Tag Archives: Rakuten Eagles

Having a plan

On this week’s Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, John E. Gibson interviewed Yakult Swallows scout Tony Barnette and asked if the team has any clear vision about how to build up like they did 15-17 years ago.

I wanted to know that, largely because like most teams, the Swallows appear to have no clear way of doing things other than to get the players who are available, see how they pan out, and then take it from there, which I would call the “zero accountability” plan.

You can listen to Tony’s answers when the podcast drops on Monday, and I won’t tease it here, but what the Swallows did 17 years ago was tell everyone, “We’ve tasked our new manager (Shigeru Takada) with developing the young pitchers.”

That kind of announcement is pretty rare here, and sometimes it’s just PR. But in the Swallows’ case, the team began following a program. Older pitchers who weren’t big contributors were shipped out to the farm, where players who couldn’t catch the ball, like first baseman Kazuhiro Hatakayama, also got stuck.

Takada built an underpowered team that could pitch and catch. When he left, new manager Junji Ogawa, let his big hitters play and the Swallows got good in a hurry.

A clear plan offers the chance to learn from mistakes and adjust and organize the workload. It is also, however, an open door to accountability.

Baseball people love to talk about players and managers being held accountable for their results, but front offices rarely are. Teams most often just hire a manager, let him set an agenda that the front office may or may not cooperate fully with and then fire him when it doesn’t work.

When teams hire foreign nationals to manage, the press release often includes something changing the team culture. Sometimes creating a new culture is actually part of the plan — as it was when the Nippon Ham Fighters hired Trey Hillman in 2003, and the Lotte Marines went back to Bobby Valentine a year later.

When the Hiroshima Carp in 2006 hired Marty Brown, and when the Orix Buffaloes turned to Terry Collins in 2007, both teams talked about changing the culture, but both guys were met with blank stares when they tried to work out overall policies that included the minor league team and player development.

If you are working in a Japanese company, and hold any place of influence, one of your colleagues is eager for you to make a mistake so that they can take your job. One way of avoiding being caught out and being shoved aside is to avoid accountability by not having clearly defined organizational plans that could fail.

Instead, it seems most teams’ planning revolves around setting expectations for individual players, that might involve specific skills or even physical strength unless you’re the Hanshin Tigers. If the players meet the team’s goals then it’s time to set new goals.

That is part of the picture for every team, even the Tigers, but if your entire policy is “let’s see how good this year’s players are,” then that’s no policy at all.

Looking back

The 2008 Swallows weren’t the only recent team to define an organizational approach with a comprehensive policy.

The SoftBank Hawks clearly have a policy about team development that revolves around filling their minor league facility with guys on developmental contracts and seeing who rises to the top — something the Yomiuri Giants apparently are now copying after they picked an NPB record 12 players in last year’s “D” draft.

Here are some of the policies I can identify in particular order:

  • The Carp way: Adopted in 1975 through the confluence of combustible American manager Joe Lutz and the acquisition that year of hard-nosed scrappy infielder Tsuyoshi Oshita, the Carp revolves around quality defense and base-running, which has the added advantage of being fun to watch.
  • ID Yakyu: The “ID” stood for “Import Data” and was coined by the late Katsuya Nomura during his time with the Swallows. It likely originated with Nomura through the influence by his Nankai Hawks manager Kazuto Tsuruoka and Nomura’s right-hand man, Don Blasingame. Essentially, it meant using data to identify opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them, but it also meant surrounding his core stars with veteran hitters other teams discarded because their main skill was getting on base.
  • Don’t call me ‘Manager’: Yokohama BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo wanted to rid his team of meaningless customs, starting with asking the players to call him “Gondo-san.” Despite managing the team to one of its two championships and a franchise-record .541 winning percentage during his three seasons, Gondo got fired because nobody likes a good manager if they talk trash about the game’s honored but idiotic customs.
  • We’re using the whole roster: This was Tatsunori Hara’s mantra when he took over the Giants in 2002. Hara eliminated Yomiuri’s 25-year-old tradition of basing roster selection on seniority, star-status, and popularity, and began giving meaningful opportunities time to no-name players who performed well in the minors. When the head coach then, Yoshitaka Katori, told me of the policy that spring, I believed it was 100 percent eye-wash. It wasn’t.
  • Let the geezers play: This was the invention of the Rakuten Eagles’ first manager, Yasushi Tao, a former batting champ who’d spent the final years of his career doing whatever it took to earn playing time. Tao believed a roster packed with veterans, given one last shot to prove themselves, would make the 2005 expansion Eagles competitive. It didn’t.

