Tag Archives: New York Mets

Common sense

Tomoyuki Sugano is returning to the Yomiuri Giants instead of signing a deal with a major league team through the posting system.

Before Sugano announced his decision to seek a major league contract, the 31-year-old Yomiuri Giants ace expressed concern about the risk of playing the 2021 season where the coronavirus pandemic was far worse and where pro baseball was far less secure than back home. Indeed, in a comment released by the team, Sugano cited the effects of the pandemic on his decision-making process.

“I concluded I would play for the Giants this season, too, after assessing the trends in the majors due to the novel coronavirus,”

Tomoyuki Sugano, in a statement translated by Kyodo News

But the coronavirus is no longer the only shadow clouding Japanese players’ dreams of going to the majors.

The economics of MLB used to mean a huge pay raise for top stars coming from Japan’s two leagues, where salaries never exceed $10 million a year–We don’t really know what Japan’s highest salaries are or were, since teams and players tell reporters whatever figures they like.

MLB used to be about maximizing revenues from marketing entertaining baseball games with a healthy dose of civic extortion to leverage good sweet ballpark deals. But return on investment is now the goal rather than building a marketable baseball product.

At first, four teams were reported to be in on Sugano, but the New York Mets opted out of the fray, and this week it appeared the Boston Red Sox could not meet Sugano’s price.

It is not the first time a front-line Japanese starting pitcher’s salary expectations have not been met by the marketplace. In the winter of 2010-2011, Hisashi Iwakuma, able then to negotiate with only the winner of his posting bid, failed to find a middle ground between a figure he would accept and the A’s valuation of him.

The A’s were trying to exploiting market inefficiencies, and didn’t have to compete with other teams, but the new efficiency has less to do with getting baseball value at the best price than cutting out everything that might be a temporary drag on the budget.

But now the push to drive down salaries is at full throttle, fueled by anti-competitive situation where the U.S.’s pro baseball monopoly is using its leverage to suppress its labor market.

MLB’s pampered billionaire owners are pleading poverty as they fire already-poverty stricken minor leaguers as well as scouts, coaches and operations staff who represent the bones, tendons, ligaments and nervous system of the pro baseball bodies.

This is not an isolated event, but rather a symptom of the current Make America Gilded Again movement.

So was electing a crass transaction-driven self-described mogul president meant abandoning America’s pandemic prevention regime, including research presences in likely hot spots, such as Wuhan, China because they represented only budgetary costs but added nothing to the profit line.

America is now becoming a modern parody of the late 19th century, where oligarchs ratchet up exploitation of poor labor, while suppressing civil rights.

Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capital building by domestic terrorists, who chant “Blue Lives (marginalizing minorities) Matter” overran law enforcement officers, who responded to the whitebread assault with the kind of restraint unseen when BLM activists were caught in the open a minute after curfew and beaten.

It was an echo of reconstruction era America, where domestic terrorism was accepted and its enablers welcomed in the capital with rarely as much as a wringing of hands.

This is America now, where a large swath of the population has embraced the belief that they are being discriminated against because their white privilege is being called into question by the majority of their countrymen.

This is the America where a TV personality can be elected president through voter suppression and is allowed to encourage racist behavior against others. It is the America where his true believers use his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese flu” as an excuse to harass Asians in public.

It is the America from where Masahiro Tanaka abandoned training in Florida after spring training was canceled. He has a family and was rightly concerned about their well being in a country where a spiteful angry minority has been empowered by a demagog.

Even if the president is removed from office, he is a symptom of an environment where clever people in media make a living peddling lies and conspiracy theories to the insecure and the gullible, and where a two-party system locks out independents and is beholden to oligarchs.

Wednesday’s insurrection has woken a few to the current dangers, but if I were Sugano and Tanaka, who is currently a free agent, I’d consider myself lucky to have a route back to Japan.

Tumbling Dice, K?

More than a year removed from his comeback player of the year season with the Chunichi Dragons, 39-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound at MetLife Dome, where 21 years earlier he got his pro start with the Seibu Lions.

Entering his sixth season in Japan since the SoftBank Hawks lured him away from MLB, Matsuzaka is a shadow of the pitcher who was called the “monster” when he turned pro out of Yokohama High School. His basic repertoire is now a fastball, a cutter, and a change — a forkball this year.

In 2018, Matsuzaka went 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA in Japan’s best pitcher’s park, Nagoya Dome, largely because he didn’t give up a lot of home runs and got more than his share of big outs after letting lots of runners on base.

Matsuzaka’s game is locating the fastball, getting hitters to miss-hit the cutter and sometimes swing and miss at the change. On Sunday, he also threw a decent slider and curve.

But 14 years and two days after he became a national hero for the second time in his baseball career by beating Cuba in San Diego to win the 2006 World Baseball Classic final and earn tournament MVP honors, Matsuzaka had no command to speak of.

