Archive > February 2009

Spring Debuts

» 28 February 2009 » In mlb, mlb prospects » Comments Off

Another MLB-centric post here. Several of Japan’s recent baseball exports have already made their exhibition debuts for their MLB clubs. Here’s a rundown:

  • Koji Uehara started for the Orioles today, going scoreless two innings, and allowing a hit and a walk while striking out three. 
  • Kenshin Kawakami got the start for the Braves, and also went two scoreless, allowing a hit, and struck out one. 
  • Sanspo has pics of both Uehara and Kawakami.
  • Junichi Tazawa pitched one inning against Boston College, getting three outs on four pitches, all fastballs. “I wanted to throw a breaking pitch,” commented Tazawa.
  • Ken Kadokura pitched an inning in relief in the Cubs Feb 25 game agains the Dodgers. “Looking back on today’s debut game, I was just happy to be there,” said Kadokura.
  • Katsuhiko Maekawa hasn’t appeared in a game yet as far as I know, but he’s impressed so far in the Cardinals camp. According to Sanpo, the Cards have five spots open on their pitching staff and Maekawa is an option. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Options for SoftBank

» 27 February 2009 » In npb » 3 Comments

So we know at this point that SoftBank is looking to import a bat toward the end of spring training. Takeuchi-COO, if you’re your listening, here are a few options:

  • Dallas McPherson, 3B, Florida Marlins — hit 42 bombs in AAA last year.
  • Andy Marte, 3B, Cleveland Indians — former top prospect cleared waivers and is headed back to AAA.
  • Mike Hessman, 1B/3B, Detroit Tigers — quad-A type, hit for consistent power in AAA for the last seven years but hasn’t won an MLB job. Doesn’t hit for much average.
  • Craig Brazell, 1B/DH, Baltimore Orioles — SoftBank apparently passed on him after Seibu let him go last offseason, but he showed power in Japan last year. Probably needs an injury to make the MLB team.
  • Jeff Bailey, 1B/OF, Boston Red Sox — been pretty good in AAA the last few years.
  • Scott Thorman, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers — got a shot with the Braves but didn’t hit. Has been pretty good in the minors, looks like another quad-A guy.
  • Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers — the Hawks tried to get him twice last year. Even if Texas is willing to let him go, he won’t get through waivers. Still, SoftBank can dream.

Any other ideas for the Hawks?

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Japan 11, Australia 2

» 25 February 2009 » In international baseball » 4 Comments

Here’s three minutes of video highlights of the last Japan-Australia WBC warm up.

Daisuke Matsuzaka struggled, allowing 5 hits and 2 runs in 2 1/3 innings, but Toshiya Sugiuchi was excellent K’ing 5 on no hits in 2 1/3. In the video you can see him getting a couple of close calls from the plate umpire.

Gwynar of Sim Cental liveblogged the game, so you can check out the play by play here (thanks to reader Mike for the link).

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Baseball in Germany

» 25 February 2009 » In international baseball » 1 Comment

Jan Benner maintains a blog about “punkrock, football, drinks, and other boring stuff” which I’ve been reading since last summer. One of the topics that falls in to the latter category is Japanese baseball, particularly the Koshien high school tournament. I checked his site while I was preparing my Baseball Worldwide post, and found that he had written this article on how he got into baseball. So I asked him if could comment on baseball in his native Germany, and he responded with a detailed essay that is certainly worthy of it’s own post.

I’d like to thank Jan for contributing this information. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.

First, you have to keep in mind that North American professional sports can be divided into two or three groups. Sports that were here before and sports that were introduced to Germany. Germany’s main sport is football (soccer). There are football pitches everywhere and if you don’t have sidelines and goalposts kids will use whatever they can get to make up a football pitch. All you need is a lawn in some park. So kids here grow up only knowing football. By the time they enter school they might be introduced to new sports like handball or basketball. This is where the two categories come in. Professional leagues for both basketball and ice hockey have been around for quite some time now. The German national basketball team was the champion of Europe in 1993, the national ice hockey team won the bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics. As for sports like American Football or Baseball they just don’t have any roots around here.

