Tag Archives: Kazuhisa Ishii

Tanaka’s 2nd start

On Saturday, Masahiro Tanaka pitched in Sendai, and Carter Stewart Jr. made his second relief outing, so I figured I’d write about their games a bit.

Tanaka returned to Sendai, pitching there for the first time since he saved Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series one night after he suffered a complete-game loss in Game 6. Tanaka’s second regular-season start, against the Seibu Lions, was a mirror image of his debut a week earlier against the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In that game, he couldn’t locate his fastball, and the Fighters hitters basically waited for him to miss with it in the zone, and hit a pair of home runs off him. He responded by not throwing the fastball, and threw only three of them in his 13-pitch first inning on Saturday in Sendai.

It looked, however, like he’d solved his fastball control issues, but had trouble locating his splitter and slider. The Lions’ hitters were apparently looking for the splitter and hit a couple of good ones. From the fourth inning, he began using his slider and cutter to set up his fastball, and it was essentially game over.

Before the game, there was talk of him throwing around 100 pitches, but Tanaka left the mound after throwing just 68 in six innings. Although he started throwing few fastballs, in the end, Tanaka threw his four-seamer 34 percent of the time — the same as he had a week earlier.

Manager Kazuhisa Ishii was asked about Tanaka’s outing.

“I didn’t think he looked that good at the start, but as he showed more variation halfway through. That got him going, and allowed him to establish a rhythm,” he said.

“You’d have to ask him about how he felt coming back, but as for pressure, his mission here is to meet expectations, and I’m sure he’s happy about meeting them in such a diligent fashion.”

“He’s got his 100th win (in Japan), but that’s sort of expected. He’ll do more, reach higher numbers in Japan and in the majors. He’s such an extraordinary athlete.”

“As for his pitch count, he worked well and he did go six innings, and we decided that was a good place to cut him off today and hand it over to the bullpen.”

Tanaka pitching log

Key: f-fastball, s-slider, k-split, v-curve, c-cutter, hanging pitches marked with an asterisk.

1st inning
  1. Wakabayashi s,s,s,f,k,s* —hangs and lined to center good catch by CF Tatsumi
  2. Genda f,s,f,s —swinging K
  3. Mori v,k,k — weak grounder 4-3

2nd inning

  1. Nakamura v,f,k* — hangs splitter lined into LF corner, single
  2. Kuriyama s* — hanging slider lined to 1st $mart play by Dixon 3DP
  3. Takeda f,f,s — swinging K

3rd inning

  1. Spangenberg f,k,s,s — backfoot slider hits back foot on bounce after video request.
  2. Wu k*,f,k,s,s,k — Spangenberg steals on 0-1 pitch, good swing on split RBI single
  3. Yamada f — sacrifice 1-3, 1 out
  4. Wakabayashi k,f,f,fs — good swing on slider away line to RF, 2 outs
  5. Genda f,f,f,k — another good swing on a splitter, infield single, R13, 2 outs
  6. Mori k – Mori grounds splitter to second, 4-3g

4th inning

  1. Nakamura c,c,f — 3 foul fly
  2. Kuriyama k*,f — 7F
  3. Takeda s,f,k — Swinging K out of zone

5th inning

  1. Spangenberg s,s,s,f,c,k — 6-3g
  2. Wu k,s,s,k — 9F
  3. Yamada c,c,s,k — Swinging K

6th inning

  1. Wakabayashi f — 3 Foul fly
  2. Genda k*,s — 4-3g
  3. Okada s,s — 1-3g

Carter Stewart Jr.

Stewart, who made his debut in the final inning of a 7-1 Hawks win against the Seibu Lions a week earlier, got some meaningful mound experience in the fifth inning on Saturday with the Hawks holding a 6-5 lead against the Marines in Chiba.

He allowed two runs on four walks and a double, and struck out one, but it was hardly a disaster. This inning could easily have gone the other way, and when the broadcast crew crowed about Stewart’s potential, they weren’t talking out of their butts.

