Archive > January 2009

Masumi Kuwata Going Back to School

» 31 January 2009 » In sports business » Comments Off

Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Masumi Kuwata has been accepted to the Waseda University Sports Management Graduate Program. Before being selected first overall in the 1985 draft by the Yomiuri Giants, his desire was to attend Waseda University after his high school days at PL Gakuen.

The Daily Yomiuri has comments from Masumi: “My desire to study on Waseda University’s campus has not diminished after 23 years.”

Since his retirement, there has been much speculation on Masumi’s future in baseball. Although the most popular speculation was his future being in coaching, he stated his bigger dream.

Nikkan Sports has comments from Masumi: “I felt that I will not be able to change the baseball world by being a coach. There are people above controlling the organizations. I have a bigger dream than what people imagine.”

After his retirement from baseball as a player, he spent his time attending independent league and high school games in Japan to view a different perspective of baseball. “Being a coach is wonderful, but I also have a desire to study management and marketing. I understand the inside of the baseball world and now I want to look at the outside.”

So what is he looking forward to being on a college campus?

Comments from Nikkan Sports: “I will like to be a part of the Waseda-Keio rivalry game and enjoy the atmosphere. There should be a lot to gain from watching the student athletes on campus.”

The sports business in Japan is gradually growing; influenced by how big the industry has become across the sea in the United States. A national icon like Masumi learning the fundamentals of sports business at one of the most recognized programs might raise awareness and stimulate the growth of sports business in Japan. With my knowledge, experience, and what I see from the news, I hope to add the business side of development in Japanese baseball to this website.

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Introducing Ryo Shinkawa

» 30 January 2009 » In NPB Tracker » 1 Comment

I’d like to welcome NPB Tracker’s first contributing writer, Ryo Shinkawa.

Ryo is currently a senior at Baldwin-Wallace College majoring in Sports Management with a minor in Business Administration, expected to graduate in May, 2009. He is bilingual in Japanese and English and has lived in both the United States and Japan with an overseas study experience in England in his junior year. He spent the 2008 season with the Cleveland Indians as a Media Relations Intern/Interpreter and will take on a similiar role for the 2009 season. He will be looking for a full-time opportunity in professional sports after the season.

Ryo will be contributing articles on the baseball and sports management in Japan on a regular basis.

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Player Profile: Norichika Aoki

» 30 January 2009 » In npb » 4 Comments

From 1994-2000, Ichiro was the undisputed best hitter in Japan. After he left for Seattle, Hideki Matsui took over as Japan’s consensus batting king. After Matsui’s reign, you’d have to go with Nobuhiko Matsunaka, until 2005 when Norichika Aoki emerged. It’s hard to argue who was better in ’05, but in 2006 Aoki took over the title and has held it ever since.

I mainly focus on pitching with this site, just because I think pitching is the more interesting part of the game (baseball is the only game where the defense controls the ball). So this will be my first of comparatively few articles devoted to hitting, and why not start at the top?

Looking Back
Not too long ago, I was thumbing through Shukan Baseball’s 2003 draft guide, and I happened across Aoki’s profile toward the back of the section for college players. Shukan Baseball graded him an ‘A’ overall, noting that he had hit .400 in two consecutive seasons, but compared him to Tatsuya Ozeki
, a servicable contact-hitting outfielder with zero power. Aoki’s Waseda University teammate Takashi Toritani really viewed as the prize of the draft, and got a cover spot on that issue. Back then, the top college and industrial league players could choose which team to sign with, and Toritani chose to sign with Hanshin, while Aoki was selected in the fourth round of the draft by Yakult. By the end of 2005, it was obvious which team had the better draft. I didn’t see Aoki in college so I can’t explain why he was so underrated, but it does speak to the difficulty of drafing top amateurs. Perhaps teams were scared off by his small frame (5’8 or so).

While we’re here, other notables available in the 2003 draft included SoftBank closer Takahiro Mahara,  former-almost Red Sox farmhand Hayato Doue, Yomiuri starter Tetsuya Utsumi, Dodgers farmhand Robert Boothe, and Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse. Aoki’s “comparable” Ozeki is currently out of NPB work and looking to catch on with a US minor league team

Hitting
The lefty-hitting, center-fielding Aoki is the closest thing Japan has to another Ichiro
, and WBC viewers will probably get to hear the compared quite a bit. The comparisons aren’t really off-base, as the two have pretty similar games. Comparing Aoki to a Japan-era Ichiro, both players have a long stride in their swings, but Aoki gets into more of a crouch and appears to have a more stable lower body. But judge for yourself with some obligatory YouTube footage: here’s a clip chronicling the evolution of Aoki’s swing from 2005-2007, and a homerun Ichiro hit off of a rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999. Both clips are in Japanese, but the video should speak for itself.

Aoki is a bit of a free-swinger, but he’s reduced his strikeouts and increased his slugging percentage in each year of his career. He’s also improved on his batting eye, walking about as much as he strikes out (his walk total actually surpassed his strikeouts in 2007). Another telling stat is that in 2008, 31.2% of his hits went for extra bases, up from 16.4% in his historic rookie year. Note also this improvement came while Yakult moved the fences back in their home, Jingu Stadium.

Let’s take a look at how he got his job done in 2008, courtesy of some analysis borrowed from the outstanding Data League site:

PA GB / FB Ratio GB Rate FB Rate Line Drive Rate GB BA FB BA Line Drive BA Hits to Left Hits to Center Hits to Right Hits on GB %
500 1.4 52.40% 37.50% 10.10% 0.288 0.423 0.775 28.50% 35.40% 36.10% 13.60%

So it’s pretty clear that Aoki uses the whole field, and does well when he gets the ball into the air. I’d suggest that he can improve further as his batting eye continues to develop and he can get pitches to drive. 

