None of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 managers draw more flak from the media than Alex Ramirez. Some of that criticism is just because he is different, but when stories begin to emerge blaming a skipper for a team’s losses and asserting he doesn’t know what he is doing, you can be damn sure there is a reason for it that has nothing to with the guy’s managing chops.
Last year, Ramirez was ripped for batting Yoshitomo Tsutsugo second, with some former players saying it was proof the Americanization of Japanese baseball had gone too far.
Prior to that, the skipper was attacked for batting his pitchers eighth, something I’ve pointed out makes tons of sense. While I’m not a fan of his love of the intentional walk, he’s the one in charge and it’s kind of a small thing.
Ramirez entered the season with 280 wins in four seasons, the third-highest win total in franchise history. He hasn’t yet won a pennant, but only two others have with this club and he is only the third to take the team to the Japan Series.
The attacks resumed Sunday when Ramirez admitted he wasn’t confident one of his pitchers would know the sign for the run-and-hit, so Ramirez let it go without calling for a sacrifice bunt. And as we know, managers are blamed for their teams not scoring when they fail to order a sacrifice since sacrifice bunts result in a 100 percent chance of scoring a run – just kidding.
“I had the fast Tomo Otosaka on first and (pitcher Kentaro) Taira hits right-handers well,” Ramirez said of the second-inning opportunity with one out and a runner on first and a 1-0 lead against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday.
“I thought about giving the run and hit sign, but I wasn’t sure Taira knew it so I decided against it.”
The BayStars blew an early 1-0 run lead and a 3-2 lead in the ninth, when the Yomiuri Giants tied it against closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, who took the loss when his replacement surrendered a two-run home run.
Masamune Umemiya, writing for the Asahi Shimbun’s Aera.dot, ripped into Ramirez saying it “defies belief a professional would not know the signs.”
Umemiya attacked Ramirez for using an opener and pulling the starter on a bullpen day last (July 16 in Nagoya) after allowing a run in the first inning, and for pulling starting catcher Hikaru Ito after ace Shota Imanaga allowed three runs in the second inning. Ito was deactivated the following day. Other managers do this stuff all the time, but the number of times they are criticized in the media for it is about zero unless there is a larger agenda at work.
Managers wrestle with options whose real percentages are unknowable – except it seems to a few omniscient critics. Few managers have been worse at in-game tactics than Hall of Famer Tatsunori Hara during his first five or six years or his mentor Shigeo Nagashima.
What really matters is that the players respect the manager’s decisions and believe he gives them a reasonable chance to win, and that the manager organizes the team in a way that facilitates growth and success–the real building blocks of championships.
The final component of these attacks in Japan is the “This team is too good to lose” argument.
This was famously made by Tatsuro Hirooka and his surrogates in 1995 to argue that Bobby Valentine had cost the Lotte Marines a pennant that any average manager would have won. I don’t remember the exact number, it might have been 20 games Valentine was supposed to have been worse than average by Hirooka’s calculation. It might have been 10. But even 10 is an unimaginably large number.
In Valentine’s first season, the Marines had their best finish in 10 years and their best winning percentage in 11. But Hirooka, who hired him, didn’t like his style and attacked him at every turn. The Marines finished 12 games back of Ichiro Suzuki and the Orix BlueWave, but as far as Hirooka was concerned, Valentine had ruined a championship-caliber team that no one knew existed until they hired him.
Umemiya wheeled out this argument against Ramirez, by quoting a baseball writer who said many former players considered the BayStars to have the most balanced team in the Central League and the best starting pitching. Therefore, this argument goes, any fault must be the manager’s.
It’s fair to discuss Ramirez’s choices, and to his credit, he doesn’t dodge questions. But when Tsuyoshi Yoda ran out of position players and had to use a relief pitcher to pinch-hit with two outs in the 10th, the bases loaded and his team trailing by a run recently, there weren’t any stories about how he was ruining the Chunichi Dragons.
But since Sunday, there have been a half-dozen stories by reporters questioning Ramirez’s fitness that were supported by the expert opinions of former players.
When one sees that one begins to ask, “Why now?”
In 2011, when batting conditions wrecked offensive numbers all over Japan and the Hanshin Tigers played poorly, a reporter friend said that Hanshin’t press corps was keen to attack the team’s older Japanese veterans for their failure to hit for average, but coaches directed the writers’ wrath to the failures of the imported players, Craig Brazell and Matt Murton. That guidance by the Tigers coaching staff led to some really weird stuff.
Japanese baseball is weird some times. The DeNA franchise fired its most successful manager ever, Hiroshi Gondo, because his outspoken criticisms of traditional pro baseball customs irritated the older former players in the media who couldn’t forgive his insolence and attacked him the way Ramirez is now being attacked. Like Ramirez, Gondo was no fan of the mindless, automatic sacrifice bunts Japan championed. Despite his success with a team that had been a traditional doormat, nothing Gondo did was good enough.
In his first season, Ramirez became the first BayStars manger to finish third in 10 years. When he finished third the next year, there were calls that his contract should not be extended. One suspects that the reason for those stories and these new ones is that the old guys whose opinions fill the airwaves and the sports papers have a specific candidate they would like to have instead of Ramirez.
That became crystal clear on Tuesday when a story was published about a minor league game in which DeNA’s farm team had executed four sacrifices in a 6-4 Western League win over the Yomiuri Giants
As soon as stories like that appear, about how a popular former player is succeeding Japanese-style in THE MINORS, at a time when the first-team manager is under fire for not bunting in the second inning, then you know there is an agenda propelling those stories.