Tag Archives: Shohei Ohtani

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.”

Perspectives on arrogance

On Wednesday, Shogo Akiyama dropped a little teaser about what baseball beyond the reach of MLB means for the growth of the game as a whole on Wednesday when he was introduced by the Cincinnati Reds.

“…Japanese have a different perspective (on the game) from those players with major league experience, and I too want to study and learn from that,” he said.

His words could have been interpreted in a couple of different ways but by saying “I too” he implied the learning wasn’t one-way, as many people would have you believe it should be, since, Akiyama by virtue of playing in an inferior league brings no new knowledge to the table.

That way of thinking, which used to be fairly common among former major leaguers three decades ago in Japan went hand in hand with the old notion that all Japanese — by virtue of playing in inferior league — were incapable of success in the majors.

When Bobby Valentine first arrived in Japan to manage the 1995 Lotte Marines, many of those familiar with the major league style of play had high hopes for the team’s success. That belief was founded on the notion that Japan’s fondness for the sacrifice bunt was costing teams a large number of wins each season. By eschewing the less defensible uses of the bunt, Valentine would AUTOMATICALLY make the Marines five to ten wins better.

The Marines finished a surprising second that year, because Valentine was able to replace a couple of well-below-average performers with guys who were better than average, and the team responded positively to his new ways of doing things.

But the thought that major league methods were automatically superior to those practiced in Japan was just ignorant and arrogant. We have a better understanding of the costs and advantages of sacrifices than we did 25 years ago, and now know it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

I’ve been there.

When you’re used to things being done a particular way, encountering a completely different method — especially one that inconveniences you simply by being hard to comprehend and get used to — it’s really easy to believe you are encountering an obsolete, inefficient practice. Sometimes, that perception is correct, and the unfamiliar methods really are less efficient. But often, there is more to the story than first meets the eye.

Because Japanese hitters and pitchers are trained differently, because they come from an alternative baseball universe, they offer alternative solutions that people rooted in their own way of doing things don’t see very easily. Change demands people who don’t believe the status quo is necessarily correct or for whom the status quo offers no future.

Babe Ruth changed baseball by proving one could hit enough home runs to make up for the additional fly outs and strikeouts that had led people to brand the home run as a failed tactic. When people try techniques that have been discarded only because they violate the status quo, that opens the door for evolution.

If Japanese ball had nothing to offer, players who failed to earn jobs in the major leagues would almost never find major league success after spending two or three years in Nippon Professional Baseball. But it happens.

One advantage of extended families in child rearing is a larger pool of adult role models for children, more chances an adult can bond with a youngster over shared dreams and inspire them. That’s the way I see baseball outside the reach of the majors. It’s not like every player is going to benefit from going abroad, but exposing players to different demands and ideas can teach or trigger adjustments they failed to make back home.

Three and a half years ago, Bill James wrote about the arrogance of people thinking major league teams had all the answers. Asked in September 2016 whether he thought big league clubs would allow Shohei Ohtani to both hit and pitch, he answered “Why wouldn’t they?

“You should be TOTALLY willing to say ‘We are going to accommodate this guy’s skills’ rather than ‘That’s not how we do things in the majors,'” he wrote on Sept. 9, 2016 in Bill James Online.

“When the Red Sox had Byung Hyun Kim, more than ten years ago, he had his own ways of doing things. He wanted to throw, and throw hard, every day, and he loved to do training…in Ft. Myers you would see him out running hard on the streets all hours of the day.”

“Our staff…kept trying to force him to do things the way we do them in the U.S.–and it didn’t work, at all. And then, when we had Daisuke Matsuzaka, we made exactly the same mistake: We kept trying to force him to do things OUR way, and it just didn’t work for him. KNOCK IT OFF. This is his way. Get used to it. None of us are that smart, that we have all of the answers.”

Ok, so Bill has since joined the Ohtani doubters, and there are lots of reasons to suppose being a two-way player might be counterproductive. But believing that also supposes you know more about what’s best for Shohei Ohtani than he does.

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.

Maddon on Ohtani: Bring it on, please

Joe Maddon on Ohtani batting and pitching: “I love it.”

New Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said Monday that he wants to see more of Shohei Ohtani batting and pitching and is keen to see him both in the same game — regardless of whether that means discarding the DH rule for his team.

“Just because it doesn’t happen all the time doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Maddon said.