The leadoff hitter, Hisanori Yasuda, hit a flare that bounced over left fielder Yurisbel Gracial for a fluke double. With one out, he missed badly on four pitches to Koki Yamaguchi. He threw some good pitches to the next batter, particularly his change before walking him, too, to load the bases.

Stewart struck out pinch-hitter Tsuyoshi Sugano, then the weird stuff really began.

Catcher Takuya Kai began calling for fastballs on the outside corner that Kengo Iwashita, umpiring in his 113th top-flight game, had called earlier in the inning. Stewart hit the glove twice, and hopped a bit on the mound when Iwashita saw these pitches as balls.

Kai moved his glove over the plate and Stewart missed it, 3-0. Another target over the plate and Stewart caught the outside corner, a better pitch than the first two and a strike, 3-1. Another target over the plate, and Stewart was over the inner half, but Iwashita didn’t call it and the tying run scored.

At that point, it looked like Stewart lost confidence in his mechanics as he went from missing ever so little to a lot. Five more pitches to veteran leadoff hitter Takashi Ogino and the Marines had the lead and Stewart was gone.

NPB wrap 4-14-21

Old dog teaches pup new tricks

Hawks 4, Buffaloes 1

At Fukuoka’s PayPay Dome, 40-year-old SoftBank southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada (1-1) pitched really well for the first time this season, missing bats and striking out five while allowing a walk and four hits over 6-2/3 innings. Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto (2-2) came could only muster his “C” game, allowing three runs on eight hits and three walks over 5-1/3 innings.

Alfredo Despaigne singled and scored the opening run in the second on a Nobuhiro Matsuda broken-bat single. Yamamoto appeared to be back in control after stranding two runners in the third, but some good hitting by Yurisbel Gracial opened the sixth. Despaigne walked with one out and three straight singles chased Yamamoto.

Wada left one on in the seventh. Gracial made a good catch in left for the second out, and Wada was gone after suffering a cramp. Sho Iwasaki allowed Orix’s only run in the eighth, and Yuito Mori earned his fourth save with a perfect ninth against the heart of the Buffaloes’ order.

Lions 2, Fighters 1

At MetLife Dome, Seibu Lions right-hander Tatsuya Imai (1-2) survived his customary lack of command to hold the Nippon Ham Fighters to an unearned run over six innings. He walked four and hit one, but allowed only three singles while striking out seven to outpitch rookie Hiromi Ito (0-2). Imai has been mediocre this year except in his two starts against Nippon Ham.

Ito continued to be a strikeout machine. He fanned nine over six innings, to raise his season total to 28 strikeouts in 19 innings. He surrendered the lead in the first inning after surrendering a leadoff double to Lions rookie Gakuto Wakabayashi, his former high school teammate.

Wakabayashi scored on a Tomoya Mori flare single after the Lions wasted Sosuke Genda’s turn at bat by having him bunt the runner to third. Mori singled and scored a third-inning insurance run on a Wu Nien-ting RBI single.

After Matsumoto left, the Lions’ bullpen turned on the heat. Reed Garrett struck out the bottom of the Fighters’ order in the seventh. Kaima Taira struck out two of the four batters he faced in the eighth, and Tatsushi Masuda worked around a leadoff walk with three straight strikeouts to notch his fifth save.

Marines 2, Eagles 2

At Sendai’s Rakuten Seimei Park, Rakuten right-hander Takahiro Norimoto finally began striking out batters, whiffing nine over six innings after recording just seven over his first 13-1/3. He gave up one run on six hits and a walk, while Lotte lefty Kazuya Ojima bounced back from getting hammered by the Eagles on March 30 to hold them to an unearned run over six innings.

The Marines took the lead in the seventh on a Shogo Nakamura RBI single off Sung Chih-hao, but the Eagles relievers retired the last seven batters they faced. The Marines got perfect innings from Frank Herrmann and Yuki Karakawa before Naoya Masuda blew a chance to record his third save, allowing a run on a Hideto Asamura double, a single and a Daichi Suzuki sac fly.

