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Tigers prepare two-way doubletalk

After watching video of Tigers first-draft pick Junya Nishi batting and pitching, one has to be curious what Hanshin’s plans are for him. Since last year, people were talking about the 18-year-old as a possible two-way player.

My scouting report on Nishi is HERE.

Yano opens the door and then closes it

In November, the Nikkan Sports reported Tigers manager Akihiro Yano brought the matter up when he first visited the youngster. Yano reportedly said, “You can’t have a two-way player like Ohtani in the Central League (where pitchers bat). Do your best as a pitcher, then we’ll see about further uses.”

What that means, of course, is the chance of Hanshin coming up with an innovative plan for a power hitter who can pitch is basically zero.

If your plan is that a) “there can’t be a two-way player like Ohtani in the CL” because the league has no DH, and b) “we’ll see after he masters pitching,” you are basically relegating his batting talent to the dustbin.

That is the way an MLB team would have handled Ohtani the amateur before he became Ohtani the two-way pro star: master pitching first. But when he became a star, all those scouts who said “No major league team will risk that arm by letting him hit” were forced to accept that was not true.

Three National League clubs, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers all had plans in place to give Ohtani 350-plus at-bats while pitching in the rotation. Perhaps they didn’t know what Yano KNOWS, that you can’t have a two-way player without a DH.

The differences between Nishi and Ohtani

To be fair, Ohtani differs from Nishi, a fellow right-handed pitcher, in three distinct ways:

  • Ohtani bats left-handed
  • Ohtani is bigger and threw harder when he was Nishi’s age.
  • Ohtani’s delivery was smoother
  • Ohtani had less command of his secondary pitches

In 2017, Ohtani said he was a better hitter because he pitched and vice versa, Asked if he could provide a rationale for that, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler answered a year ago that Ohtani’s left-handed swing is a perfect counterbalance to the torque exerted on his trunk as a right-handed pitcher.

When Ohtani threw his first pro bullpen with the Fighters, one club executive thought his future was in the batter’s box since his breaking pitches were awful. But guys who throw 100 mph are rare. Nishi isn’t that guy.

Nishi may have more command — except with his curve — but his arm deceleration still looks much more violent. His pitching motion makes it look as if he is exerting himself all out on every pitch. Because of that, it may well be that his upside as a hitter is even better.

In the end, the Tigers will choose the way they think maximizes his skills. But by not checking the “develop batting” box from the start, that decision has likely already been made.

The player development view

“You need to keep working on skills or you lose them. They degrade and you just can’t call them back later. It doesn’t work like that,” said Bobby L. Scales, II, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league field coordinator and former director of player development for the Angels.

Scales, who played in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes, knows from experience that right-handed batters who learn to switch hit often fail to practice their natural swings enough and lose much of their ability to hit left-handed pitchers.

“Why would anyone not have him keep working on his batting?” Scales asked by telephone on Wednesday. “He’s been a batter and a pitcher all his life. Why stop now?”

“I know Japanese teams tend to be risk-averse but if you don’t know what you’re missing. You will never know what might have been.”

Risk aversion

Scales also talked about how sports, like art and language, display a society’s culture. Japanese baseball people often say their game is less about winning than it is about not losing.

When one thinks about it, this makes Japan’s preoccupation with hitting and defense and small ball. No player on the field can contribute as much to a losing cause as the pitcher. A fielder can miss a few plays and the pitcher can get over it. The team’s best hitter can strike out four times with the bases loaded and the team can still win. But if the pitcher throws fat pitches with the bases loaded, your team is in deep trouble.

If that’s true, anyone with the potential to be a quality pitcher is going to be a position player. Nishi’s fastball sits at 90 miles per hour and he has a good slider, change and splitter. If your focus is on having guys who won’t cost you games, those are more valuable skills than the power needed to drive the ball over the fence.

Tony Barnette and Japan

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Tony Barnette announced he is retiring from pro baseball after a career that included six seasons with the Yakult Swallows.

