Tag Archives: Tadahito Iguchi

ramping up: 21 days to go

One aspect of the long layoff forced by the novel coronavirus is that players who were due to miss the original March 20 start of the season, are now regaining fitness and may be able to make the roster when the season finally starts on June 19.

350 days

That’s how long it will be between starts for Naoyuki Uwasawa when he takes the mound for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Tuesday’s practice game.

Last season, Uwasawa was a key component of the Rube Goldberg contraption that was the Fighters’ pitching rotation last season. Manager Hideki Kuriyama used him and Kohei Arihara as the pillars in conventional starting roles, with a handful of others tasked with going either once or twice through the opposing lineup depending on the skipper’s confidence in them.

In a June 18 interleague game, Uwasawa was kneecapped by a batted ball hit by Neftali Soto, the DeNA BayStars’ two-time Central League home run champ. Prior to that game, the Fighters starting pitchers were 26-18 with a 3.65 ERA. Afterward, even with some superb 1-inning opening acts by Mizuki Hori, they went 18-31 with a 4.32 ERA.

On Thursday, he faced five batters in a simulated game at the Fighters’ minor league facility in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, and is expected to pitch two innings on Tuesday at the Lotte Marines’ Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba.

Yanagita back with a bang

Yuki Yanagita, who until the recent ascension of Hiroshima Carp right fielder Seiya Suzuki, was considered the Japanese outfielder most coveted by MLB clubs, returned to the SoftBank Hawks’ first team for an intrasquad game on Saturday. Yanagita has been rehabbing since his 2019 dumpster fire of a season was capped with right elbow surgery in the offseason.

Yanagita missed most of the season with a knee injury and failed by the slimmest of margins to get the 140 days of service time needed to be a free agent this winter. Had the Hawks brought him up a few days earlier, he would have been on track to fulfil his stated goal of playing in the majors. They didn’t and he signed a long-ass contract that keeps him in Fukuoka for essentially the rest of his career.

On Saturday, according to the Sankei Sports, he hit an opposite-field homer from submarine right-hander Rei Takahashi, the Pacific League’s 2019 rookie of the year and another player who was due to miss the start of the season in March but now has a shot at helping out the rotation from the start.

Stewart takes drive off shin

The Hawks’ Carter Stewart Jr left the mound after pitching just one inning when he took a shot off his right shin that was turned into the final out of the inning.

Iguchi changes tune on Sasaki

Eighteen-year-old right-hander Roki Sasaki who repeatedly was clocked at over 100 miles per hour in his final high school season, apparently will appear in a practice game for the Lotte Marines in the coming weeks, manager Tadahito Iguchi indicated to the media on Saturday.

Earlier in the week, Iguchi had said Sasaki, who twice hit 160 kilometers per hour in a simulated game on Tuesday, would not be ready to appear in a game next month.

NPB games, news of Sept. 25, 2019

News

Former big leaguer Takatsu to manage Swallows

For the third time in recent years, the Yakult Swallows have turned to a man with experience running their farm team to manage their Central League team, according to a story published by Kyodo News.

Fifty-year-old Shingo Takatsu will succeed Junji Ogawa, who called an end to his second stint as the birds’ manager after finishing last this season. Ogawa, a former farm manager, was promoted to manager after Shigeru Takada quit. Ogawa, who led the Swallows to the playoffs three times in seven years, was replaced in 2015 by another farm manager, Mitsuru Manaka, who won the league that year and served for three seasons.

Takatsu becomes the second former Japanese major leaguer to run a top-level club in Japan after Tadahito Iguchi. So Taguchi has managed in the minors for the Orix Buffaloes, while Kazuo Matsui managed the Seibu Lions’ Eastern League club starting this season.

Under Takatsu, the Eastern League Swallows finished fifth in the seven-team EL this season.

Takatsu saved 286 games, second most in NPB, over 17 seasons. He pitched two seasons in the majors, another in South Korea and another in Taiwan. He also served as a player manager in the independent BC League.

Pacific League

Eagles 7, Lions 1

At Rakuten Seimei Park, Takahiro Norimoto pitched well in the season finale for both clubs, and Hideto Asamura hit his 33rd home run, tying Jabari Blash for the team home run lead, and finishing the regular season with 11 homers against his former club and 22 against the rest of NPB.

Sendai native and injury-plagued right-hander Yoshinori Sato finished the game in his debut with the Eagles, his first game since leaving Yakult over the winter.

Game highlights are HERE.

