This is the second part of a look at the history of pitchers in Japanese pro baseball batting orders, how a need to achieve orthodoxy in the 1980s turned Japanese baseball into a cult of orthodoxy and how some managers, like Alex Ramirez have learned to survive despite going against the grain.
Part 1: Why ninth?
While having the pitcher bat eighth is looked as a fad or a failed experiment, it used to be extremely common in NPB.
In the Japan Series, there have been two distinct phases when it comes to pitchers batting higher than ninth. From 1950 to 1971, 17.3 percent of Japan Series starting pitchers batted eighth or higher. Since 1972, it’s been 2.2 percent, with the 2017 DeNA BayStars accounting for three of the eight pitchers who’ve batted higher in the last 48 years.
The operator of 2689web provided me with a data set of every starting pitcher who has ever batted higher than ninth in a regular season game.
The use in the regular season had two spikes.
When pro baseball had its first year of league play with split spring and fall seasons in 1937 and 1938, pitchers batted higher than ninth more than 55 percent of the time. The figures remained in that ballpark until 1941. They spiked after Japan’s war in China spilled over South East Asia and the Pacific. In the final wartime season, 1944, pitchers batted ninth in less than 19 percent of all games.
That wave declined, with pitchers batting ninth more often than not for the first time in 1949 –the year a smaller strike zone was introduced and offense exploded. That year, on-base percentages jumped by 30 points and runs scored increased by 1.3 runs per nine inning.
There was a kind of backlash to the big offense numbers that were further boosted by 1950’s big expansion. And though rules were not changed, small ball became the way to play, and offense levels sank to their lowest point since the war. In 1956, 91 percent of pitchers were batting ninth. By 1960 it was 98 percent. By 1965, it was 99.6 percent.
Then a weird thing happened.
In 1966, first one manager then another started doing it. The year before he won the first of his five PL pennants with the Hankyu Braves, Hall of Fame manager Yukio Nishimoto, began batting his pitchers eighth, once in April, once in May, three times in July and five times in August. In 1965, only six pitchers batted higher in that season’s 1,680 lineups. In September, Chunichi Dragons manager Michio Nishizawa started doing it, and he kept it up in 1967.
Nishizawa began his career as a pitcher, who batted eighth 54 times in his career, and who finished his Hall of Fame career as a slugging first baseman. The weird thing is that it wasn’t like different managers all doing it once. It was more like a conspiracy to preserve the old ways.
Nishimoto did it for a while and then stopped. Then Nishizawa picked up the torch in the CL in September, and started doing it again from the end of May 1967 until the end of July. Then Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami started up. As a player, Kawakami was a rival of Nishizawa’s, and like him a good-hitting pitcher who found his true calling at first base. Kawakami’s interest slackened a bit in September—when another Hall of Famer and a former teammate of Kawakami’s, Tigers manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto, picked it up. By the end of the 1967 season, everybody was doing it.
It wasn’t just the managers. There was at that time, a cadre of good hitting pitchers, like the Giants’ Tsuneo Horiuchi and Masaichi Kaneda, and sometimes their managers would drop them into the No. 8 hole.
Before Kawakami achieved legendary status as a manager, Hawks skipper Kazuto Tsuruoka and Kawakami’s Giants’ predecessors, Osamu Mihara and Shigeru Mizuhara were the three most influential managers in the 1950s and 1960s. Tsuruoka, perhaps the most innovative manager in Japanese history, abandoned the practice between June 1950 and August 1956, when he used it a lot down the stretch. Then at the end of September, 1967, he once more developed a taste for it with a select set of his pitchers.
In 1966, 98 percent of pitchers were still batting ninth, but in 1967 it was 93 percent, and by 1968, all of the most influential managers were doing it, with only 81 percent batting ninth. In 1969, orthodox lineups were down to 75 percent.
From 1970, however, the idea that pitchers could bat anywhere but ninth began disappearing from the scene, perhaps because offensive levels began to rise again from 1971 and perhaps because the wily old guys who had played when pitchers typically batted eighth, Kawakami, Tsuruoka, Mihara and Mizuhara were leaving – or in Kawakami’s case, forced out.
Why the batting order?
The funny thing is that batting the pitcher eighth or higher was a real part of Japanese pro baseball, but it died out as these managers’ disciples had no use for the eccentricities of their elders. At the same time, another aspect of Japan’s traditional game, the sacrifice bunt, took on a Frankenstein’s monster life of its own as a larger-than-normal misshapen misunderstood representation of the real thing.
Kawakami’s most influential managing disciples were Giants shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka and Giants catcher Masaaki Mori, who became Hirooka’s right-hand man, successor with the Seibu Lions, and eventually his arch-enemy. Those two took the sacrifice bunt, polished it and created a cottage industry around it with the Lions.
The campaign to romanticize the sacrifice based on the Lions’ success in the 1980s and 1990s, in some ways mirrored that of warriors’ code “bushido.” Although the ideas of proper warrior behavior existed in a feudal society, the actual written documents known as “Bushido” were a kind of Edo-era MAGA PR campaign, designed to get the idlers, wastrels and scoundrels born into warrior families to act like samurai in a society that had no need for warriors. It essentially told them to accept their poverty with dignity in the knowledge that they were better than others.
With Japan at peace, its warrior class had become – at best – petty bureaucrats and civil servants on fixed stipends paid in rice, the value of which fluctuated. Bushido described a warrior class that was far closer to historical fiction than reality and told those suffering in the current circumstances to just suck it up, straighten up and fly right.
