Open and shut: NPB goes under cover

I’m calling this spring’s preseason stories “Open and shut” since a main theme so far is 72 exhibitions scheduled to be played behind closed doors as Japanese companies are being asked to curtail large gatherings in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Sands opens with pair

Hanshin Tigers newcomer Jerry Sands blasted two of his team’s five solo home runs in a 5-4 win over the SoftBank Hawks on Saturday. The Tigers got three scoreless innings from their Opening Day starter, Yuki Nishi, and another scoreless frame from former Hawk Kenichi Nakata.

Yusuke Oyama, who is fighting to secure the starting third base job for Hanshin, also homered twice, while 2016 rookie of the year Shun Takayama homered to continue his comeback spring effort. Hawks starter Nao Higashihama allowed four solo homer, all off breaking pitches.

Matsui goes 5 in Eagles restart

Yuki Matsui, making the shift from closer, started and went five innings for the Rakuten Eagles in a 4-2 win over the Lotte Marines. J.T. Chargois and Alan Busenitz worked scoreless innings in relief for the Eagles, while former Eagle Frank Herrman and former Carp Jay Jackson each worked an inning for Lotte.

The PL clubs exchanged a host of players over the winter via free agency and other deals with. Herrmann, (Opening Day starter) Manabu Mima, and a pair of young minor leaguers, infielder Kenji Nishimaki and pitcher Fumiya Ono joined Lotte. Going the other way were Lotte’s former captain, infielder Daichi Suzuki, veteran right-hander Hideaki Wakui and pitcher Tomohito Sakai.

Buffs, Fighters show off season openers

The Orix Buffaloes’ Taisuke Yamaoka worked five scoreless innings, while the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Kohei Arihara allowed a run in three as the two teams went with their Opening Day starters. Orix newcomer Tyler Higgens worked a scoreless inning of relief.

Orix first baseman Takahiro Okada, who was exiled to the minors for the duration of the season after letting a routine grounder go through his legs last summer, homered in his first at-bat.

Viciedo blasts off

Dayan Viciedo homered and singled in his home preseason debut at a silent Nagoya Dome, while new Carp pitcher DJ Johnson allowed a run in one inning of work.

Scout diary: Feb. 29, 2020 – Notes from the preseason

Saturday began the second weekend of expanded preseason baseball in Japan, allowing some looks at players who’ve been off the radar so far. Here are some assorted notes:

SoftBank Hawks, OF, Naoki Sato

A 21-year-old corporate league outfielder, Sato was the Hawks’ alternate pick after they failed to land high school pitcher Yoshinobu Ishikawa. In his lone at-bat, he put a good swing on a fat pitch down the middle, drove it to right center and cruised in with a triple. As a right-handed-hitting amateur, I timed Sato going home to first in 3.9 seconds. (80 speed).

Israel Mota, OF, Yomiuri Giants

A 24-year-old right-handed hitter, Mota was handed a standard contract this week — he joined Yomiuri on a developmental deal — and added to the 70-man roster. He’s been swinging hard and chasing a lot in camp.

Mota’s swing is compact and he homered when he made contact with a hanging 3-2 slider on a two-strike swing that allowed him to drive it a bit.

Keiji Takahashi, LHP, Yakult Swallows

I forgot how much fun this guy is to watch. With his herky-jerky left-handed version of Ryan Ogawa’s delivery, I half expect him to contract on the mound and transform into a little car or something like in the movies.

Takahashi throws low 3/4. He has an exaggerated violent right leg kick. He lowers the leg most of the way and holds it as he raises his hands over his head until pausing at the apex, then as he lowers his hands, he raises his right leg to meet them and goes into something like a normal delivery. After the gyrations, the move home is a picture of smooth efficiency, particularly with the fastball. His curveball release point looked different, and he didn’t command the pitch well in this game.

NPB: No fans, no sickies

Not only will all Nippon Professional Baseball games between now until mid-March be closed to the public due to concern over the coronavirus outbreak, but it is going to be no picnic for those allowed to contact players.

Sankei Sports gives us a rundown of the steps others will have to take to be at the ballpark starting Saturday.

  • No one will be allowed to enter Sapporo Dome if they have a temperature of 37.5 C or more for five minutes.
  • Media members at other ballparks will be required to have examinations upon arrival. This may include screening, a questionnaire and having your temperature taken.
  • While on the road, Orix Buffaloes players will be asked to refrain from going outside.
  • The Rakuten Eagles have urged staff members to minimize contact with players.

