Tag Archives: culture

It’s not all about money

After meeting with health experts and his counterpart from pro soccer’s J-League, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito then met baseball team executives. And though Saito did not announce a date for Opening Day — in keeping with Japan’s current pandemic view of “It will be over when it’s over” — he did say that could come as early as next Monday.

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve studied the differences between MLB and NPB and spent an inordinate amount of that time researching the cost and benefits of sacrifice bunts. But at no time has the difference between the two institutions been more clear than in the way they’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me proud to know that my favorite team for all its flaws and all of NPB’s, plays here and is not associated with MLB.

Although NPB greeted the news of a pandemic with one new official Opening Day after another and MLB owners sounded like the adults in the room, saying “Let’s see how this plays out.” The roles quickly reversed. Since the end of March, when Japan’s Prime Minister realized that ignoring the virus while praying at the Olympic alter would not keep the games in Tokyo this summer, Japan has dealt with the issue in a fairly straight-forward manner.

In my homeland, it’s been different.

MLB owners: “By staying safe at home, you people are costing me money. Let’s talk about furloughs and pay cuts because I have a right to protect the return on MY investment.”

NPB owners: “We’ll beat this thing together. Stay safe. Stay ready.”

Frankly, I consider the words of NPB commissioners to be next to useless, but that was because of Saito’s predecessor, Katsuhiko Kumazaki. A former prosecutor, Kumazaki seemed to understand little about the game and really couldn’t give a straight answer to any question. But I’m becoming a fan of Saito, who seems to understand when to be precise and when to show his humanity.

I’ve written before about how Japanese businesses are constrained to some extent by the social demand that they show some concern for their employees. And though Japanese companies will happily tread over talented individualists while promoting incompetent flatterers, they still spend on “company vacations” for the entire staff. It’s more about appearance than real caring but that’s what is expected of them.

In baseball, teams run brutal practices and used to tolerate physical abuse by coaches, but pennant winners always get vacations in December — these days a paid trip to Hawaii for virtually everyone in the organization and their families. It’s expected. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

And while MLB owners are clearly using the pandemic to tighten the screws on labor and on the bargaining rights of amateurs, NPB owners have been behaving as expected, calmly, as if the players and their families actually mattered.

In the final question of Monday’s press conference, a reporter asked Saito if the owners had considered pay cuts to the players.

“At this time, that is something that we are not thinking about,” he said with a slight chuckle that certainly sounded like he was envisioning an MLB owner being grilled for the answer to that question.

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.

Tigers prepare two-way doubletalk

After watching video of Tigers first-draft pick Junya Nishi batting and pitching, one has to be curious what Hanshin’s plans are for him. Since last year, people were talking about the 18-year-old as a possible two-way player.

My scouting report on Nishi is HERE.

Yano opens the door and then closes it

In November, the Nikkan Sports reported Tigers manager Akihiro Yano brought the matter up when he first visited the youngster. Yano reportedly said, “You can’t have a two-way player like Ohtani in the Central League (where pitchers bat). Do your best as a pitcher, then we’ll see about further uses.”

What that means, of course, is the chance of Hanshin coming up with an innovative plan for a power hitter who can pitch is basically zero.

If your plan is that a) “there can’t be a two-way player like Ohtani in the CL” because the league has no DH, and b) “we’ll see after he masters pitching,” you are basically relegating his batting talent to the dustbin.

That is the way an MLB team would have handled Ohtani the amateur before he became Ohtani the two-way pro star: master pitching first. But when he became a star, all those scouts who said “No major league team will risk that arm by letting him hit” were forced to accept that was not true.

Three National League clubs, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers all had plans in place to give Ohtani 350-plus at-bats while pitching in the rotation. Perhaps they didn’t know what Yano KNOWS, that you can’t have a two-way player without a DH.

The differences between Nishi and Ohtani

To be fair, Ohtani differs from Nishi, a fellow right-handed pitcher, in three distinct ways:

  • Ohtani bats left-handed
  • Ohtani is bigger and threw harder when he was Nishi’s age.
  • Ohtani’s delivery was smoother
  • Ohtani had less command of his secondary pitches

In 2017, Ohtani said he was a better hitter because he pitched and vice versa, Asked if he could provide a rationale for that, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler answered a year ago that Ohtani’s left-handed swing is a perfect counterbalance to the torque exerted on his trunk as a right-handed pitcher.

When Ohtani threw his first pro bullpen with the Fighters, one club executive thought his future was in the batter’s box since his breaking pitches were awful. But guys who throw 100 mph are rare. Nishi isn’t that guy.

Nishi may have more command — except with his curve — but his arm deceleration still looks much more violent. His pitching motion makes it look as if he is exerting himself all out on every pitch. Because of that, it may well be that his upside as a hitter is even better.

In the end, the Tigers will choose the way they think maximizes his skills. But by not checking the “develop batting” box from the start, that decision has likely already been made.

The player development view

“You need to keep working on skills or you lose them. They degrade and you just can’t call them back later. It doesn’t work like that,” said Bobby L. Scales, II, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league field coordinator and former director of player development for the Angels.

Scales, who played in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes, knows from experience that right-handed batters who learn to switch hit often fail to practice their natural swings enough and lose much of their ability to hit left-handed pitchers.

“Why would anyone not have him keep working on his batting?” Scales asked by telephone on Wednesday. “He’s been a batter and a pitcher all his life. Why stop now?”

“I know Japanese teams tend to be risk-averse but if you don’t know what you’re missing. You will never know what might have been.”

Risk aversion

Scales also talked about how sports, like art and language, display a society’s culture. Japanese baseball people often say their game is less about winning than it is about not losing.

