Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Friday the Cincinnati Reds have put a multiyear offer on the table for free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, and are the top candidate to sign the 31-year-old, citing multiple major league sources.
The Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs have all been tied to the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the two-time defending champions of Japan’s Pacific League. Those teams met with Akiyama at December’s baseball winter meetings in San Diego.
The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.
The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.
Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.
Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.
Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kikuchi, a record-setting glove wizard, has roughly a week to sign before his rights revert to the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Yamaguchi, too, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.
Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.
I’m not certain that Yangervis Solarte is being fitted for the goat horns or not, but the news today that he went 0-for-3 and made an error in his first game on the farm since being deactivated is a bad sign.
The bigger the team is in Japan, the greater the need for a fall guy when things go wrong. As a result, we see it a lot with Japan’s too oldest clubs, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants — although less with the Giants now that their fascist generalissimo, Tsuneo Watanabe, is fading into the background.
Solarte is 13-for-69 with nine walks and a .406 slugging average, and has been a ball of energy and fun, although not a superior defender at short.
A friend of mine who was spending a year covering the Tigers for the Daily Sports, perhaps the paper that has the most intense Tigers following, told me that in the summer of 2012, a number of the team’s veterans –including legend Tomoaki Kanemoto — were hitting for a low average, but the coaches refused to criticize them to reporters, who badly needed a scapegoat.
According to the reporter, the coaches began giving harsh evaluations of Matt Murton and Craig Brazell in order to satisfy the media pack. This led to streams of annoying questions for Murton who eventually burst out with a sarcastic quip that gave the press what it wanted.
I don’t think the team is looking to turn Solarte into a scapegoat, but stories by the Tigers beat writers this summer suggested that Jefry Marte was the leading candidate until Solarte’s arrival, but that his new teammate is the man whose head is being fitted for horns by reporters.
Matt Murton knows a few things about role reversal, having
gone from phenom to role player for the Chicago Cubs and from record-setting
hero to villain in his six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central
‘Win or lose, they find a way to put me on the front page,’
he quipped in his final season here.
Murton debuted with Hanshin in 2010 and proved a quick study
in the ways of Japan’s game. His precise and rigorous pregame practice blew
away manager Akinobu Mayumi. And when he began challenging to break Ichiro
Suzuki’s 16-year-old single-season hit record, he seemed a worthy heir. When he
did set a new record, Murton did it in a season that was 14 games longer, but
Suzuki said that didn’t make it less of an accomplishment.
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people. And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back.”
Matt Murton to Kyodo News in 2015
But what should have been the happiest of times turned into
a depressing slog, a stellar season overshadowed by hyper expectations. When Murton
finally got hit No. 211, the weight of the world came off his shoulders. At the
end, a season begun as a way to learn lessons needed to restart his major
league career instead created an unbreakable molecular bond between player and country.
Yet, within two years, when Murton and the rest of the
Kansai region’s most popular club failed to meet expectations, everything around
him had changed. In 2013, when a reporter insinuated he hadn’t been trying hard
in the outfield, Murton sarcastically said he didn’t like pitcher Atsushi Nomi
— who was on the mound when Murton failed to throw out a runner at the plate.
Not only did the regional sports media, who report every
scrap of Tigers news, turn on him, but his words were splashed across the front
page of every sports daily in Japan.
“You can’t go back and you can’t change it,” Murton, now an
assistant in baseball operations for the Cubs, said this spring in Mesa,
“I think for me specifically, it became kind of polarizing. We are playing for a team that was very visible. Given what I was able to accomplish as an individual in unison with our team in our first year, it puts you in a place of being very visible as a foreign player, and any misstep or anything that happened along the way was magnified. I feel that some of it wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be, some of it could have been handled differently. It was probably a combination of all of the above.”
Breaking Ichiro’s hit record
In retrospect, 2010 can be seen as a lesson about one aspect
of the dynamic between Japanese groups and their individual members. Because
Japan emphasizes group success and failure, it can be a surprise that
league-leading achievements and individual awards take on so much importance.
One trick is to look at those things as credits to the group
ledger, because they raise the profile of the group as a whole. This may help
explain why teams sometimes do whatever they can to boost individuals
accomplishments even to the detriment of team wins. It used to be common to intentionally
walking opposing hitters – regardless of the game situation – if it assists a
teammate’s effort to win an individual title, provided the team had nothing to
The introduction of playoffs in the Pacific League in 2004
and the Central League in 2007 has reduced the number of meaningless games, so
there are fewer chances to witness those farces. But having a sense that
individual accomplishments are to teams is important in getting a feel for the
pressure Murton felt as he approached Suzuki’s record.