IOC to fun-sucking virus: Hold my beer

With the new coronavirus capturing headlines around the world and causing nerves in Tokyo ahead of this summer’s Olympics, the International Olympic Committee moved on Friday to reclaim the spotlight from the contagion.

No fun allowed at torch relay

Local organizers in Tokyo fired the first shot in the campaign to put the virus in its place by reminding spectators at the torch relay that no video they might shoot after standing in the cold waiting for the runners to pass can be uploaded to social media so their friends can see it.

“That would be too much fun,” an organizing spokesman said. “It simply can’t be permitted according to the IOC rules.”

Because of the outbreak, organizers have considered downsizing the relay, a treasured living heirloom of the Olympic movement from Nazi Germany.

The rules are ostensibly to protect broadcast rights, the spokesman said.

“You think we’re going to let people have a good time at our sponsors’ expense? You want to do that? Go film the virus. It doesn’t have any sponsors to worry about.”

Camping World: Feb. 27, 2020

As spring training comes winding to a close in Okinawa and Miyazaki prefectures, players and fans ponder the future of games without spectators — turning the often poorly attended exhibitions into practice games without fans.

Sasaki heats up Marines’ pen

Roki Sasaki threw his seventh pen of the spring on Thursday, and drew a crowd at Orix’s camp in Miyazaki ahead of the Lotte Marines practice game against the Buffaloes.

According to Nikkan Sports, Marines pitching coach Masato Yoshii marveled at the 18-year-old’s ability to throw strikes (“I didn’t throw a single strike in my first camp bullpen”), but said the pitcher’s arm action was still only about 50 percent — whatever that means.

They had a camera behind the catcher on TV and it was a little scary. His motion is so easy, it seems unreal how quickly the ball gets there. You get a taste of that in the video below from his third pen.

NPB preseason open and shut

Nippon Professional Baseball on Wednesday said it would hold all 72 of its remaining preseason games — called “Open” Games in Japanese — behind closed doors in a measure to restrict the spread of the new coronavirus. Also affected were minor league preseason “instructional” games.

According to worldometers, there were 172 confirmed cases of the virus in Japan, and concern is growing about the possibility that the outbreak will affect this summer’s Olympics.

The Japanese government has issued a report saying the next two weeks will be critical in slowing the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus. The move comes on the same day that Japan Rugby’s Top League postponed 16 games over two weekends, and the nation’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, suspended all games until March 15.

Later that day, the Yomiuri Giants announced their two preseason games on Feb. 29 and March 1 at Tokyo Dome would be played without fans. The Giants have been urging other teams hosting their preseason games to also bar fans.

Because of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Nippon Professional Baseball has scheduled a break from July 21 — the day after the final All-Star game, and Aug. 13. The season was scheduled to open a week early, on March 20, with Japan Series Game 7 now slated for Nov. 15.

In 2011, the season started on April 12, two weeks later than scheduled. Two Pacific League parks, in Sendai and Chiba, suffered damage from the March 11 earthquake, while transportation, water and electricity were disrupted in many parts of eastern Japan.

Because none of the Central League parks were affected by the quake, that league, led by the Giants, wanted to push ahead with its plan to open the season in March, but the public outrage that followed the CL owners’ lack of sympathy forced them to wait two weeks.

The Giants being a leader in this issue is seen by some as the organization having learned its lesson from 2011, but I’m skeptical.

Having said that, this swift action is a nice change from the dithering and obfuscation after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that hit the 2011 season. No official game had ever been closed to the public before, so this is a pretty weighty step for a body that has been absurdly bad at making decisions.

The teams are hopeful to get started on March 20, but what the situation will be like then is unpredictable.

The preseason runs until March 15, while the two minor leagues, the Western and Eastern leagues, open on March 13 and 14, respectively.

Coronavirus forces Giants, Swallows behind closed doors

Amid concerns over the current coronavirus outbreak, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants announced Tuesday that their first two preseason games at Tokyo Dome this weekend on Feb. 29 and March 1, will not be open to the public.

Earlier in the day, Japan’s professional soccer establishment, the J-League decided to postpone all its league and cup games until March 15. The league season began last Friday.

