One happy camper

Billy Eppler

It’s been a while since my last post. I just came back from spring training in the Cactus League, the highlight of which was probably my interview with Los Angeles Angels General Manager Billy Eppler.

I listened in as Shohei Ohtani spoke to the media on Saturday, March 2, but it was fairly routine: “How many balls did you hit off the tee today? How many in toss batting?” So when speaking with Eppler I stayed away from the question everybody wants answered, “When is Shohei coming back?” and focused on other things.

Chat with the Angels GM

Below is part of my Q&A with Eppler that didn’t make it into the Kyodo News story HERE.

–Is he unique because he’s unique or because baseball has said it can’t be done?

 “I would think there’s a blending of both of those. However, you have to be blessed with the talent on both sides, the ability to work efficiently because you’re not going to have the same time that everybody else is going to have. So raw athleticism, size, speed, strength, efficiency in your work, discipline, those things are unique to him. So probably the majority goes to his uniqueness, I could arbitrarily throw out something like 70 percent is due to him and 30 percent to the other, but that’s cocktail napkin math. A lot of it is his uniqueness.”

–how much did his work habits play into your approach to acquire him?

     “We were mindful of that. We understood that. We tried to present that Southern California is a good place to be baseball obsessed. The weather cooperates.”

–How many guys are trying to be two-way players now?

“We have four in our organization. We drafted one in the fourth round, we drafted him as a two-way player. He went out and just hit and was doing his bullpen work on the side. He hadn’t done a ton of functional weight training so we wanted to make sure his strength was up.”

“Of those four, five including Shohei, two of those five are starters and three are trying to be relievers.”

Thanks for the help

In addition to Eppler, I want to thank all those people who took time out from their busy schedules to chat: Pitchers Jay Jackson, Matt Carasiti, Tony Barnette, Kenta Maeda, Yoshihisa Hirano, former NPB players Matt Murton, Terrmel Sledge, Jim Marshall, Torey Lovullo, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima. Two Angels players, Kaleb Cowart and Albert Pujols, also shared their time.

I also want to thank the media relations staff of the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Angels and MLB. Because of their help, I was able to make good use of my time. A shoutout also to my Kyodo News colleagues in New York and Arizona for their input and assistance.

Fanning Japan’s flame

Barnette, Tazawa, Darvish
Just a small sample of the Chicago Cub’s Japan contingent in Arizona this spring, pitchers Tony Barnette, Junichi Tazawa and Yu Darvish.

Good cheer and good hustle

Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette on Friday paid tribute to an overlooked aspect of Japanese baseball, its passion and fan-fueled competitiveness.

Asked what aspects of the game helped shape him as a player, the former Yakult Swallows closer cited the non-stop cheering and noise-making as more than just a part of the atmosphere, but something that adds to the amount o fight displayed between the lines.

“One thing I haven’t talked about much is the competitiveness of every single game,” he said. “The fan atmosphere helps with that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 games above .500 or 15 games below, they’re still showing up. That attitude adds to the competitiveness of the game, because a dead stadium is a dead stadium. It’s hard to get into it.”

“But as a player, you feel, if they’re still into it, we’re still into it. They’re not going to quit, we’re not going to quit. The more and more you win, the better it gets.”

“The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle is still there. You see the way guys bust it down the line, sliding head-first. As bad as that is, it’s still there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, is keeping that competitive level all the way through the game and all the way through the season.”

Pitcher Chris Martin, Barnette’s teammate last season with the Texas Rangers, said last November, that playing for Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters prepared him to play in the majors by getting him used to executing pitches in high-pressure situations.

“One of the things people don’t give Japan credit for is it’s a competitive league with competitive players. The talent level may fall off a bit quicker, but the fact of the matter is guys are out there to win every single night and it’s good baseball.”

