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Hiroshima and the international family

Forget the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball’s new “We Are Family” champions are the Hiroshima Carp. Although a few teams have signed more foreign talent in recent years, Hiroshima’s family-oriented international operations are the envy of Nippon Professional Baseball. The basic process is the same for every team: find good players and sign them. But the Carp go to greater lengths to get the process right under owner Hajime Matsuda and general manager Kiyoaki Suzuki. Part of the payoff is in the yearly performance of players like pitcher Kris Johnson and slugger Brad Eldred, who have helped power Hiroshima’s revival along with first-year pitchers Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens, but it has a human side that goes beyond individual numbers. Suzuki said the ideas of family, loyalty and trust spring from the city’s nature, and that idea extends to the players’ families, for whom the Carp have established an office that looks after the players’ needs off the field. “Hiroshima is a compact town, everyone is family,” Suzuki said. “From searching out restaurants to various other things, we are able to respond to needs 24 hours a day, providing care for children and so on. They can call their interpreter 24 hours a day, wherever they are. If you take good care of a player’s wife and children, he can play with a sense of security.” Former Carp pitchers Dennis Sarfate and Bryan Bullington are fans of what the team does. Asked if he would recommend the Carp to a friend wanting to play in Japan, Sarfate didn’t hesitate. “Hiroshima would be my first recommendation because of the way they treat you off the field,” he said. Bullington, who is out of baseball this season after four seasons in Hiroshima and one with the Orix Buffaloes, said his family made good use of the team’s resources and assistance. “Every team has some sort of resource, perhaps a lot more reliance on the interpreter or someone else. But because the Carp have three or four people working full time, trying to manage your apartment scenario and bills, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, it is a little unique,” said Bullington. “Especially that first year, we definitely used the guidebook for things to do with the kids, parks, pools that kind of stuff, and also trying new restaurants and stuff. They’ve done their research. It definitely helps having that type of info, and we used it a lot.” Interperter Hirofumi Matsunaga (松長 洋文) said part of his job is taking sick children to the doctor. “We always have female staff in the office, who speak English and can take care of the wives’ needs,” he said. “It’s us interpreters who usuallly do a lot of the other things like taking kids to the doctor.” “They always seem to get sick when we’re on the road and on weekends, when hospitals aren’t open, so it’s hard to find one.” But the players aren’t the only ones who appreciate Hiroshima’s special focus. Former pitcher Erik Schullstrom, who finished his four years in Japan with the Carp in 2002, has been scouting for Hiroshima ever since. He and and former infielder Scott McClain scour the U.S. minor leagues for talent. “I’m super happy,” Schullstrom said. “I’ve told the owner. I’m never going to leave my job. You can fire me. I’m never going to quit if I get offered another job, another club, a major league club, I will not take it. I’ll be working for the Carp forever. That’s how happy I am. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this organization. Mr. Matsuda has a relationship with my children. They go and visit him, and he treats them like they’re his own kids, or his grandkids or part of his family. He’s so generous. He’s just a great person to work for.” American assistant general manager Jonathan Fine has been the team’s representative in the United States since 1994 after working briefly alongside Suzuki and Matsuda in the front office in 1989 and 1990. He said getting the right players starts with frank discussion among coaching staff and front office in Hiroshima to identify needs, continues with Schullstrom and McClain doing a thorough job of identifying players with skill and character, and the trust that permeates the operation allows him the ability to quickly go after the players the club wants. “There have been a lot of changes in the (Japanese) work place the last 25 years, but the Carp remain a traditional Japanese company,” Fine said. “They are run that way and their people are treated that way. Loyalty is expected and loyalty is earned and rewarded. It’s rewarded in the ease of getting things done. Barriers come down, people can participate in conversations, frankly. Decisions can get made relatively quickly. We’ve been able to beat other NPB teams to the punch to get good players in the past because of the ability (to move quickly).” Schullstrom said he looks for maturity, flexibility and – with pitchers – the ability to make Triple-A batters swing and miss. But another key factor is hunger and the desire to build a successful career in Japan. “They need to be hungry. They need to be broke. It helps to have no