Tsutsugo calls for revolution

Power hitters Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata
Power hitters Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata talk to reporters after National team practice in March 2016 at Nagoya Stadium. As a youth baseball consultant, Tsustugo is now trying to alter his country’s slap-hitting mindset.

Slap-happy Japan fails to launch

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, cleanup hitter of the Yokohama-based DeNA BayStars, on Sunday told elementary and junior high school baseball coaches on Sunday that they need to accept the fly-ball revolution and stop teaching hitters to try and hit ground balls (see links below on related studies). Tsutsugo has told the club he would like to be posted next autumn so he can play in the major leagues in 2020.

According to a Nikkan Sports story, Tsutsugo’s first duty as a sports advisor in his hometown of Hashimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, was to tell the 50 coaches in attendance that the days of chopping down on the ball were over.

His argument was that most coaches for the most part impart their own experiences only and don’t update their thinking, and that since times have definitely changed the only way to prepare kids for the future was for the coaches to learn new ways.

Since back in the day, he said, it’s been “Hit down on the ball. But everyone is different. Even pros swing the bat parallel to the ground while a lot even have slight downswings.”

He explained about the “fly ball revolution” and that rather than hit ground balls, generating lift with a 30 degree launch angle would generate more hits and more home runs. Tsutsugo pleaded with the coaches to study the matter.

Individual effort

Tsutsugo also encouraged coaches to let the kids think for themselves and railed against the primacy of winning among coaches, saying, “That leads to abusive language and shaming players instead of teaching.”

Speaking to about 70 people at a sports festival later that day, he preached his mantra that kids shouldn’t be talked down to for making mistakes.

“There’s no shame in making errors,” he said. “Not trying for fear of making a mistake is the worst possible outcome.”

Ichiro, Oh and the world

Sadaharu talks to reporters during the 2006 WBC
Sadaharu Oh talking to reporters as Japan practiced at San Diego’s Petco Park before its 2006 WBC semifinal against South Korea.

Oh’s story

On Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, Sadaharu Oh spoke to reporters at Japan’s National Press Club in Tokyo. The SoftBank Hawks chairman was speaking on the subject of pro baseball during Japan’s Heisei Era — which ended last spring.

During the press conference, Oh spoke of how over the past 30 years, Japanese baseball made itself heard in America, with the success of Hideo Nomo in 1995 and later Japan’s triumph in the first World Baseball Classic, which he managed.

“That first time, I didn’t know what was what, and it just became a case of leaving it to the players who volunteered,” Oh said. “I became emboldened when Ichiro (Suzuki) called. He was the first.”

Oh wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t understand what was what. He didn’t particularly want to manage Japan in 2006, but no one was stepping up to do it.

He had been a proponent of the project in 2004 and 2005, when Nippon Professional Baseball was suspicious of dealing with Major League Baseball and accepted the job because no else wanted it.

“There were people in Japanese baseball who didn’t want this new burden,” he said a year ago. “It wasn’t because they were wrong, but because they were focused on their business at hand. But I thought it was important. That it was a chance to broaden our horizons.”


Jim Small, then MLB’s vice president for Asia, had just opened up shop in Japan so that MLB could negotiate TV rights and licensing deals without having to outsource them. The WBC turned out to be a hard sell and the process involved a lot of public sniping from NPB’s secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa.

With the deal finally agreed to late in the summer of 2005 and with Oh now in charge of selecting his team, people wondered which of Japan’s major leaguers would take part. Outfielders Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were the biggest stars. It was assumed that second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, then en route to a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox, would sign on since he had played under Oh with the Hawks.

For one reason or another, the common assumption in Japan was that Matsui and Iguchi would play, but Suzuki would not.

And so I thought until a chance meeting with Small on a shinkansen heading west out of Tokyo. Small had been sitting in the same carriage, saw me and brought up the subject of Ichiro.

After listening to me spout the common view, Small said, “I’ve heard he wants to play. And he’s waiting for Oh to call him.”

I was in Fukuoka a few weeks later when the Hawks hosted Bobby Valentine‘s Lotte Marines in the final stage of the Pacific League playoffs.

The king and I, Sadaharu Oh.

The king and I and Ichiro

I can’t properly explain my relationship with Oh, Japan’s all-time home run king, who is a household name and an icon here.

After I started working at the Daily Yomiuri in 1998 after six years as a free lancer, I ventured up to Oh on the sidelines at Tokyo Dome one day. I am sure I was shaking as I quizzed him on Japanese baseball in my fairly broken Japanese. His demeanor was friendly, reassuring and straightforward. It wasn’t me. It’s the way Oh is.

So on one of those days during that series in Fukuoka, I remembered what Small had said on the train, that Ichiro was waiting for Oh to call him.

“Can I do that?” Oh asked. “Is that permitted?”

I didn’t know if it was permitted or not, but suggested that it was worth finding out. I also haven’t asked Oh since then exactly how that play out. It is just as likely that he forgot what we talked about and only thought about it when someone else mentioned Ichiro. At some point, Oh began pursuing Matsui, with the progress of that courtship playing out in the daily sports pages.

After Matsui turned Oh down, Oh sought out Iguchi. Although everyone thought he would jump at the chance, he was reportedly less than thrilled to be considered an afterthought and turned down a spot on the WBC roster.

But with Ichiro in tow, the rest was history, as Japan largely lucked its way into the WBC final despite two losses to South Korea and Oh’s insistence on sacrificing with batters he had no business putting a bunt sign into their heads. *

“I’m good when I’m the first,” Oh said. “And at that time, too, I remember thinking, ‘My luck is still holding.’ My first time wearing the rising sun emblem in baseball empowered me.”

*–His extreme small-ball approach in 2006 is ironic when one considers his recent comments about how Japan’s national team should play.

writing & research on Japanese baseball