Category Archives: Commentary

NPB 2020 9-27 members’ notes

But can Shosei Togo fill a Tsushima straight?

Perhaps one symptom of the coronavirus is the inability to get bad word associations out of your head. Either that or it’s age. Since I began paying attention to 20-year-old Giants right-hander Shosei Togo, I can’t stop connecting him in my mind with Japan’s hero of the Russo-Japanese War, Admiral Heihachiro Togo.

Before anyone complains, I am aware that their names are not pronounced exactly the same and only share one Chinese character. Other than their both being from southern Kyushu, the Giants pitcher from central Miyazaki, and the admiral from neighboring Kagoshima.

On Sunday, Togo got out of a tight spot in the first inning with some really good pitching and poised that belied his youth, retiring the heart of the Dragons order after the top two hitters singled.

The biggest problem I had with Togo was that his name reminded me of one of those nightmare wedding parties that everyone goes to eventually in Japan, where someone gives an interminable speech. In this case, it was a man whose father had been an aide to Admiral Togo sixty years earlier, and who felt dutybound to relate snippets of the admiral’s wisdom to the bride and groom.

Because the man, the principal at the school where my friend and her husband taught. spoke softly, you could hear people’s teeth grinding as he droned on and on. It’s hard to believe that I went to more wedding celebrations after that. But that was the beginning of the end.

No coaching in the press box

After Saturday’s loss to the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium — even after the Swallows’ hero interviews, Tigers manager Akihiro Yano and one of his coaches was jawing with the umpires.

The most obvious reason for the discussion seemed to be a close play at the plate that Yano asked be reviewed via the “request system.” The umpire had also approached Yano during the eighth inning to complain about the team getting help from a “reporter.”

The umpires told Yano they heard a reporter shouting at the Tigers’ bench “He’s safe” on the play at the plate, and warned them that they are not allowed to get help from the press box, which at Jingu is immediately behind home plate.

“It’s no big deal,” Yano told reporters Sunday. “It’s not like they were helping us steal signs or something like that.”

Game of shadows

I’m not any big “Twilight Zone” aficionado, but one episode I can’t get out of my head is “Shadow Play,” where Dennis Weaver plays a man in his dream where he is sentenced to death and the dream replays over and over with him dying in the electric chair.

It’s like every time the Hawks play the Marines, you know who the better team is but it rarely seems to matter, because like Dennis Weaver, no matter how well prepared the Hawks are, the result is they get their butts kicked by a team that shouldn’t be able to stay on the field with them.

NPB 2020 9-23 members notes

Talking the talk in Japan

One element of Japanese verbal communication is known as “tatemae.” Although it is a topic about which volumes have been written, in my experience it is noticeable when someone says something that is obviously not true that is not a lie so to speak but a signal. It indicates that pursuing a topic further might force one to confront awkward truths or accept responsibility in a public fashion that would be better hashed out in private or not at all.

I once made the mistake of asking my Japanese boss when I was teaching English at Pepsicola Japan 30 years ago if I could leave early since none of my last class had shown up. She was completely annoyed with me, and didn’t want the responsibility of having given me permission to go, so she taught me why I should never ask her that question again. She followed me around both floors of the office asking everyone we could find regardless of who they were if they would like an impromptu English lesson. After that embarrassing 10-minute shame tour, she made me swear I had no more students in the office, and then ordered me home, with steam coming out of her ears.

In the wake of the Fernando Tatis Jr, 3-0 grand slam, a Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast listener asked if there are unwritten rules in Japanese baseball. The one that first came to mind was how pitchers should indicate remorse when hitting a batter by tipping their cap. Another one, as Hideto Asamura showed on Wednesday after he hit his Japan-best 28th home run and his fourth in two days, is to act as if one wasn’t trying to hit the ball hard.

In the postgame on-field interview he did what guys without real power tend to say, “I was playing for the team, not trying to do too much – see tsunagaru.

“I was only trying to set the table for (Eigoro) Mogi and the great hitters coming up behind me,” he said describing a swing that was custom built to put a baseball into orbit.

