The key to Japan’s future

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Japanese have long dreamed that the nation’s passion for baseball and the impressive dedication that is part of the sport’s culture might someday turn the country into a true international powerhouse.

Sure, Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, but the dream where everyone in the world thinks the baseball in Japan’s two major leagues is as rich and elite as in America’s remains remote.

The idea that analytics can help MLB teams on a budget compete by identifying undervalued attributes and purchasing winning talent cheaply, can also be applied to Japan’s dilemma by objectively learning where work needs to be done rather than simply practicing more and harder.

That was the not-so-hidden message last Monday when the Baseball Federation of Japan and the Japan Amateur Baseball Association hosted the finals of their first analytics competition for students.

Because Japan’s national team manager Hideki Kuriyama attended, the media was invited to cover the event, which included a pair of symposiums and presentations from the seven finalists.

The Shiga University team presented its work in improving its baseball team’s understanding of breaking pitches and their physical demands on the pitchers. A team of Kansai University graduate students argued that the dissemination of Japan’s closely guarded tracking data could cause an explosion of interest that could counteract the declining baseball population.

The Kobe University Secondary School team pointed out the inefficiency of small-ball attacks in a power-rich environment. Two teams from Kyoto’s Doshisha University reached the finals, one exploring the advantages of using real-time spin and velocity data to advise pitching changes, and the other the issues surrounding pitchers who convert from overhand to sidearm arm angles.

The top prize went to the team from Yokohama City University’s Graduate School, who identified a “backspin” zone, which appears to be a feature of the “barrel zone” of optimum launch angle and exit velocity needed to generate more frequent home runs, and presented a model for identifying the ultimate unhittable forkball.

Second prize went to a team of graduate students from Osaka University, who compared tracking data from JABA to the wealth of data from MLB to identify differences between Japan’s strike zone and America’s.

Their big takeaway was that Japanese pitchers and hitters, who grow up in a system where the upper limit of the strike zone is not as high as in MLB, adopt approaches to deal with that reality.

MLB batters taking those pitches are likely to be penalized with called strikes, while hitters in Japan taking those pitches are likely to be rewarded with called balls. The presenters concluded that Japanese pitchers’ and hitters’ approaches can be disadvantageous in international competition and called for Japan to adopt MLB’s standard.

Kokugakuin professor Tsutomu Jinji, who has for the past 10 years worked with teams and individual players to enhance their performance by analyzing available tracking data, served as one of the judges and took part in the first symposium, along with, Daisuke Yamaguchi, the manager of Japanese corporate league champion Tokyo Gas, and Ryohei Endo, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ director of baseball operations.

They spoke of the challenges of incorporating analytics into Japan’s game from their different perspectives as a researcher, field manager, and front office director.

Endo said that analytics in Japanese pro baseball is in the process of being adopted by teams, “as weight training has.”

“Now nobody thinks weight training is not necessary,” he said.

He may be right, but that’s not what people in baseball say in public. There is often a huge difference between what people believe, what they actually do and what they say about it, and in Japan doing one thing when you’re saying you’re obviously and absolutely doing the opposite is a time-honored practice to avoid social conflict, see also “Japan’s favorite game.”

Although Japan, like MLB did for decades, has serious control issues about baseball information, the real issue, Yamaguchi and Endo said, was not the information itself, but making sense of it.

“There is a flood of available information, but without someone who can tidy it up and present it in language that players and coaches can understand, it is of no use,” Yamaguchi said.

Endo called, the evolution of analytics-literate coaches, who were introduced to analytics as players, the step that will trigger wider acceptance.

Another issue is that 50 years ago, Japanese baseball simplified its baseball teaching approaches and tactics into “one-size-fits-all” patterns: players should hit the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield, that high, and adopt accepted forms, one-run tactics are superior, pitchers must bat ninth (see “Why Ninth“), No. 2 hitters should be left-handed, speedy slap-hitting middle infielders or center fielders who are good at bunting.

An antidote to this is adopting different teaching dynamics that both Endo and Yamaguchi advocated, where the team’s job was to make players aware of the analytical tools at their disposal and let the players choose their own path.

This is more like the MLB approach, where the coach’s first task is to gain the trust of players so that they will feel free to ask for help in pursuing their goals, and an approach advocated by Waseda University manager and former pro pitcher Satoru Komiyama.

Afterward, Kuriyama, who embraced openers and extreme shifts while with the Nippon Ham Fighters, said, “These young people, and others who don’t even play baseball, could be at the forefront of dramatically changing Japanese baseball.”

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