What is interesting to note though is that German kids learn a game quite similar to baseball in primary school. The name of the game is “Brennball” (“brennen” = to burn) which can roughly be translated with “The Burning Ball”. The goal is to send a runner around bases. The runner starts at a home base and throws a soft ball into a field in a hall. So there is no outfield, the runners run around the field. Runners are out when they are touched with the ball by the defending team. Usually there’s teams of around 10-12 players on each side. Both teams send all their players on a run around the bases and the team who scores the most runs wins. There are no innings. Every team has one try to go through its lineup.

Keeping this in mind, people in Germany might know the basics of baseball from an early stage, but because there is absolutely no coverage on TV, there is no way you can learn the rules of the game by simply watching it. You usually hear about baseball in the German media when something outstanding happens, e.g. the Red Sox winning the championship after an 86-year drought or the Marlins winning the World Series in 1997 after only existing for such a short time. Or you get shown the “Randy Johnson kills a bird with a fastball” video on a highlight reel on some sports station.

So baseball fans (and players) in Germany are usually people who went to study abroad in the States either while going to school or as university students. Right now Wikipedia says that there are 30.000 active players in Germany although I think that number is a little high. Just as a comparison, the German Football Association (DFB) has 6 million members. They then might go to see a game of Germany’s highest level of baseball, the Bundesliga.

The Bundesliga is divided into two divisions, a Northern and a Southern division. There is one huge difference to the major leagues in that there is relegation and promotion. So teams can’t be sure to play the highest level the next year. This is a feature present in all European sports, I believe the only league without relegation and promotion is the German Hockey League, the DEL (“Deutsche Eishockey Liga”). In 2008 the German Baseball Bundesliga looked like this:

North South
Solingen Alligators Heidenheim Heideköpfe
Paderborn Untouchables Buchbinder Legionäre
Cologne Cardinals Mannheim Tornados
Dortmund Wanderers Mainz Athletics
Bonn Capitals Saarlouis Hornets
Hamburger SV Stealers Haar Disciples
Hannover Regents Gauting Indians
Neunkirchen Nightmares Neuenburg Atomics

You might have noticed that some teams use the same names as major league teams. I guess they do this because it’s easier to get uniforms because they just use the major league merchandise.

All teams play four games against each other, two home and two away. Home and Away matches are usually doubleheaders. There is the chance of a shortened game because one team is too dominant and there are extra innings when the teams are tied after 9 innings. In the posteason the best four teams of each division play each other in a quarterfinal. The 1st place team from one division plays the 4th place team from the other division, the 2nd place the 3rd place and so on. Those series are best-of-five series with the first two games played at the home ground of the worse placed team and the final three at the better placed teams stadium.

The players are usually younger (students) and I have heard of Japanese exchange students who played for the team in Cologne during their stay here. The Cologne Cardinals still feature one Japanese player named Kagami Ryo. What’s also interesting to note is that baseball is mostly played on the territory of the former West Germany. Somehow it just doesn’t grow roots in the eastern part of the country.

So baseball in Germany is something for enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice their spare time for the sport they love. I still haven’t been able to attend a game but I will try to visit one this season. I do know that the turnout is usually low and that people going there know each other quite well since it has the feeling of a family reunion.

The first game of baseball on German soil was played in an exhibition game during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A massive amount of around 100.000 spectators turned up to watch this. I believe – although I didn’t find any sources to prove it – that during the Nazi Regime the government banned all American things so nothing happened after this game. Then, the end of World War II brought the game back to Germany, but it took another 40 years to finally get a hold here. The German Bundesliga seems to have started during that period as well. Right now the the future of baseball looks rather dark with the lack of sponsors and the constant rise of football and handball.

Some German players have been noticed by the MLB scouting system and have been brought over to play in the Minors. RHP Jennel Hudson played for the Cologne Cardinals and was drafted by the Red Sox in 2007. The Boston newspapers reported on this which is the reason I noticed it. There was no newpaper writeup about the draft over here. Other names are 1B Donald Lutz, C Kai Gronauer, or 3B Ludwig Glaser. Those guys play at the lowest levels of Minor League ball, but still I think it’s quite something they made it over to the USA.

