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.
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.”
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.