On Saturday, two days after he threw his first bullpen session of spring training, 18-year-old Roki Sasaki was again the center of attention. This time, Sasaki, who touched 100 mph in his senior year of high school, drew a crowd of Chunichi Dragons before their game with his Lotte Marines according to the Nikkan Sports.
Indeed, Sasaki’s delivery is so effortless looking, that he is a fairly unique athlete. Sasaki said he was much happier with Saturday’s 48-pitch effort, saying, “I threw some pitches I was very happy with, although I was still wild.”
And the crowd?
“I noticed them, but they weren’t in my field of vision when I was throwing so no problem,” he said.
Disappointment from Bour
In what will probably be the first of many such stories this season, the Daily Sports reported on the results of new Hanshin Tigers Jerry Sands and Justin Bour, in their headline: “Sands gets 2 free passes, Bour grounds into bases-loaded double play.”
The game was the team’s first outside practice game, a 7-1 loss to the Hiroshima Carp.
New Buffalo Jones confesses to wanting to hit. 300
Sports Hochi reported Saturday that new Orix Buffaloes import Adam Jones, who has declined the Japanese custom of announcing numeric goals for the season, revealed to Orix executives that he wanted to hit .300. Stop the presses.
BayStars import Austin to start preseason opener
Journeyman first baseman and corner outfielder Tyler Austin will start in right field for the DeNA BayStars in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Yomiuri Giants in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, DeNA skipper Alex Ramirez said, according to Hochi Shimbun.
Tyler will bat second and play right, while two-time CL home run champion Neftali Soto, who split his time last season between second and right, will be at first base. Regular first baseman Jose Lopez, will be the DH. Ramirez said he would continue to use big hitters in the No. 2 hole this season.
Last year, he caught flak for “insulting Japan” by having the national team cleanup hitter, new Tampa Bay Ray Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second.
Villanueva vows to adjust with new club
Christian Villanueva was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in his intrasquad debut with the Nippon Ham Fighters, whom he joined after an unsuccessful NPB 2019 debut campaign with the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants.
He said he was grateful to the Fighters for accepting him and that he would adjust so that he could be able to be as effective as possible, the Hochi Shimbun reported.
Mota making strong appeal for Giants call-up
Israel Mota, a 24-year-outfielder who spent five years in the Washington Nationals farm system, continued to swing a hot bat in camp, the Hochi Shimbun reported Saturday. Mota, who joined Yomiuri on a developmental contract last year, singled and doubled in three practice game at-bats against KBO’s Samsung Lions.
In the same game, new Giant Gerardo Parra was greeted by Giants fans showing off their “Baby Shark” chops when he appeared as a pinch-hitter at Okinawa Cellular Stadium. He struck out.
The Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League announced Thursday they have completed the signing of former Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever J.T. Chargois.
The right-hander, who just turned 29, has relied primarily on his fastball and slider, has been striking out well over one batter per inning in his 60 games out of the Dodgers’ bullpen the past two seasons.
In a Japanese language statement released by the Eagles, Chargois expressed appreciation to Rakuten for giving him this opportunity to take the next step in his career.
“We have signed Chargois in the belief that he will be able to help our chances of winning by pitching in the late innings in relief,” said the Eagles general manager, former Dodger pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii.
“Regarding our reasons for acquiring him, we believe his fastball is strong enough to dominate over the course of an inning. He also has late movement on his breaking ball. He is a fighter who can learn the most important lessons Japan can teach and with that knowledge return to the major leagues. We want him to be a success here.”
The Sendai-based Eagles, who began operating as an expansion franchise in 2005 out of the ashes of the merger of the PL’s Orix Buffaloes and Kintetsu Buffaloes, finished third in the PL last season, but have never finished better than fourth in any even-numbered year.
The Eagles are looking to end that frustrating pattern in 2020 by moving left-handed closer Yuki Matsui to the starting rotation.
The Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League have acquired Los Angeles Dodgers reliever JT Chargois a day after he was released by the National League club, according to a report by Sports Nippon on Monday, citing sources.
The Eagles, who won their only PL and Japan Series pennant in 2013, are expected to move lefty closer Yuki Matsui into the starting rotation next year. Chargois, who turned 29 in December and made his big league debut for the Twins in 2016, has struck out 85 batters in 76-2/3 innings.
The Eagles, who hired former Dodger Kazuhisa Ishii as their general manager a year ago, finished third last year in the league, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2017. The club got a big boost from new import Jabari Blash, who posted a .936 OPS in a career-high 527 plate appearances for the Sendai-based Eagles.
Sports Hochi reported Wednesday, citing official sources, that the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League are in basic agreement on a contract with 32-year-old outfielder Jerry Sands, who led the Korean Baseball Organization with 113 RBIs this year for the Kiwoom Heroes.
Sands failed to stick with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a 23-year-old corner outfielder / first baseman after playing 61 games in 2011. He put together a solid if unspectacular Triple-A career before ending up in South Korea in 2018. This year, the 1.93-meter Sands hit 28 home runs, while batting .305, drawing 77 walks and scoring 100 runs with very small home-road splits.
In his Triple-A career, Sands posted a .362 on-base percentage in 1,576 career at-bats with the bulk of that coming as a youngster in Albuquerque in 2011 and 2012.
In addition to the Dodgers, Sands played in the majors for the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. He also played one winter in Puerto Rico.
According to the Hochi report, his deal is expected to be completed this month.
According to Bill James‘ Win Shares formulas, the Tigers’ offense was 10th among 12 NPB teams in 2019, while their pitching was 3rd. The club has since signed former major leaguer Justin Bour.
Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.
The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.
In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.
“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”
“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”
“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”
Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.
He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.
On setting standards to protect youth players’ health
With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.
“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”
“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”
“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”
Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.
“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”
“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”
Leveling the playing field, literally
On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”
Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.
“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”
“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”
On the meaning of Koshien
Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.
“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”
“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”
On the manners of Japanese baseball culture
“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”
On an Asian winter meetings
“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.
“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”
“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”
One of the annual pleasures of the winter meetings has been a chat with former Takashi Saito. Currently with the San Diego Padres front office, we didn’t run into each other, so I think it’s well time to renew some of the great things he told me last year in Florida after the Padres lost the Shohei Ohtani derby.
Saito went from being unwanted by a marginal NPB franchise to becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers’ closer and a National League All-Star. A graduate of Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University, he’s one of the more eloquent and informative voices in the game.
“You never know what is going to happen, so being prepared for different possibilities is so important. That lesson really hit home. Really, so many things happened that year, 2006, that it was simply amazing. That year was one of the treasures of my life…it was valuable for my career and for my life. It was a life-enriching experience overall.”