“I felt that if I didn’t get it, I would be a failure, that
I would be letting my team down,” Murton told The Daily Yomiuri that October as
the Tigers prepared to begin the playoffs.
Ironically, he said, the solution came when looking at the problem in a different light.
“What’s so funny about that is I go back to that individual moment
in 2010, when I had a chance at Jingu (Stadium) to get a base hit on a changeup
up the middle and set the single-season hit record,” he said. “I remember the
feelings I had coming into the game. There was an expectation, whether it was
the media or people talking about it, whatever it was, to accomplish something
as an individual. So I felt that there were these external pressures that I had
to carry with me.”
“I’ll never forget that moment because on that day, it was bases loaded, and all of a sudden it came over me, ‘This isn’t about me getting a hit. It’s about knocking my teammates in.’ My thinking transferred from individual result to team success. When I was able to transfer my thinking to more of a group mentality, and living in the moment and competing as a team, the individual success came.”
“If we make it all about self, we oftentimes can find ourselves living at the address of thinking about factors we don’t need to be thinking about. When we keep it simple about the competition in the moment and how to help our team, the individual numbers take care of themselves.”
That was 2010, the last year of loosely regulated baseballs
in Japan. That year, offensive numbers did more than take care of themselves. They
took care of fellow Tiger Craig Brazell. The Tigers first baseman hit 47 homers
that season, despite playing at Koshien Stadium, where the vast power alleys
make it one of Japan’s toughest home run parks.
That power output secured Brazell a hefty three-year extension good times seemed just around the corner for Hanshin.
“I don’t like Nomi”
Like nearly every hitter in Japan, 2011 was a letdown for
Murton. After more than a decade of barely regulated balls, Nippon Professional
Baseball for the first time introduced a uniform baseball. The new ball was
intended to as dead as possible, and it was.
In addition to the deader ball, that season saw umpires from
Japan’s two top-flight circuits, the Central and Pacific leagues merged for the
first time. Games in Eastern Japan were also played with reduced lighting for
much of the season after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in
nuclear meltdowns and created a power shortage.
Across NPB, batting averages dropped by 8 percent and there
were 41 percent fewer homers. Murton’s offense took a hit, but he still went on
to win his second straight Central League Best Nine Award in the outfield. That
earned him a contract extension, but after finishing in fourth place, the
Tigers replaced manager Mayumi with Yutaka Wada.
Under Wada, the club did not flounder, but try as they
might, the Tigers couldn’t climb above .500. It didn’t help that older Tigers
players were not batting as well as expected and Brazell’s power evaporated after
2010. Nor did it help that Murton was guilty of a couple of careless plays in
Suddenly, the news among the sports papers feeding the
Tigers’ massive fan base began find fault with the team’s foreign players. Part
of Hanshin’s dynamic is the extreme degree the club worries about its press
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot
of people who are not baseball people,” Murton told Kyodo News in 2015. “And
then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be
very cognizant of their back. In my experience, they (the team) allow that to
infiltrate the organization.”
One of the Hanshin beat writers in 2012 has suggested that Wada and his coaches had caved in to media pressure for a scapegoat and the Tigers threw the foreign players to the wolves.
Murton found himself running a daily gauntlet of
insinuations masquerading as post-game questions. And on June 9, after the
Tigers lost their interleague game against the PL’s Orix Buffaloes 6-1, he’d
Murton went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting
average to .231 for the season, but the question was about his defense. With
the Tigers losing 1-0 in the fourth, Murton’s throw home on a two-out single to
right was unable to nail the runner at the plate or prevent the batter from
advancing to second.
Asked if he had tried to throw the runner out at the plate,
Murton, who had spent much of his professional career trying to reign in his
temper, didn’t get overtly angry, but that hardly mattered.
His “I don’t like Nomi,” offered as a joke, transformed the
Tigers irritating media into a personal pestilence.
The sports dailies called for Murton’s head, and parent
company stockholders called for Murton’s dismissal. The fans who went to the
ballpark, those who actually witnessed his attitude and effort, stuck with him,
but the media had a circus to report on and wasn’t going to give it up easily.