Tigers 6, Carp 0

At Koshien Stadium, Tigers rookie Teruaki Sato homered, scored two and drove in three runs as the Central League-leading Hanshin Tigers took a stick to Hiroshima’s Masato Morishita (1-2), hammering the CL’s 2020 rookie of the year for five runs, four earned, on two walks and five hits over five innings, while Yuki Nishi (2-1) struck out seven over eight scoreless innings.

Tigers rookie Takumu Nakano, Hanshin’s sixth pick last autumn, drove in the first run of the season after Sato walked with two outs and an error, when shortstop Kosuke Tanaka fumbled a grounder.

Jerry Sands drew a leadoff walk in the third and Sato put a perfect swing on a curve that came in waist high. In the fifth, it was Jefry Marte, who put a ferocious swing on a high pitch with a bat flip matching his tremendous blast.

Marte drew the first of two one-out walks in the seventh, with Sato singling in a run to close the scoring.

Giants 5, Dragons 1

At Tokyo Dome, Seishu Hatake (1-1) turned in the Yomiuri Giants’ third straight stellar starting pitching performance, following Nobutaka Imamura’s complete game shutout on Sunday and Angel Sanchez’s 7-1/3-inning effort on Tuesday.

Hatake allowed a run on seven hits while striking out nine, walking one and hitting one over 8-1/3 innings. Ariel Martinez opened the ninth with his first homer of the season for the Dragons, Rubby De La Rosa took over with two on in the ninth and recorded his fifth save.

Dragons right-hander Akiyoshi Katsuno (1-1), who dodged bullets for five scoreless innings a week ago, only faced one tough inning, but it was a doozy. Takayuki Kajitani capped a five-run inning with his second homer as a Giant.

Giants-Dragons highlights

Kosuke Fukudome may be 43 with an arm that no longer inspires awe, but he’s a gamer. With one out and one on in the fifth inning of a 5-0 Japanese pro baseball’s elder statesman laid it out to rob Kazuma Okamoto of a flare single.

Swallows 7, BayStars 3

At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Rookie right-hander Yuto Kanakubo (1-0) surrendered rookie Shugo Maki’s two-run, two-out double that opened the score in the first before Yakult jumped on rookie right-hander Taisei Irie (0-3) for five runs, chasing him with one out in the fifth.

With one out and two on in the bottom of the third, Munetaka Murakami halved the visitors’ lead with a sac fly and Yasutaka Shiomi belted his second homer, a two-run shot for a 3-2 lead.  The Swallows made it 6-2 in the fifth.

Kotaro Yamasaki led off with a single, and No. 2 hitter Yudai Koga, bunted him over after singling in his first two at-bats. Tetsuto Yamada hit his third homer of the season. Murakami chased Irie with a double and scored when Shiomi tripled off reliever Kenta Ishida.

Maki belted his fifth home run to lead off the sixth against Kanakubo, who turned pro after being taken in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. Maki’s 17 RBIs lead the CL with Murakami one back. With a 6-3 lead, Scott McGough worked a perfect seventh, and Yamada homered to open the bottom of the inning. With the tying run on deck in the ninth, closer Taichi Ishiyama got an easy two-out save.

Irie, who allowed five runs in 4-1/3 innings, has faced the Swallows twice this season and allowed 10 runs in 9-1/3.

Tanaka to start Saturday

Masahiro Tanaka will make his season debut on Saturday when he starts against the Nippon Ham Fighters at Tokyo Dome, Kyodo News (Japanese) reported. Tanaka returned this season to the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles after going 24-0 in 2013 and pitching them to their first pennant and Japan Series title.

“He’s coming along with no issues, and if he continues on that path in the time being, he’ll pitch on the 17th,” manager Kazuhisa Ishii told reporters about the right-hander who damaged the calf muscle in his right calf.

Last Saturday, Tanaka threw 97 pitches in the bullpen.

