Category Archives: Commentary

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.

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.

Camping World: Feb. 19, 2020 – Lions’ Neal to start Opening Day

Second-year Seibu Lions right-hander Zach Neal will get the ball on Opening Day, manager Hajime Tsuji told the team on Wednesday as they broke camp the Nikkan Sports reported.

The two-time defending Pacific League champion Lions will open at home, MetLife Dome on March 20 against the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Last season, Neal won 11 straight games and finished the season 12-1. He has since signed a two-year extension.

“Kona (Takahashi) was doing well and I was unsure (about who would pitch Opening Day,” Tsuji said. “I made up my mind with the first pitch I saw Neal throw in the bullpen.”

Hawks flamethrower Kaino to get PRP treatment

Hard-throwing SoftBank Hawks reliever Hiroshi Kaino revealed Wednesday he will undergo platelet rich plasma therapy for damage to the medial collateral ligament in his right elbow according to the Nishinihon Sports.

The 23-year-old Kaino finished second in the Pacific League’s rookie of the year voting last autumn to teammate Rei Takahashi, who is out with a hamstring issue and also doubtful for Opening Day.

Here’s Kaino’s English language NPB page.

Tigers unleash top draft pick Nishi

A day after we learned what Junya Nishi’s music will be at Koshien Stadium, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick was permitted to throw breaking pitches in camp for the first time, the Nikkan Sports reported Wednesday.

Nishi, who was also a prodigious slugger in high school and for the national Under-18 team last summer, threw a spring-high 50 pitches in the bullpen at the Tigers’ minor league camp. He said he had a good feel for both his forkball and his changeup.

Swallows Koch, Ynoa take the mound

New Yakult Swallows right-handers Matt Koch and Gabriel Ynoa saw their first game action of the spring in a practice game against the Rakuten Eagles in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, Sports Nippon Annex reported Wednesday.

Koch, a former Arizona Diamondback struggled with his control as he allowed five runs in two innings. Ynoa, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, allowed a run over two innings. He touched 151 kph (93.8 mph) and graded his effort as 95 out of 100.

Austin breaking the spring

The late Wayne Graczyk used to warn players who did TOO well in the spring to be prepared to adjust before games started counting because, most of their preseason opponents are from the rival league, and teams work hard to have plans against guys who do extremely well in the spring.

If Wayne were here, he’d be telling us that now about new DeNA BayStars outfielder Tyler Austin. In a practice game against the Lotte Marines on Wednesday, Austin doubled and walked twice, making him 6-for-8 with two homers and two doubles (at least) according to the Chunichi Sports.

Famous for not throwing

Roki Sasaki is famous for two things, throwing the fastest pitches ever recorded by a Japanese high schooler, and not throwing. He, or rather his Ofunato High School manager, made front-page news last summer when the star right-hander was held out of Iwate Prefecture’s championship game. The game decided whether his school or Shohei Ohtani’s alma mater would make it to the national championships at Koshien Stadium.

So it should be no surprise that the mere fact that the Lotte Marines’ top draft pick did strength training on Wednesday cause the Nikkan Sports to headline a story “Sasaki refrains from bullpen session — according to plan says coach.”

Sometimes it’s hard not to think of Japanese spring training as a time when pitchers arms are supposed to broken — as if that is part of the process.

Scout Diary: Feb. 17, 2020 – Chapter 2

I wrapped up my General Manager and Scouting course early Sunday morning and would be remiss if I didn’t shout out to my teachers, Dan Evans and Hank Jones, and my classmates. The instructors encouraged interaction, let us go off-topic and explore. In addition to the content delivered in the twice-weekly chats and the assignments, the dynamic between my classmates made it a Grade A experience.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

So to Paul Williams (our chat MVP), Jon Carson, Daniel Cho, Alicia Crandell, Edgar Arismendi, Beni Cromwell, Carlos Fernandez, Chris Fessler, Jeff Laue, Santy Prada, Guillermo Quinones, Luis Alejandro, Ben Rockwell, and Andrew Smith, thank you and see you in Dallas in December. I loved reading your work and hearing your questions.

I’ve done the SMWW analysis class and it was a vastly different vibe. I was a “classmate” of new Royals manager Mike Matheny but with one chat a week, and the great guest speakers the teacher, Ari Kaplan, brought in, there was very little live interaction. Some of that was due to SMWW since hanging the platform for live chats to Zoom, and that experience is much improved.