Fighters 4, Buffaloes 1

At Sapporo Dome, two teams with nothing to play for played, with former MVP Mitsuo Yoshikawa finishing up on the mound for Nippon Ham with 2-1/3 scoreless innings.

Game highlights are HERE.

NPB managers and pinch-hitters

Having examined what happens when individual batters come off the bench to hit in NPB, and knowing that pinch-hitters, as a whole, are less productive in that role than they are when taking their regular turn in the batting order.

While the pinch-hitting penalty described by Tom Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E. Dolphin in “The Book” does not appear to be nearly as extreme in NPB, their advice holds. Because they calculated that pinch-hitters wOBA is .034 less than when they bat in other contexts, they recommend managers only hit for position players using guys off the bench who are significantly better hitters.

Even if the pinch-hitting penalty is only .006 points of OPS2, it would behoove managers to at least use pinch-hitters who are somewhat better, because some managers don’t even do that.

In terms of the OPS2 managers have sacrificed and production gained during the period studied, here are the NPB managers who gotten the most mileage out of pinch-hitting for position players:

ManagerFranchisePH for pos playerPH season OPS2PH OPS2replaced OPS2PH GainPH expected gain
TanishigeD2080.3240.4080.2710.1370.053
OgiBu2250.3330.3790.3090.0700.024
OchiaiD6140.320.3540.2990.0550.021
NashidaE4090.3090.3110.2710.0400.038
HaraG12910.3260.3420.3040.0380.022
TakagiD2610.3250.3010.2640.0370.061
NomuraC5460.3080.3020.2660.0360.042
TakahashiG2930.3190.3260.2910.0350.028
TaoE2410.3140.3220.2870.0350.027
IshigeBu2380.2990.3190.2850.0340.014
RamirezBS2890.3010.2990.2690.0300.032
MayumiT3650.3130.3390.3100.0290.003
OhH10750.3010.3230.2950.0280.006
YamamotoC3010.3170.3290.3010.0280.016
FukuraBu5190.2990.3000.2720.0280.027
AkiyamaH7410.3060.3000.2740.0260.032
KudoH6160.3280.3190.2940.0250.034
ItoL7710.3380.3390.3150.0240.023
OkadaBu4690.2860.2930.2700.0230.016
MoriD2510.3100.3090.2880.0210.022
NPB managers with largest average gain in OPS2 when pinch-hitting for positon players from 2002-2018, minimum 200 PH appearances.

The next table gives the 20 managers who’ve replaced one position player with another at least 200 times between 2002 and 2018 and who got the least mileage for their changes.

In these lists, a few managers are given twice — for results with individual teams and for all the teams they managed during this period combined.

Least productive managers when pinch-hitting for position players

ManagerFranchisePH for pos playerPH season OPS2PH OPS2replaced OPS2PH GainPH expected gain
YamamotoM5390.3250.2720.315-0.0430.01
HoshinoE3350.2920.2510.293-0.042-0.001
HoshinoT & E total5050.3110.2570.295-0.0380.016
OkuboE2740.3020.2480.272-0.0240.03
MoriwakiBu4450.30.2770.301-0.024-0.001
NishimuraM4680.270.2490.272-0.023-0.002
OgataC3410.3540.2990.321-0.0220.033
YamadaD2070.3270.3080.326-0.0180.001
NashidaF6060.3010.2830.297-0.0140.004
NashidaKB6630.3430.3070.318-0.0110.025
IharaBu2000.3240.3370.345-0.008-0.021
NomuraE7470.3230.2910.297-0.0060.026
Nashida totalKB & F & E16780.3200.2990.2990.0000.021
KuriyamaF11170.3030.2920.290.0020.013
HillmanF8970.3150.3120.310.0020.005
LeeBu2120.3410.340.3380.0020.003
OishiBu2790.3230.3120.3090.0030.014
WatanabeL11840.2950.2920.2880.0040.007
OkadaT4870.3340.3230.3170.0060.017
ValentineM10340.3280.3340.3260.0080.002
NPB's least productive managers from 2002-2018 when pulling a position player for a pinch-hitter, minimum 200 pinch-hit appearances.

So the most successful employer of pinch-hitters in recent years was a playing-manager, Motonobu Tanishige, who often delegated bench decisions to his head coach, Shigekazu Mori, while No. 2 was Hall of Fame manager Akira Ogi, who was manager for only one year during the study, 2005, before his untimely death.

At the bottom of the table is the late Koji Yamamoto, who managed the Lotte Marines before Bobby Valentine took over the reins in 2004. Another Hall of Fame manager, Senichi Hoshino, finishes second worst with the Rakuten Eagles, and third worst for his time with both the Hanshin Tigers and Eagles combined.