Starting pitchers

Pacific League

Eagles vs Marines: Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Ryota Takinaka (1-1, 10.38) vs Daiki Iwashita (1-1, 3.00)

Hawks vs Buffaloes: PayPay Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Shota Takeda (0-1, 2.31) vs Hirotoshi Masui (1-1, 1.80)

Central League

Giants vs Dragons: Tokyo Dome 5:45 pm, 4:45 am EDT

Yuki Takahashi (2-0, 0.00) vs Koji Fukutani (0-0, 3.60)

Swallows vs BayStars: Jingu Stadium 5:30 pm, 4:30 am EDT

Hirotoshi Takanashi (1-0, 4.22) vs Haruhiro Hamaguchi (0-2, 6.43)

Tigers vs Carp: Koshien Stadium 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Takumi Akiyama (1-1, 2.77) vs Hiroki Tokoda (1-0, 3.09)

Sunday musings 3-28-21

The return of “Super Miya”

I kind of scoffed when Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times began calling him that about five years ago, but the SoftBank Hawks Kenta Imamiya is truly super or he would be if he were the man of steel and impervious from nagging injuries.

In a recent Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, our PL prediction show, I wondered what was to become of Kenta Imamiya, the PL’s premier shortstop before Sosuke Genda’s ascendence and a number of injuries, now that the SoftBank Hawks have flooded the middle of their infield with a track team, notably stolen base kind Ukyo Shuto.

The Hawks used to do everything better than everyone except steal bases. They had the best starting pitching, best defense, best on-base offense, best power offense, but it ain’t like that anymore. The OBP side of the equation is way down and the steals are way up. The Hawks have finished fifth or sixth in walks the past three seasons.

But Imamiya returned to the lineup after missing most of last season and cracked a two-run homer in his first game back, which reminded me why one would want him playing whenever he’s healthy: He really drives the ball. When healthy, Imamiya’s going to hit 12-15 home runs a year. Last year Imamiya hit 6 HRs in 177. The seven other guys who played at least one game at either second or short for SoftBank last year combined for seven HRs in 1,081 PAs.

On Saturday, Imamiya did it all with his offense and defense, making a huge difference in the Hawks’ Game 2 victory.

Fair compensation

One thing I’ve wanted to do for years but never got around to until this weekend was actually compare the value created by free agents after they moved to their new teams compared to the value of players taken in compensation by the team losing the free agent.

Long train running

I first got interested in this subject back when I was at Yomiuri and became friendly with Yakult outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi. He was a great story. Like a lot of speedy Japanese outfielders, he switched back and forth between the outfield and infield as a young player.

A junior high hurdles champion, Fukuchi turned pro with the Hiroshima Carp, who had no idea what they had when they needed someone to trade for marginal reliever Hayato Aoki.

To the Carp, Aoki was just another defensive replacement reserve outfielder and pinch runner. But in his first regular playing time with the Seibu Lions, Fukuchi proved he could hit for average, and draw enough walks to be a danger on the bases with his speed.

Then the plot thickened, the Lions decided they would be better off with Hiram Bocachica in the outfield. Bocachica is a kind, fascinating guy and a heck of a player, the only one who has ever told me his ambition was to write a children’s book, but the Lions decided Fukuchi was expendable and didn’t put him on the protected list when they signed free agent pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii.

In exchange for a good pitcher on his final legs, the Swallows got an everyday outfielder who could fly and lead the CL in stolen bases for two straight seasons. Fukuchi told me he bought Ishii dinner after that for reviving his career.

So about 12 years ago, I thought, I wonder how often a player received in free agent compensation turns out to be better than the free agent, as Fukuchi easily was – although the Lions won their last pennant the year they signed Ishii, so they can’t be too unhappy how that turned out.

Where’s my second baseman?

On Friday, however, second baseman Shunta Tanaka drove in six runs in his debut for the DeNA BayStars against the team that gave him away as free agent compensation, the Yomiuri Giants.

I like to dump on manager Tatsunori Hara for his inability to settle on a second baseman and joke that he has a smart phone app called “Who’s my second baseman,” so it seemed poetic justice that he let one get away. But to be fair, he’s only averaged using 7.5 different players at the position, his successor for three seasons, Yoshinobu Takahashi takes the cake among modern managers with over 400 games managed with 8-2/3 different second basemen per season.

You’re probably not curious, but in case you are, the champion of second baseman switchers was Yasuji Hondo, who from 1963 to 1965 as manager of the Orions, used 11-2/3 different guys per season as he finished fifth twice and fourth once.