So now that I’ve written a half-dozen scouting reports, analyzed pay hikes for arbitration-eligible players this past winter, did only three informational interviews instead of the six I had hoped to, researched trades and players and wrote an analysis of the SoftBank Hawks for my final paper, what’s next?

Chapter 2

Starting today, I am officially scouting. I will be taking notes as often as possible from the high school spring invitational tournament, the pro preseason, youtube video of players who are newsworthy, and writing reports as often as possible. If any of you have seen these players and want to share your opinions, constructive criticism or even utter disbelief, my e-mail is guidedogjapan@yahoo.com please write and be critical.

Since the day I stopped becoming a rabid fan — I think the vaccination process involved accidentally breaking a plate glass window at my rental in college over the result of a San Francisco Giants loss in the final week of the 1982 regular season — I haven’t been more excited for the season to start. The normal dread that comes with the thought of downloading rosters and player codes needed to build another season of my database has been outweighed by a thirst for more and different knowledge.

Camping World: Feb. 16, 2020 – Tyler Austin 2 to the 2nd power

DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez loves to be unconventional, and he also knows enough that the way to be unconventional in Japan is to make up conventional bullshit explanations reporters can then regurgitate as suitable explanations for unorthodox behavior.

On Sunday, new BayStars import Tyler Austin batted second in the team’s preseason opener against the Yomiuri Giants in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. On Saturday, Ramirez explained he liked to have good hitters bat second, not because they were good hitters and putting lame guys who can bunt second is dumb, but rather because a power hitter there will see more fastballs after the leadoff man reaches base.

Tyler Austin’s 1st swing

Of course, when your leadoff hitter is Kazuki Kamizato, career OBP .319, that’s kind of weak, but you get the point. In Japan, unorthodox behavior is only acceptable if it is wrapped in some kind of bullshit cover-your-ass excuse that won’t suggest that the orthodox ways are dumb.

Ramirez catches flak for batting his pitchers eighth, which makes perfect sense, and last year was roasted for batting new Tampa Bay Ray Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, the national team cleanup hitter, second. It was, one talking head on Fuji TV’s Pro Yakyu News said, “An insult to Japanese baseball,” and that one could do it in a DH league, “as the Angels do with Mike Trout, but not in the Central League,” because well, you can’t.

Tyler Austin off to an auspicious start in NPB’s preseason

Austin homered in each of his first two spring at-bats, both with no one on base and then singled in his third, again after Kamizato failed to reach.

Batting 2nd: Lip Service

My favorite story about paying lip service to Japan’s cultural craving for punchless No.2 hitting defensive specialists was that of Hall of Famer Rikuo Nemoto, as manager of the Daiei Hawks in 1994, batted slugging outfielder Kazunori Yamamoto second. Yamamoto bunted once in 509 plate appearances.

Nemoto, who is in the Hall of Fame for his role as the architect of three dynasties — often through somewhat shady dealings to secure amateur talent, forestalled criticism by saying he had no punchless glove guys to bat second, so he just had to bite his lip and make do.

What happened was the perennial doormats’ best season in 18 years. The Hawks were fourth, with a .5348 winning percentage behind the Orix Blue Wave (Ichiro Suzuki‘s breakout season) and Kintetsu Buffaloes (Hideo Nomo) who tied for second at .5354

Of course, everyone knew Nemoto was full of shit, but it’s OK to be full of shit as long as you don’t imply that others who do dumb shit because dogma demands it are morons. OK, the late great Katsuya Nomura did that frequently when it suited his purposes, but for most mere mortals, like former BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo, calling orthodoxy into question will get you fired.

Baby shark school

One of the other non-game highlights was Gerardo Parra instructing veteran Yomiuri Giants outfielder Yoshiyuki Kamei on the proper hand technique for “Baby Shark.”

Moore throws 1st pen for Hawks

New SoftBank Hawks import Matt Moore threw a 53-pitch bullpen on Sunday, his first since the start of spring training on Feb. 1, and left manager Kimiyasu Kudo suitably impressed, according to Fullcount.

The Hawks may be without 2019 rookie of the year, Rei Takahashi, at the start of the season due to a left-hamstring issue, and so could be in need of another starter to take his place.

An tribute to Katsuya Nomura from Joe Stanka’s grandson

The following letter was distributed to media in Japan from Josh Stanka, whose grandfather Joe won 100 games in Nippon Professional Baseball, an MVP award and a Japan Series MVP award in 1964. His longtime Nankai Hawks batterymate, Hall of Fame player and manager Katsuya Nomura, died at the age of 84 on Tuesday.