His success with Yakult coincided with a time when the club, tired of seeing their high-quality imports leaving after a couple of years to join the Yomiuri Giants, began handing out solid multiyear contracts. The deal offered Barnette and outfielder Wladimir Balentien, and the development of second baseman Tetsuto Yamada proved instrumental in the Swallows surprising 2015 Central League championship.

In March, I spoke with Barnette in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at their spring training base in Mesa, Arizona. We talked about what worked for him in Japan, and about his relationship with pitching coach Tomohito Ito.

“In Japan, you have to learn how to get guys to swing and miss. And if you can do it there, that plays anywhere. The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle, it’s all there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, keeping that competitive level all throughout the game.”

Tony Barnette on what he learned in Japanese baseball

After a rocky first season as a starter, when he allowed 6.21 runs per nine innings in a hitters’ park in a hitters’ league, there was no guarantee Barnette would even be back for a second season in 2011. He credited the support from then-manager Junji Ogawa and pitching coach Daisuke Araki and the guidance of Araki’s successor, Tomohito Ito.

Tony Barnette, chat in Mesa, Arizona, March 2019.

Tomohito Ito

Pitching coach Tomohito Ito

On March 30, I talked with Ito, currently coaching with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, about Barnette.

“He basically threw hard when he arrived,” Ito said. “But the slider and changeup were essentially his only secondary pitches, and his command of the change wasn’t that good. Some days he could throw strikes with the slider, and some days he couldn’t.”

“He pitched well in his first start, into the seventh inning, but opponents studied him.”

Ito said that although the results as a starter were not that good, Barnette was showing progress from the middle of the season, working on different pitches that would get him over the hump in Japan.

“He worked on his cutter, he learned a splitter, he threw a two-seamer,” Ito said. “In the process, that cutter became pretty good. By the time the season ended, the club didn’t rate him very highly as a starter, but he was throwing some nasty pitches, so my idea was to use him as a reliever, so I sounded him out about that.”

“He wanted the opportunity and gave it a shot. The fastball worked, and with the cutter, that would get him started in relief. When teams started adjusting, he’d have the splitter, and sometimes a sinker and then a curve that he was beginning to throw.”

Ito, too, pointed out that one reason so many foreign players have had success with the Swallows is the club’s situation on the fringes.

“Yakult is a good place for imported players,” he said. “We know that if the foreign players don’t do well, we’re not going to be successful as a team, so the culture on the team is to stay positive and supportive with them.”

“One of the advantages is that Japan gives players opportunities to try new things.”

Japan’s shadow ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tuffy Rhodes: The beginning

On Tuesday, 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, and 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 first part of our interview — about how he got to Japan and what changed him. In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs.

“I’m the true definition of retired. I’m enjoying life,” he said, adding that the Hall of Fame debate doesn’t concern him.

“I try not to worry about things like that, that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Rhodes said his parents encouraged everyone in their family to play sports and he played everything. His favorite was basketball, but baseball represented an opportunity the others didn’t.

There was more of an opportunity, a way to take care of my family,” he said. “I was highly drafted (3rd round) by the Houston Astros, and the bonus worked well. Your minor league pay is like $700 a month, and you’ve got to have four or five roommates just to survive.”

“I made the major leagues at 21. I found it was easy to get to the major leagues but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability when everyone there had ability that was incredible. I learned it the hard way.”

He’s famous for his three-home run Opening Day against Dwight Gooden on April 4, 1994. However, Rhodes was 23 years old and the plan that season was for him to be the Chicago Cubs’ fourth outfielder.

“Glenallen Hill was hurt to start the season,” Rhodes said. “We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million. And I was making about $300,000, but Glen got hurt and that opened the door for me. When he got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench.”

The year before, Rhodes had really bloomed in Triple-A for both the Astros and Royals. His failure with the Cubs in 1994, however, exposed his inability to learn the game and adjust. The Cubs waved him, and he was picked up by the Red Sox. There, Roy Poitevint, who had created a cottage industry of funneling players to Japan, could shop him to a Japanese team.

