Tag Archives: Kazuo Matsui

NPB games, news of Sept. 25, 2019

News

Former big leaguer Takatsu to manage Swallows

For the third time in recent years, the Yakult Swallows have turned to a man with experience running their farm team to manage their Central League team, according to a story published by Kyodo News.

Fifty-year-old Shingo Takatsu will succeed Junji Ogawa, who called an end to his second stint as the birds’ manager after finishing last this season. Ogawa, a former farm manager, was promoted to manager after Shigeru Takada quit. Ogawa, who led the Swallows to the playoffs three times in seven years, was replaced in 2015 by another farm manager, Mitsuru Manaka, who won the league that year and served for three seasons.

Takatsu becomes the second former Japanese major leaguer to run a top-level club in Japan after Tadahito Iguchi. So Taguchi has managed in the minors for the Orix Buffaloes, while Kazuo Matsui managed the Seibu Lions’ Eastern League club starting this season.

Under Takatsu, the Eastern League Swallows finished fifth in the seven-team EL this season.

Takatsu saved 286 games, second most in NPB, over 17 seasons. He pitched two seasons in the majors, another in South Korea and another in Taiwan. He also served as a player manager in the independent BC League.

Pacific League

Eagles 7, Lions 1

At Rakuten Seimei Park, Takahiro Norimoto pitched well in the season finale for both clubs, and Hideto Asamura hit his 33rd home run, tying Jabari Blash for the team home run lead, and finishing the regular season with 11 homers against his former club and 22 against the rest of NPB.

Sendai native and injury-plagued right-hander Yoshinori Sato finished the game in his debut with the Eagles, his first game since leaving Yakult over the winter.

Game highlights are HERE.

Fighters 4, Buffaloes 1

At Sapporo Dome, two teams with nothing to play for played, with former MVP Mitsuo Yoshikawa finishing up on the mound for Nippon Ham with 2-1/3 scoreless innings.

Game highlights are HERE.

Koji Uehara retirement presser

「本日をもちまして、21年間の現役生活を終えたいな、と思います。えー……(涙をぬぐう。約10秒言葉に詰まる)。これまで自分に関わってくれた人、方々に感謝したいと思います。ありがとうございました」

Uehara: “Today, I’m calling an end to my active career of 21 years. I would like to thank those who’ve been on this journey with me.”


-引退を決めた今の胸の内は

上原: まぁ、もうちょっとやりたかったなという、そういう思いです。

–Your feelings today, having decided to retire?

Uehara: “Well, what I think is that I wanted to keep going a little longer.”

-引退を決めてからの心境の変化は

上原 自分が決めた以上、もうユニホームを着ることはないわけですから。気持ちを切り替えていかなければと今は思っています。

–How has your state of mind changed since your decision to retire?

Uehara: “Having made my decision, I won’t be putting on that uniform again. I believe now I need to change my mindset.”

-引退の決断のきっかけは

上原 もう今年で辞めることは最初から決めていたことなんで。3カ月が僕の中では勝負と思っていた。2月、3月、4月と練習する中で、1度も1軍に上がることなく、2軍で試合に投げさせてもらっても、抑えていないという葛藤もありましたし、8月、9月になるとチームが首位争いするという状況の中で、自分がこういう会見をするのは違うという思いがあったので、早く終わろうと思った。

–What was the impetus behind your decision to retire?

Uehara: “I had already decided that I would quit this year, and in my mind I felt three months would be make or break. February, March, April I trained, but was never called up to the top team. And when I was given opportunities to pitch on the farm, even then I couldn’t get guys out. I thought it would be best to do it earlier rather than later. In August or September, with the team embroiled in the pennant race, calling a press conference like this would be quite a different thing from this.”

-心と体のズレはあったか?

上原 手術して、体自体は良い調子というかね、全然投げられる状態ですけど。その状態の中で2軍戦で通用していなかったというのが、自分の中で気持ち的に後ろ向きになったのかなと思ってます。

–Did you feel there was a gap between your mental image and your physical condition?

Uehara: “After surgery (left knee cleaning in October), my physical condition was good and I was able to throw fine. But even in that condition, it didn’t play in the minor league games. In my mind I thought I was going backwards.

-後ろ向きになった瞬間はこれまであったか

上原 何回かありましたけど。来年があるのであれば、もうちょっと頑張ろうと、今年1年やろうという気持ちになりましたけど、来年はもうないというのは自分の中で決めてましたから、うーん、やっぱり気持ちと体がなかなか一致しませんでしたというところですね。

–Have you had that feeling before that you were going backwards?

Uehara: “A number of times. If you have a next year, then you work even harder. This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. And as one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.