And then there are the managers who’ve chosen, on average to replace position players with pinch-hitters of lesser value. The good news for Marines fans is that while Iguchi made some ostensibly dreadful choices last season, they did not hurt his club, since the pinch-hitters exceeded anyone’s expectations — except perhaps the skippers’.

Silly pinch-hitting choices

ManagerFranchisePH for pos playerPH season OPS2PH OPS2replaced OPS2PH GainPH expected gain
IguchiM1330.2710.3130.2950.018-0.024
IharaBu2000.3240.3370.345-0.008-0.021
BrownE980.290.2740.302-0.028-0.012
NakamuraBu1790.3130.3110.316-0.005-0.003
NishimuraM4680.270.2490.272-0.023-0.002
HoshinoE3350.2920.2510.293-0.042-0.001
MoriwakiBu4450.30.2770.301-0.024-0.001
Recent NPB managers who've used pinch-hitters of lower quality than the players they've batted for.

NPB games, news of Sept. 8, 2019

Tough to Swallow

Junji Ogawa announced Sunday for the second time in six years that he no longer wants to manage the Central League’s Yakult Swallows. The team is in last place and has been eliminated from playoff contention. Ogawa took over last year and led the Swallows to second place. In six seasons over two terms, he has led them to the postseason three times.

Head coach Shinya Miyamoto, who was expected to take over after a brief coaching stint, said he wants no part of the job either. One potential candidate to manage is current farm manager and former pitching coach Shingo Takatsu.

If Takatsu does take over, he’ll become the second Japanese former major leaguer to manage a top-flight NPB club after fellow former White Sox infielder Tadahito Iguchi took over the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines in 2018.

Pacific League

Hawks 9, Marines 6

At Yafuoku Dome, Lotte’s Brandon Laird homered, reached base four times and drove in four runs, but SoftBank came back against starter Atsuki Taneichi to tie it in the seventh inning on a pinch-hit RBI single by Keizo Kawashima. Kenji Akashi’s eighth-inning pinch-hit double put the Hawks ahead in the eighth before Kawashima doubled in an insurance run.

Hawks starter Shota Takeda put the home team in a bind by allowing four runs over four innings. Taneichi allowed six runs in 6-1/3, and the Marines bullpen let the game get away further.

Game highlights are HERE.

Lions 3, Eagles 2

At Rakuten Seimei Park, Takeya Nakamura doubled in two runs for Seibu and Hotaka Yamakawa doubled in another run in the eighth after Rakuten’s Jabari Blash tied it in the sixth with his 31st home run.

Game highlights are HERE.

Fighters 2, Buffaloes 0

At Sapporo Dome, the future and past crossed paths as former Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko (6-4) matched his season-high of six innings to outpitch the Buffaloes best young pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (6-5), who held Nippon Ham to an unearned run over six innings.

Yamamoto was on the mound for the first time since straining his left oblique muscles on Aug. 3. He allowed three hits and struck out six without issuing a walk.

The Fighters’ future and past also collided as their former closer, Hirotoshi Masui surrendered a solo homer to up-and-coming slugger Kotaro Kiyomiya.

Game highlights are HERE.

Let’s pretend it never happened

For some reason, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama has decided to ditch the idea of openers and short starters. On Sunday, Chihiro Kaneko worked six innings, marking the first time this season that Fighters starters have worked six innings or more in three consecutive games.

They have also equaled the team’s longest streak of consecutive five-plus inning starts.

Mizuki Hori, who had been dynamite as the opener, has been demoted to the farm, where he is pitching occasionally and striking out batters, something one imagines would be more useful on the first team.

It’s almost as if there was a purge and evidence of the experiment, Hori, has been sent into exile in the team’s Kamagaya gulag.

Central League

Dragons 5, BayStars 2

At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi’s Yudai Ono (8-8) lost his bid for a shutout when DeNA’s Neftali Soto hit his 36th home run, a two-run shot in the ninth. The win was Chunichi’s sixth straight after sweeping the league’s top two teams, the Giants and BayStars.

As they have for the past week or so, the Dragons continued to be tenacious at the plate and on the bases. Yota Kyoda legged out a triple in the fourth inning and scored from third on a foul pop down the first base line. With Ono cruising, Nobumasa Fukuda essentially put the game away in the sixth with a two-run double.

