the national collegiate team prior to last year’s Under-18 World Cup. I can’t vouch for the RPMs given on the video. The curve with poor command appears little different than the ones he threw at Koshien Stadium a year earlier, but it looks like the slider and fastball are even better and he’s added a changeup and improved the splitter.

Some slow motion of him pitching against Japan’s national collegiate hitters.

The hitter

I first noticed Nishi when he drove in eight runs against South Africa as Japan’s DH in their Under-18 World Cup game last autumn in South Korea.

The other instructor in our scouting course, former Dodgers GM and Blue Jays scout Dan Evans, provided us with a hack for recognizing above-average major league power, which I won’t spill hear, but suffice it to say hearing that he led the World Cup in home runs and hit 25 in his high school career as a pitcher.

He’s a right-handed hitter, with 60 power that I’ll project to 65 with work on his lower body mechanics with a 50 hit tool. Like most Japanese hitters he sprays the ball to all fields, although his power seems to be mostly to left.

Here’s some video of Nishi hitting in high school.

Pitcher Junya Nishi raked and mashed in high school.

Conclusion

Japan is obsessed with pitchers, and Nishi has a lot to offer on the mound, but his delivery bothers me a little. I’m inclined to think his power is the real deal and that he may have more future value as a hitter with fewer adjustments needed.

Whether he can be a two-way player or not is a good question. But if I’m the Hanshin Tigers, I’d at least ask him if he’s interested instead of just assuming that the team knows more than the player. The Tigers are kind of a mystery to me. I don’t understand their inability to commit to young players or their past failures to modernize the club’s strength-training program.

Maybe they see the possibility Nishi presents, but if I were to bet, my money would be on the “We’ve already made up our minds about his future as a pitcher.”

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020 – Pacific League’s best outfield tools

The search for the best outfield defensive tools on the planet brings us to Japan’s Pacific League and the top three in the 2019 voting for the three outfield Golden Gloves. I thought it would be easier to select a PL winner than in the CL, but I was wrong.

  • Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾
  • Takashi Ogino, Marines 荻野 貴司
  • Haruki NIshikawa, Fighters 西川 遥輝

Shogo Akiyama

Collection of Shogo Akiyama catches
Best PL throws from the outfield, starting with Akiyama at 1:07.

By default, Akiyama, whose metrics have been slipping year by year, is the PL winner of the tools challenge. Despite the ubiquity of PL TV, the league’s streaming service, I’m simply unable to find any video collections of Takashi Ogino or Haruki Nishikawa. Those who are interested more on Nishikawa can find my profile of him HERE, since he has expressed an interest in playing in the majors.

If you are interested in the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, my profile of the former Lions captain is HERE.

Conclusion and admission

My outfield tools surveys of four leagues, the National, American, Central and Pacific, has produced four finalists:

  • Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
  • Jackie Bradley, Jr, Boston Red Sox
  • Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
  • Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions

My choice for the best outfield tools in the world goes to Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. If I had to pick No. 2 it would be Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rationale

I tried to evaluate every outfielder on the following criteria:

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release
  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

I omitted “good hands” from consideration because all the candidates are exceptional at catching the ball. But having said that, Bradley is as good at that as anyone I’ve seen — and I grew up watching Willie Mays. I am hesitant to give out an 80 score, but let’s call it a 75.

Based on the video above, I’ve rated his arm strength is 75, his accuracy a 70. His footwork is as good as Kiermaier’s which is the best I’ve seen. But there’s a cherry on top, the grace and speed at which he transitions from catching to throwing is an 80. Again, he’s not AS good at scaling outfield walls as Lorenzo Cain, but nobody is. Having said that, Bradley is pretty darn close.

The other special thing about him is his jumps. He appears to be in motion before the batter swings. His raw speed gives him incredible range when he is right, and allows him to make up for guessing wrong.

An admission

I have less confidence in my Japanese choices in the outfield than I had in the infield, because while I’ve seen these guys a fair amount, I’ve been a writer, not a scout.

I’m trying to change that, of course, and my podcast colleague John E. Gibson could give a far more educated opinion about tools, because that has always been an after thought. Until now, my thinking has been, ‘Does he make the play or not? How often does he make plays? What are the context of the plays he made or didn’t make? Are they part of the story of this game or the story of that player or of Japanese baseball.

Gibson likes to talk about tools, but for the most part, they pretty much didn’t enter into my calculus. Which is kind of odd in a way, since the greater part of sports writing in Japan is obsessed with technical minutia about tools and skills. I preferred to write about how people grew and learned rather than why they decided to move their hands apart when the gripped the bat.

Anyway, I hope to remedy that indifference to specific skills going forward.

