Category Archives: Commentary

Tanaka-induced flashback

It’s going to take a while to get used to seeing Masahiro Tanaka pitching for the Rakuten Eagles again.

For his 2021 debut on Saturday, he drew the last-place Nippon Ham Fighters. The Fighters entered the game having hit two home runs, which if you have to play someone in Tokyo Dome, should be a comforting thought. Before the game, in the midst of his constant chatter about how lovely the Fighters cheerleaders are and who well-dressed he was for the occasion of Tanaka’s return, analyst Tsutomu Iwamoto, said something interesting.

“Everyone in the ballpark is pumped. I’m pumped, the fans are pumped. The press box is packed and the stadium is buzzing, all for Tanaka,” Iwamoto said. “People want to see Tanaka, but what that means is the Fighters are going to be in the spotlight and sometimes that’s an opportunity.”

“Tanaka’s back and we all expect he’s going to energize Japan’s game, but I expected the Fighters are going to be energized and focused because this is their chance to go against a front-line major leaguer when everyone is watching.”

Without an opponent to play, you don’t have a game, and while a lot of people expected Tanaka to dominate, he was merely pretty good, and the Fighters were pumped.

My flashback had to do with Tanaka’s start on April 29, 2011. A month and a half after an earthquake and tsunami decimated much of northeastern Japan’s Pacific coast line, and eastern Japan was short on power due to a nuclear disaster, Tanaka started the Eagles’ home opener in Sendai.

The Eagles ballpark was on the side of the city that was ONLY hit by the enormous earthquake and aftershocks. I visited Sendai a day early to interview people and see what things were like. The city sits on a coastal plain and between the city center and the coast, runs an expressway atop an embankment. The coastal side was a scene of devastation, cars upside down in fields, uprooted trees sticking out of the upper stories of houses battered by a wall of water.

Structural damage was still being repaired at the Eagles’ ballpark when they played their first home game there after four “home” games in western Japan at the Hanshin Tigers’ home park, Koshien Stadium, outside Osaka.

Just like many people came expecting something magical from Tanaka on Saturday, people packed into Sendai’s park to see them beat the Orix Buffaloes, which they did. Park Chan Ho started for Orix and afterwards expressed his distaste for the scenario in which the Buffaloes were expected to lose.

The Buffaloes played hard, of course, but few could be unhappy that the Eagles won behind their ace, Tanaka. Ten years, later, and Tanaka has said that one reason he returned was the timing of being able to pitch in Sendai 10 years after the earthquake. Emotions are no longer as high as they were then, and like the Fighters on Saturday, I expect the Seibu Lions will see next Saturday’s game against Tanaka not as some role in a melodrama but rather as a chance to raise their game when everyone is watching. If every team sees Tanaka not as a threat but an opportunity to test themselves and get better, we’re in for a hell of a season.

Musings 4-16-21

Ishikawa needs more will power?

Former BayStars manager Akihiko Oya is another one of the guys on Pro Yakyu News I’m very fond of personally. He had this to say about Hawks Opening Day starter Shuta Ishikawa (1-2) who has pitched well and should not been the losing pitcher on Thursday, but well them’s the rules.

“Ishikawa didn’t pitch badly, but… It may be harsh, but if you’re the Opening Day starter, you’re going to face other teams’ Opening Day starters, so you have to go out there with the willpower to not allow the first run. If you can’t do that, you can’t win.”

–Akihiko Oya

Certainly, it’s great to be able to shake off disappointment, but he was marginally outpitched on Friday, and surrendered one run because of a mental error that turned a first-inning fly out into a leadoff double.

There’s certainly a desire to ascribe failure to lacking sufficient willpower, but it’s basically just something to say.

Lions going small

Oya also commented on something I’d noticed this past week.Since 2015, the Seibu Lions have been last in the PL in sacrifice hits every year. Their trademark has been pitching badly while their hitters made opponents’ pitchers look even worse.

Sosuke Genda, their No. 2 hitter kind of fits the stereotype of the Japanese No. 2 hitter, as a speedy left-handed-hitting middle infielder, who can bunt, but is probably too tall and too good a hitter to play there if his principle role is to make outs.

His six sacrifices are the most in either league.

That’s the objective truth, and I know that neither Tsuji nor Lions GM Hisanobu Watanabe is a huge fan of the sacrifice bunt, so I’m going to look at another reason for the shift, a belief in the pitching that has been missing for years.

