Tag Archives: Nippon Ham Fighters

2-time PL champion manager Nashida tests positive for coronavirus

Masataka Nashida, who won Pacific League pennants with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nippon Ham Fighters and finished his managing career with the Rakuten Eagles, has tested positive for the new coronavirus, his management agency revealed Wednesday according to Kyodo News.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

The 66-year-old former catcher had been resting since complaining of fatigue on March 25 and developed a fever three days later. On Monday he had trouble breathing and saw a doctor. He was admitted to a hospital on Tuesday, where he was diagnosed with severe pneumonia.

After a 17-year career with the Buffaloes, Nashida coached for the club and after winning the Western League pennant as their minor league manager in 1999, was promoted to manage the first team in 2000. In 2001, the Buffaloes went from last place to first but lost in the Japan Series to the Yakult Swallows.

He managed Kintetsu until the club was disbanded after the strife-torn 2004 season and merged with the Orix BlueWave. He went on to manage Nippon Ham in 2008 following the departure of Trey Hillman, and won the 2009 pennant, only to lose in the Japan Series to the Yomiuri Giants.

He managed the Fighters until 2011 and ran the Eagles from 2016 to 2018.

Scout diary: March 3, 2020 – Swallows’ and Hawks’ wings

Tuesday’s preseason game between the Yakult Swallows and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks gave me a chance to see some players for the first time. So here are my notes on some players of interest. Because the game was at PayPay Dome in Fukuoka, the Hawks’ home broadcast displayed most pitches’ spin rates.

This took me back to talk in my scouting course of average rates for MLB. But before you get into that, have a look at this nifty article about spin efficiency by Trevor Powers. As far as I understand it, fastball movement can be improved, without increasing spin, by throwing the ball so that the spin axis is perpendicular to the direction of the ball.

As I watched the game after reading this — with knowledge of the spin rates different pitchers put on their deliveries — who is more or less efficient. The Fighters and Giants played at night, and I got a good look at Nippon Ham’s top pick Ryusei Kawano.

RHP Yuki Tsumori, Hawks

A 22-year-old right-hander (born 1/21/1998), Tsumori was the Hawks’ third draft pick last autumn out of Tohoku Fukushi University. He throws straight side-arm, with 142 kph velocity on his fastball and a sweeping slider. He threw five pitches and missed most of his spots.

RHP Noboru Shimizu, Swallows

A 23-year-old right-hander (born 10/15/1996), Shimizu was Yakult’s top pick in 2018 and had a rough 1st year, allowing frequent walks and home runs. Because he only threw 26 innings with the big club, he still qualifies as a rookie.

Shimizu throws 3/4. He sat at 147 kph with some hop on the fastball. He threw forkball, that Data Stadium identified as a two-seamer that got him swings and misses, and threw a curve that he didn’t command well, but looks like it could be good in time as he can spin that puppy about the MLB average of 2,500 RPM.

LHP Yuto Furuya, Hawks

Furuya is a 3/4 lefty, who is 21 (born 2/19/1999) who was Softbank’s second pick in 2016. He is described as having a fastball with good movement, but they were fairly straight on Tuesday, and he missed lots of targets.

LHP Hiroki Hasegawa, Swallows

Hasegawa is a 3/4 lefty who is also a SoftBank product, having signed with them out of the 2016 developmental draft. His fastball touched 153 kph with spin rates close to 2,400 RPM. The fastball command was spotty. He also had a forkball that tumbled and missed bats. He’s 21 (born 8/23/1998) and there’s a lot to work with.

LHP Ryusei Kawano, Fighters

The 21-year-old 3/4 lefty (born 5/30/1998) was Nippon Ham’s top draft pick last year. Against Yomiuri on Tuesday, he showed a 147-kph four-seamer that he sometimes had terrific movement on. His command improved as the game went on, and he then showed:

  • Slider, one that sweeps and one that drops
  • curve he can throw at different speeds
  • A splitter (looked like his sweeping slider though)
  • A forkball change that he gets on top of and runs it away from right-handed hitters like a screwball.

