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Double standards

On Saturday morning, we learned that SoftBank Hawks players Alfredo Despaigne and Yurisbel Gracial will depart Cuba for Japan. This is good news for the Hawks fans, whose team has struggled over the first two weeks of Nippon Professional Baseball’s season.

It also reminds us that Japanese society is not an inclusive or particularly fair one. I suppose that given human nature, asking for a society to be fair is like asking for a government to be honest.

The issue is that people who live, work, pay taxes and contribute to society in a lawful manner are treated differently depending on the group they belong to. If you were born, raised and lived your entire life in Japan, you are a permanent resident, but if you happen to be outside Japan at this moment, you can’t return.

Your family is here? Your work is here? So what? Only Japanese citizens are currently allowed entry. Ostensibly, however, that won’t be a problem if you are a baseball player, whose team’s parent company can pull sufficient strings.

It has been the same way with testing for the coronavirus. Tests are plentiful in Japan, but the government has been miserly about allowing doctors, concerned about their patients health, from having them tested.

Essentially, the only individuals who get tested are:

  • those who have been identified as having close contact with someone outside their family who has tested positive.
  • those with the proper symptoms that are so severe as to necessitate hospitalization
  • professional athletes with or without symptoms

In April, after the government declared a state of emergency, the National Training Center, a facility dedicated to improving Japan’s Olympic performance, was shuttered. But many argued it should be reopened because it is extremely important that Japan achieve its gold medal target for the Tokyo Olympics if they are held.

It was not opened before the state of emergency was lifted, but the very idea that athletes SHOULD get special treatment in the eyes of those in government is striking.

It’s a confirmation to many that who you know and what group you belong to in Japan matter more than anything, and that if you don’t belong to the right group, you really are expendable to a government that for all intents and purposes has worked harder to preserve its Olympic wet dream than it has to protect the lives of its citizens and other less desirable residents.

Japan’s sporting life

There is no smoking-gun evidence that Japan was suppressing its infection counts and limiting testing in February and March in order keep the Tokyo Olympics on track to start on July 23, 2020, but the chart of confirmed infections in Japan is essentially flat until March 24. That’s the day the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that postponement was necessary.

infections in Japan
Confirmed infections in Japan through June 23

There were 39 confirmed infections on March 24. There had been more than that a number of times in preceding weeks. On March 31 there were 87. On April 7 there were 252; on April 12, Japan peaked at 743. In the span of 20 days it had increased roughly 15 times.

Why then and not now?

It’s on the rise again and although testing is slowly becoming more accessible, it is still limited. Since the state of emergency was lifted and professional sports were put back on the table, the number of infections in Tokyo and around the country are doubling every nine to 10 days.

There are no longer daily briefings by the governor of Tokyo, and my wife keeps wondering allowed why nobody seems to care about the steady increase–which is much sharper than the one that forced pro sports to stop letting in crowds in February–although one might suspect that the official flat curve at that time was faked and that the government was looking at scarier data.

This would account for the huge spike after the Olympics were postponed, that the curve was not that steep at all but had been officially under-reported until March 24. That would partly explain why the government felt the need to act much more quickly in February when there were 30 to 50 new cases a day, than it does now, when there are 150 to 200 new cases a day.

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

What Japan needs to grow its game

The talk of expanding Nippon Professional Baseball by one third and increasing from 12 to 16 teams raises many questions, especially if one only sees it as grafting four additional teams to the current system, where only four or five of the existing clubs have made serious efforts at player development beyond the bare minimum.

What’s needed is a new set of rules and a new vision that sees Japan’s game as the visionary founder of the current establishment, Matsutaro Shoriki, ostensibly did, not just as a rival to Major League Baseball, but a superior product.

There are several obstacles preventing Japan from achieving these goals.

  1. The small number of professional players 70 players per team with an additional 60 or so on developmental contracts.
  2. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of playing time for those not on the active roster.
  3. A youth baseball culture that culls many of the best athletes from the talent pool through elbow and shoulder injuries caused by overuse before they even reach high school.
  4. This issue runs parallel to a declining birth rate and an even sharper decline in youth baseball participation as parents and kids opt for less dangerous sports with a less burdensome practice culture — as NBA player Rui Hachimura did.
  5. Limiting imported players to four on the active roster, making it difficult to invest in overseas amateurs.

