Category Archives: Players

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Scout Diary: Feb. 21, 2020 – Fumiya Kurokawa, 2B, Rakuten

I was going to do a rundown on all the top draft picks from NPB’s 2019 autumn draft, but Fumiya Kurokawa grabbed my attention with a story of his alertness on the bases, so here we are.

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Furukawa was the second pick of the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles out of powerhouse high school Chiben Wakayama. He’s a second baseman, and that usually raises questions among amateurs because if he could field and had an arm, he’d be a shortstop.

  • Birthday: 4/17/2001
  • H: 1.82 m, W: 86 kg
  • Bats: L, Throws: R
  • Position: 2B

Physical description: Looks like a left-handed-hitting Hideto Asamura who has grown into his body more quickly than Asamura did. He has pronounced movement with his front foot, swinging his toe over the plate as he times the pitcher’s delivery.

PresentFuture
Hitting Ability5060
Power5060
Running Speed5555
Base Running7070
Arm Strength4040
Arm Accuracy5050
Fielding5055
Range5055
Baseball Instinct6060
Aggressiveness6060

Abilities: Soft hands, quick flips. Alert, aggressive base runner. Disciplined approach, compact swings, quick hands to the ball, with a slight uppercut.

Weaknesses: Hyper conscious of setting his feet before throwing, often taking an extra step before throwing.

Summation: He could develop real power, and pro coaches are sure to iron out his throwing technique and make him an above-average fielder.

2019 video of Kurokawa as a high school senior

Follow up

The report says nothing about his makeup or his speed to first, so those are things I’d like to fill in as time goes by. He did get to second on balls into the outfield in 8 seconds, but I don’t have enough records to know if that’s really fast or not.

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020: The question about Junya Nishi

Today’s topic is right-handed pitcher Junya Nishi, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick last autumn. Nishi, a Hiroshima native, played for Soshigakuen HS in Okayama and is a distant relative of Tigers pitcher Yuki Nishi.

Haven’t heard anyone talk about Nishi’s hitting, but he’s got real power. I asked longtime former Dodgers scout Hank Jones, one of the instructors in the Scouting and General Manager course at Sports Management World Wide, what teams did back in the day when guys had hitting AND pitching tools back in the day before Shohei Ohtani.

Essentially, Jones said, “Let him prove he can’t hit. If he can’t then he’s a pitcher.”

But now that we’re living in the post-Ohtani world, one would think any team would at least consider a novel approach to a player with such obvious talent.

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Physically, Nishi resembles Ron Cey, although he is a little taller than Cey. His pitching motion makes it look like he’s constantly overexerting himself, and his follow through is violent rather than smooth.

The pitcher

In the pitching video below, the announcer reports Nishi as saying his balance is off when his cap comes off his head — which it does frequently. When he bats, it looks like his lower body imparts very little of the impressive power he generates.

Here’s a first-round national championship game in 2018, when Nishi was a month shy of his 17th birthday. He touched 91.3 mph in this game with 40 command. He has since been recorded at 93.2, which would make his velocity a 60. He has a slider with depth and 50 command, a curve that he doesn’t command well what appeared to be a splitter with arm-side run and good depth.

Junya Nishi’s 16 strikeouts in the national championships as a 16-year-old.

The video below is an analysis of his motion and deliveries against the national collegiate team prior to last year’s Under-18 World Cup. I can’t vouch for the RPMs given on the video. The curve with poor command appears little different than the ones he threw at Koshien Stadium a year earlier, but it looks like the slider and fastball are even better and he’s added a changeup and improved the splitter.

Some slow motion of him pitching against Japan’s national collegiate hitters.

The hitter

I first noticed Nishi when he drove in eight runs against South Africa as Japan’s DH in their Under-18 World Cup game last autumn in South Korea.

The other instructor in our scouting course, former Dodgers GM and Blue Jays scout Dan Evans, provided us with a hack for recognizing above-average major league power, which I won’t spill hear, but suffice it to say hearing that he led the World Cup in home runs and hit 25 in his high school career as a pitcher.

He’s a right-handed hitter, with 60 power that I’ll project to 65 with work on his lower body mechanics with a 50 hit tool. Like most Japanese hitters he sprays the ball to all fields, although his power seems to be mostly to left.

Here’s some video of Nishi hitting in high school.

Pitcher Junya Nishi raked and mashed in high school.

Conclusion

Japan is obsessed with pitchers, and Nishi has a lot to offer on the mound, but his delivery bothers me a little. I’m inclined to think his power is the real deal and that he may have more future value as a hitter with fewer adjustments needed.

Whether he can be a two-way player or not is a good question. But if I’m the Hanshin Tigers, I’d at least ask him if he’s interested instead of just assuming that the team knows more than the player. The Tigers are kind of a mystery to me. I don’t understand their inability to commit to young players or their past failures to modernize the club’s strength-training program.

Maybe they see the possibility Nishi presents, but if I were to bet, my money would be on the “We’ve already made up our minds about his future as a pitcher.”

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.