On Saturday, Takayuki Kajitani, the player whose signing sent Tanaka to the BayStars, hit a grand slam, while on Sunday, the player the ‘Stars got in compensation for the Giants signing Shun Yamaguchi – currently with the SF Giants – threw six scoreless innings against his old club.

So after that weekend, I had to finally break down and do the study, using win shares to measure value. The study starts with pitcher Hirofumi Kono going to the Giants from the Nippon Ham Fighters after the 1995 season and Tadayoshi Kawabe going to the Fighters, the first player taken in compensation after two years without a single player being taken and ending with the first transaction with players still active, Kan Otake and Ryuji Ichioka.

The list

Free agents are listed on the top above the compensation player. Values are given using Bill James’ Win Shares total for all the season each player played for their teams after the transaction.

Of the 14 pairs where at least one player produced a minimum of 10 WS after the move, the free agent produced more value 10 times, which is about what I suspected. The Fukuchi-Ishii pair is the most lop-sided pair.

Teams don’t take players as compensation that often because it’s hard to get real value and taking no player means a larger cash package.

  • Hirofumi Kono, Giants: 8
  • Tadayoshi Kawabe, Fighters: 1
  • Yukinaga Maeda, Giants: 15
  • Kazuhiro Hiramatsu, Dragons: 0
  • Shinichi Kato, K. Buffaloes: 5
  • Yuki Tanaka, Orix BW 17
  • Shigeki Noguchi, Giants: 1
  • Kohei Oda, Dragons: 11
  • Kiyoshi Toyoda, Giants: 20
  • Akira Eto, Lions: 7
  • Hiroki Kokubo, Hawks: 73
  • Shintaro Yoshitake, Giants: 2
  • Ken Kadokura, Giants: 1
  • Kimiyasu Kudo, BayStars: 7
  • Takahiro Arai, Tigers: 97
  • Masato Akamatsu, Carp: 38
  • Kazuhiro Wada, Dragons: 159
  • Shinya Okamoto, Lions: 3
  • Kazuhisa Ishii, Lions: 23
  • Kazuki Fukuchi, Swallows: 39
  • Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Tigers: 1
  • Takuya Takahama, Marines: 5
  • Shuichi Murata, Giants: 83
  • Shugo Fujii, BayStars: 9
  • Saburo Omura, Marines: 20
  • Takayuki Taguchi, Giants: 0
  • Hayato Terahara, Hawks: 11
  • Takahiro Mahara, O.Buffaloes: 4
  • Keiichi Hirano, O.Buffaloes: 19
  • Kazuya Takahama, Tigers: 0
  • Yasutomo Kubo, BayStars: 22
  • Kazunari Tsuruoka, Tigers: 6
  • Kan Otake, Giants: 20
  • Ryuji Ichioka, Carp: 24

Masa’s Choice

Masahiro Tanaka on Saturday explained reasons for his abrupt return to the Rakuten Eagles just a few days before the team’s spring training camp was to open on Monday. I’m sure what he said was true, but it probably wasn’t the whole story.

Having said that, I doubt Japan’s media wanted the whole story. They want players to talk about player things: championships, fans, organizations, competition, contracts, teammates and so on. Tanaka mentioned the coronavirus once in his press conference, but not his family at all, which is fine but probably limits our understanding of the whole picture.

But let’s move on from that, and talk about 2021. Tanaka’s decision may not have been earth-shaking, but Japan definitely rocked. Most Japanese major leaguers only return to Japan when offers back home far outweigh the available MLB options.

Hiroki Kuroda reportedly left millions on the table to return to Japan. Tsuyoshi Wada and Daisuke Matsuzaka still had some value in the majors but nothing like the big guarantees SoftBank was offering.

Below are the five best seasons produced in NPB by Japanese former major leaguers. None of these were remotely close to their best prior to their leaving Japan, which is to be expected since most were past their primes when they left. I was surprised to see that the two best seasons were produced by post-Tommy John guys.