Carp 3, Tigers 2

At Mazda Stadium, Hiroshima’s Hisayoshi Chono singled in two runs and made a good catch in left field to help Kris Johnson (11-7) earn the win over Hanshin with six scoreless innings.

Geronimo Franzua entered the game with two outs in the eighth and a runner on second. He surrendered an RBI double to make it a 3-2 game and walked the next batter before retiring the last four he faced to earn his 11th save.

Iguchi eyes ‘Sweet Home Chicago’

When he retired as a pro in 2017, Tadahito Iguchi, the second baseman for the Chicago White Sox’s 2005 World Series champs, said he someday hopes to be back in a Sox uniform.

“Yes. That’s my dream,” the second-year Lotte Marines manager said in March.

Iguchi returned to Japanese baseball in 2009 after four years in the majors, and though his career appeared all but over at the time, he went on to play 10 more seasons before retiring in 2017. From there, he moved straight into the manager’s chair at Zozo Marine Stadium. He said it was not an easy decision to make that jump, but didn’t want to throw away the edge of knowing what his players were capable of by having been on the front lines with them.

Remembering Ozzie Guillen

Iguchi said the biggest skill he takes into managing is communication and cited his former Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen as his biggest influence.

“In some sense, he (Guillen) is kind of crazy,” Iguchi said. “But he communicates well and is charismatic.”

“Having been with the players here as a teammate when I was still playing and speaking with them on the bench, I think I’d established good communication with them.”

How about the motivation side?

“He (Guillen) has the ability to motivate people. That’s something I think I lack,” Iguchi said.

One of just a handful of Japanese position players to go to the majors, Iguchi said he gained some insight into the differences between Japan’s game and America’s.

Coaching in Japan and America

“I could understand how the internal conditions differed between organizations here and there,” he said. “Japanese coaches are always teaching you how to do things. Over there, they are more like advisers, taking a supporting role. Japanese players generally wait for what a coach has to say. Over there, you do things on your own and when you don’t understand, you might seek advice.”

“In Japan, the coach does all the talking. So, I think there are a lot of Japanese players who don’t really understand their own strengths.”

As part of his plan to revitalize the Marines and build a foundation for the future, Iguchi wants to adopt a more hands-off approach to young players from this season, although one expects it won’t be easy.

“There is something about Japanese baseball that makes coaches want to teach too much,” he said, although he will have a willing ally in the form of pitching coach Masato Yoshii, also a former big leaguer.

In his final year as a player, the Marines finished dead last in Japan’s Pacific League. in 2018, they escaped the cellar by two games. Iguchi said that as a rookie manager, he may have hurt his win total by sticking too long with less proven players, but he hoped those investments pay dividends down the road.

For someone who played 21 years, perhaps it’s natural for Iguchi to have a long-term vision, one that contrasts with the win-now mentality that some here see as a cancer in Japan’s beloved sport.

Changes are coming

Activists trying to protect the arms of elementary and junior high school kids believe that teaching the youngest kids that winning is the only thing that matters encourages abusive excessive practice and leads to burnout and arm injuries. They are calling for pitch and practice limits, and Iguchi said such rules are inevitable.

“That’s the era we’re in,” he said. “These days we are concerned with how many days a guy throws. It’s the same in America. That’s where we are headed so I don’t think there’s any going back.

“When I was in elementary school, I hit off a tee at home all the time. I think long practice hours just for the sake of winning might be a problem. If the purpose is to learn teamwork and communication with others, then long hours are well spent I think.”

“We do have to be concerned about kids’ health. I played rubber ball baseball when I was in elementary school. So many players never went on to play at a higher level because they ruined their shoulders or elbows. I think was lucky I wasn’t a pitcher. For the coaches to coerce the kids is something I am not sure about, but I want people to strive more and more to be No. 1.”

That’s something Iguchi has ample experience with, having won three PL pennants with the Hawks a Japan Series title with the Marines and, of course, the 2005 World Series win in Chicago.

2005, making it look easy

Oddly enough, that championship kind of snuck up on Iguchi, who was simply too busy playing hard to see the bigger picture going on around him.

“I was just going as hard as I could for the whole season, and it was more a feeling that I did all I could rather than a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “Perhaps had we not won the first year and then won the second, then I would have been happier. But I was just going from start to finish, and didn’t really have a grasp for what was happening.”

And after he accomplishes his mission in Chiba, east of Tokyo, Iguchi may turn his gaze again to the south side.

Monday musings: Dave’s return

No, Dave Okubo is not back with the Rakuten Eagles, but we wouldn’t know it from the number of outs they’ve made on the bases through their first nine games.

