Tag Archives: Umpires

NPB 2020 9-18 members notes

Practice, practice, practice

With few exceptions there are no off days once the Japanese baseball season starts. There are travel days, but for the most part, those include optional practices which are optional in the same sense that “independent free training” takes place with teammates under supervision of coaches who watch from a distance and is neither independent or free.

There are, of course exceptions. Notably, the Nippon Ham Fighters don’t practice on travel days, but not taking BP before a game is pretty rare.

On Friday, Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo had his team skip pre-game practice after his team only arrived at Fukuoka Airport shortly before 2 pm after a flight from Sapporo.

“The players’ conditioning is crucial,” said Kudo, who limited the workout to a light warmup. “I also decided that on a day like this I wouldn’t use players nursing minor injuries.”

Teams will occasionally give veterans the option of skipping batting practice but like fight money, it’s not something they talk about freely, which brings us to Boomer.

Boomer bust

Greg “Boomer” Wells was a Triple Crown-winner for the Hankyu Braves, who played in 47 MLB games before he was sold by the Minnesota Twins to the Hankyu Braves.

In 10 Japanese seasons, Boomer, who was also taken in the 16th round of the 1975 NFL draft by the New York Jets, hit .317 with 277 home runs. He led the PL in home runs once, in RBIs four times, in hits four times and batting average twice.

At the 2015 winter meetings, he told me this story about the time he didn’t want to take batting practice because of fatigue.

  • Coach: “If you don’t hit, you don’t play.”
  • Boomer: “Ok. 5 swings.”
  • Coach: “20.”
  • Boomer: “10 OK?”

So Boomer took 10 swings, had a home run and three hits and the Braves won. The next day, he went to the coach and was approved for no BP, and he had another good game. After about a week, he said he wanted to work on something before the game, only to be told he didn’t need it.

  • Boomer: “I really need it. I’m getting rusty. I need 20 swings.”
  • Coach: “No. You’re fine. You’re swinging well.”
  • Boomer: “And I want to keep swinging well. 20 swings.”
  • Coach: “OK. Five. Five swings that’s it.”
  • Boomer “I need 20. But I’ll take 10.”
  • Coach: “You shouldn’t practice at all, but I’ll allow 10.”

Tomiji Iizuka

When I started writing my first analytic guide to Japanese baseball, I was surprised at the high quality of a lot of players in the minor leagues. Of course, that was 1993, and the idea that anything that minor league performance was unconnected to a player’s ability to play baseball was still strong.

The Orix BlueWave had a 19-year-old minor league outfielder who won the Western League batting title the year before, and an older reserve utility infielder who drew walks like Rembrandt. Neither were considered anything but minor leaguers.

The same thing went for the Chunichi Dragons. OK it still happens for the Chunichi Dragons, since ignoring minor league results of anyone but the most in-favor youngsters is still against the rules it seems. Anyway, the Dragons had a walk-drawing, home run-cranking former catcher who was considered a failure – until he finally got a chance at the age of 27 and led the CL in home runs in his first full season. Takeshi Yamasaki went on to hit 403 in his career.

The Yomiuri Giants had a guy like that, a former first-round draft pick named Takeshi Omori who’d had a few bad games on the first team under then manager Motoshi Fujita, who was then consigned to being the best hitter in the Eastern League by far for about six years.

Anyway, that’s what teams all did then, and it was so much fun finding these guys who sure as hell looked like they could play while hoping to hell they would get traded to a team that knew what they were getting. But that rarely happened. In the case of the Orix pair, the youngster’s career was rescued by a managing change, and with two players named Suzuki on the roster, the kid’s registered name was changed to Ichiro.

His teammate was not so lucky. The Western League was very, very tough on hitters, yet Ichiro’s older teammate, reserve infielder Tomiji Iizuka, was an on-base machine.

I only have minor league data back to 1991, but in Iizuka’s final five seasons, he had 983 minor league plate appearances hit .299 with a .416 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging average. He was a pretty good player on the first team as well, despite only getting 431 plate appearances over 13 seasons, only once getting more than 74 in a single season.

I knew that after his career, Iizuka became an umpire, but I didn’t recall seeing him call a game behind the plate until Friday. I only looked up to see who the home plate ump was after his zone was drawing some disbelieving looks from Hawks starter Matt Moore who could hit the glove but couldn’t buy a strike at the lower boundry.

I don’t know if Iizuka’s eye for the strike zone is as sharp as it was when he was a player, but strike zone judgement and plate discipline was his principle skill, and as much as it looked like he might have squeezed Moore a little, I’d like to think he was calling him as he saw them and that a guy who should have been a first-team regular can still see them better than most people.

Silence is not golden

Playing baseball in empty stadiums that would normally be filled with non-stop chanting and noise-making means hearing virtually everything. You can hear the coaches complain about the umpires, the players’ chatter, and as Chunichi Dragons manager Tsuyoshi Yoda and his Yakult Swallows counterpart Shingo Takatsu discovered this weekend at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the broadcasters.

The Nikkan Sports reported Sunday that prior to the start of the ninth inning of Sunday’s game, Yoda came out for a word with home plate umpire Tetsuya Shimada, who then approached the Swallows bench for a word with Takatsu, and pointed up at the broadcast booths as they spoke.

“From the broadcast booth could be heard ‘The catcher is setting up inside,'” manager Yoda said, according to a Dragons official.

