On Friday, Ichiro Suzuki took the first step in going back to school when he attended a seven-hour seminar on getting certified to teach baseball to children in school. The course, a relatively new one, was created to prevent uncontrolled contact between professionals and amateurs.
On Sunday morning, Japanese baseball’s curmudgeon in chief, Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto, took umbrage with the system, calling it foolish that the sport’s top craftsman have to bow and scrape to amateurs who couldn’t carry their jockstraps.
“It’s all nonsense These people, whose (baseball) technical knowledge is the best in the country are going to be teaching people who lack that knowledge. It’s not like they’re going to be school teachers. They’ll be teaching ballplayers.”
Isao Harimoto in his Dec. 15 guest spot on TBS network’s “Sunday Morning.'”
It is a generalization, but to some degree, Japan runs on personal relationships between individuals within the same group. While baseball exists as a larger identifying group, its various segments made up of pros, amateur administrators and educators jealously guard their turf. Each has its own bureaucracy that excels at creating boundaries and enforcing them.
By its very existence, pro baseball is a threat to amateur ball because it exists beyond the amateurs’ control. But because all pros pass through amateur ball before turning pro, conflict and distrust are inevitable.
Pro clubs have signed corporate league players during their league season in violation of agreements between the pros and the corporate leagues (see the Yanagawa affair) Since Nippon Professional Baseball held its first amateur draft in November 1965, pro clubs have attempted on occasion to gain the future loyalty of amateur prospects by secretly paying them and their coaches.
For those reasons, the amateur side prohibits professionals from coaching amateurs. Pros in Japan are even barred from teaching baseball to children who are playing amateur ball, something Suzuki addressed in his Japanese language retirement press conference.
“In Japan there is a peculiar situation, in that a wall exists between amateurs and pros. Even now, how is it, that rule? I wonder. Isn’t it still complicated? To take an extreme example, if I have a child in high school, there had been a rule that I couldn’t teach him. Am I wrong? That’s why it feels weird. Today as the former Ichiro, if it were small kids, or junior high school or high school or maybe even college students I would be interested (in managing).”
Ichiro Suzuki during his March 23 retirement press conference in Tokyo
The first of the four-part Ichiro Suzuki presser translated into English is HERE.
The need to observe boundaries extends to rules. NPB cannot change its own playing rules without consulting the amateur federations and getting approval by Japan’s Rule Committee. The pros may have the loudest voice in the room, but theirs is not the only voice. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it is peculiar.
There’s a ton of optimism going on after the Orix Buffaloes signed veteran major league outfielder Adam Jones to a two-year contract during the baseball winter meetings.
How does his acquisition compare to other veteran MLB power hitters coming over in the past?
Since he signed a two-year deal, let’s eliminate guys like Bob Horner, Tony Batista, and Larry Doby, who only played a single season in Japan. That leaves 20 players who came to NPB with 100 or more home runs in MLB. In terms of what they did before they came, Jones is now third on the list behind Andruw Jones (434) and Reggie Smith (313).
Here are the top five with their ages on Opening Day of their first season (rounded to the nearest integer)
Pointless trivia: I didn’t know this until I was cleaning this data set, but Dick Stuart went to Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, about three miles from my childhood home. I didn’t go there but my two stepbrothers did, and it was said the greatest athlete from that school had been Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban — a UCLA quarterback who was a rival and contemporary of San Francisco native O.J. Simpson.
Adam Jones will be the 10th youngest of those 20 players. Here’s that list with No. 11 George Altman added.
And here’s the list of the top 10 home run hitters in NPB from the “real major leaguers” as Jones was referred to by Orix GM Junichi Fukura:
A year ago, Scott Boras told jballallen.com that moving an American or Canadian amateur overseas would not allow him to return as an international free agent — that the only way to enter MLB was through the June draft.
Here’s that soundbite.
