Tag Archives: Yakult Swallows

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

Scout diary: Fujinami back on table

The current pandemic world of abnormal sports events may not be optimal, but for the next few days at least NPB is playing televised preseason games, and that means chances to see lots of players play baseball.

After finishing my scout course, I want to see everybody, and have tried a few different tactics to maximize coverage while also reporting on notable performances for the website. After a stressful trial-and-error period, I’ve settled on watching one game at a time, perhaps choosing based on the players involved but really focusing on everything I can during that game.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

It’s not helping me rapidly expand my knowledge of players, but it is rapidly expanding the things I know about a few individual players. On Wednesday, while I wanted to see Matt Moore pitch again for the SoftBank Hawks, I watched new Swallows right-hander Gabrial Ynoa pitch against the Hanshin Tigers and their one time teenage phenom Shintaro Fujinami.

Fujinami, a beanpole right-hander was once considered the top pitcher in a draft class that included Shohei Ohtani, but after going 35-21 over his first three seasons, he went 15-19 under his second pro manager. Last year, with his career in tatters, the 25-year-old pitched in one first-team game.

In addition to Fujinami and Ynoa, I was also curious about Orix Buffaloes third-round pick Ryota Muranishi, who may get some opportunities to pitch this year with the big club.

So, here are my snapshot reports of their games.

Shintaro Fujinami

Fujinami struck out five batters, walked one and allowed two hits over four scoreless innings. His command was below average but, the quality of his pitches was excellent.

He often got behind batters but then battled them in the zone, getting good arm action and good movement. That was probably the biggest take away.

He had good depth on a “cutter” that looks more like a slider and would be a plus pitch if he could command it better. His fastball command was mediocre but he was sitting at 93.2 mph with some good life on it. He threw some good splitters.

If he can improve the command at all, he is going to be really effective.

PresentFuture
Fastball6065
Curve
Control4050
Changeup
Slider (called a cutter)5050
Knuckleball
Other – Splitter5555
Poise4050
Baseball Instinct5050
Aggressiveness5050

Gabriel Ynoa

Ynoa is a 26-year-old right-hander who throws high 3/4. He has pitched in 55 major league games, mostly for the Baltimore Orioles. His fastball sat at 148 kph (92 mph). He also threw a slider a change and a few two-seamers. His fastball command was average, his slider a little less so, while he didn’t locate his change that well, although it had good depth.

He looks like he can contribute in the rotation and eat innings. If he is one of those imported pitchers who improve their command a bit in Japan, he could be successful here.

PresentFuture
Fastball5050
Curve
Control5050
Changeup5050
Slider5050
Knuckleball
Other – Splitter
Poise5050
Baseball Instinct5050
Aggressiveness5050

Ryota Muranishi

Muranishi is a right-hander who throws low 3/4. His fastball sat at 90.7, but it was fairly straight, and he didn’t command it real well. The splitter really dives and the cutter has a huge amount of glove-side run.

If he can locate the fastball and get ahead in counts, the split should be deadly. His command is not real good so that’s a maybe, but if it happens, he could be a good middle of the order rotation guy.

PresentFuture
Fastball4045
Curve
Control4050
Changeup
Slider4040
Cutter5055
Other – Splitter6060
Poise5050
Baseball Instinct5050
Aggressiveness5050

Scout diary: Report on Yasutaka Shiomi

Yasutaka Shiomi was taken 4th by the Yakult Swallows in NPB’s 2017 amateur draft. He played for corporate league powerhouse Japan Energy after graduating from Teikyo University. I haven’t had a chance to see him try and beat out an infield single. But he has been a successful minor league base stealer.

I updated this on 3/7/20 after Shiomi made a couple of very accurate throws from center field, raising his arm strength from 40 to 50 (average) and his accuracy from 50 to 60 (above average).

  • Birthday: 6/12/1993
  • H: 1.79 m, W: 76 kg
  • Bats: R, Throws: R
  • Position: OF

Physical description: Physically, he resembles Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada. He has a small leg kick similar to the Carp’s Seiya Suzuki.

PresentFuture
Hitting Ability5560
Power3030
Running Speed7070
Base Running7070
Arm Strength5050
Arm Accuracy6060
Fielding5560
Range6060
Baseball Instinct6060
Aggressiveness6060

Abilities: Knows what he is doing at the plate with very good strike zone discipline. He will chase, but generally makes the pitcher throw strikes. He also appears to be a good base stealer and base runner.

