Tag Archives: DeNA BayStars

Knives are out for Ramirez

None of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 managers draw more flak from the media than Alex Ramirez. Some of that criticism is just because he is different, but when stories begin to emerge blaming a skipper for a team’s losses and asserting he doesn’t know what he is doing, you can be damn sure there is a reason for it that has nothing to with the guy’s managing chops.

Last year, Ramirez was ripped for batting Yoshitomo Tsutsugo second, with some former players saying it was proof the Americanization of Japanese baseball had gone too far.

Prior to that, the skipper was attacked for batting his pitchers eighth, something I’ve pointed out makes tons of sense. While I’m not a fan of his love of the intentional walk, he’s the one in charge and it’s kind of a small thing.

Ramirez entered the season with 280 wins in four seasons, the third-highest win total in franchise history. He hasn’t yet won a pennant, but only two others have with this club and he is only the third to take the team to the Japan Series.

The attacks resumed Sunday when Ramirez admitted he wasn’t confident one of his pitchers would know the sign for the run-and-hit, so Ramirez let it go without calling for a sacrifice bunt. And as we know, managers are blamed for their teams not scoring when they fail to order a sacrifice since sacrifice bunts result in a 100 percent chance of scoring a run – just kidding.

“I had the fast Tomo Otosaka on first and (pitcher Kentaro) Taira hits right-handers well,” Ramirez said of the second-inning opportunity with one out and a runner on first and a 1-0 lead against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday.

“I thought about giving the run and hit sign, but I wasn’t sure Taira knew it so I decided against it.”

The BayStars blew an early 1-0 run lead and a 3-2 lead in the ninth, when the Yomiuri Giants tied it against closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, who took the loss when his replacement surrendered a two-run home run.

Masamune Umemiya, writing for the Asahi Shimbun’s Aera.dot, ripped into Ramirez saying it “defies belief a professional would not know the signs.”

Umemiya attacked Ramirez for using an opener and pulling the starter on a bullpen day last (July 16 in Nagoya) after allowing a run in the first inning, and for pulling starting catcher Hikaru Ito after ace Shota Imanaga allowed three runs in the second inning. Ito was deactivated the following day. Other managers do this stuff all the time, but the number of times they are criticized in the media for it is about zero unless there is a larger agenda at work.

Managers wrestle with options whose real percentages are unknowable – except it seems to a few omniscient critics. Few managers have been worse at in-game tactics than Hall of Famer Tatsunori Hara during his first five or six years or his mentor Shigeo Nagashima.

What really matters is that the players respect the manager’s decisions and believe he gives them a reasonable chance to win, and that the manager organizes the team in a way that facilitates growth and success–the real building blocks of championships.

The final component of these attacks in Japan is the “This team is too good to lose” argument.

This was famously made by Tatsuro Hirooka and his surrogates in 1995 to argue that Bobby Valentine had cost the Lotte Marines a pennant that any average manager would have won. I don’t remember the exact number, it might have been 20 games Valentine was supposed to have been worse than average by Hirooka’s calculation. It might have been 10. But even 10 is an unimaginably large number.

In Valentine’s first season, the Marines had their best finish in 10 years and their best winning percentage in 11. But Hirooka, who hired him, didn’t like his style and attacked him at every turn. The Marines finished 12 games back of Ichiro Suzuki and the Orix BlueWave, but as far as Hirooka was concerned, Valentine had ruined a championship-caliber team that no one knew existed until they hired him.

Umemiya wheeled out this argument against Ramirez, by quoting a baseball writer who said many former players considered the BayStars to have the most balanced team in the Central League and the best starting pitching. Therefore, this argument goes, any fault must be the manager’s.

It’s fair to discuss Ramirez’s choices, and to his credit, he doesn’t dodge questions. But when Tsuyoshi Yoda ran out of position players and had to use a relief pitcher to pinch-hit with two outs in the 10th, the bases loaded and his team trailing by a run recently, there weren’t any stories about how he was ruining the Chunichi Dragons.

But since Sunday, there have been a half-dozen stories by reporters questioning Ramirez’s fitness that were supported by the expert opinions of former players.