Rhodes caught the eye of the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ Minoru Ichihara, and the subsequent scene came straight out of the movie “Mr. Baseball,” when the Red Sox gave him the news.

“They said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news,'” Rhodes said. “I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and showed me the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights. I never lifted weights in the States. Oh my goodness, no.”

So he entered a world where his willingness to learn and maximize his potential was matched only by the desire of his coaches to teach him their game. The result was some tough love and a lot of magic.

“In Japan, the spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to do everything. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take an hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, Sasaki kantoku (manager) made me take batting practice for an hour by myself. Unbelievable.”

“Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

Like a lot of players who come to Japan, Rhodes did not start his first season on fire. But the Buffaloes gave him the time to figure things out.

“They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes,” he said. “I wasn’t on the Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.”

Were some things harder to get used to?

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard,” he said. “I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers.”

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America, we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”

Cheating, Japanese style

Now that two MLB managers and one GM have lost their jobs over a sign-stealing scheme, I thought I’d relay this conversation I had with former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa.

A few winters ago, he brought up the topic of the late Morimichi Takagi, who died suddenly on Friday. The taciturn Hall of Fame second baseman had a knack to spot opponents tipping their pitches. From there, the conversation moved to sign stealing, and the elaborate ways Japanese teams went to transmit that information to the guy in the batter’s box.

“Takagi loved finding out how guys tipped their pitches. He’d spot something like where the pitcher’s palm was. He’d tell me what to look for. But when I was at the plate, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see it,” Yazawa said.

“When he was on the bench, he’d never say anything. He spent every instant concentrating on the pitcher. You could do that with (Yomiuri Giants star Suguru) Egawa. He’d hold the glove in front of his face in his windup, and you could tell by the size of the gap between the top of his glove and the bill of his cap whether it would be a fastball or not.”

“But for me, even if I could figure it out, I didn’t want to know because the whole process messed up my timing if I was thinking about that.”

“A former Taiyo Whales catcher, (Hisaaki) Fukushima. In the late innings once, when the score would be 6-0 or 7-0, he’d say, ‘Yazawa, what kind of pitch do you want next?’ I’d think, what would be good, so I’d say, ‘OK. How about a curve?’ I asked him if I’d really get one, and he said it would be a curve. And it was. So he’d ask if I wanted another one, and it here it came.”

“I liked to think along with the pitcher, try to guess based on the kind of pitcher he was. This type we’ll probably throw this, while another type of pitcher would throw that.”

“At old Nagoya Stadium, the Dragons used to station a scout inside the scoreboard. They weren’t like the electronic ones now. They had numbers and letters on boards. If we were playing the Giants, there would be a “G” and below it a “D.” If a curve or a breaking ball was coming, the scout would wiggle the “D,” so you’re there looking at, it’s in your line of sight to the pitcher. If it didn’t move, it meant the next pitch was a fastball.”

“That stuff all started with (Hall of Fame catcher Katsuya) Nomura with the Nankai Hawks. Blazer, Don Blasingame, was involved in that. He was really good at it. Another of the coaches they had at Nankai was Takeshi Koba.”

“Koba liked to do that when he was the manager in Hiroshima. At old Hiroshima Shimin, they had a member of the team staff in the scoreboard and there was a light in the scoreboard that would flash once for fastball and twice for a curve. Actually, I was the one who discovered that. After that they quit. Later they used a radio signal to trigger a buzzer that Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa and players like that would have concealed in their sliding pants.”

Dr. Gail Hopkins, who played two years for the Carp when Koba was their manager and finished his Japan career with the Hawks under Nomura and “Blazer” — as Blasingame was known — has confirmed Yazawa’s account.

Perspectives on arrogance

On Wednesday, Shogo Akiyama dropped a little teaser about what baseball beyond the reach of MLB means for the growth of the game as a whole on Wednesday when he was introduced by the Cincinnati Reds.

