it’s all about the bunt

On Saturday, as expected, members of Japan’s curmudgeon corps began wetting themselves over struggling power hitter Sho Nakata’s sacrifice bunt on Friday, his first in his 15-year pro career.

Nobuhiro Takashiro, a former shortstop who coached with five different NPB teams and one in Korea and now has a gig with Daily Sports, gave more than his two cents. As I predicted yesterday, he credited Nakata’s eighth-inning home run on Friday to the sacrifice.

Takashiro argues that the nature of the sacrifice puts a focus on the team, rather than the individual, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Also as expected, he heaped praise on manager Tatsunori Hara as the only manager who could make the call to have Nakata bunt.

As arguments for the bunt go, it’s really not that vomit-inducing, but it does hint at a culture where accountability can be avoided, provided one obeys the house rules.

Let’s start with what Takashiro had to say before going deeper.

“It wasn’t a good bunt, but it gave me the feeling that he was given a chance to succeed. The decision to have Nakata sacrifice probably led to his getting a single in the sixth inning and his two-run home run in the eighth.

“A bunt demands self-sacrifice and thus one can say it is the ultimate team play. Perhaps getting him to succeed in this way opened his eyes.

“Up until now, all the focus has been whether he hit or not, but I think this gave him a taste of the fact that baseball is more than that. I can’t guess what he himself was thinking, but the lasting image after the game was him smiling broadly.

“The home run was perfectly struck, too. He was like one who was released from the doubt that had permeated his being.

“The sacrifice may have brought Nakata back to life, but it only happened because Hara was the manager. Up until now, he has challenged opponents by sacrificing with his middle-of-the-lineup guys, Shinnosuke Abe and Hayato Sakamoto. No one is too big for that on the Giants. With this bunt, one would have to think that Nakata really became a Giant.

“Speaking of bunts, Giants starting pitcher Shosei Togo has improved remarkably this year. Until last year, he frequently failed, but it’s hard to recognize him as the same player because he’s now so good

“Bunts are bland but they are important. Yoshihiro Maru opened the game with a home run, and Nakata finished it with one, but between those two things were two perfect bunts.”

All well and good

Takashiro, who was one of the people having a go at Adam Walker’s defensive mishaps this past week in Hiroshima and basically said the Giants had no chance to win with him in the outfield.

That argument, and this one, however, support Japan’s quality control baseball movement of the 1970s, where the belief was honed that playing the game the right way means zero mistakes, and no chance to lose.

Baseball people are fond of saying that the ultimate outcome in Japan is not losing–rather than winning. It may seem like a specious argument, but it has its roots in Japan’s current demerit culture, where individuals advance within their work and social groups because their colleagues mess up.

When I studied Japanese history in university in the 1980s, virtually every Japanese social pundit explained the nation’s economic resurgence as a kind of genetic inevitability–that Japanese were by natural selection driven to seek perfection, so mistakes were intolerable to them, and that this made them culturally superior.

Japanese are afraid of mistakes not out of a desire for perfection but for fear of being caught out and demoted.

Takashiro’s Walker complaint was not, “is his offense worth his defense?” It was “his defense is a mistake and thus can’t be tolerated.” The thing about the bunt and every other “by-the-book” tactic in Japanese baseball is that if it follows dogma, it is by definition not a mistake.

Having a built-in out like that is hugely attractive.

Bunt while three runs down in the eighth inning? Not a mistake. If you score twice but run out of outs, it can’t be helped. “It can’t be helped” is expressed in Japanese by the phrase “shikata ga nai,” which literally means there was no way to do something, and implies a lack of choice, often when that choice is to blindly follow doctrine.

If you pull your outfield in shallow with the go-ahead run on second base and two outs in the ninth inning, and a routine fly drops 20 feet from the warning track allowing the winning run to score, that’s not a mistake, because the shallow outfield an orthodox response, therefore there was no alternative and the loss was inevitable.

I love bunts that are done with a purpose in mind, that create synergies, that force opponents to adopt inefficient defensive postures. Bunting because it can’t be criticized is like Japan’s version of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, where people spend time and energy doing something essentially useless.

Being able to execute a bunt is a valuable tool, but in Japan that tool so often becomes a symbol that says “we are playing the game the right way, so if we lose, it wasn’t our fault.”

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