Weaknesses: Ground ball hitter.

Summation: Shiomi will get on base like nobody’s business and will likely take over in center field, where he will continue the team’s recent tradition of center fielders without really good arms.

Scout diary: March 3, 2020 – Swallows’ and Hawks’ wings

Tuesday’s preseason game between the Yakult Swallows and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks gave me a chance to see some players for the first time. So here are my notes on some players of interest. Because the game was at PayPay Dome in Fukuoka, the Hawks’ home broadcast displayed most pitches’ spin rates.

This took me back to talk in my scouting course of average rates for MLB. But before you get into that, have a look at this nifty article about spin efficiency by Trevor Powers. As far as I understand it, fastball movement can be improved, without increasing spin, by throwing the ball so that the spin axis is perpendicular to the direction of the ball.

As I watched the game after reading this — with knowledge of the spin rates different pitchers put on their deliveries — who is more or less efficient. The Fighters and Giants played at night, and I got a good look at Nippon Ham’s top pick Ryusei Kawano.

RHP Yuki Tsumori, Hawks

A 22-year-old right-hander (born 1/21/1998), Tsumori was the Hawks’ third draft pick last autumn out of Tohoku Fukushi University. He throws straight side-arm, with 142 kph velocity on his fastball and a sweeping slider. He threw five pitches and missed most of his spots.

RHP Noboru Shimizu, Swallows

A 23-year-old right-hander (born 10/15/1996), Shimizu was Yakult’s top pick in 2018 and had a rough 1st year, allowing frequent walks and home runs. Because he only threw 26 innings with the big club, he still qualifies as a rookie.

Shimizu throws 3/4. He sat at 147 kph with some hop on the fastball. He threw forkball, that Data Stadium identified as a two-seamer that got him swings and misses, and threw a curve that he didn’t command well, but looks like it could be good in time as he can spin that puppy about the MLB average of 2,500 RPM.

LHP Yuto Furuya, Hawks

Furuya is a 3/4 lefty, who is 21 (born 2/19/1999) who was Softbank’s second pick in 2016. He is described as having a fastball with good movement, but they were fairly straight on Tuesday, and he missed lots of targets.

LHP Hiroki Hasegawa, Swallows

Hasegawa is a 3/4 lefty who is also a SoftBank product, having signed with them out of the 2016 developmental draft. His fastball touched 153 kph with spin rates close to 2,400 RPM. The fastball command was spotty. He also had a forkball that tumbled and missed bats. He’s 21 (born 8/23/1998) and there’s a lot to work with.

LHP Ryusei Kawano, Fighters

The 21-year-old 3/4 lefty (born 5/30/1998) was Nippon Ham’s top draft pick last year. Against Yomiuri on Tuesday, he showed a 147-kph four-seamer that he sometimes had terrific movement on. His command improved as the game went on, and he then showed:

  • Slider, one that sweeps and one that drops
  • curve he can throw at different speeds
  • A splitter (looked like his sweeping slider though)
  • A forkball change that he gets on top of and runs it away from right-handed hitters like a screwball.

His delivery has a funky, start-stop to it. In this game, he kept everything down, but given how well he manipulates the ball, he has a lot of room for growth and adjustment. At first glance, he reminds me of a left-handed Tomoyuki Sugano although the command will have to come. The fastball, change, and curve are all above average with a lot of upside.

Open and shut: March 3, 2020 – Sarfate returns to Fukuoka mound

Dennis Sarfate returned to the mound in Fukuoka on Tuesday for the first time in nearly two years. In one of five preseason games (“Open sen” in Japanese) played Tuesday — all behind closed doors — the Hawks took on the Yakult Swallows in an interesting contest.

Here are the game highlights, courtesy of PL TV.

As he has in the videos he’s been posting to social media that past year or so, Sarfate looked comfortable throwing although was nowhere near regular season velocity, touching 143 kilometers per hour compared to his average fastball velocity in 2017 of 153.3. He allowed a single and got two flyouts.

Rick van den Hurk threw 3-2/3 innings for the Hawks, and looked ready for Opening Day, with his fastball touching 150 kph, and good command of all his pitches. Van den Hurk pitched in just three games last year during the regular season.