On Tuesday, he reported on Carter Stewart’s first season with the SoftBank Hawks. Stewart signed a six-year deal in June that will allow him to enter MLB as an international free agent after he turns 25.
Asked what had changed since our chat last year, Boras denied telling a lie but rather said he was just not revealing his hand.
“I wasn’t throwing you off the track. I just wasn’t showing you all the tracks.”
Labor organizer Marvin Miller, who energized major league baseball players into seizing a huge amount of control over their labor from the owners, was voted into National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. According to his son Peter, it wasn’t something he aspired to or wished to acknowledge.
His election has sparked some thoughts about how Japan’s baseball labor situation differs from that in the majors and why the two games are so different. Typically, we talk about the differences in how the game is played, but labor relations, too, are somewhat different.
In MLB, Miller’s acumen and leadership skills galvanized the players into taking action that eventually revealed the owners’ flawed basis for dictatorial control over players’ rights. His actions brought arbitration and then free agency. Because these changes removed the ability of owners to pay pennies on the dollar for labor, baseball executives at the time predicted they usher in the destruction of Major League Baseball.
They meant that like destroying Major League Baseball was a bad thing. Of course, it didn’t. Instead of destroying baseball, it forced teams to revolutionize their business models in order to be able to afford to buy players on a more free market. That change revitalized the business of baseball.
Before Miller MLB was not plantation slavery but a form of wage slavery. Players were bound to serve their owners or find other employment that did not reward their most marketable skills. After Miller, the MLB labor market became a kind of indentured servitude, where players handed owners control over their work for a fixed period of time.
Whenever MLB wants to defend itself, it talks about the owners as caretakers of American tradition. Talk like that has zero connection with the truth when owners defend their heinous policies as “normal business practices.” In that sense, MLB is a caretaker of American tradition, the 19th-century kind, when business owners relied on detectives and police to help “settle” labor disputes, by busting heads and breaking bones.
Japan’s “model” society
The best thing about Japanese baseball is that while the game is influenced by developments in the majors, it is ordered by different beliefs about how and why it is played. Japanese teams and owners can be just as stupid or innovative or ignorant as their MLB counterparts, but their behavior is modified by Japan’s social norms.
Just as in MLB, Japan’s owners have long assumed they deserved the power to exercise total over the game and the players. Japan’s version has rarely been so harsh as the bitter anti-labor ownership in America. Not because baseball team owners in Japan are kinder, but because society expects them to occasionally demonstrate ritual acts of kindness.
A Japanese company will work its laborers to death but is expected to organize a free employees trip every year,
Thus while MLB teams routinely manipulate players’ service time to maximize control over prospects at the cost of wins in the short term, Most Japanese teams will listen to requests of players wishing to leave and go to the majors and many of those requests are granted — at great cost to the team giving up the player.
Japanese teams aren’t pro-labor and do in fact exploit their players, but they also observe social expectations about pay raises. Rookies who have outstanding seasons can earn salaries many times the minimum. Japan’s owners are under no real obligation to reward the players — other than the social one.
Any analogy of pre-arbitration MLB as slavery is clearly wrong — because players could opt-out at great personal cost and not be pursued as runaway athletes. But for the sake of comparison, let’s assume MLB was a form of slavery. If so, MLB was the slavery exposed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the mere existence of pernicious abuse was a threat to its apologists and proponents — who claimed human beings were better off in benevolent bondage.
If that light, the Japanese form of baseball labor relations has always been a little closer to apologists’ romanticized view of slavery. But simply being less onerous than MLB’s version doesn’t make it right.
According to Peter Miller, his father’s ultimate goal was freedom for the players to choose, something even the most benevolent of baseball autocracies cannot accept.
Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.
The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.
In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.
“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”
“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”
“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”
Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.
He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.
On setting standards to protect youth players’ health
With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.
“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”
“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”
“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”
Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.
“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”
“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”
Leveling the playing field, literally
On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”
Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.
