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Ichiro & Me

» 27 August 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » Comments Off

Last week, Ichiro reached perhaps the capstone achievement of his career: 4000 career hits as a professional in NPB and MLB. This put me in kind of a refelective mood, as Ichiro has been an omnipresent figure in my observation of professional baseball over the last 16-17 years, and a central character in my development from someone who knew little about Japanese baseball to someone who is capable of writing competently about it. Here’s 950+ words about how it happened.

The offseason, 1996 — I saw Orix Blue Wave’s [1] Ichiro play for the first time, on TV, in the bi-annual Nichibei Yakyu All-Star Series that has since been rendered obsolete by the WBC. This particular series was notable as it featured Hideo Nomo, a Japanese player, representing the American side. I don’t remember much about that series, other than the broadcasters pointing out that Ichiro was thought of as the likely candidate to be the first position player to make the leap to MLB, which turned out to be a prescient expectation. Ichiro, with his distinctive high-kick swing and mononymous name, was implanted on my mind from then onward.

Winter, 1997 or 1998 — As an early eBay user, I was able buy a Japanese Nintendo 64 baseball game, King of Pro Yakyu[2]. I quickly learned to recognize the Orix Blue Wave logo, and the first Japanese phrase I learned to read was Ichiro. Or, more accurately, I could understand which series of characters read “Ichiro”, but I couldn’t tell you which one the “chi” was. Nonetheless, Orix was the only team I ever played with in that game and evenually I learned about So Taguchi, Koji Noda, Troy Neel and DJ.

At some point around this time, I discovered Michael Westbay’s JapaneseBaseball.com, simply by typing “japanesebaseball.com” into a browser to see if anything was there. It became an invaluable resource for me as time went on.

August 2000 — I set foot in Japan for the first time, to spend a semester as a foreign exchange student. As luck would have it, I found myself in the Kansai region, not far from Orix’s home in Kobe. As luck wouldn’t have it, Ichiro was injured, so I defaulted to mostly watching nationally televised Yomiuri games, becoming a fan of Hideki Matsui, Darrell May, Hideki Okajima and Akira Etoh[3]. Ichiro did eventually return to play in the final game of the season, which I saw on the news but not live. I had no idea that it would be Ichiro’s last game (to date) with Orix. A month or so later, Ichiro’s intent to move to MLB was announced and it was a huge news story.

By the time I returned to the States in December, Ichiro’s rights had been won by the Mariners. It kind of seemed like a predestined move, as Ichiro has spent some time with the Mariners during spring training in 1999, and the team is owned by Nintendo.

Spring 2001 — Back home, my Dad and I attended an early-season White Sox-Mariners game, during Ichiro’s first trip to Chicago. Ichiro went 3-6 and made at least one perfect throw back to home plate, but what I remember most about that game was the number of Japanese photographers stationed around Comiskey Park. We saw groups of three or so photographers in several spots around the stadium, capturing even the most mundane Ichiro moments from every possible angle.

Ichiro, of course, went on to win the MVP award and the Mariners had a historic regular season, but fell short in the playoffs. By the time they did, I had returned to Japan to begin my eikaiwa[4] job. Like everyone else in Japan I wanted to see Ichiro in the World Series, but I wasn’t disappointed by the terrific Yankees-Diamondbacks series. I figured the Mariners would get another shot, which wound up never happening.

September 2004 — Early in 2004, I relocated from Japan to San Francisco. Ichiro appeared to be somewhat in decline, as batting had tailed off a bit in 2003 and he had gotten off to a slow start in 2004. Then in May something clicked and Ichiro was locked in the rest of the season, particularly in July and August. By September it seemed clear that he was going to set the MLB record for most hits in a season, and it looked like he might do it during a four game series in Oakland during the last week of the season. Being semi-employed at the time, I had the free time to attend all four games that week, but Ichiro cooled off and wound up setting the record after the Mariners returned to Seattle.

10 years earlier Ichiro set the NPB record for most hits in a season with 210, so he held the single season hits record in both leagues, until Matt Murton broke his NPB record with 214 hits in 2010.