“It was frustration, and the question that was asked and I didn’t understand,” Murton said. “I think the question was questioning integrity or how hard you were trying to do or whatever, so it was tough. But that probably wasn’t the right way to respond. But it was certainly in jest, a joke. Therein lies a cultural lesson that our jokes don’t always translate.”
Cultural collisions at home and abroad
Having learned sarcasm doesn’t travel, Murton crossed
another cultural divide in 2013, when he twice slammed into Yakult Swallows
catchers. Japanese catchers had been trained to block the plate without the
ball, and then duck and cover in case runners tried to bowl them over. Umpires
did not require tags on such plays, demanding catchers only hold on to the ball.
Most, but not all, collisions on Japanese base paths have
involved foreign base runners, who had been taught since childhood that
separating catchers from the ball was the base runner’s duty to his team.
On the same day Yakult Swallows catcher Masahiko Tanaka
returned to duty months after an earlier collision with Murton, the Tigers
outfielder slammed into Swallows veteran Ryoji Aikawa at Jingu. Aikawa himself had
been sidelined early in the season in a collision with a different runner, and
was not in a forgiving mood. Shoving and F-bombs ensued at home plate, Murton
was ejected, and his transformation from famous to infamous was complete.
The following spring, instead of pulling out the “This is
how baseball is played” excuse, Murton said he would be fine with rules that
prohibited catchers without the ball from blocking the plate and prevented
runners from trying to dislodge the ball rather than reach home.
“If that’s the rule, then the catcher doesn’t get hurt and I
as the runner don’t get hurt,” he said.
“I’m very passionate and driven. We can sit here and make excuses all day long, but excuses are a hindrance to growth. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to be raw. We’ve got to be vulnerable and realize we do have some shortcomings and that there are plenty of ways to learn from previous experiences.”
Needless to say, Japan provided Murton with lots of grist
for that mill. And though he first came here to acquire skills with which he
could relaunch his major league career, he got more than he bargained for.
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there, the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled
with the enthusiasm and the support of the people. This is very unique. Chicago,
I think (is one of) a few markets that present similar type feeling from a
player’s perspective. But on a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the
opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is
very unique and a lot can be learned and it’s a place that as an American or a
foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool
experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never
want to shut the door on that.”
Murton said that was true even when things went awry in ways
he couldn’t fathom at the time. Three-plus years later, having finally retired and
moved on to a team-building career, Murton has gained more perspective.
“It’s always easier once you are removed from an environment
to be able to look at it more objectively. The same is true in regards to
competition. What competition does in terms in the sense of the heightened
sense of our emotions and our responses, those are all a factor,” he said.
“Culturally, you would feel things or sense things that
really weren’t there. I look back on things and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have
been so taken back by whatever it was, A, B, C or D.’ I think there were times
when the feelings were warranted and made sense, but the responses you always
wish were different.”
While there’s no going back to the way things were, Murton
said his family thinks of Japan a lot. He lives in the Nashville area and is
involved with the Japanese community there, and his wife longs for the
simplicity of life on Kobe’s Rokko Island, where everything they needed was no
more than a short walk away.
“I came back this past September and I was only there for
four days,” Murton said. “My two older ones asked on that trip if they could
go, and they’ve more recently verbalized that they want to go back. It’s
something that will happen, when we make sense of when that time is right for
the younger kids and for us as a family.”
“You walk away from experiences and you want to do it in a
way that you’re wanting more,” he said. “It’s a part of you. It’s a season in
your life. It’s a chapter. It doesn’t change your identity or future, but that
will always be a part of you and that will never change, so there’s gratitude
for the experience and the relationships.”
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there (in Japan), the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out
basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people.”
While Japanese baseball is not major league baseball, it
represents some things that are hard to find in the majors, and he wasn’t
talking about 3-1 sliders, 2-0 curveballs or 100-pitch bullpens but engagement.
“I think there are a few (major league) markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective,” Murton said, noting that playing in Chicago has a similar vibe. “On a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned. And it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”
Words for the wise
For those wishing to share that, and who are lucky enough to
be in the right place at the right time when a Japanese club has its eyes on then,
Murton has some advice.
“The first thing would be to be prepared for a challenge
physically. If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t quite understand the
level of competition,” he said. “No. 1 is you have to prepare your body and
your mind. Never forget who you are, but take that America mindset or whatever
it is from whatever country you are from and check it at the door.”