Forevermore the term “catcher” will be synonymous with the name Katsuya Nomura. Over the coming days and weeks much will be written about his prodigious stats (his 1965 Triple Crown comes to mind), his unmatched longevity and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game that he loved, lived and breathed.

But to those fortunate enough to be his teammates, his players, his friends and most importantly his family; attempting to use mere numbers to describe Nomura-san would be like trying to describe Mount Fuji simply by its height and dimensions. Because the true greatness of Nomura-san lay not just in his ability to smash home runs or manage multiple teams to championships or tutor numerous generations of pitchers and catchers in the art of yakyu.

The true greatness of Katsuya Nomura was something intangible. A work ethic and a passion for the game that few possess and that cannot be taught. A living testament to the truism that no matter how humble a persons beginnings may be, with enough desire and hard work and moxie there are no limits to how high a person may rise. In many ways his story is a microcosm of the attributes of the Japanese people themselves in the post-war years who exhibited the same irrepressible drive to succeed and rebuild a whole new society that became the economic marvel of the twentieth century.

When our family arrived in Japan for the first time in 1960 Nomura-san welcomed us warmly. 

When our family was struck by tragedy in 1965 in our family’s darkest hours Nomura-san was a kind and supportive friend. 

And in the interim he and my grandfather played games of pitch and catch in legendary stadiums just as they had played games of pitch and catch with their schoolmates when they were boys growing up 7,000 miles apart in Mineyama, Japan, and Hammon, Oklahoma.

With apologies to Hanshin Tigers fans they played a couple of truly memorable games of catch in Koshien Stadium in 1964 the likes of which may never be equaled.

Nomura-san once said of my grandfather that he was an American with the soul of a Japanese. 

My grandfather once said of Nomura-san that he never met anybody so determined to win.

Perhaps the one constant Japan and America have shared through all the years has been baseball.

Baseball has marked the time.  It has been a constant reminder of a love that our countries share.

Because when my grandfather would take the mound to throw to Katsuya Nomura, they ceased to be American or Japanese. They became partners, willing to do whatever it took to achieve victory.

So as the Stanka family with heavy hearts mourn the loss of our dear friend Katsuya Nomura we offer our condolences to the entire nation of Japan but most especially the Nomura family with whom we will always share a deep and meaningful bond.

And disregarding momentarily his trophies and records and accolades, our family offers in tribute to Nomura-san perhaps the highest compliment that can be given in this game we all love and share.

Katsuya Nomura was a baseball player.

Sayonara Nomu-san

Katsuya Nomura, one of the greatest baseball players in history, a player worth comparing to Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, died suddenly at the age of 84 of ischemic heart on Tuesday in Japan.

An elite slugging catcher, Nomura played in an era when Japan’s talent depth was quite a bit lower than it is today. And like some of his peers, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Isao Harimoto, Nomura was able to stand above the crowd like a colossus and added to his legend by becoming a superb manager and a celebrity analyst.

In a 27-year career, Nomura won nine home run titles, led the Pacific League in runs three times and RBIs seven times. He was a Triple Crown winner and a five-time MVP.

A driven, gifted athlete, Nomura was also blessed with a keen mind that he constantly exercised in his bid to stay one step ahead of his opponents — a talent that helped him become the most successful manager of his generation. The peak of his managing success came with the Yakult Swallows from 1990 to 1998. Taking over a team that had been perennial weaklings, Nomura won four Central League pennants and three Japan Series championships.

On Tuesday, the impact Nomura had on his players and rivals echoed around Japan as word of his death spread. Players recalled how he motivated them with his harsh words and how he educated them and trained them to win.

Nomura turned pro in 1954 with the Osaka-based Nankai Hawks, then in the middle of a dynasty under the leadership of Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka.

From 1970 to 1977, Nomura served as the Hawks’ player-manager, although it was largely a collaboration between him and influential coach Don Blasingame. After winning the 1973 pennant, Nomura became the first Hawks manager to fail to win a pennant in four consecutive seasons since Tsuruoka had Hawks to their first pennant in 1946. But turmoil within the club, that Nomura blamed on a faction aligned with Tsuruoka, and Nomura’s enemies blamed on the skipper’s future wife Sachiyo — the mother of their five-year-old son — came to a head and Nomura was fired after the 1977 season.