Swallows starter Hirotoshi Takanashi also looked ready for Opening Day with generally good movement and command of his fastball. Although he was a little inconsistent and a little lucky, he threw five solid innings.

Peoples makes spring debut

New import Michael Peoples made his preseason debut with the DeNA BayStars, allowing three runs over three innings in which he gave up a home run, walked a batter and hit a batter against the Rakuten Eagles in Shizuoka.

Tyler Austin resumed his hit parade with a double and a single in three at-bats, raising his spring exhibition average to .615 with three homers and three triples in 15 plate appearances. The Eagles’ Jabari Blash hit his second homer of the spring.

Lions’ Takahashi goes 5 strong

Kona Takhashi, who for an instant had been in the running to start the Seibu Lions’ opener according to manager Hajime Tsuji, struck out six over five scoreless innings against the Chunichi Dragons.

Daisuke Yamai, who at the age of 41 is trying to secure some starts this season, showed he has more work to do. He walked three while allowing four runs over two innings of relief.

Scout diary: Feb. 29, 2020 – Notes from the preseason

Saturday began the second weekend of expanded preseason baseball in Japan, allowing some looks at players who’ve been off the radar so far. Here are some assorted notes:

SoftBank Hawks, OF, Naoki Sato

A 21-year-old corporate league outfielder, Sato was the Hawks’ alternate pick after they failed to land high school pitcher Yoshinobu Ishikawa. In his lone at-bat, he put a good swing on a fat pitch down the middle, drove it to right center and cruised in with a triple. As a right-handed-hitting amateur, I timed Sato going home to first in 3.9 seconds. (80 speed).

Israel Mota, OF, Yomiuri Giants

A 24-year-old right-handed hitter, Mota was handed a standard contract this week — he joined Yomiuri on a developmental deal — and added to the 70-man roster. He’s been swinging hard and chasing a lot in camp.

Mota’s swing is compact and he homered when he made contact with a hanging 3-2 slider on a two-strike swing that allowed him to drive it a bit.

Keiji Takahashi, LHP, Yakult Swallows

I forgot how much fun this guy is to watch. With his herky-jerky left-handed version of Ryan Ogawa’s delivery, I half expect him to contract on the mound and transform into a little car or something like in the movies.

Takahashi throws low 3/4. He has an exaggerated violent right leg kick. He lowers the leg most of the way and holds it as he raises his hands over his head until pausing at the apex, then as he lowers his hands, he raises his right leg to meet them and goes into something like a normal delivery. After the gyrations, the move home is a picture of smooth efficiency, particularly with the fastball. His curveball release point looked different, and he didn’t command the pitch well in this game.

Camping World: Feb. 22, 2020 – Let the games begin

This is the one week of the year where Japanese baseball looks like that in the majors. Teams are in camp and playing preseason games. Very often the games played until the final week of February are “practice” games, where rules can be bent to suit the needs of the managers. But once the “open season” begins, those games’ stats are recorded.

On Saturday, eight teams were in action, with most of the attention focused on the BayStars – Eagles game because Rakuten southpaw Yuki Matsui started in line with new manager Hajime Miki’s plan to move him out of the closer’s role. The other player of interest was the Eagles’ top draft pick, 24-year-old shortstop Hiroto Kobukata.

The Swallows – Carp game saw Hiroshima’s first pick, Meji University right-hander Masato Morishita and Yakult’s second pick, Japan Sport Science University right-hander Daiki Yoshida.

Morishita’s debut

Morishita looks much as he did last year as an amateur, a right-hander who balances about three seconds on his back leg before going to the plate. The one difference appears to be his arm slot. He had been high 3/4 in college, but was nearly 12-6 in the first inning. Ostensibly, he’d been tasked with making some adjustments in his previous bullpen session, and one wonders whether his arm slot was part of that. From the second inning it looked closer to what it had been in college and his command was spot on.

He allowed two runs in the first, basically because of his command. Few of the balls had anything coming off the bat, and his slider was particularly sharp.

Not “real” baseball

If one needs proof that these games are meaningless, one can look at Morishita’s not being ejected in the first inning for a “dangerous pitch.” A curve slipped out of his hand and traced an eephus arc before striking Alcides Escobar on the top of his helmet. Had this been a regular season game, the umpires would have been compelled to eject him for hitting a batter in the head.