Why home run hitters do this is a good question, but it is pretty common. He did say later that he was “prepared to put a good swing on a fat pitch, and that’s what you saw,” but it is perfectly in line with the expectation that one acts humbly. It doesn’t keep guys from flipping their bats or pumping their fists or pimping their home runs but when the moment is over, one is expected to remember one’s place.

Trey Hillman, currently the Miami Marlins bench coach, once expressed an opinion that Japan’s sacrifice bunt dogma was often just an out, a socially acceptable way for individuals to evade accountability for trying to put a good swing on the ball and risking failure.

Of course, Japanese small ball is much more than that. It does, however, share that notion with tatemae that says we’re going to play this in an approved manner and no one will be hurt by it. Asamura was reasserting the social need to play for the team in the prescribed fashion even while being praised for a big swing that left no doubt about his intention. When he said he wasn’t swinging for the fences, he wasn’t denying it, but rather delivering a public service announcement: “Don’t try this at home kids.”

Offsetting penalties

The Hawks-Buffaloes game had a first for me, a balk that was called a balk and then wasn’t. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Orix lefty Daiki Tajima was delivering a pitch to Yurisbel Gracial with runners on first and second, when instead of releasing the ball he held on to it.

Gracial had asked for time and stepped out of the batter’s box without the umpire calling for play to stop. Tajima saw it and stopped and was in the process of being charged with a balk until the umpires decided, reasonably enough, that since Gracial had also broken the rules by stepping out of the box, no balk would be charged.

Hayato Sakamoto in toyland

With three hits on Wednesday, Giants captain Hayato Sakamoto moved to within 39 hits of Japan’s iconic 2,000-hit milestone.

What no one mentions is that the 31-year-old Sakamoto has an outside chance of becoming the second player with 3,000 hits in Japan.

Bill James’ Favorite Toy formula for calculating the chances of achieving certain career numbers, Sakamoto entered the 2020 season with a 30 percent chance of joining Isao Harimoto in the 3,000-hit club. It didn’t say what the chances were of Sakamoto becoming a Sunday morning TV talking head, however.

NPB 2020 9-21 members notes

What’s wrong with the Tigers’ imports

Watching Monday’s Pro Yakyu News with analysts Tadashi Matsumoto and Takenori Emoto, I was struck by how negative they were, pretty much toward everyone, but I wasn’t really listening until as my ex used to say, my “Dumbo ears” came out when Matsumoto and Emoto were taking turns praising first baseman Justin Bour and pitcher Jon Edwards.

“Bour’s great isn’t he? That great swing. A great attitude. He is trying hard to speak Japanese at the postgame hero interview,” Matsumoto said. “He’s really a good hitter, but you know what? He should have hit more home runs by now.”

Then it was Emoto’s turn to burn.

“Edwards has good stuff, but he needs to pitch a lot,” the former Tigers and Hawks pitcher said. “But he’s way too heavy. Jeez. He weighs 106 kilograms. That’s too heavy to pitch in Japan.”

Of course it wasn’t just the imports. Emoto complained about all the breaking pitches Carp right-hander Allen Kuri threw.

“He’s got a good fastball. Nobody could touch it,” Emoto said of Kuri. “Everything they hit was a breaking ball.”

Kuri might not be an import but his father is American, although I don’t think that had any part in Emoto’s analysis. Ironically, the video they showed of Hayato Sakamoto hitting one of Kuri’s offspeed pitches, was a good pitch that rolled the right way. That stuff happens.

Maybe it’s just those two, and maybe I’m too sensitive toward slights toward non-Japanese.

NPB 2020 9-19 members notes

Neftali Soto’s place

With his 100th career home run on Saturday in his 1,202nd at-bat in Japan, Neftali Soto became the 81st imported player to reach 100 home runs here.

The all-time leader is Tuffy Rhodes, with 464, while Soto’s manager with the DeNA BayStars, Alex Ramirez, hit 380 for second place on the list.

Of those 81, Soto is the 12th to win more than one home run title. Again, Rhodes leads that race as the only imported player with four, where he is the only Hall of Fame eligible player in Japanese pro baseball history to lead his league in home runs, who has not been voted into the Hall of Popularity — I mean the Hall of Fame.