No. 1 cannot be solved by keeping the current system as it is. Teams are tackling No. 2 piecemeal: Some have been aggressively investing, while others have done precious little. No. 3 is one area where progress is being made, with youth organizing bodies beginning to implement limits to curb coaches’ excesses, while No. 5 offers a solution to No. 4.

Considering Japan’s population — even with its declining birthrate, the idea that 12 pro baseball teams in a country with minimal competition from other pro sports is in itself a stretch. What is lacking is not money or population but sports business know-how and desire to be bigger. It doesn’t help that the Yomiuri Giants hate when teams gobble up their share of Japan’s unclaimed markets — as happened when Nippon Ham moved to Hokkaido.

The importance of being No. 1

Although top major league stars earn more than any players in NPB, many Japanese players will go to the States knowing it will mean a pay cut. Yet they go because it is a chance to compete against the best and because it is something different. It’s not always about money after a point.

If Japanese pro baseball were able to absorb a greater share of international amateur talent and develop it, and that is entirely possible, then that would put this country on a road that could lead to it having the best baseball in the world.

Of course, one of the benefits of having leagues on par with those in MLB is overseas revenue, something NPB has been blissfully ignorant of all these years. What’s the market in America when some of the best American players are in Japan? In Canada? In Mexico? You’ve got it.

Instead, the message has been: “Let’s keep it small. Let’s keep it Japanese. That’s enough.”

Starting small

My Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast partner, John E. Gibson, suggested that a development network be put in place first before expansion, and that’s a valid point. It’s also problematic.

Japan has pro teams in seven metropolitan areas, or eight if one wants to separate Yokohama and Kanagawa from the Tokyo megalopolis. The point is that until recently, pro baseball was about 12 first teams and farm teams. Independent minor leagues have been operating now for more than a decade but they are a new thing and are not really considered professional but exist in a kind of limbo world between the amateur and pro ranks.

The point is that unlike the United States, where every reasonably large city has a pro baseball team, either major or minor, Japan is either major or nothing. There is no tradition of local pro teams because pro baseball began in essence as a fully-formed league. Before then, there had been company teams and club teams and one independent pro team — the Shibaura Club.

Although the Yomiuri Giants tout themselves as Japan’s first pro team, they were, in fact, the second. If anything, the Hanshin Tigers have a better historical pedigree, as they were organized by former members of the original Shibaura Club.

The point is that the idea of most Japanese cities having their own pro ballclub may be kind of an alien idea. But having said that, when I lived in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the people there talked about having an NPB franchise — instead of being a Chunichi Dragons satellite town.

The question is how does one get the locals to give their hearts to a hometown team that is professional but not NPB?

Pandemic causes WBC Déjà vu

The year 2020 has been so bad that NPB is ready to reset the clock to 2009, the last year its union threatened to boycott the WBC — partly over its March scheduling.

On Wednesday, Nippon Professional Baseball questioned whether it would be able to have the Olympic break in its schedule AND play in a March World Baseball Classic. So it may be no surprise that like it did in 2006, 2009 and 2012, NPB and its union are now preparing to hold their breaths until they either turn blue or get their way.

A March WBC in 2021 runs smack into two Japanese sporting obsessions: the volume of practice, and the primacy of the Olympics.

In 2017, when NPB announced Atsunori Inaba would be the national team manager on a four-year deal, everything, and I mean everything was about winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

When a reporter asked about the 2021 WBC and if that was not also an important goal, everyone on the dais treated his question as shot as if he had jumped on a table, broken wind and shouted hallelujah!

In Japan, the WBC is a poor substitute for the Olympics, and NPB and its players would probably rather spend their time in March building up for the season and preparing for the Olympics than playing in the WBC.

Of course, the coronavirus, which forced the postponements of the first round of qualifiers in March may have something to say about whether there is a 20-team WBC next March or no WBC at all.

But if there is a WBC it’s going to come as a tug of war between Japan’s priority on the Olympics — which is forcing two teams out of their ballparks and messing big time with the schedule — and MLB’s complete and total lack of interest in the summer games.

NPB owners shit the bed again

There is a fine line between understanding the business of baseball and the fact that baseball itself is not a business but a sport that people play or watch for their enjoyment. Although reporters often cross over that line and confuse the two, owners tend to forget completely that THEIR business is of no concern to the people who play or watch the game. Owners confuse the fact that because people care what their teams do, it makes what owners say important.

“Anytime who tells you baseball is ‘basically a business’ is basically an idiot. And you can tell him I said so.”

