Tag Archives: Arizona Diamondbacks

Camping World: Feb. 15, 2020 Sasaki comes to town

On Saturday, two days after he threw his first bullpen session of spring training, 18-year-old Roki Sasaki was again the center of attention. This time, Sasaki, who touched 100 mph in his senior year of high school, drew a crowd of Chunichi Dragons before their game with his Lotte Marines according to the Nikkan Sports.

Sasaki’s first bullpen was a huge hit with a pair of former major leaguers, Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi and pitching coach Masato Yoshii. The former Met, who coached Shohei Ohtani in his last two seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, said he’d never seen anyone throw like that.

Indeed, Sasaki’s delivery is so effortless looking, that he is a fairly unique athlete. Sasaki said he was much happier with Saturday’s 48-pitch effort, saying, “I threw some pitches I was very happy with, although I was still wild.”

And the crowd?

“I noticed them, but they weren’t in my field of vision when I was throwing so no problem,” he said.

Disappointment from Bour

In what will probably be the first of many such stories this season, the Daily Sports reported on the results of new Hanshin Tigers Jerry Sands and Justin Bour, in their headline: “Sands gets 2 free passes, Bour grounds into bases-loaded double play.”

The game was the team’s first outside practice game, a 7-1 loss to the Hiroshima Carp.

New Buffalo Jones confesses to wanting to hit. 300

Sports Hochi reported Saturday that new Orix Buffaloes import Adam Jones, who has declined the Japanese custom of announcing numeric goals for the season, revealed to Orix executives that he wanted to hit .300. Stop the presses.

BayStars import Austin to start preseason opener

Journeyman first baseman and corner outfielder Tyler Austin will start in right field for the DeNA BayStars in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Yomiuri Giants in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, DeNA skipper Alex Ramirez said, according to Hochi Shimbun.

Tyler will bat second and play right, while two-time CL home run champion Neftali Soto, who split his time last season between second and right, will be at first base. Regular first baseman Jose Lopez, will be the DH. Ramirez said he would continue to use big hitters in the No. 2 hole this season.

Last year, he caught flak for “insulting Japan” by having the national team cleanup hitter, new Tampa Bay Ray Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second.

Villanueva vows to adjust with new club

Christian Villanueva was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in his intrasquad debut with the Nippon Ham Fighters, whom he joined after an unsuccessful NPB 2019 debut campaign with the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants.

He said he was grateful to the Fighters for accepting him and that he would adjust so that he could be able to be as effective as possible, the Hochi Shimbun reported.

Mota making strong appeal for Giants call-up

Israel Mota, a 24-year-outfielder who spent five years in the Washington Nationals farm system, continued to swing a hot bat in camp, the Hochi Shimbun reported Saturday. Mota, who joined Yomiuri on a developmental contract last year, singled and doubled in three practice game at-bats against KBO’s Samsung Lions.

In the same game, new Giant Gerardo Parra was greeted by Giants fans showing off their “Baby Shark” chops when he appeared as a pinch-hitter at Okinawa Cellular Stadium. He struck out.

The kotatsu league: Huff gets minor league deal with Diamondbacks

After two years with the Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League, 35-year-old lefty David Huff has signed a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks and was assigned to their Triple-A affiliate, the Reno Aces announced Tuesday.

Here is Huff’s NPB English player page.

Here’s my interview with David early into last season, when he discussed various aspects of the NPB experience and the things pitchers need to learn in Japan.

David Huff interview April 2019

Here’s the link to the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I do with John E. Gibson.

Huff had terrible luck with balls in play in 2018. When the Swallows’ defensive efficiency rating improved from .675 to .714 in 2019, when he mostly ditched his changeup and saw his fastball become more effective (13th best in NPB among the 91 pitchers with 60-plus innings pitched — according to analytics site Delta Graphs).

As a result, he became a useful part of the Swallows’ bullpen, saving three games and recording 26 saves, the sixth most in NPB.

Akiyama going to Reds

The Nikkan Sports has reported early Tuesday morning in Japan that outfielder Shogo Akiyama has reached an agreement on a three-year contract worth in excess of $15 million, citing a source.