Barnette rejoins Swallows as advisor

A day after former Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette announced his retirement, the Central League club announced on Thursday he would begin working for the club in an advisory capacity.

The Hochi Shimbun reported Barnette will join the Swallows spring training camp in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 19. The 36-year-old Barnette twice led the CL in saves during his time in Japan from 2010 to 2015.

Barnette is the second former player hired in a role to help enrich the Swallows’ overseas efforts following last year’s agreement with former Yakult outfielder Aaron Guiel.

My interviews with Barnette and pitching coach Tomohito Ito, whom he credited with helping him achieve success in Japan, is available HERE for jballallen.com subscribers.

Scout Diary: Jan. 30, 2020 – Central League’s best outfield tools

Part 3 of a survey of the world’s best outfield defensive tools takes us to Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League. Unlike Major League Baseball’s Gold Gloves, Japan’s fielding awards, the Golden Glove does not discriminate among positions, meaning virtually all the winners are center fielders.

Japan’s awards where the winners actually receive a golden glove, were previously known as the Diamond Glove, a name that might have been changed the first time someone tried to make a glove out of diamonds.

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The Central League’s best

  • Yoshihiro Maru, Giants 丸 佳浩
  • Seiya Suzuki, Carp 鈴木 誠也
  • Yohei Oshima, Dragons 大島 洋平

Maru and Oshima are both center fielders, while Suzuki plays in right.

Yoshihiro Maru

Maru has won seven straight Golden Gloves but despite that nobody to my knowledge has put together a highlight video of his fielding exploits. Having said that, his 2019 season

Seiya Suzuki

Suzuki was a high school pitcher who feels he could have succeeded as a pitcher as well. Until 2019 when Maru moved to the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent, Suzuki in right was paired with Maru in center. Suzuki has a gun, solid throwing mechanics, and is fairly good at going and getting the ball.

His foot speed is not what it was four years ago, and though he was tested as a center fielder for the national team, nobody wants to take that cannon out of right field. His metrics are not quite the best among right fielders though, as one would also have to consider Chunichi’s Ryosuke Hirata.

Seiya Suzuki showing off his arm.

Yohei Oshima

Again, the quality of the highlights are fairly poor. It shows Oshima tracking the ball and catching it with the throws unable to make the highlight reel. According to Delta Graphs, he had an arm when he was a pup, but he’s now 34.

My choice, for lack of contrary evidence, is Suzuki. He has fairly soft hands with 60 speed and a 70 arm. Video of CL players is haphazard because NPB has no media arm — each team is responsible for televising its own home games — and only the Pacific League has a marketing arm that produces video.

Scout Diary: Jan. 30, 2020 – American League’s best outfield tools

Who has the best outfield defensive tools in the world?

To find out, I’m looking at the leaders in award fielding honors in center field in four of the world’s top pro leagues. Today is a quick look at the three finalists for the American League’s 2019 Gold Glove in center field.

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  • Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
  • Mike Trout, Angels
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox

First up is Keven Kiermaier. In addition to the good hands, great jumps, speed and strong arm, his throwing mechanics are incredibly fluid. His feet are extremely quick, so even though he is ready to release the ball very quickly, his feet are set, allowing him to make hard accurate throws. Although he is fearless at the wall, he lacks the grace there Lorenzo Cain possesses, which puts Kiermaier in the same group with every other outfielder in the world.

Kevin Kiermaier

Mike Trout has the physical strength to leap at the wall and athleticism to make diving and tumbling catches look effortless. He may be a little faster than Kiermaier, but is not as fluid with his throws as the Rays’ glove wizard.

Mike Trout

Jackie Bradley Jr., however, is my pick for No. 1 in the AL. He can cover ground with the best of them and has the speed to recover when his aggressive jumps send him the wrong way. While his throwing mechanics are not as quite as smooth as Kiermaier’s — nobody’s are, he has the strength and flexibility to make any catch at any angle.

Jackie Bradley Jr.

Next we’ll start our look at Japan with the top three in the voting for the Central League’s 2019 Golden Glove.

Tony Barnette and Japan

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Tony Barnette announced he is retiring from pro baseball after a career that included six seasons with the Yakult Swallows.

His success with Yakult coincided with a time when the club, tired of seeing their high-quality imports leaving after a couple of years to join the Yomiuri Giants, began handing out solid multiyear contracts. The deal offered Barnette and outfielder Wladimir Balentien, and the development of second baseman Tetsuto Yamada proved instrumental in the Swallows surprising 2015 Central League championship.

In March, I spoke with Barnette in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at their spring training base in Mesa, Arizona. We talked about what worked for him in Japan, and about his relationship with pitching coach Tomohito Ito.