money. I’m not kidding,” Schullstrom said. “Guys who have some money in the bank almost never do well. They’re not interested in it. They don’t want to jump through the hoops. Some of the things we see (in Japan) are bizarre. They’re totally foreign.” “I would say (we want) guys who have hunger and some patience and ability and flexiblity in their personality. And you can see that. You can see guys: how they play, how they get along with other players. If they have a bad game, if they strike out four or five times in a game. You can look into the dugout, you see how guys are talking to each other. You watch Kris Johnson come off the mound after a bad inning. How is he behaving? How is he reacting? How is he running out to the mound the next inning? Is it consistent?” Schullstrom pointed to difficulties that Eldred and former Carp slugger Greg LaRocca faced and how the team’s trust and patience allowed them to achieve success. “Eldred got sent to the minor leagues and he could have pouted,” Schullstrom said. “You can react a bunch of different ways. But, if you stand tall and act like a man, good things can happen. Toledo (where he last played in Triple-A) is way better than being in the minor leagues with the Carp.” “LaRocca got off to a terrible start for 3 weeks. And Koji Yamamoto was our manager and he just kept putting him in the 3 Hole. And he stunk. He kept grounding out to third and rolling over balls.” “There are no expectations (from the media) in Hiroshima. The press is relatively friendly to the team. It’s not like Osaka. They (the team) showed patience and look what he did. He hit 40 home runs, batted .328 with 100 RBIs. If a foreigner starts to struggle after 10 days, you’re out in almost every other town. But in Hiroshima with the whole coaching situatation there’s more trust. Now we (scouts) have a little bit of a track record with having success, so the leash is even longer for those guys. And sometimes it takes a little longer. We can take some credit, Mac and I, but the majority of the credit goes to the people in Japan for making it easier to succeed in Hiroshima.” Eldred said that not only do the Carp look after the player’s family but the team IS a family. “If a guy is new and struggles for 10 games, some teams forget about them,” Eldred said. “It’s nice to have a team that brought you here because they know you’ve got talent, and they’re expecting you to do a lot. It’s nice that they’re willing to give you as many opportunities as they can.” “They (the Carp) always treated me very well. My second year, I had an injury and broke my hand and missed some time. I didn’t play as well as I liked, but they trusted in me and brought me back and I had a really good (third) year. That shows loyalty to their players. Once you’ve built up some time and become part of their family, they really treat you the right way. I think it’s a big family organization.” When players arrive in Hiroshima, they have to prove themselves, and they have to put up with lots of things that are different, but Eldred and Jackson were used to playing abroad from winter ball and came in with open minds. “I talked to other players and knew what to expect. Then when you get here, you see how helpful everyone is and how nice it is. It is very easy to trust them and be comfortable,” Jackson said. “When I played in Mexico, when I played in Venezuela, I saw stuff I never thought I’d see, and here it’s a little bit more extreme, because baseball is so big here.” It’s not easy coming to a different country and a different culture, but whatever the Carp can do to make it easier, they do and they do it in style, and everyone feels that the owner has his finger on the pulse of the team. “It helps to have an owner who is involved and knows what’s going on,” Eldred said. “He takes care of us foreign players really well. When we have family or friends in town he always sends us out for a nice Japanese dinner. It’s kind of cool for him to take care of us like that. You never expect something like that, but he thinks of us.” Sports agent Alan Nero, who represents Eldred, called Matsuda, “an outstanding individual.” “He’s let players move on to other teams where they had better opportunities,” Nero said. “That’s very unusual. Most teams wouldn’t do that.” Former Carp reliever Kam Mickolio, who has spent the past two seasons with the Rakuten Eagles, said, “I loved playing in Hiroshima. The owner is awesome.” “Because of all they do, and how they are willing to structure contracts, the Carp are able to sign players for a lot less money than it would take for them to sign with any other team,” he said. What Matsuda and the Carp have built is special and other teams have taken notice. Sarfate said the Hawks have built a similar program to take care of players’ families and Mickolio said the Eagles are doing the same. “Rakuten’s always asking about what they do in Hiroshima, because they want to model their program after what the Carp do,” Mickolio said. It’s not hard, but it’s not something that happens overnight. It takes time and trust to develop the bonds of loyalty that makes a system like the Carp’s sing. And it takes someone at the very top to give it a heart and soul.