2008-2009 — For the next couple years, nothing much happened. Ichiro continued to rack up 200+ hits per year, but the Mariners were never really in contention for a playoff spot. I continued living in the Bay Area and reading Shukan Baseball[4], until 2008, when I started this blog, which both of you are reading right now. Two of my earliest attention-grabbing posts where Ichiro-related, or more specifically, Ichiro pitching related: Ichiro pitching in the 1996 NPB All-Star game, and again in preparation for the 2009 WBC. Certainly, I owe some portion of the audience I managed to build to the fascination with Ichiro.

[1] The Blue Wave name is now defuct. In 2004, the Orix Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and became the Orix Buffaloes.
[2] Atlus software’s clone of Konami’s Powerful Pro Yakyu. Here’s a clip.
[3] All but Etoh evetually played in the Major Leagues.
[4] Eikaiwa is a contraction of “Eigo kaiwa”, meaning “English Conversation”. It’s a job were a native English speaker teaches conversational skills a group of one to four students.

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Why I Root For Every Minor League Veteran Who Goes to Japan

» 29 July 2013 » In mlb, nichibei » 2 Comments

In a link, here’s why.

In a quote:

“How about apologizing to all the minor leaguers who are trying to make it on PB&J’s?”

I’ll leave it up to you to read the linked article, but I hope Brett Pill gets a shot to make a few bucks in Japan or Korea in the next year or two.

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Throwing On The Side

» 13 May 2013 » In nichibei, npb » 1 Comment

Changes are afoot in Japanese baseball. NPB brass met on May 13, and decided to phase out the practice of pitchers staying loose by playing catch in front of the dugout while their team is batting. The change is to take a effect following the All-Star break at ni-gun, and next season at ichi-gun.

The reason cited was to “comply with the rules of baseball”, but I see it as a move toward Westernization. In recent years we’ve sign the ban of ni-dan (two-stage) motions, a change to the American notation for balls and strikes (a full count used to be 2-3), and the introduction of a league standard ball, among other things. Most of these changes range from innocuous to good, but I wonder if they will eventually rob Pro Yakyu of a little of it’s character. And I miss the ni-dan motions.

In other news, the Central League asked for a reduction to the interleague schedule, to which the Pacific League responded with a vague “ongoing discussion”, or essentially death by bureaucracy. Neither league wants to give up valuable revenue-generating games with Yomiuri.

Finally, NPB announced that it’s investigating opening the 2014 with the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers in Southern California. This news has been out there for a while and it seems that enthusiasm for the idea is growing. A final decision on the idea is now expected in June. Veteran baseball writer Wayne Graczyk has more on the plan, in an article published in April.

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More Evidence That Nakajima Will Fit In With The A’s

» 07 February 2013 » In nichibei » Comments Off

The relevant part starts at about 30 seconds in:

No, that’s not Hiroyuki Nakajima in the Spiderman mask, it’s his Seibu Lions (ex-)teammate Yasuyuki Kataoka.

A’s fans, does this remind you of anything?

reddickspidermanpie081712

(image stolen from Big League Stew, credited to AP Getty Images)

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Rakuten To Sign Saito

» 28 December 2012 » In nichibei, npb » Comments Off

After signing Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee, the word was the that Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were looking to add a third Major Leaguer. According to multiple reports, that expectation has been nearly fulfilled, as Rakuten has agreed to a one-year contract with Takashi Saito, pending a physical. An official announcement is expected as soon as the 29th (JST). According to Sponichi, the deal is worth JPY 30m (US $350k), but will be worth over JPY 100m (US $1.5m) if Saito reaches all his incentive bonuses.

“We want him to perform well and become a symbol of Tohoku’s recovery, and we expect him to pass his Major League experience on to our young players,” commented Rakuten team president Yozo Tachibana.

Sponichi quotes an associate of Saito’s calling this move “the culmination of his baseball life”. It’s certainly move that carries a more symbolism than most free agent signings, as Saito’s home town is Sendai, where Rakuten plays it’s home games. He returns to Japan after a phenomenal seven-year run as an MLB reliever.

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Reports: Rakuten Agrees with McGehee

» 20 December 2012 » In nichibei, npb » 1 Comment

Multiple reports out of the Japanese media machine say that the Rakuten Golden Eagles have agreed to a contract with third baseman Casey McGehee. I’ll link to the Sankei/MSN report, which tells us that McGehee will get $1.3m on a one-year deal, and quotes Rakuten scouting director Hiroshi Abei as saying that an official announcement would be possible after McGehee completes his physical.

