Tag Archives: Scout Diary

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.

Scout Diary: Feb. 17, 2020 – Chapter 2

I wrapped up my General Manager and Scouting course early Sunday morning and would be remiss if I didn’t shout out to my teachers, Dan Evans and Hank Jones, and my classmates. The instructors encouraged interaction, let us go off-topic and explore. In addition to the content delivered in the twice-weekly chats and the assignments, the dynamic between my classmates made it a Grade A experience.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

So to Paul Williams (our chat MVP), Jon Carson, Daniel Cho, Alicia Crandell, Edgar Arismendi, Beni Cromwell, Carlos Fernandez, Chris Fessler, Jeff Laue, Santy Prada, Guillermo Quinones, Luis Alejandro, Ben Rockwell, and Andrew Smith, thank you and see you in Dallas in December. I loved reading your work and hearing your questions.

I’ve done the SMWW analysis class and it was a vastly different vibe. I was a “classmate” of new Royals manager Mike Matheny but with one chat a week, and the great guest speakers the teacher, Ari Kaplan, brought in, there was very little live interaction. Some of that was due to SMWW since hanging the platform for live chats to Zoom, and that experience is much improved.

So now that I’ve written a half-dozen scouting reports, analyzed pay hikes for arbitration-eligible players this past winter, did only three informational interviews instead of the six I had hoped to, researched trades and players and wrote an analysis of the SoftBank Hawks for my final paper, what’s next?

Chapter 2

Starting today, I am officially scouting. I will be taking notes as often as possible from the high school spring invitational tournament, the pro preseason, youtube video of players who are newsworthy, and writing reports as often as possible. If any of you have seen these players and want to share your opinions, constructive criticism or even utter disbelief, my e-mail is guidedogjapan@yahoo.com please write and be critical.

Since the day I stopped becoming a rabid fan — I think the vaccination process involved accidentally breaking a plate glass window at my rental in college over the result of a San Francisco Giants loss in the final week of the 1982 regular season — I haven’t been more excited for the season to start. The normal dread that comes with the thought of downloading rosters and player codes needed to build another season of my database has been outweighed by a thirst for more and different knowledge.

Tigers prepare two-way doubletalk

After watching video of Tigers first-draft pick Junya Nishi batting and pitching, one has to be curious what Hanshin’s plans are for him. Since last year, people were talking about the 18-year-old as a possible two-way player.

My scouting report on Nishi is HERE.

Yano opens the door and then closes it

In November, the Nikkan Sports reported Tigers manager Akihiro Yano brought the matter up when he first visited the youngster. Yano reportedly said, “You can’t have a two-way player like Ohtani in the Central League (where pitchers bat). Do your best as a pitcher, then we’ll see about further uses.”

What that means, of course, is the chance of Hanshin coming up with an innovative plan for a power hitter who can pitch is basically zero.

If your plan is that a) “there can’t be a two-way player like Ohtani in the CL” because the league has no DH, and b) “we’ll see after he masters pitching,” you are basically relegating his batting talent to the dustbin.

That is the way an MLB team would have handled Ohtani the amateur before he became Ohtani the two-way pro star: master pitching first. But when he became a star, all those scouts who said “No major league team will risk that arm by letting him hit” were forced to accept that was not true.

Three National League clubs, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers all had plans in place to give Ohtani 350-plus at-bats while pitching in the rotation. Perhaps they didn’t know what Yano KNOWS, that you can’t have a two-way player without a DH.

The differences between Nishi and Ohtani

To be fair, Ohtani differs from Nishi, a fellow right-handed pitcher, in three distinct ways:

  • Ohtani bats left-handed
  • Ohtani is bigger and threw harder when he was Nishi’s age.
  • Ohtani’s delivery was smoother
  • Ohtani had less command of his secondary pitches

In 2017, Ohtani said he was a better hitter because he pitched and vice versa, Asked if he could provide a rationale for that, Los Angeles Angels GM Billy Eppler answered a year ago that Ohtani’s left-handed swing is a perfect counterbalance to the torque exerted on his trunk as a right-handed pitcher.

When Ohtani threw his first pro bullpen with the Fighters, one club executive thought his future was in the batter’s box since his breaking pitches were awful. But guys who throw 100 mph are rare. Nishi isn’t that guy.

Nishi may have more command — except with his curve — but his arm deceleration still looks much more violent. His pitching motion makes it look as if he is exerting himself all out on every pitch. Because of that, it may well be that his upside as a hitter is even better.