His delivery has a funky, start-stop to it. In this game, he kept everything down, but given how well he manipulates the ball, he has a lot of room for growth and adjustment. At first glance, he reminds me of a left-handed Tomoyuki Sugano although the command will have to come. The fastball, change, and curve are all above average with a lot of upside.

Open and shut: NPB goes under cover

I’m calling this spring’s preseason stories “Open and shut” since a main theme so far is 72 exhibitions scheduled to be played behind closed doors as Japanese companies are being asked to curtail large gatherings in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Sands opens with pair

Hanshin Tigers newcomer Jerry Sands blasted two of his team’s five solo home runs in a 5-4 win over the SoftBank Hawks on Saturday. The Tigers got three scoreless innings from their Opening Day starter, Yuki Nishi, and another scoreless frame from former Hawk Kenichi Nakata.

Yusuke Oyama, who is fighting to secure the starting third base job for Hanshin, also homered twice, while 2016 rookie of the year Shun Takayama homered to continue his comeback spring effort. Hawks starter Nao Higashihama allowed four solo homer, all off breaking pitches.

Matsui goes 5 in Eagles restart

Yuki Matsui, making the shift from closer, started and went five innings for the Rakuten Eagles in a 4-2 win over the Lotte Marines. J.T. Chargois and Alan Busenitz worked scoreless innings in relief for the Eagles, while former Eagle Frank Herrman and former Carp Jay Jackson each worked an inning for Lotte.

The PL clubs exchanged a host of players over the winter via free agency and other deals with. Herrmann, (Opening Day starter) Manabu Mima, and a pair of young minor leaguers, infielder Kenji Nishimaki and pitcher Fumiya Ono joined Lotte. Going the other way were Lotte’s former captain, infielder Daichi Suzuki, veteran right-hander Hideaki Wakui and pitcher Tomohito Sakai.

Buffs, Fighters show off season openers

The Orix Buffaloes’ Taisuke Yamaoka worked five scoreless innings, while the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Kohei Arihara allowed a run in three as the two teams went with their Opening Day starters. Orix newcomer Tyler Higgens worked a scoreless inning of relief.

Orix first baseman Takahiro Okada, who was exiled to the minors for the duration of the season after letting a routine grounder go through his legs last summer, homered in his first at-bat.

Viciedo blasts off

Dayan Viciedo homered and singled in his home preseason debut at a silent Nagoya Dome, while new Carp pitcher DJ Johnson allowed a run in one inning of work.

Camping World: Feb. 18, 2020

The Hanshin Tigers have named Yuki NIshi as their Opening Day starter the Daily Sports reported Tuesday.

“The deciding factor is his leadership of the pitchers. He’s demonstrating that he wants it,” manager Akihiro Yano said.

Nishi joined the Tigers a year ago from the Pacific League’s Orix Buffaloes, and went 10-8 with a 2.92 ERA. His English NPB players page is HERE.

Cousin picks walk-up music

Nishi’s distant cousin, Tigers’ first-round draft pick, Junya Nishi, has selected the music to be played for him at Koshien Stadium according to the Daily Sports.

The music for the slugging pitcher who has been working out at the minor league camp in Aki, Kochi Prefecture is going to be Shota Shimizu’s “Kazenifukarete.” While the Tigers have not said anything about the possibility of using Nishi in the lineup, at least we know what music he’ll have if he ever gets to the first team. #TigerPriorities

So far so good for Austin

Tyler Austin continued to rake on Tuesday. After homering twice and singling in his preseason debut on Sunday, the new DeNA BayStars import doubled and walked in a 1-0 practice game loss to the Central League rival Yakult Swallows.

2 solid innings for Fighters’ VerHagen

Drew VerHagen retired six of the seven batters he faced on Tuesday in the first live game action he’s seen with the Nippon Ham Fighters in a 5-0 win over KBO’s Samsung Lions, the Nikkan Sports reported. The 28-year-old threw seven first-pitch strikes, touched 147 kph and mixed in his slider and change, striking out three.

Marte homers in 1st game of spring

Jefry Marté, who is being asked to compete for the third base job following the offseason acquisition of first baseman Justin Bour, homered in the Tigers’ intrasquad game on Tuesday, his first game action of the spring according to the Daily Sports.