He allowed four runs over five innings, and caught breaks when most of his mistakes were not hammered. He said recently he needs to work on the cutter, and he missed badly with most of the 24 I tracked. He couldn’t locate his fastball, or the change. The slider and curve were his best pitches.

The Lions, who in 2018 became the second league champion in NPB history to have the league’s worst ERA, repeated the feat a year ago.

Matsuzaka knows what he’s doing, and knows when to challenge hitters in the zone, but if he’s constantly behind in counts and can’t throw strikes, he might be too much of a burden even for the Lions’ powerful offense to carry.

Here’s a link to the Pacific League TV game highlights.

International team work

On May 4, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and the National League’s New York Mets became the latest to dip into an international partnership that people often see as being one-sided, with benefits accruing mostly to the Japanese team.

Seeing the baseball world from both sides

There are precious few people with first-hand knowledge of how front offices work in both Japan and the major leagues, and one of those, Randy Smith spoke recently about the potential that awaits MLB clubs who want to expand their horizons in Japan and think outside the box.

Currently wearing two hats, as senior advisor to Nippon Ham Fighters general manager Hiroshi Yoshimura and as an international scout for the Texas Rangers, Smith spoke by phone from Sapporo about the two clubs’ working relationship and what can be learned through cooperation.

“It depends on the two groups,” Smith, a former general manager with both the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres, said recently by phone from Sapporo. “What do the parties want to get out of it?”

Things, he said, have come a long way since the tie-ups largely meant MLB scouts would have someone to help them with their itineraries in Japan.

The Fighters and Rangers

“The relationship the Fighters have with the Rangers is unique because of the two organizations’ thought processes.”

The product is a relationship (between Yoshimura and Rangers GM Jon Daniels) in which both sides are open to learning lessons. While Japanese teams are considered to be far behind their MLB counterparts in analytics, Smith said the Rangers are open to the possibility they might learn something in Japan from Nippon Ham.

“It’s about asking questions. And that goes back to the people who are involved,” Smith said, adding that some MLB innovations originated in Japan.

“Some of the stuff they do, MLB may not say where it came from. But the massage, and some of the medical stuff that’s done now, came from here.”

“The Fighters are one of the more analytical clubs here. You can see that from the way they treat their foreign players.”

Smith cited the team’s handling of third baseman Brandon Laird as an example of the Fighters’ advanced understanding. In 2015, Laird struggled to hit for average in his debut season. But the club stuck with him, gave him the opportunity to make adjustments when many other Japanese teams would have banished him to the farm club for good.

Changing awareness of NPB’s quality

It’s become obvious over the past 10 years that open-minded adaptable can expand and develop their skills in Japan and often increase their value in the MLB labor market.

“In the past, if you came to Japan as a player, your career was considered over,” Smith said. “But now because we have good information and access to modern technology we know more. Guys come, learn the split, or pick up something.”

He said that his extended time in Japan has opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before, when he was focused on high-impact target players and failed to take stock of the forest surrounding those prize trees.

“I used to come over, and I’m seeing the targets,” Smith said. “The last three years, I’m watching everybody in the PL, seeing the depth. It’s been educational for me. There’s a lot of pitching depth, more than people realize.”

Smith said that while Japanese players have been able to take part in instructional leagues in the States, the exchange agreements that once saw NPB clubs sending youngsters to Single-A ball to experience another side to the game are unlikely to make a comeback.

He also said that there is virtually no chance an MLB team could take advantage of NPB’s universe to season young players, although he agreed such a program would have its benefits.

“A lot can be gained from playing here,” he said. “Playing in Japan is a great way to develop a hitter.”

Dice-K apologizes for golf

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been rehabbing since a fan injured him with an overzealous high five during spring training in February, apologized on Friday for playing golf the day before.

The Chunichi Dragons indicated Thursday that the former Boston Red Sox and New York Mets pitcher would face a penalty for breaking team rules, which got his former Japan teammate Yu Darvish up in arms about Japanese baseball’s repressive customs.

“I made trouble through my careless acts,” Matsuzaka told reporters at Nagoya Stadium, where he rejoined the Dragons farm team after a trip to the Tokyo area for treatment.

The team prohibits players from playing golf on practice days, even though Matsuzaka was not scheduled to join his teammates in their practice over 200 miles away in Nagoya.

On Monday, Matsuzaka threw his first bullpen since February, and was slated this week to throw batting practice. “I need to refocus and concentrate on baseball,” he said.

“I will give my best effort so I can contribute to the team as soon as possible.”

Injured and rehabbing players in Japan are expected to be monk-like in their devotion to “returning to the team as soon as possible.” And clubs typically do not make such players available for interviews regardless of their actual availability.

Yu Darvish hit out at the custom on Twitter.

“Of course, it would be no good if he lied to the team and skipped out on his treatment to play golf, but nobody was writing that. But playing golf either before or after his treatment is no big deal. Simply put, the restrictions placed on injured players in Japan are oppressive.”

Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish via Twitter on the subject of rehabbing pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka being punished for playing golf.

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.

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.”