“…Japanese have a different perspective (on the game) from those players with major league experience, and I too want to study and learn from that,” he said.

His words could have been interpreted in a couple of different ways but by saying “I too” he implied the learning wasn’t one-way, as many people would have you believe it should be, since, Akiyama by virtue of playing in an inferior league brings no new knowledge to the table.

That way of thinking, which used to be fairly common among former major leaguers three decades ago in Japan went hand in hand with the old notion that all Japanese — by virtue of playing in inferior league — were incapable of success in the majors.

When Bobby Valentine first arrived in Japan to manage the 1995 Lotte Marines, many of those familiar with the major league style of play had high hopes for the team’s success. That belief was founded on the notion that Japan’s fondness for the sacrifice bunt was costing teams a large number of wins each season. By eschewing the less defensible uses of the bunt, Valentine would AUTOMATICALLY make the Marines five to ten wins better.

The Marines finished a surprising second that year, because Valentine was able to replace a couple of well-below-average performers with guys who were better than average, and the team responded positively to his new ways of doing things.

But the thought that major league methods were automatically superior to those practiced in Japan was just ignorant and arrogant. We have a better understanding of the costs and advantages of sacrifices than we did 25 years ago, and now know it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

I’ve been there.

When you’re used to things being done a particular way, encountering a completely different method — especially one that inconveniences you simply by being hard to comprehend and get used to — it’s really easy to believe you are encountering an obsolete, inefficient practice. Sometimes, that perception is correct, and the unfamiliar methods really are less efficient. But often, there is more to the story than first meets the eye.

Because Japanese hitters and pitchers are trained differently, because they come from an alternative baseball universe, they offer alternative solutions that people rooted in their own way of doing things don’t see very easily. Change demands people who don’t believe the status quo is necessarily correct or for whom the status quo offers no future.

Babe Ruth changed baseball by proving one could hit enough home runs to make up for the additional fly outs and strikeouts that had led people to brand the home run as a failed tactic. When people try techniques that have been discarded only because they violate the status quo, that opens the door for evolution.

If Japanese ball had nothing to offer, players who failed to earn jobs in the major leagues would almost never find major league success after spending two or three years in Nippon Professional Baseball. But it happens.

One advantage of extended families in child rearing is a larger pool of adult role models for children, more chances an adult can bond with a youngster over shared dreams and inspire them. That’s the way I see baseball outside the reach of the majors. It’s not like every player is going to benefit from going abroad, but exposing players to different demands and ideas can teach or trigger adjustments they failed to make back home.

Three and a half years ago, Bill James wrote about the arrogance of people thinking major league teams had all the answers. Asked in September 2016 whether he thought big league clubs would allow Shohei Ohtani to both hit and pitch, he answered “Why wouldn’t they?

“You should be TOTALLY willing to say ‘We are going to accommodate this guy’s skills’ rather than ‘That’s not how we do things in the majors,'” he wrote on Sept. 9, 2016 in Bill James Online.

“When the Red Sox had Byung Hyun Kim, more than ten years ago, he had his own ways of doing things. He wanted to throw, and throw hard, every day, and he loved to do training…in Ft. Myers you would see him out running hard on the streets all hours of the day.”

“Our staff…kept trying to force him to do things the way we do them in the U.S.–and it didn’t work, at all. And then, when we had Daisuke Matsuzaka, we made exactly the same mistake: We kept trying to force him to do things OUR way, and it just didn’t work for him. KNOCK IT OFF. This is his way. Get used to it. None of us are that smart, that we have all of the answers.”

Ok, so Bill has since joined the Ohtani doubters, and there are lots of reasons to suppose being a two-way player might be counterproductive. But believing that also supposes you know more about what’s best for Shohei Ohtani than he does.

NPB under the table

The timing couldn’t have been worse — unless one ascribes to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The Lotte Marines’ home interleague series with the Yomiuri Giants in early June 2006 coincided with a meeting of Lotte’s amateur scouts less than five months ahead of NPB’s amateur draft.

