NPB April start date springs leaks

Despite the teams’ chant of full-speed ahead toward an April 24 start to the season despite the coronavirus pandemic, Sports Nippon on Tuesday morning provided the first inkling that anyone in Nippon Professional Baseball is willing to consider anything else as they move forward.

Later in the day, the six Pacific League presidents met online and agreed that with infections on the rise, April 24 was probably out of the question, Sports Nippon reported.

“We started by setting an Opening Day target and teams have been counting backward from then to figure out when to resume practicing. But first of all, you wait until the epidemic settles down, then you resume practice and then you ask when Opening Day should be. That should be the normal order…”

Pacific League official cited by Sports Nippon.

NPB has now met three times with Japan’s J-League pro soccer executives to discuss how to proceed with their season and after meeting with a panel of experts, have twice pushed back the start of their season.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

The story quoted secretary general Atsushi Ihara, as saying, “We are taking in the panel of experts’ evaluation, analysis and projection of the infection situation, and of course, we have to consider that.”

In addition to April 24, which NPB revealed in March was the last day their simulations suggested they could complete a full 143-game schedule, they have also run simulations for seasons that start on May 8 and May 15.

NPB starts brief shutdown

Japan baseball halted minor league practice games for a seven-day period from March 31 to April 6, Nippon Professional Baseball announced Monday.

When Opening Day was pushed back to its current target date of April 24, the leagues suspended the first-team practice games that had been taking the place of regular-season games.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

Three Pacific League teams, the SoftBank Hawks, Lotte Marines and Rakuten Eagles had already suspended baseball activities and ordered their people to refrain from going out except on essential business, while the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants and DeNA BayStars followed suit on Monday.

 

NPB owners shit the bed again

There is a fine line between understanding the business of baseball and the fact that baseball itself is not a business but a sport that people play or watch for their enjoyment. Although reporters often cross over that line and confuse the two, owners tend to forget completely that THEIR business is of no concern to the people who play or watch the game. Owners confuse the fact that because people care what their teams do, it makes what owners say important.

“Anytime who tells you baseball is ‘basically a business’ is basically an idiot. And you can tell him I said so.”

Bill James

This is no more obvious than in times of crisis when the goodwill of fans can be challenged by extraordinary forces. In these times, owners can show what they are made of and whether they truly understand that the true bottom line of the baseball business is not budgets, payroll, stadium rent and travel expenses, but the willingness of people to engage with their product.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us again that Japanese pro baseball owners think that fans will believe whatever comes out of their mouths as if it were the word of God. This year’s example comes from the decision to switch Opening Day, first to April 10, then to April 24.

And while the world is now beginning to grasp the consequences of poor preparation for the pandemic, owners picked those dates, not because of any understanding that the public health crisis would be manageable by then, but rather that those dates allowed them to play a full 143-game schedule.

Only the owners’ arrogance led them to believe anyone – excepting those calculating team budgets on spreadsheets or ass-kissing media types – would buy the rubbish the teams are peddling.

It was this arrogance that led to Japan’s first work stoppage in 2004, and to a longer-than-necessary delay to the season in 2011 following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

2004: Go suck eggs

In 2004 when the Kintetsu Railroad wanted to liquidate its team, the Buffaloes, and get out of baseball, owners told the fans and players, “We’re reducing from 12 teams to 11 and if you don’t like it, suck eggs. We care about the fans and the players, but you can still suck eggs because baseball is a business that we understand and you don’t.”

That led to an embarrassing defeat for the owners, who did not bargain in good faith with the players on the assumption the courts would deny them the right to strike. Instead, the courts sided with the players and admonished the owners in public.

Then the owners editorialized about how the players were betraying the fans, who would never forgive a work stoppage and breaking a sacred trust. That was the gist of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s morning edition editorial of Sept. 19 – written before fans flocked to ballparks the day before to get ticket refunds from the canceled games.

But when the strike happened, the customers did what they had done throughout that contentious summer. They stood by those who cared about the product and turned their backs on the owners, whose only rationale was their businesses’ bottom line.

