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.

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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.”

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Tanaka shirts a hot item

The Rakuten Eagles may not have wrapped up their first pennant since 2013 with the signing of their former ace Masahiro Tanaka, but they are reaping a windfall just two weeks into camp Kyodo News (Japanese) reported Monday.

Since Tanaka returned last month for the first time since he closed out Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series with a save, the Pacific League team has sold 5,000 No. 18 Tanaka replica shirts in 10 days, for a total retail value of 70 million yen, or roughly 6.3 percent of the right-hander’s contract reported at 900 million yen ($8.7 million

Rakuten’s director of goods and merchandising, Takashi Watanabe, said, “It exceeds our expectations. There’s no sign it’s stopping yet. It’s the same kind of momentum from when we won the championship in 2013.”

Tanaka, by the way, has been scheduled to take the mound for the first time in a practice game on Feb. 20.

Okinawa gets its 1st women’s team

Although Japan’s baseball-playing population is dwindling, women are flocking to the game. Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts spring training camps for most of NPB’s 12 teams, is getting into the act, writes Nikkan Sports columnist Hirokazu Terao.

Kumiko Nakayama, a vice chairman of the prefectural high school baseball federation, will officially start the team in April. Nakayama is the principal of Nambu Shogyo (Commercial) High School, and for 10 years served as the director of baseball for both Chubu Shogyo and Urasoe Shogyo high schools.

The manager of those schools at the time said he invited her since high school baseball was education and he wanted her to assist in developing the youngsters. It’s typical in high school games to see the school’s baseball director sitting on the bench near the manager, but Nakayama rarely did so, but the manager recalled her saying, “People would say, ‘What’s a woman doing there?’ I don’t want to be seen as just a decoration.”

Nakayama made use of her education specialty to set up an analytics team that racked pitch location and the flight of batted balls, and a support team so students other than players could contribute.

According to Terao, the national women’s high school hardball federation reported 36 member schools in 2020, up from seven in 2010, while Japan’s national women’s team has won six straight world championships. Two of NPB’s 12 teams, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers, have established women’s club teams.

“So many women want to play, but as they progress from junior high to high school and graduate or leave the prefecture, it becomes economically unfeasible to keep at it,” Nakayama said. “I love baseball and felt I had to do something about it.”

Nakayama has held two events to show what the team is about ande expects the team, based on the main island’s southern Shimajiri District, to start with 12 to 13 members. To make it easier for women from other islands or from the main island’s northern districts to participate she’s rented space in a nearby home.

In a month when Japan’s deep-rooted misogyny was highlighted by the sexist remarks of a former prime minister, Nakayama’s words as an educator give Japan something positive to look forward to.

“We can’t foresee the future,” she said. “But women, too, can play an active role nationwide. School club activities are part of education, and if you challenge yourself through baseball and become a leader, it will improve your school. Building roots in the community is important, too. If this contributes to students finding jobs or getting into universities, I want to support that.”

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Tanaka marks anniversary of Nomura’s death

Rakuten Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka observed the first anniversary of Hall of Fame catcher and manager Katsuya Nomura’s death on Thursday, Sponichi Annex reported. Nomura was Tanaka’s first manager when he turned pro out of high school.

“I didn’t have a real sense of what was going on,” said Tanaka, who revealed he’d have wanted a healthy Nomura to see him back in a Rakuten uniform. “He taught me everything about life in the pros. I wonder what he would say about the timing of my return (to Japan).”

“If only he could see me doing this uniform proud and fighting for the team to the very end.”

Lotte lifts Sasaki’s breaking ball bullpen ban

Roki Sasaki threw his fourth bullpen of the spring on Thursday, throwing 30 pitches—including his slider and for the first time, the team having lifted its prohibition on him throwing anything but fastballs, Sponichi Annex reported.

“My forkball was really good,” he said. “Since turning pro I’ve had to really labor on my forkball, but I think I may now seeing the results of that effort.”

Sasaki, who was clocked at over 100 mph at the start of his senior year in high school in 2019, has yet to pitch in an official game since turning pro a year ago. He is slated to work out with the minor league team after the first team moves on from Okinawa’s Ishigakijima and throw live BP before rejoining the first team for the remainder of camp.

Kitabeppu: Marathon man Kuri’s got it

Manabu Kitabeppu a Hall of Fame former ace of the Hiroshima Carp, had a My Fair Lady kind of response to 29-year-old Allen Kuri’s 347-pitch bullpen last week, he wrote in a piece for Daily Sports on Thursday.

 “I thought it was a bit much, but from what I saw on the video, his form was very loose and he only looked like he was really exerting himself at the finish. Usually, if you go all out, your pitches will be lacking by the time you get to 250. That’s what I saw from Kuri in the past.”

“But he used his lower body really well, so well that it looked like his arm was just swinging downward, smoothly and easily. I think he’s learned a lot over the past year. His form and his balance are better, and I think he’s getting the hang of this.”

OK. He didn’t say, “Bye George, I think he’s got it.” But he came close.

Buffaloes’ Higgins tests positive

The Orix Bufaloes announced Thursday that right-hander Tyler Higgins has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Nikkan Sports. Higgins, who debuted in Japan last season, tested negative before leaving the States on Jan. 13 and again when he arrived in Japan on Jan. 17.

Tigers Women hold first workout

The Hanshin Tigers Women held their first practice on Thursday, a national holiday in Japan, at the Tigers’ minor league facility in Naruohama, Hyogo Prefecture, the Daily Sports reported. All 17 players turned out and practiced and did weight training for three hours while observing coronavirus protocols.

Going forward, the team will have weekend practices at Naruohama and in the indoor facility at the Tigers’ main park, Koshien Stadium. The team is planning to enter the Kansai women’s hardball federation’s tourney.