NameTeamReturnedYearAgeWS value
Tsuyoshi WadaHawks201620163512.8
Kyuji FujikawaTigers201620193812.2
Kazuhisa IshiiSwallows200620063211.8
Ryota IgarashiHawks201320143511.4
Hiroki KurodaCarp201520154010.8

The funny thing from Saturday’s presser was Kazuhisa Ishii’s reminder that he still has a few more career wins than Tanaka. The former lefty does indeed, but Ishii pitched until he was 39 and his total career value is about three-fourths of Tanaka’s to date.

They both returned to Japan for their age 32 seasons after disappointing results the previous year in the big leagues, but Tanaka has been better at every step of his career along the way. Ishii was a lefty but Tanaka is two months younger at this stage.

People still remember the pre-elbow sprain Tanaka, who ran off 36 straight quality starts from Aug. 26, 2012 until he took the loss in Game 6 of the Japan Series, snapping a streak of winning 30 consecutive regular and postseason decisions. We remember that Tanaka bounced back from the Game 6 complete-game loss to save Game 7 and clinch Rakuten’s first, and so-far only, Japan Series championship.

But he’s not that pitcher anymore. He was a master of adjustments then, and no doubt is even craftier now, but the good fastball is not quite what it was, and I have to think the hitters in Japan, particularly in the Pacific League, are better than they were eight years ago.

The big difference, I suspect, is going to be how well he adjusts to batters who thrive on testing pitchers’ sanity, by poking good pitches foul and rarely trying to drive them. Japanese baseball is in some respects a different kind of challenge for pitchers and hitters.

Because it is baseball, it is hard, and will eat up and chew out some of the world’s best if they take their feet off the gas for more than instant. I doubt Tanaka’s transition will be as smooth as everyone expects, but because he is smart and highly motivated, I expect he can get over those hurdles better than anyone.

It’s going to be fun.

Masa’s home

Masahiro Tanaka spoke to the Japanese media on Saturday, and said that while he’s got unfinished business in the majors, he had hoped to play again in Japan and not at the biter end of his career. When his first choice, a return to the New York Yankees was not in the cards, Tanaka said he struggled and struggled and only resolved his dilemma by thinking what he wanted to do most.

Read the Kyodo News (English) story .

Although Tanaka said he turned down very good offers from other major league clubs, he had a chance to return to the northeastern Japan city of Sendai in the center of a region devastated 10 years ago on March 11, 2011 by an earthquake and tsunami.

Here’s a translated transcript of Tanaka’s answers at the press conference held in Tokyo on Jan. 30. Also in attendance were the team’s owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, the team president Yozo Tachibana, and Kazuhisa Ishii, the team’s GM and manager.

Opening remarks

Seven years, when went I wanted to challenge myself in the major leagues, the owner, Mr. Mikitani, allowed me to go. And now he has allowed me to come back, so I am extremely grateful to him.

Mr. Tachibana always stayed in touch, and allowed me to use the team’s facilities however I liked. You may not know this but behind the scenes he is the kind of team president who uses pretty harsh language, but even so I’m always appreciative of him.

“The GM and manager, Mr. Ishii, appealed to me, saying we absolutely need you. And that kind of public statement is big for a player.”

“This is the 10th year since the disaster, but also the first year I’ve been a free agent with the ability to choose my team. For me, that No. 10 was an important figure, and gave this timing special meaning. That led me toward this decision.”

“At the instant I became a free agent, truthfully, my desire was to re-sign with the Yankees and continue playing for them. But at a very early stage, I heard from them through my agent and felt it would be better if I considered other options, which I considered, including a return to Japan.”

“Honestly, I was suddenly thinking of things I had never ever thought of before, and it was really troubling. What got me out of that conundrum was asking how I want to play baseball and in what circumstances do I want to play. There were offers, and I guess those details will come out. But things are difficult right now in this pandemic world.”

“I played over there for seven years, and was told how much I was valued, and received really good offers. But for me there was also this chance, to play for the Eagles again, to pitch once more in front of my fellow Japanese and in the end, there was no offer that could surpass that.”

Questions and answers

–Seven years ago, did you imagine this day would come?

