Tag Archives: Ryozo Kato

Best 10 of the 2010s

I know one’s supposed to do these things before 2020, but Ione of the things about New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is that the trains run all night, and I was on the train, so it seemed like an optimal time. So here are my top 10 Japanese baseball stories of the past 10 years in chronological order.

2013: It’s the ball stupid

Six weeks into the 2013 season and everyone noticed it. Home runs were jumping and the players union, worrying about pitchers failing to collect on their incentives, asked what was going on. Commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “Nothing. The ball is the same uniform ball we introduced in 2011.”

His disloyal lieutenant, Atsushi Ihara, stood there and let his boss tell that knowing full well that he had conspired with the Mizuno Corporation to introduce a livelier ball without the commissioner’s consent or knowledge. Ihara, one of four people involved, came from the Yomiuri Shimbun — owner of Japan’s most influential team and the leading opponent of the commissioner — whose new ball cut home runs and who had introduced a third-party panel to adjudicate player arbitration cases.

So Ihara let his boss hang himself in public. And then later came clean that he and his immediate superior, who was not a Yomiuri guy, had switched out the balls. Ihara’s boss was fired, the commissioner was ousted and Ihara, the fox, was put in charge of the henhouse.

2013: Masahiro Tanaka, Senichi Hoshino and the Eagles

Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and didn’t lose all year until Game 6 of the Japan Series. After that complete game, he earned the save in Game 7 as the city of Sendai — struck by a killer earthquake and tsunami two years earlier — won its first Japan Series.

Manager Senichi Hoshino, who had lost his three previous Japan Series as manager of the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he lost interest after winning the Central League pennant because his mission in life had been to beat the league-rival Giants. But in 2013, as Pacific League champions with NPB’s newest franchise, he faced the Giants and beat them in seven.

2014-2016: Tetsuto Yamada

From July 2014 through July 2016, the Yakult Swallows second baseman may have been the best player on the planet. He wasn’t a very good fielder in 2014 but took steps forward the next year when he was the CL MVP and led the consistently bad Swallows to the pennant.

His 2015 season was the 10th best in NPB history as measured by win shares and adjusted for era. His run came to a screeching halt in August 2016, when he was on his way to an even better season, but was hit in the back by a pitch that threw him off his game for nearly two seasons. Because of his stellar 2016 start, he became the first player in NPB history to record multiple seasons with a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals — even though he was an offensive zero the last two months of the season.

2015-2016: Giants stung by gambling scandal

Toward the end of the 2015 season, three Yomiuri Giants minor league pitchers were found guilty of betting on baseball — including games by their own team, although not in games they played in. The following March, a fourth pitcher, Kyosuke Takagi, revealed he, too, had been betting on games.

The first three players were all given indefinite suspensions and fired. In March 2016, Kyosuke Takagi also admitted to gambling. The only pitcher of the four of any quality, Takagi was let back into the game after a one-year suspension, following a recent pattern in which athletes who break the rules in Japan receive punishment inversely proportionate to how successful they are as competitors.

2016: Shohei Ohtani

If Yamada was the best for a 25-month span, 2016 cemented Ohtani’s place as the most intriguing player in the world. Ohtani had his first “Babe Ruth season” in 2014 with 10-plus wins and 10-plus home runs, but 2016, when he often batted as the pitcher in games when his manager could have used the DH was magical.

That summer, the Tokyo Sports Kisha Club, which organizes the voting for Japan’s postseason awards, made a rule change that allowed writers to cast Best Nine votes for the same player at multiple positions — provided one was a pitcher. The Ohtani rule allowed him to be win two Best Nine Awards, as the Pacific League’s best pitcher and best designated hitter.

His signature game came against the SoftBank Hawks — the team his Fighters came from behind to beat in the pennant race. Ohtani threw eight scoreless innings, opened the game with a leadoff homer and scored Nippon Ham’s other run in a 2-0 victory. Although he rolled his ankle running the bases in the Japan Series, he capped his year batting for Japan by hitting a ball into the ceiling panels at Tokyo Dome in November’s international series.

2016: Hiroshima Carp end their drought

In 2015, Hiroki Kuroda returned from the major leagues and even without Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, the Carp’s young talented core snapped a 24-year drought, winning their first CL title since 1991.

The Carp went on to win three-straight CL championships, the longest streak in club history. When the club failed to win its fourth straight pennant and finished out of the postseason in 2019, manager Koichi Ogata resigned.

2019: Ichiro Suzuki retires in Japan

The only better script would have been for Suzuki to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for another MVP and a World Series championship.

2010-2019: The CL status as a 2nd-class league is confirmed

The PL won nine Japan Series in the decade, the only time either league had ever done that. It equaled the best 10-year stretch by either league—when the Yomiuri Giants won nine straight from 1965 to 1973 bookended by PL titles.