On Wednesday, NPB executives will meet to decide on some action to prevent further spread of the virus. Various fan activities have already been canceled and most teams whose fans blow up jet balloons and launch them before their teams bat in the seventh inning and after home victories have asked fans to refrain from blowing up their balloons.

After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear meltdown north of Tokyo, the regular season was delayed. The team closest to the disaster, the Sendai-based Rakuten Eagles were unable to play home games until April 29.

That season didn’t end until the middle of November. This year’s NPB season was scheduled to start a week early, on March 20, and run longer due to a nearly one-month long break for the Tokyo Olympics.

Camping World: Feb. 22, 2020 – Let the games begin

This is the one week of the year where Japanese baseball looks like that in the majors. Teams are in camp and playing preseason games. Very often the games played until the final week of February are “practice” games, where rules can be bent to suit the needs of the managers. But once the “open season” begins, those games’ stats are recorded.

On Saturday, eight teams were in action, with most of the attention focused on the BayStars – Eagles game because Rakuten southpaw Yuki Matsui started in line with new manager Hajime Miki’s plan to move him out of the closer’s role. The other player of interest was the Eagles’ top draft pick, 24-year-old shortstop Hiroto Kobukata.

The Swallows – Carp game saw Hiroshima’s first pick, Meji University right-hander Masato Morishita and Yakult’s second pick, Japan Sport Science University right-hander Daiki Yoshida.

Morishita’s debut

Morishita looks much as he did last year as an amateur, a right-hander who balances about three seconds on his back leg before going to the plate. The one difference appears to be his arm slot. He had been high 3/4 in college, but was nearly 12-6 in the first inning. Ostensibly, he’d been tasked with making some adjustments in his previous bullpen session, and one wonders whether his arm slot was part of that. From the second inning it looked closer to what it had been in college and his command was spot on.

He allowed two runs in the first, basically because of his command. Few of the balls had anything coming off the bat, and his slider was particularly sharp.

Not “real” baseball

If one needs proof that these games are meaningless, one can look at Morishita’s not being ejected in the first inning for a “dangerous pitch.” A curve slipped out of his hand and traced an eephus arc before striking Alcides Escobar on the top of his helmet. Had this been a regular season game, the umpires would have been compelled to eject him for hitting a batter in the head.

Escobar “suits” Japanese ball

Escobar, the Swallows’ new shortstop, was praised as a good fit for Japanese baseball by the crew broadcasting the game, ostensibly because of what he can’t do. Other than his size, the 33-year-old Venezuelan fits Japan’s cookie-cutter image of a middle infielder: Plays good defense, runs and bunts well, while not being able to hit for power or reach base.

Goodness gracious.

One crowded infield

New Carp manager Shinji Sasaoka is trying out lots of combinations in his infield. He brought in second-year shortstop Kaito Kozono to play second, and the 2018 No. 1 pick did a reasonable impression of Ryosuke Kikuchi with the glove with a good charge toward the mound and a sharp throw to first across his body.

Former Yankees and Padres utility man Jose Pirela, who has impressed with the bat in camp, was tried out at third. Having spent most of his time with the Yankees and Padres at second base and in left field. He has good hands, it looked from this game like third base might be a challenge for his arm strength.

Nice start for Yoshida

While the Swallows’ top draft pick, high school star Yoshinobu Okugawa was throwing his first bullpen of the spring hundreds of miles away in Yakult’s minor league camp after hurting his arm in January, second-round pick Yoshida had two innings in the spotlight.

The 1.75-meter Yoshida has a super smooth delivery that looks like it was modeled on Tomoyuki Sugano’s although he doesn’t look like he’s trying to throw the ball through a wall like Sugano sometimes does. Yoshida, who has been used as the setup guy for the national collegiate team, has an above-average fastball with some hop to it, and showed a decent changeup and a slider, neither of which he commanded nearly as well as his four-seam fastball.

He located the fastball and missed some barrels with the change and retired all six batters he faced.

Matsui goes back to starting line

Yuki Matsui, who came to national prominence in high school for being able to survive extraordinarily high pitch counts, failed as a starter in his 2014 rookie season. That year he walked 67 batters in 116 innings, but was reincarnated as a closer the following season.

His English NPB page is HERE.

Matsui looked fairly uncomfortable, threw a lot of straight fastballs, missed his locations. He faced 18 batters and surrendered a pile of hard-hit balls while walking two batters and hitting one.