“It’s June and it’s Hanshin and there are 45,000 people in the stands or it’s July or it’s Tokyo Dome, and it’s the ninth inning and – off the bench because he was supposed to have a day off, here comes (future Hall of Famer Shinnosuke) Abe in the ninth inning and that place goes nuts. You get in that situation in that atmosphere, you’ve got to make a big pitch with 50,000 people screaming.”

“That has the big game mentality. Now when you get to the major leagues, it’s like, I’ve been in a stadium this big before. I’ve been in a stadium that’s more full than this. It’s a development thing.”

Giving credit where credit is due

On a personal level, Barnette credited one of his managers and his pitching coaches as huge influences. Manager Junji Ogawa took a team with promising talent and made them playoff contenders, largely by being patient. Under him, the Swallows got big seasons out of Barnette, Lastings Miledge and Wladimir Balentien. All three got big multiyear contracts, and though Miledge fell off the radar, Balentien went on to break Japan’s single-season home run record in 2013, while Barnette established himself as an elite closer.

“Junji Ogawa was instrumental in bringing me back after that first failed starter year, him and coach (Daisuke) Araki. They brought me back.”

“Araki ended up moving on, but then coach (former major leaguer Shingo) Takatsu came. He was such a great coach. His temperament as a pitching coach is just remarkable.” “And then Tomohito Ito. I played catch with that guy pretty much every single day for two years. When it came to the development of the cutter, the split, he’s got his hands all over it. His finger prints are all over the way I pitch today. I can’t talk about Japan without talking about Ito. I think he’s phenomenal in his craft and caring about each individual pitcher to work and get better, that organic way he cares about people. It’s seamless to him. Some guys have to work at it. It comes naturally to him and it shows. Phenomenal charisma. He’s a great guy to be around.”

Maeda learns to change

Kenta Maeda
Kenta Maeda speaks to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, in Glendale, Arizona.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda spoke about what his three years in the big leagues have taught him about baseballs, climate and the honesty one experiences from American crowds.

Time for a change

Last year was a step forward in some ways for Maeda. After attacking the strike zone more in relief at the end of the 2017 season, 2018 brought the good news that his strikeouts overall were on the rise. The bad news was that the circle change he brought with him from Japan had become a non-factor in the majors and left-handed-hitters were killing him.

“The problem was left-handed hitters,” he said. “My old changeup was a circle change. It was a pitch to get contact, off-balance swings for easy outs. It worked in Japan because a lot of batters have big leg kicks. It was easy for me to get them to flail at pitches out in front. There are few batters in the majors who have that. They have better balance, and that pitch wasn’t working.”

He said he turned to split-fingered fastball grip that allowed the ball to drop a lot more and get misses from left-handed hitters trying to drive the ball — a huge adjustment every Japanese pitcher faces in America, where the Japanese slap-hitting subclass of (largely) left-handed hitters doesn’t really exist.

“In Japan, so many guys aren’t trying to drive the ball. They’re trying to slap it through a hole, hit it on the ground. But those kinds of hits are no big deal. It takes four to score a run. Here pretty much everyone is trying to hurt you from No. 1 to No. 8,” said Maeda, omitting the fact that he once surrendered two home runs in a game to Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

No country for slow fastballs

Like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka, Maeda was a pitcher in danger of not really having a four-seam fastball after he moved to the majors. He said a lot of his countrymen have to come to grips with the fact that no matter how slow their best fastball is, it is better than no fastball at all.

“I think that’s because the guys who come here are fast by Japanese standards, but (their velocities are) just average here, throwing 93 to 94 miles (150 to 151 kilometers) per hour, and they think therefore that those pitches are going to get hit,” Maeda said. “They think that especially before they come.”

“But once they get here, we eventually learn that no one is going to hit them just because their fastball is not as fast as other pitchers’.”

He said he also fell into the new trap among Japanese pitchers, who believe that in order to succeed in America one needs to have a two-seam fastball.

“We have an exaggerated belief that American pitching equals throwing that (two-seam) moving fastball. I thought I would have to have one, so I tried and tried, but could never throw it well enough.”