When one sees that one begins to ask, “Why now?”

In 2011, when batting conditions wrecked offensive numbers all over Japan and the Hanshin Tigers played poorly, a reporter friend said that Hanshin’t press corps was keen to attack the team’s older Japanese veterans for their failure to hit for average, but coaches directed the writers’ wrath to the failures of the imported players, Craig Brazell and Matt Murton. That guidance by the Tigers coaching staff led to some really weird stuff.

Japanese baseball is weird some times. The DeNA franchise fired its most successful manager ever, Hiroshi Gondo, because his outspoken criticisms of traditional pro baseball customs irritated the older former players in the media who couldn’t forgive his insolence and attacked him the way Ramirez is now being attacked. Like Ramirez, Gondo was no fan of the mindless, automatic sacrifice bunts Japan championed. Despite his success with a team that had been a traditional doormat, nothing Gondo did was good enough.

In his first season, Ramirez became the first BayStars manger to finish third in 10 years. When he finished third the next year, there were calls that his contract should not be extended. One suspects that the reason for those stories and these new ones is that the old guys whose opinions fill the airwaves and the sports papers have a specific candidate they would like to have instead of Ramirez.

That became crystal clear on Tuesday when a story was published about a minor league game in which DeNA’s farm team had executed four sacrifices in a 6-4 Western League win over the Yomiuri Giants

As soon as stories like that appear, about how a popular former player is succeeding Japanese-style in THE MINORS, at a time when the first-team manager is under fire for not bunting in the second inning, then you know there is an agenda propelling those stories.

ramping up: 21 days to go

One aspect of the long layoff forced by the novel coronavirus is that players who were due to miss the original March 20 start of the season, are now regaining fitness and may be able to make the roster when the season finally starts on June 19.

350 days

That’s how long it will be between starts for Naoyuki Uwasawa when he takes the mound for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Tuesday’s practice game.

Last season, Uwasawa was a key component of the Rube Goldberg contraption that was the Fighters’ pitching rotation last season. Manager Hideki Kuriyama used him and Kohei Arihara as the pillars in conventional starting roles, with a handful of others tasked with going either once or twice through the opposing lineup depending on the skipper’s confidence in them.

In a June 18 interleague game, Uwasawa was kneecapped by a batted ball hit by Neftali Soto, the DeNA BayStars’ two-time Central League home run champ. Prior to that game, the Fighters starting pitchers were 26-18 with a 3.65 ERA. Afterward, even with some superb 1-inning opening acts by Mizuki Hori, they went 18-31 with a 4.32 ERA.

On Thursday, he faced five batters in a simulated game at the Fighters’ minor league facility in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, and is expected to pitch two innings on Tuesday at the Lotte Marines’ Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba.

Yanagita back with a bang

Yuki Yanagita, who until the recent ascension of Hiroshima Carp right fielder Seiya Suzuki, was considered the Japanese outfielder most coveted by MLB clubs, returned to the SoftBank Hawks’ first team for an intrasquad game on Saturday. Yanagita has been rehabbing since his 2019 dumpster fire of a season was capped with right elbow surgery in the offseason.

Yanagita missed most of the season with a knee injury and failed by the slimmest of margins to get the 140 days of service time needed to be a free agent this winter. Had the Hawks brought him up a few days earlier, he would have been on track to fulfil his stated goal of playing in the majors. They didn’t and he signed a long-ass contract that keeps him in Fukuoka for essentially the rest of his career.

On Saturday, according to the Sankei Sports, he hit an opposite-field homer from submarine right-hander Rei Takahashi, the Pacific League’s 2019 rookie of the year and another player who was due to miss the start of the season in March but now has a shot at helping out the rotation from the start.

Stewart takes drive off shin

The Hawks’ Carter Stewart Jr left the mound after pitching just one inning when he took a shot off his right shin that was turned into the final out of the inning.

Iguchi changes tune on Sasaki

Eighteen-year-old right-hander Roki Sasaki who repeatedly was clocked at over 100 miles per hour in his final high school season, apparently will appear in a practice game for the Lotte Marines in the coming weeks, manager Tadahito Iguchi indicated to the media on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, Iguchi had said Sasaki, who twice hit 160 kilometers per hour in a simulated game on Tuesday, would not be ready to appear in a game next month.