The 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man is easily the most balanced all-around hitter in Japan see my profile of him HERE. He is expected to take a physical with the Reds in the coming days. In addition to the Reds, the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs were all reportedly interested in NPB’s single-season hit record holder.

Akiyama home run collection.

The Reds are the only major league club that has never had a Japanese player on its active roster.

A collection of Akiyama’s defensive highlights.

Free agent center fielder Akiyama could have deal this year: Report

Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Friday the Cincinnati Reds have put a multiyear offer on the table for free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, and are the top candidate to sign the 31-year-old, citing multiple major league sources.

The Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs have all been tied to the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the two-time defending champions of Japan’s Pacific League. Those teams met with Akiyama at December’s baseball winter meetings in San Diego.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kikuchi, a record-setting glove wizard, has roughly a week to sign before his rights revert to the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Yamaguchi, too, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

Reds making strong bid in pursuit of Lions center fielder Akiyama: Report

The Nikkan Sports reported Thursday that the Cincinnati Reds are shaping up as the top candidates to sign free agent Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama.

The Reds are the only major league team never to have a Japanese player on its active roster. The 31-year-old Akiyama has more power than former major leaguer Norichika Aoki, but the two are otherwise comparable.

Akiyama, who holds NPB’s single-season hit record, is represented by agent Casey Close.

Akiyama’s side met with four teams at the 2019 winter meetings in San Diego, including the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Yamaguchi, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

Akiyama plays it cool in Hawaii

Free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, in Hawaii with his teammates on the Seibu Lions’ Pacific League championship trip, said there was no point worrying about the market for his services in the major leagues, the Nikkan Sports reported.

According to the story, Akiyama met with four teams last week in San Diego at the baseball winter meetings: the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, and Tampa Bay Rays. On Monday, the Rays made their contract with Akiyama’s Japan international teammate Yoshitomo Tsutsugo official. Akiyama suggested Tsutsugo’s signing had nothing to do with his own opportunities.

“What good would it do to get worked up about things. He (Tsutsugo) and I offer different things.”

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The kotatsu league: Balentien moves to PL powerhouse Hawks

Dutch international slugger Wladimir Balentien has joined the SoftBank Hawks, the Pacific League club announced Monday. The 35-year-old Balentien will not count against the team’s four-man foreign-registered player limit because of his nine years in NPB.

The 35-year-old Balentien, who hit 60 home runs in 2013 and became only the second player to win a Central League MVP without his team winning the pennant. He broke Japan’s single-season record of 55 first set in 1964 by Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh and subsequently tied by Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002.

According to Kyodo News, Balentien’s deal is for two years and will pay him 500 million yen (roughly $4.5 million) next season.

The Hawks are three-time defending Japan Series champs. No PL team has ever won four straight. Balentien will wear No. 4, which until now had belonged to his former Yakult Swallows teammate Keizo Kawashima.

Value

The table below gives Balentien’s career wOBA and win shares in Japan with his WAR and wOBA rankings since 2014 — the first year Delta Graphs tracks them for. The WAR rankings are for hitters, the win share ranks are for all NPB players.

YearwOBA – NPB rankWin Shares – NPB rankWAR – NPB rank
2011.33517.1 – 29th
2012.40722.1 – 11th
2013.50432.9 – 1st
2014.435 – 1st15.3 – 41st3.1 – 22nd
2015.2941.5 – 323rd-0.3
2016.388 – 8th18.9 – 26th2.3 – 34th
2017.380 – 11th8.8 – 106th2.0 – 39th
2018.391 – 19th19.3 – 26th0.7 – 54th
2019.400 – 8th16.4 – 33rd1.9 – 43rd

The Hawks also announced they have reached an agreement with pitcher Rick van den Hurk on a one-year contract for 2020. Van den Hurk is entering his sixth NPB season. He pitched just three times during the regular season and started Game 3 in the Hawks’ four-game Japan Series sweep over the Yomiuri Giants.

Swallows poised to sign pitcher Koch

The Yakult Swallows have reached an agreement on a one-year contract with 29-year-old right-hander Matt Koch, Kyodo News reported Monday.

Koch is 8-8 in his major league career with 4.88 ERA over 125-1/3 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has a 6.44 ERA over four Triple-A seasons with the Pacific Coast League’s Reno Aces, about 0.8 runs higher than the team’s ERA during that span.