Climate change

And though his slider has proven to be a quality pitch for him in the States as much as it had been in Japan. Maeda had to learn how to trust himself and ignore the evidence when he first arrived in Arizona.

“Everyone told me before I got here, ‘You won’t be able to make your slider move in Arizona, so don’t worry about it,” he said. “And I couldn’t and that was the one thing that really puzzled me in my first spring training.”

“But I was really confident in the quality of my slider and since they weren’t getting away from me, and they were breaking a bit, I was able to move forward. When I got to Los Angeles it was normal. Since then, I don’t let that bother me.”

Not ready for prime time

He also came in supremely confident he could get batters out with the major league ball and pitch well here based on his experience in the World Baseball Classic in 2013, when he was named to the all-tournament team.

“That was false confidence on my part,” he said. “I felt really good coming here, because of the WBC. I’d used the ball, I’d gotten batters out. But what I didn’t realize was that the WBC is an anomaly. The opposing hitters were not ready for baseball to the degree we were in Japan (where spring camp starts on Feb. 1). That was kind of a shock.”

Read my Kyodo News interview HERE.

Ichiro, Shohei, Japan and the Negro Leagues

One of the winter meetings’ highlights was meeting Bob Kendrick, the president of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. At the mention of Shohei Ohtani, Mr. Kendrick’s face lit up, as it does on most topics related to baseball, and he talked about the parallels and links between the Negro Leagues, Japanese baseball and the majors.

Mr. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is keen to share America’s rich tradition of two-way players with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani.

While virtually every story about Ohtani’s remarkable season included a note that he was the last player since Babe Ruth to have done “X” as a pitcher and “Y” as a hitter. But that is the major league version of the story. It’s a big story, but it’s not the whole story.

“It’s a very important part of baseball and American history and a forgotten chapter of baseball and American history and that’s the rich, powerful and compelling story of the Negro Leagues which is documented, substantiated and celebrated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City,” Kendrick said.

“It (Ohtani’s arrival) gave us a chance to talk about those great two-way players who played in the Negro leagues. I’m hoping this season when they come to town that we may be able to get him by the museum. There’s this great history between the Negro leagues and Japan that most people don’t know.”

“The Philadelphia Royal Giants go to Japan in 1927, well before Ruth and his all-stars. We’ve got a wonderful game day magazine. We actually have an original but we have a version of it hanging on the wall, and I showed the original to Ichiro when he visited the museum.”


“He’s a fan of the game. He’s a historian of the game. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Negro Leagues would appeal to him. The first time he came to the museum, he snuck in and we didn’t even know he was there. One of the clerks in the gift shop saw the credit card slip where he had bought some stuff.”

Suzuki may not look like the guy who attends SABR meetings, but he pays attention to detail. This is evidenced by Suzuki honoring the history of old-time star George Sisler and reaching out to his family when he broke Sisler’s single-season hit record.

Kendrick said Suzuki was also drawn to the museum because of his bond with the museum’s founder, former Negro League star Buck O’Neil.

“When Buck O’Neil passed away, who sent flowers? Ichiro Suzuki,” Kendrick said. “The next year his translator called and said they wanted to meet with me. We sat in a conference room and started to describe his admiration for Buck. He goes into his bag and writes a significant personal check for the Negro Leagues Museum in memory of his friend Buck O’Neil. They were two kindred spirits bonded by the great game of baseball.”

“Probably, the reason that Ichiro and Buck hit it off so well is because Buck could understand the skepticism (about Ichiro). The Negro League players heard that same skepticism. Can you do that (get hits) over here? So what does he do here? He puts 3,000 more hits up.

“That was the same air of skepticism that followed those Negro League players as they moved into the major leagues. You put those numbers up in the Negro Leagues but the world just seemed to believe that the highest level you could play was the major leagues, so can you do that in the major leagues. So what do they do? They do that in the major leagues.”