Soto’s two titles puts him ahead of Alex Cabrera, LeRon Lee and Boomer Wells, each of whom hit 200-plus in Japan but only led their league one time.

Ten Hall of Fame eligible players have led their league exactly three times. Of those, five are in the Hall of Fame (Hideki Matsui, Fumio Fujimura, Hiromitsu Kadota, Tetsuharu Kawakami and Hiroshi Oshita), two are likely to get in (Masayuki Kakefu and Atsushi Nagaike). The other three are not. Those guys are Orestes Destrade, Ralph Bryant and Tyrone Woods.

Frequent fliers — top 10 imports in HR rate

NameAB per HRHRsLast year
Randy Bass10.932021988
Charlie Manuel11.251891981
Orestes Destrade11.351601995
Ralph Bryant11.512591995
Tony Solaita11.521551983
Neftali Soto*12.021002020
Roberto Petagine12.152332010
Tyrone Woods12.252402008
Wladimir Balentien*12.362972020
Alex Cabrera12.633572012
*– still active

Japan’s big attendance crash

From June 19 until July 9, no fans were allowed to attend games in Japanese pro ball to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. And while infections began jumping again about the time the start of the season was announced in May, no infections were reported at ballparks among fans.

It struck me today that this is the second time attendance at NPB took a huge hit.

Prior to the 2005 season, in perhaps the weirdest turn of events, the Yomiuri Giants led a kind of truth commission in which the teams agreed to begin announcing “realistic” attendance figures.

This baseball glasnost was caused not by a virus but by a sense that the fans were tired of the bullshit teams had been spouting the year before.

In addition to telling the fans and players to shut the “F” up and do what they are told in response to the owners’ decision to put the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes out of business, the ball had become an issue.

It had been fairly obvious for nearly a decade that the dominant baseball manufacturer in NPB, Mizuno, had captured much of the market by selling teams hyper-lively balls. Nobody was talking about it, but the numbers were undeniable.

During the summer of 2004, the Chunichi Dragons, a team with virtually no power who play in central Japan’s version of the mammoth caves, decided that having a lively ball that allowed opponents to hit home runs there was counterproductive.

And then they broke the first rule of the juiced baseball code: Don’t talk about juiced baseballs. The Dragons held a press conference to announce that cheap home runs were a problem, and the teams, already dealing with the PR fallout from their hardball stance against the players that resulted in NPB’s only work stoppage, took another hit.

If that wasn’t enough, it was learned that a number of teams had — in their effort to lure marquee amateur pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba to their clubs — been handing him cash payments under a variety of guises.

This caused owners to step down in disgrace, including the most pernicious, backward-thinking and influential of them all, Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, As an employee of the Yomiuri Shimbun at that time, I can confirm that the news was taken within the head office in the same manner the residents of Munchkin Land greeted the sudden demise of the wicked witch.

So in 2005, the Giants, who had announced every game at Tokyo Dome as a 55,000-capacity sellout, decided to act. It was as Donald Trump came out one day and didn’t exactly say he’s a liar and a scoundrel but did say that to avoid confusion he would no longer make shit up at press conferences.

The Giants’ official reasoning was this: “We’re not ALWAYS sold out, and because people think we are, they don’t try and buy tickets.” This, of course, ignored the fact that anyone watching on TV could see large blocks of empty seats at many games as the announcers touted “another sell-out crowd.”

And the media, who knew the old figures were lies from Day 1 now went on to report the new figures as if they hadn’t been lying to the public for years. We don’t have a Republican Party in Japan, but if we did, a lot of people in the media would feel right at home.

Anyway, here is how average attendances shifted in Japan from 2004 to 2005. There are only 10 teams listed since the Buffaloes went out of business and the Rakuten Eagles began operating.