-同学年の福浦との対戦もあった。あれもきっかけ?

上原 福浦と対戦できたというのは僕の中で、すごくうれしかったこと。あと西武戦で稼頭央監督の目の前で投げられたのというのは、僕の中ではいい思い出と言ったらおかしいですけど、僕の中でこれでいいのかなと思いましたね。

–Last year you pitched against (Lotte’s) Kazuya Fukuura, who’s the same age as you. Did that trigger anything?

Uehara: “I was so thrilled to be able to face him. I also pitched against Seibu in front of Kazuo Matsui. It may sound strange to say those were good memories, but those things made me really happy.”

-どんな道のりだった

上原 まぁ、ケガばっかりの、中途半端だったかなと思いますね。

–How would you describe the path you took?

Uehara: “Well, it seems like I was always injured, so I think I only went halfway.”

-雑草魂で貫いた姿に感動したファンは多い

上原 手を抜いて投げたことはないですし、今年に限っても、若い選手と一緒に練習しましたし、抜いて練習してたことは自分のなかで一切無かったんで。そういう姿を見て、励みになってくれたらすごくうれしいことですね。

–A lot of fans were inspired by your tough, gritty attitude.

Uehara: “I never cut corners when I pitched. As far as this year, I trained alongside the young players, and never took shortcuts in practice. I’m really happy if others were encouraged by that.”

-「トリプル100」の記録はどう受け止める。

上原 それに関しては、中途半端かなと。どのポジションで全うしたわけでなく。中途半端に先発、中継ぎ、抑えとやっちゃったかなと思います。

— How is your triple-100 accomplishment received? (100 wins, 100 holds, 100 saves)

Uehara: “In regards to that, it’s kind of a mediocre achievement. I didn’t really succeed at any one thing. It’s mediocrity as a starter, as a middle reliever and as a closer.”

-野球を終えたこれからどうする

上原 正直、まだ何も考えてないです。明日からどうしようかなぁという感じです。

–Going forward, what comes after baseball?

Uehara: “Honestly, I haven’t thought of anything. I have a feeling that from tomorrow I’ll ask myself what I should do.”

-チームへのメッセージを

上原 今、首位争いしている中で、こんなことになって申し訳ないなと思います。でも、本当にチームは良い感じできているので、このままみんな頑張ってほしいなと思います。

–Do you have a message for your team?

Uehara: “Right now, we’re competing for the lead, so I apologize for doing this kind of thing. But having said that, the team has a really good feel to it. I hope they can keep doing well like this.”

Mets, Lions, and NPB tie-ups

On Saturday, the Seibu Lions and New York Mets announced a partnership running through the 2021 season, that the defending Pacific League champions see as a way to boost themselves into the 21st century.

What the Japanese get

Of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues, the Central and Pacific, the PL is considered the more innovative, the Lions have a reputation for being more hidebound.

“Their parent company’s main business is railroad. And the most important thing for a railroad is that it is predictable and reliable,” former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato said once. “For that reason, railroad-owned teams tend to be conservative, and the Lions are more often than not siding with the older established CL clubs.

These deals, which are pretty common, allow for sharing information and technology, that the Lions hope will improve their scouting, medical and business capabilities

The Lions said the deal will open the door for their coaches to take part in spring training and instructional league games in the States.

Some of these partnerships have had a huge impact. Twenty years ago, the tie-up between the San Diego Padres and the PL’s Lotte Marines sparked the introduction of the posting system, when the Marines assigned Hideki Irabu to the Padres in exchange for pitcher Shane Dennis and outfielder Jason Thompson.

Sixteen years ago, the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters were transformed as a result of their long term partnership with the New York Yankees. For years, Fighters players and coaches had attended minicamps in the States. And when Nippon Ham announced its team would move to Sapporo, they signed longtime Columbus Clippers manager Trey Hillman to run the club.

The organization was transformed under the leadership of Toshimasa Shimada, who created Japan’s first major league-style front office, but HIllman was a valued contributor in that process, and his finger prints are all over the way the team goes about its business 12 years after he left.

In a traditional Japanese team, the manager signs off on all changes in scouting, medical and fitness policy. This was revolutionary. Teams typically innovate by hiring managers who want to implement changes in those areas. When the SoftBank Hawks hired Kimiyasu Kudo, who studies sports science, much more was demanded of the team’s medical and training staff.

That’s the norm. In a baseball culture where players are told what to do, and managers rarely innovate, pro ballplayers need instruction in strength training and conditioning, but while all clubs have excellent facilities, few place any demands on the players to actually employ them in a productive manner. Japan’s amateur baseball culture generally glosses over nutrition, rest and strength education, and few pro teams do any better.