“In Japan, you have to learn how to get guys to swing and miss. And if you can do it there, that plays anywhere. The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle, it’s all there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, keeping that competitive level all throughout the game.”

Tony Barnette on what he learned in Japanese baseball

After a rocky first season as a starter, when he allowed 6.21 runs per nine innings in a hitters’ park in a hitters’ league, there was no guarantee Barnette would even be back for a second season in 2011. He credited the support from then-manager Junji Ogawa and pitching coach Daisuke Araki and the guidance of Araki’s successor, Tomohito Ito.

Tony Barnette, chat in Mesa, Arizona, March 2019.

Tomohito Ito

Pitching coach Tomohito Ito

On March 30, I talked with Ito, currently coaching with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, about Barnette.

“He basically threw hard when he arrived,” Ito said. “But the slider and changeup were essentially his only secondary pitches, and his command of the change wasn’t that good. Some days he could throw strikes with the slider, and some days he couldn’t.”

“He pitched well in his first start, into the seventh inning, but opponents studied him.”

Ito said that although the results as a starter were not that good, Barnette was showing progress from the middle of the season, working on different pitches that would get him over the hump in Japan.

“He worked on his cutter, he learned a splitter, he threw a two-seamer,” Ito said. “In the process, that cutter became pretty good. By the time the season ended, the club didn’t rate him very highly as a starter, but he was throwing some nasty pitches, so my idea was to use him as a reliever, so I sounded him out about that.”

“He wanted the opportunity and gave it a shot. The fastball worked, and with the cutter, that would get him started in relief. When teams started adjusting, he’d have the splitter, and sometimes a sinker and then a curve that he was beginning to throw.”

Ito, too, pointed out that one reason so many foreign players have had success with the Swallows is the club’s situation on the fringes.

“Yakult is a good place for imported players,” he said. “We know that if the foreign players don’t do well, we’re not going to be successful as a team, so the culture on the team is to stay positive and supportive with them.”

“One of the advantages is that Japan gives players opportunities to try new things.”

Former Swallow Barnette calls it quits

Tony Barnette, who became a valuable professional pitcher in Japan, where he fashioned a solid career, before making his major league debut, announced Thursday on Twitter that he was bringing his active career to an end.

My interview with Barnette and the coach he credits with remaking his arsenal, Tomohito Ito, can be found HERE.

After being a big part of the Swallows’ 2015 Central League championship, the club’s first since 2001, Barnette was out of contract with the Swallows. Out of consideration for the club, he asked the Swallows to post him. But knowing he was a free agent, no American team was interested in paying Yakult a posting fee, but he did hook up with the Texas Rangers as a free agent.

Fighters announce new stadium to be known ES CON Field Hokkaido

The Nippon Ham Fighters announced the sale of the naming rights for their new stadium in Kita Hiroshima, Hokkaido, on Wednesday, saying the value of the deal is believed to be the highest in the history of sports in Japan, exceeding the 470 million yen ($4.3 million) a year paid by Nissan for the rights to Yokohama International Stadium — the home of the J-League’s Yokohama F Marinos soccer club.

Here’s the Fighters English page.

The natural grass field with a retractable roof is expected to open for business in 2023 and will be known as ES CON Field Hokkaido. The new naming rights holder is real estate developer ES-CON Japan, a subsidiary of the Chubu Electric Power Group that will be involved in the development of the surrounding property — known as Hokkaido Ballpark F Village.

The development is located near Kita Hiroshima Station about 8 kilometers east of the Fighters’ current home, Sapporo Dome.

When it is built, it will give all six Pacific League teams complete operating rights over their ballpark. Orix, SoftBank, and Seibu are the majority owners of their stadiums, while Rakuten and Lotte hold operating licenses. Only three of the six Central League clubs own the operating rights to their stadium.

The Fighters relocated to Sapporo in 2004, where they have dramatically increased the size of their fan base and their sponsorship revenues. In addition to the new ballpark, the team has also negotiated a major upgrade of its spring training base in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

Scout Diary: Jan. 28, 2020 – National League’s best outfield tools

The mission: Identify a professional outfielder who you feel has the best tools identified from this week and the previous week’s readings. Describe in scouting terminology why you feel he is the best.

Last week was infielders, this week’s assignment is outfielders. Again, I want to narrow the focus to as manageable a group as possible so I’ll stick to the four leagues I can access, American, National, Central and Pacific, and center fielders. While right fielders may possess more of the best outfield arms, I’m making an arbitrary decision — as I did with shortstops in the search for the best infield tools — with looking only at the most exclusive position, center field.

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Let’s start again with the Gold Glove finalists from the National League for 2019:

  • Victor Robles, Nationals
  • Lorenzo Cain, Brewers
  • Harrison Bader, Cardinals

Criteria

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release

  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

Victor Robles

Lacking the highlight clips for Robles that people like to make of shortstops, I’ll go with two videos of him, catching and throwing the baseball.