Escobar “suits” Japanese ball

Escobar, the Swallows’ new shortstop, was praised as a good fit for Japanese baseball by the crew broadcasting the game, ostensibly because of what he can’t do. Other than his size, the 33-year-old Venezuelan fits Japan’s cookie-cutter image of a middle infielder: Plays good defense, runs and bunts well, while not being able to hit for power or reach base.

Goodness gracious.

One crowded infield

New Carp manager Shinji Sasaoka is trying out lots of combinations in his infield. He brought in second-year shortstop Kaito Kozono to play second, and the 2018 No. 1 pick did a reasonable impression of Ryosuke Kikuchi with the glove with a good charge toward the mound and a sharp throw to first across his body.

Former Yankees and Padres utility man Jose Pirela, who has impressed with the bat in camp, was tried out at third. Having spent most of his time with the Yankees and Padres at second base and in left field. He has good hands, it looked from this game like third base might be a challenge for his arm strength.

Nice start for Yoshida

While the Swallows’ top draft pick, high school star Yoshinobu Okugawa was throwing his first bullpen of the spring hundreds of miles away in Yakult’s minor league camp after hurting his arm in January, second-round pick Yoshida had two innings in the spotlight.

The 1.75-meter Yoshida has a super smooth delivery that looks like it was modeled on Tomoyuki Sugano’s although he doesn’t look like he’s trying to throw the ball through a wall like Sugano sometimes does. Yoshida, who has been used as the setup guy for the national collegiate team, has an above-average fastball with some hop to it, and showed a decent changeup and a slider, neither of which he commanded nearly as well as his four-seam fastball.

He located the fastball and missed some barrels with the change and retired all six batters he faced.

Matsui goes back to starting line

Yuki Matsui, who came to national prominence in high school for being able to survive extraordinarily high pitch counts, failed as a starter in his 2014 rookie season. That year he walked 67 batters in 116 innings, but was reincarnated as a closer the following season.

His English NPB page is HERE.

Matsui looked fairly uncomfortable, threw a lot of straight fastballs, missed his locations. He faced 18 batters and surrendered a pile of hard-hit balls while walking two batters and hitting one.

He did throw a number of quality sliders, and those kept the day from being a complete disaster.

Mirror, mirror

Yesterday, I filled out a scouting report on Eagles second pick Fumiya Kurokawa. A muscular second baseman, Kurokawa resembles current Eagles second baseman Hideto Asamura. Kobukata, the top draft pick, is a small left-handed hitting shortstop like Rakuten’s incumbent at the position, Eigoro Mogi.

Kobukata started and had three hits, all ground balls pulled through the right side of the infield. He looked OK with the glove. I don’t know if it’s a Japanese thing but like Kurokawa, Kobukata takes an extra step to set his feet before he throws. When he does cut loose, however, he has a gun with some good carry.

The other news from that game was the absence of new BayStars import Tyler Austin, who has been smoking hot all spring, due to stiffness in his right elbow.

Camping World: Feb. 19, 2020 – Lions’ Neal to start Opening Day

Second-year Seibu Lions right-hander Zach Neal will get the ball on Opening Day, manager Hajime Tsuji told the team on Wednesday as they broke camp the Nikkan Sports reported.

The two-time defending Pacific League champion Lions will open at home, MetLife Dome on March 20 against the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Last season, Neal won 11 straight games and finished the season 12-1. He has since signed a two-year extension.

“Kona (Takahashi) was doing well and I was unsure (about who would pitch Opening Day,” Tsuji said. “I made up my mind with the first pitch I saw Neal throw in the bullpen.”

Hawks flamethrower Kaino to get PRP treatment

Hard-throwing SoftBank Hawks reliever Hiroshi Kaino revealed Wednesday he will undergo platelet rich plasma therapy for damage to the medial collateral ligament in his right elbow according to the Nishinihon Sports.

The 23-year-old Kaino finished second in the Pacific League’s rookie of the year voting last autumn to teammate Rei Takahashi, who is out with a hamstring issue and also doubtful for Opening Day.

Here’s Kaino’s English language NPB page.