In 2015, when Kudo took over the Hawks, and the CL’s Yakult Swallows hired SoftBank’s minor league training coach, the two clubs met in the Japan Series and I began asking other clubs about their training innovation.

“I’ve been here five years, and we haven’t changed a single thing,” a Lions conditioning coach told me in 2016.

What the MLB teams get

What’s in it for the Mets is a bigger question.

There are a lot of skills Japanese baseball can teach individuals, and having good coaches in camp and in the instructional league could potentially be valuable.

Unfortunately, those skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but rather taught here and practiced in the context of Japanese competition. You can help someone locate their secondary pitches better and play better defense off the mound, but people here learn that because they are prerequisites.

The best outcome might be to have Kazuo Matsui go and coach in the Mets’ minor league system on loan, in the same way that former Ranger and Padre Akinori Otsuka is now on loan to San Diego from the CL’s Chunichi Dragons.

Very often the MLB partners talk about “scouting information” but that is likely going to be very limited to players who are bound for the States and foreign players in Japan who might return to the majors.

There is no chance the Mets could leverage this deal to improve their chances of signing Japanese amateurs, although I can definitely hear some bright person in the Mets front office selling this deal because of the importance of signing 100-mph high school pitcher Roki Sasaki.

If the Mets act like a major league club that knows everything, then they will be putting themselves in the same place as a player who comes to Japan “knowing” that because he’s played in the majors, he can just profit from what he’s already accomplished without learning anything new.

In that case, the Mets will also be leaving at the first opportunity.

But on the other hand, if the Mets approach this like they were players coming here to restart careers and ask “what can we learn that will make us better,” then the Lions deal could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Heisei ERA, part 2

On this past week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, a listener asked:

  1. Who had the single most dominant season in the Heisei era (1989 to April 30, 2019)?
  2. Who was the best player of the Heisei era in NPB?

To recap our answers, we split on Question 1. John (@JBWPodcast) Gibson answered Masahiro Tanaka‘s 2013, 24-0 MVP season for the Rakuten Eagles, while I had Tetsuto Yamada‘s 2015 MVP season at second base for the Yakult Swallows, which ranks — according to Bill James’ win shares — as the seventh most valuable season in Japanese pro baseball history.

The Heisei Most Dominant Season Award

Tanaka’s season ranks 457th overall among all players in history, and second behind Hall of Famer Masaki Saito’s 1989 season for the Yomiuri Giants. But if one thinks about how the game has changed, Tanaka’s season is pretty darn remarkable.

The quality of play in NPB has increased steadily along with the number of pitches needed to get batters out. Saito, who is a big strong guy like Tanaka had a season that was a little better but required 33 more innings to accomplish.

In terms of how much Tanaka accomplished per inning pitched, his 2013 season is third in Japanese baseball history, behind two more Hall of Famers, Masaichi Kaneda (1958, Kokutetsu Swallows) and Tadashi Sugiura (1959, Nankai Hawks) during Japan’s most pitcher-friendly years since the end of World War II.

John, for those of you who haven’t heard it, brought up Wladimir Balentien‘s 60-home run 2013 season, but Win Shares has that ranked right behind Hotaka Yamakawa‘s MVP season last year for the Seibu Lions and the 28th most valuable during the Heisei era.

The Heisei MVP Award

John and I both picked Tomoaki Kanemoto as the Heisei MVP, which came as a shock to Mr. Gibson. The question excluded Ichiro Suzuki, but if I valued his MLB win shares at 1.2 per NPB WS, he ranks as the undisputed Heisei king. Through that somewhat conservative formula, Suzuki’s 540 ranks him third in Japanese baseball history, far behind the run-away leader, Sadaharu Oh (723 WS) and catcher Katsuya Nomura (581). Because the bulk of Suzuki’s win shares come from MLB, he would shoot past Nomura if each WS was valued at 1.5 per NPB win share.

If we allowed MLB win shares, Kanemoto would finish third, right behind Hideki Matsui.