The broadcast booths at the small park are not far from home plate and their voices could be heard on the field without fans making the ubiquitous noise.

Central League administrator Kazuhide Kinefuchi said according to the Dragons, “We have to look out for this at every park and correct it immediately.

Takatsu appeared to hear it as well, the umps said.

“He could hear something. The pitch locations or something like it.”

Until about 10 years ago, NPB had a similar issue. Teams used the big screens at the ballpark to show replays of their player’s swings when the home team was batting. Every fair or foul ball would be replayed, with the result that the home team batters could see where the opposing catchers were setting up.

Former Fighters pitcher Carlos Mirabal said those two things are apples and oranges.

“(It being on the screen) to me doesn’t matter, because the players would always go in the training room and ask someone who was watching the game where the pitch was or any other question,” Mirabal said.

“If it’s right before the pitcher throws the pitch, then that’s no good.”

NPB’s most famous strike

NPB umpiring technical committee chairman Osamu Ino
Osamu Ino, NPB’s umpiring technical committee chairman was there the day east met west.

End of the experiment

The plan, hatched by Central League president Hiromori Kawashima, was to prove umpires showed no favoritism to Japan’s most powerful franchise. Instead, it demonstrated to the world that Nippon Professional Baseball showed no favoritism towards its umpires when they were attacked on the field.

On June 5, 1997, Mike DiMuro was assaulted on the field after calling an American-style outside strike on Chunichi Dragons slugger Chen Ta-feng (known in Japan as Yasuaki Taiho). DiMuro, who was supposed to spend the season on loan in order to prove umpire neutrality, called it quits.

Although technically, he was recalled for his own safety, it was cover-your-ass story.

“He came out of the game, and then informed us he wouldn’t be back,” former umpire Osamu Ino said.

Masaaki Nagino, the league’s secretary general at the time, said DiMuro was ready to leave and the incident was not the reason he left, but the reason he left at that time.

“He had a tough time, living out of hotels, always on the road, with few people he could speak English with,” Nagino said soon after the incident. “He was ready to go, and nobody blamed him for leaving.”

The zone

A central issue to the DiMuro experiment was his use of the American strike zone that had been altered by umpires in the States, shifted one ball width away from the batter. A pitch not entirely over the inside edge of the plate would not be called a strike in the majors but would be in Japan. On the other side, American umps had become accustomed to calling strikes on pitches within two ball-widths of the outside edge.

This troubled foreign hitters, like Hensley Meulens, and created an opportunity for players willing to exploit it, like Motonobu Tanishige and Hiroki Nomura.

The setup

“I was there,” Ino said. “DiMuro was always in my crew. That day in 1997, I was the second base ump and DiMuro was behind the plate. There was nobody on base, and Yokohama playing Chunichi. Tanishige, the catcher, set a target a little outside, and it was one of those ‘American-style strikes,’ and DiMuro called it.”

“Taiho made a commotion about I thought, ‘What a moron.’ It didn’t enter into Taiho’s head that DiMuro’s strike zone would be like that.”

The sting

“But Tanishige was sharp, so he set a target a little farther outside, and I was thinking, that’s just like Tanishige to do that. The pitcher, Nomura, had really good control, and he threw another outside, more than a ball outside.”DiMuro, of course, couldn’t let it go, and had to teach (Taiho) a lesson. So as soon as I saw the target, I thought, ‘Here we go.'”

But Dragons were not an ordinary team. Their manager, Senichi Hoshino, wore his fierce emotions on his sleeve, could erupt in anger or laughter at the drop of a cap and had a history of getting physical with umpires and players he was angry with.

Another character was coach Ikuo Shimano. Fifteen years earlier, in September 1982, Shimano had been coaching with the Hanshin Tigers when he and a fellow coach assaulted two umpires in a game in Yokohama. *

The ruckus

“Nomura threw it, (DiMuro called a strike and) Taiho shouted and then all of a sudden Hoshino’s there and Shimano’s charging in there,” Ino said. “And they’ve got DiMuro surrounded near the backstop.”

“Because there was nobody on base, I was out in center field and shouted, ‘Wait!’ as I ran in, but I couldn’t get there in time to prevent it. Dimuro was in shock. We took over for him and the game went on.”

It never was much of a melee. DiMuro got away as Ino and the other two umps jawed with Hoshino, who was seen laughing as he went back to the dugout.

The aftermath

Although DiMuro’s departure had been as much about timing as the way he was treated on the field, it caused Japan’s managers some embarrassment to realize their actions put Japanese baseball as a whole in a bad light.

Soon after to show their solidarity for the umpires and the greater good, Kintetsu Buffaloes manager Kyosuke Sasaki and Seibu Lions manager Osamu Higashio pledged not to argue with umpires for an entire series.

That warm-and-fuzzy approach didn’t last however. On July 10, Higashi shoved umpire Koichi Tamba for calling one of his players out on the bases. Tamba tossed Higashio. After the game, the skipper went the umpires room and when Tamba refused to listen, put him in a headlock. The ump suffered a contusion on his left leg, while Higashio was fined 100,000 yen — worth about $890 at the time — and suspended for three days.

*–Local authorities investigated the incident, that forced one of the umpires to miss two weeks of work and the other three. Shimada and fellow coach Takeshi Shibata were prosecuted for assault and fined 50,000 yen each in summary proceedings by the Yokohama District Court. They were fired by the Tigers and both banned indefinitely from baseball. They both indicated their remorse and their suspensions were lifted the following March.