Kendrick said the attraction went beyond that. Like Ohtani, when Suzuki arrived in the majors in 2001, people were saying he was a throwback to the days of Ty Cobb. A player whose game was everything but home runs. But Suzuki’s game would have been right at home in the Negro Leagues.

“Ichiro talked about how he admired Buck’s style,” Kendrick said. “Buck hung out at the ballpark all the time. When they were taking BP, Buck would be chatting up everybody, showing love like he always did.”

“He (Ichiro) was a Negro Leagues player. He would have been a big star in the Negro Leagues. There’s no question about it. And we don’t say that lightly, because of the way they played the game in the Negro Leagues. The way he played, hitting the ball in the gap, taking the extra bases, the speed, the defense, the style. He has flair. He absolutely could have played in the Negro Leagues.”

Ohtani, too, would have fit in, Kendrick said. And he issued an open invitation to the Los Angeles Angels star.

“It would be awesome to have Shohei come in,” he said. “And again amidst that same level of skepticism, here comes this kid, two-way playing in Japan, big-time star. Can you do it in the major leagues? He does it in the major leagues. But his success also led us down the path where others wanted to talk about the great two-way players of the Negro Leagues. Ohtani is not new.”

“When we started talking about guys like Bullet Joe Rogan, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, the list just went on and on of the great stars in the Negro Leagues who were two-way players. You have to understand that the roster sizes in the Negro Leagues weren’t as large as they were in the major leagues, so you needed those guys who were versatile. So the Negro Leagues had their fair share of great two-way players.”

National body shoots down Japan’s 1st high school baseball pitch limit

On Wednesday the Japan High School Baseball Federation asked Niigata Prefecture’s high school federation to reconsider the pitch limit it announced for this year’s spring prefectural tournament.

The rule, announced unilaterally by the Niigata body in December without consulting the national federation, would have prevented pitchers from working in another inning after they had thrown 100 pitches.

Niigata’s decision sent shockwaves through Japan, where the two iconic high school tournaments at historic Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka are the nation’s biggest spectacle, and marathon pitching efforts part of the lore.

In making its announcement in Osaka, the national federation said it would convene a panel of experts in April to study how to prevent pitching injuries. Although there had been some words of condemnation for Niigata acting on its own, the national federation’s decision should not be seen as an effort to turn back the clock. This month, Daichi Suzuki, the chief of Japan’s Sports Agency praised the bravery of Niigata’s authorities and called on the national high school federation to act.

Osamu Shimada, a high school vice principal in Niigata Prefecture who was the project leader behind the plan to curb injuries to baseball players, said by telephone, “We have pushed the hands of the clock forward.”

Shimada, who became a teacher and a high school baseball coach after his own playing career ended in university, said Niigata was uniquely situated to upset high school baseball’s apple cart.

“We were able to put together a committee of elementary, junior and senior high school baseball authorities. Because we are weak (in national tournaments) we could find common cause at all levels,” he said. “This is something other prefectures with strong local bodies couldn’t do.”

“We are a small prefecture in terms of population and the number of kids who want to play baseball is dwindling. We want to change that. but there are so many other sports one could play, so why would a young athlete choose a sport where a lot of players get hurt?”

“We don’t know that 100 pitches is the best solution, but our plan is to collect data, learn and move forward. We felt if we didn’t act it would be too late. There was a sense of urgency.”

Getting to the root of the problem

This is the second part of a series centering around my interview with a leading Tommy John surgeon in Japan, Dr. Kozo Furushima.

Dr. Furushima
Dr. Kozo Furushima

Amid all the talk of the first pitch limits in Japan’s high school baseball world, Japan’s national elementary school tournament quietly received a 70-pitch limit this year. Working with the reform-minded head of the Japan Rubber Baseball Federation, Toyomi Munakata, Furushima assisted in the drive for change in Japan’s dogma-driven baseball world.