Anyway, here are the top Heisei win share seasons:

Position players

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Tetsuto Yamada2015Swallows46.8
2. Yuki Yanagita2015Hawks42.0
3. Hideki Matsui2002Giants41.7
4. Ichiro Suzuki1995BlueWave40.5
5. Kosuke Fukudome2006Dragons39.1
6. Kazuo Matsui2002Lions38.8
7. Alex Cabrera2002Lions37.7
8. Tuffy Rhodes2001Buffaloes37.4
9. Yuki Yanagita2018Hawks36.4
10. Takeya Nakamura2011Lions35.8

Pitchers

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Masaki Saito1989Giants29.8
2. Masahiro Tanaka2013Eagles27.3
3. Masaki Saito1990Giants26.6
4. Masahiro Tanaka2011Eagles26.3
5. Hideo Nomo1990Buffaloes25.1
6. Hideyuki Awano1989Buffaloes24.2
7. Shinji Imanaka1993Dragons23.2
8. Tomoyuki Sugano2017Giants23.2
9. Yu Darvish2008Fighters23.1
10. Koji Uehara1999Giants22.8

And for the guy who doesn’t fit anywhere easily, Shohei Ohtani had 32.3 win shares in 2016 as a pitcher and a hitter, and would have ranked high in either list had he only batted or pitched.

You can find my post on NPB’s Heisei era pitching leaders HERE.

Former big leaguer Matsui walks into sunset

Kazuo Matsui’s pro baseball odyssey has finally come to an end.

TOKYO – Even at age 42, the end came more quickly than Kazuo Matsui imagined.
Matsui’s 25-year pro career ground to a halt last month at MetLife Dome outside Tokyo, where the Seibu Lions were eliminated from Japan’s postseason in the final stage of the Pacific League’s Climax Series. A shortstop for most of his career, Matsui returned this year to Seibu for the first time since 2003 as an outfielder and did not see any action during the series.

“Last year, people around me said that considering my age and my numbers, it would be normal to think about retiring, but I’d never even considered it,” Matsui said this summer about why he turned down a coaching job with the Rakuten Eagles, for one last chance to play.

“In my mind, I was still an athlete.”
Matsui, who spent seven years in the big leagues with the Mets, Rockies and Astros, returned to Japan in 2011 with Rakuten. But by 2016 he’d become a utility man. But late this season, in his second-straight year of scant playing time, Matsui bowed to the inevitable.

Matsui leaves the field as a player for the last time on Oct. 21, 2018.

On Oct. 21, before he walked from the field for the last time as a player, Matsui trotted to left field, bowed and bid farewell to the team’s fans. Then as he retraced his steps toward the field exit behind home plate, the four-time Golden Glove winner stopped at the shortstop’s position. Matsui kneeled and touched his hand to the turf he’d patrolled for 8-1/2 years before leaving for America as a free agent in 2004.

Fifteen years ago, Matsui was 28 and coming off two 30-plus home run seasons. He had turned a career-high 96 double plays in 2003. A speedy, switch-hitter, Matsui had been the PL’s MVP at the age of 21. From 22 to 26, he had arguably been Japan’s best player in a discussion that included PL rival Ichiro Suzuki and Central League slugger Hideki Matsui.

“He had a track record in Japan and I saw him first-hand against major league pitching,” Howe said. “He had a tremendous series. That’s what got the Mets so interested in him. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the field.”

But unlike his outfield compatriots, Japan’s first major league infielder’s overseas odyssey was less an adventure and more a lesson in survival. Lower back trouble — that had plagued him as a star pitcher in his final year of high school — resurfaced during his first season with the Mets.

“He had some back issues,” then-Mets manager Art Howe said by phone recently from his home in Houston. “That affected his play. He had all the tools. He was quick. He had an accurate throwing arm. Hit from both sides of the plate.”



Howe had first seen Matsui in 2002, when as Athletics skipper he managed a team of major league all-stars in a postseason tour against an all-star team from Japan’s pro leagues. Matsui, who’d also played in a similar series in 1998, was one of the series’ outstanding players.

A year after a sparkling 2002 postseason series against major leaguers, Matsui was a Met.

“He had a track record in Japan and I saw him first-hand against major league pitching,” Howe said. “He had a tremendous series. That’s what got the Mets so interested in him. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the field.”

The postseason games against MLB players proved an eye-opener for Matsui as well.

“The Japan-MLB series was one of the reasons I wanted to play in America,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Whoa. What could these guys do over the course of a whole season.’ That really piqued my interest, and I knew if I had the chance I wanted to take it.”

In 1998, however, the belief remained strong that only Japanese pitchers could cut it in the majors. Vinny Castilla of the Rockies, a member of the 1998 tour, was quoted by Japan’s Hochi Shimbun as saying it would be difficult for Ichiro – then a three-time MVP and a five-time batting champion — to hit in the majors.

After Ichiro and Hideki Matsui disproved such notions, the Mets took a chance that Kazuo Matsui could thrive in a major league infield.

“I became a free agent at the age of 28, and turned 29 right after my first season in the majors. Baseball careers are so short, and I felt that this was my last chance to play in America.”