When Hiromoto Okubo managed the Eagles in 2015, the Auduban Society had to disassociate itself from Rakuten because of the number of Eagles who were being slaughtered on Japan’s base paths that season. It’s been four years, but the reckless version of the Eagles have returned with a vengeance.

The Eagles’ offense has actually functioned so far this year. They finished the season’s second weekend with 45 runs, tied with the SoftBank Hawks for second behind the Seibu Lions for both the Pacific League and NPB lead. They’ve 121 runners, excluding home runs, which is second in NPB behind the Lions. The problem is 18 of those have been lost on the bases — which doesn’t count the eight removed on ground ball double plays (tied for second most in NPB

Pct of runners’ outs on bases (through 4/7)

TeamBase running outsTotal BRPct
Eagles18121.140
Buffaloes996.093
Hawks9109.064
Marines790.056
Giants6112.054
Tigers594.053
Lions7124.048
Fighters5106.047
Carp391.033
Swallows391.033
Dragons5102.029
BayStars198.010

The Eagles’ outs break down as follows: runners out on bases: 9, caught stealing 7, picked off 2.

No sacrifice is too great

Despite the fact that Pacific League pitchers only bat in nine games a season — when on the road during interleague play against Central League opponents, PL teams typically sacrifice more often. In the past eight seasons since a uniform ball was employed in 2011, the PL has sacrificed more often than the CL.

This year, however, it seems to be the CL’s turn for the ultimate sacrifices again. Last year, the CL also led by sacrificing 2.2 percent of the times a runner was on first base, while the PL was getting the bunt down 2 percent of the time.

Two things appear to be driving the change: 1) an influx of new managers who bunt less, Seibu’s Hatsuhiko Tsuji, Rakuten’s Yosuke Hiraishi and Lotte’s Tadahito Iguchi, and 2) a change of heart in Sapporo. The Nippon Ham Fighters, once one of NPB’s most bunt-happy teams under former university teacher Hideki Kuriyama, have begun to shy away from the sacrifice.

One wonders whether there is any connection between having a general manager who is familiar with sabermetrics in Hiroshi Yoshimura and the Fighters’ more astute look. The Fighters definitely employed an extreme infield shift last week against the Rakuten Eagles, and are also dabbling with the use of an opener.

This spring so far, five of the six PL clubs are among the six least-frequent sacrificing teams. The PL’s Orix Buffaloes, run by old-school skipper Norifumi Nishimura rank sixth, and have been the PL club most likely to bunt.

And while you’re looking at the table, spare some time for a round of applause for Iguchi and the Marines.

Team sacrifice attempt pct (through 4/7)

TeamSHFailed SHRunners on 1BAttempt pct
Dragons10278.154
Tigers7375.133
BayStars9179.127
Giants7395.105
Carp6277.104
Buffaloes3282.061
Swallows3171.056
Hawks5090.056
Eagles50100.050
Fighters4085.047
Lions1098.010
Marines0077.000

Speaking of the Marines

Not only has Iguchi’s team not attempted a sacrifice this season, but when you look at how the 2018 season ended, we may be seeing something of a pattern. Having spent much of my life watching Japanese baseball, I thought nine games might be a record of some sort, but it’s not.

Although Iguchi’s team sacrificed once in its season finale, the Mariners did not record a sacrifice hit in any of the preceding 15 games. That gives them a 25-game stretch with one sacrifice.

He told me before the season that his coach’s were not going to go overboard on instructing the unique talents out of the young players but didn’t say anything about sacrifices. He didn’t have a streak anything like that — or like this year’s — during the rest of the 2018 season.

That 15-game streak is pretty remarkable, although Tsuji’s Lions had three nine-game streaks last season, and the Eagles had a 13-game streak.

Japan’s “Major League”

This is a collection of anecdotes that don’t explain but do give some context behind the Chiba Lotte Marines’ bizarre 2009 season.

The year an owner threw a season

With MLB teams all but locking out free agents in name of higher profits, much has been made of teams tanking to save money at the expense of winning. Joe Posnansky recently wrote how the antagonist of the movie “Major League,” Rachel Phelps, the fictitious owner of the Cleveland Indians, was a genius who was ahead of her time, by trying to lose games.

But it actually happened in Japan.

During the 2008 season, the acting owner of the Chiba Lotte Marines, Akio Shigemitsu, bought into the idea Bobby Valentine, who was under contract through the 2009 season for $5 million a year, could be driven out without being paid. The scheme was fiendish and simple. Valentine’s contract contained a clause stipulating that should he criticize the team’s management, he could be fired without compensation.