Madison Bumgarner, eat your heart out

Japanese ball may be famous for being overly dogmatic and choking on its old-school ways, but sometimes it does things right. I’m no fan of the pre-game home run derbies that typical mar the start of every year’s All-Star games, but this year was a huge improvement. A fan vote selected the four competitors for Friday’s pre-game derby in Fukuoka and Saturday’s pre-game derby in Yokohama — and unlike stodgy MLB, the fans wanted a pitcher to bat.




MLB may have Madison Bumgarner, but Japan — for the time being — has Shohei Otani, who was voted into both home run derbies. On Friday, Japan’s best pitcher, Otani of the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters went head-to-head with Japan’s best power hitter Tetsuto Yamada of the Central League’s Yakult Swallows — in the first round of the home run-hitting contest, and the pitcher won.




After dispatching last season’s CL MVP, Otani moved on to the final round, where he defeated last season’s PL MVP, Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks.

On Saturday, Otani and former Atlanta Braves farmhand Ernesto Mejia will represent the PL against the same CL duo who competed on Friday, Yamada and DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.

Ichiro Suzuki, Akinori Iwamura & other NPB minor league stars

Ichiro Suzuki is some day going to be the first player to begin his career in NPB and end up in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Akinori Iwamura won’t make it, but people familiar with his career in Japan know what a good ballplayer he was.

I recently re-added the minor league batting and pitching data from 1991 to 2001 to my data base — I lost my originals about 20 years ago in a hard disk crash — and asked which under-20 minor league hitter (minimum 200 PA) had the best seasons with offensive winning percentages over .700.

  1. Ichiro Suzuki (19.2 years old), Orix 1993, 214 PA, .883
  2. Akinori Iwamura (18.9), Yakult 1998, 430, .810
  3. Seiji Uebayashi (19.4), SoftBank 2015, 332, .799
  4. Akinori Iwamura (17.9), Yakult 1997, 297, .785
  5. Ichiro Suzuki (18.2 years old), Orix 1992, 270, .784
  6. Kensuke Kondo (19.4), Nippon Ham 2013, 227, .781
  7. Tomoya Mori (18.4), Seibu 2014, 257, .755
  8. Hisashi Takayama (19.1) Seibu 2001, 343, .708





Suzuki took a nice jump forward in 1993 and the next year took another when he won the first of his three straight PL MVP Awards. Most of the rest of the guys you know, although some of you may have forgotten Hisashi Takayama. He was an outfielder without outstanding speed or power and had one chance to play regularly at the age of 28 in 2010, when he played quite well, but was otherwise a guy on the fringe. Takayama’s minor league season at the age of 20 was the 10th best by a player aged 20-21 since 1991, so it’s fair to say Seibu REALLY missed the boat on him.

When Hisanobu Watanabe was promoted from farm manager in 2008, Takayama was one of the guys he gave a shot to in the spring, but at the age of 26 he needed an ally and didn’t have one. Then batting coach Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, wasn’t a fan of Takayama’s and insisted on keeping hustling and likeable-but-underqualified Kenta Matsusaka as his right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder.

Uebayashi, who is mentioned here, is someone who lacks some plate discipline but who does everything else fairly well but has yet to break into SoftBank’s regular lineup. Had he played for Nippon Ham, however, like Kensuke Kondo, he’d no doubt have a job by now. Mori, it seems is caught in a crunch as well, he’s probably a better hitter than the other guys who are taking his playing time, but he needs to go out and prove.

The best minor league season for a player aged 20 was by Lotte’s Toshiaki Imae in 2004, a year before he became the Marines’ regular third baseman for a decade. At age 21, the best was by Ken Suzuki of the Seibu Lions in 1991. Suzuki went on to be a DH-third baseman for the Lions pennant-winning teams in ’97 and ’98 and a corner infielder with Yakult in 2001.







Welcome to NPBspeak

The Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984 has  Newspeak as its official language which is used to transmit to the proletariat the wisdom of Big Brother. Japanese professional baseball in a nifty parallel has Npbspeak to guide fans according to the will of its shogun, former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe.

