Masa Kobayashi & The Okajima Generation

» 13 July 2008 » In mlb, mlb prospects, nichibei »

I’ve been a fan of Hideki Okajima literally since the moment I arrived in Japan for the first time. It was August, 2000 and I had just landed in Osaka to start a tour of foreign study. The bus that I took into the city had a TV in it, and on the way downtown I alternated between watching the brightly-lit arcades and pachinko parlors out the window, and watching the Giants beat whoever they were playing that night.

Okajima was the guy that made the biggest impression on me. His unusual delivery and big breaking pitches jumped out at me as being MLB-caliber*. He did, of course, cross the Pacific to join the Red Sox last year, where he enjoyed great success.

Okajima’s success triggered an MLB interest in NPB veteran relievers last off-season. Three signed with big league teams: Masahide Kobayashi with the Indians, Yasuhiko Yabuta with the Royals, and Kazuo Fukumori with the Rangers.

Number writer Yasushi Kikuchi calls this the “Post Okajima Generation“. But of the three post-Okajima pitchers, only Kobayashi has had any kind of success.

Kikuchi supplies some comments from Kobayashi that give some insight into why he’s done well so far. Here are my translations:

“People around me will evaluate my performance. Evaluating my performance myself is something that I can do when the season is over and the results are in. During the season there is no yesterday. That’s because this is a world where I have to concentrate my feelings, my body, everything on today’s game. It’s been this way since my time in Japan, everyday I have to prepare for a change.

“Of course, there are a lot of amazing batters, and there are times when I feel like I can’t handle it. But on the other hand, I try to think that I’m on the same field (with them) as an equal. I didn’t just come here because I wanted to; I’m here because people let me in. Because if you feel out of place, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do.

“I think that (former Chiba Lotte Marine teammate) Yabuta is a little more jittery and sensitive than I am. I don’t give anything a thought, I just say “oh well” and stay realistic. You can say that (in MLB), the ball sucks, the mound sucks, but we aren’t the first players to come to the Majors and that information is out there ad nauseum. Even if you go bit by bit there’s nothing you can do about it but to throw. If the road you chose is bad, it’s just bad.”

Interesting comments. Sounds like a guy that leaves it all on the field. I’ve always thought of Kobayashi as a fierce competitor, and these comments are right in line with that. Kobayashi really impressed me back in September 2002, in a game against the Seibu Lions.

Seibu slugger Alex Cabrera was chasing Sadaharu Oh’s single season home run record, and came up against Kobayashi in a game against Lotte. Oh’s record had been challenged by foreign-born players before, and the norm had been not to pitch to them. Kobayashi, on the other hand, went after Cabrera with a series of high fastballs. And he struck him out.

Yabuta and Fukumori continue to toil in the minors for their respective teams. Truth be told, I don’t think those guys were ever as good as Okajima or Kobayashi, but there is hope for them. The SF Giants pulled Keiichi Yabu off the scrap heap this season and he’s been an effective member of their bullpen.

Fittingly, Kobayashi took the save for Cleveland in their win over Tampa Bay today, while Okajima picked up a hold for Boston despite giving up two walks.

*Of course, this is easy for me to say now. The other guys on that Giants team I liked were Darrell May and Akira Etoh. May went on to have a good year for the Royals in 2003, while Etoh quickly declined after 2001. May, as far as I know, is out of baseball, while Etoh is hanging around as a pinch hitter for the Saitama Seibu Lions.

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  1. Patrick
    14/07/2008 at 12:48 pm Permalink

    The Royals had so much hope for Yabuta, but sadly he faltered, and with Fukumori being in the minors as well, it’s going to scare a lot of teams off, when you look at the over-all pitching imports capped off with Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu’s failures in NY.

    Does it scare teams if Yu Darvish becomes available?

    One thing that is certain, Japanese hitters certainly are more productive in the long haul as Fukudome and Iwamura have been wonderful additions, and of course Ichiro is the staple.

    I think owners will look to the bats now more than pitching.

    Also, definately check out our site, which you can access by clicking my name. It’s a type of MySpace for sports fans.

  2. Patrick
    Kamina Ayato
    15/07/2008 at 1:23 pm Permalink

    I think for the most part, it’s still a bit of an unknown when players come from Japan to MLB. There seem to be some general things to note though.

    1) You’d better be upper tier if you want to be successful in the majors (see Igawa for an example of a failure)

    2) The extended season seems to wear on all players and for the most part they struggle late in the season.

    I think the intersting thing to see is if there will be a trend of getting players straight out of high school or from college. The case study may be Saitou Yuuki (i.e. the Hankerchief Prince), who is now going through his 2nd year in college. I’ve speculated all along that part of the reason in going to college instead of straight to the NPB is that he can get the full benefit of a salary as opposed to having the club take some off the top.

    Now, I’m sure if MLB teams take players from college/HS, they’ll be sent down to the minors. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Saitou does come over after graduating, and then how he does thereafter.

  3. Patrick
    15/07/2008 at 5:48 pm Permalink

    Interesting comment about the amateur players. I remember that some MLB teams attempted to sign Hayato Terahara and Yu Darvish out of high school, and way back when the Dodgers tried to sign Shigeo Nagashima.

    The Dodgers signed a Japanese amateur, Robert Boothe, out of Asia University last off season: Boothe is in rookie ball now.

    If Saito’s intent is to go to MLB, going to college would slow things down as he’ll have to be posted or wait for free agency, unless he takes the plunge and signs as an amateur. It’ll be interesting to see what he does.

  4. Patrick
    18/07/2008 at 2:39 am Permalink

    That’s really odd. You must have been watching a completely different MasaKoba than I was in Japan, because I always thought he was kind of a mental case on the verge of a meltdown, and never quite understood how he was so successful as a closer. In 2005, the Chiba Lotte Marines won the Japan Series *DESPITE* him, not WITH him. If he hadn’t had a meltdown in the third game of the PL Playoffs Second Stage and blown a 4-1 lead in the 9th inning, the Marines would have literally swept the entire postseason. He almost blew the 4th game of the Japan Series too (they didn’t need him in the first three games due to gigantic blowouts), but then Imae completely saved him by making an amazing double play off an attempted sac bunt.

    In general, I always thought Yabuta was the best pitcher out of YFK and it makes me sad that he’s struggling in the MLB. I’d be happier if he was back here, because man, the Marines sure need a bullpen.

    On the other hand, I will at least agree about Hideki Okajima. I only wish he’d been around with the Fighters longer. I still say that the best thing Kazunari Sanematsu ever did for the team was getting traded for a year of Okajima. I bet Kosuke’s pretty glad they’re not in the same league 🙂

  5. Patrick
    18/07/2008 at 6:42 am Permalink

    Yeah, he definitely had some wilderness years. I didn’t actually see the playoffs in ’05, but I saw the Japan Series where he was unneeded with the exception of game 4.

    My experience seeing him in Japan is from when I was living there between 2000-2003. Back then, he was one of the few bright spots on a weak Lotte team and had a streak of 33 consecutive converted save opportunities at one point. Looking at his numbers, he was really one on top of his game in ’02. Your views are certainly more recent than mine 🙂

    Yabuta has apparently struggled with his control at both the Major and AAA levels. I haven’t seen him this year though.