McGehee is Rakuten’s second big signing of the offseason, the first being Andruw Jones. McGehee replaces the released Akinori Iwamura as Rakuten’s third baseman. Yomiuri had also been reportedly interested in acquiring MaGehee.

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How Nakajima Learned to be Cool

» 19 December 2012 » In nichibei » 5 Comments

A couple of years before Hiroyuki Nakajima became a Twitter sensation for calling Billy Beane “sexy and cool” (which is a bit of a liberal translation, but that’s a different story), Nakaji expressed his fun-loving side with a celebratory high-five routine with Seibu teammate Dee Brown.

Here we see Brown teaching his pupil:

And here Nakaji uses it in a game situation (skip to about 0:50):

I suspect he’ll get along quite well with the other A’s.

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Looking at Player Movement Rules

» 17 December 2012 » In nichibei, npb » 2 Comments

This offseason, I’ve come across three proposals to change the rules governing player personnel. At first glance, it didn’t seem that these ideas are thematically linked, but after giving it some thought, I think they are reflective of a league that is living less in the shadow of a dominant team, the Yomiuri Giants, and more in the shadow of Major League baseball. These ideas seem to be more aimed at retaining talent league-wide than deferring to the local top dog.

  • Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino has suggested that NPB do away with it’s first-round lottery/drawing process and change to a complete waiver process, in which teams select in reverse order of their records.

NPB has experimented a lot with it’s draft procedures over the years, but a concept that’s mostly stuck around is the first round nyusatsu chusen (bid and drawing) system. Under this format, rather than selecting in order, each team chooses the player it wants, and if multiple teams pick the same player, the teams draw cards for his rights. After the first round, the rest of the draft continues with the teams choosing in the order of their records, last to first in even-numbered rounds and first to last in odd-numbered rounds. Hoshino thinks it would be better for competitive balance to have the teams choose in reverse order of their records in all the rounds.

The more rational side of my brain agrees with Hoshino. Assuming the bad teams aren’t bad because of poor talent evaluation, the worst teams would be have a uncontested path to the best amateurs and likely be able to rebuild faster. And I’ve always assumed that the drawing method was used to allow Yomiuri to have a chance at drafting the top amateurs, and that’s always felt kind of unethical. So far I’m with Hoshino.

The more strategic part of my brain, though, kind of likes the idea of introducing an artificial inefficiency into the process. It changes the risk/reward equation. Teams will sometimes go straight to the mid-first-round talent, avoiding the drawings for the consensus top players in an effort to be assured a prospect. Occaisionally teams will go all in and gamble their picks on signability challenges, as Nippon Ham has notably done in each of the last two years.

Overall though, it probably doesn’t matter. The NPB draft is a roll of the dice, and the more successful pros come out of the later rounds (Ichiro was a 4th round pick). Still, the top consensus picks are usually the best prospects, and frequently gate attractions as well. My recommendation would be to keep the drawing, but weighting it so that the teams with the worse records have better odds of securing the contested player.

NPB instituted this rule as a deterrent for players looking to following in the footsteps of Junichi Tazawa, who skipped out on the NPB draft to sign with the Red Sox in 2008. The idea on the table is to give the drafting NPB priority on signing the player if he goes to MLB and later wants to come back to Japan. So if Shohei Ohtani had spurned Nippon Ham and followed through on his intent to play in MLB, and then later wanted to come back, Nippon Ham would have the first crack at him.

My preference, and what I think will eventually happen, is to do away with the rule completely. This rule is just an idle threat anyway; if Tazawa wanted to play in NPB and he could fill stadiums (both moot points currently), I’m sure the NPB brass would let him in.

Pretty much everyone seems to hate the Posting System. The lone exception is a majority bloc of NPB owners, who voted to keep it unchanged in 2010, when Rakuten proposed giving the top three MLB bidders negotiating rights to posted player. For all it’s flaws, the Posting System has pumped approximately $165m in revenue in to NPB over the last dozen years, though the majority has come from three postings: Daisuke Matsuzaka (Seibu), Kei Igawa (Hanshin) and Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham).

Despite the lopsided largesse of it, I think the NPB owners designed the Posting System as more of a deterrent to make it harder for top players to leave than a source of revenue. Players rightfully dislike it because of the limitations it places on them, MLB owners don’t like the expense of it, and some NPB owners feel it makes the league weaker by allowing stars to leave.