At Yokohama Stadium, the Carp and BayStars practiced – without coaches – but did not play. When the BayStars players came out of the stadium to the ticket plaza they got a warm reception from the fans waiting there, while the player reps, Daisuke Miura and Takanori Suzuki got thunderous applause.

In the end, it worked out great for everybody. The owners’ defeat meant an expansion team for Sendai and interleague play – something the Central League hated. Like free agency in the majors, the defeat of the owners, who ostensibly KNEW about baseball business, has led to a more vibrant baseball scene in Japan with attendance rising every year and vastly more effort to market their product.

2011: Disaster strikes

In 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami meant the two Pacific League parks in Sendai and Chiba were unready for Opening Day. It also meant thousands were dead or missing, and many thousands more had lost their homes and jobs, while a nuclear disaster halfway between Tokyo and Sendai left the nation anxious and short of energy.

But because the CL owners KNEW baseball was a business, they insisted on plowing ahead with Opening Day on March 25 as scheduled because, after all, business is business. The PL wanted a delay until April 12, probably less out of consideration of the fans and more for the two damaged stadiums.

After the players union met with the Minister of Education and Sports, the government ridiculed the CL’s plan, and out of consideration of the energy shortage ordered all the games in eastern Japan through April to be played during the day.

In response, the CL announced a four-day delay to Opening Day, which didn’t satisfy the government, and led to the two leagues both opening on April 12. Lotte Marines veteran Tomoya Satozaki said at the time the clubs could easily have begun play around the first of April, but the Central League owners truculence just aggravated the situation.

Eight years later and we’re on the same kind of threshold.

Pandemics? We’ve got a business to run

Faced with a crisis of enormous proportions, the owners’ first response has been “business as usual.” There has been no talk about supporting the vendors and stadium staff who lost wages for preseason games behind closed doors and no talk about a threshold at which inviting large crowds to ballparks would not endanger public health.

Instead, everything has been about how best to play 143 games – as if a single fan in the country actually cared. You’d think the owners would have learned, but apparently not.

I mean why should they learn when the media reports whatever they say. Owners’ policies can impact the product fans get, so it can be relevant for them, but nobody cares wants to hear budget issues or service time used as excuses for teams choosing to deliver a weaker product.

This last point is often lost on reporters who understand those constraints and want to explain the rationale to fans. There is nothing wrong with explaining how such things work, but it’s one thing to explain service time as the reason a prospect is being kept in the minors until he works through all his adjustment issues, and another to explain that it is best for teams to do that.

I don’t mean to pick on Buster Olney

That’s what occurred to me when listening to Buster Olney on his Baseball Tonight podcast.

When he argued the Rays SHOULD keep a promising minor league pitcher in Triple-A so the team won’t waste his service time in the majors while he is still learning, I thought, “That’s not what’s best for the player or the game. that’s only what’s best for the owners.”

That’s the equivalent we had in Japan all summer when the president of the Olympic organizing committee and the governor of Tokyo both said, “The Tokyo Olympics will start on July 24. There is no chance of any change to that.” Despite being in a coronavirus pandemic, those words were treated here as if these people were stating facts by reporters, editors, and producers who should have known better.

It is that kind of reporting that encourages owners and teams to think that they can make people care about their profit and loss statements, and that’s a disservice to everyone.

2 infected women in Osaka linked to dinner with Tigers pitcher Fujinami

Two of the 15 newly discovered coronavirus infections announced by the Osaka government on Saturday, were recently in contact with Hanshin Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, Sankei Sports reported Saturday night.

The two women in their 20s were among 12 people who dined together on March 14 at the home of one of Fujinami’s friends. The dinner took place after Hanshin’s practice game that afternoon with the Orix Buffaloes and seven of those present were Tigers players.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

The women reported similar symptoms to Fujinami, who reported a diminished sense of smell to one of the Tigers trainers. Because Fujinami allowed his name to be reported, the women were able to be tested and diagnosed.

Two of Fujinami’s Tigers teammates, outfielder Hayata Ito and catcher Kenya Saka also tested positive for the new coronavirus. Like Fujinami and the two women, they did not develop any of the symptoms Japan health authorities have used as a guideline for testing: a fever of 37.5 C or higher, coughing, difficulty breathing or extreme fatigue.

