Tag Archives: Olympics

Pandemic causes WBC Déjà vu

The year 2020 has been so bad that NPB is ready to reset the clock to 2009, the last year its union threatened to boycott the WBC — partly over its March scheduling.

On Wednesday, Nippon Professional Baseball questioned whether it would be able to have the Olympic break in its schedule AND play in a March World Baseball Classic. So it may be no surprise that like it did in 2006, 2009 and 2012, NPB and its union are now preparing to hold their breaths until they either turn blue or get their way.

A March WBC in 2021 runs smack into two Japanese sporting obsessions: the volume of practice, and the primacy of the Olympics.

In 2017, when NPB announced Atsunori Inaba would be the national team manager on a four-year deal, everything, and I mean everything was about winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

When a reporter asked about the 2021 WBC and if that was not also an important goal, everyone on the dais treated his question as shot as if he had jumped on a table, broken wind and shouted hallelujah!

In Japan, the WBC is a poor substitute for the Olympics, and NPB and its players would probably rather spend their time in March building up for the season and preparing for the Olympics than playing in the WBC.

Of course, the coronavirus, which forced the postponements of the first round of qualifiers in March may have something to say about whether there is a 20-team WBC next March or no WBC at all.

But if there is a WBC it’s going to come as a tug of war between Japan’s priority on the Olympics — which is forcing two teams out of their ballparks and messing big time with the schedule — and MLB’s complete and total lack of interest in the summer games.

NPB aiming for April 24 openers

After meeting for the fourth time with the J-League pro soccer establishment, Nippon Professional Baseball on Monday announced the Central and Pacific Leagues will aim to start their 2020 seasons on April 24.

The J-League has suspended play since the middle of February, while NPB completed its preseason games behind closed doors. The baseball season was originally set to start on March 20 in a season that would include a three-week Olympic break and would run until the middle of November. But due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Japan’s government asked that large events be canceled to limit the spread of the virus.

When making the decision to delay Opening Day, NPB set April 10 as the earliest possible start time, and since March 20, teams have been playing practice games behind closed doors.

“It’s difficult to say that we will absolutely be staging games from April 24, but we will make a maximum effort to do so,” NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito said.

Opening season in April motivated by greed, not logic.

The PL will suspend its practice games from Tuesday and then resume baseball activities on April 10, while the CL will play its scheduled games on Tuesday and Wednesday and then take off until April 14.

The leagues are looking at playing six warm-up games before Opening Day, and expect to play a full 143-game regular season, although the Climax Series playoffs to determine each league’s Japan Series team may be abbreviated.

The teams are looking into measures that would reduce the health hazards by possibly restricting access to elderly fans and those with health conditions and perhaps keeping out fans who have just arrived from overseas.

When the April 10 date was set last month, late April was targeted as the last point at which NPB could still play a full 143-game full season.

April 24 Opening Day is madness

Tokyo Disneyland may be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but Fantasyland is operating at full capacity in the halls of government and in the offices of Nippon Professional Baseball.

For three months, the Japanese government has been in full-fledged denial about how the spread of the new coronavirus might affect its staging of the Olympics. Schools were requested to close for all of March, and promoters of large events were asked to either cancel them, postpone or hold them behind closed doors, but the official insistence that everything would be alright and the Olympics would not need to be rescheduled has delivered a powerfully mixed message.

Through the weekend, the official message from the government and Olympic organizers has been that nothing would prevent the games from going forward as scheduled from July 24. This message was often delivered as: “We will take every measure to ensure the health and safety of the athletes and the fans, but the games will go on no matter what.”

On Monday, with the Olympics all but certain to be postponed until at least next year, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who a few weeks ago asserted that there was no chance the games would be canceled or postponed, spoke of a possible lockdown in Tokyo for the first time if things get worse.

Yet, while Tokyo began talking about emergency measures on Monday, NPB and Japan’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, announced it was time to restart their seasons in April with NPB planning to pack fans into its parks from April 24.