Take Tokyo Dome and its infamous official capacity for baseball of 55,000. Through 1984 — oops 2004 — reporters obligingly include references to crowds of 55,000 at the park in their Npbspeak. In the 28 Japan Series games — when attendance is actually counted, crowd figures ranged from 43,848 to 48,342, yet nobody in the mainstream media noticed anything unusual about that. Except for Robert Whiting and a few others, no one was publicly saying: “Hey this place looks full, how come it’s not 55,000?” Because  Watanabe said, “Tokyo Dome’s capacity is 55,000,” where they thinking, “hmm must not be a sellout.”?

At Game 2 of the 1996 Series against Ichiro Suzuki’s Orix BlueWave, the place was jammed and sounded like you were inside a jet engine, but somehow nobody mentioned anything incongruous about an announced crowd of 45,806 without any empty seats at a park reported as holding 55,000.

About that time I called the Seibu Lions to ask how come Seibu Stadium could hold 50,000 fans for a holiday sellout against the Kintetsu Buffaloes, but max out at just 31,883 against the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. It sure wasn’t the cost of tickets, because at that time a Lions Series game ticket cost only 50 percent more than for the regular season. The Lions answered: “During the Japan Series, the fire department prevents us from seating proles — fans — in the aisles.”

Right.

Then after the 2004 season, when the players went out on strike and the proles stood behind them in their fight against the owners, Nippon Professional Baseball teams decided to announce attendance figures that “approximated reality,” whatever that means. In Nagoya, the Chunichi Dragons apparently only admitted fans in blocks of 100 that year, since all their announced attendances that season ended in “00.”

On Opening Day, April 1, 2005, the pressbox automatons who had been dutifully reporting Tokyo Dome had been filled with 55,000 fans at every Giants game for years, reported a full house of 43,684. Since that day, the highest announced attendance has been 46,831.

“Tokyo Dome’s maximum capacity is 46,831. It has always been 46,831.”

SO when NPB announced there would be new rules this year — NPBspeak grammar required at least one “new” rule be an existing one. Baseball has prohibited catchers without the ball from obstructing runners for over 150 years. Yet the practice was accepted in both MLB and NPB despite clearly being against the rules. Rather than admit it hadn’t been enforcing the rule, which is an NPB tradition, a rule — a redundant duplication of the old one — was included in the new package so it could be called “new” with the hope that the proles wouldn’t notice.

Baseball’s twilight zone is in the rules

SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo was enraged to see his second baseman, Keizo Kawashima, taken out on a slide by Nippon Ham Fighters and former major leaguer Kensuke Tanaka, and argued the play was dangerous. Dangerous or not, it was not against the rules, which allow runners on the base path to interfere with fielders — except when they are batting fielded balls. Them’s the rules. As Casey Stengel famously said, “You can look it up.”

Which raises a question or two.



Why the heck was Kudo arguing about something that wasn’t against the rules? The umpires confirmed that by saying Tanaka did not leave the base path, which was never in question. Kudo’s point was that in Japan, where players rarely put opponents physically at risk regardless of rules that allow them to, the play was dangerous and SHOULDN’T BE permitted.

What the heck were managers doing during the 30 years I’ve watched NPB games by not arguing for obstruction calls at home plate or phantom outs at second base on double plays — which were always against the rules?

At least this time, umpire Masanobu Sasaki could fall back on what the rule book actually says. And now, the umps will proudly point to the rule and warn (and threaten with ejection) any catcher with the temerity of blocking the plate without the ball –which though illegal was considered a catcher’s duty until Feb. 1 , 2016, when players reported for camp.

What would he have said a year ago… “Uhm it’s the rule, you CAN obstruct the plate. Well, OK, you can’t technically block the plate without the ball, but we all know that you can, because IN THIS CASE we ignore the rules.

Samurai Japan? More like the NPB indentured servants

Junichi Tazawa, the man without a national team

We’re a a little more than a year from the start of the 2017 World Baseball Classic group stages, and Japan is beginning its final year of preparations with games against Taiwan on March 5 and 6. Yet, the team doesn’t deserve to wear Japan’s emblem, the hinomaru, on their uniforms.