NPB unsprung

How does one count where baseball activities sit in relation to the regular season when Opening Day is a moving target? Are we at projected OD1 (March 20) + 7 days or OD3 (April 24) minus 28 days?

Between the coronavirus pandemic AND the sudden postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, the national government’s finger on the trigger of a national emergency, a three-week lock-down. Into that mix, NPB had its first positive tests for coronavirus, three players from the Hanshin Tigers, forcing that entire team to go into self-quarantine.

When the April 24 Opening Day was announced, both the Central and Pacific leagues announced they would suspend their practice games until the middle of April. That may be so, but their minor league clubs are still playing practice games, and many of the CL and PL regulars are taking part.

On Friday, Zach Neal pitched for the Seibu Lions at Seibu’s minor league facility, essentially a back field behind MetLife Dome, in a game against the Lotte Marines, who also threw one of their first-line starters, Ayumu Ishikawa.

But with the news of the Tigers infections, many teams are even suspending their farm team games for the time being.

Sasaki throws 2nd BP

18-year-old flame-thrower Roki Sasaki threw his second live BP of the spring at the Marines’ home park, QVC Marine Stadium in Chiba on Friday and touched 156 kph (96.9 mph) on the radar gun.

“I wasn’t able to command some balls, and I want to increase the number of quality pitches,” he told reporters.

Here’s a video of Sasaki’s effort on Friday.

He was unable to locate his fork ball early on, but in the later stages of the session, he was able to pepper the bottom of the zone with his pitches, including his slider.

“This is a world that doesn’t tolerate poorly executed pitches, so I want to be able to execute as close as I can to 100 percent,” he said.

Matsui gets lit up

Rakuten Eagles lefty Yuki Matsui, who failed to make it as a starter straight out of high school but became a hit as their closer, has been working all spring toward a return to the starting rotation.

It’s been a rocky road so far, and on Friday his warm-up outing he allowed six runs in one inning.

“I had mediocre stuff,” he said. “Being a starter is tough.”

3 Tigers players hospitalized

The Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League on Friday revealed that three players, pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, outfielder Hayata Ito and catcher Kenya Nagasaka have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

According to the Hochi Shimbun, all three have been hospitalized. All have complained of a diminished sense of taste and smell, but have not developed fevers or coughs.

Last week, Nippon Professional Baseball’s teams agreed to announce whenever a player was tested or tested positive, and the three are the first pro ballplayers in Japan known to have been infected.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

On Thursday the team announced that Fujinami had been tested for the virus, had all its facilities sanitized by people wearing hazmat suits and canceled a farm-team practice game scheduled that day.

The Central and Pacific leagues were originally scheduled to open for business on March 20, but Opening Day has been pushed back twice on account of the pandemic, first to April 10 and now to April 24, although that latter date seems as unrealistic as the first.

The 25-year-old Fujinami was having a promising spring after four seasons in a tailspin that started when Tomoaki Kanemoto took over as Tigers manager in 2016 for three years. Prior to that he had been a reliable starting pitcher after being the 2012 draft’s top pitching prize. Shohei Ohtani also went in that draft in the second round, because he had announced he would turn pro with a big league club.

NPB aiming for April 24 openers

After meeting for the fourth time with the J-League pro soccer establishment, Nippon Professional Baseball on Monday announced the Central and Pacific Leagues will aim to start their 2020 seasons on April 24.

The J-League has suspended play since the middle of February, while NPB completed its preseason games behind closed doors. The baseball season was originally set to start on March 20 in a season that would include a three-week Olympic break and would run until the middle of November. But due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Japan’s government asked that large events be canceled to limit the spread of the virus.

When making the decision to delay Opening Day, NPB set April 10 as the earliest possible start time, and since March 20, teams have been playing practice games behind closed doors.

“It’s difficult to say that we will absolutely be staging games from April 24, but we will make a maximum effort to do so,” NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito said.

Opening season in April motivated by greed, not logic.

The PL will suspend its practice games from Tuesday and then resume baseball activities on April 10, while the CL will play its scheduled games on Tuesday and Wednesday and then take off until April 14.

