Fighters skipper Kuriyama to quit

The Nikkan Sports reported Wednesday that Hideki Kuriyama (58) has told the Nippon Ham Fighters that he will step down after managing the club after eight seasons due to poor results.

The club will finish fifth in the PL for the second time since the Fighters won the league and the Japan Series in 2016.

The Nikkan Sports said the story was confirmed by sources close to the skipper, who is expected to meet with the team president when the season ends and make a formal declaration at that time.

Both Kuriyama’s managing and his situation within the Fighters’ organization have been outliers in Japanese baseball. He is the one credited with offering Shohei Ohtani the chance to both pitch and hit as an 18-year-old in 2013, and this year became the first Japanese manager to employ a regular opener and the first in decades to employ extreme defensive shifts.

Before he was promoted to be Fighters General Manager, Hiroshi Yoshimura said it was extremely hard for the Fighters to find a suitable manager, because the team’s system goes against the grain of Japanese baseball tradition, where the manager (unless he is a foreigner working for Hiroshima or Orix) has final say over player personnel decisions and draft picks.

That system evolved after the club’s move to Sapporo in 2004 through the aegis of chief executive Toshimasa Shimada, General Manager Shigeru Takada and manager Trey Hillman.

“It’s not easy for us to find a manager,” Yoshimura said. “Because Japanese managers are used to getting their way.”

Yoshimura’s words proved prophetic over the winter of 2011-2012 in Yokohama, where Shigeru Takada imported elements of Nippon Ham’s front office management style when he moved to become BayStars GM. Kimiyasu Kudo turned down the DeNA job because he would not have full control, and they instead turned to Kiyoshi Nakahata.

Being the Nippon Ham Fighters manager means access to an analytic team that is very strong by Japan standards, and players who are trained and developed the way the organization sees fit.

Being something of an iconoclast and also someone who sees himself as an innovator who takes novel ideas and runs with them Kuriyama sometimes gets into trouble with old-school guys.

Pitching coach Masato Yoshii quit the Fighters after the 2012 season because of Kuriyama’s desire to use pitcher Yuki Saito on the first team when he was not good enough for the farm team.

Asked about it afterward, Yoshii said he left because, “I wanted to be on a team with a manager who wants to win.”

Yoshii returned four years later but quit last autumn, reportedly over Kuriyama’s decision to employ “short starters,” pitchers who would start and only go through the opposing order once or twice depending on their ability.

The Nikkan Sports story said the organization sees the team’s results as a failure of player development — an area technically beyond Kuriyama’s reach.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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