If the top executives could sabotage the season enough to make Valentine criticize the organization, he could be fired without cost and it would be mission accomplished.

The tale of Bobby Valentine

The plot, ostensibly hatched by former team executive Ryuzo Setoyama, had complicated roots that author Robert Whiting explains in some detail in a four-part 2010 series published in the Japan Times. Setoyama was technically Valentine’s boss, but after winning the Japan Series in 2005, it was clear how far out of the loop he was. Valentine was being wooed by at least one MLB team, rumored to be the Dodgers, who wanted him to manage in 2006.

Setoyama told the media Valentine couldn’t go anywhere since he was under contract — since that had been published in the papers when Valentine returned to Lotte for 2004. Setoyama did not know the truth.

Valentine was adored in Japan and wanted to stay, but said he had to deal with daily calls from his mentor, Tommy Lasorda.

“He’s saying, ‘What’s the matter with you, Bobby? You’re a big fish! You’re not going to be happy in a small pond,'” Valentine said during the 2005 Asian club championships when his future was fodder for daily speculation in Japan’s ubiquitous sports papers.

When told that Setoyama was holding court with reporters down the hall telling them Valentine, couldn’t leave if he wanted, Valentine said with a grin, “We’ll see.”

Feudal Japan

When Valentine was made defacto general manager, he got new insight into the ways of Japanese baseball. This included how the team was forced to accede to demands of a local organized crime group. Another sore spot was how the team’s autumn mini camp location was determined by the amount of money local leaders stuffed into envelopes at dinners where team officials were wined and dined during inspection trips.

By holding the mini camp at the team’s home park, Chiba Marine Stadium, the club saved a ton of money and was opposed by those who depended on the graft for income.

From his perspective, Japanese teams were being run like domains from Japan’s feudal era, where tax collectors bought their positions and pocketed the difference between the amount they could collect and the amount their lords demanded. One team official, Valentine said, had entertained guests in luxury boxes at team expense.

“He’s giving tours of the ballpark now,” Valentine said. “He used to vice president of drinking and fucking.'”

Valentine’s ridicule came from genuine outrage because he loved Japan. He admired Japan’s passion for baseball and the players and coaches’ dedication and wanted the business side to match that effort. The graft and scams grated on him and he was a fountain of ideas to reform the business–one of which, the expansion of minor league playing opportunities–has had a huge impact on Japan’s talent base.

To achieve his purposes, he and Setoyama established what Valentine thought was a productive partnership. As the team’s official representative on the Pacific League’s board of directors and the NPB executive committee, Setoyama could present reforms Valentine wanted discussed.

But in the middle of the 2008 season, Setoyama went on walk about.

It was not exactly clear what…Setoyama’s motives were, whether he was so frustrated that he really did intend to quit, or whether his threat to resign in 2008 was just a ploy to get skipper Bobby Valentine to leave and save the team some of Valentine’s salary.

Robert Whiting

The first shoe dropped that winter, when Valentine was summoned back for an emergency conference. He’d reportedly spoken with the agent of a South Korean player, at the 2008 baseball winter meetings in the United States. Lotte to the press that Valentine had raised suspicions of tampering as the player in question was not a free agent.

“The meeting was a setup,” Valentine said. “I was tipped off by a phone call before I went in that the plan was to make me angry and maybe even take a swing at someone, so they could fire me.”

At the meeting, Valentine was told he was being stripped of his general manager duties, and that a number of his trusted subordinates were being reassigned within the organization.

Akira Ishikawa, who had worked with Setoyama with the powerhouse Hawks before Setoyama was fired, was brought in as a top executive–ostensibly so the Marines could sign Tadahito Iguchi. Ishikawa had signed Iguchi to his first pro contract and he had gone on to be one of the best Japanese players of his generation. But Iguchi had just turned 35, and had posted a .292 on-base percentage in 2008, when he suffered the first injury of his career.

The move was a surprise because Valentine was not involved and had already groomed a young second baseman, Shunichi Nemoto, to take over second. For the first time in his career, Valentine took a job away from a promising younger player to give it to a veteran past his prime. However, Iguchi exceeded expectations and Valentine, to his credit, gushed, “We knew he was a good player, but what we didn’t know was what a great teammate he is.”

But more surprises were in store.

After working on a play to lure opposing pitchers into balking a runner from third base home, the Marines successfully executed it early in the season only for the umpires to ignore the balk, and Valentine argued the balk with a fair amount of indignation.