Nomura moved to the Lotte Orions in 1978 before finishing his playing career with the Seibu Lions, which in 1979 were transplanted from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the western outskirts of Tokyo.

Although Nomura would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame required candidates to be out of uniform for five years before they could go on the ballot. Since many stars became managers and coaches, this created a huge logjam of worthy candidates and Nomura was not elected until 1989. The following year he took over as manager of the Swallows and turned them into a minor dynasty.

Just as he had been the leader with Nankai, the Swallows were built around their catcher, bespectacled big-hitting defensive wiz Atsuya Furuta, the second player Nomura took in the 1989 draft and a future Hall of Famer.

In his stints as Hawks and Swallows manager, Nomura showed a talent for working with young pitchers, getting big performances out of them and then overworking them.

He was also an incredible evaluator of talent, and a motivator. Former outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who someday should be voted into the Hall of Fame, credited Nomura with turning his career around by telling him his outfield defense was useless. Inaba responded by turning himself into a superior right fielder.

He is best known, however, for his fascination with analytics and advance scouting in formulating game plans against opponents, something he had begun as a player studying films of opposing pitchers to discover how they were tipping their pitches. The Swallows famously shut down PL MVP Ichiro Suzuki in the 1995 Japan Series.

Nomura was ahead of his time in building a club made of guys with high on-base percentage, often collecting aging castoffs like Eiji Kanamori, a slap-hitting on-base machine, thus earning the Swallows the nickname of “Nomura’s recycling factory.”

As a manager, Nomura displayed amazing verbal acuity. He loved to make up little phrases, quips and songs about players and rivals. And while he was a master storyteller, he often couldn’t resist the urge to rip into others in public. His constant jabs against the Swallows’ top rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, and their manager, Nagashima, became tiresome for the club’s executives and they cut him loose after the 1998 season — although by all accounts he was as tired of them as they were of him.

He went off to manage the Hanshin Tigers, where he figuratively put his foot down on the team’s prima donna, celebrity outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Nomura left him on the farm team at the start of the season and said he might use him to pitch, but had no use for him otherwise. As it had with Inaba, Nomura lit a fire under the Tigers poster boy, who followed by turning in three of his best seasons.

Although the Tigers finished last for three straight seasons under Nomura, the talent he nurtured there provided the foundation for the club’s 2003 and 2005 Central League championships. Nomura’s run, however, was cut short after his wife, Sachiyo, was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion in December 2001.

After a successful run as manager of corporate league side Shidax, Nomura was asked to rescue the Rakuten Eagles, who fired the club’s inaugural skipper, Yasushi Tao, after the club’s 2005 disastrous debut campaign. Nomura again was able to make big strides in the development of a young pitcher. This time, however, it was in the form of powerfully built youngster Masahiro Tanaka, who blossomed under Nomura’s tutelage.

The Eagles reached the playoffs for the first time in 2009, but that proved to be Nomura’s swan song. Once more, turmoil within the front office left people pointing fingers and Nomura was out.

My only real interactions with Nomura were during that time with Rakuten, because he was supremely approachable. While most field managers who meet the media before the game do so in sessions lasting five to 15 minutes before wandering onto the field, Nomura came out early, sat on the bench, where his cushion and bottle of green tea would be waiting for him.

For the entire Eagles practice, he would chat with reporters, covering the usual team news, but also telling stories. It seemed like the responsibility of the beat writers to keep him engaged so he would continue to tell his tales. It was magical stuff we may never see the likes of again.

Once more, however, some of the groundwork he laid in Sendai contributed to a later pennant. After a failed 2010 season under Marty Brown, the Eagles hired Senichi Hoshino as their fourth manager. Hoshino, who had succeeded Nomura with Hanshin and won the 2003 CL pennant, steered the Eagles in 2013 to their first Japan Series championship.

In between managing gigs, Nomura was at his critical best as a sharp-tongued TV analyst, harshly laying into managers and players who failed to meet his high standards on the field. It wasn’t simple bitterness, but rather a powerful mix of his love for the game, a dislike for half-measures and his talent with words.

In 2012, one of his former Swallows players, Hideki Kuriyama, took over as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters and led them to the Japan Series title in his first season. Asked about the form journeyman outfielder turned analyst and university lecturer, Nomura said, “The Pacific League has certainly gotten pretty weak if that guy can win a pennant.”

As teams lowered their flags to half-mast on Tuesday at their spring camps and held moments of silence in Nomura’s memory, Kuriyama said, “I never heard a single word of praise from him. I’ve been giving it all I’ve got up to now so that I might once hear him say, ‘You’ve done a good job, I see.’ I so much wanted him to see me take that next step forward.”