During his time with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani batted in the lineup as the starting pitcher 12 times. Not surprisingly, he brought decent offense — he slashed .286/.395./.400 in his tiny sample (43 plate appearances). But the experiment was a success because of his pitching.

StatusInningsBBSOERA
In batting order86 1/3261051.04
not batting452 2/31725152.82

In addition to the small sample size, the 86 2/3 innings when in the batting order mostly took place in his 2016 MVP season, but the numbers are fun.

Asked if he’d ditch the DH when Ohtani pitches for the Angels, Maddon said, “Why wouldn’t you? That’s 50 extra at-bats.”

Fighters skipper Kuriyama to quit

The Nikkan Sports reported Wednesday that Hideki Kuriyama (58) has told the Nippon Ham Fighters that he will step down after managing the club after eight seasons due to poor results.

The club will finish fifth in the PL for the second time since the Fighters won the league and the Japan Series in 2016.

The Nikkan Sports said the story was confirmed by sources close to the skipper, who is expected to meet with the team president when the season ends and make a formal declaration at that time.

Both Kuriyama’s managing and his situation within the Fighters’ organization have been outliers in Japanese baseball. He is the one credited with offering Shohei Ohtani the chance to both pitch and hit as an 18-year-old in 2013, and this year became the first Japanese manager to employ a regular opener and the first in decades to employ extreme defensive shifts.

Before he was promoted to be Fighters General Manager, Hiroshi Yoshimura said it was extremely hard for the Fighters to find a suitable manager, because the team’s system goes against the grain of Japanese baseball tradition, where the manager (unless he is a foreigner working for Hiroshima or Orix) has final say over player personnel decisions and draft picks.

That system evolved after the club’s move to Sapporo in 2004 through the aegis of chief executive Toshimasa Shimada, General Manager Shigeru Takada and manager Trey Hillman.

“It’s not easy for us to find a manager,” Yoshimura said. “Because Japanese managers are used to getting their way.”

Yoshimura’s words proved prophetic over the winter of 2011-2012 in Yokohama, where Shigeru Takada imported elements of Nippon Ham’s front office management style when he moved to become BayStars GM. Kimiyasu Kudo turned down the DeNA job because he would not have full control, and they instead turned to Kiyoshi Nakahata.

Being the Nippon Ham Fighters manager means access to an analytic team that is very strong by Japan standards, and players who are trained and developed the way the organization sees fit.

Being something of an iconoclast and also someone who sees himself as an innovator who takes novel ideas and runs with them Kuriyama sometimes gets into trouble with old-school guys.

Pitching coach Masato Yoshii quit the Fighters after the 2012 season because of Kuriyama’s desire to use pitcher Yuki Saito on the first team when he was not good enough for the farm team.

Asked about it afterward, Yoshii said he left because, “I wanted to be on a team with a manager who wants to win.”

Yoshii returned four years later but quit last autumn, reportedly over Kuriyama’s decision to employ “short starters,” pitchers who would start and only go through the opposing order once or twice depending on their ability.

The Nikkan Sports story said the organization sees the team’s results as a failure of player development — an area technically beyond Kuriyama’s reach.

Points of order

A little more than three months after Alex Ramirez told that he would not bat his pitchers eighth this year, as BayStars, he slipped lefty Haruhiro Hamaguchi into the No. 8 hole on Wednesday against Hiroshima’s Kris Johnson.

Ramirez told reporters before the game that the timing was right. Before the season, several journalists wrote that Ramirez’s policy of pitchers’ batting eighth had been severely criticized by Japan’s legion of former-player talking heads. Ironically, the move came in the wake of a move that still has the old farts reeling, moving Japan cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo into the No. 2 slot, a spot traditionally reserved in Japan for batters who could bunt and punch at the ball and rarely hit home runs.

On Tuesday night, former slugger Yoshiaki Kanemura, speaking on Fuji TV’s Pro Yakyu News, said, “Frankly, I think moving the Japan national team cleanup hitter into the No. 2 spot is a slap in the face.”

On Thursday, pitcher Shota Imanaga was in the eighth spot as DeNA began the day in second place, playing the third-place Chunichi Dragons.

From April 14, 2017 to Oct. 10, 2018, Ramirez had his starting pitcher bat eighth 252 times, starting with Joe Wieland, who had been a good-hitting infielder who chose pitching as a pro because he felt it would get him to the majors faster. After 15 more games with his pitchers batting ninth, Ramirez switched to the No. 8 spot until the end of the 2018 season.