In 246 innings at Triple A, he’s struck out 5.9 batters per nine innings, while walking 2.3. With Yakult, he’ll be teamed up with another former Diamondback, pitching coach Takashi Saito.

Former all-star Saito back in the game

Saito Arizona
Takashi Saito in Peoria, Arizona, in March.

Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.

The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.

In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.

“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”

“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”

“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”

Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.

He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.

On setting standards to protect youth players’ health

With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.

“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”

“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”

“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”

Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.

“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”

“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”

Leveling the playing field, literally

On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”

Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.

“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”

“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”

On the meaning of Koshien

Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.

“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”

“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”

On the manners of Japanese baseball culture

“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”

On an Asian winter meetings

“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.

“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”

“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”

Giants, de la Rosa agree to terms

The Yomiuri Giants announced Saturday that they have agreed to contract terms with 30-year-old right-hander Rubby de la Rosa.

De la Rosa last played in the majors in 2017 and has a career big league record of 26-30 with a 4.49 ERA. This year with the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Pacific Coast League farm club, de la Rosa has throw 21-2/3 innings over 18 games. He has struck out 29 batters, while walking seven.

The Giants’ bullpen appeared settled this season with the return of right-hander Scott Mathieson from knee surgery and the addition of Ryan Cook, who started the season as the Central League club’s closer. But Mathieson’s season has been stalled by illness, while Cook has only recently returned after feeling discomfort in his surgically repaired right elbow.

The closer’s role has fallen to 25-year-old lefty Kota Nakagawa, who was thrown into his first save situation on April 17, and has a 1.25 WHIP this season in 16 save opportunities with a 2-1 record, four holds and nine saves.

International walls of Jericho

Since two-thirds of the 30 major league teams are now trailing high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who has repeatedly hit 100 mph, one has to wonder if he will be Japan’s first top high school prospect to move directly to the major leagues.

While that has never been an easy thing to try, it’s harder now because of Major League Baseball’s new rules. The same collective bargaining agreement with its players’ association that dictated foreign amateurs be denied fair market value for their services has an additional barrier to Japanese amateurs.

The registration barrier

Before an international amateur can sign with a big league club between July 2, 2019, to June 15, 2020, he needs to register with MLB by May 15. Which is a problem for Japanese high school students, because it comes right after the start of the school year on April 1.

According to the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a high school player registering for the MLB international signing period would be prohibited from playing for his team. And since Sasaki aspires to take part in the national summer championship, whose finals are at historic Koshien Stadium, some consider that a deal breaker.

Another issue is the Tazawa Rule. Named after reliever Junichi Tazawa, the rule virtually bans amateur stars who sign directly with MLB teams from ever playing professionally in Japan or playing for the Japanese national team. The rule was a last-ditch attempt to bully Tazawa into not signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2008 but has done nothing except generate ill will.

Last summer the registration issue caused a minor tempest within JABA because corporate league club Panasonic failed to notify JABA that pitcher Shumpei Yoshikawa had registered and had continued to play for his club.

Japanese officials didn’t become aware of this until Yoshikawa signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks immediately before he was scheduled to pitch for Japan in the Asian Games.

The posting-free agent barrier

If Sasaki declines to register as expected, he will have the option of taking part in Nippon Professional Baseball’s October amateur draft, with an eye to being posted at the age of 25. The problem with that is finding a team willing to do that.

Two clubs, the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, have asserted their opposition to the posting system, and have never allowed a player to walk. Without being posted, he will have to accumulate nine years of service time before qualifying for international free agency.

The non-conformity barrier

In the past, teams have allowed players to leave via the posting system. Also, some players have announced they would not sign with certain clubs before the NPB draft. But as far as I’m aware, no player has made an early posting a condition of his signing. To do that, he might need the help of a good agent — something else NPB teams have never faced in dealing with drafted amateurs.

Of course, Sasaki could still go through the draft, and failing to get an offer he likes could register in May 2020 and sign with an MLB club a few months later.

Having registered with MLB, whatever NPB team holds his rights would be under more pressure to really negotiate instead of bluster or posture since NPB does not award compensation draft picks for players who refuse to sign.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Roki Sasaki dilemma.

Part 2, “Becoming a Modern Day Joshua” is HERE.