“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”
“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”
On the meaning of Koshien
Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.
“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”
“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”
On the manners of Japanese baseball culture
“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”
On an Asian winter meetings
“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.
“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”
“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”
There will be no winner of the Sawamura Award this season in order to “maintain the standards of the award and encourage pitchers and teams” to develop starting pitchers like they were in the old days.
This reminded me of a time in Japanese history when it was felt an entire social class needed to be lectured about its traditional duties in a society that had no role or rewards for it.
The Eiji Sawamura Award
The first Japan Series travel day has traditionally been dedicated to selecting a Sawamura Award winner. The award, created and sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun, differs from Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Awards in a number of ways.
It is selected by a small panel of former elite pitchers, and decided by unanimous consent
There is only one award for pitchers from both leagues, although occasionally two pitchers will be named co-winners.
The purpose is not to name the best pitcher, but the pitcher who best represents the qualities of Japan’s first pro ace pitcher, Eiji Sawamura — in other words, a power pitcher who throws lots of innings while completing and winning a lot of games with an impressive ERA.
The panel makes use of seven benchmarks: 25 games, 15 wins, 10 complete games, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings, a 2.50 ERA and 150 strikeouts. These have gradually been adjusted downward to reflect changes in the pitching environment, and the panel now considers its version of quality starts, which are seven innings and three or fewer earned runs.
We’re not worthy
On Monday, the panel met in Tokyo and announced that for the first time since 2000, no one was qualified.
That year I attended my first Sawamura Award announcement, and have missed only a couple since then, including Monday’s unfortunately. Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times, a Sawamura regular for the past dozen years or so, wrote it up HERE.
Essentially, no pitchers threw 200 innings this past year in NPB’s 143-game regular season, and the NPB leader in complete games was Daichi Osera with six. According to Coskrey, different panelists supported different candidates, but with each pitcher failing to rack up nearly enough innings or complete games, there was no consensus, and they blamed the sad state of starting pitching on the Americanization of the game.
I would have loved to ask them how they feel about the growing movement toward pitch counts and mandatory rest in Japanese amateur baseball because these pitching greats tend to be pretty frank and free with their opinions.
“As a member of the committee, I would like everyone to remember once again the Sawamura Award has helped build the history of NPB and supported NPB’s great pitchers. So my decision was nobody wins. I want the media to understand the greatness of the Sawamura Award led to this decision.”
–Former Lotte Ace “Sunday” Choji Murata, according to Jason Coskrey
The last two years have been atypical in that the selectors praised Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano to the skies and found little fault with him. The norm is for the old guys to rip into today’s pitchers. While recognizing their talent, they launch into diatribes about what the best pitchers lack.
The best pitcher in Japan this season was probably SoftBank’s Kodai Senga. According to Coskrey, Horiuchi complained that “he could be better.” I guarantee if you dropped Senga into Horiuchi’s era of the 1960s and 1970s, he’d be vastly better.
The panelists recognize that the game is changing but at the same time seem put-off by the idea that teams are trying to maximize the utility of their pitching resources rather than using games as a kind of homage to the old ways.
I’ve written about this in the past, but when people these days point to the huge numbers of complete games thrown 50 years ago, they are giving the impression that those starters were regular running up high pitch counts. They weren’t. Most of the complete games in the 1960s were right around 100 pitches.
It was a different game. Batters were not walking as much. Weaker hitters were not as good as they are today, and there were more really bad teams with soft lineups. And even the best pitchers were yanked early when they had awkward first innings.
People often yearn for an idealized past, and part of the Sawamura Award process is a push to turn back the clock to an era when the competition and context were vastly different and use the award to get players and teams to alter their behavior, a kind of annual MAGA gathering with good manners and suits instead of red hats.
Back in the day
Japan’s “Way of the Warrior” was a concept from Japan’s warring states period, teaching how samurai had to train and be righteous in society. But the actual formal documents called “Bushido” are an artifact of Edo period ‘s extended peace, a time when the warrior caste had become fossilized and essentially redundant.