As long as manager Hiroki Kokubo is not allowed to choose stars who exercise their individual right NOT to play in Nippon Professional Baseball, then the team can’t truly represent Japan. The example is Junichi Tazawa. While Kokubo has said he’d like to have him on the team, Tazawa can’t be picked because NPB won’t let him.

Tazawa is banned from playing in Japan or for Kokubo’s NPB Indentured Samurai. The pitcher broke no law or contract. He failed no drug test. But he’s an outsider because he chose a career path NPB didn’t approve of. We’re not talking about organized crime or some other group that will get you banned from NPB, but rather a major league team. Before Tazawa signed with the Red Sox as an amateur, there were no rules against it. But after he signed, NPB’s teams agreed to ban him. Should Tazawa desire for any reason to return to Japan he would have to wait three years after he stops playing abroad.

Since Tazawa is currently ineligible to play for an NPB team, he is ineligible to play for NPB’s facsimile of a national team.

It wasn’t long after Tazawa was banned that Shohei Otani said he wanted no part of indentured servitude in NPB. Otani stayed in Japan, but only after the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him persuaded him that NPB was his best option. But Toshimasa Shimada, the Fighters’ top executive said Otani’s asking teams not to draft him was proof that the Tazawa rule had failed and is now only hurting the teams as they pursue a path of segregation — who will not be able to sign players who don’t put NPB’s wishes ahead of their own.

Who is Kihachi Enomoto & why he deserves to be in Hall of Fame

Kihachi Enomoto is more than deserving to be in Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame

Prior to Japan’s Hall of Fame election, a listener on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast asked who should be elected this year.

In the sense of should as in most likely, the obvious answers are former Yomiuri Giants ace Masaki Saito and former Seibu Lions and Daiei Hawks ace Kimiyasu Kudo, who is on the ballot for the first time this year. And as guessed, they both were elected, although Kudo made it with just five votes to spare

That was the off-the-top-of-my-head answer. I then went through my data base, found players still on the ballot, and came up with a list of the most worthy candidates.

No. 1 on the list and the player with the most valuable career not previously in Japan’s little Hall of Fame at Tokyo Dome is Mainichi and Tokyo Orions first baseman Kihachi Enomoto. He was not the best player of his generation, but he was among the best in NPB in the 1960s and among the best players in the Pacific League year in and year out from the age of 18. Enomoto was named on Jan. 18 to join the Hall, but just barely. A panel of 119 “experts” — living Hall of Famers and the museum’s directors gave 83 votes to Enomoto, the exact number needed.

Here is a list of the 10 most valuable players of the 1960s in total win shares with their win share totals from 1960 to 1969:

  1. Sadaharu Oh 1B 360
  2. Katsuya Nomura C 335
  3. Shigeo Nagashima 3B 320
  4. Isao Harimoto OF 297
  5. Kazuhiro Yamauchi OF 259
  6. Kihachi Enomoto 1B 250
  7. Shinichi Eto OF 241
  8. Yoshinori Hirose OF 211
  9. Minoru Murayama P 206
  10. Kazuhiko Kondo OF 205

Of these 10 players, only Enomoto and Kondo are not in the Hall of Fame. The highest ranked middle infielders of the decade were Hall of Fame shorstop Yasumitsu Toyoda and Hall of Fame second baseman Morimichi Takagi, whose value in the decade ranked them 18th and 27th, respectively.

Thirty-five of the 75 professional players in the Hall of Fame who played after the war were pitchers, including Junzo Sekine, who was successful as both a pitcher and an outfielder. Of those 35, 10 began their careers before the 1950 expansion, and another 13 began their careers between 1950-1959. Japanese ball during that period was a low-power, low-scoring affair with the exception of the period from 1949 – the last year of the single-league era, when the strike zone was downsized, and the first two years of the two-league system.

Another seven began their careers in the 1960s, two in the 1970s. There was one in the 1980s – the sentimental but absurd choice of Hiroshima Carp closer Tsunemi Tsuda, who played for nine years and died of cancer at the age of 32. Two pitchers who started their career in 1990 were first-ballot hall of famers, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo.

Among position players, 14 began their careers before 1950, another 15 in the subsequent decade, six in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, one in the 1980s (Koji Akiyama), and one in the 1990s, (last year’s inductee, Atsuya Furuta).

