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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