The leagues are looking at playing six warm-up games before Opening Day, and expect to play a full 143-game regular season, although the Climax Series playoffs to determine each league’s Japan Series team may be abbreviated.

The teams are looking into measures that would reduce the health hazards by possibly restricting access to elderly fans and those with health conditions and perhaps keeping out fans who have just arrived from overseas.

When the April 10 date was set last month, late April was targeted as the last point at which NPB could still play a full 143-game full season.

April 24 Opening Day is madness

Tokyo Disneyland may be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Fantasyland is operating at full capacity in the halls of government and in the offices of Nippon Professional Baseball.

For three months, the Japanese government has been in full-fledged denial about how the spread of the new coronavirus might affect its staging of the Olympics. Schools were requested to close for all of March, and promoters of large events were asked to either cancel them, postpone or hold them behind closed doors, but the official insistence that everything would be alright and the Olympics would not need to be rescheduled has delivered a powerfully mixed message.

Through the weekend, the official message from the government and Olympic organizers has been that nothing would prevent the games from going forward as scheduled from July 24. This message was often delivered as: “We will take every measure to ensure the health and safety of the athletes and the fans, but the games will go on no matter what.”

On Monday, with the Olympics all but certain to be postponed until at least next year, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who a few weeks ago asserted that there was no chance the games would be canceled or postponed, spoke of a possible lockdown in Tokyo for the first time if things get worse.

Yet, while Tokyo began talking about emergency measures on Monday, NPB and Japan’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, announced it was time to restart their seasons in April with NPB planning to pack fans into its parks from April 24.

Obviously, this is not because Japan has the coronavirus outbreak under control since that is very much in doubt. Rather the reason seems to be NPB’s desire to get fans into the parks for a full slate of 143 games. On March 23, NPB announced it had run various simulations and decided that April 24 was the last day that a full schedule could be played. So now, “voila” there’s our new Opening Day.

NPB’s announcement on Monday sounds more like the old Olympic mantra: “We’ll do everything to ensure the safety of the players and the fans, but it’s our business and we’re going to play our games.”

So even if cramming 30,000 fans and a few thousand stadium employees onto public transit and into close quarters during a pandemic is a really bad idea, well 143 games is kind of important to us and our fans want us to play so there.

Although the government has asked companies to have employees work from home and midday trains in Tokyo are less crowded than usual, morning rush hour still sees people crammed together in rolling virus incubators.

People were warned this past week not to assemble in parks across the country for spring tradition of having picnics and drinking sessions under the cherry blossoms, but parks filled up nonetheless.

On Sunday, the promoter of a mixed-martial-arts event outside Tokyo defied government requests to put the event on hold and opened it up to 6,500 fans.

Many are encouraged by the fact that Japan has not buckled under the weight of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t still happen.

Japan’s infection rate has been slower than that of western European nations or the United States. And relative to those nations, Japan has acted quickly, but there’s also been a sense that the government is not giving us the whole truth. One can apply for being tested in Tokyo if they meet the following conditions.

  • In the past two weeks they have come into contact with an infected person, or traveled in an area with infections.
  • Pregnant women, senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions who have experienced cold-like symptoms, a fever of 37.5 C or higher, extreme fatigue or difficulty breathing for around two days.
  • A member of the general population experiencing the above conditions for four days or more.

Those satisfying the pre-conditions can then call and ask about being tested. It’s almost as if the government didn’t want to know the truth, lest the image of control was revealed to be just a facade.

There is a concern that many infected people with mild symptoms or none at all are circulating freely, encouraged by Japan’s officially low infection rate, and that the country is a viral bomb awaiting a trigger to go off.

And now with schools set to reopen soon, and pro baseball and soccer aiming to pack people into stadiums again, it looks like that trigger is being prepared.

Command is not everything

After laboring through Daisuke Matsuzaka’s practice game start on Sunday, I caught some of Michael Peoples‘ effort for the DeNA BayStars at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants.

Peoples was getting a chance to show his stuff after he impressed the week before. On March 15, the 28-year-old Peoples, who spent eight seasons in the Cleveland Indians, held the Nippon Ham Fighters to two hits over five scoreless innings. On Sunday, he started against the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants.