Obviously, this is not because Japan has the coronavirus outbreak under control since that is very much in doubt. Rather the reason seems to be NPB’s desire to get fans into the parks for a full slate of 143 games. On March 23, NPB announced it had run various simulations and decided that April 24 was the last day that a full schedule could be played. So now, “voila” there’s our new Opening Day.

NPB’s announcement on Monday sounds more like the old Olympic mantra: “We’ll do everything to ensure the safety of the players and the fans, but it’s our business and we’re going to play our games.”

So even if cramming 30,000 fans and a few thousand stadium employees onto public transit and into close quarters during a pandemic is a really bad idea, well 143 games is kind of important to us and our fans want us to play so there.

Although the government has asked companies to have employees work from home and midday trains in Tokyo are less crowded than usual, morning rush hour still sees people crammed together in rolling virus incubators.

People were warned this past week not to assemble in parks across the country for spring tradition of having picnics and drinking sessions under the cherry blossoms, but parks filled up nonetheless.

On Sunday, the promoter of a mixed-martial-arts event outside Tokyo defied government requests to put the event on hold and opened it up to 6,500 fans.

Many are encouraged by the fact that Japan has not buckled under the weight of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t still happen.

Japan’s infection rate has been slower than that of western European nations or the United States. And relative to those nations, Japan has acted quickly, but there’s also been a sense that the government is not giving us the whole truth. One can apply for being tested in Tokyo if they meet the following conditions.

  • In the past two weeks they have come into contact with an infected person, or traveled in an area with infections.
  • Pregnant women, senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions who have experienced cold-like symptoms, a fever of 37.5 C or higher, extreme fatigue or difficulty breathing for around two days.
  • A member of the general population experiencing the above conditions for four days or more.

Those satisfying the pre-conditions can then call and ask about being tested. It’s almost as if the government didn’t want to know the truth, lest the image of control was revealed to be just a facade.

There is a concern that many infected people with mild symptoms or none at all are circulating freely, encouraged by Japan’s officially low infection rate, and that the country is a viral bomb awaiting a trigger to go off.

And now with schools set to reopen soon, and pro baseball and soccer aiming to pack people into stadiums again, it looks like that trigger is being prepared.

NPB planning on delayed openers: Report

Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Sunday citing a source in reporting Nippon Professional Baseball is taking the logical precaution of making plans for a delayed start to the regular season.

Despite the yet uncontrolled spread of the new coronavirus in Japan and around the world, NPB’s regular season is still scheduled to go ahead as originally planned before full crowds on March 20 — a week earlier than normal to allow for a Tokyo Olympic break. NPB’s Plan B, according to the report, would see the season start at the end of April.

All of NPB’s preseason games since Feb. 29, however, have been played behind closed doors. On Monday, NPB is to meet with Japan’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, for a second time, when they will hear expert opinions.

The J-League was the first major sports body in Japan to act, suspending all play between Feb. 25 and March 15, but is also planning an alternative restart to the season in April.

The prime minister last month asked for all elementary, junior high and high schools to close through the end of spring vacation in early April, the start of Japan’s new school year. A number of companies have introduced “telework” from home by employees. Advertising giant Dentsu ordered such a move when someone in its Tokyo main office was diagnosed as having the pneumonia-causing virus.

The Dentsu headquarters building in Tokyo’s Shiodome-Shimbashi business district has forced eateries that served Dentsu staff to shorten hours or temporarily shut their doors.

On Sunday, the Japan Sumo Association will hold a tournament behind closed doors for the first time in history, when the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka begins its 15-day run in Osaka.

The first of Japan’s two major high school baseball tournaments, the national invitational is scheduled to start on March 19 at historic Koshien Stadium outside Osaka, but the National High School Federation has put off a decision whether to cancel or hold the event behind closed doors.

Perhaps the biggest focus in Japan right now is the fate of the 2020 Olympics, slated to open on July 24 in Tokyo. Organizers have been scrambling to downsize pre-Olympic events, but the government and the organizing committee have rejected any talk that a change to the main event is being considered, which is probably the most transparent lie in the history of transparent lies.