In this part, Furushima discusses the changes to this year’s system and gets down to the nuts and bolts of Japan’s problem — endless practice among players at the youngest ages that lead to more serious injuries as players grow older.

“I’ve been studying this issue for 12 or 13 years, in different sports but mainly baseball,” Furushima said. “I’ve examined the injuries of 6,000 to 7,000 baseball players, with more than 2,000 surgeries on baseball players alone. Why is it that junior high school and high school kids have to have surgery? I was thinking that for a long time.”

In the interview, Dr. Furushima explains avulsion fractures, caused when the pull from a ligament yanks the part of the bone it is attached to free from its surrounding bone.

Avulsion fracture X-Rays

These medial elbow avulsion fractures, if allowed to rest, will heal naturally, he said.

“Compared to adults, kids recover more quickly,” Furushima said. “For example, if a child breaks a bone, it will heal about a week faster than that of an adult. Adult bones take a month to regrow, children take about three weeks.”

Unfortunately, with kids practicing their sports year round, the time required to rest is very difficult to get. Compounding this, he said, is that the fractures only cause pain when under extreme stress. They don’t hurt in day-to-day activities so sufferers may not even realize the need for rest and treatment.

Dr. Furushima believes that about half the kids playing youth baseball between the fifth and seventh grades may have suffered from medial elbow avulsion fractures. His facility performed a study, with coaches alert to the problem bringing in their teams for examination. Of the 406 players examined, 167 showed signs of the injury.

“We had 406 children come for tests as part of a study. They didn’t particularly want to come,” Furushima said. “Of them, 167 had a history of pain in their inner elbow, 41.1 percent. These players came with their teams, whose coaches had a good awareness of the situation. These were good teams and even then, 40 percent had a history of pain. I have to think that among the teams that would never participate, the percentage would be higher than the teams whose coaches would willingly take part.”

Youth player survey

Although the consequences of these injuries are not overwhelming when the kids are young, as their bones become mature and more rigid, the fractures that have not healed are going to be a problem, particularly for ballplayers who have to throw hard using joints in which the ligament is loose and not properly attached to the bone.

In the MRIs below, the loose ligaments in the previously injured elbow can be seen as a squiggly line.

Injury consequences

Find the full story on Kyodo News HERE.

The introduction to the series was posted on Feb. 17.

All graphics courtesy of Dr. Furushima, Keiyu Orthopaedic Hospital Sports Medical Center.

Elementary steps in war against injury

This past week, the civil war brewing within Japanese baseball over rules to protect pitchers’ arms heated up. On Thursday, the Japan Rubber Baseball Association adopted 70-pitch limits for the national elementary school baseball tournament this summer, and the rule did not pass without a fight.

Prefectural and regional federations will have a year to adopt the rule.

The national federation announced the following guidelines:

Guidelines

  1. All players will be limited to 70 throws at full strength per day in practice and 300 a week.
  2. Practice will be limited to six days a week, and not more than three hours in one day.
  3. Players should not appear in more than 100 games a year.

The chief executive of the national federation, Toyomi Munakata, said that over the past five years, national tournament games saw an average of 100 pitches thrown per team.

“I want to protect the rights of the children and their enjoyment of baseball,” Munakata said. “Through enactment of a pitch limit, I want coaches to change their policies.”

Same old song and dance

He said there was opposition from some on the federation’s board of councilors, who cited a phrase commonly heard the past two months “we can’t enforce such a rule because there aren’t enough pitchers.”

This was an objection heard frequently in December when Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation announced it would introduce pitch limits at its spring tournament and moved ahead without seeking approval from the national federation.

The crux of the problem

On Saturday, Dr. Kozo Furushima, Japan’s most prominent Tommy John surgeon, told me that young pitchers are susceptible to suffering inner elbow fractures from placing too much stress on the elbow of the yet-immature bones in their elbows.