“Kind of embrace the culture on the field and off the field. Right off the bat, there are going to be things done differently that maybe doesn’t make sense to you. That’s OK, because the feelings that you have are probably not any different from other guys that have played before you. Be aware that some of those situations are going to create feelings that are going to make it hard for you to understand.”
“But just live at the address of showing up every day,
caring for people and love the game. If you can do those things, embrace the
culture and the unique opportunity you have. You’re one of a very select few,
so just try and make the most of that.”
But that is the hindsight of six seasons of seeing foreign
players come and go. One early surprise in 2010 was seeing coaches’ brows
furrow when he’d spend an entire batting practice working on fundamentals.
Murton wasn’t yet used to Japanese baseball’s love of material results, where a
fluke single on a bad swing can be declared a good sign, while good swings and
hard-hit outs can be a cause for concern.
“Normally, I come to camp thinking, ‘I’m going to work the
backside of the field, and I’m going to get my swings in,’ because that was the
mentality you had coming from America,” Murton said. “If you’re a hitter (in
Japan), the first day go ahead and try to hit some home runs, try to let them
know you can do it. Then everyone will relax and you can go back to doing what
you’ve got to do. So yes, that is the one other piece of advice I’d probably
That and perhaps, save the sarcasm for home.
“I had a chance to see him (Nomi) for dinner this past
September, and I gave him a nice hug,” Murton said.
“That was always going to be a thing,” Murton said. “I still
can’t believe to this day that it took on this life of its own. And part of
that is my own fault.”
For those of you unfamiliar with spring training in Japan, here are a few things to look out for as you dive into the news coming out of the 12 teams’ camps. It’s not Mr. Baseball, although a surprising number of NPB veterans have said that movie helped them prepare mentally for things being different.
The time between Feb. 1 and Opening Day is divided into two segments. The first is called camp, the second a time for preseason exhibitions “opensen”(オーペン戦) . Camp runs for most of February, and when it ends teams move out of their spring training facilities and go from town to town playing exhibition games.
A few exhibition games typically take place before the end of spring training, although these are most commonly practice games, where the rules are flexible to suit the needs of the teams.
Despite Japan’s reputation for working to extreme, Japanese teams will train for four or five days and then take a day off. They’ll repeat that cycle until the end of camp. But don’t worry, the work gets done.
When reporters show up at the spring training facility in the morning, they’ll receive a sheet of paper explaining which player is in which training group and the different tasks they’ll be performing until early in the afternoon. What that doesn’t tell you is that players will be hitting off machines until evening or swinging or working out until after dark.
On Jan. 31, players and staff go to a local shrine to pray for success in the upcoming season. Workouts begin on Feb. 1, or at least that’s the way it used to be. Now, large numbers of players have begun showing up for group voluntary training in the days leading up to camp. Recent photos from the Yomiuri Giants camp in Miyazaki Prefecture, showed ace Tomoyuki Sugano throwing a bullpen on “Day 2 of group voluntary training.”
Help for foreign newbies
Almost every foreign player arriving for their first spring training in Japan has been told to bring running shoes. This is sound advice. Here is some more that I’ve heard from players with NPB experience:
Be ready to see pitchers throwing at full velocity from Day 1 and don’t try it yourself. You’ll be ready when you are ready. That won’t stop everyone else from treating the first day of camp like Opening Day. And that includes umpires. Former Hanshin Tigers reliever Jeff Williams recalled that his catcher and an umpire once got into a heated argument over balls and strikes in the bullpen on the first day of camp.
Remember, you know what your body needs to get ready for the season, so don’t overdo it. You may want to keep up with your teammates, but respect your own limits. Overdo it and you will impress your teammates and coaches, but that will quickly be forgotten if you don’t get results during the season. Everyday, coaches will ask you if you want to throw. What they mean is, “Is this a day you want to throw?” They are trying to understand your needs, not get you to be like your teammates.
If you are a first-year player with the Hanshin Tigers, however, please try to show the coaches you actually know how to hit in batting practice on Day 1. It may mean nothing to you, but coaches are grilled about new players’ BPs by the media. This is normally not an issue, but the Tigers media is overbearing and can cause even the coolest coach or manager to begin second-guessing himself about his confidence in you. At the end of his record-setting 2010 season, Matt Murton said he wished someone had told him to square up a few balls on the first day so the coaches could relax.
