Category Archives: Commentary

Story stupidity meter going off the charts means baseball is back

For the next four weeks there will be lots of this on cable TV…

Day 1 of Japanese spring training. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.

It’s the best because teams are in camp preparing to play baseball. It’s the worst because it is easily the day for the most tedious baseball story lines of the year.

Today we were treated to the following headlines:

  • Manager Yoda says we’re striving to win the championship
  • Matsuzaka returns and greets fans — hopefully that went better than last year when an overenthusiastic high five from a fan injured the pitcher’s right shoulder and caused him to miss most of the season
  • Kenichi Tanaka throws 58 pitches in his 1st Hanshin bullpen, manager says he was flying
  • Fighters top draft pick Kawano says being in camp near the ocean in Okinawa is like a dream come true
  • Takano tries to impress with 128-pitch bullpen
  • New team adviser Jojima angers chairman Oh on 1st day
  • Jones impresses at Orix camp as a nice guy, not like a major leaguer at all
  • and …. major league power hitter Jones shows off his bunting skill
  • Giants Parra thrilled fans do “Baby Shark”
  • SoftBank’s Ka reports no discomfort wearing new uniform No.
  • PL MVP Mori: “I’m aiming for 3rd straight championship”
  • Carp manager Sasaoka on top draft pick Mori’s bullpen: “I felt he was a little nervous”

But its not all just bullpens and moronic observations about aiming for championships, although there is a lot of that, as well as players saying they want to make the Olympic team. There’s also batting practice reports.

Don’t forget the “home runs”

A big part of camp reporting is how many batting practice home runs are hit. So the first day saw the following.

  • Chunichi’s top draft pick Ishikawa hits 15 batting practice home runs
  • Nippon Ham’s Kiyomiya hit 17 homers, eight out of the park
  • Balentien hits 2 out in front of his role model, chairman Oh
  • New Tiger Bour hits 14 homers
  • New Buffalo Jones hits 7 homers

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020 – Pacific League’s best outfield tools

The search for the best outfield defensive tools on the planet brings us to Japan’s Pacific League and the top three in the 2019 voting for the three outfield Golden Gloves. I thought it would be easier to select a PL winner than in the CL, but I was wrong.

  • Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾
  • Takashi Ogino, Marines 荻野 貴司
  • Haruki NIshikawa, Fighters 西川 遥輝

Shogo Akiyama

Collection of Shogo Akiyama catches
Best PL throws from the outfield, starting with Akiyama at 1:07.

By default, Akiyama, whose metrics have been slipping year by year, is the PL winner of the tools challenge. Despite the ubiquity of PL TV, the league’s streaming service, I’m simply unable to find any video collections of Takashi Ogino or Haruki Nishikawa. Those who are interested more on Nishikawa can find my profile of him HERE, since he has expressed an interest in playing in the majors.

If you are interested in the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, my profile of the former Lions captain is HERE.

Conclusion and admission

My outfield tools surveys of four leagues, the National, American, Central and Pacific, has produced four finalists:

  • Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
  • Jackie Bradley, Jr, Boston Red Sox
  • Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
  • Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions

My choice for the best outfield tools in the world goes to Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. If I had to pick No. 2 it would be Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rationale

I tried to evaluate every outfielder on the following criteria:

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release
  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

I omitted “good hands” from consideration because all the candidates are exceptional at catching the ball. But having said that, Bradley is as good at that as anyone I’ve seen — and I grew up watching Willie Mays. I am hesitant to give out an 80 score, but let’s call it a 75.

Based on the video above, I’ve rated his arm strength is 75, his accuracy a 70. His footwork is as good as Kiermaier’s which is the best I’ve seen. But there’s a cherry on top, the grace and speed at which he transitions from catching to throwing is an 80. Again, he’s not AS good at scaling outfield walls as Lorenzo Cain, but nobody is. Having said that, Bradley is pretty darn close.

The other special thing about him is his jumps. He appears to be in motion before the batter swings. His raw speed gives him incredible range when he is right, and allows him to make up for guessing wrong.

An admission

I have less confidence in my Japanese choices in the outfield than I had in the infield, because while I’ve seen these guys a fair amount, I’ve been a writer, not a scout.

I’m trying to change that, of course, and my podcast colleague John E. Gibson could give a far more educated opinion about tools, because that has always been an after thought. Until now, my thinking has been, ‘Does he make the play or not? How often does he make plays? What are the context of the plays he made or didn’t make? Are they part of the story of this game or the story of that player or of Japanese baseball.

Gibson likes to talk about tools, but for the most part, they pretty much didn’t enter into my calculus. Which is kind of odd in a way, since the greater part of sports writing in Japan is obsessed with technical minutia about tools and skills. I preferred to write about how people grew and learned rather than why they decided to move their hands apart when the gripped the bat.