Through Friday, the Lions’ 59 runs allowed are the fewest in the PL, and it is possible that like manager Trey Hillman’s 2006 Nippon Ham Fighters, who won the PL with pitching and defense and the worst offense in the league, the Lions–who are currently missing several key offensive players — are exploring different ways to win.

Of course, that isn’t the answer you’ll hear on TV. There it’s about the team suddenly realizing they’ve been doing it all wrong for years, and that the real secret to success is bunting until you can’t bunt no more.

“What a departure from the (big-inning) Seibu approach we’re used to. Of course, some of it may have to do with the quality of the pitching in this game with Kona Takahashi against Ishikawa. They bunted, and bunted and kept bunting, trying to scratch out that next run. They were relentless, even bunting the runner into scoring position with one out, like they really wanted to get one more run. This is not like Seibu at all, executing a one-run, technical approach. What a wonderful game.”

–Akihiko Oya

Hey I love bunts more than many people. A good bunt is poetry in motion and it’s a great tool to have available to you when one run will decide the game, but Japanese baseball’s foundation is really about what works against 7-year-olds, hit it to the left side of the infield, induce errors, and pressure the other kids into making mistakes.

Following dogma is seen, not as being unimaginative, but as having superior willpower to win, which is the defense of the mad bunting crowd: “teams that eschew the bunt in search of a big inning are trying to take shortcuts, they’re not THAT interested in scoring.”

Fujinami’s homer

A point by former Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka illustrated one of the things I love about Pro Yakyu News: the stories the guys come up with to break down events in the game.

Fujinami ripped at a 3-2 fastball down the pipe in an at-bat that improved after his teammate swiped second. Instead of flailing at pitches out of the zone as pitchers are liable to, Fujinami dug in with a runner in scoring position and worked the count full. Ishikawa, who is a low-velocity control guy, took a chance that Fujinami couldn’t hit a pitch down the middle, challenged him and lost.

Musings 4-15-21

What people are saying

Brandon Laird and situational hitting

During Thursday’s broadcast, the analyst doing the Marines-Eagles game, former catcher Toshihiro Noguchi, relayed Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi’s concern over Brandon Laird’s hitting and the reason the skipper had him batting fifth instead of youngster Koki Yamaguchi, who dropped to sixth.

“Manager Iguchi wants Laird to have a better batting average with runners in scoring position,” Noguchi said. “He’s batting .154 with runners in scoring position but has a good OBP, over .300. Manager Iguchi’s thinking is that by batting Laird fifth, he can drive in runs and take the pressure off Yamaguchi and allow him to flourish a bit.

A .300 OBP is outstanding if you’re a pitcher and not a disaster for a catcher, but it is about what we expect from Laird. He’s a low average guy who can hit home runs and draw some walks. He’s a good teammate and he can play every day at third base. A lot of people can’t say that.

Yoshiaki Kanemura discusses the Eagles’ pitching dilemma. Let’s see, which of these five guys has to go. What a conundrum!

The great debate

The guys on Pro Yakyu News must have really been starved for topics after this Eagles-Marines game. With the news that the Eagles will get Masahiro Tanaka back on Saturday, somebody must have held a gun – or a sword since guns are pretty hard to come by in Japan – to Takagi’s head so he could ask: “Which of these pitchers will the Eagles drop from their rotation or will they go with seven?”

I try not to be mean, but that’s the equivalent of asking if I want chocolate.

You’ve got four good pitchers, Hideaki Wakui (2-0, 1.23 ERA), Takayuki Kishi (2-1, 1.29), Takahiro Norimoto (2-0, 1.86) and rookie Takahisa Hayakawa (2-2, 2.55), and two less-good pitchers who’ve looked really good at times since last year: Ryota Takinaka (1-2, 7.50) and Hayato Yuge (0-0, 10.80).

Kicking the Buffaloes while they’re down

Another topic was the defensive differences between the Hawks and Buffaloes in their series, and that was an issue, but two of the examples were a dropped grounder that didn’t cost Orix, and a wild throw after an infield single that didn’t really cost Orix. There was an error on the play only after second baseman Koji Oshiro did a good job to keep the ball IN the infield.

It’s just another example of the media deciding on an issue and then shaking the tree to see how many examples they can pile together as “evidence.”

