Category Archives: Baseball

Dice-K sidelined

Daisuke Matsuzaka is still pitching professionally.

By Jim Allen

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who spent nearly all of his time with the SoftBank Hawks the past three seasons on their farm team nursing one injury or another, was deactivated by the Chunichi Dragons after suffering from back spasms prior to Sunday’s game against his old club, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions. His back issue flared up while he was in the bullpen.

Matsuzaka has been a great story this year because he’s been able to get a lot of big outs despite having control issues and only one reliable pitch, his cut fastball. According to Deltagraphs Matsuzaka is throwing the cutter 41 percent of the time, while his average fastball velocity has been 139.1 kph (86.4 mph).

The cutter is a great pitch in Japan because most pitchers don’t throw it, and he is using it to stay away from barrels and mixing it with a slider that has been very tight on occasion and an occasional change, which has been dynamite.

NPB all-star voting being what he is, he’s leading in the voting for Central League starting pitchers because everyone loves nostalgia and he’s actually been useful when no one expected him to be.

He currently has a 3-3 record, which sounds ominous, since that’s how he finished his last two big league seasons with the Mets.

After three seasons with SoftBank, he was released. But there seems to be more to the story than that. Word is the Hawks wanted him to sign a different contract for much less money. Instead, he walked, but soon found that when players walk away from their teams like that, few other clubs show any interest in signing them.

This happened with an aging Norihiro Nakamura, when he left the Orix Buffaloes after the 2006 season in a contract dispute. Like Matsuzaka, Nakamura asked every club for a tryout, but was turned down by every team except the Chunichi Dragons. Nakamura, by the way, was the 2007 Japan Series MVP and continued playing for another six years — eight years after no one except Chunichi was interested out of deference to the way he left Orix.

You can’t make this dumb NPB stuff up

If Major League Baseball telling you in May, “The ball isn’t juiced, it only flies farther,” made you wonder whether the world was going mad, I say welcome to NPB, where that kind of pretzel logic would seem run of the mill.

On Sunday, the Yakult Swallows clinched the championship of the annual spring interleague competition. Except, for some reason, when the format was switched from 24 games to 18 in 2015, some bright person decided that the championship team will no longer be known as the “champion” (優勝チーム), but rather as “the team with the highest winning percentage” (最高勝率チーム).

In general, that is all well and good, except with only 18 games, it is very easy that two teams can finish with the same winning percentage, as happened in 2017, when the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp) both finished at 12-6. The first tiebreaker to determine which team wins the 5 million yen first prize (roughly $48,000), is head-to-head results. Barring one of NPB’s ubiquitous ties, that is fairly easy to figure out. So last year, one team, the Hawks were declared to have the highest winning percentage .667 based on their head-to-head record in interleague, and the Carp (.667), the second highest winning percentage.

I would report that it doesn’t get stupider than this.

But I would be lying.

The epitome of Japanese baseball language logic is the “Climax Series.”

This event was introduced in 2007. After 4 years of complaining about the stupidity of the Pacific League’s playoffs, which the CL argued detracted from the pennant race, the CL wanted in. They simply got tired of watching most of the PL teams play meaningful September games in front of sizable crowds, at the same time that half the CL teams were out of contention and not drawing.

It wouldn’t do to have the CL’s new brilliant plan be just called “The Playoffs” as the PL had labeled its two-tier postseason championship tournament. It also wouldn’t do to have the Climax Series decide the league championship — as it had in the PL from 2004 to 2006.

So the CL decided that their version of the playoffs would not determine the league championship (the pinnacle of the regular season) but would in fact select the league’s representative to the Japan Series (the pinnacle of NPB’s entire season). And into the valley between these two high points, the CL brain trust inserted a two-stage playoff that would serve as the quarterfinals and semifinals for the Japan Series tournament. And instead of calling them what they are, these bright boys decided to call it the “Climax Series.”

They could have spit out a dozen better names that more accurately reflect what is going on, but perhaps, calling a preliminary a climax is perhaps appropriate. One can only imagine the decision making that took place. About a week before the decision needed to be made, some big shot with the Yomiuri Giants probably said, “Climax! Perfect!” So in his raw enthusiasm he pushed forward, began ordering promotional material, putting out hard copy and before anyone knew it, the name was everywhere and NPB was stuck with “Climax” all over its face.