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020 – Pacific League’s best outfield tools

The search for the best outfield defensive tools on the planet brings us to Japan’s Pacific League and the top three in the 2019 voting for the three outfield Golden Gloves. I thought it would be easier to select a PL winner than in the CL, but I was wrong.

  • Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾
  • Takashi Ogino, Marines 荻野 貴司
  • Haruki NIshikawa, Fighters 西川 遥輝

Shogo Akiyama

Collection of Shogo Akiyama catches
Best PL throws from the outfield, starting with Akiyama at 1:07.

By default, Akiyama, whose metrics have been slipping year by year, is the PL winner of the tools challenge. Despite the ubiquity of PL TV, the league’s streaming service, I’m simply unable to find any video collections of Takashi Ogino or Haruki Nishikawa. Those who are interested more on Nishikawa can find my profile of him HERE, since he has expressed an interest in playing in the majors.

If you are interested in the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, my profile of the former Lions captain is HERE.

Conclusion and admission

My outfield tools surveys of four leagues, the National, American, Central and Pacific, has produced four finalists:

  • Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
  • Jackie Bradley, Jr, Boston Red Sox
  • Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
  • Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions

My choice for the best outfield tools in the world goes to Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. If I had to pick No. 2 it would be Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rationale

I tried to evaluate every outfielder on the following criteria:

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release
  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

I omitted “good hands” from consideration because all the candidates are exceptional at catching the ball. But having said that, Bradley is as good at that as anyone I’ve seen — and I grew up watching Willie Mays. I am hesitant to give out an 80 score, but let’s call it a 75.

Based on the video above, I’ve rated his arm strength is 75, his accuracy a 70. His footwork is as good as Kiermaier’s which is the best I’ve seen. But there’s a cherry on top, the grace and speed at which he transitions from catching to throwing is an 80. Again, he’s not AS good at scaling outfield walls as Lorenzo Cain, but nobody is. Having said that, Bradley is pretty darn close.

The other special thing about him is his jumps. He appears to be in motion before the batter swings. His raw speed gives him incredible range when he is right, and allows him to make up for guessing wrong.

An admission

I have less confidence in my Japanese choices in the outfield than I had in the infield, because while I’ve seen these guys a fair amount, I’ve been a writer, not a scout.

I’m trying to change that, of course, and my podcast colleague John E. Gibson could give a far more educated opinion about tools, because that has always been an after thought. Until now, my thinking has been, ‘Does he make the play or not? How often does he make plays? What are the context of the plays he made or didn’t make? Are they part of the story of this game or the story of that player or of Japanese baseball.

Gibson likes to talk about tools, but for the most part, they pretty much didn’t enter into my calculus. Which is kind of odd in a way, since the greater part of sports writing in Japan is obsessed with technical minutia about tools and skills. I preferred to write about how people grew and learned rather than why they decided to move their hands apart when the gripped the bat.

Anyway, I hope to remedy that indifference to specific skills going forward.

Fighters announce new stadium to be known ES CON Field Hokkaido

The Nippon Ham Fighters announced the sale of the naming rights for their new stadium in Kita Hiroshima, Hokkaido, on Wednesday, saying the value of the deal is believed to be the highest in the history of sports in Japan, exceeding the 470 million yen ($4.3 million) a year paid by Nissan for the rights to Yokohama International Stadium — the home of the J-League’s Yokohama F Marinos soccer club.

Here’s the Fighters English page.

The natural grass field with a retractable roof is expected to open for business in 2023 and will be known as ES CON Field Hokkaido. The new naming rights holder is real estate developer ES-CON Japan, a subsidiary of the Chubu Electric Power Group that will be involved in the development of the surrounding property — known as Hokkaido Ballpark F Village.

The development is located near Kita Hiroshima Station about 8 kilometers east of the Fighters’ current home, Sapporo Dome.

When it is built, it will give all six Pacific League teams complete operating rights over their ballpark. Orix, SoftBank, and Seibu are the majority owners of their stadiums, while Rakuten and Lotte hold operating licenses. Only three of the six Central League clubs own the operating rights to their stadium.