Anyway, I hope to remedy that indifference to specific skills going forward.

Scout Diary: Jan. 30, 2020 – Central League’s best outfield tools

Part 3 of a survey of the world’s best outfield defensive tools takes us to Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League. Unlike Major League Baseball’s Gold Gloves, Japan’s fielding awards, the Golden Glove does not discriminate among positions, meaning virtually all the winners are center fielders.

Japan’s awards where the winners actually receive a golden glove, were previously known as the Diamond Glove, a name that might have been changed the first time someone tried to make a glove out of diamonds.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

The Central League’s best

  • Yoshihiro Maru, Giants 丸 佳浩
  • Seiya Suzuki, Carp 鈴木 誠也
  • Yohei Oshima, Dragons 大島 洋平

Maru and Oshima are both center fielders, while Suzuki plays in right.

Yoshihiro Maru

Maru has won seven straight Golden Gloves but despite that nobody to my knowledge has put together a highlight video of his fielding exploits. Having said that, his 2019 season

Seiya Suzuki

Suzuki was a high school pitcher who feels he could have succeeded as a pitcher as well. Until 2019 when Maru moved to the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent, Suzuki in right was paired with Maru in center. Suzuki has a gun, solid throwing mechanics, and is fairly good at going and getting the ball.

His foot speed is not what it was four years ago, and though he was tested as a center fielder for the national team, nobody wants to take that cannon out of right field. His metrics are not quite the best among right fielders though, as one would also have to consider Chunichi’s Ryosuke Hirata.

Seiya Suzuki showing off his arm.

Yohei Oshima

Again, the quality of the highlights are fairly poor. It shows Oshima tracking the ball and catching it with the throws unable to make the highlight reel. According to Delta Graphs, he had an arm when he was a pup, but he’s now 34.

My choice, for lack of contrary evidence, is Suzuki. He has fairly soft hands with 60 speed and a 70 arm. Video of CL players is haphazard because NPB has no media arm — each team is responsible for televising its own home games — and only the Pacific League has a marketing arm that produces video.

Scout Diary: Jan. 30, 2020 – American League’s best outfield tools

Who has the best outfield defensive tools in the world?

To find out, I’m looking at the leaders in award fielding honors in center field in four of the world’s top pro leagues. Today is a quick look at the three finalists for the American League’s 2019 Gold Glove in center field.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

  • Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
  • Mike Trout, Angels
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox

First up is Keven Kiermaier. In addition to the good hands, great jumps, speed and strong arm, his throwing mechanics are incredibly fluid. His feet are extremely quick, so even though he is ready to release the ball very quickly, his feet are set, allowing him to make hard accurate throws. Although he is fearless at the wall, he lacks the grace there Lorenzo Cain possesses, which puts Kiermaier in the same group with every other outfielder in the world.

Kevin Kiermaier

Mike Trout has the physical strength to leap at the wall and athleticism to make diving and tumbling catches look effortless. He may be a little faster than Kiermaier, but is not as fluid with his throws as the Rays’ glove wizard.

Mike Trout

Jackie Bradley Jr., however, is my pick for No. 1 in the AL. He can cover ground with the best of them and has the speed to recover when his aggressive jumps send him the wrong way. While his throwing mechanics are not as quite as smooth as Kiermaier’s — nobody’s are, he has the strength and flexibility to make any catch at any angle.

Jackie Bradley Jr.

Next we’ll start our look at Japan with the top three in the voting for the Central League’s 2019 Golden Glove.

Former Swallow Barnette calls it quits

Tony Barnette, who became a valuable professional pitcher in Japan, where he fashioned a solid career, before making his major league debut, announced Thursday on Twitter that he was bringing his active career to an end.

My interview with Barnette and the coach he credits with remaking his arsenal, Tomohito Ito, can be found HERE.

After being a big part of the Swallows’ 2015 Central League championship, the club’s first since 2001, Barnette was out of contract with the Swallows. Out of consideration for the club, he asked the Swallows to post him. But knowing he was a free agent, no American team was interested in paying Yakult a posting fee, but he did hook up with the Texas Rangers as a free agent.

Scout Diary: Jan. 28, 2020 – National League’s best outfield tools

The mission: Identify a professional outfielder who you feel has the best tools identified from this week and the previous week’s readings. Describe in scouting terminology why you feel he is the best.

Last week was infielders, this week’s assignment is outfielders. Again, I want to narrow the focus to as manageable a group as possible so I’ll stick to the four leagues I can access, American, National, Central and Pacific, and center fielders. While right fielders may possess more of the best outfield arms, I’m making an arbitrary decision — as I did with shortstops in the search for the best infield tools — with looking only at the most exclusive position, center field.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Let’s start again with the Gold Glove finalists from the National League for 2019:

  • Victor Robles, Nationals
  • Lorenzo Cain, Brewers
  • Harrison Bader, Cardinals

Criteria

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release

  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

Victor Robles

Lacking the highlight clips for Robles that people like to make of shortstops, I’ll go with two videos of him, catching and throwing the baseball.