It’s hard to know what to think other than how hard it is for recent players to match the gaudy records compiled by the best players in the first three decades of the current pro baseball establishment.

One way to look at this is the huge gap in competitive ability between the teams. The mean of the standared deviations in winning percentages for each season from 1946 to 1959 is 0.117. From 1960 to 1989 it’s 0.074, and since 1990 it’s 0.068. It’s the same for the spread in batting averages and on-base percentages among hitters who qualified for batting titles. There was less quality in terms of batters’ ability to hit safely and reach base. From 1946 to 1959, 22 percent of the players with 3.1 plate appearances per game, had on-base percentages lower than .300: lots of easy outs there.

Although the dead-ball ‘40s and ‘50s made it harder to set records for hitters, the scarcity of quality rivals meant batters could dominate the competition more easily. During the 14 years from 1946 to 1959, there were seven active players with three or more batting titles in their career. In the 22 seasons from 1960 to 1981, that total was five. Since 1982 there have been four.

The Hall of Fame voters appear to have often rewarded players for their level of dominance. In his career, Hiromitsu Ochiai 15 times led his league in a triple-crown category and that was in a career that ran from 1979 to 1998, when the competition was much stiffer than it was for Hall of Famers such as Shigeo Nagashima or Isao Horimoto.

Love him or hate him, Kazuhiro Kiyohara was one of the great players of his generation. But his failure to lead his league in a single triple-crown category was frequently commented on during his career and may be holding him out of the Hall. It’s likely a combination of that and his not getting along well with the press. Although Enomoto wasn’t as big a power hitter as Kiyohara, their careers are extremely similar, and Kiyohara is the second most valuable player who is eligible for Hall of Fame selection who is not in.

Enomoto won two batting titles and won nine Best IX awards to Kiyohara’s three, win shares judges Kiyohara to have been his league’s best player twice, and he did win five Golden Gloves, although win shares wouldn’t give him any. They each led their league in runs once, walks four times, on-base percentage twice and slugging average once. Kiyohara led his league in doubles once and Enomoto twice.

Some other stuff about Enomoto, courtesy of wikipedia :

He was intentionally walked as an 18-year-old rookie on Opening Day after going 0-for-3, and whoever ordered it knew what he was doing, since Enomoto set records for first-year hitters straight out of high school in runs, hits, doubles, walks and on-base percentage. He also tied the record for triples.

On July 21, 1968, in the first game of a doubleheader at Tokyo Stadium, Enomoto doubled off Kintetsu Buffaloes Hall of Famer Keishi Suzuki, becoming the third player in NPB history to reach 2,000 hits — and the youngest at 31 years, 7 months of age. In the second game, Enomoto put a hard tag at first base on Kintetsu’s Toshinori Yasui, who was attempting to bunt his way on. The two exchanged words and then blows. Both benches emptied and Enomoto was taken unconscious from the field after reserve Buffaloes outfielder Shunzo Arakawa hit him in the head with a bat. The local police sent papers to prosecutors for a charge of assault but the matter was settled between the teams front offices and no assault charges were leveled.

Those were the days.

When Enomoto retired after playing briefly for the Nishitetsu Lions in 1972, he walked away from the game completely. One of the first members of the Meikyukai, the charitable organizations for players born in the Showa Era with either 2,000 hits or 200 wins, he never attended a single meeting and eventually quit. Enomoto told Sport Nippon in December 1971  he’d like to be a batting coach, but nobody offered, saying “I’m  not sociable. People who don’t chat or socialize don’t get offered jobs.”

Enomoto died of colon cancer in 2012 at the age of 75.

 

Does Japan’s game slow down in 2nd half?

Unlike most NPB teams, the Yakult Swallows were at full speed in the second half this year. Shingo Kawabaa slides into third with a September triple against DeNA BayStars third baseman Aarom Baldiris.

Many years ago, while exploring ways Japanese ball varied from the major league variety, I noticed that in Nippon Professional Baseball, triples declined in the second half of the season, while in the majors they increase slightly. Despite fewer games played over a longer season with a less arduous travel schedule, a lot of Japanese players look gassed in the second half.