Listen to the coaches. They might not have played in the majors although some have, but they care about the game and can often help you adjust to Japanese ball. Pitchers learn to throw certain pitches better (Scott Mathieson‘s slider) , develop a new pitch (Dennis Sarfate‘s split) or go back to pitches they’d been dissuaded from using in America (Jeremy Powell‘s curveball).
Be ready to have a good slide step. Base stealing may not be a thing anymore in the States, but you will be judged on how quickly you get to the plate with runners on–and get used to a coach who walked 1,000 hitters in his career to tell you that Japanese pitchers don’t walk batters.
For batters, it’s the same story. The coaches seem less inclined to fine tune hitters mechanics than they do pitchers, but they can often tell you what to expect and how catchers will try to attack you. In the end, however, it’s about sticking with those things that work for you and finding ways to apply your strengths in an environment where fastballs are harder to predict and a lot of pitchers have really good location with all their pitches.
Take advantage of the massages. While the quality of the strength, fitness and conditioning programs vary from team to team, Japanese clubs are really good at massage therapy.
If anyone has anything to add or phrase better, or you just want to tell me what a load of crummy advice I’m pedaling, please leave a comment or hit me up on twitter.
The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, holder of Japan’s single-season hit record, had some words of advice on Friday for the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, who is in hot pursuit of his record.
“Obviously he (Akiyama) has had a tremendous season so far,” Murton told Kyodo News. “He just needs to focus on trying to help his team win. If he gets caught up in everything else going on around him, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed throughout the remainder of this year.”
In 2010, his debut season in Japan, Murton eclipsed Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 hits to establish the current mark of 214. Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130-game season, while Murton accomplished his over 144 games in 2010, the last year before Nippon Professional Baseball banned juiced balls. Akiyama entered play on Saturday with 133 hits, needing 82 hits over the Lions’ remaining 61 games to surpass Murton.
Akiyama extended his hitting streak to 30 games on Saturday.
That was Seibu Lions center field Shogo Akiyama’s answer when reporters asked him two months ago about being on track to break Japan’s record for hits in a season. The record of 214 was set by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers over 144 games in 2010, when he broke the 210 mark established by Ichiro Suzuki in 1994 in a 130-game season.
On July 2, Akiyama hit for the 23rd straight game, establishing a record for the storied franchise. Akiyama took another step toward putting his name in the record book with 43 hits in June, making him only the second player – after Suzuki to have back-to-back 40-hit months.
Because of the hits, Akiyama has grabbed headlines, but Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, also a left-handed hitter, has held his own in the PL batting race with the two battling neck and neck. At the end of June, Yanagita was batting .381 to Akiyama’s .382. Because Yanagita bats third instead of first and walks much more often, it will be harder for the Hawks star to break the hit record.
Akiyama turned 27 on April 16, and although he began getting regular playing time in 2011, he was held back against left-handed pitchers his first year, when he posted a .403 OPS against southpaws. It’s an area where he has shown steady improvement, but this year Akiyama has taken a huge step forward against both lefties and righties with a .922/.962 left/right split.
Against the best pitchers in either league as measured by earned run average, the top 19 among pitchers with 74 or more innings pitched through July 4, Akiyama is 14-for-49 with four doubles, no homers, two walks and five strikeouts for a an OPS of .710 – impressive in that it is close to his career norm against all pitching.
However, against this same group of Japan’s best pitchers, Yanagita is 23-for-60, with six doubles, three homers and 10 walks against 12 strikeouts for an impressive OPS of 1.112 – impressive in that is as good as he is against everyone this season.
Yanagita is six months younger than Akiyama and a rare type of hitter in Japan, a player who hits home runs, while frequently hitting the ball on the ground. If his past performance is any indication, he may be a better first-half hitter. If any of that was due to conditioning or fitness issues, then new Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s aggressive efforts in the area of fitnesss and conditioning may help that.
Akiyama has so far tended to get a little better as the season goes on, yet he is so far ahead of his past performance that it is hard to see him having a second half that is even as good. But even so, as of Sunday, July 5, Akiyama was 84 hits shy of Murton’s 214, and he had been collecting hits at an average of 1.65 per game. He can break the record even if that rate falls off by nearly 20 percent to 1.33 hits per game and he plays every game, so his fitness is going to be a huge issue.
Yanagita would have to improve his hit rate by 20 percent, which doesn’t seem likely. But if he were to hold steady – which seems possible, Yanagita would have a shot of breaking the single-season batting-average record of .389, set by Randy Bass in 1986.