Tag Archives: Masahiro Tanaka

The Maa-kun economy

$54 million boost

Although Masahiro Tanaka’s return to the Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League was not billed as a man vs coronavirus battle, a study released by Kansai University on Wednesday suggests that if it were, the 32-year-old right-hander is well positioned to earn the win with a local economic impact of nearly $54 million.

The study, authored by Professor Emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto, who has something of a cottage industry studying spill-over economic effects, calculated that Tanaka’s return would add 5.72 billion yen ($53.9 million) to the economy of Miyagi Prefecture, where the Eagles are based in the city of Sendai.

Tanaka, known widely in Japan by his nickname “Maa-kun” last pitched for the Eagles in 2013, he left for a seven-year stint after winning 28 consecutive regular seasons games. He extended that run to 30 with wins in the postseason before losing Game 6 of the 2013 Japan Series the Eagles went on to win — with Tanaka earning the save in Game 7.

Miyamoto calculated that if the Eagles’ home games are limited to half their ballpark’s capacity this season, the pandemic will cost the club about 4 billion yen ($37.7 million).

“This benefit does not represent revenue flowing into the club, but rather revenue generated outward from the club. If you look at the numbers, the salary figure reported in the media of 900 million yen ($8.5 million) does seem very high at all and in fact could give a huge boost to the prefecture’s economy,” Miyamoto said.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Tanaka shirts a hot item

The Rakuten Eagles may not have wrapped up their first pennant since 2013 with the signing of their former ace Masahiro Tanaka, but they are reaping a windfall just two weeks into camp Kyodo News (Japanese) reported Monday.

Since Tanaka returned last month for the first time since he closed out Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series with a save, the Pacific League team has sold 5,000 No. 18 Tanaka replica shirts in 10 days, for a total retail value of 70 million yen, or roughly 6.3 percent of the right-hander’s contract reported at 900 million yen ($8.7 million

Rakuten’s director of goods and merchandising, Takashi Watanabe, said, “It exceeds our expectations. There’s no sign it’s stopping yet. It’s the same kind of momentum from when we won the championship in 2013.”

Tanaka, by the way, has been scheduled to take the mound for the first time in a practice game on Feb. 20.

Okinawa gets its 1st women’s team

Although Japan’s baseball-playing population is dwindling, women are flocking to the game. Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts spring training camps for most of NPB’s 12 teams, is getting into the act, writes Nikkan Sports columnist Hirokazu Terao.

Kumiko Nakayama, a vice chairman of the prefectural high school baseball federation, will officially start the team in April. Nakayama is the principal of Nambu Shogyo (Commercial) High School, and for 10 years served as the director of baseball for both Chubu Shogyo and Urasoe Shogyo high schools.

The manager of those schools at the time said he invited her since high school baseball was education and he wanted her to assist in developing the youngsters. It’s typical in high school games to see the school’s baseball director sitting on the bench near the manager, but Nakayama rarely did so, but the manager recalled her saying, “People would say, ‘What’s a woman doing there?’ I don’t want to be seen as just a decoration.”

Nakayama made use of her education specialty to set up an analytics team that racked pitch location and the flight of batted balls, and a support team so students other than players could contribute.

According to Terao, the national women’s high school hardball federation reported 36 member schools in 2020, up from seven in 2010, while Japan’s national women’s team has won six straight world championships. Two of NPB’s 12 teams, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers, have established women’s club teams.

“So many women want to play, but as they progress from junior high to high school and graduate or leave the prefecture, it becomes economically unfeasible to keep at it,” Nakayama said. “I love baseball and felt I had to do something about it.”

Nakayama has held two events to show what the team is about ande expects the team, based on the main island’s southern Shimajiri District, to start with 12 to 13 members. To make it easier for women from other islands or from the main island’s northern districts to participate she’s rented space in a nearby home.

In a month when Japan’s deep-rooted misogyny was highlighted by the sexist remarks of a former prime minister, Nakayama’s words as an educator give Japan something positive to look forward to.

“We can’t foresee the future,” she said. “But women, too, can play an active role nationwide. School club activities are part of education, and if you challenge yourself through baseball and become a leader, it will improve your school. Building roots in the community is important, too. If this contributes to students finding jobs or getting into universities, I want to support that.”

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Tanaka tries to find zone

Masahiro Tanaka threw his second bullpen of the spring on Tuesday at the Rakuten Eagles’ spring camp in Kin, Okinawa Prefecture, when he proved to be popular with the umpires as well, Full-count reported.

A feature of Japanese camp is the umpires calling balls and strikes in the bullpen. Former Hanshin Tigers reliever Jeff Williams once told about his catcher and the bullpen umpire nearly coming to blows over the ump’s calls in his first pen of the spring.

Tanaka, who was trying to re-acclimate himself to the way balls and strikes are being called in Japan now questioned reserve catcher Takahiro Shimotsuma after 22-year-old third-year umpire Kazuki Nishizawa called a ball.

  • Tanaka: “Did that miss a little? Was it low?”
  • Shimotsuma: “It was the fault of my catching.”
  • Tanaka: “No way. A ball is a ball.”

If umpires show Tanaka the same kind of deference Shimotsuma did, the right-hander might never leave Japan, although Nishizawa was apparently less helpful, the Nikkan Sports wrote when Tanaka quizzed him about where the top of the strike zone was.