Take Kosuke Fukudome. Back in his heyday with the Chunichi Dragons, running on the right fielder’s arm in April was a risky proposition. But three months into the season, runners would go from first to third with impunity on balls hit to right field. Considering the long practice schedule on off days and the two or more hours of practice before each game, it’s no wonder.

With the magic of the internet comes better access to potential sources of answers, and you know what? While the batting average on balls in play increases in the second half of the season — regardless which side of the Pacific you are on, the frequency of batters reaching third on those hits still decreases in the second half.

Splitting the season between June 30 and July 1, NPB teams since 2006 have hit triples on 1.73 percent of first-half hits, and 1.6 percent of second-half hits. In the majors, using the All-Star break from mlb.com as a convenient break point, MLB teams since 2006 increased from 2 percent in the first half to 2.1 percent in the second half.

I did a story for Kyodo News last month about the conditioning programs of the SoftBank Hawks and Yakult Swallows, the two teams that met in the Japan Series after beating up their leagues in the second half. It’s a small sample size, but the Hawks and Swallows were both below average in triples in the first half but well ahead of their leagues in the second.

Hawks players did intense training from the spring, flipping and hammering truck tires, and it appeared to pay off. Conditioning coach Atsushi Toriida, left, looks on.

Remembering Fukudome, I wondered if outfield assists followed a similar pattern. For NPB as a whole, outfield assists decreased in the second half this year, the first year I have kept regular fielding totals during the season. Hawks outfielders threw out eight runners in the first half, 10 in the second half, while the Swallows declined from 16 to 10.

Preseason complete games

Nippon Ham’s Satoshi Niimi was one of at least 13 pitchers who threw nine innings in a preseason exhibition in March 1975.

OK, so it’s hardly the heart of darkness, but back in the 1970’s, pitchers in preseason exhibitions occasionally threw complete games as they prepared for the Nippon Professional Baseball season.

When you look at old box scores, the numbers of pitches thrown by starters can be an eye opener, but the sight of seeing a guy throw 90 pitches in an exhibition game on March 1, 1975, catches one’s attention. The pitcher in question, journeyman right-hander Toru Hamaura, threw 91 pitches over five innings that day for the Fukuoka-based Taiheiyo Club Lions.

This was when teams looked at innings, rather than pitch totals — although pitch counts were dutifully reported in Japan’s sports newspapers. What you notice is that guys aren’t throwing more than six innings the first two weeks.

So while innings were curtailed, Hanshin Tigers veteran Tomohiro Tanimura threw 111 pitches over five innings on March 11. Shigeo Nagashima, then a rookie skipper with the Yomiuri Giants, may have just been showing off on the same date in Florida, when Osamu Shimano was allowed to throw a 100-pitch complete game in the Grapefruit League.

By the third week of March, seven-inning starts and 100-pitch outings became more and more common. One of the features of the schedule then was a large number of double headers, and this even penetrated the preseason, with teams frequently playing two. In a March 23 doubleheader against the Yakult Swallows, Satoshi Niimi threw 124-pitch complete game in the opener, while Fighters ace Naoki Takahashi wrapped up the nightcap with an efficient 113 pitches. The apex or nadir — depending on one’s view point — came on March 27, when Lotte Orions ace Fumio Narita threw 144 pitches over nine innings.

Matt Murton talks hit records, distractions

Japan’s single-season hit record-holder Matt Murton has some words of advice for Seibu Lions leadoff man Shogo Akiyama

The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, holder of Japan’s single-season hit record, had some words of advice on Friday for the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, who is in hot pursuit of his record.

“Obviously he (Akiyama) has had a tremendous season so far,” Murton told Kyodo News. “He just needs to focus on trying to help his team win. If he gets caught up in everything else going on around him, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed throughout the remainder of this year.”



In 2010, his debut season in Japan, Murton eclipsed Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 hits to establish the current mark of 214. Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130-game season, while Murton accomplished his over 144 games in 2010, the last year before Nippon Professional Baseball banned juiced balls. Akiyama entered play on Saturday with 133 hits, needing 82 hits over the Lions’ remaining 61 games to surpass Murton.

Akiyama extended his hitting streak to 30 games on Saturday.

Read the full story at the Japan Times: http://t.co/92lDaKOtDL