The kotatsu league: Rakuten snaps up former Buffalo Romero

The Rakuten Eagles on Monday announced they have reached an agreement on a 2020 contract with 31-year-old outfielder Stefen Romero, who spent the past three seasons with the Pacific League rival Orix Buffaloes.

The signing gives Rakuten a third hard-hitting imported position player to go with third baseman Zelous Wheeler and right fielder Jabari Blash.

Romero, who played in only 81 games in 2019, dealt all season with a neck issue that he said would require a month of rest. On April 19, he suffered a right oblique tendon injury in Sendai that kept him out for nearly a month. He was again deactivated for a month from June 23 due to inflammation in a right oblique tendon. On Sept. 3, he hurt his right knee running the bases, but returned 10 days later.

Despite all those troubles, he posted a .305 batting average leading to a .363 OBP. Those numbers were likely skewed by good luck. After a .282 average when not homering or striking out from 2017-2018, Romero’s figure in 2019 was .385 in 295 at-bats last season.

Romero, who said he now makes use of a Rapsodo device in his offseason workouts, has become an extreme flyball hitter compared to how he was when he arrived with Orix in 2017 according to Delta Graphs.

His English language NPB page is HERE.

Romero is the sixth veteran the Eagles have acquired this winter, having brought in a trio of Lotte Marines (infielder Daichi Suzuki and right-handers Hideaki Wakui and Tomohito Sakai, former San Diego Padre and Seibu Lions submariner Kazuhisa Makita, and former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever J. T. Chargois.

The Sendai-based Eagles finished third in the Pacific League last season behind the two-time defending PL champion Seibu Lions and the three-time defending Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks. They ranked seventh among NPB’s 12 teams in both pitching and fielding according to Bill James‘ Win Shares, but dead last in offense.

The Eagles have never reached the postseason in an even-numbered year, finishing sixth, fifth, sixth, fourth, sixth, fifth and sixth.

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.

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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

Tuffy Rhodes: On being himself

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019, one of Japanese baseball’s all-time greats, Tuffy Rhodes, remained gathering dust in the middle of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players division voting results, omitted by more than 70 percent of the voters.

I spoke with Rhodes a year ago after Craig Calcattera wrote about Rhodes’ Hall of Fame slog. Craig’s story sparked a small amount of outrage among Japanese fans. I expected to catch up with him in Phoenix last March and then write the interview but we never connected. Tuffy’s not a hermit, but he moves at his pace.

Here’s the second part of our interview — about how Tuffy Rhodes grew in Japan and stayed true to his fiery self.

In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs. He led his league in an offensive category 18 times. Every position player to lead in more than 15 is in the Hall of Fame except for Rhodes, and Ichiro Suzuki and Nobuhiko Matsunaka — who are not yet eligible.

“If it wasn’t for Tuffy, I would have been another statistic, most likely, of a spoiled American who wasn’t willing to change and adapt…He did more than people know for both cultures.”

former NPB veteran Jeremy Powell

After the 2003 season, his second with 50-plus home runs, Rhodes failed to reach a deal with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. After eight one-year contracts, he wanted a multiyear deal, and they refused.

“I was battling with Kintetsu,” Rhodes said. “The Giants had offered me a contract. I didn’t ask Kintetsu to match the contract, just match the years. It was the first time I was going to get a two-year deal, and that’s all I wanted Kintetsu to do. They had never given a foreigner a two-year-deal, so I went with the Giants. Then I found out that the reason why was because they were selling the team.”

In the spring of 2004, just months after he joined the Giants, the Buffaloes’ parent company, the Kinki Nippon Railroad, announced it was going out of the baseball business and would pursue a merger with another Pacific League club that was struggling financially, the Orix BlueWave.

The news that NPB, a two-league, 12-team setup since 1958 was in danger of becoming an unwieldy 11 teams, sent shockwaves through the establishment. Teams began looking for merger partners so that a single 10-team league could be formed with the Lotte Marines and Daiei Hawks the most likely marriage.

When the players and fans asked to be involved in the process, they were told to mind their own beeswax and the resulting strike and strife ended with old-fashioned owners learning the hard way that they couldn’t just make up rules on the fly without concern for others. But instead of being with his longtime teammates as his club played out the string on the road to extinction, Rhodes joined a super team the Giants were building in Tokyo.

“I went to the Giants and it was too late,” Rhodes said. “I loved being in Osaka. I was very comfortable where I was. I was all Osaka, Kansai-jin all the way. It’s totally different. The trains in Tokyo are silent. In Osaka, they’re talking, they’re louder. It’s totally different. The women voice their opinion more aggressively on the phone then the women in Tokyo.”

Being with the Giants meant following lots and lots of rules and being in the spotlight all the time. Although he led the Central League in home runs, the Giants were unraveling under new manager Tsuneo Horiuchi. In 2005, the chaos achieved maximum volume as Horiuchi fueded publicly with popular first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara and it became every man for himself.

On April 26, with no outs and a runner on first after an error in a 5-5 game, Rhodes, playing center, gave up on a ball in the gap, allowing a tie-breaking double by Alex Ramirez. In the obligatory postgame meeting, coach Sumio Hirota picked out Rhodes and said the 7-5 loss was entirely his fault.

“Me? What about the pitchers?” Rhodes said afterward.