Swallows teen gets boost from Furuta

Hall of Fame catcher Atsuya Furuta, the pillar of five Yakult Swallows championship teams between 1992 and 2001, has been working with his old club as a spring training instructor, and on Thursday caught rookie Yasunobu Okugawa, the team’s first pick in the 2019 draft.

Prior to the bullpen session, Furuta said he felt Okugawa had the tools to be a pitcher of the same caliber as Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano. Okugawa said he was really nervous throwing to Furuta, who said afterward, “I thought he could become like Sugano, but since he himself is aiming toward being like Masahiro Tanaka, that’s the kind of pitcher I hope he develops into.”

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Talking ’bout practice

Japan’s 10 February preseason games scheduled to be played in Okinawa Prefecture to closed practice games, Nippon Professional Baseball’s secretary general Atsushi Ihara said Monday according to Sponichi Annex.

Japan is currently under a state of emergency until at least March 7, although Okinawa intends to lift its emergency status after Feb. 28. Preseason games after that date are still expected to take place with crowds limited to 5,000, while Ihara said that since the government currently wants people to return home after 8 p.m., all preseason games held where there is a state of emergency will be played in the day.

GM Ishii playing catch-up

In Kin, Okinawa Prefecture, Masahiro Tanaka became the pitcher with the second-highest career win total to throw a bullpen at the Rakuten Eagles camp, when manager and general manager Kazuhisa Ishii threw 37 pitches, Sponichi Annex reported Monday.

The 47-year-old Ishii, whose 182 career wins in Japan and the majors are five more than the 32-year-old Tanaka has from his years with the Eagles and New York Yankees, wanted some practice before throwing live BP during the third phase of the Eagles training camp.

“I quit when I stopped wanting to play baseball, and I didn’t think I’d start again. By throwing (BP) I’ll be able to communicate with players from within the game itself,” said Ishii, who spent time that morning sprinting up a slope on the auxiliary field.

“I’ve been aging but I want to keep my body in good shape. The players are all well conditioned and I want to be able to keep up.”

Dragons count Viciedo among the healthy

Chunichi Dragons first baseman Dayan Viciedo, has bounced back from a dislocated left shoulder, according to those who count BP home runs in spring camp. At the Central League club’s minor league camp in Yomitan, Okinawa, four of Viciedo’s 45 swings launched balls over the outfield fence, Tokyo Sports reported.

Viciedo hurt the shoulder playing defense in an Oct. 28 game against the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium.

Fukudome also trying to keep up

Kosuke Fukudome, the oldest active player in NPB at the age of 43, is back with the Dragons this season for the first time since 2006, and is also trying to keep up with the kids.

In other news:

Seibu’s dome remake to include home run bar

New seating at Seibu Dome, which is getting a makeover ahead of the season with new turf, seats in the outfield that had been artificial turf and before the roof was constructed, grass. On Monday the club introduced the Meito Home Run Bar Panorama Terrace, 140 places in right field equipped with swivel-chair bar seating and the corporate sponsorship of the Meito chocolate company.

BayStars holding another clinic for women

The DeNA BayStars said Monday it will hold another clinic aimed at women players at its minor league indoor facility in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Feb. 20 with Eri “The knuckle princess” Yoshida and former pro player Yu Kato—among the three women instructors.

Word out of Boston…

… is that right-handed free-agent reliever Hirokazu Sawamura’s talks with the Boston Red Sox are progressing, according to Chris Cotillo.

Profile: Hirokazu Sawamura

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Getting to work

A day after arriving at the Rakuten Eagles spring camp in Kin, Okinawa Prefecture, and admitting to some nerves in his old crimson getup, Masahiro Tanaka threw his first NPB bullpen in eight years on Sunday.

Throwing to third-year player Hikaru Ota, whose 67 games last year were the most of the Eagles’ catching staff, Tanaka said it was his job to take the lead, Full-count reported.

“Even me, I didn’t feel I had done enough to establish that communication (with my catcher) when I was young, so it’s on me to go to him and establish an atmosphere where he can easily ask me things,” said Tanaka, who admitted it was a little different throwing NPB’s ball.

“I was a little off with this (NPB) ball, but nothing major.”

Curmudgeon corner

If it’s Sunday, it’s time for Isao Harimoto’s Curmudgeon Corner, his sports section on TBS Network’s Sunday Morning. This morning, he was joined by fellow traveler and former Yomiuri Giants teammate Tsuneo Horiuchi.

Both Horiuchi and Harimoto said Tanaka’s return is a chance to boost Japan’s game, implying that there is something to be learned from playing abroad.

Horiuchi said, however, that it was proper for Tanaka to return to Japan and for Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano to stay here for 2021. To be honest, I can only assume he meant individual Japanese players should stay home to improve the quality of the domestic game. But if Tanaka hadn’t gone abroad, he wouldn’t be the pitcher he now is, so that’s a problematic argument.

Moving on to other things about camp, the segment’s announcer showed some of the novel training methods being tried out this spring, starting with Giants farm team manager Shinnosuke Abe having batters do some lifting barbells on the sideline after BP.

“The essence of baseball is hitting a ball with a bat. You want to be careful about building up the wrong muscles, because they can impede your swing,” Harimoto said in what was for him an unusually well-phrased observation. “Horiuchi-san will tell you it’s the same for pitchers.”

New math

Horiuchi agreed, but added that novel training was a kind of fun thing for coaches, and that thinking outside the box is probably a good thing, upon which the focus switched to the Seibu Lions’ camp, where players executed a standard footwork drill while solving a series of simple arithmetic problems a coach shouted at them.

“Complete waste of time that would be better spent building up their physical condition,” Harimoto said. “If they want to learn arithmetic, they should do it in the offseason.”

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