TeamPark20042005change
SoftBankFukuoka D47,06431,344-15,720
YomiuriTokyo D55,00042,076-12,924
YokohamaYokohama22,12313,670-8,453
SeibuSeibu D24,40916,338-8,071
YakultJingu25,05018,327-6,723
HanshinKoshien51,32846,318-5,010
LotteChiba Marine24,09519,770-4,325
Nippon HamSapporo Dome24,32020,725-3,595
OrixKobe21,30020,976-324
HiroshimaHiroshima12,44414,423+979

NPB 2020 9-18 members notes

Practice, practice, practice

With few exceptions there are no off days once the Japanese baseball season starts. There are travel days, but for the most part, those include optional practices which are optional in the same sense that “independent free training” takes place with teammates under supervision of coaches who watch from a distance and is neither independent or free.

There are, of course exceptions. Notably, the Nippon Ham Fighters don’t practice on travel days, but not taking BP before a game is pretty rare.

On Friday, Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo had his team skip pre-game practice after his team only arrived at Fukuoka Airport shortly before 2 pm after a flight from Sapporo.

“The players’ conditioning is crucial,” said Kudo, who limited the workout to a light warmup. “I also decided that on a day like this I wouldn’t use players nursing minor injuries.”

Teams will occasionally give veterans the option of skipping batting practice but like fight money, it’s not something they talk about freely, which brings us to Boomer.

Boomer bust

Greg “Boomer” Wells was a Triple Crown-winner for the Hankyu Braves, who played in 47 MLB games before he was sold by the Minnesota Twins to the Hankyu Braves.

In 10 Japanese seasons, Boomer, who was also taken in the 16th round of the 1975 NFL draft by the New York Jets, hit .317 with 277 home runs. He led the PL in home runs once, in RBIs four times, in hits four times and batting average twice.

At the 2015 winter meetings, he told me this story about the time he didn’t want to take batting practice because of fatigue.

  • Coach: “If you don’t hit, you don’t play.”
  • Boomer: “Ok. 5 swings.”
  • Coach: “20.”
  • Boomer: “10 OK?”

So Boomer took 10 swings, had a home run and three hits and the Braves won. The next day, he went to the coach and was approved for no BP, and he had another good game. After about a week, he said he wanted to work on something before the game, only to be told he didn’t need it.

  • Boomer: “I really need it. I’m getting rusty. I need 20 swings.”
  • Coach: “No. You’re fine. You’re swinging well.”
  • Boomer: “And I want to keep swinging well. 20 swings.”
  • Coach: “OK. Five. Five swings that’s it.”
  • Boomer “I need 20. But I’ll take 10.”
  • Coach: “You shouldn’t practice at all, but I’ll allow 10.”

Tomiji Iizuka

When I started writing my first analytic guide to Japanese baseball, I was surprised at the high quality of a lot of players in the minor leagues. Of course, that was 1993, and the idea that anything that minor league performance was unconnected to a player’s ability to play baseball was still strong.

The Orix BlueWave had a 19-year-old minor league outfielder who won the Western League batting title the year before, and an older reserve utility infielder who drew walks like Rembrandt. Neither were considered anything but minor leaguers.

The same thing went for the Chunichi Dragons. OK it still happens for the Chunichi Dragons, since ignoring minor league results of anyone but the most in-favor youngsters is still against the rules it seems. Anyway, the Dragons had a walk-drawing, home run-cranking former catcher who was considered a failure – until he finally got a chance at the age of 27 and led the CL in home runs in his first full season. Takeshi Yamasaki went on to hit 403 in his career.

The Yomiuri Giants had a guy like that, a former first-round draft pick named Takeshi Omori who’d had a few bad games on the first team under then manager Motoshi Fujita, who was then consigned to being the best hitter in the Eastern League by far for about six years.

Anyway, that’s what teams all did then, and it was so much fun finding these guys who sure as hell looked like they could play while hoping to hell they would get traded to a team that knew what they were getting. But that rarely happened. In the case of the Orix pair, the youngster’s career was rescued by a managing change, and with two players named Suzuki on the roster, the kid’s registered name was changed to Ichiro.

His teammate was not so lucky. The Western League was very, very tough on hitters, yet Ichiro’s older teammate, reserve infielder Tomiji Iizuka, was an on-base machine.

I only have minor league data back to 1991, but in Iizuka’s final five seasons, he had 983 minor league plate appearances hit .299 with a .416 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging average. He was a pretty good player on the first team as well, despite only getting 431 plate appearances over 13 seasons, only once getting more than 74 in a single season.