Command is not everything

After laboring through Daisuke Matsuzaka’s practice game start on Sunday, I caught some of Michael Peoples‘ effort for the DeNA BayStars at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants.

Peoples was getting a chance to show his stuff after he impressed the week before. On March 15, the 28-year-old Peoples, who spent eight seasons in the Cleveland Indians, held the Nippon Ham Fighters to two hits over five scoreless innings. On Sunday, he started against the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants.

After watching Matsuzaka struggle to locate for five innings, Peoples was a treat, hitting his spots pitch after pitch. His fastball sat at 87 mph, so this is a guy who needs to locate and make the ball move. Despite the lack of velocity, his fastball often jumped and missed bats, but that was less consistent than his command.

He threw some curves and appeared to cut his fastball and throw a two-seamer, but other than some of those underpowered-but beautiful fastballs, any pitch that missed and many that didn’t found barrels. The Giants hitters were able to foul off pitches and work walks and wait for an occasional straight fastball to hammer.

Peoples allowed five runs in three innings, and website Baseball King wrote off his chances of making the BayStars’ rotation.

Teams can keep four imported players on the active first-team roster, and the BayStars added outfielder Tyler Austin to two-time home run king Neftali Soto and veteran first baseman Jose Lopez, with two veteran relievers in the bullpen, right-hander Spencer Patton and lefty Edwin Encarcion, Peoples’ prospects look slim at the moment.

Having said that, being able to control your pitches as well as Peoples can is a valuable skill, provided he becomes accustomed to the hitters here and finds ways to get them out. This is a guy who because of his command, should be able to force a lot of Japanese hitters to come to him by expanding the strike zone. If he can improve one of his secondary pitches with the help of the Japanese coaches, he could have a real future here.

Ironically, after reading that assessment of his outing, I was surprised to find that Matsuzaka got solid reviews for his effort against the Fighters on Sunday. The team Peoples blanked last weekend had the worst offense in Japan last year, but Dice-K was put up on a pedestal for holding them to four runs over five innings. Yomiuri’s offense is not the best in Japan, but it is probably the best in the CL.

The Tokyo Dome special

That’s a term I coined 15 years or so ago to describe high flies to the opposite field that just clear the walls in straight-away left or right at Tokyo Dome, which has the shortest power alleys in Japan.

Typically these home runs come off high-straight fastballs, like the one that Takumi Oshiro hit off Peoples in the third inning on Sunday. But Tyler Austin hit a low pitch that did the same thing, demonstrating why a lot of hitters simply love Tokyo Dome. It’s not the best home run park in Japan — last year the Giants’ team HR adjustment was 1.11, second to the Yakult Swallows’ 1.18 but it’s healthy.

Anyway, Austin has been hitting a lot of home runs this spring, so here’s his Tokyo Dome special from Sunday:

Open and shut: March 7, 2020 – Welcome to Japan, Joe Gunkel

New Hanshin Tigers right-hander Joe Gunkel started Saturday’s preseason game against the Nippon Ham Fighters at Koshien Stadium, and allowed seven runs in four innings. Despite the ugly totals it was anything but an ugly outing for the 28-year-old who pitched in the minors for the Red Sox, Orioles, Dodgers and Marlins.

Gunkel put a couple of floating sliders on a tee, and got a lesson in what left-handed hitters in Japan will do to two-seamers when they are not trying to crush the ball, but by and large it was entertaining.

A lesson in pitching to Japanese left-handed hitters.

From his low 3/4 slot, Gunkel had a lot of horizontal movement on a 91.3 mph two-seamer that he mercilessly jammed right-handed hitters with, and even got one batter looking on a backdoor two-seamer.

His slider was inconsistent in quality and command, as was his four-seamer, but he threw a splitter that really dropped and got him swinging strikes, and he is quick to the plate.

He got burned on ground balls that found holes, a couple of jam shots and a fly to deep center on a mistake pitch that carried out of the unusually windless park. He also struck out six.