No more cheating

At the scouts meeting, Valentine wanted to make an amateur lefty, believed to be Kinki University’s Kenji Otonari, a target for the upcoming draft after seeing video of him. When told the player would cost more than Lotte could budget for, Valentine, who could not have been ignorant of the realities, said he asked why that was the case if signing bonuses as well as salaries and incentive packages for first year players were capped so that no new amateur signing could cost a team more than around $1.5 million. The answer was that the pitcher in question would likely cost an additional $5 million to sign because of systems in place since 2003 to allow elite corporate league and university players to choose the teams they wanted to sign with.

Valentine began an impromptu press conference earlier than usual in the home dugout at Chiba Marine Stadium. He explained his experience from the scouts’ conference, and reminded the reporters that NPB teams had taken a pledge in June 2005 to stop cheating. Because Japan’s most influential team was in town, the assembled crowd was about twice its normal size.

“If they had to take a pledge to stop cheating, doesn’t that imply that they were cheating before?” he asked the 20 or so reporters on hand to hear him vent.

If his team paid the maximum allowable on the lefty, Valentine asked, how could the pitcher be unattainable? His conclusion was that other clubs were breaking the rules.

There’s cheating and then there’s cheating

With the Giants entourage set to arrive shortly at the ballpark, a firestorm was set to explode. Hidetoshi Kiyotake, the Giants’ official proxy to NPB was on hand to blast Valentine’s assertion that gambling was going on at the casino – saying he had no proof anyone was “cheating.”

In one sense, Kiyotake was right, since Valentine was complaining about the under-the-table payments to drafted players, something that was not technically cheating — only because NPB’s agreement to limit signing bonuses had never been formalized as a rule in Japan’s pro baseball charter.

Valentine, too, had been right, however. When teams had vowed to stop payments in violation of the rules, they were referring to paying amateurs, a problem that had erupted in 2004.

In August of that year, Yomiuri Shimbun president and iconic blowhard Tsuneo Watanabe was forced to relinquish his role as Giants owner over the club’s payments to Meiji University pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba came to light. On Aug. 13, 2004, the team announced it had paid Ichiba roughly 2 million yen ($18,000) in cash for “meal money, transportation expenses and pocket money” over a seven-month period. Two other clubs, the Yokohama BayStars and Hanshin Tigers, admitted to paying the pitcher 600,000 yen ($5,400) and 250,000 yen ($2,250), respectively.

The Giants having been caught red-handed, it was no surprise Kiyotake was particularly sensitive to the issue of “cheating” within NPB.

Valentine was forced by his team to issue an apology, something that frequently happens in Japan when enough influential people complain about someone telling inconvenient truths – an act often described as “causing confusion.”

Vindication, Part 1

But if the lords of NPB thought Valentine’s complaints were trouble, they were completely unprepared when the acting owner of the Seibu Lions decided baseball could regain the public trust by coming clean. Hidekazu Ota, revealed on March 9, 2007 that the team’s previous acting owner – longtime Lions executive Yoshio Hoshino – had informed him the team had been making payments to two amateur players, including roughly 13 million yen ($117,000) to Tokyo Gas lefty Yuta Kimura under the heading of “nutritional expenses.”

The Lions had been in turmoil since longtime owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, once described as the world’s wealthiest man, had quit suddenly in October 2004 prior to his indictment on securities fraud. Ota, who had long been involved in amateur baseball was determined to do the right thing and commissioned an outside panel of experts to discover past misdeeds so he could put the Lions’ house in order.

The Lions news spurred calls from amateur federations as well as the head of the players union, Shinya Miyamoto, to abolish the “kibowaku” system that allowed elite corporate league and university players to play for the team of their choice. The Giants stance, as presented by Kiyotake, was that abolishing the system would encourage Japan’s elite amateurs to skip NPB and sign directly with major league clubs. But within weeks of Ota’s bombshell, the system was history as NPB officially scrapped it.