Rhodes picked up the diminutive coach and pinned him to a wall. Afterward, he told reporters in Japanese that the Giants sucked and they could write what they liked. Things got worse. He tore his right rotator cuff in August and that ended his time with the Giants.

“I was just learning how not to let it get the best of me,” he said. “The cameras were in your face. I played to win and I played hard. It got to the point where I didn’t feel appreciated and I let it get the best of me.”

The competitive spirit that pushed him to do the annual one-hour batting practices in spring training with Kintetsu — at first to show he could do it and later to excel — did at times overcome his better nature, like the time Hayato Aoki of the Seibu Lions hit his teammate Norihiro Nakamura. Rhodes was on first base and blindsided the pitcher for not observing Japan’s custom of tipping your cap to the batter you’ve hit with a pitch.

“I popped him good,” Rhodes said. “I got suspended one game. He didn’t tip his cap. He would not tip his cap. That set me off because you’re supposed to tip your cap and show respect unless you did it on purpose. And Nori is my buddy.”

That was Tuffy, fierce on the field and protective of his teammates — even when it was a message they didn’t want to hear. When new pitcher Jeremy Powell had had enough after another run-in with Buffaloes pitching coach Shigeru Hayashi, Powell was ready to grab the next flight home.

“If it wasn’t for Tuffy, I would have been another statistic, most likely, of a spoiled American who wasn’t willing to change and adapt…He did more than people know for both cultures,” said Powell, who ended up pitching over 1,000 innings in NPB and winning 69 games and is now the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A pitching coach.

The lesson Rhodes imparted was this: “Respect that this is their game, but that you can learn from it and thrive.”

“I went to Japan with an open mind,” Rhodes said of his transformation. “Like a newborn baby. I was like whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to worry about anything in America. I’m going to live my life as an American in Japan. I’m going to learn the culture.”

“Our program, we had to go into the gym and do something. So right prior to that, I started working out, started a regimen every day. I felt myself getting bigger and stronger. My diet got a lot better. I started getting faster, stronger, leaner. Going to Japan changed my life in so many ways.”

That started in camp, where unlike in America there are days off but the practice days themselves can be unending. And at Kintetsu, the foreign players were kept later in the day then at most clubs.

“The two-a-days. Oh my goodness, yes. Those were the worst,” said Rhodes, who also struggled in the team’s spring facility because it was surrounded by conifers that shifted his allergy to cedar pollen into overdrive.

“You had to do everything in the morning, from every drill on defense that had to do with infield or outfield positions four hours. Then lunch, and after lunch you’d hit for another three hours, as a team in your groups. That would surprise you. In America, spring training, the first week or so, you’re out of there by noon, 1 O’clock at the latest. Here, you’re just getting started and you’re getting back to your room at 5:30, 6 O’clock at night.”

“Some years, I came later to camp, like the 15th of February, but my regimen was the same. I hit one hour by myself like everyone else, and I’d hit one hour by myself the week before the season started. Sasaki kantoku, (coach Takao) Ise-san, they really taught me how to play baseball in Japan. They were awesome. I had some great coaches.”

They might have taught him the fundamentals, but the spirit was all Tuffy, and what people remember now is it getting out of hand, like the shoving match he had with veteran Rakuten Eagles slugger Takeshi Miyazaki, or punching out Lotte catcher Tomoya Satozaki on July 17, 2007.

Orix teammate Greg LaRocca, who went on to set an NPB record that year by getting hit 28 times in 2007, had been plunked for the second time in two days in Chiba. In his next at-bat, LaRocca took matters into his own hands and fiery Tuffy came out.

“LaRocca hit a groundball to first base his next (Pitcher Naoyuki) Shimizu is covering first base,” Rhodes said. “LaRocca kind of gave him a cheap shot. I don’t know if he stepped on him, kind of like an elbow to the back, because they collided and pushed him down and all heck breaks loose.”

“Who’s batting next? Me. First pitch, inside. Shimizu’s a pretty damn good pitcher. He’s got some pretty good stuff. So I looked back at Satozaki and said to him in Japanese, ‘Remember, I’m not LaRocca.’ He’s down there. I kicked my dirt. I did not kick dirt on him. Then he stands up and says in Japanese, ‘Rhodes, I’m not scared of you.’”

“I thought, ‘That’s it,’ and I popped him right in the mouth. He’s lucky the umpire got hold of me from behind because I had him on the ground and I was going to punch him.”

Tuffy had his seventh 40-home run season in 2008 but broke a finger in May 2009, played in a career-low 84 games (with a .985 OPS). But the sides couldn’t agree on a contract for 2010.

No further calls came until he was asked to be a player-coach in 2015 for the Toyama Thunderbirds of the independent BC League. They wanted him back for 2016 but he was closing a deal on his home in Arizona and things didn’t fall into place.

Although he seems unconcerned about whether he’ll get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, you get the sense that is one thing that would bring him back to Japan.

But there is another way we might see Rhodes back here where he became Tuffy to a nation of baseball fans and his record eight ejections are just part of his big picture.

“I would love to coach in Japan. That’s the only goal that I want,” he said.