Gunkel has a lot to work with, and he has a great catcher in Ryutaro Umeno to help him over a couple of minor rough spots. Hopefully, he’ll learn to use his arsenal quickly enough to keep up with the adjustments opposing hitters will make so that he doesn’t hit a prolonged rough patch. That’s because imported Tigers pitchers who have major rough patches learn more than they want to know about the Western League and get released.

Austin, Soto go back to back

Taylor Austin hit his fourth home run of the spring for the DeNA BayStars on Saturday, while two-time defending Central League home run champion Neftali Soto followed him with his first. Get a look on Austin’s face after Soto’s home run.

When I saw they both came off SoftBank Hawks journeyman Ryoma Matsuda, who gives up a fair number of home runs, I wasn’t too surprised, but compared to some of the really fat pitches Austin crushed earlier in the preseason, it was a straight fastball but not a cookie.

The Hawks opened with Nao Higashihama, who’s been named their Opening Day starter, and he looked ready to go, although he did get away with a hanging curve to Soto up in the zone that the right-handed-hitting slugger pulled foul. Matsuda had less luck with his fat pitch.

Patton’s back

The BayStars got an inning of work from Spencer Patton, who ended a frustrating season by breaking his hand against a refrigerator door. I commented to a colleague that he didn’t pitch well last season, but looking at his sharp performance on Saturday and his numbers from Delta Graphs the past three seasons, nothing really stands out.

The one outlier is his win probability. He gave up an unusual number of hits in the most volatile moments. How much of that is down to bad luck and bad timing, I don’t know. An old fart uninterested in analytics might say he lacked the “will to win,” but I am going to go with really crappy timing and luck.

I am unaware of his contract situation, but a lot of teams would have been cautious about bringing Patton back. The BayStars do a good job with analytics, and I assume they want him around because they see the intrinsic quality and because he’s a good teammate. That stuff matters.

Open and shut: March 3, 2020 – Sarfate returns to Fukuoka mound

Dennis Sarfate returned to the mound in Fukuoka on Tuesday for the first time in nearly two years. In one of five preseason games (“Open sen” in Japanese) played Tuesday — all behind closed doors — the Hawks took on the Yakult Swallows in an interesting contest.

Here are the game highlights, courtesy of PL TV.

As he has in the videos he’s been posting to social media that past year or so, Sarfate looked comfortable throwing although was nowhere near regular season velocity, touching 143 kilometers per hour compared to his average fastball velocity in 2017 of 153.3. He allowed a single and got two flyouts.

Rick van den Hurk threw 3-2/3 innings for the Hawks, and looked ready for Opening Day, with his fastball touching 150 kph, and good command of all his pitches. Van den Hurk pitched in just three games last year during the regular season.

Swallows starter Hirotoshi Takanashi also looked ready for Opening Day with generally good movement and command of his fastball. Although he was a little inconsistent and a little lucky, he threw five solid innings.

Peoples makes spring debut

New import Michael Peoples made his preseason debut with the DeNA BayStars, allowing three runs over three innings in which he gave up a home run, walked a batter and hit a batter against the Rakuten Eagles in Shizuoka.

Tyler Austin resumed his hit parade with a double and a single in three at-bats, raising his spring exhibition average to .615 with three homers and three triples in 15 plate appearances. The Eagles’ Jabari Blash hit his second homer of the spring.

Lions’ Takahashi goes 5 strong

Kona Takhashi, who for an instant had been in the running to start the Seibu Lions’ opener according to manager Hajime Tsuji, struck out six over five scoreless innings against the Chunichi Dragons.

Daisuke Yamai, who at the age of 41 is trying to secure some starts this season, showed he has more work to do. He walked three while allowing four runs over two innings of relief.

Camping World: Feb. 22, 2020 – Let the games begin

This is the one week of the year where Japanese baseball looks like that in the majors. Teams are in camp and playing preseason games. Very often the games played until the final week of February are “practice” games, where rules can be bent to suit the needs of the managers. But once the “open season” begins, those games’ stats are recorded.

On Saturday, eight teams were in action, with most of the attention focused on the BayStars – Eagles game because Rakuten southpaw Yuki Matsui started in line with new manager Hajime Miki’s plan to move him out of the closer’s role. The other player of interest was the Eagles’ top draft pick, 24-year-old shortstop Hiroto Kobukata.

