If you’ve followed Japanese baseball in English for any period of time, chances are you’ve encountered Michael Westbay’s work. Westbay-san is the founder of JapaneseBaseball.com, a columnist for Baseball Magazine, a video podcaster, and a general leader of the English-speaking Pro Yakyu online community. Many of the English language NPB bloggers, including me, started out as members of the JapaneseBaseball.com forums.
Part of the reason I started NPB Tracker was to combat misinformation about Japanese baseball in the American media. The confluence of the “juiced ball” scandal, Wladimir Balentien’s home run record, and the Masahiro Tanaka rumor mill is more than I have time to adequately ponder, much less write about… so when I saw Westbay-san’s lengthy post about the ball issue, I asked him if he’d be willing to turn his commentary into a post here.
There has been a rash of articles coming out on CNN, ESPN, and other sites which are mashing together several news items coming out of Japan and either putting 2 and 2 together to get 5, or leading their readers to reach such a conclusion. What these mashup articles lack is context.
Let’s take this ESPN article as a prime example. The most insidious thing about this post is that everything mentioned in it, taken by itself, is true.
- It is true that commissioner Ryozo Kato announced his retirement.
- It is true that the league kept the switch to a livelier baseball a secret until June.
- It is true that there has been a dramatic increase in home runs.
- It is true that Kato is stepping down due to the ball scandal.
- It is true that Wladimir Balentien broke Sadaharu Oh’s 49 year old home run record.
- It is true that the commissioner claims to have never been informed of the ball change.
- It is true that the player’s union called for his resignation when the issue came to light.
- It is true that a third party is investigating the issue.
- It is true that Kato will quit after the end of the regular season (although I have seen reports that have his last day potentially just before the start of the Nippon Series toward the end of October rather than October 6).
Now, one of the truths above is not like the others. Can you guess which one?
Here’s a hint, one commenter, Thomas Brennan, wrote, “This just screams of Nationalism. It’s fine. It’s their league and they can do what they want with it.”
In what way, shape, or form does this “scream of Nationalism”?
Oh, he put 2 and 2 together to get 5. The commissioner retires under the scandal of a livelier ball with Oh’s 49 year old record being broken by a foreigner, therefore everybody in Japan must be up in arms and calling for the commissioner’s head for allowing this to happen!
Others put 2 and 2 together to get that an asterisk needs to go next to the record.
Except nobody is calling for Kato’s head over the record. Nobody is suggesting an asterisk is needed. If there is anybody who thinks the record is due to the “livelier ball,” then he’s being shunned by everybody else as an ignorant idiot. And such idiots are not making public spectacles of themselves as it appears their North American counterparts are.
I’m perhaps being too harsh on the commenters, though. Giving a mish-mash of facts taken out of context like this, and a general ignorance of Japanese baseball other than the sensationalist mis-information that’s been floating around North America about Tuffy Rhodes’ and Alex Cabrera’s runs at the home run record, it’s not surprising that so many reach such a conclusion.
Now, let’s look at some context that this and every similar news article is missing.
As stated above, the “livelier baseball” and “dramatic increase in home runs” are both facts. But in the context of compared to the last two years.
In 2010, the year before moving to the Unified Ball, the Yomiuri Giants alone hit over 200 home runs. In 2004 they hit over 250. No single team is even close to projecting anywhere near 200 this season. Yes, the ball is livelier than the past two years. But nobody is claiming that is the reason for Balentien’s success. (There were some posters, such as “daclyde,” on a CNN thread who correctly pointed out how much Balentien has improved as a hitter while in Japan. This shows that there are some intelligent, well informed readers despite the poor execution of North American Journalists.)
The reason Kato-Commissioner is stepping down is not due to the home run record. The player’s union called for Kato’s resignation after his long insistence that the ball had not changed right up to the revelations that it was on June 12. With a livelier ball, players’ contract incentives, especially those for pitchers, were in jeopardy, and they did not have the opportunity to factor in a new ball during their contract negotiations.
What did the home run race look like on June 12?
Yokohama’s Tony Blanco had looked like he was going to run away with the Home Run Crown with 23 home runs in 58 of Yokohama’s 59 games played. But Balentien was closing in with 20 after playing in just 47 games, getting a late start to the season due to an injury during the WBC.
The June 13th, 2013 edition of Nikkan Sports had a table showing how the pace of home runs had changed since the introduction of the unified ball in 2011. It featured both Japanese and foreign players. Some players not known for hitting home runs, like the Lions’ Takumi Kuriyama quadrupling his home runs per at bat compared to 2012. Balentien, who was the Home Run Title winner the previous two years, showed a steady, linear increase year to year. Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred, at that point, was actually hitting home runs at a lower pace compared to 2012. Tony Blanco, who led both leagues at the time, was not even mentioned in the table.
Kato’s resignation and Balentien’s home run record are not related. It’s poorly written articles like this, that mash together a bunch of facts as though there is some sort of causality, that really do a disservice to the baseball community.