Victor Robles catch
Victor Robles throw

Lorenzo Cain – armed robber

One of my favorites since the 2014 World Series, Cain has four times been named MLB’s Wilson Defensive Player of the Year in center field but has yet to win a gold glove. Because of his knack for making catches at and over the fence, there is no shortage of Cain highlights. Here’s a good one:

Lorenzo Cain

Harrison “Darth” Bader

The fun part of this course is that it gets me to look at different things than I usually do and players I don’t normally see. Bader is one of these.

Harrison Bader

Conclusion

With so few glimpses of Robles to work with, it’s hard to get an impression of him other than the few plays I saw were all amazing. He has a gun, throwing 97.4 MPH across his body in what amounts to little more than a snap throw, but I’ll have to omit him from consideration for lack of evidence.

I neglected to mention a couple of points since all three appear to have excellent throwing mechanics and soft hands. Robles may have the best raw arm strength, but it’s hard to overlook the accuracy of Bader’s throw or that snap release that would look right at home as a shortstop.

If you held Robles’ cannon to my head and forced me to choose, I’d go with Cain. The one part of the video I wanted to see that they cut off is a throw he was getting ready to make after a catch at the warning track. This reminds me of Willie Mays talking about his famed World Series grab in 1954, saying “I made many catches better. The best part of the play was the throw.”

Cain can do what the others can perhaps to a slightly lesser degree as he ages, but that ability to pick balls at the wall makes me go with him.

Scout Diary: Jan. 25, 2020

It’s back to scouting Japanese amateurs today. I’ve got no assignments to work on today. I was going to look at college outfielders from the website ( http://www.baseballwebtv.com/ ) but couldn’t play any videos from that.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Scouting report on Takaya Ishikawa

Instead I thought I’d produce a report on one of the first-round picks from October’s NPB amateur draft, infielder Takaya Ishikawa. Unlike the other high school players I’ve looked at, there wasn’t a ton of video available on youtube, but I like the look of this guy as a hitter. He’s 6’1″, 200 lbs, a third baseman with average speed who is not polished as a fielder but who looks like he was born to hit.

The player he reminds me most of is Hiroshima Carp star Seiya Suzuki — who was also a slugging pitcher-infielder in high school. Suzuki had plus speed however and his fastball off the mound was clocked a little faster than Ishikawa’s.

As the cleanup hitter for Japan at the Under-18 World Cup in November, I figured there might be some video. What I found was even better. The WBSC’s tournament website has every game on video.

Using that, I’m going to comb through every game and have a look at as many players as I can.

Note: It’s vastly harder to make observations of games than it is of highlight videos. Video of games, however, allows you to get do-overs with your stopwatch, but you are at the mercy of camera angles that don’t show the runner crossing the bag at first and so on.

Having been through a number of chats with our experienced instructors, you realize how much there is to see and picking up on those things quickly enough to keep up is an amazing skill I can only marvel at right now.

Anyway, to return to Ishikawa. who will turn 19 in June, here are my notes so far.

Grades

Hitting ability 50 – 60, power 50 – 60, running speed 50 – 50, arm strength 60 – 65, arm accuracy 45 – 55, fielding 50 – 50, range 45 – 50, baseball instinct 60 – 60, aggressiveness 60 – 60. Hits the ball straight away.

Physical description

Tall with a well developed lower body. It looks like his school (Toho HS) doesn’t believe in upper body weight training. A slightly larger version of Seiya Suzuki. A toe tap (like the MLB version of Shohei Ohtani) without any of the typical Japanese high leg kick.

Abilities

Disciplined hitter. He’s looking to drive his pitches. Compact swing, good extension, power to pull and straight-away center. Alert fielder, with sound mechanics and soft hands and quick release.

Weaknesses

Fielding is mechanical, showed some hesitation.

Summation

This is guy knows what he is doing at the plate. He was named as top draft pick by three NPB teams. My main concern is that Chunichi does not have a good track record with developing players strength-training skills. He could definitely build up his frame — as Suzuki has done, but only time will tell.

Takaya Ishikawa

Dolis from Tigers to Blue Jays: Report

Right-hander Rafael Dolis, 32, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, according to a twitter report by Hanshin Tigers English News, who first reported the story early Sunday morning in Japan.

You can find Dolis’ NPB player page in English HERE.

Rafael Dolis 2019 strikeout collection

Dolis saved 30-plus games in both 2018 and 2019, but was pulled from the closer’s role on July 23, for reasons that are not obvious in his results. The club turned to ageless right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa, who converted every save opportunity that came his way the rest of the year.