The Swallows – Carp game saw Hiroshima’s first pick, Meji University right-hander Masato Morishita and Yakult’s second pick, Japan Sport Science University right-hander Daiki Yoshida.

Morishita’s debut

Morishita looks much as he did last year as an amateur, a right-hander who balances about three seconds on his back leg before going to the plate. The one difference appears to be his arm slot. He had been high 3/4 in college, but was nearly 12-6 in the first inning. Ostensibly, he’d been tasked with making some adjustments in his previous bullpen session, and one wonders whether his arm slot was part of that. From the second inning it looked closer to what it had been in college and his command was spot on.

He allowed two runs in the first, basically because of his command. Few of the balls had anything coming off the bat, and his slider was particularly sharp.

Not “real” baseball

If one needs proof that these games are meaningless, one can look at Morishita’s not being ejected in the first inning for a “dangerous pitch.” A curve slipped out of his hand and traced an eephus arc before striking Alcides Escobar on the top of his helmet. Had this been a regular season game, the umpires would have been compelled to eject him for hitting a batter in the head.

Escobar “suits” Japanese ball

Escobar, the Swallows’ new shortstop, was praised as a good fit for Japanese baseball by the crew broadcasting the game, ostensibly because of what he can’t do. Other than his size, the 33-year-old Venezuelan fits Japan’s cookie-cutter image of a middle infielder: Plays good defense, runs and bunts well, while not being able to hit for power or reach base.

Goodness gracious.

One crowded infield

New Carp manager Shinji Sasaoka is trying out lots of combinations in his infield. He brought in second-year shortstop Kaito Kozono to play second, and the 2018 No. 1 pick did a reasonable impression of Ryosuke Kikuchi with the glove with a good charge toward the mound and a sharp throw to first across his body.

Former Yankees and Padres utility man Jose Pirela, who has impressed with the bat in camp, was tried out at third. Having spent most of his time with the Yankees and Padres at second base and in left field. He has good hands, it looked from this game like third base might be a challenge for his arm strength.

Nice start for Yoshida

While the Swallows’ top draft pick, high school star Yoshinobu Okugawa was throwing his first bullpen of the spring hundreds of miles away in Yakult’s minor league camp after hurting his arm in January, second-round pick Yoshida had two innings in the spotlight.

The 1.75-meter Yoshida has a super smooth delivery that looks like it was modeled on Tomoyuki Sugano’s although he doesn’t look like he’s trying to throw the ball through a wall like Sugano sometimes does. Yoshida, who has been used as the setup guy for the national collegiate team, has an above-average fastball with some hop to it, and showed a decent changeup and a slider, neither of which he commanded nearly as well as his four-seam fastball.

He located the fastball and missed some barrels with the change and retired all six batters he faced.

Matsui goes back to starting line

Yuki Matsui, who came to national prominence in high school for being able to survive extraordinarily high pitch counts, failed as a starter in his 2014 rookie season. That year he walked 67 batters in 116 innings, but was reincarnated as a closer the following season.

His English NPB page is HERE.

Matsui looked fairly uncomfortable, threw a lot of straight fastballs, missed his locations. He faced 18 batters and surrendered a pile of hard-hit balls while walking two batters and hitting one.

He did throw a number of quality sliders, and those kept the day from being a complete disaster.

Mirror, mirror

Yesterday, I filled out a scouting report on Eagles second pick Fumiya Kurokawa. A muscular second baseman, Kurokawa resembles current Eagles second baseman Hideto Asamura. Kobukata, the top draft pick, is a small left-handed hitting shortstop like Rakuten’s incumbent at the position, Eigoro Mogi.

Kobukata started and had three hits, all ground balls pulled through the right side of the infield. He looked OK with the glove. I don’t know if it’s a Japanese thing but like Kurokawa, Kobukata takes an extra step to set his feet before he throws. When he does cut loose, however, he has a gun with some good carry.

The other news from that game was the absence of new BayStars import Tyler Austin, who has been smoking hot all spring, due to stiffness in his right elbow.