When in doubt, ascribe it to practice

The Hawks are good, Yoshiaki Kanemura said, because they practice to be good. This “they practice better” is a more enlightened view than the typical “they’re good because they practice more.”

Catcher, batting 2nd?

Yuhei Nakamura homered for the first time in over a year, and the PYN guys are again going? “A catcher, batting second? He’s hitting .280 in the No. 2 spot.”

But just like analysts cherry pick examples to suit their arguments, a hero is a hero, and Thursday’s consensus was that if he’s hitting and still getting the job done on defense, then “Hey why not.” Kanemura said, “They tell us never bat a catcher second, that his job is to call pitches. That his role and you don’t mess with it. But he’s doing that, and I’m intrigued by this.”

Senga in jeopardy

deja vu all over again

Originally diagnosed with a sprained ankle suffered in his April 6 season debut, SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga is now expected to miss two to three months due to ligament damage in his left ankle.

But the injury could cost him much more than that. If he does not make it back in three months it could delay his qualification to file for free agency for a full year.

Senga, who tied for the 2020 Pacific League lead in wins and strikeouts, while leading the league in ERA, has long expressed a desire to move to the majors and has petitioned the Hawks to let him move via the posting system, something the team has repeatedly refused to consider.

That makes this wonderful right-hander’s tenure in Fukuoka tied to the nine years of service time he needs to file for international free agency.

Senga, who was first activated on April 30, 2012, has amassed by my count seven years and 20 days. He needs another 125 days this season to make this year count and keep him on track for international free agency after the 2022 season.

Senga in the service

YearService timeRemainingYears
2013145 – full41
201472 + 60 for injury1361
201528 + 117 remaining192
2016145 – full193
2017145 – full194
2018145 – full195
2019145 – full196
2020145 – full197

Players injured on the field, can get up to 60 days of injury service time a year, and he’ll need that. This is a difficult year because I haven’t confirmed how the Olympic break — NPB will shut down between the middle of July and the middle of August — will affect service time.

It appears to be about 25 days, meaning that if he comes back on July 20, he’ll have 60 days of injury time, 78 days left in the regular season and more if the Hawks make the Climax Series, plus April 6 and 19 days he’s carried over since the end of the 2015 season.

That’s 158, and plenty to clear the 145 he needs to count this year. But if the injury sidelines him for four months, or he needs surgery, he’s screwed. He’s already missed more than a year for an injury suffered in June 2014, and got 60 days that year, but he lost most of 2015.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. As I wrote in March, Yuki Yanagita was in a similar bind in 2019. He missed half the season, and had the Hawks activated him from his rehab a few days earlier, he would have qualified for free agency five months ago, but they didn’t. Instead, they offered him a seven-year anchor of a contract and he’ll never leave.

So if Senga is still out of action or pitching on the farm in rehab games in August, expect the Hawks to err on the side of caution and not rush his return.

Olympics 1, Japan 0

This result just in, the residents and citizens of Japan have been defeated by the national Olympic team.

The victory, not by athletes but by bureaucrats, politicians, monied interests and grifters, was probably never in doubt. But it pulled clearly into view Wednesday night with a report of the latest move by Japan’s government to put the Olympics ahead of the people.

Kyodo News (English) reported that Japan’s already delayed vaccination program could be put further behind schedule so that Olympic athletes can be vaccinated before the most vulnerable members of society, those aged 65 or older.

We knew this was coming. Thirteen months ago, Japan’s government made every effort to make it look like the nation would be a safe haven from the virus, denying testing to all those without the most severe cases of specific symptoms.

At first, Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker numbers had to come from local websites because Japan didn’t publish nationwide figures. It didn’t want to know and didn’t want others to know. People who died without being tested were considered to be not infected.

Japan’s second state of emergency officially ended on Sunday, March 21, but we were told to be wary, and local governments, particularly in Osaka, which has become a hotspot, have begun begging for emergency status.

So why was the state of emergency lifted?

I’m sure there were a number of reasons, but Japan’s Olympic organizers have planned the longest re-enactment of Nazi Germany’s torch relay propaganda stunt in history, and there was no way in hell it was going to be canceled or run out of public view. The 121-day relay kicked off from Fukushima Prefecture on March 25, the fourth day after the state of emergency.

One hundred and twenty-one days. That’s 10 times longer than Hitler’s relay, likely a point of pride for Japan’s vice prime minister Taro Aso, an avowed admirer of der Fuhrer.