Some speculate that finishing out of the playoffs for the first time since he took over the club in 2016 forced him to give up a very defensible choice. The choice is whether a position player can do more damage finishing off the heart of the order in the No. 8 spot or setting the table for the top of the order in the No. 9 spot.

Although Ramirez has been far and away the biggest recent user of pitchers in the eighth spot, he is far from a precedent setter. I have 29,811 digitized box scores in my data base in which the starting pitcher was in the batting order. Of those, roughly 95 percent batted ninth.

Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s most famous hitting pitcher, batted in the starting lineup 15 times, and never batted ninth. He is the only pitcher in my spotty records to bat first, cleanup or fifth — where he started five times. Ironically, the only spot, where I haven’t found a pitcher in the starting lineup is second.

Even with Ramirez’s eighth-place renaissance, neither 2017 nor 2018 stands as the season with the most starting pitchers batting out of the No. 9 spot. That honor goes to the first year I have records for. In 1958, NPB managers started their pitcher out of the No. 9 spot 248 times. The next year, that figure was down to 45. There were also 145 games started by a pitcher batting higher than ninth in 1970. I’ll know more if I ever get around to sorting through the digital records of the other eight or nine seasons I have floating around.

And just when it seemed that people would get tired of talking about Tsutsugo batting second, former BayStar Hitoshi Tamura discussed the issue during Thursday’s broadcast, saying that while it was OK for a DH league like the AL, putting a big hitter in the No. 2 spot when the pitcher is in the lineup is counter productive. Mind you, he didn’t mention that Ramirez is now using Maeda as a second leadoff man at the bottom of the BayStars lineup.

Carter Stewart can change the world

Carter Stewart hasn’t thrown a baseball in anger as a member of the SoftBank Hawks, but his arrival in Japan, as the first big-name American amateur to turn pro with a Japanese team, could cause a ripple effect through baseball’s labor markets. It could mean an end to the posting system or more money for U.S. amateurs from MLB.

Say it again: “This is MLB’s fault”

Although the Hawks signing Stewart is news, it is not a new story. His signing is made possible by MLB and its union conspiring to deprive amateur players of the right to fair value for their service, and MLB’s choice to further clamp down on the below-subsistence wages paid to minor league players.

Without those two factors, no Japanese club is going to spend what it would be worth to lure a top amateur to NPB, at least not as long as the economic structure in NPB continues without significant change.

But with MLB’s draft signing pool bonuses, draft slot values, and the criminal level of pay in the minor leagues, Japanese teams can now pay the best American amateurs less than they’re worth but vastly more than MLB clubs can.

Sure, there’s a limit on having four players on each team’s active roster in Japan, but NPB clubs could theoretically have up to 52 foreign players under contract, not including those on developmental contracts, who don’t count against each organization’s 70-man official roster.

Japan was in a similar bind 25 years ago

A quarter of a century ago, Nippon Professional Baseball’s owners were bullied into allowing the Yomiuri Giants sign their big name veteran stars by agreeing to the introduction of free agency after the 1993 season.

What was intended as a way for the country’s biggest-name franchise to enrich itself at the expense of its business partners became something else altogether within two years. The free agent system was predicated on owners’ belief that competition in the majors was too hard for Japanese players.

Unfortunately, for the NPB owners, that belief was proved wrong in the most dramatic fashion by pitcher Hideo Nomo.

Jean Afterman, then working with Nomo’s agent Don Nomura, found the loophole needed to punish NPB for its arrogance. Because NPB rules considered Japanese players to be inferior and incapable of playing in the majors, they were permitted to play abroad after retiring in Japan.

So Nomo “retired” and became Japan’s first free agent import to the major leagues. Although NPB closed that loophole within a few years, the free agent route that was meant to enrich the Yomiuri Giants with Japan’s top talent, soon became a highway for Japanese stars to leave for the major leagues.

This could be something big — or not

The question then is whether this type of deal will become a supply line for Japanese baseball to upgrade its talent base at the expense of MLB.

In order for that to happen, Japanese teams will need to handle the players and develop them in a sustainable relationship with MLB so the international rules don’t change at the whim of MLB and its union.

The Japanese side of the equation

The SoftBank Hawks were perfectly placed for this kind of venture. They have the money, the infrastructure, the patience, and the will. Since SoftBank’s founder Masayoshi Son took over the club in 2005, he has aspired to field the world’s best baseball team and has frequently pestered his staff to sign the biggest names available.

