Mets, Lions, and NPB tie-ups

On Saturday, the Seibu Lions and New York Mets announced a partnership running through the 2021 season, that the defending Pacific League champions see as a way to boost themselves into the 21st century.

What the Japanese get

Of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues, the Central and Pacific, the PL is considered the more innovative, the Lions have a reputation for being more hidebound.

“Their parent company’s main business is railroad. And the most important thing for a railroad is that it is predictable and reliable,” former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato said once. “For that reason, railroad-owned teams tend to be conservative, and the Lions are more often than not siding with the older established CL clubs.

These deals, which are pretty common, allow for sharing information and technology, that the Lions hope will improve their scouting, medical and business capabilities

The Lions said the deal will open the door for their coaches to take part in spring training and instructional league games in the States.

Some of these partnerships have had a huge impact. Twenty years ago, the tie-up between the San Diego Padres and the PL’s Lotte Marines sparked the introduction of the posting system, when the Marines assigned Hideki Irabu to the Padres in exchange for pitcher Shane Dennis and outfielder Jason Thompson.

Sixteen years ago, the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters were transformed as a result of their long term partnership with the New York Yankees. For years, Fighters players and coaches had attended minicamps in the States. And when Nippon Ham announced its team would move to Sapporo, they signed longtime Columbus Clippers manager Trey Hillman to run the club.

The organization was transformed under the leadership of Toshimasa Shimada, who created Japan’s first major league-style front office, but HIllman was a valued contributor in that process, and his finger prints are all over the way the team goes about its business 12 years after he left.

In a traditional Japanese team, the manager signs off on all changes in scouting, medical and fitness policy. This was revolutionary. Teams typically innovate by hiring managers who want to implement changes in those areas. When the SoftBank Hawks hired Kimiyasu Kudo, who studies sports science, much more was demanded of the team’s medical and training staff.

That’s the norm. In a baseball culture where players are told what to do, and managers rarely innovate, pro ballplayers need instruction in strength training and conditioning, but while all clubs have excellent facilities, few place any demands on the players to actually employ them in a productive manner. Japan’s amateur baseball culture generally glosses over nutrition, rest and strength education, and few pro teams do any better.

In 2015, when Kudo took over the Hawks, and the CL’s Yakult Swallows hired SoftBank’s minor league training coach, the two clubs met in the Japan Series and I began asking other clubs about their training innovation.

“I’ve been here five years, and we haven’t changed a single thing,” a Lions conditioning coach told me in 2016.

What the MLB teams get

What’s in it for the Mets is a bigger question.

There are a lot of skills Japanese baseball can teach individuals, and having good coaches in camp and in the instructional league could potentially be valuable.

Unfortunately, those skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but rather taught here and practiced in the context of Japanese competition. You can help someone locate their secondary pitches better and play better defense off the mound, but people here learn that because they are prerequisites.

The best outcome might be to have Kazuo Matsui go and coach in the Mets’ minor league system on loan, in the same way that former Ranger and Padre Akinori Otsuka is now on loan to San Diego from the CL’s Chunichi Dragons.

Very often the MLB partners talk about “scouting information” but that is likely going to be very limited to players who are bound for the States and foreign players in Japan who might return to the majors.

There is no chance the Mets could leverage this deal to improve their chances of signing Japanese amateurs, although I can definitely hear some bright person in the Mets front office selling this deal because of the importance of signing 100-mph high school pitcher Roki Sasaki.

If the Mets act like a major league club that knows everything, then they will be putting themselves in the same place as a player who comes to Japan “knowing” that because he’s played in the majors, he can just profit from what he’s already accomplished without learning anything new.

In that case, the Mets will also be leaving at the first opportunity.

But on the other hand, if the Mets approach this like they were players coming here to restart careers and ask “what can we learn that will make us better,” then the Lions deal could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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