Unfortunately there are no links to English websites dealing with German baseball, so everyone interested has to have at least some knowledge of the German language.
A great resource is MLBInsider, a site run by enthusiats dealing with everything of interest to German baseball fans. This is also where I look when I want to read about German players in the Minors.The official site for the German Baseball Federation also features a subpage for statistics.

And to give you an impression of German baseball, here are some videos of games

And to round this off the big event this year will be the preliminary qualifying rounds of the Baseball World Cup (not to be confused with the MLB tournament WBC). It seems like 11,000 tickets have already been sold for the games. It’s a 4 team group with Germany, the USA, China and Venezuela, so it looks like the German team won’t stand a chance.

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Tazawa Impresses

» 24 February 2009 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

Junichi Tazawa is making a good impression in his first MLB camp, at least against David Ortiz. Tazawa threw 40 batting practice pitches to Red Sox hitters, and held them to 5 “hits”. Ortiz saw 13 pitches, whiffed on 4 of them, and failed to hit any over the fence. Tazawa featured a 92mph fastball, a slider, and a curve in this session.

“I was nervous but happy to throw to excellent hitters. I don’t want to throw any easy pitches. I put my strenght into it,” said Tazawa. Pitching coach John Farrell commented that “his fastball, which was bad last time, was good. The ball jumped out of his hand”. Theo Epstein called it “effective pitching” but cautioned that “it’s too early to evaluate him”.

Nikkan Sports has a good pic of Ortiz swinging through one of Tazawa’s pitches. Tazawa will make his game debut in an exhibition against Boston College on the 25th.

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WBC Warm-up

» 23 February 2009 » In international baseball » 4 Comments

Highlights from Japan’s 10-0 drubbing of the Yomiuri Giants in theire WBC warmup. This clip focuses on representatives from the SoftBank Hawks. Enjoy.

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The Next Tazawa?

» 23 February 2009 » In npb draft » 9 Comments

It may be a little early to start this kind of talk, but here’s a new story to watch: Hosei University pitchers Kazuhito Futagami and Hisashi Takeuchi are attracting attention from MLB scouts, fueling speculation that this could turn into another MLB/NPB arms race. Futagami and Takeuchi are candidates to go in the first round of this year’s NPB draft.

Nikkan Sports reports that Rangers Pacific Rim scout Jim Colborn is planning on taking in a Hosei exhibition game, and SF Giants scout John Cox is planning a visit in March.The Dodgers and Mariners have already seen the pair. On the NPB side, Hiroshima, Orix, Lotte, and Rakuten are reportedly interested.

According to the wonderful Draft Report site, Takeuchi and Futagami both have power arsenals with fastballs that top out at about 150 kmph (93mph). Takeuchi can reach 153 kmph (95mph) and also has a slider and forkball. Futagami maxes out at about 150 kmph, and sits in the mid-140’s (90-ish) as a starter, but dials it up in relief. His featured breaking pitch is his slider. Here is some very low-quality video of Futagami and Takeuchi.

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WBC Roster Set

» 22 February 2009 » In international baseball, mlb, npb » 5 Comments

Japan manager Tatsunori Hara has settled on a WBC roster. Here it is:

Pitchers
Yu Darvish
Takahiro Mahara
Masahiro Tanaka
Hideaki Wakui
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Minoru Iwata
Hisashi Iwakuma
Kyuji Fujikawa
Tetsuya Utsumi
Satoshi Komatsu
Shunsuke Watanabe
Tetsuya Yamaguchi
Toshiya Sugiuchi

Catchers
Kenji Johjima
Shinnosuke Abe
Yoshiyuki Ishihara

Infielders
Hiroyuki Nakajima
Yasuyuki Kataoka
Akinori Iwamura
Michiro Ogasawara
Shuichi Murata
Munenori Kawasaki

Outfielders
Kosuke Fukudome
Norichika Aoki
Seiichi Uchikawa
Yoshiyuki Kamei
Atsunori Inaba
Ichiro

(SI has the AP article as well)

Notable departures are Nobuhiko Matsunaka (achilles problem), Kenta Kurihara (affected by elbow surgery last year), Toru Hosokawa (right shoulder pain), Tsuyoshi Wada, and Takayuki Kishi. Health reasons were not cited for Wada and Kishi.