Scout Diary: Feb. 8, 2020 Report on Keito Mori

Keito Mori was the first pick of the DeNA BayStars in NPB’s 2019 amateur draft. Although a shortstop, he played center field for Japan last summer in the Under-18 World Cup.

  • Birthday: Jan. 28, 2002
  • H: 1.75 m, W: 75 kg
  • Bats: L, Throws: R
  • Position: SS

Physical description: Looks like a right-handed-hitting Kenta Imamiya (SoftBank), but with a big front leg kick.

PresentFuture
Hitting Ability4050
Power3040
Running Speed7070
Base Running5050
Arm Strength6570
Arm Accuracy5050
Fielding5050
Range6065
Baseball Instinct6060
Aggressiveness5050

Abilities: Athletic, excellent foot speed and a strong throwing arm, disciplined aggressive hitter with quick bat and compact swing.

Weaknesses: Short arms his throws in the infield, but not in the outfield. Footwork is more mechanical than fluid.

Summation: Immediately profiles better as a center fielder, but could conceivably develop into a championship-caliber shortstop.

Tigers prepare two-way doubletalk

After watching video of Tigers first-draft pick Junya Nishi batting and pitching, one has to be curious what Hanshin’s plans are for him. Since last year, people were talking about the 18-year-old as a possible two-way player.

My scouting report on Nishi is HERE.

Yano opens the door and then closes it

In November, the Nikkan Sports reported Tigers manager Akihiro Yano brought the matter up when he first visited the youngster. Yano reportedly said, “You can’t have a two-way player like Ohtani in the Central League (where pitchers bat). Do your best as a pitcher, then we’ll see about further uses.”

What that means, of course, is the chance of Hanshin coming up with an innovative plan for a power hitter who can pitch is basically zero.

If your plan is that a) “there can’t be a two-way player like Ohtani in the CL” because the league has no DH, and b) “we’ll see after he masters pitching,” you are basically relegating his batting talent to the dustbin.

That is the way an MLB team would have handled Ohtani the amateur before he became Ohtani the two-way pro star: master pitching first. But when he became a star, all those scouts who said “No major league team will risk that arm by letting him hit” were forced to accept that was not true.

Three National League clubs, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers all had plans in place to give Ohtani 350-plus at-bats while pitching in the rotation. Perhaps they didn’t know what Yano KNOWS, that you can’t have a two-way player without a DH.

The differences between Nishi and Ohtani

To be fair, Ohtani differs from Nishi, a fellow right-handed pitcher, in three distinct ways:

  • Ohtani bats left-handed
  • Ohtani is bigger and threw harder when he was Nishi’s age.
  • Ohtani’s delivery was smoother
  • Ohtani had less command of his secondary pitches

In 2017, Ohtani said he was a better hitter because he pitched and vice versa, Asked if he could provide a rationale for that, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler answered a year ago that Ohtani’s left-handed swing is a perfect counterbalance to the torque exerted on his trunk as a right-handed pitcher.

When Ohtani threw his first pro bullpen with the Fighters, one club executive thought his future was in the batter’s box since his breaking pitches were awful. But guys who throw 100 mph are rare. Nishi isn’t that guy.

Nishi may have more command — except with his curve — but his arm deceleration still looks much more violent. His pitching motion makes it look as if he is exerting himself all out on every pitch. Because of that, it may well be that his upside as a hitter is even better.

In the end, the Tigers will choose the way they think maximizes his skills. But by not checking the “develop batting” box from the start, that decision has likely already been made.

The player development view

“You need to keep working on skills or you lose them. They degrade and you just can’t call them back later. It doesn’t work like that,” said Bobby L. Scales, II, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league field coordinator and former director of player development for the Angels.

Scales, who played in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes, knows from experience that right-handed batters who learn to switch hit often fail to practice their natural swings enough and lose much of their ability to hit left-handed pitchers.

“Why would anyone not have him keep working on his batting?” Scales asked by telephone on Wednesday. “He’s been a batter and a pitcher all his life. Why stop now?”

“I know Japanese teams tend to be risk-averse but if you don’t know what you’re missing. You will never know what might have been.”

Risk aversion

Scales also talked about how sports, like art and language, display a society’s culture. Japanese baseball people often say their game is less about winning than it is about not losing.