He did throw a number of quality sliders, and those kept the day from being a complete disaster.

Mirror, mirror

Yesterday, I filled out a scouting report on Eagles second pick Fumiya Kurokawa. A muscular second baseman, Kurokawa resembles current Eagles second baseman Hideto Asamura. Kobukata, the top draft pick, is a small left-handed hitting shortstop like Rakuten’s incumbent at the position, Eigoro Mogi.

Kobukata started and had three hits, all ground balls pulled through the right side of the infield. He looked OK with the glove. I don’t know if it’s a Japanese thing but like Kurokawa, Kobukata takes an extra step to set his feet before he throws. When he does cut loose, however, he has a gun with some good carry.

The other news from that game was the absence of new BayStars import Tyler Austin, who has been smoking hot all spring, due to stiffness in his right elbow.

Scout Diary: Feb. 21, 2020 – Fumiya Kurokawa, 2B, Rakuten

I was going to do a rundown on all the top draft picks from NPB’s 2019 autumn draft, but Fumiya Kurokawa grabbed my attention with a story of his alertness on the bases, so here we are.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page´╗┐

Furukawa was the second pick of the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles out of powerhouse high school Chiben Wakayama. He’s a second baseman, and that usually raises questions among amateurs because if he could field and had an arm, he’d be a shortstop.

  • Birthday: 4/17/2001
  • H: 1.82 m, W: 86 kg
  • Bats: L, Throws: R
  • Position: 2B

Physical description: Looks like a left-handed-hitting Hideto Asamura who has grown into his body more quickly than Asamura did. He has pronounced movement with his front foot, swinging his toe over the plate as he times the pitcher’s delivery.

Hitting Ability5060
Running Speed5555
Base Running7070
Arm Strength4040
Arm Accuracy5050
Baseball Instinct6060

Abilities: Soft hands, quick flips. Alert, aggressive base runner. Disciplined approach, compact swings, quick hands to the ball, with a slight uppercut.

Weaknesses: Hyper conscious of setting his feet before throwing, often taking an extra step before throwing.

Summation: He could develop real power, and pro coaches are sure to iron out his throwing technique and make him an above-average fielder.

2019 video of Kurokawa as a high school senior

Follow up

The report says nothing about his makeup or his speed to first, so those are things I’d like to fill in as time goes by. He did get to second on balls into the outfield in 8 seconds, but I don’t have enough records to know if that’s really fast or not.

Camping World: Feb. 20, 2020 – Tigers imports show their stuff

Thursday was a big day in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, for the Hanshin Tigers’ crowded field of imported players.

On the mound, reliever Jon Edwards made quick work of the three Rakuten Eagles batters he faced in a practice game. According to the Nikkan Sports, Edwards needed just 2 minutes, 30 seconds and eight pitches to get through the inning. His fastball, which touched 93.2 mph and has “natural cut,” produced three ground balls in quick succession against a trio of left-handed hitters.

Venezuelan Robert Suarez, who moved from the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks over the winter, also delivered a perfect inning in his bid to replace Pierce Johnson as Hanshin’s new setup man.

On the offensive side, newcomer Jerry Sands, who arrives this spring from KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes, had his first hit in live game action when he went the other way with an outside slider while behind in the count.

In addition to Sands, the Tigers have holdover Jefry Marte and have added Justin Bour. Two other pitchers are also looking to squeeze in under the four-import limit, third-year lefty Onelki Garcia and new import Joe Gunkel.

Stewart, Sunagawa impress against big boys

After spending his entire first season in Japan playing against amateurs for the SoftBank Hawks’ third team, Carter Stewart Jr faced first-team hitters on Thursday, the final day of spring camp according to Fullcount.

He was joined by Okinawa-born developmental contract player Richard Sunagawa (Richard Makoto Sunagawa O’Brien), who had two hits and a home run.

Stewart, the eighth selection in MLB’s 2018 draft, worked two scoreless innings, allowing a hit and a walk and touched 153 kph (95 mph).

“His pitches had something on them,” said Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo, whose 224 career wins rank 13th in the history of Japanese pro ball. “He used his breaking pitches and his mechanics looked good. His slide step has improved, and looks like a good one.”

Head coach Hiroyuki Mori said, “He’s better than I expected. He may have a chance to pitch on the first team this year. We have a lot of injuries, so he could be like that beam of light that breaks through.”