The next day, Ishikawa went to the umpires room to apologize for Valentine’s behavior. A team staff member rushed in to the skipper’s office to inform him. Valentine excused himself and from the next room, only raised voices could be heard.

“What kind of shit is this?” Valentine asked when he returned and explained the situation. “What team executive sides with the umpires against his team’s interests?”

“They had the video playing. I demonstrated what the pitcher did. I said, ‘Is this a balk?’ They said it was. So why wasn’t it a balk last night? ‘Because.’ That’s what they said. ‘Because.'”

Gaslight

There’s no doubt the team was gaslighting their manager, trying to turn individual players against him and of sabotaging the team’s efforts by turning the players against him, criticizing him in the press and demoralizing the support staff of video analysts and batting practice pitchers by depriving them of an important source of income — the cash bonuses called “fight money” teams distribute after wins.

Valentine had made a point of including the analysts and batting practice pitchers and others in these payouts to recognize their contributions. Several of them confirmed that this practice was suspended by Ishikawa and Setoyama in 2009 because fight money was suspended.

Recognizing that the guys depended on the cash supplements to pay bills, Valentine began paying them out of pocket, which they also confirmed.

As the season wore on, Valentine didn’t know who was with him or against him, and every time he was criticized in the press, he was dogged after the game by two cub reporters brought in to record any complaints he might make about the team — that would result in immediate forfeiture of his pay.

In a weekend day game, banners in the stands urged Lotte ownership to keep Valentine and fire Setoyama. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, whom Valentine believed had been bought off by Setoyama and his gang to oppose him in the clubhouse, was selected by Ishikawa to give the on-fielder “hero interview.”

Nishioka launched into a speech about how the fans should be more positive to set a good example for the children in attendance.

Nobody in Japan had better tools than Nishioka, which Valentine freely admitted. He is an upbeat guy, who Matt Murton credited with lightning the stodgy atmosphere at the Hanshin Tigers in 2014 in their run to the Japan Series. But Nishioka is a guy, who despite his obvious ability, was only a great ballplayer at times, and Valentine ripped the shortstop’s hypocrisy over concern about the children.

“I was surprised he even knows children comes to the games, because he never sees them when they try to get his autograph,” Valentine said.

The team struggled to a .446 winning percentage, the Marines worst since 1994, the year before the first time Valentine had been hired to run Lotte and steered them in their dramatic 1995 pennant challenge.

Although the fans loved him, and the team executives decertified the most vocal of his support groups, he finally recognized nothing he could do would bring back the Marines he’d known from 2004 to 2008.

The aftermath

In 1995, Valentine was blamed for losing the pennant by then-general manager Tatsuro Hirooka and fired after one year despite the Marines posting their best record in 11 seasons. The following year, Shigemitsu fired Hirooka.

The 2010 aftermath was similar in some ways, although it took a year longer to play out. The 2010 season started with a hint about what was to come.

Longtime Tokyo sportswriter Wayne Graczyk informed other writers that something was amiss with Lotte in the spring of 2010. Graczyk purchased head shots of players for his annual media guide and fan handbook. When he asked how he should pay for the photos, he was directed to transfer the cash into a personal account of Setoyama’s.

The Marines finished third that year, qualifying for the playoffs by winning their last three regular season games and then climbing Japan’s rigged playoff system to knock off the second-place Seibu Lions and the league champion SoftBank Hawks before winning the Japan Series.

It was great for the fans, who had suffered through so much in 2009, but seeing the team tossing Shigemitsu in the “doage” celebration ceremony after he had signed off on a plan throw the 2009 season in order to save a fraction of Valentine’s $5 million salary was repugnant.

In the wake of their triumph, the Marines took a page out of their 1996 playbook and blamed Valentine for holding the team back. A reporter for the Nikkan Sports, wittingly or not, participated in the smear. He wrote that ending Valentine’s prohibition on “nagekomi” extra-long bullpen sessions, had given the Marines championship-caliber pitching.

This story was inaccurate and stupid on so many levels that it was laughable. Former Marines pitcher Satoru Komiyama said Valentine had not prohibited Japan’s beloved marathon bullpen sessions, but had restricted them to pitchers with sufficient core strength. The Marines pitching in 2010 was worse than it had been under Valentine, and a pitcher whose extensive spring training throwing was held up as an example of what was right with the new regime had missed most of the 2010 season with arm trouble.

The crash came in 2011. One hint that year was bringing in a foreign player whose past performance in the majors and minors made one wonder why the Marines would spend a dollar on him.