Bill James

This is no more obvious than in times of crisis when the goodwill of fans can be challenged by extraordinary forces. In these times, owners can show what they are made of and whether they truly understand that the true bottom line of the baseball business is not budgets, payroll, stadium rent and travel expenses, but the willingness of people to engage with their product.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us again that Japanese pro baseball owners think that fans will believe whatever comes out of their mouths as if it were the word of God. This year’s example comes from the decision to switch Opening Day, first to April 10, then to April 24.

And while the world is now beginning to grasp the consequences of poor preparation for the pandemic, owners picked those dates, not because of any understanding that the public health crisis would be manageable by then, but rather that those dates allowed them to play a full 143-game schedule.

Only the owners’ arrogance led them to believe anyone – excepting those calculating team budgets on spreadsheets or ass-kissing media types – would buy the rubbish the teams are peddling.

It was this arrogance that led to Japan’s first work stoppage in 2004, and to a longer-than-necessary delay to the season in 2011 following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

2004: Go suck eggs

In 2004 when the Kintetsu Railroad wanted to liquidate its team, the Buffaloes, and get out of baseball, owners told the fans and players, “We’re reducing from 12 teams to 11 and if you don’t like it, suck eggs. We care about the fans and the players, but you can still suck eggs because baseball is a business that we understand and you don’t.”

That led to an embarrassing defeat for the owners, who did not bargain in good faith with the players on the assumption the courts would deny them the right to strike. Instead, the courts sided with the players and admonished the owners in public.

Then the owners editorialized about how the players were betraying the fans, who would never forgive a work stoppage and breaking a sacred trust. That was the gist of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s morning edition editorial of Sept. 19 – written before fans flocked to ballparks the day before to get ticket refunds from the canceled games.

But when the strike happened, the customers did what they had done throughout that contentious summer. They stood by those who cared about the product and turned their backs on the owners, whose only rationale was their businesses’ bottom line.

At Yokohama Stadium, the Carp and BayStars practiced – without coaches – but did not play. When the BayStars players came out of the stadium to the ticket plaza they got a warm reception from the fans waiting there, while the player reps, Daisuke Miura and Takanori Suzuki got thunderous applause.

In the end, it worked out great for everybody. The owners’ defeat meant an expansion team for Sendai and interleague play – something the Central League hated. Like free agency in the majors, the defeat of the owners, who ostensibly KNEW about baseball business, has led to a more vibrant baseball scene in Japan with attendance rising every year and vastly more effort to market their product.

2011: Disaster strikes

In 2011, when the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami meant the two Pacific League parks in Sendai and Chiba were unready for Opening Day. It also meant thousands were dead or missing, and many thousands more had lost their homes and jobs, while a nuclear disaster halfway between Tokyo and Sendai left the nation anxious and short of energy.

But because the CL owners KNEW baseball was a business, they insisted on plowing ahead with Opening Day on March 25 as scheduled because, after all, business is business. The PL wanted a delay until April 12, probably less out of consideration of the fans and more for the two damaged stadiums.

After the players union met with the Minister of Education and Sports, the government ridiculed the CL’s plan, and out of consideration of the energy shortage ordered all the games in eastern Japan through April to be played during the day.

In response, the CL announced a four-day delay to Opening Day, which didn’t satisfy the government, and led to the two leagues both opening on April 12. Lotte Marines veteran Tomoya Satozaki said at the time the clubs could easily have begun play around the first of April, but the Central League owners truculence just aggravated the situation.

Eight years later and we’re on the same kind of threshold.

Pandemics? We’ve got a business to run

Faced with a crisis of enormous proportions, the owners’ first response has been “business as usual.” There has been no talk about supporting the vendors and stadium staff who lost wages for preseason games behind closed doors and no talk about a threshold at which inviting large crowds to ballparks would not endanger public health.

Instead, everything has been about how best to play 143 games – as if a single fan in the country actually cared. You’d think the owners would have learned, but apparently not.

I mean why should they learn when the media reports whatever they say. Owners’ policies can impact the product fans get, so it can be relevant for them, but nobody cares wants to hear budget issues or service time used as excuses for teams choosing to deliver a weaker product.

This last point is often lost on reporters who understand those constraints and want to explain the rationale to fans. There is nothing wrong with explaining how such things work, but it’s one thing to explain service time as the reason a prospect is being kept in the minors until he works through all his adjustment issues, and another to explain that it is best for teams to do that.

