Tag Archives: Hisanobu Watanabe

This job can make you sick

On Sunday, Seibu Lions manager Kazuo Matsui “went on leave for health reasons,” and it appears he didn’t even know he was feeling poorly.

There is an expression in Japanese which describes the blues that one gets in the second month at a new school or after joining a company after leaving school. It’s called “gogatsu byo” or May sickness. But it could also apply to baseball managers whose teams’ performance is so far below expectation that their jobs are on the line.

It’s about that time of that every now and then a manager will be announced to be taking leave of his duties for health reasons, “kyuyo.” Unless there is an actual illness, this is Japanese baseball-speak for getting fired.

Back in the before time, when I was married to my first wife, we were spending Golden Week in 1992 visiting friends in Hamamatsu, where I’d taught English for two years. While we were there, I remember reading a comment about Taiyo Whales manager Yutaka Sudo stepping down from Masaaki Mori, who was then the Seibu Lions manager.

“It seems pretty early in the season for a manager to be getting sick and needing to convalesce,” the Nikkan Sports reported.

But a look at the record shows that May is the most common month for managers getting fired during the season. Mind you, managers in Japan rarely ever get fired during the season, they either are put on sick leave or they quit. In 2003, Orix did fire Hiromichi Ishige, but that was a rarity.

Matsui gets sick

When meeting reporters after the Lions come-from-behind victory over the Orix Buffaloes, Matsui said, “Once more, we are just approaching each game as it comes,” when asked about his plans regarding the start of interleague play from Tuesday.

Two hours later, the team released a statement from Matsui saying he needed to accept responsibility for the team’s poor results despite what he called “the young players’ developing and grasping what they needed to do.”

We had a famous case when Shigeru Takada insisted before a game that he had no intention of quitting and that the team was 100 percent behind him, only to say immediately after the game, that he had decided to quit that morning. But why the turn-around after the game?

So instead of taking it game by game. Matsui is now done, with the Lions top management having already stuck a fork in him, perhaps when the team fell behind and were in danger of losing their 11th series of the season.

He’s being replaced by former manager and current GM, Hisanobu Watanabe. A Tokyo Sports article claimed that Watanabe was stepping in out of a sense of responsibility, having brought Matsui back to finish his career with Seibu as part of the club’s “OB Project.”

The purpose of the project is not clear to me, since the article said it was meant to combat the team’s losses to free agency and posting, but the problem with the Lions’ free agency losses has largely been top management’s indifference.

When ace pitcher Takayuki Kishi brought the Lions the offer he’d received from the Rakuten Eagles back to Seibu to see if they could do better, the Lions’ response was essentially: “We told you what we’re willing to give you. Take it or leave it.”

How bringing back Kiyoshi Toyoda to be pitching coach, and signing Daisuke Matsuzaka and Matsui was supposed to fix that, I have no clue. But the story said Matsui was being groomed for the Lions manager’s job from the day he told Rakuten he had no interest in trading his bat, glove and spikes for a coach’s stop watch and notebook.

I at first ascribed Watanabe’s appointment as GM/manager to his age preventing him from escaping the room before he was “it.”

What went wrong?

Tokyo Sports didn’t stop with describing why Watanabe was the new guy in charge. They went on to say why Matsui was a failure, quoting some old-school hard-ass kanri-yakyu guy in the Lions organization as saying Matsui was too nice.

The story said Matsui’s problem was that he refused to scapegoat players who made mistakes to the media, and never publicly embarrassed players by yanking them off the field or sending them to the minors for making mistakes.

This, the article said, encouraged players who should be practicing day and night to win everyday jobs with the team to slack off in the knowledge that no matter how poorly they did, they would always get another chance.

A Japanese colleague at the day job and I were talking, and he admitted that in a society where peers are differentiated by the mistakes they make, praising colleagues is extremely counter-intuitive and difficult to do.

By refusing to single out individuals for team failings, Matsui is essentially turning his back on the rules that make Japan tick, and there are people who can’t tolerate it.

If Matsui deserves to be fired it’s because he’s been unable to simply stick Shinya Hasegawa in the lineup everyday and let him adjust to major league pitching. The guy is arguably the best pure minor league hitter in Japan right now and turned 22 last week. On top of that Hasegawa threw out nine runners in 49 Eastern League games in 2023.

Hasegawa, however, is stuck in a group of players who are all getting half-chances to show what they can do, like Takuya Hiruma, who is two years older and wasn’t as good in the minors.

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Kuri throws in his lot


The word “nagekomi” is a compound of the Japanese verb to throw “nageru” and “komu” which has a slew of meanings that imply doing something completely, intently, thoroughly and continuously–which pretty much captures the spirit of spring training in Japan.