Tanaka: “I was asked that then, but hate the idea that whatever I said might be misunderstood so I declined to answer. Of course, if the Rakuten Eagles hadn’t made this offer it wouldn’t matter what I thought. But there was the idea I might return and play for the Eagles again and not just at the end of my career, but when the time was right. So really, from the very start I so wanted to come back.”

Mr. Mikitani was asked if he kept Tanaka’s No. 18 unused in case of his return. He said that was not only his desire, but that of the organization and the people of the Tohoku region.

What does the No. 18 mean for you?

Tanaka: The number has meaning for a pro, and that’s the one I was handed at the start of my career, so being the ace number, it has meaning for me. But rather than just wearing the number, I want to get results and set an example.

You settled on a two-year contract. Why?

Tanaka: “We agreed on a two-year contract, but I received assurance we would talk after the season, and see where to go from there. I certainly can’t tell at this stage. Also, I feel I have unfinished business in America, and I haven’t given up on that, so they agreed on terms that would keep those options open. But without throwing away those goals, I really want to win a Japan championship here. But there are no guarantees in this world, so my first goal is to give it all I have for this season.”

What are your thoughts about the Tokyo Olympics?

Tanaka: “I had thought it would be 2020, so I never thought I could play in. Then it was postponed, and now I have returned to Japan, so there is a chance to play. If I’m selected, I want to play. I competed at the Beijing Olympics and that ended in frustrating fashion. Then baseball was dropped from the Olympic program. But it’s back now and I want to win a gold medal.”

It was said you are going to report to camp prior to the first exhibition game. What kind of training will you be doing until then?

Tanaka: “In my mind there are so many adjustments I need to make, the ball, the mound and so many things. Practice, life off the field, so many things are different so I’ll deal with them as they come along.”

How do you see yourself helping out now that you are back in the disaster-hit region?

Tanaka: “Like everyone else here, I also want to do my best. But now that I am close by again, there may be many things I can do, and I want to do my best in whatever way I can. To start with, I want to work hard and make an effort so that people will see me at the ballpark, on the mound, doing well.”

Who do you want to face in the Pacific League?

Tanaka: “I’ve been away for seven years, and so many batters have come up that I’ve never faced, so it’s hard for me to say by name, but there definitely are some tremendous players, and I’m looking forward to playing against them.”

SoftBank’s Yuki Yanagita said he disliked the idea of facing you…

Tanaka: “Yangita and I are the same age. I saw that story but we haven’t spoken. I faced him and he batted .500 off me, so I think that’s probably just lip service on his part.”

Both you and manager Ishii began their pro careers under manager Katsuya Nomura. Do you feel this is fate?

Tanaka: “Honestly, I never thought about it. But when you mention it, both he (Ishii) and I played in the States, played the same position as pitchers, so I there will be things I need to adjust to that he can advise me on.”

Manager Ishii?

Ishii: “I still have more career wins than he does (184-177). When he gets his wins, then I’ll say, ‘Hey, Masahiro.’ Until then, I’ll call him ‘Tanaka-kun’ (young mister Tanaka).'”

Eight years ago, you played catch with your former manager Nomura just before you left for the States. Now that you’re back what memories do you have of him?

Tanaka: “At that time I felt he was the last person to catch me in Japan. Nomura was my first pro manager, and I have so many deep emotions regarding him.”

Is there something manager Nomura taught you that sticks with you?

Tanaka: “First of all it’s essential to remember that the pitcher is the starting point, and that stays with me, and I still practice to execute pitches low in the zone.”

Did anything overseas match the Eagles’ 2013 Japan Series championship for emotional impact?

Tanaka: “Over there is different so one can’t really compare, but the excitement and sense of reward is the same as here. I don’t compare those emotions, but the 2013 championship remains a highlight of my career. Even though I spent seven years playing abroad in America, I have a video I watch before every start to psyche myself up and raise my concentration, and someone included in that the instant when we became Japan champions.”

What would you like to report to your late managers, Nomura, and (Senichi) Hoshino. What would you’d like to say to them?

