A day after former Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette announced his retirement, the Central League club announced on Thursday he would begin working for the club in an advisory capacity.
The Hochi Shimbun reported Barnette will join the Swallows spring training camp in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 19. The 36-year-old Barnette twice led the CL in saves during his time in Japan from 2010 to 2015.
Barnette is the second former player hired in a role to help enrich the Swallows’ overseas efforts following last year’s agreement with former Yakult outfielder Aaron Guiel.
My interviews with Barnette and pitching coach Tomohito Ito, whom he credited with helping him achieve success in Japan, is available HERE for jballallen.com subscribers.
On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Tony Barnette announced he is retiring from pro baseball after a career that included six seasons with the Yakult Swallows.
His success with Yakult coincided with a time when the club, tired of seeing their high-quality imports leaving after a couple of years to join the Yomiuri Giants, began handing out solid multiyear contracts. The deal offered Barnette and outfielder Wladimir Balentien, and the development of second baseman Tetsuto Yamada proved instrumental in the Swallows surprising 2015 Central League championship.
In March, I spoke with Barnette in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at their spring training base in Mesa, Arizona. We talked about what worked for him in Japan, and about his relationship with pitching coach Tomohito Ito.
“In Japan, you have to learn how to get guys to swing and miss. And if you can do it there, that plays anywhere. The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle, it’s all there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, keeping that competitive level all throughout the game.”
Tony Barnette on what he learned in Japanese baseball
After a rocky first season as a starter, when he allowed 6.21 runs per nine innings in a hitters’ park in a hitters’ league, there was no guarantee Barnette would even be back for a second season in 2011. He credited the support from then-manager Junji Ogawa and pitching coach Daisuke Araki and the guidance of Araki’s successor, Tomohito Ito.
On March 30, I talked with Ito, currently coaching with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, about Barnette.
“He basically threw hard when he arrived,” Ito said. “But the slider and changeup were essentially his only secondary pitches, and his command of the change wasn’t that good. Some days he could throw strikes with the slider, and some days he couldn’t.”
“He pitched well in his first start, into the seventh inning, but opponents studied him.”
Ito said that although the results as a starter were not that good, Barnette was showing progress from the middle of the season, working on different pitches that would get him over the hump in Japan.
“He worked on his cutter, he learned a splitter, he threw a two-seamer,” Ito said. “In the process, that cutter became pretty good. By the time the season ended, the club didn’t rate him very highly as a starter, but he was throwing some nasty pitches, so my idea was to use him as a reliever, so I sounded him out about that.”
“He wanted the opportunity and gave it a shot. The fastball worked, and with the cutter, that would get him started in relief. When teams started adjusting, he’d have the splitter, and sometimes a sinker and then a curve that he was beginning to throw.”
Ito, too, pointed out that one reason so many foreign players have had success with the Swallows is the club’s situation on the fringes.
“Yakult is a good place for imported players,” he said. “We know that if the foreign players don’t do well, we’re not going to be successful as a team, so the culture on the team is to stay positive and supportive with them.”
“One of the advantages is that Japan gives players opportunities to try new things.”
Tony Barnette, who became a valuable professional pitcher in Japan, where he fashioned a solid career, before making his major league debut, announced Thursday on Twitter that he was bringing his active career to an end.
My interview with Barnette and the coach he credits with remaking his arsenal, Tomohito Ito, can be found HERE.
After being a big part of the Swallows’ 2015 Central League championship, the club’s first since 2001, Barnette was out of contract with the Swallows. Out of consideration for the club, he asked the Swallows to post him. But knowing he was a free agent, no American team was interested in paying Yakult a posting fee, but he did hook up with the Texas Rangers as a free agent.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette on Friday paid tribute to
an overlooked aspect of Japanese baseball, its passion and fan-fueled
Asked what aspects of the game helped shape him as a player, the former Yakult Swallows closer cited the non-stop cheering and noise-making as more than just a part of the atmosphere, but something that adds to the amount o fight displayed between the lines.
“One thing I haven’t talked about much is the competitiveness
of every single game,” he said. “The fan atmosphere helps with that. It doesn’t
matter if you’re 10 games above .500 or 15 games below, they’re still showing
up. That attitude adds to the competitiveness of the game, because a dead
stadium is a dead stadium. It’s hard to get into it.”
“But as a player, you feel, if they’re still into it, we’re
still into it. They’re not going to quit, we’re not going to quit. The more and
more you win, the better it gets.”
“The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and
hustle is still there. You see the way guys bust it down the line, sliding
head-first. As bad as that is, it’s still there. That’s one of the things that
has stuck with me, is keeping that competitive level all the way through the game
and all the way through the season.”