When one thinks about it, this makes Japan’s preoccupation with hitting and defense and small ball. No player on the field can contribute as much to a losing cause as the pitcher. A fielder can miss a few plays and the pitcher can get over it. The team’s best hitter can strike out four times with the bases loaded and the team can still win. But if the pitcher throws fat pitches with the bases loaded, your team is in deep trouble.

If that’s true, anyone with the potential to be a quality pitcher is going to be a position player. Nishi’s fastball sits at 90 miles per hour and he has a good slider, change and splitter. If your focus is on having guys who won’t cost you games, those are more valuable skills than the power needed to drive the ball over the fence.

1 of Japan’s unwritten rules

Yudai Ono led Japan’s Central League in earned run average this season, passing Hiroshima’s Kris Johnson on Monday in his final start, when he was pulled after not allowing a base runner over 3-1/3 scoreless innings.

The issue

The game was a meaningless one for the Dragons, but not for their opponents, the Hanshin Tigers, who needed to win in order to advance to the playoffs at the expense of the Hiroshima Carp.

By pulling an effective starter, the Dragons reduced their ability to compete and make the Tigers earn the win, but guaranteed Ono would lead the league in ERA. The Tigers went on to win 3-0, scoring seconds after Ono left the mound.

Both the Dragons and Carp had something to gain from a situation if Ono did not allow an earned run over 3-1/3 innings and the Tigers won the game. That doesn’t mean there was an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to defraud the Carp, but such things happen in sports when teams pursue their selfish interests.

Kris Johnson weighed in on Twitter, expressing shock that gambling was going on in a casino. But it’s very typical behavior in Japanese society, where social rules give precedence to the workgroup over the law.

Japan rules

Team sports often demand an individual sacrifice individual gain for the greater good of the team. That means you don’t swing for the fences in an effort to win the home run title on a 3-2 pitch out of the strike zone if taking that pitch will force in a run and win your team a game.

I’ve written this before but in Japan, teams are also expected to generate rewards for team members in helping them pursue individual accomplishments. This is why pitcher Satoru Kanemura had a meltdown in 2006 when Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman pulled him in the fifth inning of what would be his last start of the season, leaving him just one win shy of reaching double digits in wins.

Kanemura believed the team owed him a chance to win 10 games, and Hillman was violating that contract. He believed that because teams bend over backward to do stupid things in order to block opponents from beating their players to individual titles.

The Seibu Lions once threw intentional wild pitches with Lotte’s Makoto Kosaka on first base so he wouldn’t steal second and beat Kazuo Matsui for the Pacific League stolen base crown. Intentional walks are common. The Yomiuri Giants in 1985 and later the Daiei Hawks in 2001 and 2002 famously refused to challenge opposing hitters who were in danger of threatening the single-season home run record of their manager, managerSadaharu Oh.

Oh himself has called that sort of behavior distasteful because he was a fierce competitor and is a gentleman. But the culture here expects it.

Had Ono needed a win to lead the league in wins, there is no chance he would have come out early.

Players expect this behavior, fans expect this behavior. That’s the way it is. I don’t like it, but the regular season is 143 games long. I suppose if a few games here and there are marginally tainted because stupid stuff happens, I can live with it.

It’s not like six or seven teams here are tanking because spending less is more profitable.

The bunt, bushido and Japanese baseball’s issues with history

Japan’s home run explosion is making the obligatory sacrifice more and more of a stretch for NPB managers.

I love seeing a perfect bunt as much as the next fan, but hate the obligatory, let’s-take-a-bullet-for-the-sake-of-Japanese-winning-baseball-first-inning sacrifice as much as any of you, I’m sure.

Although the sacrifice bunt is celebrated as the epitome of Japanese baseball dogma, it’s popular now like it never was back in the day. Small ball has always been close to the heart of Japanese ball, but the bunt REALLY became popular in the late 1970s when former players of legendary Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami began taking over one NPB club after another.

The irony is that the bunt reached its most popular peak in the 1980s, when offense and home runs were at an all-time high and spearheaded by then Seibu Lions manager Tatsuro Hirooka. That’s when “the bunt IS Japanese baseball” was REALLY born. It’s not some age-old doctrine but a revisionist history — an explanation after the fact about how a policy that didn’t exist at the time of a perceived “golden age” was the secret to that era’s quality.

In that respect, Hirooka’s popularization of the bunt is reminiscent of Japan’s belief that bushido was a code warriors of a purer era lived by, when in fact it was a code meant as a wakeup call to men of samurai lineage who were warriors in name and social status only. It was a code that didn’t describe reality but was rather a set of moral ideals for warriors in a society without wars to aspire to.

Japan’s funny about the past. If one glorifies one’s famous predecessors, that goes over really well, whether it’s true or not. In fact, it’s something of a cottage industry that is hard to assail. If I tell you the Giants who won nine-straight Japan Series did so because of the sacrifice bunt, and you say it’s not true, your words can be perceived as criticism of a legend of the game.

The most famous example recent example of this was former BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo. The man, who asked his players to call him “Gondo-san” (Mr. Gondo) rather than Manager Gondo, was an iconoclast. He attacked a lot of Japanese pro baseball traditions as being moronic and a waste of time and was tossed out on his ear — despite a very successful run as skipper.

Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.

Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.

Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.

Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.

In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).

Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.

Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.

Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.

Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.

In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).

Visitors, 1st inning, Runner on 1B
2016: 187 chances, 54 attempts (29%) with a .537 win pct
2017: 57 chances, 14 attempts (25%) with a .357 win pct.

Home teams, 1st inning, Runner on 1B, scoreless game
2016: 194 chances, 77 attempts (40%) with a .622 win pct
2017: 58 chances, 11 attempts (19%) with a .364 win pct.