Tigers unleash top draft pick Nishi

A day after we learned what Junya Nishi’s music will be at Koshien Stadium, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick was permitted to throw breaking pitches in camp for the first time, the Nikkan Sports reported Wednesday.

Nishi, who was also a prodigious slugger in high school and for the national Under-18 team last summer, threw a spring-high 50 pitches in the bullpen at the Tigers’ minor league camp. He said he had a good feel for both his forkball and his changeup.

Swallows Koch, Ynoa take the mound

New Yakult Swallows right-handers Matt Koch and Gabriel Ynoa saw their first game action of the spring in a practice game against the Rakuten Eagles in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture, Sports Nippon Annex reported Wednesday.

Koch, a former Arizona Diamondback struggled with his control as he allowed five runs in two innings. Ynoa, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, allowed a run over two innings. He touched 151 kph (93.8 mph) and graded his effort as 95 out of 100.

Austin breaking the spring

The late Wayne Graczyk used to warn players who did TOO well in the spring to be prepared to adjust before games started counting because, most of their preseason opponents are from the rival league, and teams work hard to have plans against guys who do extremely well in the spring.

If Wayne were here, he’d be telling us that now about new DeNA BayStars outfielder Tyler Austin. In a practice game against the Lotte Marines on Wednesday, Austin doubled and walked twice, making him 6-for-8 with two homers and two doubles (at least) according to the Chunichi Sports.

Famous for not throwing

Roki Sasaki is famous for two things, throwing the fastest pitches ever recorded by a Japanese high schooler, and not throwing. He, or rather his Ofunato High School manager, made front-page news last summer when the star right-hander was held out of Iwate Prefecture’s championship game. The game decided whether his school or Shohei Ohtani’s alma mater would make it to the national championships at Koshien Stadium.

So it should be no surprise that the mere fact that the Lotte Marines’ top draft pick did strength training on Wednesday cause the Nikkan Sports to headline a story “Sasaki refrains from bullpen session — according to plan says coach.”

Sometimes it’s hard not to think of Japanese spring training as a time when pitchers arms are supposed to broken — as if that is part of the process.

Sayonara Nomu-san

Katsuya Nomura, one of the greatest baseball players in history, a player worth comparing to Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, died suddenly at the age of 84 of ischemic heart on Tuesday in Japan.

An elite slugging catcher, Nomura played in an era when Japan’s talent depth was quite a bit lower than it is today. And like some of his peers, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Isao Harimoto, Nomura was able to stand above the crowd like a colossus and added to his legend by becoming a superb manager and a celebrity analyst.

In a 27-year career, Nomura won nine home run titles, led the Pacific League in runs three times and RBIs seven times. He was a Triple Crown winner and a five-time MVP.

A driven, gifted athlete, Nomura was also blessed with a keen mind that he constantly exercised in his bid to stay one step ahead of his opponents — a talent that helped him become the most successful manager of his generation. The peak of his managing success came with the Yakult Swallows from 1990 to 1998. Taking over a team that had been perennial weaklings, Nomura won four Central League pennants and three Japan Series championships.

On Tuesday, the impact Nomura had on his players and rivals echoed around Japan as word of his death spread. Players recalled how he motivated them with his harsh words and how he educated them and trained them to win.

Nomura turned pro in 1954 with the Osaka-based Nankai Hawks, then in the middle of a dynasty under the leadership of Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka.

From 1970 to 1977, Nomura served as the Hawks’ player-manager, although it was largely a collaboration between him and influential coach Don Blasingame. After winning the 1973 pennant, Nomura became the first Hawks manager to fail to win a pennant in four consecutive seasons since Tsuruoka had Hawks to their first pennant in 1946. But turmoil within the club, that Nomura blamed on a faction aligned with Tsuruoka, and Nomura’s enemies blamed on the skipper’s future wife Sachiyo — the mother of their five-year-old son — came to a head and Nomura was fired after the 1977 season.

Nomura moved to the Lotte Orions in 1978 before finishing his playing career with the Seibu Lions, which in 1979 were transplanted from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the western outskirts of Tokyo.

Although Nomura would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame required candidates to be out of uniform for five years before they could go on the ballot. Since many stars became managers and coaches, this created a huge logjam of worthy candidates and Nomura was not elected until 1989. The following year he took over as manager of the Swallows and turned them into a minor dynasty.