I knew that after his career, Iizuka became an umpire, but I didn’t recall seeing him call a game behind the plate until Friday. I only looked up to see who the home plate ump was after his zone was drawing some disbelieving looks from Hawks starter Matt Moore who could hit the glove but couldn’t buy a strike at the lower boundry.

I don’t know if Iizuka’s eye for the strike zone is as sharp as it was when he was a player, but strike zone judgement and plate discipline was his principle skill, and as much as it looked like he might have squeezed Moore a little, I’d like to think he was calling him as he saw them and that a guy who should have been a first-team regular can still see them better than most people.

The enigmatic Mr. Hara

With his 1,067th victory on Friday, Tatsunori Hara now has more wins as a Yomiuri Giants manager than any of his predecessors, pulling him out of a tie with legendary skipper Tetsuharu Kawakami. It is a remarkable achievement for Hara, who, like his first manager, Shigeo Nagashima, was groomed to be the face of the team from the day he first put on a Giants uniform as a player.

Hara’s success as manager is a testimony to the ability of people to surprise you. Hara was a serious, smart player who seemingly tried extra hard to fit the plastic PR image the Giants created for him. Hara can be a charming guy with a winning smile, by becoming the team’s front man as a player he seemed entirely superficial.

When Hara was named manager for the 2002 season, it seemed like he was chosen more for his PR value than for any other skills he might bring to the table.

His predecessor, Nagashima, had benefitted from Yomiuri’s deep pockets and its ability to change Nippon Professional Baseball’s rules to suit its own goals – primarily forcing the other teams to accept free agency and modifying the draft so marquee corporate and college stars could pick the teams they wanted to sign with.

Hara, we all assumed, would stick with the Yomiuri program, a lot playing time to the biggest name and oldest free agents, and the best amateurs available and just throw those guys out and let the team win. The Giants farm team at that time was a gulag for discarded out-of-favor non-stars and make-weight organizational players, who if they were lucky might get a shot with another team.

The idea that Hara, the quintessential superficial Giants star, would change that defied belief, but the skipper turned the Giants into a team it hadn’t been since Kawakami was put out to pasture in 1974 – a meritocracy.

Kawakami won nine-straight Japan Series championships. A feat no one has come close to matching. Ousting the extremely-capable Kawakami for the novice Nagashima, Japan’s most popular player, broadcast Yomiuri’s essential message loud and clear – image is more important than substance.

Kawakami’s successors, Nagashima, Motoshi Fujita, Sadaharu Oh, Fujita again and Nagashima again, more or less towed the Yomiuri company’s line that the Giants’ way was to win championships was to play the biggest stars, and discard failures as quickly as possible. Nagashima, Fujita and Oh were all fierce competitors but the pressure from the newspaper that owns the team is relentless, and the necessity to play the stars Yomiuri spent heavily on is palpable.

When the Giants were in the middle of a record losing streak a few years ago under manager Yoshinobu Takahashi, he and his coaches remained positive and worked to keep the players focused on preparing for the next game. But when readers began citing the team’s poor play when they canceled subscriptions, the players were subjected to top executives coming in to the clubhouse and berating them for their failures. Being unpopular is not an option if you are the Yomiuri Giants.

After Hara was appointed manager, his first head coach, Yoshitaka Katori, said Hara wanted to use the whole 70-man roster and that everyone on the farm would have to stay ready in case he called. This sounded like the bilge every manager on every team ever invented spills when they have no real interest in anyone out of their sight. But before long, Hara transformed a petrified three-tier organization of stars, scrubs and minor leaguers into a dynamic outfit. Because of the large influx of older free agents, the Giants lacked team speed and defense—and Hara fixed that by giving starts to guys who until that time had no real role.

When Hara failed to follow his 2002 Japan Series championship as a managing novice in 2003, Japan’s greatest-ever windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe began launching into drunken rants that Tokyo’s sports press eagerly gobbled up and put in the next day’s papers. Hara got tired of reading every day how his job was on the line should he lose another game and when the Giants were eliminated, he quit. Watanabe never had any intent of firing him, but Hara wouldn’t be bullied.