Pitcher Chris Martin, Barnette’s teammate last season with
the Texas Rangers, said last November, that playing for Japan’s Nippon Ham
Fighters prepared him to play in the majors by getting him used to executing
pitches in high-pressure situations.
“One of the things people don’t give Japan credit for is
it’s a competitive league with competitive players. The talent level may fall
off a bit quicker, but the fact of the matter is guys are out there to win
every single night and it’s good baseball.”
“It’s June and it’s Hanshin and there are 45,000 people in
the stands or it’s July or it’s Tokyo Dome, and it’s the ninth inning and – off
the bench because he was supposed to have a day off, here comes (future Hall of
Famer Shinnosuke) Abe in the ninth inning and that place goes nuts. You get in
that situation in that atmosphere, you’ve got to make a big pitch with 50,000
“That has the big game mentality. Now when you get to the
major leagues, it’s like, I’ve been in a stadium this big before. I’ve been in
a stadium that’s more full than this. It’s a development thing.”
Giving credit where credit is due
On a personal level, Barnette credited one of his managers
and his pitching coaches as huge influences. Manager Junji Ogawa took a team
with promising talent and made them playoff contenders, largely by being
patient. Under him, the Swallows got big seasons out of Barnette, Lastings
Miledge and Wladimir Balentien. All three got big multiyear contracts, and
though Miledge fell off the radar, Balentien went on to break Japan’s
single-season home run record in 2013, while Barnette established himself as an
“Junji Ogawa was instrumental in bringing me back after that
first failed starter year, him and coach (Daisuke) Araki. They brought me
“Araki ended up moving on, but then coach (former major
leaguer Shingo) Takatsu came. He was such a great coach. His temperament as a
pitching coach is just remarkable.”
“And then Tomohito Ito. I played catch with that guy pretty much every
single day for two years. When it came to the development of the cutter, the
split, he’s got his hands all over it. His finger prints are all over the way I
pitch today. I can’t talk about Japan without talking about Ito. I think he’s
phenomenal in his craft and caring about each individual pitcher to work and
get better, that organic way he cares about people. It’s seamless to him. Some
guys have to work at it. It comes naturally to him and it shows. Phenomenal
charisma. He’s a great guy to be around.”
Here is my latest original work in the Japan Times, although I have been assured that including bylines is company policy, that policy appears to be flexible depending on who is on the desk. The original is here, and here is the link to the Japan Times material:
Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette was one of three first-time winners on Friday, when Nippon Professional Baseball announced its players and pitchers of the month for July.
Barnette, who saved all eight games he appeared in, was named to the Central League honor roll along with Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who won his second player of the month award. The Pacific League honors went to a pair of first-timers, five-time home run king Takeya Nakamura of the Seibu Lions, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Rick van den Hurk.
Barnette allowed one run in 7-1/3 innings without issuing a walk to earn the nod over Yomiuri Giants starter Miles Mikolas. The June pitcher of the month went 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in four games and struck out 15, but was overlooked this time.
Although Barnette gets the saves, it has hardly been a one-man show in the Swallows bullpen, with Orlando Roman and first-year setup man Logan Ondrusek in to keep games tight before the ninth.
“Those two guys have been just as good or better than anyone in the league,” Barnette told Kyodo News by email on Friday. “Roman is a guy that you can put into any situation and he’s going to dig deep and fight his way through it.”
“Logan has made the adjustment to Japan as well as anyone could ask for. There are growing pains that come with the move to Japan but he has excelled on and off the field. That being said, when I have guys like them protecting leads in front of me, it takes a bit of weight off my shoulders and gives me a freedom to just be myself and do the job I’ve been asked to do.”
“You add (Ryo) Akiyoshi into that mix and a revived (Kenichi) Matsuoka, we are in a good place as far as bullpen health and stability is concerned.”
The biggest surprise of the day was not that Nakamura deserved to win the award, but that he had never won it before. The monthly honors are typically handed out to players with stratospheric batting averages — something a career .257 hitter such as Nakamura rarely qualifies for. Nakamura, who has also won five PL Best IX awards, hit just .289, but reached base at a .400 clip, and led the league in home runs (eight) and slugging average (.711), while leading the nation with 26 RBIs.
Last month, Nakamura hit his 300th career home run and his 15th grand slam, the last figure tying him for the most in NPB history.
“It was an OK month,” he said. “I’m glad to win.”
Van den Hurk, who spent much of the first half on the Hawks farm team after suffering an injury in the spring, has finally landed a regular spot in the club’s starting rotation. The Dutch international went 3-0 in July with a 2.53 ERA and 41 strikeouts in a PL-high 32 innings.