Hotaka Yamakawa

Let the boys play

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If you’re familiar with Japan’s style of baseball, and thought its World Baseball Classic team was something of a departure, you are correct. As the tournament wore on, manager Hideki Kuriyama spoke of how his team might provide a boost to baseball in Japan. Of course, how that plays out is anyone’s guess.

Robert Whiting expressed some valid takes in his recent Substack post “WBC title is great for Japan, but NPB needs to concentrate on enhancing its product going forward.”

His points, as I understand them, were:

  • The lively individualistic approach exhibited by Japan in the WBC will not loosen Japan’s embrace of paint-by-numbers solutions to baseball situations.
  • The WBC is fun, but it’s just an exhibition and doesn’t prove which team is the best.
  • Japanese pro baseball could be so much better than it is, and that should be its focus to be better at marketing and building its product.

In my first post of this series, I addressed his principle argument that Nippon Professional Baseball must capitalize on the WBC title by remaking its business, while last time I examined whether anyone can objectively call this wonderful tournament “an exhibition.”

This time around I want to discuss the cultural structure of Japan’s game and whether the WBC, might put a dent in what often seems an impregnable monolith of orthodoxy.

There is no playing in yakyu

“Once the regular season starts we will be back to 3-2 counts on every batter and a succession of sacrifice bunts and grim countenances all around.”

–Robert Whiting on Substack, March 22, 2023

That’s an exaggerated view of Japanese baseball, although one with a grain of truth to it. Japan’s game has never been static, despite the efforts of managers Tatsuro Hirooka and Masaaki Mori to turn the pro baseball entertainment business into an industrial quality control infomercial.

Nothing alive stays the same long, but cultures are obstinate things.

Whiting’s comments about this Samurai Japan team’s style being different were dead on. When the team practiced in Osaka on March 5, it was nothing like watching an NPB workout. Instead of players exerting themselves in unison under coaches’ supervision, individuals and pairs went about their business while coaches were around to lend a hand when needed.

Any hope Japan might suddenly embrace this vision of baseball instruction regardless how much players and fans might want to see it will run head-first into reality’s brick wall.

The coaching ecosystem

The coaches who set the tone on every team can, depending on their manager, have a lot of leeway in how spring training and pre-game practices are run. But they are also part of a larger ecosystem populated by media analysts eager to get back into uniform who will happily point out current coaches’ mistakes and divergence from orthodoxy.

There’s great irony in veteran players, who have learned over years of competition what they need to do to develop their individual physical and mental skillsets, becoming coaches whose job security depends on their acting like authoritarian task masters who bend individuals’ techniques into prescribed cookie-cutter patterns.

Sure, coaches are accountable to their organizations rather than to the media, but accountability in Japan implies a personal responsibility to not embarrass your group to outsiders.

It used to be that pitchers, catchers and battery coaches would catch flak for hits allowed on 0-2 pitches. As a result within a two feet of the strike zone became unheard of until the late 1990s when teams began paying attention to pitch counts.

Former Kintetsu, Nippon Ham and Rakuten manager Masataka Nashida, who was a catcher by trade once admitted to being powerless to stop those meaningless pitches by his own pitchers, “It doesn’t accomplish anything, but the system is what it is.”

There are a number of talented maverick coaches who care little about the noise from the media or team politics, and these guys become nomads. Batting guru Eiji Kanamori is one of those. He is rarely unemployed for long because of his track record of working with hitters, but his habit of candidly speaking the truth makes him expendable scapegoat No. 1 when an organization hits a speed bump and is required to look like it’s doing something about it.

Most coaches are organization guys who don’t want to change jobs every two years, and they all have to be on their toes to look like they are preaching orthodoxy even if they don’t believe in it.

Akira Otsuka spent years with the San Diego Padres as a Triple-A pitching coach, but was recalled from the States last year by the Chunichi Dragons to serve as their major league pitching coach. Recently I was told by a reliable source, Otsuka’s called coaching in Japan “the negative side of the profession.”

Changing times

The good news is that while a huge part of baseball, everywhere it seems, is recognition and respect for those who came before, it is not quite a closed loop.

Former Lions skipper Hatsuhiko Tsuji, who would be one of my choices to manage Samurai Japan in 2026, said a few weeks ago, “Times change and players are no longer willing to simply take orders the way we used to back in the day.”

Tsuji said Japan is moving slowly toward the U.S. model, where coaches are expected to gain the trust of the players, rather than the other way round, so they can provide feedback and advice as players seek to add to and refine their skillsets instead of deciding on their own what accepted style a player should seek to imitate.

Orix Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima never played overseas but has an atypical view of how to run a ball club shaped by his time as a roving minor league instructor with the Padres. His winning back-to-back Pacific League pennants allows others a rationale to emulate elements of his player-first approach.

The joy and individuality of manager Hideki Kuriyama’s Samurai team was untraditional, but it showed what might be possible in the right circumstances.

Most players would likely jump at the chance to do things differently, and the WBC championship means coaches wishing to adopt more humanistic approaches will now have extra cover from criticism to move in that direction.

There will be criticism still, but it will be quieter and more like heckling from the back row of the audience rather than a Greek chorus that coaches defy at their peril.

Change is coming to Japan. It’s just coming at its own pace.

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