The practice of Tanaka

Playing in his first game action since returning to the Rakuten Eagles after seven seasons with the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka allowed three runs over two innings in a practice game against the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Tanaka allowed four hits in the first, including a three-run home run to Nippon Ham Fighters cleanup hitter Sho Nakata, and worked a 1-2-3 second although he said the quality of his pitches didn’t vary much from one inning to the other.

Probably more interesting than his two innings were his answers to reporters questions below.

Masahiro Tanaka’s first practice game since returning to the Rakuten Eagles

Zen practice

Here’s my translation of Tanaka’s postgame Q&A after the game as reported by Sponichi Annex:

  • –There were no fans in the stands.
  • Tanaka: “It’s pretty lonely without fans.”
  • You said you felt just felt strong today.
  • Tanaka: “I had more velocity than I thought I would. In regards to that I threw close to 40 pitches over two innings in a game, so it was an extremely good first step.”
  • –How was your feel for your pitches facing batters for the first time?
  • Tanaka: “Overall, I think I have a lot to do. There are a lot of specific areas where I have lot of work to do.”
  • “Going forward in bullpens and so on I want to work on the issues I need to address from today, considering the way I got burned, and make corrections.”
  • –It was your first time facing Nakata in a long time.
  • Tanaka: “And he hit a home run off me. Just now I saw him behind the stands and he said, ‘Oh Tanaka, it’s been a long time hasn’t it,’ with a big smile on his face. It was the kind of greeting you can get away with from a position of strength.”
  • –So you want to face him during the season?
  • Tanaka: “Of course, yes.”
  • –Going forward, how are you going to raise your game as you approach Opening Day (March 26).
  • Tanaka: “I’ve been saying from the start, there’s not just one thing, but today was my first time against hitters, so I’m thinking I need to get better little by little each time.”
  • –Is one issue the command of your breaking pitches?
  • Tanaka: “Of course that’s an issue with breaking balls, but that also goes for the fastball. I could sense that I am still in the adjustment-making phase.”
  • –You got Yuki James Nomura out on a high fastball. Was that according to plan?
  • Tanaka: “Well that’s one way. That certainly worked well. I was able to put that ball where I wanted it, and if I do that I hope I can get outs. Unfortunately, my command is not really there yet. The biggest issue has to do with my mechanics, but today I was feeling a lot of different things. It’s a question of whether you can resolve some issues in the bullpen. I think the thing is to just keep putting in the work.”
  • –Did you throw your cutter or two-seamer?
  • Tanaka: “I did not: curve, slider, split.”
  • –How was your feel for your pitches?
  • Tanaka: “It was inconsistent most of the time.”
  • –You didn’t take the field until it was less than an hour before the start f the game. So you’re doing that the way you did in the States?
  • Tanaka: “Right. I haven’t changed from that. Today I went out about 12:10 or 12:15 (for a 1 p.m. start). That’s usual. I didn’t do it that way when I was in Japan (before), but it became my routine over there, and I feel like keeping that here.”
  • –Have you changed where you stand on the rubber?
  • Tanaka: “No. It’s been the same all along.”
  • –You looked like you were concerned about your footing on the mound. Was it different from the bullpen mound?
  • Tanaka: “No. They feel the same. The mound in the bullpen and the mound in the game feel the same, but in a game, you’ve got this game energy and you need to harness it, so that makes it different from the bullpen. No. 1, that was how I threw today, and the big thing was taking in all those different sensations.”
  • –You touched 148 kph (92 mph). How did that feel?
  • Tanaka: “In the seven years since I went to America, I’d never thrown anything but bullpens by this time of the year, so taking that into account, I think I did well. Also, because I’ve been itching to soak up so many things as quickly as I can, in that way I faced batters for the first time today, but most of all I wanted to take in all those different sensations of a real game. It meant something to be allowed to take the mound. Everything was a learning experience.”
  • –Is it your hope that you can pitch in one more game while the team is in Okinawa?
  • Tanaka: “Looking at the schedule, I suppose it will turn out like that, but you better wait for the skipper to announce that, since what a player says is kind of… you know.”