With roughly 80 percent of the public against holding the Olympics, the relay of the Olympic flame–known as “seika 聖火, the sacred flame”–it was felt, was a crucial tool in putting the Olympics in a positive light, and we all know the pandemic will be over by July, right?

Yet, even that has not gone without a hitch. On Wednesday, the torch relay was banished from the streets in Osaka Prefecture, with that leg still being held, but away from prying eyes at Expo ’70 Commemorative Park in the Suita, the site of the 1970 Worlds Fair.

In January, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, in solidarity with the people of the world, said it encouraged nations not to put Olympians at the head of the line.

“We always made it clear we are not in favor of athletes jumping the queue. In the first lines must be the high-risk groups, the healthcare workers and the people who keep our society alive. That is the first priority and this is a principle we have established.”

–IOC President Thomas Bach, January 2021

But like tolerating openly sexist remarks from former Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee, Yoshiro Mori, the IOC has shown world-class flexibility in its values regarding vaccines: “If Japan wants its athletes to be vaccinated ahead of its senior citizens for the sake of Olympic gold medals? Well, that’s none of our business, really.”

All this time, Japan and the organizers have stressed the need to get the public on board for holding the Olympics when it is not considered safe for non-residents to enter Japan and watch.

These Olympics have been a con from Day 1. To gain support for them, Japan’s real Olympic team, politicians, grifters and influence peddlars, renamed it the “reconstruction Olympics,” as if it would benefit the three prefectures decimated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster.

Yet the games are all about Tokyo, about spending lots and lots of money in and on Tokyo and to influential businesses, and to secure it after numerous past failures, millions of dollars flowed down suspicious avenues, with the head of the bid committee now being investigated in France for corruption.

But it now seems the idea of getting the taxpayers to understand this scam is no longer a necessary part of the con, and Japan is going to get its Olympics one way or another. So if people have to die before they get vaccinated so Japan can have an Olympics, well, so be it.

Musings 4-7-21

Silly things people say on TV

Masayuki Kuwahara had three singles a walk and a sacrifice in the leadoff spot for the BayStars in their 7-3 win over the Dragons on Tuesday. “Former manager Ramirez didn’t use him very much but he’s a good player, but a new manager gives him a new attitude.”

— Yasushi Tao

Kuwahara did fall out of favor with Ramirez, who used him as his No. 1 center fielder from his age 22 season in 2016 to 2018. During those three seasons alone, Ramirez played Kuwahara in 403 games and gave him 1,607 plate appearances. Kuwahara is an adequate player, but to say Ramirez didn’t use him very much is kind of silly. Kuwahara was adequate as a starter but has not played well as a reserve.

I don’t think it was a dig on Ramirez as much as it was an explanation of why Kuwahara is playing decently. The answer is probably that he responds to being an everyday player, and that Ramirez felt he had better options.

The prisoner of No. 2, chapter 2

Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura was installed as the No. 2 hitter after Norichika Aoki was deactivated due to coronavirus concerns on March 31. In his first game in the spot generally reserved for light-hitting middle infielders, he transformed into a No. 2 hitter, sacrificing twice and striking out twice.

From then until Tuesday, April 7, when his qualifications to bat second were raised, he went 6-for-20 with a walk, two doubles, three runs, a sac fly, three RBIs and no sac bunts.

Mitsuru Manaka, his former Swallows manager started by following the script for batters hitting well in the No. 2 hole, “Nakamura in the No. 2 spot is doing a great job of advancing runners,” before he caught himself.

“Actually, he’s doing a great job of getting on base and creating scoring opportunities,” Manaka said, correcting himself and amending his statement to add that reaching base was an acceptable part of the No. 2 hitter’s job.

Kenichi Yazawa: “When I saw him batting second I did a double-take. I think maybe he’ll find his good batting form and (when he’s good enough) he can bat fifth.”

The exchange tells you that what’s important to Japan’s old school, even though Yazawa is a bit of an iconoclast.

To most talking heads, it’s less important what the No. 2 batter actually does, but whether he matches the proper image. If he’s successful, the knee jerk analysis – such as Manaka’s — is to say he’s doing his part in a small-ball offense by sacrificing. The other giveaway is Yazawa’s impression that a hitter good enough to bat fifth is wasted in the No. 2 hole.