You can read Kyodo News’ interview with Fujikawa HERE.

Since he arrived in 2016, Dolis has relied primarily on a fastball, a two-seamer and a split, which has been his most effective pitch and said he perfected with the help of Tigers coaches.

Two-seamers are still considered a rarity in Japan. Among pitchers last season who threw 200 or more of them, Dolis’ was ranked fourth in NPB by data analysis site Delta Graphs. His splitter ranked fifth, which may not sound as impressive until one realizes how many extremely good splitters are thrown here.

Scout Diary: Jan. 24, 2020

Friday is homework assignment day, so I’ll finish my look at the best pro infield tools with the top shortstops from Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League.

Having now having glanced — I don’t want to glorify my youtube binge watching as study — at 12 elite shortstops, I realize I really don’t know what a 70 arm is yet. Have you seen an 80 arm at shortstop? The following video has some that show real carry, as the ball just fails to appreciably drop on its path to the target.

I’ve seen very few throws with that kind of carry in the Japanese videos I’ve been watching, so it’s possible that none of the 12 candidates have 80 arm strength, although Andrelton Simmons might.

The three CL players with the most votes in the Golden Glove voting were:

  • Hayato Sakamoto, Yomiuri Giants
  • Yota Kyoda, Chunichi Dragons
  • Yamato Maeda, DeNA BayStars

Sakamoto is a 31-year-old veteran offensive star whose metrics have in the past been occasionally the best in the league. Kyoda is a 25-year-old who is just establishing himself. Maeda is a 32-year-old longtime utility player, who won a Golden Glove after being converted to playing center fielder, who had phenomenal metrics in 2019.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

All three have soft hands, good fielding action and above-average transfers. My pick for the player with the best tools goes to Kyoda. Not only does he have excellent physical tools, but he appears to play shortstop like a point guard, with an excellent sense of timing and an understanding of where to throw the ball.

Sakamoto is blessed with a plus arm and does everything right. He is not the quickest on the transfer and tries not to backhand balls if he can help it. He uses his size to set and get good velocity on his throws. He does not appear to be as comfortable improvising with throws from all angles.

Kyoda may have the best instincts for getting to ground balls in Japan. With a quick accurate release and 70-75 arm strength. His transfer is above average, but not elite, and he could set his feet more often.

Maeda is above average at everything. The worst grade I would give him is a 60 for throwing accuracy. He is better at backhanding the ball than Sakamoto but not as good as Kyoda.

The best of the best

My tools competition has produced four league champs:

  • Fransico Lindor, Cleveland Indians
  • Nick Ahmed, Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Sosuke Genda, Seiibu Lions
  • Yota Kyoda, Chunichi Dragons

My pick from them is Ahmed. Of the Japanese shortstops I reviewed, Genda, Kyoda and Kenta Imamiya of the SoftBank Hawks could definitely start at shortstop in the majors.

Japan’s shadow ball

Although claims of sexual harassment and abuse of power are becoming more and more frequent in Japanese society and Japanese sports, one has to wonder why Japan’s poor record of gender inequality has not led to more charges of sexual assault and domestic violence in Japan like those that are so often reported — and tidied up — in Major League Baseball.

On Thursday, Hanshin Tigers pitcher Koki Moriya denied allegations of domestic violence, which is the norm in such cases around the world, but that doesn’t make him guilty.

Japan, which the United Nations Development Programme ranked 121st among 188 nations in gender inequality in 2010, is infamous for rape and sexual assaults often being ignored by authorities or going unpunished in the legal system.

The lack of such revelations in Japanese pro baseball is surprising given they are not uncommon in the larger society and or in pro sports overseas. Japan’s game justifiably prides itself on the good manners drilled into most players. When you pass high school players in uniform near their ground, they will — almost without exception — remove their caps and offer a greeting as they go by.

Yet, reports of high school players bullying and assaulting classmates are not unheard of.

The last issue of domestic violence in Japanese baseball caused barely a ripple in the news. At a game they hosted in Omiya in the summer of 2008, executives of the Seibu Lions were beseiged by media about a player who had been accused of two things: stealing money and beating up his girlfriend.

The accusation that the young player had pocketed 30,000 yen (roughly $300) someone left at an ATM was being handled with utmost sincerity by the organization, the club said. As for his beating up his girl friend, who was the one who supposedly blew the whistle on him, the Lions attitude was, “boys will be boys, so what do you expect us to do about it?”

I remember the incident because a female friend of mine worked for the Lions who was absolutely steaming. This extremely professional individual would sometimes have to really vent about the sexism that came with working in a business run for and by men.

As it was, the player in question was sent down to the farm team, suspended for a brief time, and then resumed his career as if nothing had happened.

While it is possible that sexual abuse and domestic violence are less common in NPB, the fact that one almost never hears about it probably has as much to do with a code of silence as with good behavior.