Son has repeatedly challenge major league owners to an international championship series between the NPB and MLB champs, something that will happen the second MLB owners think it’s profitable.

The Hawks have invested heavily in development and in their medical side. While other clubs expect first-year pros to make an immediate impact, Hawks newcomers have to slog their way through an impressive logjam of minor league talent to even get a shot at the top.

The Hawks are an exception, but with the will, a few other teams, the PL’s Rakuten Eagles and the CL’s Giants, Hiroshima Carp and DeNA BayStars could join them in a true money ball campaign — exploiting the sizeable gap between what MLB requires amateurs be paid and what they are worth to Japanese teams. In 2023, when the Nippon Ham Fighters open their new stadium outside Sapporo and begin generating huge amounts of revenue, they could become players as well.

The Carp probably won’t go down this road, although they are well situated to expand into MLB’s Dominican Republic player pool because of their academy in that country. Hiroshima is focused on recycling talented players who fail in their first shot with big league clubs but are not willing to see their baseball dreams die.

But for now, it’s just the Hawks.

The MLB side of the equation

The market solution on the MLB side is to increase the amount of the signing bonus pools and draft slot allocations so that those amounts at least equal the value of those players to NPB teams — eliminating the demand for those players by raising the prices.

But that’s not what MLB does, and doing so would require negotiations with its union to alter the details of the CBA.

The posting system, however, is not included in the CBA. Though the agreement must conform to the CBA and the union must sign off on it — as it did in December 2017. But because either MLB or NPB can back out of the deal with a few months notice, it’s an easy way for either side to fire a shot across the bow.

With the union’s cooperation, MLB could also take more drastic measures, such as instituting its own “Tazawa Rule” — named for Junichi Tazawa, because it effectively banned him from playing in NPB because he turned pro with the Boston Red Sox rather than submit to NPB’s draft. MLB could banish players who turn pro in Japan, but that seems like too drastic of a solution, and the Tazawa Rule hasn’t prevented Japanese from following his path.

The posting system

Ironically, punishing the Hawks by eliminating the posting system might be part of SoftBank’s grand plan, since the club has never used it and is opposed to its existence. That being said, the Hawks can use the posting process as part of their plan with Stewart.

If the deal is for six years, from June 2019 to June 2025, Stewart will qualify as an international free agent under current rules on Nov. 3, 2024, exactly when the posting period begins. If Stewart develops and has value, he will have options. SoftBank being SoftBank, they’d prefer Stewart to stay in Japan and sign an extension, but without an extension, Carter would be able to move to the States as a free agent when his contract expires.

Using the posting system prior to the 2025 season would allow the Hawks to recoup all the costs incurred with signing and training Stewart and essentially get paid to benefit from all his contributions. It’s also the reason why other clubs might jump on this train. They could make a profit signing and posting American amateurs, and eliminating the posting system would put a damper on that part of the business.

Still, the Hawks would be happy to see the posting system gone, because if it remains in place and Stewart has that option, SoftBank will have a hard time denying the requests of its Japanese stars, read Kodai Senga, who want to leave early.

But sooner or later, the Hawks are going to have to fall in line and post players if the system remains in place. That’s because at some point they’ll want to sign a player who will only work for a club that promises an early exit to the majors, read Roki Sasaki.null

The Shohei Ohtani example

Shohei Ohtani is one reason why MLB would like to weaken the posting system and raise the age of international free agency. If Japan’s best amateurs think it’s easier to get to the majors through free agency by going through NPB and the posting system, it will be even harder for MLB to sign kids like Roki Sasaki, which is the big league’s ultimate wet dream.

Being major league baseball, they think no one can teach professionals the way they can be prepared through in the minor leagues with all the soul-sapping crappy treatment that entails. But the real reason is the control that comes with signing amateurs. MLB is all about control, if it weren’t we wouldn’t see blatant service time manipulation.

If Japanese teams could take the best high school stars and promise to post them at the age of 23 so they could be international free agents, everyone would benefit, the NPB teams, the players, MLB. The only thing it would cost the MLB teams is control, and they put an awfully high value on that.

The problem is that by worrying so much about control, MLB guys lose sight of one fact, that Japan is a great place to learn how to play baseball.

The advantage of a Japanese education

There are things players won’t see in Japan, like a lot of 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, but other than that, you name it and Japanese baseball has it.

When a player ventures out of the minors and into Central and Pacific league, he faces some incredible pitchers, guys who can locate their fastball and then use NPB’s stickier baseball to throw some of the wickedest breaking balls in the world. Because the talent depth is thinner, there are pitchers who lack command and control, too, guys who throw more fat pitches that can be exploited.