Overall, the roster looks pretty good to me, though it’s somewhat short on power.The inclusion of Yoshiyuki Kamei makes no obvious sense to me, but I could see him as a defensive replacement/pinch runner. The only other questionable pick I see is Shunsuke Watanabe. He’s been hit or miss in NPB, and as I recall he wasn’t that great in the 2006 WBC.

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Spring Training Bullet Points: Warming Up

» 22 February 2009 » In mlb, mlb prospects, npb » 1 Comment

Hope springs eternal at the start of every season. Here are some spring training notes, mostly on guys who are trying to make their teams.

(All of the below items point to Japanese-language articles)

  • Ken Kadokura is testing a two-seam fastball and a sinker, neither of which he threw in Japan. “The movement on my breaking pitches is bigger than it was in Japan,” said Kadokura, “I think I can use these”.
  • Junichi Tazawa threw 51 pitches to Jason Varitek. “I was nervous the whole time,” Tazawa said with a smile. “I was concerned that I was stretching my arm more than usual,”
  • Kei Igawa threw 15 pitches to Hideki Matsui. Matsui hit eight, and took seven. “I’m glad I didn’t hit him,” Igawa said with big laughter. Last year, Igawa plunked a minor leaguer in batting practices.
  • Ken Takahashi got a decent review from Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg: “My first look at him was good. We have two open rotation spots. He has enough of a chance to get one. I hope he makes the team.”
  • Marc Kroon threw 70 pitches in a bullpen session on the 19th and will appear in an inner-squad game on the 23rd. He’s working on a two-seamer and a shuuto. “first I’m getting back into game shape. I want to get a feel for all my pitches,” he said.
  • On his WBC off day, Ichiro travelled 1200km back to Kobe to take batting practice at Skymark Stadium.
  • Rakuten manager Katsuya Nomura has come up with an innovative approach to batting practice: tape a picture of Yu Darvish to the pitching machine. Did it work? Nomura looks happy with the results.

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Historic Franchise: Yomiuri Giants

» 21 February 2009 » In sports business » 1 Comment

If the Rakuten Golden Eagles are the new blood of Japanese Professional Baseball, the most historic franchise is the Yomiuri Giants. They were and may still be the most popular franchise in Japan with a strong influence from a comic starting at 1966, “Kyojin no Hoshi” which means the Star of the Giants. In the late 1960’s, a famous saying was born. “The three things kids loved most were the Giants, Taihou (Sumo Wrestler), and tamago-yaki (baked egg).

Expanding into Asia has been the new motto for the Giants. With the acquisition of a star Korean player in Seung-Youp Lee before the 2006 season, their popularity in South Korea has exploded. Making most of the opportunity, the Giants established a Korean-language website looking to reach out more to the Korean fans. Another development is leadership in China, where they agreed to a partnership with a professional Chinese team, the Beijing Tigers.

Increasing popularity in other Asian countries is not leading to stability in their own country. The demand for tickets and television coverage has seen a drop and therefore their focus toward sport business is coming around. The Giants announced last July they will add new employees with the possibility hiring of new college graduates, which is still uncommon for Japanese sports teams. Adding quality young blood into the organization might be the step they are looking to take, which can be said on the field as well.

Focus of the Giants is directed toward ticket sales as they are implementing new strategies. They partnered with travel agency JTB and fans will be able to buy Giants home game tickets at any of their 2500 stores around the nation. Another new way for fans to obtain tickets are by their cell phones. People will be able to choose their seats and purchase their tickets 24 hours by phone. New opportunities will be available for fans this upcoming season as the Tokyo Dome will expand their Excite Seat (Field-Level Seating) to 420 from the previous 228.

Popularity may not be a given for the Yomiuri Giants any more. To remain the best off the field, they will need to compete with new strategies in order to remain the leaders of Japanese professional Baseball.

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