Tag Archives: WBC

Maeda learns to change

Kenta Maeda
Kenta Maeda speaks to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, in Glendale, Arizona.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda spoke about what his three years in the big leagues have taught him about baseballs, climate and the honesty one experiences from American crowds.

Time for a change

Last year was a step forward in some ways for Maeda. After attacking the strike zone more in relief at the end of the 2017 season, 2018 brought the good news that his strikeouts overall were on the rise. The bad news was that the circle change he brought with him from Japan had become a non-factor in the majors and left-handed-hitters were killing him.

“The problem was left-handed hitters,” he said. “My old changeup was a circle change. It was a pitch to get contact, off-balance swings for easy outs. It worked in Japan because a lot of batters have big leg kicks. It was easy for me to get them to flail at pitches out in front. There are few batters in the majors who have that. They have better balance, and that pitch wasn’t working.”

He said he turned to split-fingered fastball grip that allowed the ball to drop a lot more and get misses from left-handed hitters trying to drive the ball — a huge adjustment every Japanese pitcher faces in America, where the Japanese slap-hitting subclass of (largely) left-handed hitters doesn’t really exist.

“In Japan, so many guys aren’t trying to drive the ball. They’re trying to slap it through a hole, hit it on the ground. But those kinds of hits are no big deal. It takes four to score a run. Here pretty much everyone is trying to hurt you from No. 1 to No. 8,” said Maeda, omitting the fact that he once surrendered two home runs in a game to Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

No country for slow fastballs

Like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka, Maeda was a pitcher in danger of not really having a four-seam fastball after he moved to the majors. He said a lot of his countrymen have to come to grips with the fact that no matter how slow their best fastball is, it is better than no fastball at all.

“I think that’s because the guys who come here are fast by Japanese standards, but (their velocities are) just average here, throwing 93 to 94 miles (150 to 151 kilometers) per hour, and they think therefore that those pitches are going to get hit,” Maeda said. “They think that especially before they come.”

“But once they get here, we eventually learn that no one is going to hit them just because their fastball is not as fast as other pitchers’.”

He said he also fell into the new trap among Japanese pitchers, who believe that in order to succeed in America one needs to have a two-seam fastball.

“We have an exaggerated belief that American pitching equals throwing that (two-seam) moving fastball. I thought I would have to have one, so I tried and tried, but could never throw it well enough.”

Climate change

And though his slider has proven to be a quality pitch for him in the States as much as it had been in Japan. Maeda had to learn how to trust himself and ignore the evidence when he first arrived in Arizona.

“Everyone told me before I got here, ‘You won’t be able to make your slider move in Arizona, so don’t worry about it,” he said. “And I couldn’t and that was the one thing that really puzzled me in my first spring training.”

“But I was really confident in the quality of my slider and since they weren’t getting away from me, and they were breaking a bit, I was able to move forward. When I got to Los Angeles it was normal. Since then, I don’t let that bother me.”

Not ready for prime time

He also came in supremely confident he could get batters out with the major league ball and pitch well here based on his experience in the World Baseball Classic in 2013, when he was named to the all-tournament team.

“That was false confidence on my part,” he said. “I felt really good coming here, because of the WBC. I’d used the ball, I’d gotten batters out. But what I didn’t realize was that the WBC is an anomaly. The opposing hitters were not ready for baseball to the degree we were in Japan (where spring camp starts on Feb. 1). That was kind of a shock.”

Read my Kyodo News interview HERE.

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.

Samurai Japan? More like the NPB indentured servants

Junichi Tazawa, the man without a national team

We’re a a little more than a year from the start of the 2017 World Baseball Classic group stages, and Japan is beginning its final year of preparations with games against Taiwan on March 5 and 6. Yet, the team doesn’t deserve to wear Japan’s emblem, the hinomaru, on their uniforms.

As long as manager Hiroki Kokubo is not allowed to choose stars who exercise their individual right NOT to play in Nippon Professional Baseball, then the team can’t truly represent Japan. The example is Junichi Tazawa. While Kokubo has said he’d like to have him on the team, Tazawa can’t be picked because NPB won’t let him.

Tazawa is banned from playing in Japan or for Kokubo’s NPB Indentured Samurai. The pitcher broke no law or contract. He failed no drug test. But he’s an outsider because he chose a career path NPB didn’t approve of. We’re not talking about organized crime or some other group that will get you banned from NPB, but rather a major league team. Before Tazawa signed with the Red Sox as an amateur, there were no rules against it. But after he signed, NPB’s teams agreed to ban him. Should Tazawa desire for any reason to return to Japan he would have to wait three years after he stops playing abroad.

Since Tazawa is currently ineligible to play for an NPB team, he is ineligible to play for NPB’s facsimile of a national team.

It wasn’t long after Tazawa was banned that Shohei Otani said he wanted no part of indentured servitude in NPB. Otani stayed in Japan, but only after the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him persuaded him that NPB was his best option. But Toshimasa Shimada, the Fighters’ top executive said Otani’s asking teams not to draft him was proof that the Tazawa rule had failed and is now only hurting the teams as they pursue a path of segregation — who will not be able to sign players who don’t put NPB’s wishes ahead of their own.