Allen Kuri of the Hiroshima Carp on Thursday threw a 347-pitch bullpen, which the press quickly labeled a team record, breaking a 343-pitch effort of Hiroki Kuroda’s in 2002. I didn’t see that one, but did watch Kuroda throw about 320 in 2005, when Wayne Graczyk drove me down to Nichinan.

Although the highlights of that day were hearing Wayne’s story about how he got to Japan and enjoying the view of the beautiful Miyazaki coastline, Kuroda’s bullpen was something to see. After he’d gotten past 250 pitches, Carp manager Koji Yamamoto stood in the batter’s box and egged his ace on, trying to get him to throw harder.

When I interviewed Kuroda a couple of years later, he said it was his habit to throw one really long bullpen every spring. As bad as the optics are, a lot of pitchers have a history of throwing marathon bullpens while having long healthy careers. Every pitcher’s body is built differently and how players approach long bullpens and their physical condition at the time are likely all factors that are beyond my ability to measure, that’s why Will Carrol @injuryexpert exists.

Kuri, who said he’d thrown 400-pitch bullpens during his time at Asia University, suggesting he’d been mapping out a plan for a “nagekomi” according to Kyodo News (Japanese) recorded Kuri’s comments.

“I’m glad I was able to do a good job of it,” Kuri said. “I had this image in mind of the number of pitches thrown in camp by manager (Shinji) Sasaoka and Kuroda-san, who were both complete-game starting pitchers.”

“The only way to be able to pitch with strength even when fatigued is if you build up muscle memory from throwing a good number of pitches.”

That’s the kind of typical explanation one hears about those bullpens from the old guys, although Sasaoka said Kuri was doing so armed with a more critical approach than he had in his pitching days.

“He wasn’t just throwing. He was thinking while throwing,” Sasaoka told reporters in a Q and A published by Daily Sports. “From his first pitch to his 347th, that was a superb bullpen.”

“It wasn’t just a normal nagekomi. He was thinking and solidifying his mechanics.”

“It’s different from the way guys like me used to think about it. It’s essential to do it the way he went about it. The way I did it and Kuroda did it that may have been old school. But I want to praise people for thinking of different ways to achieve their goals. I don’t think it was harmful.”

Times are changing, but Japan has a long tradition of finding new ways of defending spartan old-school practices, even when the explanations completely defy logic, and reporters who print coaches’ views as knowledge rather than opinions do so at their own risk.

One lackey who wrote for the Nikkan Sports in 2010 was fed a bunch of crap by the Lotte Marines to explain the team’s success the year after they dumped Bobby Valentine, and the reporter printed the nonsense.

He claimed the secret to the Marines’ rebound was pitching — when in fact the pitching and defense was demonstrably worse than under Valentine. Supposedly the key to the pitching “turn-around” was marathon bullpen sessions in camp–which Valentine supposedly banned when he hadn’t. To make matters worse, the pitcher his article cited as being the spring standout after throwing 1,000 pitches in camp, missed most of the season with arm trouble.

Sasaoka may be 100 percent correct, or he may be full of shit. There’s no way of knowing from reading about it in the paper. Kuri’s a great guy, and I’m looking forward to a chance to hear him talk about his planning and thinking this out.

Matsunaka and NabeQ

It’s five days into spring training and so far about the only news is who’s showing up to camp when and who is going to the bullpen and how often.

Before getting into the more routine stuff, I think it’s worth mentioning that Lotte spring coach Nobuhiko Matsunaka felt it was necessary to demonstrate points during BP by stepping in and taking some swings, during which three drives cleared the outfield fence.

This brought to mind one of my favorite Hisanobu Watanabe stories, when he went to Taiwan to coach in 1999 after he finished his NPB career with one season for the Yakult Swallows. Watanabe couldn’t speak Mandarin, so he did a lot of demonstrations. It didn’t take long for his fellow coaches to realize the 33-year-old coach threw harder than any of the pitchers in camp and signed him to a players contract.

Watanabe led the fledgling Taiwan Major League in wins, strikeouts and ERA that season and added three more years to his pro career. Of course, Matsunaka is now 47, and hasn’t been a regular for 12 years, so there’s zero chance anyone’s going to give him a contract, but he admitted it was fun while it lasted.

Last and least

I’m not certain why PL TV’s videos are focused on the Lions’ training camp. It’s certainly not because it’s all that interesting, although the second “gem” of the week from Nango is their No. 7 ball boy, who earned an instant replay while shagging flies during BP.

The good news is that it reminds us that spring training is not ONLY about pain and suffering in the name of playing a game.