Having a plan

On this week’s Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, John E. Gibson interviewed Yakult Swallows scout Tony Barnette and asked if the team has any clear vision about how to build up like they did 15-17 years ago.

I wanted to know that, largely because like most teams, the Swallows appear to have no clear way of doing things other than to get the players who are available, see how they pan out, and then take it from there, which I would call the “zero accountability” plan.

You can listen to Tony’s answers when the podcast drops on Monday, and I won’t tease it here, but what the Swallows did 17 years ago was tell everyone, “We’ve tasked our new manager (Shigeru Takada) with developing the young pitchers.”

That kind of announcement is pretty rare here, and sometimes it’s just PR. But in the Swallows’ case, the team began following a program. Older pitchers who weren’t big contributors were shipped out to the farm, where players who couldn’t catch the ball, like first baseman Kazuhiro Hatakayama, also got stuck.

Takada built an underpowered team that could pitch and catch. When he left, new manager Junji Ogawa, let his big hitters play and the Swallows got good in a hurry.

A clear plan offers the chance to learn from mistakes and adjust and organize the workload. It is also, however, an open door to accountability.

Baseball people love to talk about players and managers being held accountable for their results, but front offices rarely are. Teams most often just hire a manager, let him set an agenda that the front office may or may not cooperate fully with and then fire him when it doesn’t work.

When teams hire foreign nationals to manage, the press release often includes something changing the team culture. Sometimes creating a new culture is actually part of the plan — as it was when the Nippon Ham Fighters hired Trey Hillman in 2003, and the Lotte Marines went back to Bobby Valentine a year later.

When the Hiroshima Carp in 2006 hired Marty Brown, and when the Orix Buffaloes turned to Terry Collins in 2007, both teams talked about changing the culture, but both guys were met with blank stares when they tried to work out overall policies that included the minor league team and player development.

If you are working in a Japanese company, and hold any place of influence, one of your colleagues is eager for you to make a mistake so that they can take your job. One way of avoiding being caught out and being shoved aside is to avoid accountability by not having clearly defined organizational plans that could fail.

Instead, it seems most teams’ planning revolves around setting expectations for individual players, that might involve specific skills or even physical strength unless you’re the Hanshin Tigers. If the players meet the team’s goals then it’s time to set new goals.

That is part of the picture for every team, even the Tigers, but if your entire policy is “let’s see how good this year’s players are,” then that’s no policy at all.

Looking back

The 2008 Swallows weren’t the only recent team to define an organizational approach with a comprehensive policy.

The SoftBank Hawks clearly have a policy about team development that revolves around filling their minor league facility with guys on developmental contracts and seeing who rises to the top — something the Yomiuri Giants apparently are now copying after they picked an NPB record 12 players in last year’s “D” draft.

Here are some of the policies I can identify in particular order:

  • The Carp way: Adopted in 1975 through the confluence of combustible American manager Joe Lutz and the acquisition that year of hard-nosed scrappy infielder Tsuyoshi Oshita, the Carp revolves around quality defense and base-running, which has the added advantage of being fun to watch.
  • ID Yakyu: The “ID” stood for “Import Data” and was coined by the late Katsuya Nomura during his time with the Swallows. It likely originated with Nomura through the influence by his Nankai Hawks manager Kazuto Tsuruoka and Nomura’s right-hand man, Don Blasingame. Essentially, it meant using data to identify opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them, but it also meant surrounding his core stars with veteran hitters other teams discarded because their main skill was getting on base.
  • Don’t call me ‘Manager’: Yokohama BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo wanted to rid his team of meaningless customs, starting with asking the players to call him “Gondo-san.” Despite managing the team to one of its two championships and a franchise-record .541 winning percentage during his three seasons, Gondo got fired because nobody likes a good manager if they talk trash about the game’s honored but idiotic customs.
  • We’re using the whole roster: This was Tatsunori Hara’s mantra when he took over the Giants in 2002. Hara eliminated Yomiuri’s 25-year-old tradition of basing roster selection on seniority, star-status, and popularity, and began giving meaningful opportunities time to no-name players who performed well in the minors. When the head coach then, Yoshitaka Katori, told me of the policy that spring, I believed it was 100 percent eye-wash. It wasn’t.
  • Let the geezers play: This was the invention of the Rakuten Eagles’ first manager, Yasushi Tao, a former batting champ who’d spent the final years of his career doing whatever it took to earn playing time. Tao believed a roster packed with veterans, given one last shot to prove themselves, would make the 2005 expansion Eagles competitive. It didn’t.

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