And that’s what happened to the sacrifice bunt in the 1980s. Hirooka and Mori created historical fiction about how the sacrifice bunt was Japan’s secret to baseball success.
This campaign to sanctify the sacrifice bunt as a sacred right, was part of an ideological movement that had been building within the game and without that espoused uniformity and “quality control” and was popular with those pushing the idea of Japanese ethnic and cultural uniqueness.
The 1980s were a time when writers around the world were trying to explain Japan’s economic miracle. As a student of Japanese history at the University of California Santa Cruz, one course focused on modern Japanese history and interpretations of its growth and systems.
Many scholarly explanations focused on the acceptance of quality control philosophies and government intervention, and these analyses often tripped over themselves trying to explain why Japanese so easily bought into quality control programs in the work place – with some arguing Japanese culture simply placed a higher value on quality workmanship and efficiency.
Not quality control but failure control
The truth probably has less to do with how Japanese respect the importance of quality work and more about the way people improve their social and economic standing in Japan’s group-oriented society. People essentially advance their status when others above them make mistakes. Japanese may crow about some noble samurai spirit where quality is pursued with warrior-like intensity, but the truth is that Japanese quality is more often driven by a desire not to be singled out for failure.
I can’t speak about Japan before I arrived in 1984, but it often seems the easiest way to avoid failure is to keep your head down and follow the most orthodox path, because failure can be mitigated if done by the book.
In the 1980s, the automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff hitter reached base in the first inning became the only way to play. A name was attached to the set of orthodox tactics and techniques of which the bunt was one component: “Winning baseball.” Opting not to bunt in such situations was criticized. Using a slugger in the No. 2 hole was wrong.
This was an era when a baseball-loving nation that had long adored individual quirks and a diversity of batting and pitching styles changed. Informed by ideologs such as Hirooka and Mori, those seeking to avoid criticism began attacking diversity with a kind of missionary zeal. The Seibu Lions under Hirooka and later Mori, succeeded because they had solid pitching and defense and a tremendous power-hitting lineup, who could also beat you by playing small ball.
Yet, despite playing in an era of unprecedent offensive levels, the sacrifice bunt snake oil remedy Hirooka and Mori pedaled tirelessly became the only acceptable way to win.
Not every manager fell into line, however. Nippon Ham Fighters manager Keiji Osawa antagonized Mori in public, calling the PL-rival Lions boring and predictable. Mori’s answer: “Who cares if it’s boring? So what if winning is boring?”
But following blindly creates opportunities for those with vision. The era’s two best managers, who succeeded despite lacking the resources of the Lions or Giants, were Akira Ogi and Katsuya Nomura. Both were old school, disciples of Mihara, and Tsuruoka, respectively, who exploited the period’s mindless march toward homogeneity by going against the grain.
Ogi gave free reign to players with unorthodox styles, most notably Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki. Nomura, in addition to his uncanny eye for talent and his belief in analytics, excelled in developing pitchers, polished Japan’s greatest catcher of that era, Atsuya Furuta, and filled out his team with rejects and castoffs, often guys whose primary skill was drawing walks.
Most managers, however, flout orthodoxy at their peril.
In the 1986, Taiyo Whales manager Sadao Kondo batted his pitchers eighth 25 times and was fired. In 1988, Sadaharu Oh did it 15 times and he was fired, although in his case it had to more to do with not winning the pennant for the fourth time in five years.
Batting pitchers anywhere but ninth does not help job security.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Ramirez’s batting his pitcher eighth 108 times 2017 was why some speculated he wouldn’t be re-hired despite pushing the SoftBank Hawks to the very brink in the Japan Series. The following year, 2018, he batted his pitcher eighth in every game, something that might have been without precedent. In the summer of 2019, after not batting his pitcher anywhere but ninth for the first three months of the season, Ramirez said his pitching coach didn’t want his pitchers batting eighth.
How to be different
That’s when he laid out the No. 1 condition for batting the pitcher eighth: “He has to be a good bunter.” But I believe his thinking is deeper than he lets on. He is well versed on how to thrive in the Japanese baseball world in a way few imported players have been, and sometimes his explanations smack of being pre-packaged for media consumption like McDonalds Happy Meals. He knows when he needs to step back and conform and what to say when he believes doing it his way is best.
It’s actually OK to be unorthodox in Japan, provided one shows Ramirez’s kind of political savvy.
My favorite similar story is of Daiei Hawks manager Rikuo Nemoto. In 1994, he batted slugger Kazunori Yamamoto second as his team sacrificed only 39 times in 130 games. Nemoto excused his “shameful” behavior by saying he had no one who could fill that crucial spot so often given to slap-hitting offensive zeros. Because of that, the skipper said he just had to bite the bullet and use a guy who got on base and hit for power.
Nomura, the best manager in Swallows history, eventually wore out his welcome with Yakult. It probably didn’t help that he was thoroughly unapologetic about being an iconoclast or the smartest person in the room. The same thing happened to Yokohama BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo–still the most successful manager in that franchise’s history. Gondo was fired because people couldn’t endure his frank assessments about how much of Japan’s conventional baseball orthodoxy was nonsense.
People love to criticize Ramirez because he’s different. As a player, he was able to maximize his physical skills because he studied how teams and individual opponents would compete against him. He learned the context of the game as well as any import in history. And that’s how he manages, by using his understanding of context to do things his way while at the same time saying the necessary things to preserve the social order.