“A lot can be gained from playing here. Playing in Japan is a great way to develop a hitter. Look what happened with Shohei Ohtani. He’s an elite hitter and an elite pitcher. That couldn’t have happened in the States.”

Former Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres GM Randy Smith

For a pitcher, there is less pressure from lineups where every batter is trying to take you deep, but those batters are there along with guys who can foul off one good pitch after another, and are really, really hard to strike out.

Players also get used to playing in pressure situations in meaningful games in front of large crowds. If minor league baseball are less meaningful because one goal of every player is to get promoted, NPB games are more meaningful because they are all about winning, and there is value in that.

The other side is the fanatical amount of discipline and practice, which can be a good thing if a player embraces it. Another advantage is a good diet, a place to live in the team dormitory, a healthy diet and easy access to training facilities.

What this means for Carter Stewart

It means an opportunity to learn more about pitching than he would ever learn in the United States. If there is a weakness in the Japanese system, it is that so many talented pitchers never survive the nation’s old-school youth baseball traditions.

Some NPB training methods are obsolete, and most pro coaches tend to teach players to follow established models rather than find what works best for them as individuals. In that, however, there are messages worth learning if one can handle the often authoritarian way in which those messages are delivered. If Stewart can handle that, remain humble, remember that he is coming to learn and improve, he will excel to the degree he is physically and mentally able to handle.

Simply by reaching out to Stewart, the Hawks have instantly changed the way MLB views Japan since this is something it considered impossible. If Stewart succeeds and comes out of this as a world-class player, that will be a further shock to MLB owners who have shown little but disdain for Japanese baseball.

Kuriyama tip toes through Japan’s history minefield

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama scratched the surface of baseball history on Wednesday with his 527th victory with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In the Nikkan Sports online edition for May 8, Daisuke Yamashita used Kuriyama’s achievement to provide some insight into history’s web as he moved past Hall of Fame manager Shigeru Mizuhara as No. 2 in career wins with the franchise.

The original story in Japanese is HERE.

While Yamashita does a good job of explaining Kuriyama’s appreciation of Mizuhara’s legacy, the whole exercise represents another example of Japan’s difficult relationship with history and tradition.

In itself, Kuriyama’s achievement is akin to passing Babe Ruth on the Red Sox’s all-time home run list, because Mizuhara is better known as the man who laid the foundation’s for the most successful period in the history of the Yomiuri Giants.

The franchise that from 1954 to 1972 was known as the Toei Flyers, whose principle owner was the Toei movie studio, was taken over by Nippon Ham in 1974.

Mizuhara quit the Giants after Yomiuri’s founder, Matsutaro Shoriki said the skipper had brought shame on the Giants in 1960 for losing the Central League pennant after five-straight championships. Extra credit to you if that sentence summons an image of former Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe and Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara.

Unlike Hara, who waited for a second chance with Yomiuri, Mizuhara jumped to the Pacific League’s flyers in 1961, managed them to their second consecutive runner-up finish before winning the franchise’s first title the following year.

To return to the present, Kuriyama spoke of Mizuhara and his great rival, Osamu Mihara, who never managed the franchise, but who was the team’s first president under Nippon Ham in 1974. Mihara had been supplanted as Giants manager by Mizuhara, and who – after building the Nishitetsu Lions into a PL powerhouse – sparked Mizuhara’s Yomiuri exodus in 1960 by winning the CL pennant with the unheralded Taiyo Whales.

“They were baseball’s founding fathers. I think of them together, Mr. Mihara and Mr. Mizuhara, as belonging to that one era,” Yamashita quoted Kuriyama as saying after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.

According to Yamashita, Kuriyama, a lover of history, spent time over the offseason reading Japanese classic history texts, the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki.”

“Pretty much everything that happens is something someone has experienced in the past. Things really don’t change that much. I’m going looking in those texts,” Kuriyama has said according to Yamashita.

The best part of the story is that while the word “history” is often dragged out as a tired excuse for doing something unimaginative, Kuriyama has shown he is not terribly interested in defending old ways. The same man who conceived of – or at least takes credit for – the idea that Shohei Ohtani might both hit and pitch, is this season adopting extreme defensive shifts and experimenting with different starting pitching and relieving assignments.

