Neo takes the red pill

On Sunday, struggling young Chunichi Dragons prospect Akira Neo entered a world of truth. There, the myth that players can only exist as either pitchers or hitters but not both, is washed away, and the harsh lies of the baseball world are laid bare.

One of two players who were named as the first-round selection of four teams in NPB’s 2018 draft, Neo has yet to prove he can do anything except throw hard. Drafted as a shortstop, the Dragons have yet to find a regular spot for a guy who in his first three Western League seasons, posted a .275 on base percentage and a .304 slugging average.

Former Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai has said that Neo has developed a reputation as stubborn and un-coachable. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ichiro Suzuki was considered to be like that by his first manager, Shozo Doi.

Unlike Neo, Suzuki, however, was being treated as a hard-headed youngster doomed to failure while he was posting a .431 OBP and a .540 slugging average over his first two pro seasons in the minors.

Anyway, Neo, used primarily in the outfield in the majors, was deactivated on April 21 to reacquaint himself with playing shortstop in the Western League.

On Sunday, we learned that farm team manager Atsushi Kataoka, after talking the matter over with Tatsunami and big club head coach-pitching coach Eiji Ochiai, was allowed to offer Neo a choice of two pills, a blue one and a red one.

The blue pill would keep Neo in the authorized dogmatic two-dimensional baseball world, sanctioned by Japan’s old-fart curmudgeon corps, where the only two-way player is a super hero, Shohei Ohtani.

The red pill, however, would reveal a world where players can be whatever they are capable of becoming, the world of childhood baseball where anything is possible before coaches stamp out that enthusiasm with doctrine meant to discourage the diversity that threatens quality control.

Neo started Sunday’s WL game against the Hanshin Tigers at shortstop and had two hits before being brought in to pitch in the ninth inning with the Dragons leading 10-4 at Koshien.

He got two outs but allowed a run on three hits while striking out one and touching 150 kph (93.2 mph) before finishing the game at shortstop.

J-Cast News documented Kataoka’s his reason for giving Neo the choice between the artificial reality created by those people that say specialization in baseball is a prerequisite for all success, and the world where players can be more.

“If, for example, he was hurting somewhere or if something about it bothered him, then I wouldn’t ask him to do it,” Kataoka said on his Youtube channel.

“But the players on the second team, on the farm, are there for their talent and their possibilities. To identify those, to make them significant is, I think, our job.”

Neo won back-to-back spring and summer titles at Koshien in high school and it is said there had been a plan to use him on the mound.

“Pitching on the mound at Koshien can be a trigger,” Neo said. “Seeing a batter trying to get his timing from a pitcher’s standpoint, brings back various different memories, and it’s a good thing to receive that opportunity.”

Farm team pitching coach Daisuke Yamai said he is sold on Neo’s talent, and said, “I think his stuff plays as a pitcher and we can use him.”

While I’ve posited that no Japanese team would dive back into the world of two-way players again until they became more prevalent in the majors, but if there is a team other than Nippon Ham that might try it, it is probably Chunichi.

The Dragons are not a radical organization in any sense of the word, but they have a history of doing what no other team would do. This has manifested itself in their signing players that were essentially being blacklisted by the other 11 teams.

The three cases of this that I’m most familiar with are those of repentant reliever Hiroaki Nakayama, giving him a second chance after he was kicked out of baseball for child molestation.

Less serious were the cases of Norihiro Nakamura and Daisuke Matsuzaka. When they were released after contract disagreements with their clubs, the Orix Buffaloes, and SoftBank Hawks, respectively, the Dragons were the only team even willing to offer them a tryout.

Nakamura went on to be the MVP of the 2007 Japan Series, while Matsuzaka won a comeback player of the year. Matsuzaka really had little left in his tank, but if weren’t for the Dragons, both guys would have been out of baseball while they still had value.

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