More than 20 years after he last played in Japan, current San Francisco Giants coach Hensley Meulens believes the country remains a great place to learn about baseball and improve oneself.
Meulens came to Japan with the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines in 1994 before spending two more seasons with the Central League’s Yakult Swallows, with whom he won the Japan Series in 2005. Although he played briefly in the majors after that, his real future was in coaching, where he’s been a fixture in San Francisco as their hitting coach from 2010 and since last year their bench coach.
Although Shohei Ohtani grabbed the most headlines as the big story coming out of Nippon Professional Baseball last year, Miles Mikolas quietly made an impact after three years with the CL’s Yomiuri Giants. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander’s 18 wins tied him for the National League lead, while he issued a league-low 1.31 walks per nine innings.
“The league here is fundamentally sound,” Meulens recently told Kyodo News. “The Japanese players make very few mistakes, especially on defense. You see very few errors being made during games, one because of (artificial) turf and two because of how many reps they get.”
“Being accurate with your pitches, there’s a way to work on that over here. We can see that with guys like Mikolas, who went back this year with the Cardinals after pitching three years here.”
Not surprisingly, one tool Meulens has employed as a coach is something he first saw in Japan — a location drill for pitchers.
“The catcher sits on a stool and holds the glove in one spot and the pitcher has to hit it 15 times in the same spot and then you move it,” Meulens said, adding that it’s easier to persuade people to undertake a drill like that since advanced metrics have shown the value of being able to hit specific spots.
“It’s more conducive now with the analytics, where you want to hit spots that the hitter doesn’t hit. Before it was just down and away and up and in — that’s how pitching was. Now it’s changing.”
Perhaps as an homage to Japan’s fondness for painful practice, one of Meulens’ techniques provides hitters with immediate feedback about success or failure.
“With hitting, I use a couple of tools, one with a really long and slim bat, just so you can hit the sweet spot every time, because if you don’t, you get stung. I learned that over here. I have a couple in my bag,” he said. “It really hurts if you don’t hit the sweet spot.”
Although Meulens was fortunate to have former New York Yankees teammate Mell Hall with him in his first year here, he still had to negotiate some big differences from his baseball experiences in the majors, particularly the strike zone.
By the time Meulens was playing, the strike zone in the majors had shifted away from the batter by the width of one ball, but Japan’s had not, meaning he had to adjust to inside pitches being called strikes in Japan that were balls in America.
“It’s do or die. That’s how I saw it,” Meulens said. “They never pitched me inside in America because you didn’t pitch inside to a power hitter (then). But here they did.”
“They called the pitch inside off the plate this far in and you’re bitching with the umpires. It took me a long time to master that when I was over here. It didn’t matter how they pitched you, you had to make a mental adjustment.”
But coming to Japan, he said, was nothing like moving from the island of Curacao to the United States at the age of 18 and then to the fishbowl existence of playing for the Yankees.
“For me, that (move to Japan) was a little easier. Even though it was totally different from America,” Meulens said. “I already had talked to the guys who played over here, I watched the movie (Mr. Baseball). I was 26. I went through a lot of shit in New York. You have to have thick skin to get through it.”
His parents, Meulens said, had instilled in him the necessary toughness and confidence to keep moving forward and make it as far as he did.
“You’re going to a big place, America. I walked into the locker room. There are like 200 guys trying to make the team. ‘How am I going to do this?'” he said.
“But if you don’t worry about it, talent takes over and I had a grinding mentality and I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was looking forward. There were a lot of guys looking to the side and they fell off the road.”
“My parents, that’s why I’m standing here. It was so easy to be negative and not persevere. You take a lot of hits. But you’ve got to find a way to keep going.”
Meulens said his physical adjustment to Japan twenty-five years ago was eased by Lotte’s enlightened policies. The coaches didn’t try to force foreign players into all the workouts to which their Japanese teammates were accustomed.
“We didn’t have to go through the rigorous training and then we did our lifting and we were done. Things like that. That gave us, as foreign players, the sense that we didn’t have to go all out every day like our teammates,” Meulens said. “That helped.”
At the same time that Meulens was making his Japan debut, Ichiro Suzuki imprinted himself on the national consciousness and became the first player in the country with 200 hits in a season.
“It was against us that he broke the 200-hit barrier. It was in Kobe. They stopped the game. It was a double to right. I was playing left,” Meulens said. “It was a 25-minute shower of gifts. He got a new car. He got a pile of envelopes, and we know what was in those.”
In Meulens’ lone Pacific League season, windy and cavernous Chiba Marine Stadium put a dent in his home run output. The following season, Suzuki came within three home runs of the PL home run title.
“He hit more home runs than me. I hit 23 and he hit 25. I was like, ‘This little shit,'” Meulens said with a laugh.
“He was on a different level, even against us who’d played in the big leagues. We weren’t even close.”
Five years later, Suzuki took the majors by storm as well, and as a Giants coach Meulens has witnessed other Japanese trying to merge their training styles from Japan with the major league’s more intense schedule.
“I had a couple of hitters, (Norichika) Aoki and (Kensuke) Tanaka, and they just kept swinging because they are used to that. I’m trying to back them off, but they are, ‘No, no.'”
Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin, who spent two seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, has suggested that major league clubs rethink the way they help Japanese players acclimate to big league spring training, perhaps creating different schedules and programs for them — such as the ones from which he and Meulens had benefitted in Japan.
Meulens, who is now Giants manager Bruce Bochy‘s top lieutenant, is frequently mentioned as a potential managing candidate in the big leagues. But he says no such move is in the cards.
“No. The major leagues are still the major leagues,” he said.