When one thinks about it, this makes Japan’s preoccupation with hitting and defense and small ball. No player on the field can contribute as much to a losing cause as the pitcher. A fielder can miss a few plays and the pitcher can get over it. The team’s best hitter can strike out four times with the bases loaded and the team can still win. But if the pitcher throws fat pitches with the bases loaded, your team is in deep trouble.

If that’s true, anyone with the potential to be a quality pitcher is going to be a position player. Nishi’s fastball sits at 90 miles per hour and he has a good slider, change and splitter. If your focus is on having guys who won’t cost you games, those are more valuable skills than the power needed to drive the ball over the fence.

Scout Diary: Feb. 2, 2020. Hitters

Part 1 of this week’s scouting assignment is to try and unpack the astonishingly difficult world of evaluating hitters, starting with the difference between “pure” and “power” hitters following the lines laid down in the book “Baseball Uncenscored” by MLB scout John Story.

The mission

Part 1Identify one “pure hitter” as described in “Baseball Uncensored” and one “power hitter.” Describe how each is important in the line-up and why. How has the “power hitter” changed the game? How does this affect scouts when analyzing hitting?

Story writes that the goal of the good hitter is “to consistently hit the ball hard,” and that regardless how that goal is achieved, solid hitting mechanics are reason the best hitters achieve that goal. (p. 73) By that logic, the overall measure of the hit tool is the player’s ability to consistently hit the ball hard. The job of the scout, then, is to recognize this where it exists, and recognize what gifts a player has that will allow him to achieve this at a high level with proper attention to skills that can be developed and the effort required to master them.

He describes excellent hand speed and aptitude as natural abilities. Adjusting one’s hands to the pitched ball and a short compact stroke are, he writes, learned skills.

The big question for Story is whether a player has or can learn to generate bat speed. The key, he writes, is the hands, and how the small muscles trigger the swing. To this he adds, balance, knowledge of the strike zone and a good approach are also components.

So let’s look at two hitters, one pure hitter, and one power hitter.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Pure hitter: Kensuke Kondo

Kondo is a 26-year-old on-base machine for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League. He qualifies as a pure hitter by virtue of his ability to consistently hit the ball hard. Here’s how he compares to other NPB hitters with 350-plus plate appearances the past two seasons according to Delta Graphs:

  • Lowest soft-contact percentage: No. 1 (2019), No. 8 (2018)
  • Lowest swinging strike percentage: No. 2 (2019), No. 4 (2018)
  • Lowest swing percentage out of zone: No. 7 (2019), No. 6 (2018)
  • Highest hard-contact percentage: No. 19 (2019), No. 10 (2018)

By those numbers we can deduce he consistently makes solid contact, knows the strike zone, and has a good approach. Here’s a youtube video of Kondo:

Kensuke Kondo

Here’s how Kondo looked in his days at Yokohama High School

Kensuke Kondo in high school.

Power hitter: Hotaka Yamakawa

Yamakawa is the first baseman and cleanup hitter for both the Seibu Lions and Japan’s national team. He was the PL’s 2018 MVP. His qualifications as a power hiter – according to the Story line – are: 23% of his fly balls are home runs, this was the 7th highest figure in 2019, the 5th highest in 2018.

In his career, he has hit one home run per 11.45 at-bats. Among hitters with at least 1,000 at-bats and 100 home runs, this rate – that Story calls “power efficiency” (p. 80) – ranks Yamakawa fifth  — in Japanese pro baseball history. Ranked ahead of him are: Sadaharu Oh (10.66), Randy “I’ll be a Hall of Famer in 2021” Bass (10.93), Charlie Manuel (11.25) and Orestes Destrade (11.35).

First, a look at Yamakawa in his days as a Fuji University star:

Hotaka Yamakawa in university
Hotaka Yamakawa during his first full season.

The power ball lottery

The realization over the past 10 years that balls driven at a velocity of at least 98 mph at an angle between 26 and 30 degrees result produces optimum results that often outweigh the cost of increased strikeouts has been the biggest game-changer since the period from 1919-1921. Then, the confluence of Babe Ruth showed home run hitting could be a productive tactic, and clean baseballs allowed others to replicate his experiment. Since then, the fear of the cost of a strikeout has steadily declined and now has all but evaporated.

If I’m a scout, I’m on the lookout for strong players with quick wrists, who can make the necessary adjustments. The other side of the coin is finding pitchers who can exploit those hitters, and consequently, batters who can put the ball in play against the shifts that have since been implemented.