In referencing both Mihara and Mizuhara, Kuriyama both speaks to his own nature while still paying his respects to Japanese baseball’s creed that eliminating negatives equals a positive.

Mizuhara, an unrelenting perfectionist, in ways represents the popular notion that zero defects is perfection, while Mihara, a brash innovator, represents, I think, more of Kuriyama’s true nature as someone who strives to be an early adaptor on the cutting edge.

It’s a difficult balance to strike in Japan, because innovation carries the possibility of an implied criticism of how things were done before by the game’s greats.

Less-established innovators who fail to pay lip service to their esteemed predecessors by kissing dogma’s ass, often end up being cast out for their trouble. The trick is to do things differently, while making excuses for it, and not appearing to be too proud about having coming up with something different and giving everyone else credit. So far, it’s been working for Kuriyama.

The Heisei ERA, part 2

On this past week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, a listener asked:

  1. Who had the single most dominant season in the Heisei era (1989 to April 30, 2019)?
  2. Who was the best player of the Heisei era in NPB?

To recap our answers, we split on Question 1. John (@JBWPodcast) Gibson answered Masahiro Tanaka‘s 2013, 24-0 MVP season for the Rakuten Eagles, while I had Tetsuto Yamada‘s 2015 MVP season at second base for the Yakult Swallows, which ranks — according to Bill James’ win shares — as the seventh most valuable season in Japanese pro baseball history.

The Heisei Most Dominant Season Award

Tanaka’s season ranks 457th overall among all players in history, and second behind Hall of Famer Masaki Saito’s 1989 season for the Yomiuri Giants. But if one thinks about how the game has changed, Tanaka’s season is pretty darn remarkable.

The quality of play in NPB has increased steadily along with the number of pitches needed to get batters out. Saito, who is a big strong guy like Tanaka had a season that was a little better but required 33 more innings to accomplish.

In terms of how much Tanaka accomplished per inning pitched, his 2013 season is third in Japanese baseball history, behind two more Hall of Famers, Masaichi Kaneda (1958, Kokutetsu Swallows) and Tadashi Sugiura (1959, Nankai Hawks) during Japan’s most pitcher-friendly years since the end of World War II.

John, for those of you who haven’t heard it, brought up Wladimir Balentien‘s 60-home run 2013 season, but Win Shares has that ranked right behind Hotaka Yamakawa‘s MVP season last year for the Seibu Lions and the 28th most valuable during the Heisei era.

The Heisei MVP Award

John and I both picked Tomoaki Kanemoto as the Heisei MVP, which came as a shock to Mr. Gibson. The question excluded Ichiro Suzuki, but if I valued his MLB win shares at 1.2 per NPB WS, he ranks as the undisputed Heisei king. Through that somewhat conservative formula, Suzuki’s 540 ranks him third in Japanese baseball history, far behind the run-away leader, Sadaharu Oh (723 WS) and catcher Katsuya Nomura (581). Because the bulk of Suzuki’s win shares come from MLB, he would shoot past Nomura if each WS was valued at 1.5 per NPB win share.

If we allowed MLB win shares, Kanemoto would finish third, right behind Hideki Matsui.

Anyway, here are the top Heisei win share seasons:

Position players

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Tetsuto Yamada2015Swallows46.8
2. Yuki Yanagita2015Hawks42.0
3. Hideki Matsui2002Giants41.7
4. Ichiro Suzuki1995BlueWave40.5
5. Kosuke Fukudome2006Dragons39.1
6. Kazuo Matsui2002Lions38.8
7. Alex Cabrera2002Lions37.7
8. Tuffy Rhodes2001Buffaloes37.4
9. Yuki Yanagita2018Hawks36.4
10. Takeya Nakamura2011Lions35.8

Pitchers

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Masaki Saito1989Giants29.8
2. Masahiro Tanaka2013Eagles27.3
3. Masaki Saito1990Giants26.6
4. Masahiro Tanaka2011Eagles26.3
5. Hideo Nomo1990Buffaloes25.1
6. Hideyuki Awano1989Buffaloes24.2
7. Shinji Imanaka1993Dragons23.2
8. Tomoyuki Sugano2017Giants23.2
9. Yu Darvish2008Fighters23.1
10. Koji Uehara1999Giants22.8

And for the guy who doesn’t fit anywhere easily, Shohei Ohtani had 32.3 win shares in 2016 as a pitcher and a hitter, and would have ranked high in either list had he only batted or pitched.

You can find my post on NPB’s Heisei era pitching leaders HERE.

Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.