At that time, the Tokugawa clan dominated the nation and samurai became underpaid petty bureaucrats in a society that became dominated by the merchant class. In that situation, it was no surprise that many samurai were forced to engage in commercial pursuits — something prohibited by Japan’s caste system — and strayed from the path they were ideally supposed to follow.
Like the rants of the Sawamura committee, the purpose of formalizing bushido and publishing it as texts was to make the samurai act in conformity with a doctrine that conflicted with the need to keep their families from starving.
Likewise, the Sawamura committee would have pitchers suddenly be as good against today’s superior competition as they themselves had been against the weaker hitting opponents of their day.
The committee would have teams reject using pitchers in ways managers and organizations believe will maximize their abilities and use them in a more heroic and dramatic fashion. To what end do they want this? To see the past relived through today’s pitchers.
While they mean well and truly want to inspire pitchers to new heights, I have three words for all of them: Get over it.
On Monday, I made it out to Yokohama to talk with DeNA BayStars lefty Edwin Escobar. In his third NPB season, Escobar was misfiring with the Nippon Ham Fighters, whom he joined after the start of spring training in 2017. He joined the Central League’s BayStars midway through the season, where he teamed up with another native of Venezuela, manager Alex Cabrera.
Since then Escobar, who pitched in 25 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, has hit his stride in Yokohama as one of Ramirez’s favorite relief options in the seventh and eighth inning.
In the first stage of the CL playoffs, Escobar was hammered and took the loss in Game 1 on Saturday, but saved the day on Sunday, when he preserved a one-run lead in the seventh inning after coming on with two on and one out.
In our chat, Escobar talks about the process of coming back from a bad outing and how he prepares in the bullpen. I hope you enjoy it.
Having examined what happens when individual batters come off the bench to hit in NPB, and knowing that pinch-hitters, as a whole, are less productive in that role than they are when taking their regular turn in the batting order.
While the pinch-hitting penalty described by Tom Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E. Dolphin in “The Book” does not appear to be nearly as extreme in NPB, their advice holds. Because they calculated that pinch-hitters wOBA is .034 less than when they bat in other contexts, they recommend managers only hit for position players using guys off the bench who are significantly better hitters.
Even if the pinch-hitting penalty is only .006 points of OPS2, it would behoove managers to at least use pinch-hitters who are somewhat better, because some managers don’t even do that.
In terms of the OPS2 managers have sacrificed and production gained during the period studied, here are the NPB managers who gotten the most mileage out of pinch-hitting for position players:
PH for pos player
PH season OPS2
PH expected gain
NPB managers with largest average gain in OPS2 when pinch-hitting for positon players from 2002-2018, minimum 200 PH appearances.
The next table gives the 20 managers who’ve replaced one position player with another at least 200 times between 2002 and 2018 and who got the least mileage for their changes.
In these lists, a few managers are given twice — for results with individual teams and for all the teams they managed during this period combined.
Least productive managers when pinch-hitting for position players
PH for pos player
PH season OPS2
PH expected gain
T & E total
KB & F & E
NPB's least productive managers from 2002-2018 when pulling a position player for a pinch-hitter, minimum 200 pinch-hit appearances.
So the most successful employer of pinch-hitters in recent years was a playing-manager, Motonobu Tanishige, who often delegated bench decisions to his head coach, Shigekazu Mori, while No. 2 was Hall of Fame manager Akira Ogi, who was manager for only one year during the study, 2005, before his untimely death.
At the bottom of the table is the late Koji Yamamoto, who managed the Lotte Marines before Bobby Valentine took over the reins in 2004. Another Hall of Fame manager, Senichi Hoshino, finishes second worst with the Rakuten Eagles, and third worst for his time with both the Hanshin Tigers and Eagles combined.