In early April, the bad news continued as Ota’s investigators revealed the Lions had in the past paid out cash to amateur managers over a period spanning 27 years and that five additional amateurs had received a total of 61.6 million yen ($655,000) prior to the summer of 2005.

The report did not name the amateur players involved, but Lions manager Tsutomu Ito seemed to age rapidly that spring and summer. An elite high school catcher, Ito quit school in Kumamoto Prefecture and moved far from his home to attend night school in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, where he was kept out of sight during the day as a team employee until Seibu drafted him unopposed in the first round of the 1981 draft.

The Lions’ bold efforts to shed light on the dark recesses of NPB’s business practices were met with abuse and disdain. The Seibu investigators’ report suggested that the Lions practices were common in NPB, which brought out a chorus of denials from the usual suspects. The club was harshly criticized by commissioner Yasuchika Negoro, fined and prohibited from selecting players in the first four rounds of that autumn’s high school draft.

That spring, Valentine asked, “They made a big production out of my needing to apology. Don’t you think that given the circumstances, someone owes me one?”

Vindication, Part 2: Kiyotake’s turn

Although Valentine was forced out in a 2009 coup worthy of the movie “Major League,” Kiyotake proved once again what the statements of Yomiuri officials were worth.

After declaring the Giants squeaky clean and acting outrage that investigators suggested shady practices were routine in NPB, he made the mistake of challenging still-formidable former owner Watanabe in a power struggle and lost.

Soon after he was forced out of the Yomiuri organization, Yomiuri’s biggest newspaper rival, the Asahi Shimbun, began publishing details about payments in excess of the 100 million signing bonus limits agreed to by NPB teams for rookies.

The details, which were never denied by the Giants, said the team had paid a total of 3.6 billion yen ($32 million) in signing bonuses during a period when NPB clubs had agreed not to pay more than 100 million yen per player.

Alex Ramirez, the flexible manager

DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, like pretty much any ballplayer you talk to, has a huge bag of cliches and simple rules to explain how to prepare for and play baseball games in the form of expressions “you always want to…” or “you never…”

But when you get past the superficial sound bites that come from being a former big leaguer, you get a guy who is always on the lookout for the next thing that might work.

On Sunday, Ramirez said he was open to using a reliever to break the first-inning ice for his starting pitchers as “openers.” If so, he would be Japan’s second manager to opt for that kind of a role following Nippon Ham’s Hideki Kuriyama.

Ramirez has long been used to getting flack in Japan. A lot of foreign players took exception to his choreographed home run celebrations that the fans loved, often saying, “If you don’t do that back home, don’t do that here.” To which Ramirez was fond of answering: “In case you hadn’t noticed we’re in Japan, not ‘back home.'”

As a manager, he has been criticized for batting his pitchers eighth, something which makes a ton of sense.

Having a batter who reaches base bat ninth means fewer RBIs from the No. 8 spot in exchange for more no-out, runner-on-base situations for the top of the order — something that will help you score a few extra runs a year.

Last year, when Ramirez had his best hitter, and Japan’s cleanup hitter, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second, the old farts screamed, calling it an insult to Tsutsugo and Japan.

Last year, I tracked how each team’s starting pitchers did before and after facing their 19th batter in a game. Last season, when bullpen games were becoming very common, the BayStars were second-fewest in NPB with only 55 games in which a starter faced 19-plus batters, but it didn’t really help them.

From the 19th batter on in those 55 games, BayStars opponents had a .382 OBP, the 10th worst in NPB, and a .511 slugging average, worst of all 12 teams. The Fighters were the flip side of that. The pitchers who were allowed to go past 18 batters were really good, posting a .250 OBP and .196 SLUG.

Mind you, the Hiroshima Carp had 125 games in which their starters went through the opposing order more than two times while being nearly as good as the Fighters starters in those situations. But the Carp rotation — which led NPB with a .469 quality start percentage, was deep and the Fighters’ wasn’t.