There are plentiful stories of foreign players with ostensibly little value who are offered more than their worth on the open market with Japanese team executives taking kickbacks to secure the deals. This had the markings of such a case, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what’s wishful thinking or stupidity and not plain corruption.

When the Marines finished last for the first time since 1998, and Ishikawa and Setoyama were handed their walking papers under suspicious circumstances, reportedly having to with unusual use of team funds.

Ichiro, Oh and the world

Sadaharu talks to reporters during the 2006 WBC
Sadaharu Oh talking to reporters as Japan practiced at San Diego’s Petco Park before its 2006 WBC semifinal against South Korea.

Oh’s story

On Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, Sadaharu Oh spoke to reporters at Japan’s National Press Club in Tokyo. The SoftBank Hawks chairman was speaking on the subject of pro baseball during Japan’s Heisei Era — which ended last spring.

During the press conference, Oh spoke of how over the past 30 years, Japanese baseball made itself heard in America, with the success of Hideo Nomo in 1995 and later Japan’s triumph in the first World Baseball Classic, which he managed.

“That first time, I didn’t know what was what, and it just became a case of leaving it to the players who volunteered,” Oh said. “I became emboldened when Ichiro (Suzuki) called. He was the first.”

Oh wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t understand what was what. He didn’t particularly want to manage Japan in 2006, but no one was stepping up to do it.

He had been a proponent of the project in 2004 and 2005, when Nippon Professional Baseball was suspicious of dealing with Major League Baseball and accepted the job because no else wanted it.

“There were people in Japanese baseball who didn’t want this new burden,” he said a year ago. “It wasn’t because they were wrong, but because they were focused on their business at hand. But I thought it was important. That it was a chance to broaden our horizons.”

The WBC

Jim Small, then MLB’s vice president for Asia, had just opened up shop in Japan so that MLB could negotiate TV rights and licensing deals without having to outsource them. The WBC turned out to be a hard sell and the process involved a lot of public sniping from NPB’s secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa.

With the deal finally agreed to late in the summer of 2005 and with Oh now in charge of selecting his team, people wondered which of Japan’s major leaguers would take part. Outfielders Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were the biggest stars. It was assumed that second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, then en route to a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox, would sign on since he had played under Oh with the Hawks.

For one reason or another, the common assumption in Japan was that Matsui and Iguchi would play, but Suzuki would not.

And so I thought until a chance meeting with Small on a shinkansen heading west out of Tokyo. Small had been sitting in the same carriage, saw me and brought up the subject of Ichiro.

After listening to me spout the common view, Small said, “I’ve heard he wants to play. And he’s waiting for Oh to call him.”

I was in Fukuoka a few weeks later when the Hawks hosted Bobby Valentine‘s Lotte Marines in the final stage of the Pacific League playoffs.

The king and I, Sadaharu Oh.

The king and I and Ichiro

I can’t properly explain my relationship with Oh, Japan’s all-time home run king, who is a household name and an icon here.

After I started working at the Daily Yomiuri in 1998 after six years as a free lancer, I ventured up to Oh on the sidelines at Tokyo Dome one day. I am sure I was shaking as I quizzed him on Japanese baseball in my fairly broken Japanese. His demeanor was friendly, reassuring and straightforward. It wasn’t me. It’s the way Oh is.

So on one of those days during that series in Fukuoka, I remembered what Small had said on the train, that Ichiro was waiting for Oh to call him.

“Can I do that?” Oh asked. “Is that permitted?”

I didn’t know if it was permitted or not, but suggested that it was worth finding out. I also haven’t asked Oh since then exactly how that play out. It is just as likely that he forgot what we talked about and only thought about it when someone else mentioned Ichiro. At some point, Oh began pursuing Matsui, with the progress of that courtship playing out in the daily sports pages.

After Matsui turned Oh down, Oh sought out Iguchi. Although everyone thought he would jump at the chance, he was reportedly less than thrilled to be considered an afterthought and turned down a spot on the WBC roster.

But with Ichiro in tow, the rest was history, as Japan largely lucked its way into the WBC final despite two losses to South Korea and Oh’s insistence on sacrificing with batters he had no business putting a bunt sign into their heads. *

“I’m good when I’m the first,” Oh said. “And at that time, too, I remember thinking, ‘My luck is still holding.’ My first time wearing the rising sun emblem in baseball empowered me.”

*–His extreme small-ball approach in 2006 is ironic when one considers his recent comments about how Japan’s national team should play.