Tag Archives: culture

Beauty and the bunt

I’m a fan of the bunt, and may well have spent a year of my life trying to understand Japan’s obsession with the sacrifice the attitude of the former players who tout it as the essence of Japan’s game.

Japan’s solid execution of bunts and fundamentals, the funky pitching mechanics, quality of secondary pitches, all make for a game that is entertaining in different ways from the game I grew up with.

Athletes differ physically and mentally, and the challenge is to use those skills a team possesses as well as possible, but now and then a particular style or approach will push others out and make the game BORING.

This is a problem now in MLB, where the brand has become dominated by a conviction that the ideal hitter is one who achieves both optimal launch angle and exit velocity on as many batted balls as possible and that the best offensive team is the one with the most hitters of that ilk.  

I dislike military references for baseball because the purpose is not to physically dominate, kill or intimidate, but when it comes to how organizations employ limited resources to achieve specific goals, they prove useful.

MLB’s trend toward trying to turn every hitter into an upper-cutting home run-hitting machine is like an army putting infantry weapons and tactics on the back burner in order to focus exclusively on main battle tanks, because research concludes that all things being equal, they are the most valuable battle field assets.

Baseball people know game situations are not all equal, and there are times where a home run is no more valuable than a walk. At the same time, being really good at reaching base and hitting for power goes a long way toward keeping your team’s options open while limiting those of your opponent.

But if every young hitter believes his absolute best chance of advancing in pro baseball is a single-minded pursuit of becoming a really good home run hitter, that represents an opportunity cost: The time devoted to pursuing launch angle and exit velocity cannot be spent honing other skills that might prove more valuable to that unique individual.

If one wants to characterize MLB as baseball’s best competition, with a deep developmental system refining talent harvested from around the globe, then it’s the “A side” – to use a term from my childhood – while NPB is the “flip side,” making do with less but sometimes delivering something as good and occasionally even superior.

The problem is not scientifically improved home run-hitting technique, but with a message becoming dogmatic to the point where many talented hitters believe that there is only one way for them to succeed.

It’s no surprise that Japan has long clung to a small-ball approach. Japan’s school entrance exams traditionally penalized those who do poorly in some critical subjects, emphasizing general ability rather than excellence in narrow areas of study.

Instead of an extreme reliance on heavy armor – to return to the military reference – Japanese offenses rely more on combined arms, a doctrine of employing a variety of tactics and weapons to defeat opponents.

The threat of a bunt can open the door for a “buster” when a batter pulls the bat back and tries to knock past infielders moving to defend the expected sacrifice. A “successful” sacrifice, by putting a critical potential run on second, can often induce a defense obsessed with preventing THAT run from scoring to pull the outfield in, to the point where a routine fly can go for extra bases.

When Japanese baseball ideologs say the sacrifice bunt “applies pressure,” this is what they’re talking about. The purpose of the bunt is to push defenses toward adopting vulnerable stances. The sacrifice applies pressure in the way a Napoleonic cavalry charge applied pressure against musket-armed enemy infantry in line.

Charging cavalry could break through a firing line, shatter it, run down and hack up disordered infantrymen from behind. A standard defense was to form infantry squares, dense formations with multiple ranks of bayonets pointing in every direction, giving the cavalry no thin line to break and no flank to turn. Squares, however, presented massed vulnerable targets for the artillery of that era, and could take a pounding.

The sacrifice in Japan sometimes pays off like a slot machine, because defenses overreact to them. It doesn’t always work, but when one manager reads the other’s response and his players execute, it is a thing of beauty.

And because Japanese baseball is influenced by trends in the major league games that are now a TV staple, Japan’s game pulled in opposite directions – between a need to sacrifice at the altar of its pure-baseball sect and a desire to incorporate the power of the major league’s game, Japan’s game is so much more entertaining.

But rather than deal with the bunt as one weapon in the arsenal, ideologs have promoted small-ball into a symbol of what Japanese baseball stands for. Executing one-run tactics has become a loyalty test, a kind of MAGA baseball cap, if you will.

There are people in Japan who really believe small baseball is purer and superior and that strength training creates bulkier, less flexible hitters who cannot make contact. It’s born out of a racist paradigm where the Japanese see themselves as being physically inferior but morally superior.

Japanese people saying American baseball is about “speed and power” sounds like a compliment, and to some degree it is, but it’s also the Japanese version of a white racist belief I heard back in the 1960s and ’70s that black stars were good because of natural athletic ability, while white stars were only good because of hard work.

As a result, we get lectures from analysts about how every good offense is really based on the ability to bunt. Hall of Fame manager Masaaki Mori has made a career out of this. He argued famously that the three key elements of an offense, were reaching base, sacrificing and hitting for power. Managers that bunt a lot get brownie points in the media, whether it makes sense or not.

And being Japan, criticism of accepted doctrine is professionally risky, and the consequences of not being able to discuss it in public – the way childhood pitching injuries are finally being discussed now – leads to generations of players who are discouraged from experimenting with unorthodox methods and preventing them from developing into the best hitters they are capable of being: Don’t try to hit for power, hit the ball on the ground, hit it to the left side of the infield, don’t mess with weight training.

This is the beauty of Waseda University manager Satoru Komiyama’s philosophy of empowering his players to explore and refine their own best baseball solutions. Baseball around the world teaches players that “respect for the game” is everything, but unfortunately, that so often comes across as “respect our authoritarian structure and dogma,” rather than the joy of playing and the game’s endless complexities and possibilities.

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.