Just as he had been the leader with Nankai, the Swallows were built around their catcher, bespectacled big-hitting defensive wiz Atsuya Furuta, the second player Nomura took in the 1989 draft and a future Hall of Famer.

In his stints as Hawks and Swallows manager, Nomura showed a talent for working with young pitchers, getting big performances out of them and then overworking them.

He was also an incredible evaluator of talent, and a motivator. Former outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who someday should be voted into the Hall of Fame, credited Nomura with turning his career around by telling him his outfield defense was useless. Inaba responded by turning himself into a superior right fielder.

He is best known, however, for his fascination with analytics and advance scouting in formulating game plans against opponents, something he had begun as a player studying films of opposing pitchers to discover how they were tipping their pitches. The Swallows famously shut down PL MVP Ichiro Suzuki in the 1995 Japan Series.

Nomura was ahead of his time in building a club made of guys with high on-base percentage, often collecting aging castoffs like Eiji Kanamori, a slap-hitting on-base machine, thus earning the Swallows the nickname of “Nomura’s recycling factory.”

As a manager, Nomura displayed amazing verbal acuity. He loved to make up little phrases, quips and songs about players and rivals. And while he was a master storyteller, he often couldn’t resist the urge to rip into others in public. His constant jabs against the Swallows’ top rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, and their manager, Nagashima, became tiresome for the club’s executives and they cut him loose after the 1998 season — although by all accounts he was as tired of them as they were of him.

He went off to manage the Hanshin Tigers, where he figuratively put his foot down on the team’s prima donna, celebrity outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Nomura left him on the farm team at the start of the season and said he might use him to pitch, but had no use for him otherwise. As it had with Inaba, Nomura lit a fire under the Tigers poster boy, who followed by turning in three of his best seasons.

Although the Tigers finished last for three straight seasons under Nomura, the talent he nurtured there provided the foundation for the club’s 2003 and 2005 Central League championships. Nomura’s run, however, was cut short after his wife, Sachiyo, was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion in December 2001.

After a successful run as manager of corporate league side Shidax, Nomura was asked to rescue the Rakuten Eagles, who fired the club’s inaugural skipper, Yasushi Tao, after the club’s 2005 disastrous debut campaign. Nomura again was able to make big strides in the development of a young pitcher. This time, however, it was in the form of powerfully built youngster Masahiro Tanaka, who blossomed under Nomura’s tutelage.

The Eagles reached the playoffs for the first time in 2009, but that proved to be Nomura’s swan song. Once more, turmoil within the front office left people pointing fingers and Nomura was out.

My only real interactions with Nomura were during that time with Rakuten, because he was supremely approachable. While most field managers who meet the media before the game do so in sessions lasting five to 15 minutes before wandering onto the field, Nomura came out early, sat on the bench, where his cushion and bottle of green tea would be waiting for him.

For the entire Eagles practice, he would chat with reporters, covering the usual team news, but also telling stories. It seemed like the responsibility of the beat writers to keep him engaged so he would continue to tell his tales. It was magical stuff we may never see the likes of again.

Once more, however, some of the groundwork he laid in Sendai contributed to a later pennant. After a failed 2010 season under Marty Brown, the Eagles hired Senichi Hoshino as their fourth manager. Hoshino, who had succeeded Nomura with Hanshin and won the 2003 CL pennant, steered the Eagles in 2013 to their first Japan Series championship.

In between managing gigs, Nomura was at his critical best as a sharp-tongued TV analyst, harshly laying into managers and players who failed to meet his high standards on the field. It wasn’t simple bitterness, but rather a powerful mix of his love for the game, a dislike for half-measures and his talent with words.

In 2012, one of his former Swallows players, Hideki Kuriyama, took over as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters and led them to the Japan Series title in his first season. Asked about the form journeyman outfielder turned analyst and university lecturer, Nomura said, “The Pacific League has certainly gotten pretty weak if that guy can win a pennant.”

As teams lowered their flags to half-mast on Tuesday at their spring camps and held moments of silence in Nomura’s memory, Kuriyama said, “I never heard a single word of praise from him. I’ve been giving it all I’ve got up to now so that I might once hear him say, ‘You’ve done a good job, I see.’ I so much wanted him to see me take that next step forward.”

Barnette rejoins Swallows as advisor

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.