For those of you unfamiliar with spring training in Japan, here are a few things to look out for as you dive into the news coming out of the 12 teams’ camps. It’s not Mr. Baseball, although a surprising number of NPB veterans have said that movie helped them prepare mentally for things being different.
The time between Feb. 1 and Opening Day is divided into two segments. The first is called camp, the second a time for preseason exhibitions “opensen”(オーペン戦) . Camp runs for most of February, and when it ends teams move out of their spring training facilities and go from town to town playing exhibition games.
A few exhibition games typically take place before the end of spring training, although these are most commonly practice games, where the rules are flexible to suit the needs of the teams.
Despite Japan’s reputation for working to extreme, Japanese teams will train for four or five days and then take a day off. They’ll repeat that cycle until the end of camp. But don’t worry, the work gets done.
When reporters show up at the spring training facility in the morning, they’ll receive a sheet of paper explaining which player is in which training group and the different tasks they’ll be performing until early in the afternoon. What that doesn’t tell you is that players will be hitting off machines until evening or swinging or working out until after dark.
On Jan. 31, players and staff go to a local shrine to pray for success in the upcoming season. Workouts begin on Feb. 1, or at least that’s the way it used to be. Now, large numbers of players have begun showing up for group voluntary training in the days leading up to camp. Recent photos from the Yomiuri Giants camp in Miyazaki Prefecture, showed ace Tomoyuki Sugano throwing a bullpen on “Day 2 of group voluntary training.”
Help for foreign newbies
Almost every foreign player arriving for their first spring training in Japan has been told to bring running shoes. This is sound advice. Here is some more that I’ve heard from players with NPB experience:
- Be ready to see pitchers throwing at full velocity from Day 1 and don’t try it yourself. You’ll be ready when you are ready. That won’t stop everyone else from treating the first day of camp like Opening Day. And that includes umpires. Former Hanshin Tigers reliever Jeff Williams recalled that his catcher and an umpire once got into a heated argument over balls and strikes in the bullpen on the first day of camp.
- Remember, you know what your body needs to get ready for the season, so don’t overdo it. You may want to keep up with your teammates, but respect your own limits. Overdo it and you will impress your teammates and coaches, but that will quickly be forgotten if you don’t get results during the season. Everyday, coaches will ask you if you want to throw. What they mean is, “Is this a day you want to throw?” They are trying to understand your needs, not get you to be like your teammates.
- If you are a first-year player with the Hanshin Tigers, however, please try to show the coaches you actually know how to hit in batting practice on Day 1. It may mean nothing to you, but coaches are grilled about new players’ BPs by the media. This is normally not an issue, but the Tigers media is overbearing and can cause even the coolest coach or manager to begin second-guessing himself about his confidence in you. At the end of his record-setting 2010 season, Matt Murton said he wished someone had told him to square up a few balls on the first day so the coaches could relax.
- Listen to the coaches. They might not have played in the majors although some have, but they care about the game and can often help you adjust to Japanese ball. Pitchers learn to throw certain pitches better (Scott Mathieson‘s slider) , develop a new pitch (Dennis Sarfate‘s split) or go back to pitches they’d been dissuaded from using in America (Jeremy Powell‘s curveball).
- Be ready to have a good slide step. Base stealing may not be a thing anymore in the States, but you will be judged on how quickly you get to the plate with runners on–and get used to a coach who walked 1,000 hitters in his career to tell you that Japanese pitchers don’t walk batters.
- For batters, it’s the same story. The coaches seem less inclined to fine tune hitters mechanics than they do pitchers, but they can often tell you what to expect and how catchers will try to attack you. In the end, however, it’s about sticking with those things that work for you and finding ways to apply your strengths in an environment where fastballs are harder to predict and a lot of pitchers have really good location with all their pitches.
- Take advantage of the massages. While the quality of the strength, fitness and conditioning programs vary from team to team, Japanese clubs are really good at massage therapy.
If anyone has anything to add or phrase better, or you just want to tell me what a load of crummy advice I’m pedaling, please leave a comment or hit me up on twitter.