I don’t mean to pick on Buster Olney

That’s what occurred to me when listening to Buster Olney on his Baseball Tonight podcast.

When he argued the Rays SHOULD keep a promising minor league pitcher in Triple-A so the team won’t waste his service time in the majors while he is still learning, I thought, “That’s not what’s best for the player or the game. that’s only what’s best for the owners.”

That’s the equivalent we had in Japan all summer when the president of the Olympic organizing committee and the governor of Tokyo both said, “The Tokyo Olympics will start on July 24. There is no chance of any change to that.” Despite being in a coronavirus pandemic, those words were treated here as if these people were stating facts by reporters, editors, and producers who should have known better.

It is that kind of reporting that encourages owners and teams to think that they can make people care about their profit and loss statements, and that’s a disservice to everyone.

April 24 Opening Day is madness

Tokyo Disneyland may be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Fantasyland is operating at full capacity in the halls of government and in the offices of Nippon Professional Baseball.

For three months, the Japanese government has been in full-fledged denial about how the spread of the new coronavirus might affect its staging of the Olympics. Schools were requested to close for all of March, and promoters of large events were asked to either cancel them, postpone or hold them behind closed doors, but the official insistence that everything would be alright and the Olympics would not need to be rescheduled has delivered a powerfully mixed message.

Through the weekend, the official message from the government and Olympic organizers has been that nothing would prevent the games from going forward as scheduled from July 24. This message was often delivered as: “We will take every measure to ensure the health and safety of the athletes and the fans, but the games will go on no matter what.”

On Monday, with the Olympics all but certain to be postponed until at least next year, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who a few weeks ago asserted that there was no chance the games would be canceled or postponed, spoke of a possible lockdown in Tokyo for the first time if things get worse.

Yet, while Tokyo began talking about emergency measures on Monday, NPB and Japan’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, announced it was time to restart their seasons in April with NPB planning to pack fans into its parks from April 24.

Obviously, this is not because Japan has the coronavirus outbreak under control since that is very much in doubt. Rather the reason seems to be NPB’s desire to get fans into the parks for a full slate of 143 games. On March 23, NPB announced it had run various simulations and decided that April 24 was the last day that a full schedule could be played. So now, “voila” there’s our new Opening Day.

NPB’s announcement on Monday sounds more like the old Olympic mantra: “We’ll do everything to ensure the safety of the players and the fans, but it’s our business and we’re going to play our games.”

So even if cramming 30,000 fans and a few thousand stadium employees onto public transit and into close quarters during a pandemic is a really bad idea, well 143 games is kind of important to us and our fans want us to play so there.

Although the government has asked companies to have employees work from home and midday trains in Tokyo are less crowded than usual, morning rush hour still sees people crammed together in rolling virus incubators.

People were warned this past week not to assemble in parks across the country for spring tradition of having picnics and drinking sessions under the cherry blossoms, but parks filled up nonetheless.

On Sunday, the promoter of a mixed-martial-arts event outside Tokyo defied government requests to put the event on hold and opened it up to 6,500 fans.

Many are encouraged by the fact that Japan has not buckled under the weight of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t still happen.

Japan’s infection rate has been slower than that of western European nations or the United States. And relative to those nations, Japan has acted quickly, but there’s also been a sense that the government is not giving us the whole truth. One can apply for being tested in Tokyo if they meet the following conditions.

  • In the past two weeks they have come into contact with an infected person, or traveled in an area with infections.
  • Pregnant women, senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions who have experienced cold-like symptoms, a fever of 37.5 C or higher, extreme fatigue or difficulty breathing for around two days.
  • A member of the general population experiencing the above conditions for four days or more.

Those satisfying the pre-conditions can then call and ask about being tested. It’s almost as if the government didn’t want to know the truth, lest the image of control was revealed to be just a facade.

There is a concern that many infected people with mild symptoms or none at all are circulating freely, encouraged by Japan’s officially low infection rate, and that the country is a viral bomb awaiting a trigger to go off.

And now with schools set to reopen soon, and pro baseball and soccer aiming to pack people into stadiums again, it looks like that trigger is being prepared.

Tumbling Dice, K?

More than a year removed from his comeback player of the year season with the Chunichi Dragons, 39-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound at MetLife Dome, where 21 years earlier he got his pro start with the Seibu Lions.