And then there are the managers who’ve chosen, on average to replace position players with pinch-hitters of lesser value. The good news for Marines fans is that while Iguchi made some ostensibly dreadful choices last season, they did not hurt his club, since the pinch-hitters exceeded anyone’s expectations — except perhaps the skippers’.
Silly pinch-hitting choices
PH for pos player
PH season OPS2
PH expected gain
Recent NPB managers who've used pinch-hitters of lower quality than the players they've batted for.
In “The Book”, Tom Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E.
Dolphin estimated that hitters coming off the bench to pinch-hit do not perform
up to their expected levels. They calculated a .034 average drop in wOBA for
hitters from their season norms when pinch-hitting, and found no evidence of
pinch-hitting specialists who were even as good as in their other plate
If this is part of the nature of the game, such as the platoon differential, then it should manifest itself in Nippon Professional Baseball as well. While the evidence suggests pinch-hitters do lose something coming off the bench in Japan, the drop in performance does not appear to be anywhere near as severe as the effects Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin observed in their major league data.
NPB as a whole
Because I don’t have the tools to compute wOBA for players in Japan prior to 2017, I’m opting for the poor-man’s substitute, OPS2, calculated as: on-base percentage x 2 + slugging average ) / 3.
This allows me to look at all seasons for which we have
results for each plate appearance. My current data set has every regular season
plate appearance in NPB from 2002 to 2019.
For simplicity’s sake we’ll omit the current season and look
at 2002 to 2018. During this stretch, 47,499 players were announced as
pinch-hitters and 46,848 of those actually completed a plate appearance.
Those batters had an average OPS2 of .313 in all their plate appearances in seasons, and a .308 OPS2 as pinch-hitters, a drop in expected performance of about 1.8 percent.
During the 18-year span from 2002 to 2018, eight players had
300 or more pinch-hit plate appearances, discounting sacrifice bunts, which
don’t count for anything in OPS2.
Two of the eight were somewhat better as pinch-hitters during the period of the study, and one, Kenji Yano, was significantly better. In 390 pinch-hitting appearances in which he didn’t successfully sacrifice, he posted an OPS2 of .363. In all other PAs, his OPS2s during the study was .342.
Five batters were worse as pinch-hitters to the tune of .001 to .010, while one batter, Shinjiro Hiyama was far worse. Hiyama had 607 pinch-hit appearances, the most in the study. During those seasons in which he appeared as a pinch-hitter, Hiyama posted a .360 OPS2 as a regular, .315 as a pinch-hitter.
So this doesn’t refute the claim that there is a cost to pinch-hitting, it does open the door for the possibility that some batters in some circumstances have an affinity for it – which Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin rejected.
As for how different NPB managers have fared in their use of pinch-hitters for position players, that info is HERE (paid content alert).
Mizuki Hori, Japan’s first true opener, opened seven games for about a month starting on July 15. On Aug. 15 — as if manager Hideki Kuriyama had a month time limit on the experiment, Hori returned to middle relief.
The first time he went back to middle relief was the final game of a nine-game losing streak. Hori opened three of those losses, although he did not allow a run in any of them.
He pitched effectively two more times in middle relief before giving up seven runs over his next four short outings. He was deactivated on Aug. 24.
The only mention of what happened to Hori came in the daily player activation and deactivation notices.
I think there may be a story here, but no one is talking about it. Did the starting pitchers rebel and force Kuriyama’s hand? Did Kuriyama give up on the opener, considering it might have been a proposal from the front office? Did the Fighters analytics team spot something in Hori’s data that indicated an injury of some type?
The first two of Hori’s three opening acts during the losing streak saw a “second starter” follow him to the mound and take the loss. The first was Yuki Saito, who allowed four runs in three innings on Aug. 6, the second Bryan Rodriguez, who gave up two runs over five innings on Aug. 11. The third was a bullpen day in which Johnny Barbato followed with two scoreless innings.