In the end, the Tigers will choose the way they think maximizes his skills. But by not checking the “develop batting” box from the start, that decision has likely already been made.

The player development view

“You need to keep working on skills or you lose them. They degrade and you just can’t call them back later. It doesn’t work like that,” said Bobby L. Scales, II, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league field coordinator and former director of player development for the Angels.

Scales, who played in Japan for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes, knows from experience that right-handed batters who learn to switch hit often fail to practice their natural swings enough and lose much of their ability to hit left-handed pitchers.

“Why would anyone not have him keep working on his batting?” Scales asked by telephone on Wednesday. “He’s been a batter and a pitcher all his life. Why stop now?”

“I know Japanese teams tend to be risk-averse but if you don’t know what you’re missing. You will never know what might have been.”

Risk aversion

Scales also talked about how sports, like art and language, display a society’s culture. Japanese baseball people often say their game is less about winning than it is about not losing.

When one thinks about it, this makes Japan’s preoccupation with hitting and defense and small ball. No player on the field can contribute as much to a losing cause as the pitcher. A fielder can miss a few plays and the pitcher can get over it. The team’s best hitter can strike out four times with the bases loaded and the team can still win. But if the pitcher throws fat pitches with the bases loaded, your team is in deep trouble.

If that’s true, anyone with the potential to be a quality pitcher is going to be a position player. Nishi’s fastball sits at 90 miles per hour and he has a good slider, change and splitter. If your focus is on having guys who won’t cost you games, those are more valuable skills than the power needed to drive the ball over the fence.

Scout Diary: Feb. 2, 2020. Hitters

Part 1 of this week’s scouting assignment is to try and unpack the astonishingly difficult world of evaluating hitters, starting with the difference between “pure” and “power” hitters following the lines laid down in the book “Baseball Uncenscored” by MLB scout John Story.

The mission

Part 1Identify one “pure hitter” as described in “Baseball Uncensored” and one “power hitter.” Describe how each is important in the line-up and why. How has the “power hitter” changed the game? How does this affect scouts when analyzing hitting?

Story writes that the goal of the good hitter is “to consistently hit the ball hard,” and that regardless how that goal is achieved, solid hitting mechanics are reason the best hitters achieve that goal. (p. 73) By that logic, the overall measure of the hit tool is the player’s ability to consistently hit the ball hard. The job of the scout, then, is to recognize this where it exists, and recognize what gifts a player has that will allow him to achieve this at a high level with proper attention to skills that can be developed and the effort required to master them.

He describes excellent hand speed and aptitude as natural abilities. Adjusting one’s hands to the pitched ball and a short compact stroke are, he writes, learned skills.

The big question for Story is whether a player has or can learn to generate bat speed. The key, he writes, is the hands, and how the small muscles trigger the swing. To this he adds, balance, knowledge of the strike zone and a good approach are also components.

So let’s look at two hitters, one pure hitter, and one power hitter.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Pure hitter: Kensuke Kondo

Kondo is a 26-year-old on-base machine for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League. He qualifies as a pure hitter by virtue of his ability to consistently hit the ball hard. Here’s how he compares to other NPB hitters with 350-plus plate appearances the past two seasons according to Delta Graphs:

  • Lowest soft-contact percentage: No. 1 (2019), No. 8 (2018)
  • Lowest swinging strike percentage: No. 2 (2019), No. 4 (2018)
  • Lowest swing percentage out of zone: No. 7 (2019), No. 6 (2018)
  • Highest hard-contact percentage: No. 19 (2019), No. 10 (2018)

By those numbers we can deduce he consistently makes solid contact, knows the strike zone, and has a good approach. Here’s a youtube video of Kondo:

Kensuke Kondo

Here’s how Kondo looked in his days at Yokohama High School

Kensuke Kondo in high school.

Power hitter: Hotaka Yamakawa

Yamakawa is the first baseman and cleanup hitter for both the Seibu Lions and Japan’s national team. He was the PL’s 2018 MVP. His qualifications as a power hiter – according to the Story line – are: 23% of his fly balls are home runs, this was the 7th highest figure in 2019, the 5th highest in 2018.

