Shallow thinking

Japanese baseball doctrine demands managers play the outfield shallow with two outs and a critical potential run on second base – in order to give the outfielders a chance to throw out the runner on any ball that gets through the infield.

Japanese pitchers are taught to pitch low in the zone and hitters are trained to hit the ball on the ground, but they don’t always.

On Tuesday, however, two PL teams playing their outfields shallow, with two outs and a runner on second, failed to catch a flyball third out in the top of the ninth. At Sapporo Dome it turned to a 3-2 Hanshin Tigers win. At Kyocera Dome, the Giants got an RBI triple out of a line drive hit to straightaway center.

Had the center fielder been playing at normal depth and charged in, it would not have been as hard a catch, but he’s a novice at the position and misjudged the ball hit right to him and instead of the final out of a 3-2 Buffaloes win, the Giants escaped with a 3-3 tie.

The sacrifice bunt looks looks like a terrible ploy. Japanese baseball ideologs love to talk about using it to “apply pressure,” but that is what happens when the defense responds by bringing the outfield. It’s almost as if Harry Potter casts a spell over the defense and forces them to do something stupid against their will.

Last month on Shane Barclay’s marvelous Chatter Up discussion for his website, I asked former Swallows outfielders Aaron Guiel and Lastings Milledge how they dealt with that tactic, which neither cared for.

“They used to do that all the time. It was automatic. I could see the pitcher on the mound going crazy. I can’t count how many times they would bring us in, and it was against everything I believed in and everything I wanted to do, and they would hit a routine fly ball and we couldn’t get to it,” Guiel said.

“It was one of those things you had to accept that’s how they want it done. For a while you buck against it because it’s stupid. It would work out once in a while. That was one thing I could never wrap my head around, I never liked it, I never accepted it. But you know, we’re part of the team, so we’ve got to move in or we’d get in trouble so we did it.”

Milledge took a very Japanese approach to it, see “Text and subtext“, by showing he was doing it the team way, and then modifying it so that it worked for him.  

“I found a way to beat the system. It’s against all the rules all the guys moving in so shallow,” he said.

“I was a good 25 feet deeper than where they wanted me to be, because I would show them early, then I would take a couple of steps (back), couple of steps, couple of steps. It wasn’t to buck the system, it was because I was uncomfortable on any kind of routine fly ball hit to me and I would look like an idiot. I wanted to take that way and some comfort, so I’d show them, then I’d back up, and I already charged the ball well.”

“So once the pitcher making his way to the mound, I take a good five steps back, that’s about 10 feet. Then as he comes set, I take another three, four back. I’m still shallow, but I’m in a comfort zone where I know I could charge the ball and no one’s going to advance. I found out how to tweak the system a little bit.”

“That was weird.”

The cost of dogma

The advantage of having doctrine is that it allows people to more easily be on the same page, to understand who is accountable for what. The downside is that when doctrine becomes dogma in Japan, criticism is not tolerated.

Watching speedy Haruki Nishikawa, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ speedy left fielder hopelessly chase Fumihito Haraguchi’s fly, the analysts on Pro Yakyu News, commented that he was playing shallow and thus had no chance. That was it. No discussion about whether that was the right thing to do, because, that IS the way the game is supposed to be played.

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