The Fighters relocated to Sapporo in 2004, where they have dramatically increased the size of their fan base and their sponsorship revenues. In addition to the new ballpark, the team has also negotiated a major upgrade of its spring training base in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

Scout Diary: Jan. 27, 2020 –interviews

If one is going to scout, one should be a scout and find out what’s involved.

One course requirement for my scouting class is to conduct two “informational interviews,” where we contact people in the sports business, in this case general managers and scouts to learn about the business but also to build a network and get used to making cold calls — an invaluable skill it seems for a baseball scout.

I’ve contacted a small number of people about the interviews — but no real cold calls — since I already have a smallish network in baseball, and finally did my first two. On Sunday, I met with Waseda University baseball manager and former New York Mets pitcher Satoru Komiyama, and on Monday I chatted for about half an hour with the Nippon Ham Fighters scouting director, Takashi Ofuchi.

Practice day

The Komiyama interview took place at the team’s indoor practice facility on a cold, rainy day in Tokyo’s western suburbs. To be honest, it didn’t do much toward meeting my course requirement, but I did learn a lot about his views on the value of college baseball and his educational philosophy.

I connect with Komiyama now and then on Facebook, having interviewed him once about 16 years ago before he went to the majors. I ran into him a few weeks ago at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, where he spoke on behalf of his former Waseda manager Renzo Ishii.

He turned down a job as a coach and likely future manager of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Lotte Marines to coach university kids. He said the two biggest influences in his baseball life were Ishii and his Mets — and Marines — manager Bobby Valentine.

As a writer, I have to promise the interview subjects that things I learn will not be published. And though I didn’t learn much about scouting, it was enlightening about a side of the Japanese baseball world I rarely have contact with.

Fighters being Fighters

Mr. Ofuchi is an engaging person, and explained a great deal about how amateur scouting works in Japan — or at least works with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

One of the more interesting things I learned and shouldn’t have been surprised by is that Ofuchi’s background is very representative of the Fighters’ organization in that he had no connection with the club until he was hired.

I would be surprised if more than a handful of scouts for NPB never played pro baseball, and Ofuchi is one of them. The Fighters, whose previous chief executive started out as the club’s interpreter, and whose current GM is a former sportswriter, are a team that frequently looks where other teams don’t for talent. When Nippon Ham called, he was coaching high school ball.

–The hardest thing about starting out as a scout?

“Getting used to sitting behind home plate rather than watching players on TV. The vantage point is so different.”

One of the big differences between scouting amateurs in Japan and the United States is that building relationships with players and their families is problematic for NPB scouts because of the historic animosity between professional clubs and amateur bodies.

In addition to signing players during their amateur team’s season — as happened in the days before NPB’s draft — there is also the numerous instances of NPB clubs handing out cash to amateurs and their coaches.

Next up

I still have interviews to do with a Japanese corporate league manager, one MLB scout and one NPB GM and am formulating a plan of attack for a few in MLB (better sooner than later, but better late than never).

These latter ones are somewhat terrifying, since they will be cold calls, and I have natural aversion to asking people I don’t know really well for favors of any kind. So far, I’ve been using the logistical side — the time difference between Japan and the U.S. as an excuse, although I know it is a serious hassle, having spent a lot of time on the phone a year ago trying to set up spring training interviews before I left Japan.

Shogo Akiyama spray charts

A recent comment about Akiyama suggested MLB’s extreme shifts could be trouble for him.


“Akiyama will have to adjust to more shifts in MLB. He’ll have to prove he can beat them.”

Burly

It’s true that shifts in NPB are pretty tame, there’s a reason for that: Japanese kids learn from an early age to go to hit the ball back up the middle or — especially fast left-handed hitters — hit it to the opposite field. It’s a huge difference between NPB and MLB.

And like most speedy left-handed hitters, Akiyama is adept at shooting the ball between third and short. You could shift on him a little and it might help, but too much and he’ll kill you.

Shogo Akiyama, career NPB hits
Shogo Akiyama, career NPB outs

The only team that tries extreme shifts here now is the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters. In one game they over-shifted to the right against left-handed hitting Tomoya Mori. In response, the slugging Lions catcher poked the ball on the ground into left, and expressed his thanks to the Fighters for giving him a freebie.

Alex Ramirez, the flexible manager

DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, like pretty much any ballplayer you talk to, has a huge bag of cliches and simple rules to explain how to prepare for and play baseball games in the form of expressions “you always want to…” or “you never…”

But when you get past the superficial sound bites that come from being a former big leaguer, you get a guy who is always on the lookout for the next thing that might work.

On Sunday, Ramirez said he was open to using a reliever to break the first-inning ice for his starting pitchers as “openers.” If so, he would be Japan’s second manager to opt for that kind of a role following Nippon Ham’s Hideki Kuriyama.

Ramirez has long been used to getting flack in Japan. A lot of foreign players took exception to his choreographed home run celebrations that the fans loved, often saying, “If you don’t do that back home, don’t do that here.” To which Ramirez was fond of answering: “In case you hadn’t noticed we’re in Japan, not ‘back home.'”

As a manager, he has been criticized for batting his pitchers eighth, something which makes a ton of sense.

Having a batter who reaches base bat ninth means fewer RBIs from the No. 8 spot in exchange for more no-out, runner-on-base situations for the top of the order — something that will help you score a few extra runs a year.

Last year, when Ramirez had his best hitter, and Japan’s cleanup hitter, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second, the old farts screamed, calling it an insult to Tsutsugo and Japan.

Last year, I tracked how each team’s starting pitchers did before and after facing their 19th batter in a game. Last season, when bullpen games were becoming very common, the BayStars were second-fewest in NPB with only 55 games in which a starter faced 19-plus batters, but it didn’t really help them.

From the 19th batter on in those 55 games, BayStars opponents had a .382 OBP, the 10th worst in NPB, and a .511 slugging average, worst of all 12 teams. The Fighters were the flip side of that. The pitchers who were allowed to go past 18 batters were really good, posting a .250 OBP and .196 SLUG.

Mind you, the Hiroshima Carp had 125 games in which their starters went through the opposing order more than two times while being nearly as good as the Fighters starters in those situations. But the Carp rotation — which led NPB with a .469 quality start percentage, was deep and the Fighters’ wasn’t.

The BayStars young starting corps has the chance to be an elite group, but Ramirez isn’t going to turn a blind eye to the possibility that using openers as part of a well-thought-out plan could help. Like the Fighters, the BayStars have a solid analytics team, and it would be no surprise to see DeNA improve their pitching and defense next season just because of Ramirez’s willingness to fly in the face of ignorant criticism and try the next thing.

The kotatsu league: Hawks poised to sign Balentien–report

A collection of Wladimir Balentien’s 2013 season home runs.

Hochi Shimbun reported Thursday that Wladimir Balentien was on the verge of an agreement with the SoftBank Hawks on a two-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $10 million. Because of his nine years of service, Balentien no longer counts against a team’s limit of four active foreign registered players.

The Hawks are three-time defending Japan Series champions. Despite missing their best power hitter, Yuki Yanagita, for most of the season and another slugger, Yurisbel Gracial, for over a month, they finished tied for the NPB lead in home runs with 183.

Here’s Balentien’s NPB page in English.

Fighters agree on contract terms with Villanueva

The Nippon Ham Fighters announced Thursday they have reached an agreement to sign third baseman Christian Villanueva, who was released by the Yomiuri Giants after one season.

In a comment released by the team, manager Hideki Kuriyama said, “I believe the addition of Villanueva perfectly dovetails with the Fighters principle needs this offseason. His results this season were not indicative of his real ability, and we believe we can assist him in making the jump. We’ve had our eye on him since he was in the majors, and the power is real. He’s also a reliable glove at third base and believe we can leave it in his hands.”

Here’s Villanueva’s NPB page.

The Giants signed Villanueva to provide power but he failed to do so at one of Japan’s best home run parks. He was benched from May 5 and did not show much more when given further trials in June and July. He was sent down to the farm for good in the middle of August and not recalled for the postseason.