In his career, he has hit one home run per 11.45 at-bats. Among hitters with at least 1,000 at-bats and 100 home runs, this rate – that Story calls “power efficiency” (p. 80) – ranks Yamakawa fifth  — in Japanese pro baseball history. Ranked ahead of him are: Sadaharu Oh (10.66), Randy “I’ll be a Hall of Famer in 2021” Bass (10.93), Charlie Manuel (11.25) and Orestes Destrade (11.35).

First, a look at Yamakawa in his days as a Fuji University star:

Hotaka Yamakawa in university
Hotaka Yamakawa during his first full season.

The power ball lottery

The realization over the past 10 years that balls driven at a velocity of at least 98 mph at an angle between 26 and 30 degrees result produces optimum results that often outweigh the cost of increased strikeouts has been the biggest game-changer since the period from 1919-1921. Then, the confluence of Babe Ruth showed home run hitting could be a productive tactic, and clean baseballs allowed others to replicate his experiment. Since then, the fear of the cost of a strikeout has steadily declined and now has all but evaporated.

If I’m a scout, I’m on the lookout for strong players with quick wrists, who can make the necessary adjustments. The other side of the coin is finding pitchers who can exploit those hitters, and consequently, batters who can put the ball in play against the shifts that have since been implemented.

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020: The question about Junya Nishi

Today’s topic is right-handed pitcher Junya Nishi, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick last autumn. Nishi, a Hiroshima native, played for Soshigakuen HS in Okayama and is a distant relative of Tigers pitcher Yuki Nishi.

Haven’t heard anyone talk about Nishi’s hitting, but he’s got real power. I asked longtime former Dodgers scout Hank Jones, one of the instructors in the Scouting and General Manager course at Sports Management World Wide, what teams did back in the day when guys had hitting AND pitching tools back in the day before Shohei Ohtani.

Essentially, Jones said, “Let him prove he can’t hit. If he can’t then he’s a pitcher.”

But now that we’re living in the post-Ohtani world, one would think any team would at least consider a novel approach to a player with such obvious talent.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Physically, Nishi resembles Ron Cey, although he is a little taller than Cey. His pitching motion makes it look like he’s constantly overexerting himself, and his follow through is violent rather than smooth.

The pitcher

In the pitching video below, the announcer reports Nishi as saying his balance is off when his cap comes off his head — which it does frequently. When he bats, it looks like his lower body imparts very little of the impressive power he generates.

Here’s a first-round national championship game in 2018, when Nishi was a month shy of his 17th birthday. He touched 91.3 mph in this game with 40 command. He has since been recorded at 93.2, which would make his velocity a 60. He has a slider with depth and 50 command, a curve that he doesn’t command well what appeared to be a splitter with arm-side run and good depth.

Junya Nishi’s 16 strikeouts in the national championships as a 16-year-old.

The video below is an analysis of his motion and deliveries against the national collegiate team prior to last year’s Under-18 World Cup. I can’t vouch for the RPMs given on the video. The curve with poor command appears little different than the ones he threw at Koshien Stadium a year earlier, but it looks like the slider and fastball are even better and he’s added a changeup and improved the splitter.

Some slow motion of him pitching against Japan’s national collegiate hitters.

The hitter

I first noticed Nishi when he drove in eight runs against South Africa as Japan’s DH in their Under-18 World Cup game last autumn in South Korea.

The other instructor in our scouting course, former Dodgers GM and Blue Jays scout Dan Evans, provided us with a hack for recognizing above-average major league power, which I won’t spill hear, but suffice it to say hearing that he led the World Cup in home runs and hit 25 in his high school career as a pitcher.

He’s a right-handed hitter, with 60 power that I’ll project to 65 with work on his lower body mechanics with a 50 hit tool. Like most Japanese hitters he sprays the ball to all fields, although his power seems to be mostly to left.

Here’s some video of Nishi hitting in high school.

Pitcher Junya Nishi raked and mashed in high school.

Conclusion

Japan is obsessed with pitchers, and Nishi has a lot to offer on the mound, but his delivery bothers me a little. I’m inclined to think his power is the real deal and that he may have more future value as a hitter with fewer adjustments needed.

Whether he can be a two-way player or not is a good question. But if I’m the Hanshin Tigers, I’d at least ask him if he’s interested instead of just assuming that the team knows more than the player. The Tigers are kind of a mystery to me. I don’t understand their inability to commit to young players or their past failures to modernize the club’s strength-training program.

Maybe they see the possibility Nishi presents, but if I were to bet, my money would be on the “We’ve already made up our minds about his future as a pitcher.”

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.