And More…
Aoki was a bright spot for Japan’s disappointing 2008 Olympic team, and will take to the international stage again in this year’s WBC, where he’ll start in center alongside Ichiro. Along with Yu Darvish, he’ll probably attract the most attention of any non-MLB player on Japan’s team.

Aoki just signed for 2009 with Yakult for 260m yen ($2.86m) after four rounds of negotiations. There had been some rumblings of Yakult wanting to sign him to a 10-year deal, but so far nothing’s come of it. I wish they’d make more than a nominal attempt to do it. Aoki asked to be posted a couple years ago, and Yakult of course said “no way”, so it would be nice to see them back that up with a little commitment. Yakult basically knows they have a guy that they’ll eventually lose to MLB, but they have a nine-year headstart on his services. Let’s see how creative they can be in retaining him and building a competitive team around him.

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Takahashi in Final Negotiations

» 30 January 2009 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

Ken Takahashi may be getting close to finding a destination. Word out of Japan is that he’s in final negotiations with four teams — previously, the Cubs, Mets, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Phillies had been noted as interested in his services. His agent is fighting to get him a major league deal, and expects to have an announcement in a week at the latest. He’s been quoted recently as saying he’d come to America “under any circumstances“, which the Japanese media has interpreted as a willingness to accept a minor league deal. One thing that hadn’t been previously reported is that he also had offers from three NPB teams, which he turned down.

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Hanshin Tryout for Taiwan WBC Pitcher

» 28 January 2009 » In npb » 3 Comments

Prior to the opening of WBC training, Hanshin is bringing Taiwan representative and Culture University pitcher Cheng Kai-Wen in for a tryout at their Okinawa camp. Cheng, 20, is small at 5’9 but reportedly hits 94 mph on the gun and has a slider. He pitched for Taiwan’s Olympic team last year, and gave up three hits and two walks in his appearance against Japan, but that didn’t hurt Hanshin’s scouts evaluation of him. According to the Daily Sports article I linked to above, Cheng is getting some attention from MLB scouts as well. This could give the Tigers a chance to get an inside track on him. It also shouldn’t hurt that two other Hanshin players will be representing Taiwan at the WBC, Lin Wei-Zhu and Hsiao Yi-Ji (Ikketsu Sho).

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Uehara Buiding up his Repertoire

» 27 January 2009 » In mlb » 3 Comments

In his Japan career, Koji Uehara mostly got by with a fastball and forkball, while also mixing in a cutter and shuuto. For the start his Orioles career, the control specialist is shoring up his repertoire with a couple new pitches. The first is a changeup. “It’s got good movement. I’m going to use it in games,” said Uehara of his change. Later adding, “even if I can’t miss bats with it, it’ll be good if I can upset the batter’s timing. I’m planning to use it”.

More noteworthy, however, is Uehara’s new spike-curvey pitch of his own creation. Uehara’s never really thrown a curveball much — 1-2 times per game in Japan, though I don’t remember ever seeing him throw one. He’s calling his new creation a “one finger curve”, which he grips with his middle finger only. You can clearly see the grip in this Nikkan Sports photo of him working on this pitch. Said Uehara of the grip: “if I apply my index finger, I can’t use my middle finger and the ball doesn’t break. So I arrived at this grip.” The idea is to throw with a speed and break in between a traditional curve and a slider. Uehara also committed, “my form is still loose, but I want to use the pitch”.

Commenting on the MLB ball, Uehara said: “the Japanese ball is less slippery and easier throw. But the breaking pitches really move”.

Uehara is currently working out with Houston infielder Kazuo Matsui, and working on adjusting to the MLB strike zone and building up his stamina. Uehara heads to camp with the O’s from February 15.

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Braves Sign Yamarin

» 25 January 2009 » In mlb prospects » 5 Comments

The story of Yoshinori Yamarin, which I followed a bit around draft time last year, has come to a conclusion with the young pitcher signing a minor league contract with the Braves. Sanspo has the details in Japanese, complete with a picture of him in a Braves hat that appears to be two sizes too small. Yamarin went unselected in last October’s NPB draft, but reportedly reaches 92 with his fastball, and has some projectability at 6″1, 187. He’s certainly not nearly as polished as Junichi Tazawa, and will begin his Braves career in an instructional league in Australia.

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ブルージェイズは”日本人投手”と交渉中

» 24 January 2009 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

トロント・ブルージェイズの番記者のジョーダン・バスティアンによると、ブ軍は海外でのスカウト活動を強化しており、“日本人投手”と交渉中のようだ。僕は、これは高橋建じゃないかと推測している。先週、移籍先としてカブスが浮上したが、メッツとフィリーズも興味があるようだ

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Fukumori Aims For Comeback

» 22 January 2009 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

Disappointing Texas Rangers reliever Kazuo Fukumori is aiming for a comeback in 2009. “In the state that I’m in now, I won’t get a contract to play anywhere next year. I want to be promoted to the majors, and then attract calls from Japanese baseball too next offseason,” Fukumori was quoted as saying in Sports Hochi. Fukumori put up an ugly 5.48 era in AAA last year, but also suffered from a herniated disk which he had operated on in October. He says he isn’t feeling any discomfort at this point, but will still start spring training in the Rangers’ minor league camp.

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Yakult Introduces New Uniforms

» 22 January 2009 » In npb » 1 Comment

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows are the latest team to introduce a new uniform this offseason… check ‘em out here. This pic also shows the throwback uniforms that Yakult will use this year. 

Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Seibu will also debut new uniforms in ’09, but Seibu hasn’t introduced theirs yet.

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