Time for the CL rerun season

The Central League may not be the strongest of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two top leagues, but it is the most dependable. Take any Pacific League innovation, and the CL will criticize it as a slap in the face of Japanese baseball tradition. Yet at some point, the CL will want to co-opt it.

This happened when the PL adopted Mizuno’s rabbit balls in 1978 and eventually four of the six CL clubs opted for it. It happened when the PL pushed to send pros to the 2000 Olympics and Yomiuri eventually took that push over and became an Olympic sponsor. It happened in 2004 with the PL’s expanded postseason, which the CL took over and called the Climax Series from 2007, and now it is beginning to happen with the designated hitter.

The DH advantage

After the Yomiuri Giants, who were easily the class of the CL this season, were swept in the Japan Series, manager Tatsunori Hara said the DH gives PL teams an advantage and said it’s time for the CL to break with tradition and adopt the designated hitter rule.

As these things do, it’s taken a while for CL teams to realize that while they may still draw more fans to their larger ballparks, they are now, if not a second-class league, weaker than the league they historically have loved to belittle.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, my co-host John E. Gibson argued that the Giants were hindered in the series by having to put their best pinch-hitter, Shinnosuke Abe, in the lineup as a DH, rather than keep him on the bench for use in an emergency. I found this a weak argument since players produce better results when not pinch-hitting.

The irony is that the big-budget Giants are one of those CL teams that have long stockpiled older sluggers acquired as free agents who were ideal DH’s.

In Abe’s case, using him as a DH instead of having him at first and regular first baseman Kazuma Okamoto at third, allowed the Giants to shore up their defense. The flip side of the coin was that in order to keep their DH in the lineup at Tokyo Dome in the Giants’ home games, the SoftBank Hawks had to use Alfredo Despaigne in left field.

Despaigne contributed on offense and did hurt the Hawks’ defense but with Tokyo Dome having no power allies to speak of, he is more suited to playing there than say Koshien or Nagoya Dome.

Does the DH really help the PL?

Central League teams have been able to use designated hitters in the Japan Series since 1985 and in interleague play, which kicked off in 2005. The following tables show how each league’s DHs have performed against each other in those games through 2019, and they present a stereotypical picture of one league relying on slow sluggers who draw walks, and the other on more rounded players with less pop in the DH slot.

DH batting results 1985-2013

LeaguePARHRRBIBBOPS
CL4,954458124496419.639
PL5,238603192638561.676
LeaguePA2B3BSBCSGDP
CL4,954224133719108
PL5,23820383124123

Below are the basic results of non-designated hitters in all games played between the two leagues since the 1985 Japan Series. The gap between DH production and other hitters is not nearly as striking. Without the DH, PL teams are much faster, hit for more power and draw more walks. The PL non-DH hitters homer about 3 percent more often than CL hitters, while their doubles increase by 5 percent and triples by 26 percent.

Non-DH batting in all games

LeaguePARuns2B 3B HRBBOPS
CL82,2858,2163,1502971,7446,033.642
PL83,1798,9423,3583781,8116,238.664

Perhaps someone pointed this out to Hara, but the PL’s success at in DH games, all at home except for the 2014 regular season stunt, when the DH was only used in CL parks in interleague, has been resounding.

Games results with the DH

LeagueWinsLossesRSRA
CL44663039134597
PL63044645973913

Games results without the DH

LeagueWinsLossesRSRA
CL56751143554457
PL51156744574355

The CL appears to have a normal home advantage without the DH, but is lost when they go on the road and have to use the designated hitter.

Another part of the issue has been that the PL’s larger parks — combined with their ability to have big hitters as designated hitters, has encouraged the use of faster more athletic outfielders. But with the the fences having been pulled in in Sendai, Fukuoka and Chiba, it will be less advantageous to trade power for outfield speed than in the past.