Swing, swing, swing

Japanese spring training varies from the MLB version in a number of ways too numerous to mention here. But one of those attracted the attention of a writer for Chiba Nippo on Tuesday.

Although Japanese clubs end practice in the afternoon and have a day off every five or six days, it’s not that simple. Just as player are expected to engage in individual free workouts prior to spring training at team facilities with the coaching staff watching from afar, batters are expected to swing at the team hotel well into the night.

When he managed the Lotte Marines, Bobby Valentine said it was never part of the plan but rather a part of the culture, that after dinner players would go to the hotel parking lot and swing their bats.

Watching the players take their after-hour practice swings from the veranda of his hotel room has become a part of current Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi, the report noted.

“Everyone’s swinging,” he said. “I can’t tell who’s doing it because it’s dark, but you can hear that sound a good swing makes. That’s the degree to which they are doing ‘furikomi,'” Iguchi said.

Furikomi is a compound of the verb “furu” to swing and “komu” do something continuously, completely or intently, see the more common baseball term “nagekomi.”

“If you don’t swing, you can’t add the physical ability to hit.”

The story was more about the emphasis Iguchi is placing on players focusing on using their lower bodies to power their swings, but you get the picture.

The answer is always ‘more’

A day after every hit he allowed in a simulated game came off his fastball, Hiroshima Carp right-hander Yuta Nakamura went to the bullpen to make corrections, the Nikkan Sports reported Tuesday.

Nakamura threw a 234-pitch all-fastball bullpen.

“My fastball wasn’t good yesterday,” he said, while admitting he got carried away. “I came with then intent of doing a nagekomi with my fastball, but I may have thrown too much.”

Nakamura documented his endeavor with a Rapsodo system, to check his rotation and spin axis.

“I have a lot better feel for it now,” he said.

And in new school

Tuesday was R&D day at the SoftBank Hawks’ camp in Miyazaki, the Nikkan Sports reported when the four-time defending Japan Series champs invited tech companies and researchers into camp to measure four hitters’ motions as they swung.

“They measured how the position players moved, their swing speed and the rotational axis of the balls (off the bat),” said manager Kimiyasu Kudo, who has been pursuing a degree in sports science. “From the data they get we’ll be able to advise players going forward.”

The club had invited staff from Driveline to its 2019 autumn mini camp.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Getting to work

A day after arriving at the Rakuten Eagles spring camp in Kin, Okinawa Prefecture, and admitting to some nerves in his old crimson getup, Masahiro Tanaka threw his first NPB bullpen in eight years on Sunday.

Throwing to third-year player Hikaru Ota, whose 67 games last year were the most of the Eagles’ catching staff, Tanaka said it was his job to take the lead, Full-count reported.

“Even me, I didn’t feel I had done enough to establish that communication (with my catcher) when I was young, so it’s on me to go to him and establish an atmosphere where he can easily ask me things,” said Tanaka, who admitted it was a little different throwing NPB’s ball.

“I was a little off with this (NPB) ball, but nothing major.”

Curmudgeon corner

If it’s Sunday, it’s time for Isao Harimoto’s Curmudgeon Corner, his sports section on TBS Network’s Sunday Morning. This morning, he was joined by fellow traveler and former Yomiuri Giants teammate Tsuneo Horiuchi.

Both Horiuchi and Harimoto said Tanaka’s return is a chance to boost Japan’s game, implying that there is something to be learned from playing abroad.

Horiuchi said, however, that it was proper for Tanaka to return to Japan and for Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano to stay here for 2021. To be honest, I can only assume he meant individual Japanese players should stay home to improve the quality of the domestic game. But if Tanaka hadn’t gone abroad, he wouldn’t be the pitcher he now is, so that’s a problematic argument.

Moving on to other things about camp, the segment’s announcer showed some of the novel training methods being tried out this spring, starting with Giants farm team manager Shinnosuke Abe having batters do some lifting barbells on the sideline after BP.

“The essence of baseball is hitting a ball with a bat. You want to be careful about building up the wrong muscles, because they can impede your swing,” Harimoto said in what was for him an unusually well-phrased observation. “Horiuchi-san will tell you it’s the same for pitchers.”

New math

Horiuchi agreed, but added that novel training was a kind of fun thing for coaches, and that thinking outside the box is probably a good thing, upon which the focus switched to the Seibu Lions’ camp, where players executed a standard footwork drill while solving a series of simple arithmetic problems a coach shouted at them.

“Complete waste of time that would be better spent building up their physical condition,” Harimoto said. “If they want to learn arithmetic, they should do it in the offseason.”

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

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.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Youtube Hand of God

Returning Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka has launched his Youtube channel, which quickly brought some comments from his peers I thought were worth sharing.

The news in Japan Thursday of Tanaka’s return sent a buzz through Japan, and Tanaka’s venture into Youtube, titled “Ma-kun Channel Masahiro Tanaka” was apparently a little bland for veteran Yutube Yu Darvish, who replied, “Don’t you mean God’s channel?”

By 9 a.m. Sunday morning in Japan, Tanaka’s channel had two videos, one of his Saturday presser, English transcript, and another private video of him on the way to the press conference in Tokyo and 68,300 subscribers.

Darvish then retweeted it saying he recalled somewhere saying it should be called the channel “Masahiro Tanaka’s God Channel,” which drew a response from irrepressible former Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa.

“‘Masahiro Tanaka’s God Channel!’ what a great name for a channel.”

–Kyuji Fujikawa

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail