My Team Japan

» 08 May 2011 » In npb »

Last week, I got a pretty good question Twitter — who would my Japanese national team be today?

It’s a good question, and a nice change of pace from the Darvish questions I frequently get, so I decided to write up a post about it. Coincidentally back when I was teaching English at the now-defuct NOVA, I used to do a lesson like this with my baseball fan students, and it was always a fun one.

I’m picking my team as if they would have to compete at the highest level, so as cool as I think the World Port Tournament is, I’m following the WBC roster rules. In summary, I get a maximum of 28 players, with a minimum of two catchers and 13 pitchers.


No reason to deviate from the 2009 WBC starting outfield of Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome, and Norichika Aoki. For my fourth outfielder I’ll go with the gap power, strike zone judgement, and defensive prowess of Nippon Ham CF Yoshio Itoi.


There’s one easy call for me in the infield: Hiroyuki Nakajima at shortstop. At second base, I’ll start Tsuyoshi Nishioka, without regard to his current injury.

The corners are a little trickier. At third base, I like Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura’s bat and Eiichi Koyano’s glove, with Takahiro Arai striking a balance between the two. Choices are a bit limited on other side of the diamond, and Sho Nakata might be the best choice by the end of the year, but for now I prefer the contact bat of Seiichi Uchikawa.

This group of four gives me some flexibility. I can play the stronger defensive group with Koyano at third, Arai at first, and Okawari-kun DH’ing, or I can for the better offensive lineup and have Arai at third, Okawari-kun at first, and one of my other candidates batting DH. The presence of Uchikawa gives me the option of playing the hot hand as well.

On the bench, I’ll stash Yasuyuki Kataoka and Munenori Kawasaki, both of whom can pinch run, steal bases, get bunts down and play good defense all over the infield.

Designated Hitters

Nakamura would DH for my team when he’s not playing in the field. Hideki Matsui never participates in these things, but dammit,this is my dream team, so he’s in.


Catcher is an easy call. Kenji Johjima starts, Shinnosuke Abe backs up.

Starting Pitchers

The first three starters are easy choices: Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda. The next three are pretty easy too: Masahiro Tanaka, Hideaki Wakui, Kenta Maeda. Hang on, no lefties in there, so I’ll call on Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and Masaru Takeda.

That’s nine starters, so some of these guys are are going to relieve. In particular, I like Tanaka as a power arm out of the bullpen, and Takeda as a lefty specialist.

Relief Pitchers

I’m rounding out my 13-man pitching staff with four full-time relievers for my squad: Kyuji Fujikawa, Takuya Asao, Hitoki Iwase and Tetsuya Yamaguchi.

Those last two are kind of risky picks, given Iwase’s struggles in the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that Yamaguchi got lit up for 10 home runs last year. But Iwase is a good pitcher, and I like Yamaguchi’s ability to get lefthanded batters out.

Notable absences

The last name I deleted off my list of candidates was Chihiro Kaneko (ignoring the fact that he’s been out injured all season). It was either him or Koyano, and I went with Koyano for his third base defense and gap bat. Kaneko’s righty starter skillset is already well-represented.

I would love to have another power bat on this team, but the only other guy I really thought about was Shuichi Murata. A few years ago, his inclusion would have been a no-brainer, but I prioritized defense, and his down numbers last season concern me. Nobuhiko Matsunaka would have been a great inclusion, but he is a shadow of his former self.

I gave some consideration to Koji Uehara and Takashi Saito, but they are too injury-prone to displace either Fujikawa or Asao, and too righthanded to bump Iwase or Yamaguchi.

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  1. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 4:40 am Permalink

    Tsk, tsk, too conservative.

    Can’t believe you passed on the rookie submariner. (Don’t look at his age.) It’s no fun if there aren’t any rookies on a team and submariners don’t grow on trees overseas.

    I like Chono’s unexpectedness and experience in international tournaments better than the declining power of Fukudome. I make him the fourth outfielder in favor of Itoi.

    I need to start Koyano at the hot corner because of Nakajima’s (abse..)
    presence at short.

    I like Hatakeyama’s raw talent better than the declining power and no flexibility provided by the King of the Monsters (TM).

    Lastly, I start Abe as the only reliable power source.

  2. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 5:15 am Permalink

    Matsui might be more willing to play now that he is longer playing for the Yankees.

  3. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 6:54 am Permalink

    Kazuhisa Makita is the rookie submariner. I thought about him as an alternative to Watanabe, who Japan took to the last two WBC’s, but I’ve only seen him pitch one inning in spring training.

    I like Itoi’s all-around game quite a bit better than Chono’s. Fukudome could sit in favor of Uchikawa as well, but then I’d have Aoki in CF, and his arm is on the week side.

    Hatakeyama looked great at the plate a couple weeks ago, but I want to see more. A guy I didn’t mention for DH was T-Okada, who’s just looked a little off to me so far this year.

  4. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 8:47 am Permalink

    I actually got to see Makita pitch the other day. I don’t think he got above 80 mph, yet his numbers are very good. And, in an unrelated note, what on earth is going on with Teppei? I would normally include him in my team Japan, but this year he looks totally lost.

  5. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 2:03 pm Permalink

    Makita looked like a carbon copy of Watanabe when I saw him in the spring. I would want to see how he handles a whole game before deciding on him, but so far the results are good.

    I haven’t really played close attention to Teppei this year, but he’s off to a horrible start.

  6. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 7:27 pm Permalink

    I can’t imagine a team Japan without # 18 Matsuzaka, however bad form he may be in. As much as I love Maeda, I’d bump him off for Dice-K. I believe he still has the best stuff in him.

    And I’d love a submariner or a powerful sidearmer on the squad to give it more diversity and flexibility but no particular candidates come to mind. The same for a lefty to go instead of an Iwase on steady decline – and that’s a bit startling.

    There’s also this birds-fan part of me that’s screaming for a spot for Yoshinori. Ah…..

  7. Patrick
    10/05/2011 at 10:40 pm Permalink

    The other lefties I thought of were either veterans — H Takahashi, Okajima, Shimoyanagi — or unproven young guys — Kikuchi, Ohba, Enokida, Shiomi.

    I didn’t really consider Utsumi, Iwata or Muranaka, though I would have given Iwata some thought if he hadn’t been coming off an injury. The early returns are good though. Still, no full-time relievers in that group, except maybe Ohba.

  8. Patrick
    Billy D
    11/05/2011 at 5:47 am Permalink

    Patrick, I feel sorry for those good foreigners who wanted something but ended up nothing. The sudden death of Nova suddenly put a lot of English speakers out of a job, and consequently, out of a visa. I still remember those weeping Caucasian ladies in front of the camera when they stood up and made a statement in 2007. I was there.

    Anyway, on the practical side, Ichiro had proclaimed 2009 his last service to the Nippon. Fukudome always gives you a fast start, and since 2013 should be no different in schedule (early March WBC), he’s a candidate, BUT, at age 37, I would rather give Hirose (Carp) a chance at right field.

    Soyogi (shortstop, Carp) should also be considered. He got a reputation domestically. To steal the thunder of Prince Fielder: His time should come.

    I always like Toritani (short, leftie), he should be good platoon with Soyogi (a righty). Two stars middle of the line, can’t beat that.

    You omitted Karakawa. Don’t underestimate finesse pitchers!@@

  9. Patrick
    Billy D
    11/05/2011 at 5:48 am Permalink

    On a second thought, Kuriyama (outfield, Seibu) should be playing right. That’s my all-star Samurai Japan, 2013.

  10. Patrick
    Billy D
    11/05/2011 at 5:56 am Permalink

    *Oops, Fuk will turn 36 April of year 2013. Anyway, all Cubs fans know he looks older than his stat page shows, especially since each June!

  11. Patrick
    11/05/2011 at 7:27 am Permalink

    I should say, this would be my team if I tournament were to be held today. I’m sure there will be a few changes to make by the time 2013 rolls around.

    And Nova, yeah, it’s a shame that people lost their job, but overall I don’t feel too bad about that place going out of business. Most teachers only worked there for a year or two, so I don’t feel too badly for them. The people that were there longer term, and the Japanese staff, yeah, I guess it was too bad for them. But I don’t think the company treated anyone particularly well, so I’m sure the emotion was more “we got screwed” than “I’m really gonna miss this place”.

    I left in 2003, and I could see back then that there were issues. They were opening schools in small towns that seemed unlikely to make a profit. The vetting process they had for hiring teachers was pretty minimal, and they only made very infrequent investments in training and materials. Basically they saw teachers as one-year temporary workers, with an infinite supply of replacements, so there was never much incentive to improve conditions. I guess that makes it sound worse than it really was. It was an OK place to work in my early 20’s but I knew right away that I didn’t want to be there long term.

  12. Patrick
    11/05/2011 at 11:30 am Permalink

    No interest in Yuuki Saito? I recall there being considerable buzz on the Hankerchief Prince and comparisons in skill set to Darvish when he started college. First round pick this year, what is the general consensus on him moving forward?

  13. Patrick
    11/05/2011 at 1:39 pm Permalink

    Nah, the only Saito I gave any consideration to was Takashi. Yuki doesn’t have much in common with Darvish on mound, he doesn’t have Darvish’s power arsenal. I don’t have a good read on the consensus on his future, I haven’t tried to separate the facts from the hype.

  14. Patrick
    Billy F.
    12/05/2011 at 1:37 am Permalink

    Patrick, your foresight is always appreciated.

    If I’m starting a lineup of Samurai Japan today, I still think both Kuriyama and Aoki should play outfield instead of Fukudome and Itoi, for:

    – age factor; Fukudome and Itoi is on their regressing curve, having past age 29 (the prime)

    – defense and speed, which Team Japan always seems to rely on

  15. Patrick
    12/05/2011 at 6:34 am Permalink

    Billy F. – Have you ever seen Itoi play? The dude might be the fastest guy in the Pacific league and he is the best centerfielder in Japan.

  16. Patrick
    12/05/2011 at 8:05 am Permalink

    Considering these teams usually carry a third catcher for emergencies (especially necessary if you intend to use Abe to pitch-hit), who would you choose as a third catcher?

  17. Patrick
    12/05/2011 at 9:45 am Permalink

    The third catcher on my list was Tomoya Satozaki.

  18. Patrick
    12/05/2011 at 1:04 pm Permalink

    Love your post.
    I`ll take Koji Uehara over Fujikawa.
    Fujikawa is in the same group as Kei Igawa and Igarashi,
    His fastball won’t work overseas.
    I read an article in which Kurt Suzuki (oakland) was asked if he wants to play for Japan in the next WBC. Is he qualified to play for Japan?
    If so, do you take him over Shinnosuke Abe given his knowledge of MLB batters?

  19. Patrick
    13/05/2011 at 11:18 pm Permalink

    I believe participation in the Classics is up to his ancestry.

    If his father or grandfather (of either side) is a Japanese national, he can choose to play for Team Japan.

    I think the pick should be about pure skill rather than the knowledge of MLB batters. Unless they think up of a way to properly motivate MLB players, the Classics is going to be another endless bout with Samurai Japan and Team Korea with Cuba on the side like it did the last time. A JPN-KOR derby is always fun to watch given their history, but if that goes on over and over and over its charm is bound to wear off at some point.

    Of course, if its not about the Classics but some other international tournament in which MLB players will be as motivated as Team Japan, then knowledge of MLB batters will no doubt prove to be an important factor.

  20. Patrick
    14/05/2011 at 9:28 am Permalink

    Here are the official rules:

    * The player was born in the nation or territory the Team represents, as evidenced by a birth certificate or its equivalent or in player records maintained by Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball or the Korean Baseball Organization; or
    * The player has one parent who is, or if deceased was, a citizen of the nation the Team represents, as evidenced by a passport or other documentation satisfactory to WBCI and the IBAF; or
    * The player has one parent who was born in the nation or territory the Team represents, as evidenced by a birth certificate or its equivalent.

    So Kurt would need to have a parent with Japanese citizenship. I think he’s third generation, so that would rule him out.

    From a pure baseball skills standpoint, I think Kurt would make it. His drawback would be not necessarily knowing the strengths and weakness of the NPB pitchers he would be catching. Then again, you could say the same thing about Johjima in the ’09 tournament.

  21. Patrick
    Billy D
    15/05/2011 at 12:31 am Permalink

    EJH, I cannot say I remembered Itoi for exceptional speed. I watched 20 or so Hanshin games last year before “justin” decided to use an alternative way to blackout my viewing area, a few Seibu and Lotte’s, and I probably missed a NipponHam game.

    That being said, Itoi had turned age 30. His defense and speed will not improve. But I must give you that, if he is pronounced as the fastest center fielder in NPB, since I know little of him other than his stats, and I’m not buying that.

    Meanwhile, Kuriyama and Aoki are in their prime and gonna stay in prime for the next few years. Imagine an outfield of Aoki AND Kuriyama! You can throw in Itoi at left field if you like.

  22. Patrick
    Billy D
    15/05/2011 at 12:36 am Permalink

    *Clarification: When I said not buying the stats I meant the PAST Itoi of a career .854 OPS when he was at his prime, age 26-29.

    He’s sitting at .840 right now. Regression?

  23. Patrick
    15/05/2011 at 7:15 am Permalink

    The age arguments doesn’t hold water for me. Itoi is actually 29. He turns 30 on July 31. Aoki is also 29 — he was born on January 5, 1982, a whole five months after Itoi. Kuriyama was born on September 9, 1983, so he’s a sprightly 27, but still not significantly younger than Aoki or Kuriyama. I don’t think it makes sense to suggest that one of these guys is headed for an imminent regression while the others are not based on age alone.

    Also, uttering the word “regression” at a .14 point swing in OPS 25 games into the season is clutching at straws. Besides, Itoi when 3-4 with a hbp and home run yesterday, and now his OPS is .904.

  24. Patrick
    15/05/2011 at 2:19 pm Permalink

    Billy D: You might want to actually watch a guy play before you judge him. Once you have seen Itoi score from first on an a weak single by Koyano a few times, you might reassess your expert opinion of him. Also, Itoi is a very young 29. He was originally a pitcher and only became Ham’s regular centerfielder two years ago. He is in incredibly good shape. Just based on his speed and physical appearance, he looks like the best pure athlete in the Pacific League. He covers an incredible amount of ground in center and his arm is Ichiro-like. Speaking of Ichiro, in your expert opinion, Billy Boy, would you say the Mariner rightfielder was washed up at 29 or 30? Has he regressed much in the past 8 or 9 years?

  25. Patrick
    Billy D
    16/05/2011 at 4:29 am Permalink

    I’m a little disappoint by your rhetoric questions. We’ll need to get over some baseball 101, I guess, pointers for our philosophical differences applied on reality…

    – Regression happens on EVERYONE, you, me, and athletes our body simply ages. I’m not a scientist, but I’m sure you can read this:

    – Ichiro has been a star since his parting of high school, and became a super star in his early 20s.

    – Ichiro also regressed. If you look through his stats and his plays (and I watched him play both on TV and in person when he visited Wrigley Field), he doesn’t run as much, and resulted to his Speed Score and a steady drop of base-stealing. His BABIP dropped, resulting to his regressed slugging average.

    – Ichiro regressed, but he simply turned from SUPERGOOD to still very good.

    – Why is Itoi compared to an anomaly (the super-good) Ichiro?

    Now, I still hold my position that Kuriyama should be reviewed. You don’t trust stats and sabermetric analysis, fine. I watched him when he played against Hanshin. This guy can hit and gets on base.

    Granted, defensively, a speedier Itoi on the field might outweigh the discipline Kuriyama has been showing. But we all remember 2009 WBC. Team Japan wasn’t a true slugging team or on-base machine. They relied on “small baseball,” especially on the “Stability”: pitching, defense, running the basepath, reading opposite pitchers, and so on.

    Maybe Itoi will fit in this regard, but I don’t see why you guys want to omit a true and younger talent such as Karakawa and Kuriyama. What’s wrong with them?

  26. Patrick
    Billy D
    16/05/2011 at 4:50 am Permalink

    *Actually, I watched Kuriyama play Yomiuri a year or two ago, one of those interleagues; Rami had some good deep flyballs that didn’t reach far enough over the wall–and of course, the Nippon Series of 2008, ahhh, good time.

    Now I think twice, it’s interesting because for Team Japan, I believe more in guys who walks and gets on base (Kuriyama), as opposed to a more powerful but less disciplined hitter such as Itoi (2:1 strikeouts to free passes). Itoi is a late boomer, so I cannot say I trust his true talent.

    Most teams who won a World Series or a Nippon one have a majority of their rosters in baseball prime, age 26-29. (Even Fukudome was 29 when he helped that 2006 team to win that much at the end.) I don’t want to misguide people and think agist, but it’s simply a fact now that we know so much about sports/health science and all the stats had proved that right.

    On the other hand, it will be interesting to see who’s the next manager (kantoku) for Team Japan, and what’s his philosophy. In the past, one or two sluggers but a combination of veteran and a good chunk of youths, more starting pitchers who can easily convert to a relief role, etc., those had been keys. Even the disappointed Hoshino Japan in 2008 had that tradition.

    Team Japan was never a “showcase” of true talent, but how to balance a roster that plays with stability and win in a shorter schedule, especially preseason.

  27. Patrick
    17/05/2011 at 6:49 am Permalink

    I think you’re overrating the age difference argument, and I disagree with your assertion that Itoi is less talented because he was a late bloomer, but I went ahead and dug up the defensive numbers on these guys. Here they are:

    I was surprised, but the numbers ever so slightly favor Kuriyama

    Kuriyama 1277.1 innings, 316 put outs, 5 assists, 2 errors, .994 pct
    Itoi 1203.1 innings, 302 put outs, 4 assists, 5 errors, .984 pct

    These numbers don’t tell the whole story — we don’t have data on how many balls were hit each players’ way or how many baserunners attempted to advance on them at hand.