“Adults’ bones are hard and the ligaments are a big concern, but when children are in elementary school and junior high school, it is the other way around,” Furushima said. “The bones in children’s joints contain a lot of cartilage and are not rigid. The part of the bone where the ligament attaches can be pulled away from the rest of the bone, creating a fracture.

“Children will not feel pain or be hindered in ordinary activities but when they put a lot of stress on the damaged elbow, they will feel pain. And those that go untreated will often result in injuries later as the joints mature.

Furushima is the chief of the Sports Medical Center of Keiyu Orthopaedic Hospital in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. He said that of the 301 youngsters treated at his facility for inner elbow disorders, 81.3 percent reported practicing an average of five or more hours every Saturday and Sunday. The group of patients practicing 3 to 5 hours made up another 12.6 percent of the group.

“It’s not just pitching in games, but how much and how hard kids are throwing in practice,” he said.

The next phase of the debate is poised for the coming week, when the national high school federation is expected to lower the boom on authorities in Niigata for acting on their own to enforce pitch limits.

Strike while the iron is hot

While we’re on the subject of called balls and strikes in Nippon Professional Baseball, @Student_murmur has done a nice study in Delta Graphs about how the count affects umpires calls, which you can find in Japanese HERE.

Lacking pitch tracking data and having to depend on Mark I eyeball technology, the researcher drew a line around the strike zone in different counts where calls went 50-50. It’s no surprise that the smallest zone accompanies the 0-2 count, and the largest the 3-0 count.

The data from 2017 and 2018 collected by Delta Graphs looks fairly consistent and are consistent with the findings of John Walsh in 2010, which you can find HERE. Walsh found that the area of the strike zone’s vertical plane in MLB was 3.52 square feet with a 3-0 count and 2.42 square feet with an 0-2 count.

The last post here dealt with pitch locations derived from Nikkan Sports’ pitch-by-pitch data in 2018. These consisted of designated as inside the edge of the zone and outside the edge. I labeled them all borderline pitches, either borderline ball locations or borderline strike locations.

Looking at pitches in these two border zones that were called balls and strikes on 3-0, 0-2 and all other counts in 2018 produces the following tables, where 78 percent of all borderline pitches were called balls in counts other than 3-0 and 0-2. In 3-0 counts it was 60 percent. In 0-2 counts it was 92 percent.

We need to understand that in this study and the Delta Graphs one, the data points are being observed by someone else’s eyeballs and recorded by someone else’s hands. Also, pitchers can worry less about balls and strikes in certain counts. Unfortunately, the same seems to go for umpires.

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with 0-2 counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
0-2Strike Zone1182183
0-2Ball Zone2,12242,126
0-2Total2,1231862,309
Percent91.94%8.06%

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with 3-0 counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
3-0Strike Zone0349349
3-0Ball Zone5243527
3-0Total524352876
Percent59.82%40.18%

Borderline called NPB balls and strikes in 2018 with all other counts

CountBorder ZoneBallStrikeTotal
OtherStrike Zone211,06011,062
OtherBall Zone39,50413539,639
OtherTotal39,50611,19550,701
Percent77.92%22.08%

Problems with punch-outs

The other day HERE I tried to answer the question whether foreign hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball have larger strike zones or not by looking at the percentage of strikeouts that are decided by a called third strike.

Having done that, I realized that individual variation makes such an analysis really, really murky. Some players hack, some are more disciplined. Pitchers that lack a good swing-and-miss pitch should conceivably have a higher CST (Called Third Strike) percentage.

Still, the study did lead to an interesting observation about the nature of Japan’s two leagues. As some of you know, either the Pacific League is the stronger of Japan’s two leagues or it’s just really, really good at hiding that fact, considering how poorly Central League teams do in interleague play and in the Japan Series.

The umpire merger

From 2003 until 2010, Pacific League position players were taking called third strikes in 20.53 percent of their strikeouts. In the Central League, the percentage was 22.84. The PL was dominated at the time by huge ballparks, where home runs were less frequent.