Forced to find an emergency replacement, they settled on former lone wolf ace pitcher Tsuneo Horiuchi, who was a disaster. Horiuchi is a wonderful, warm guy, but he’s no leader or organizer. In his two years at the helm, the team disintegrated and Hara was brought back. And when Hara came back, he came back with a vengeance, giving key roles to players few outside the Yomiuri organization had ever heard of.

If you prepared, played hard and had skills he needed, Hara would use you. Hara also had the benefit of having Shinnosuke Abe on his team. Arguably the second-greatest catcher Japan has ever produced behind the late Katsuya Nomura, Abe was the cornerstone of a Hara team that not only signed stars from other clubs but was also willing to replace any superstar who wasn’t getting it done with a minor leaguer eager to punch above his weight.

Two Giants rookies of the year, center fielder Tetsuya Matsumoto and reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi, were signed after tryouts when no other teams were interested in them but played their way into key roles with the Giants because Hara, a guy who had been marketed more as a name than a player during his career, cared nothing for pedigree.

Sometimes his desire to throw open the doors of competition gets the better of him. In 2002, Hara inherited a productive veteran second baseman, Toshihisa Nishi. But for some reason, the two never hit it off.

Tactically, Hara was pretty much a disaster from the start, although he learned and got a little better as the years went by. His strength has been building the talent players by rewarding quality with opportunity and not getting down on those who fail in brief trials. He is particularly good at leveraging one-run situations, not because he’s smarter but because his love of pinch-runners means he always has speed on the bench and because he is extremely well organized and a good planner.

Ironically, his problems with Nishi foreshadowed another idiosyncrasy of Hara’s: His inability to ever settle on a regular second baseman. Nobody has ever been good enough to be a regular, so the spot has essentially been held down briefly by whoever is the flavor of the month or week. Once Hara’s weird second-base obsession and his belief in his ability to turn hustling minor league straw into gold got the better of him when he decided a guy unable to hit in the Eastern League, Daisuke Fujimura, could be his regular second baseman with enough effort. Fujimura led the CL in steals in 2011 with 28 playing in 119 games with a .507 OPS in his only full season.

As the years go by, Hara has slowly let out more of his inner Nagashima, exercising his mentor’s fondness for silly incomprehensible phrases. One day after a win at Koshien Stadium, he said, “I want my fielders to play attacking defense and my hitters to employ defensive batting.”

Nobody there could explain what he meant, but Hara delights in taking good-natured jabs at reporters. At his postgame pressers, he’ll sometimes refuse to answer a question and instead say, “I’ll let you explain it. I’m curious to see what’s in tomorrow’s papers.” He’ll follow that with a little smirk that says, “I know something you don’t.”

So while he can be sincere and friendly, there’s often this edge about him when he assumes

a kind of “I’m baseball royalty and you’re not” attitude.

After learning of Hara’s stated policy that his door was always open to players, former closer Marc Kroon went in one day to discuss something only to be informed later that impromptu visits were not tolerated. But that could be because Hara never saw anyone taking him up on the visit and was unprepared.

Hara seems to be very routine-driven. Before regular season games, he’ll answer questions from the first reporter who catches his attention when he comes onto the field. He’ll listen and choose his answers, then move on. Nobody else gets a question.

Talk to him prior to the start of a postseason or WBC game? He’ll shoot you a look like the one he probably gave Kroon.

Ask Hara a question on a practice day, and he might explain his world to you. One such day in Fukuoka, he somehow got onto the subject of pro wrestling and started mimicking a favorite wrestler’s move and laughing so hard I thought his hat would fall off.

His animated conversation drew a crowd of reporters to the visitors’ bench at Fukuoka Dome, where a few minutes later, pitcher Geremi Gonzalez walked past on the way to the field patted the skipper on the shoulder and said to Hara, “My friend!”

Hara thought about that for a moment and then shouted at Gonzalez in Japanese, “Hey buddy I’m not your friend dammit!” Hara laughed, and the reporters joined in because it was funny.

It was, however, unintentionally honest. Hara can be friendly, but he’s not there to be your friend. He’s there to win.