2010-2019: The SoftBank Hawks

Never mind that the Hawks opened the decade by losing the playoffs’ final stage for the 4th time in 7 years to the third-place Lotte Marines. Softbank’s six Japan Series titles from 2011 t0 2019 under two different managers made them the team of the decade.

2019: The Giants discover the posting system

In November 2019, Shun Yamaguchi was posted by the Yomiuri Giants, who along with the Hawks have been the most critical of NPB’s posting agreement with MLB. When approached for comment about the impending news, the Giants’ official response was “that’s a rumor” and “speculation.”

Eight days later it was a done deal. Then followed the fun stuff as first one executive said it was a “one-off deal” and that the team had not changed its policy, having been obligated by contract to post Yamaguchi, which is pretty dumb, since the Giants agreed to that contract in the first place when they took him on as a free agent three years before.

The move makes it virtually impossible that the club will be able to keep ace and two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano much longer and not post him.

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.

NPB on the juice again?

A Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast listener (@DarkMatter89) who spends time tracking the distances of home runs hit in Nippon Professional Baseball, suggested that last year’s home run increase (12.1 percent over 2017) has continued into 2019.

Let’s compare the data each year through April 29.

YearPAHRHR rateChange
2010135712920.022
201162271120.0180.818
2012102481000.010.556
2013121512150.0181.8
2014120552580.0211.167
2015117801600.0140.667
2016125052190.0181.286
2017107231860.0170.944
2018107272280.0211.235
2019118733200.0271.286

As many of you know, until 2011, NPB had no standard ball, but allowed clubs to use balls from up to three different approved sporting goods makers during the season, provided they used each ball in at least a third of their home games.

In 2011, a uniform NPB ball was put in play with the target coefficient of restitution set near the absolute minimum allowed by the rules. As a result the ball was very dead. The 2011 season was a terrible year for home runs, with the frequency per PA dropping nearly 40 percent.

That wasn’t readily apparent at the start of the season, for reasons related to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Two Pacific League stadiums were unready for Opening Day. The Rakuten Eagles’ home park and its facilities were earthquake damaged, while the Lotte Marines’ park suffered from a lack of running water because water mains in the reclaimed areas along Chiba Prefecture’s Tokyo bayside had ruptured.

As a result of that, the season started two weeks late, missing some of the season’s coldest early weather. Because of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, ballparks in the eastern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu were prohibited from playing night games in April. As a result, there were day games or home games played in smaller regional parks in western Japan. Until the second half of the season, parks in the areas affected by the electric power shortage were also required to use reduced lighting.

Because of those influences, the dead ball apocalypse was slow in revealing itself. Because the season started late, it also ended late with league play going until Oct. 25, making the overall home run figures worse than had the season gone from March to early October.

In 2013, a coup d’tat overthrew commissioner Ryozo Kato, who had introduced NPB’s first standard ball. It was started by a senior official, who is now in charge of NPB’s bureaucracy, in a conspiracy with ball manufacturer Mizuno, which had long catered to the wishes of the teams to produce baseballs that were exceedingly lively.

But the overall growth in home run figures are not exclusively related to the ball. After the 2014 season, the owner of the SoftBank Hawks recalled the club’s lively-ball power-rich past and ordered the fences brought in to facilitate that. Since then, the Eagles and Marines have both followed suit.

Lumping together two-year periods to lessen the effect of weather, home runs in the CL in 2018-2019 increased by 18.5 percent over 2016-2017. The PL during the same period is 27.7 percent.

So let’s turn to 2019 and look for park-by-park increases over 2018.

Main Park HRs through 4/27/2018

TeamPAHRHR PA
Giants690200.029
Tigers68160.009
Dragons81370.009
BayStars869150.017
Carp615160.026
Swallows623200.032
Buffaloes46850.011
Hawks805280.035
Fighters676140.021
Marines69680.011
Lions673160.024
Eagles1043180.017
TeamPAHRHR PAIncrease
Giants543260.0481.652
Tigers687180.0262.974
Dragons797140.0182.04
BayStars881220.0251.447
Carp1160240.0210.795
Swallows966380.0391.225
Buffaloes701150.0212.003
Hawks779290.0371.07
Fighters782130.0170.803
Marines986310.0312.735
Lions791210.0271.117
Eagles907230.0251.469

As I may have mentioned on the podcast, the Tigers had an absurdly low number of home runs at home last season, and this looks partly like a regression. Throw out Chiba, which changed this year, and you still get nine out of the 11 clubs seeing more home runs in their main parks.

Last year about this time, I reported that home runs were increasing much more than the increase in balls hit in the air, which showed a slight growth in 2018. So far this year, however, fly balls appear to be down, while strikeouts are following America’s model and still on the rise.