Since the umpires of the two leagues merged from the start of thew 2011 season, the PL called-third-strike percentage rose to 21.57, while the CL’s dropped slightly to 22.73.

The managers

In the previous article, I suggested that managers might be affecting how often called third strikes went their teams’ ways. But that was probably incorrect, for the same reason that judging individual hitters is fraught with danger. Unless you have the photographic evidence of the pitches in question, you can’t really tell.

Managers WILL effect the number of third strikes called against their team because of their batting and pitching policies. A look at how each manager’s team did relative to its league, shows that from 2003 to 2018 shows some interesting stuff, but it’s just that: interesting stuff.

Consider curmudgeonly “kantoku” Katsuya Nomura. His Rakuten Eagles struck out 3,369 times over his four seasons in charge, and his players went down on called third strikes 6.03 percent more often than the league, his Eagles were taken out of at-bats by umpires 203 extra times.

Anyway, the manager whose teams have ostensibly benefited the most from the umpires’ calls were Hisanobu Watanabe (Seibu Lions) with 92 fewer called third strikes on his hitters and 106 extra called strikes for his pitchers. No. 2 on this list (2003-2018) is Trey Hillman overall +194, and Koichi Ogata (+186). At the other end are: Nomura (-242), Hideki Kuriyama (-239), Akinobu Okada (-137) and Bobby Valentine (-136).

That’s interesting, but if you look at those Eagles hitters, what do you see? Tons of walks, few strikeouts. That was a team led on offense by Takeshi Yamasaki, a power hitter who frustrated managers and teammates by taking tons of called third strikes. He rarely swung at a two-strike pitch if he thought it might be outside of his zone, often putting his fate in the umps’ hands.

Again, I don’t think there is anything the least bit instructive about those. I just thought they were fun. But as mentioned above, managers can have a real effect on how their teams play. Take the DeNA BayStars, for example.

The Alex Ramirez effect

When Alex Ramirez took over the DeNA BayStars in 2015, his most public policy was telling his players to “swing at the first strike.”

What happens when batters execute this tactic? Here’s what happened in 2018, comparing the results of 17,792 plate appearances started by a swing or a first-pitch ball (as the 2015 BayStars were instructed to execute), and the the 48,046 PAs in which the first pitch was taken.

OptionPAAvg.OBPSlug
Swing 1st-pitch strike, take 1st-pitch ball17,792.272.305.424
Take 1st pitch regardless48,046.251.336.392

There is overlap of course, since first-pitch balls fall into both camps. But those looking to drill the first strike hit for average and more power, but paid for it in more outs and a lower on-base percentage. This goes a little bit in explaining the career of Ramirez — a guy who hit for good average, became the first foreign-registered player with 2,000 hits, and hit for good power, but didn’t draw walks unless he had to.

Not pulling your leg

The big news out of Nippon Professional Baseball’s spring training on Tuesday was that Daisuke Matsuzaka is suffering from right-shoulder inflammation.

What’s unusual is that his club, the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons, believe it was caused at a meet-and-greet at the club’s training camp in Chatan, Okinawa prefecture, when a fan pulled on the right-hander’s arm.

The 38-year-old Matsuzaka later reported stiffness in the shoulder and is now prohibited from throwing.

Although he wasn’t really effective last season, Matsuzaka — who had surgery on that shoulder in August 2015 — excelled at pitching out of trouble last year and finished with a 6-4 record en route to winning NPB’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Is that an award one actually wins?

There was no word from the Dragons about the nature of the fan encounter. Was the fan in question challenging Matsuzaka to an arm wrestle? Was he falling over backward only to be saved by our hero reaching out to grab him?

Either way, the pitcher, who in 1999 took part in one of Japan’s ubiquitous all-star game home run derbies was seen taking healthy cuts in one of the indoor batting cages in lieu of pitching practice.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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