“A certain amount of information is needed (about the way they play) but there is such a thing as too much information,” he said. “Japanese players want a lot of information, but after all, we’ve been playing ball in Japan, and there’s really no need for us to change the way we play.”

Although durable in homeland, Matsui became injury-prone in America, starting in spring training, where the different tempo can take a toll on Japanese imports. Spring training in Japan means all-day workouts from Feb. 1 with frequent days off for rest and recovery. This segues into daily practices and exhibitions from the end of February until Opening Day.

Matsui said that while new players understand they can’t work as much each day as they are used to and that stresses players out.

“You are pushed in training here (in Japan) quite a lot, but there are days off,” Matsui said. “But with no days off in America, you have to do a really good job of adjusting your own workload. But when you do that and train less, it’s easy to become anxious that you’re not doing enough work, and you find yourself overcompensating by doing more and more and more.”

Matsui doesn’t say whether or not over-training contributed to his own fitness issues, but he said players coming to the States can easily get lost if they try too hard to adjust to perceived differences in the style of play and expectations.



“A certain amount of information is needed (about the way they play) but there is such a thing as too much information,” he said. “Japanese players want a lot of information, but after all, we’ve been playing ball in Japan, and there’s really no need for us to change the way we play.”

“First of all you go to America, experience that. Then you play preseason games and get that experience. What’s really important is getting a feel for that game from those first impressions and then asking yourself what you need to do next. But if you go and start telling yourself, ‘I need to do it this way or do it that way,’ you’re going to lose your way.'”

Did that happen to him?

“It happens to some players,” he said.

“When people ask me about my time over there, I think about the difficulties, the sadness, frustrations you can’t experience here,” he said. “But I also remember the sensations, the sunshine in the morning and things like the smell of the grass. The first thing I’d do when I’d get to the field was breath that in, the smell of the grass, and it stayed with me as I played.”

A finger injury kept Matsui from fielding in preseason games until the middle of March, and he injured his right wrist a week before Opening Day. But he answered the bell, going 3-for-3 with two doubles, two walks, and a homer in his first big league at-bat. It was, however, an offensive performance he wouldn’t match until a five-RBI day in a demolition of the Yankees on July 2.

Without the lively balls employed by PL teams in his final years in Japan, and learning to deal with take-out slides at second base for the first time in his career, Matsui was faced with a mountain of adjustments.

“The toughest change for me on the field was the speed of both the base runners and batted balls,” he said. “First of all, because I went as a fielder, it was essential to focus on defense. That meant learning to anticipate where different pitches would be hit. As for the speed of the runners, it’s bewildering to people who are new to that.”

Matsui in his prime as the
Seibu Lions shortstop.

“Of course, I slid hard, too. So I was conscious of it. But even still, the speed of those slides (coming in to you) is much faster than you imagine. It’s something you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve experienced it.”

Howe, whom Matsui named as one of the people who had the biggest impacts on his career, understood Matsui’s plight.

“The expectations were out of sight when he came to New York,” Howe said. “If you don’t meet expectations in New York, you’re going to have trouble with the fan base and the writers. It’s a tough place…”

“He’s coming from a different culture with a different language to the biggest city in the States, with all kinds of pressure from the fan base there. It had to be difficult for anybody. But he was always smiling. He always had a good attitude. He never seemed to let anything get him down. I thought the world of Kaz and wanted to do everything I could to help him succeed.”



Despite the injuries frustrations and disappointments – or perhaps because of them, Matsui believes that in the big picture, his seven years in the States taught him things he might not have learned in Japan.

“I don’t even have any regrets about the first years,” he said. “My lower back trouble was an old thing. And it’s there that I really learned how critical the self-management side was. The season is so much longer, the travel harder. How do you deal with that? Those were important lessons for me.”

Immersed in an ethos in which orders are followed and questions not asked, Japanese athletes have earned a reputation for being extremely coachable. For Matsui, playing abroad meant experiencing game he learned as a child through a different paradigm. In the majors, he felt that responsibility to one’s craft was as much about initiative and problem solving as the exhaustive obedience expected in Japan.

“I learned to plan out my own practices, and manage my own conditioning. Everything followed from that. I did pretty much everything the way I wanted,” he said. “After I had an idea about some way to practice, I would take it to a coach, explain what I was thinking and bounce it off him.”

“That’s how I improved my physical condition and other aspects of my game. I saw in a new light how diligent you have to be. I’ve been doing it that way since.”

“When people ask me about my time over there, I think about the difficulties, the sadness, frustrations you can’t experience here,” he said. “But I also remember the sensations, the sunshine in the morning and things like the smell of the grass. The first thing I’d do when I’d get to the field was breath that in, the smell of the grass, and it stayed with me as I played.”