So what would be better? Well, let’s focus on the positives of the Posting System, of which I see a couple: it allows NPB teams to get some compensation for players they are going to lose as free agents anyway; it shortens NPB players’ paths to lucrative MLB careers, though at the expense of leverage; it gives MLB clubs full pre-free agency rights to the players.

I argued for an open auction after the failed Hisashi Iwakuma posting a couple years ago, but I think I’ll change my preference to a completely open system, where NPB teams can negotiate openly for transfer fees with MLB clubs. I’d also like to see MLB clubs pay some token compensation (maybe $200k) for signing NPB free agents to Major League deals.

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Nikkan Sports: Rakuten Agrees with Andruw Jones

» 07 December 2012 » In nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

Nikkan Sports is reporting that the Rakuten Golden Eagles have agreed to a deal with a bari bari Major Leaguer, veteran Andruw Jones. Nikkan Sports estimates the value of the deal at JPY 300m ($3.5m or s0) including signing bonus, base salary, and performance bonuses. An official announcement is expected after Jones takes a physical.

Nikkan Sports is the only publication that has this news right now, but it’s plausible. Rakuten released all their foreign position players after the season and was said to want to make a splash this offseason. They had been rumored to have interest in Manny Ramirez as well.

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Bari Bari Major Leaguers

» 04 December 2012 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

Today’s Japanese word of the day is bari bari. In a baseball context, bari bari is frequently used to describe a big star, like this: “bari bari Major Leaguer came to our restaurant today!” In English we might translate that by saying “a real Major Leaguer,” but that doesn’t feel quite right. The very useful Jisho.org has a definition that doesn’t quite capture this context; maybe some of the more skilled linguists in the audience can help me find  a better English equivalent.

The Softbank Hawks imported a bari bari Major Leaguer this offseason, signing Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair to a two-year deal. LaHair was coveted NPB teams last winter, but the Cubs gave him a chance to be their starting first baseman, and he responded with a great first half and an All-Star appearance. Unfortunately, he cooled off in the second half and lost his job to prospect Anthony Rizzo, and wound up moving to Japan anyway. But as an All-Star, he commanded a higher salary than he otherwise would have, and crosses the Pacific with the feel of an established Major Leaguer.

LaHair’s move inspired me to write about some of the other players that have moved to NPB after strong performances in MLB. Japan has a long history with MLB veterans, so I didn’t attempt to include all of them (this is the longest thing I’ve written in quite some time as it is). For whatever reason most of the guys I’ve chosen to include were busts. I didn’t set out to make it that way, I guess those just seemed like the more interesting stories.

This isn’t an attempt to compare LaHair with any of these players. Most of these guys were well passed their prime years by the time they went to Japan. LaHair is only 30 years old and fits the mold of being a consistent 3A performer with some upside left to explore.

So with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look back at some of the bari bari Major Leaguers from the years gone by.

2012 Brad PennyLooking to replenish a rotation depleted by the departures of starters Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and DJ Houlton, Softbank signed Penny to lucrative (by NPB standards) one-year deal. Penny started one game, then put himself in the injured list and eventually requested his release, which was granted.

2011 Chan Ho ParkPark was well passed his prime years as a starter, but in the midst of somewhat of a late-career revival as a reliever when Orix signed him for 2011. Park was a starter in Japan, and looked a bit better than his 4.15 ERA implies, but got hurt after 42 innings and was never heard from again. He moved on to the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO for 2012, where he retired after posting a poor season.

2005 Tony Batista: In late 2004, the troubled Daiei supermarket group sold the Hawks baseball team to Softbank as part of a large reorganization. On their way out the door, Daiei’s management weakened the team by sending 3B Hiroki Kokubo to Yomiuri in a musho (uncompensated) trade, and releasing 2B Tadahito Iguchi so that he could pursue a career in MLB. Softbank made a splash in replacing them, signing Big Leaguers Batista and Jolbert Cabrera to replace them. Despite his on-base flaws, Batista was an established 30 home run hitter in MLB, and signed for a massive $14m over two years. Batista spent 2005 as the Hawks’ number three hitter, and his .263/.294/.463 line in 2005 was about in line with his MLB career norms. Apparently this wasn’t enough for Softbank, as they released him prior to the second year of his contract.