After watching Matsuzaka struggle to locate for five innings, Peoples was a treat, hitting his spots pitch after pitch. His fastball sat at 87 mph, so this is a guy who needs to locate and make the ball move. Despite the lack of velocity, his fastball often jumped and missed bats, but that was less consistent than his command.

He threw some curves and appeared to cut his fastball and throw a two-seamer, but other than some of those underpowered-but beautiful fastballs, any pitch that missed and many that didn’t found barrels. The Giants hitters were able to foul off pitches and work walks and wait for an occasional straight fastball to hammer.

Peoples allowed five runs in three innings, and website Baseball King wrote off his chances of making the BayStars’ rotation.

Teams can keep four imported players on the active first-team roster, and the BayStars added outfielder Tyler Austin to two-time home run king Neftali Soto and veteran first baseman Jose Lopez, with two veteran relievers in the bullpen, right-hander Spencer Patton and lefty Edwin Encarcion, Peoples’ prospects look slim at the moment.

Having said that, being able to control your pitches as well as Peoples can is a valuable skill, provided he becomes accustomed to the hitters here and finds ways to get them out. This is a guy who because of his command, should be able to force a lot of Japanese hitters to come to him by expanding the strike zone. If he can improve one of his secondary pitches with the help of the Japanese coaches, he could have a real future here.

Ironically, after reading that assessment of his outing, I was surprised to find that Matsuzaka got solid reviews for his effort against the Fighters on Sunday. The team Peoples blanked last weekend had the worst offense in Japan last year, but Dice-K was put up on a pedestal for holding them to four runs over five innings. Yomiuri’s offense is not the best in Japan, but it is probably the best in the CL.

The Tokyo Dome special

That’s a term I coined 15 years or so ago to describe high flies to the opposite field that just clear the walls in straight-away left or right at Tokyo Dome, which has the shortest power alleys in Japan.

Typically these home runs come off high-straight fastballs, like the one that Takumi Oshiro hit off Peoples in the third inning on Sunday. But Tyler Austin hit a low pitch that did the same thing, demonstrating why a lot of hitters simply love Tokyo Dome. It’s not the best home run park in Japan — last year the Giants’ team HR adjustment was 1.11, second to the Yakult Swallows’ 1.18 but it’s healthy.

Anyway, Austin has been hitting a lot of home runs this spring, so here’s his Tokyo Dome special from Sunday:

Tumbling Dice, K?

More than a year removed from his comeback player of the year season with the Chunichi Dragons, 39-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound at MetLife Dome, where 21 years earlier he got his pro start with the Seibu Lions.

Entering his sixth season in Japan since the SoftBank Hawks lured him away from MLB, Matsuzaka is a shadow of the pitcher who was called the “monster” when he turned pro out of Yokohama High School. His basic repertoire is now a fastball, a cutter, and a change — a forkball this year.

In 2018, Matsuzaka went 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA in Japan’s best pitcher’s park, Nagoya Dome, largely because he didn’t give up a lot of home runs and got more than his share of big outs after letting lots of runners on base.

Matsuzaka’s game is locating the fastball, getting hitters to miss-hit the cutter and sometimes swing and miss at the change. On Sunday, he also threw a decent slider and curve.

But 14 years and two days after he became a national hero for the second time in his baseball career by beating Cuba in San Diego to win the 2006 World Baseball Classic final and earn tournament MVP honors, Matsuzaka had no command to speak of.

He allowed four runs over five innings, and caught breaks when most of his mistakes were not hammered. He said recently he needs to work on the cutter, and he missed badly with most of the 24 I tracked. He couldn’t locate his fastball, or the change. The slider and curve were his best pitches.

The Lions, who in 2018 became the second league champion in NPB history to have the league’s worst ERA, repeated the feat a year ago.

Matsuzaka knows what he’s doing, and knows when to challenge hitters in the zone, but if he’s constantly behind in counts and can’t throw strikes, he might be too much of a burden even for the Lions’ powerful offense to carry.

Here’s a link to the Pacific League TV game highlights.