Tanaka: “I suppose right now, I’d say, ‘I’m back.’ The best thing would be to report to them at the end of the year that we are champions.”

We get the impression here that there is so much information available to players in the majors. Is there anything you learned there you would like to employ here?

Tanaka: “Before I answer, I have to say that my knowledge of where Japan is stopped seven years ago. So I can’t say. But there’s no mistaking the volume of available data over there is amazing, and both batters and pitchers make use of it.”

“For me personally, prior to the 2017 season I had looked at how batters responded to different pitches, what they were waiting for, what they were swinging at. But there came a turning point in the 2017 season, when I went through a really trying time, and thought I needed to look deeper into the data, and from then it became more central to my approach.”

Are there any individual titles or numerical targets you are obsessed with getting?

Tanaka: “The title I am obsessed with is winning the Japan championship. If I pitch well, good numeric results will come with that, but honestly trying to surpass that impressive 2013 season that remains stopped in time, frozen in everyone’s memory, is a worthy quest, so I want to contribute to as many wins as I can in that pursuit.”

Life’s unfair

Wednesday’s news from NPB was about the format of the upcoming season, and updates about what players might be delayed due to coronavirus travel restrictions. One manager, however, said some teams were being unfairly treated because new players were unable to travel.

Rakuten Eagles General Manager Kazuhisa Ishii, who this year will also manage the Pacific League club on the field, said he asked what was up with new players according to Sankei Sports.

New work visas are not being issued and only players holding residence cards are being allowed back into Japan at the moment.

The Eagles non-tendered productive outfielders Stefen Romero and Jabari Blash, and relievers J.T. Chargois and D.J. Johnson, and have since signed lefty Adam Conley and infielder Brandon Dixon. While returning relievers Sung Chia-hao and Allan Busenitz are able to return, the new signings are not.

“If we had known it was going to be like this we would have been better off keeping more of the players who were already here,” Ishii said.

Players arriving now, such as the Yomiuri Giants’ Angel Sanchez, who came Thursday, will have to quarantine for two weeks, and will mean missing the start of spring training on Feb. 1, one of the dates the media treats like life-or-death deadlines.

Big days

When it appeared Daisuke Matsuzaka would be unable to return to Japan from his offseason training base in the States, the stories were “Matsuzaka to miss the start of camp!” only to be followed by next day’s news that he was already in country and sports editors the length of the country must have imagined that the nation was going to breath a collective sigh of relief.

Managers and coaches put a lot of effort into the training programs for camp, which essentially lasts three to four weeks and is not to be confused with the preseason exhibition season or “open games” which begin in the final days of February.

The other life-or-death day of course is Opening Day, and this used to be treated by most teams as if they got extra credit for opening the season with a win. Years ago at the Yomiuri, John E. Gibson and I were instructed to translate the Japanese paper’s copy ahead of the Mariners and Oakland A’s Opening series at Tokyo Dome.

One of the Yomiuri Shimbun stories had the line: “Ichiro will try hard to have a good game on Opening Day, since how a player does on Opening Day is a barometer of how his season will go.”

This is probably a little extreme but it pretty typical of the mindless drivel written about Opening Day in the Japanese press. Managers used to parrot it, too, but recently have bowed to logic, that it’s nice to be ready on Day 1, but that one game is still just one game.

Then again, maybe it’s not just Japan. Maybe hyperbola is in baseball’s DNA. But the start of camp is also a respite from the news about who and how players will be arriving in camp.

The middle of January is filled with news about which players will be in first-team spring training camp and who will be reporting to the minor league camp on Feb. 1.

Two of last year’s most highly touted young pitchers, Roki Sasaki of the Marines and Yasunobu Okugawa of the Swallows will report to first-team camp, while young Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami will be with the first team after a bout with coronavirus although on a separate training menu.

It’s enough to make one long for stories about how many balls in a player’s first BP go over the fence.

Lions reach agreement with Dermody

The PL’s Seibu Lions announced Thursday that 30-year-old former Chicago Cub lefty Matt Dermody has agreed to sign a contract, although nothing was announced other than that he’ll wear No. 98.