Victor Robles catch
Victor Robles throw

Lorenzo Cain – armed robber

One of my favorites since the 2014 World Series, Cain has four times been named MLB’s Wilson Defensive Player of the Year in center field but has yet to win a gold glove. Because of his knack for making catches at and over the fence, there is no shortage of Cain highlights. Here’s a good one:

Lorenzo Cain

Harrison “Darth” Bader

The fun part of this course is that it gets me to look at different things than I usually do and players I don’t normally see. Bader is one of these.

Harrison Bader

Conclusion

With so few glimpses of Robles to work with, it’s hard to get an impression of him other than the few plays I saw were all amazing. He has a gun, throwing 97.4 MPH across his body in what amounts to little more than a snap throw, but I’ll have to omit him from consideration for lack of evidence.

I neglected to mention a couple of points since all three appear to have excellent throwing mechanics and soft hands. Robles may have the best raw arm strength, but it’s hard to overlook the accuracy of Bader’s throw or that snap release that would look right at home as a shortstop.

If you held Robles’ cannon to my head and forced me to choose, I’d go with Cain. The one part of the video I wanted to see that they cut off is a throw he was getting ready to make after a catch at the warning track. This reminds me of Willie Mays talking about his famed World Series grab in 1954, saying “I made many catches better. The best part of the play was the throw.”

Cain can do what the others can perhaps to a slightly lesser degree as he ages, but that ability to pick balls at the wall makes me go with him.

Scout Diary: Jan. 27, 2020 –interviews

If one is going to scout, one should be a scout and find out what’s involved.

One course requirement for my scouting class is to conduct two “informational interviews,” where we contact people in the sports business, in this case general managers and scouts to learn about the business but also to build a network and get used to making cold calls — an invaluable skill it seems for a baseball scout.

I’ve contacted a small number of people about the interviews — but no real cold calls — since I already have a smallish network in baseball, and finally did my first two. On Sunday, I met with Waseda University baseball manager and former New York Mets pitcher Satoru Komiyama, and on Monday I chatted for about half an hour with the Nippon Ham Fighters scouting director, Takashi Ofuchi.

Practice day

The Komiyama interview took place at the team’s indoor practice facility on a cold, rainy day in Tokyo’s western suburbs. To be honest, it didn’t do much toward meeting my course requirement, but I did learn a lot about his views on the value of college baseball and his educational philosophy.

I connect with Komiyama now and then on Facebook, having interviewed him once about 16 years ago before he went to the majors. I ran into him a few weeks ago at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, where he spoke on behalf of his former Waseda manager Renzo Ishii.

He turned down a job as a coach and likely future manager of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Lotte Marines to coach university kids. He said the two biggest influences in his baseball life were Ishii and his Mets — and Marines — manager Bobby Valentine.

As a writer, I have to promise the interview subjects that things I learn will not be published. And though I didn’t learn much about scouting, it was enlightening about a side of the Japanese baseball world I rarely have contact with.

Fighters being Fighters

Mr. Ofuchi is an engaging person, and explained a great deal about how amateur scouting works in Japan — or at least works with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

One of the more interesting things I learned and shouldn’t have been surprised by is that Ofuchi’s background is very representative of the Fighters’ organization in that he had no connection with the club until he was hired.

I would be surprised if more than a handful of scouts for NPB never played pro baseball, and Ofuchi is one of them. The Fighters, whose previous chief executive started out as the club’s interpreter, and whose current GM is a former sportswriter, are a team that frequently looks where other teams don’t for talent. When Nippon Ham called, he was coaching high school ball.

–The hardest thing about starting out as a scout?

“Getting used to sitting behind home plate rather than watching players on TV. The vantage point is so different.”

One of the big differences between scouting amateurs in Japan and the United States is that building relationships with players and their families is problematic for NPB scouts because of the historic animosity between professional clubs and amateur bodies.

In addition to signing players during their amateur team’s season — as happened in the days before NPB’s draft — there is also the numerous instances of NPB clubs handing out cash to amateurs and their coaches.

Next up

I still have interviews to do with a Japanese corporate league manager, one MLB scout and one NPB GM and am formulating a plan of attack for a few in MLB (better sooner than later, but better late than never).

These latter ones are somewhat terrifying, since they will be cold calls, and I have natural aversion to asking people I don’t know really well for favors of any kind. So far, I’ve been using the logistical side — the time difference between Japan and the U.S. as an excuse, although I know it is a serious hassle, having spent a lot of time on the phone a year ago trying to set up spring training interviews before I left Japan.