The BayStars young starting corps has the chance to be an elite group, but Ramirez isn’t going to turn a blind eye to the possibility that using openers as part of a well-thought-out plan could help. Like the Fighters, the BayStars have a solid analytics team, and it would be no surprise to see DeNA improve their pitching and defense next season just because of Ramirez’s willingness to fly in the face of ignorant criticism and try the next thing.

Straight talk about NPB hitters

In Japanese, a fastball is called a “straight”, a running fastball a “shoot” and with the exception of a cutter or a two-seam fastball, which are oddly enough called cutters and two-seamers, all other pitches are labeled breaking balls.

Way to Tsutsugo

Of course, pitchers call their deliveries what they will, whether or not the pitches actually behave like others with the same name. When researching Yoshitomo Tsutsugo after he declared his desire to play in the big leagues, it was pointed out to me that he had trouble with fastballs.

There is anecdotal evidence of scouts, who report what they see in limited samples, and now there is pitch tracking data, although that is proprietary and only available to the clubs. Delta Graphs, following in the footsteps of Fan Graphs, has pitch value ratings for hitters effectiveness versus different pitch types.

I’ve combed through the Delta Graph data for players with 300-plus plate appearances since 2014, and compared each of those batters to how much better or worse they are against fastballs, curves and sliders than the average of these regulars.

Frankly, Tsutsugo had a relatively poor 2019 against fastballs, 1.12 runs above the NPB average per 100 fastballs. This ranked him 33rd among the 89 hitters with 300 PAs in NPB in 2019.

The average of regulars relative to the NPB norm since 2014 has been 0.63 runs per 100 fastballs, and Tsutsugo’s 1.12 runs in 2019 was 0.37 standard deviations above that mean. For him it was a terrible year. Since 2014, he’s averaged being 0.90 standard deviations above the mean for NPB regulars. That ranks him 10th in NPB among current players with three years of regular service during that stretch.

Without further adieu, here are the best (according to Delta Graphs) fastball hitters in Japanese baseball based on the unweighted average of how many standard deviations they are above the mean in each 300-PA season since 2018. The one hitter who is head and shoulders above the rest will never make it to MLB following Yuki Yanagita‘s announcement this past week that he will forgo free agency in lieu of a seven-year contract with the SoftBank Hawks.

Japan’s best fastball hitters (3-plus seasons as regulars)

NameTeamFastball Score (SDs above avg)
Yuki YanagitaHawks2.42
Yoshihiro MaruGiants1.38
Tomoya MoriLions1.36
Alfredo DespaigneHawks1.30
Dayan ViciedoDragons1.30
Tetsuto YamadaSwallows1.24
Seiya SuzukiCarp1.20
Wladimir BalentienHawks1.06
Takeya NakamuraLions1.01
Yoshitomo TsutsugoRays0.94
Hideto AsamuraEagles0.90
Ryuhei MatsuyamaCarp0.89
Takahiro OkadaBuffaloes0.86
Alex GuerreroFighters0.73
Hayato SakamotoGiants0.69
Jose LopezBayStars0.59
Shogo AkiyamaLions -> ?0.55

Honorable mentions

If we only include players with two years as regulars, Neftali Soto of the BayStars would rank second (1.78) and Masataka Yoshida of the Buffaloes would be third (1.56).

Of course, there are two big differences between NPB and MLB in terms of the quality of fastballs. These are:

  1. While the tackier NPB ball is easier to spin, it doesn’t appear to run as much — giving less horizontal movement on fastballs, two-seamers, splitters and straight changes.
  2. The average velocity one sees in NPB is a few ticks lower than in MLB for several reasons. Japan imports virtually no international amateur talent, weight training is only beginning to take hold, and the year-round throwing practice and the necessities of pitching game after game in tournament play wipe out many of the nation’s best pitchers before they finish junior high school.

Because of those differences, one expects players — especially those in their prime or past it, to face serious adjustment issues in MLB.