Entering his sixth season in Japan since the SoftBank Hawks lured him away from MLB, Matsuzaka is a shadow of the pitcher who was called the “monster” when he turned pro out of Yokohama High School. His basic repertoire is now a fastball, a cutter, and a change — a forkball this year.

In 2018, Matsuzaka went 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA in Japan’s best pitcher’s park, Nagoya Dome, largely because he didn’t give up a lot of home runs and got more than his share of big outs after letting lots of runners on base.

Matsuzaka’s game is locating the fastball, getting hitters to miss-hit the cutter and sometimes swing and miss at the change. On Sunday, he also threw a decent slider and curve.

But 14 years and two days after he became a national hero for the second time in his baseball career by beating Cuba in San Diego to win the 2006 World Baseball Classic final and earn tournament MVP honors, Matsuzaka had no command to speak of.

He allowed four runs over five innings, and caught breaks when most of his mistakes were not hammered. He said recently he needs to work on the cutter, and he missed badly with most of the 24 I tracked. He couldn’t locate his fastball, or the change. The slider and curve were his best pitches.

The Lions, who in 2018 became the second league champion in NPB history to have the league’s worst ERA, repeated the feat a year ago.

Matsuzaka knows what he’s doing, and knows when to challenge hitters in the zone, but if he’s constantly behind in counts and can’t throw strikes, he might be too much of a burden even for the Lions’ powerful offense to carry.

Here’s a link to the Pacific League TV game highlights.

Growing your own

The Pacific League has now won the last seven Japan Series and has a .532 interleague winning percentage. People have attributed the gap to more hard-throwing pitchers in the PL, or to larger ballparks and the DH that helped that league be better at developing pitchers.

But two years ago, former Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson attributed it to the drafting philosophies of the two leagues, that the six Central League teams have shown more inclination to draft “baseball instinct” over physical tools.

Is it the draft?

This study won’t address that question, but it does ask whether one league has had an advantage in the draft and its Siamese twin, player development.

The answer is yes, and no one will be surprised to find that the PL has had a clear edge in this area.

To answer this and another question for another study, I created a database with the draft ranking of every signed player in Nippon Professional Baseball’s annual autumn amateur draft. For each player there is also a corresponding measure of career value, using Bill James’ win shares as I have adopted them to fit NPB.

Since we’re more interested in the CL’s current troubles, I looked at the drafts since 2000 and broke them down into two, ten-year periods. Interestingly enough, the top four players drafted since 1999 all were by CL teams: Shinnosuke Abe, Takashi Toritani, Hayato Sakamoto and Norichika Aoki.

The win share totals include those from the major leagues.

Players drafted from 1999 to 2008

LeagueWin SharesEdge
Pacific League9,714+21%
Central League8,041

The results of the second group are of course much smaller since many of these players have had little or no chance to impact the score, so it’s probably too early to think the PL’s edge is shrinking.

Players drafted from 2009 to 2018

LeagueWin SharesEdge
Pacific League4,317+10%
Central League3,914

The good and the bad

Here are the breakdowns of the return on amateur talent by team draft. Just a note, the three players still active from the 1998 draft, Kosuke Fukudome, Kyuji Fujikawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka, are not included in the study.

The first PL table includes the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Rakuten Eagles, since the Eagles are the team that took Kintetsu’s place in the league.

In both the 1999 to 2008 group and the 2009 to 2018 group, the CL placed just two teams in the top six. Another interesting point is that while the Yomiuri Giants have invested heavily in developmental players, essentially the team’s return came from two guys who are both retired, reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi and center fielder Tetsuya Matsumoto, who both won CL Rookie of the Year Awards over a decade ago.

Central League drafts 1999 to 2008

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Giants1,6431,5191244
Swallows1,4631,46306
Carp1,4121,41207
Tigers1,2641,26319
BayStars1,2471,247010
Dragons1,0831,083012

Pacific League drafts 1999 to 2008

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Fighters1,9501,95001
Lions1,9471,94702
Hawks1,8111,80473
Eagles1,5791,579535
Marines1,3111,226858
Orix1,1161,116011

Central League drafts 2009 to 2018

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
BayStars828792362
Carp73173015
Giants70169747
Dragons59959549
Swallows545543211
Tigers5105001012

Pacific League drafts 2009 to 2018

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Lions89389121
Marines77677243
Fighters73973904
Hawks7115401716
Buffaloes63662888
Eagles568562610