2003 Kevin MillarMillar was coming off two very good offensive seasons for the Marlins when his contract was sold to the Chunichi Dragons for $1.2m, with whom he provisionally agreed to play for at about $3m a year. But when the Marlins put Millar on waivers, a procedural move so he could sign his contract with Chunichi, the Red Sox violated protocol and put in a claim on him. After the Red Sox claim, Millar had a change of heart and refused to complete his contract with the Dragons. Chunichi put up some opposition at first, but eventually relented and let him go to Boston, where he continued to hit well and became a clubhouse fixture. In his place, Chunichi signed Alex Ochoa, who spent four years in Nagoya and contributed to two Central League winners.

2000 Tony FernandezUnlike many of the players on this list, Fernandez’s move to Japan was unmarred by contract or performance problems. Fernandez had put up strong seasons for Toronto in 1998 and 1999, didn’t miss a beat with Seibu in 2000, posting a .905 OPS. After his season with the Lions he returned to MLB for 2001, closing out his excellent career with a curtain call in Toronto. Coincidentally, 2000 was my first year in Japan, and my reaction to seeing him on TV was “oh cool! Tony Fernandez is here!” I was less excited to see Tony Tarasco playing right field for Hanshin.

1997 Mike GreenwellIn what has become the standard bearer incident for gaijin busts in NPB, Greenwell signed a big ($3m or so) contract with Hanshin, broke his leg seven games into the season, and immediately retired, claiming he got a “message from God to quit baseball” (野球を辞めろという神のお告げ). That’s the way it’s told in the Japanese media anyway. The counterpoint that I’ll offer is that he likely would have missed significant time anyway with his injury, and the “message from God” statement was probably not a great translation of what he actually said. I don’t have the original English quote, but I’m going to assume it was something less literal, like a metaphoric “sign from God”. Mike, if you’re reading this and can clear that up, I would love to know what actually happened. Incidentally, Greenwell’s $3m salary still stands as the most Hanshin has ever paid a foreign player.

1995 Shane Mack (Yomiuri), Kevin Mitchell (Daiei), Julio Franco (Lotte), Glenn Davis (Hanshin), Darrin Jackson (Seibu), Pete Incaviglia (Lotte): In the wake of the 1994-95 MLB player’s strike, a number of big league free agents signed with teams in Japan. The notable moves for me as a teenager were Franco and Jackson, two players who helped my hometown White Sox to an excellent record in 1994. Aside from those two, the under-appreciated Mack was very good for Yomiuri, Mitchell couldn’t adjust to Japan and bolted, and the other guys were mostly pretty good. Amazingly, Franco, despite being 37 in 1995, played another 12 seasons between NPB, KBO, MLB and Mexico.

1992 Jack Eliott: Okay, just kidding. For the real story, see the next paragraph.

1987 Bob HornerIn a season immortalized in text by Robert Whiting, Horner turned to Japan when he couldn’t find an MLB team to meet his contractual demands. Japan Inc. was at the peak of it’s bubble-driven economic powers, and the Yakult Swallows signed Horner for a year at about $2.6m, on par with what the top Major Leaguers were earning at the time. Horner got off to a hot start, hitting six home runs in his first four games, and despite being injury-limited to 93 games, slashed .327/.423/.683. Still, Horner was never comfortable in Japan and turned down a 3-year/$15m deal from Yakult, which would have made him the highest-paid baseball player in the world. Instead he replaced Jack Clark with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he lasted a year before retiring.

1984 Warren CromartieIn the late 70’s and early 80’s, Cromartie played a very capable outfield in Montreal alongside future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tim Raines (2013?). He left as a free agent for Yomiuri, where he played seven seasons and became one of the representative NPB players of the 1980’s. Cro slugged 30 or more home runs in each of his first three NPB seasons, and twice batted over .360. He remains revered by Kyojin fans, and still occasionally turns up in Japan for TV commentary and other media appearances.

1974 Frank HowardHoward signed with the Taiheyo Club Lions (currently the Saitama Seibu Lions) to close out his venerable career. Unfortunately, he injured his back in his first at-bat in Japan and never played again.

1973 Joe PepitoneYakult, then known as the Atoms, signed Pepitone to much fanfare in 1973. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Pepitone would up playing only 14 games in Japan. Pepitone now turns up in Shukan Baseball’s annual foreign player issue, mainly as a source of ridicule for his hairpieces and habit of claiming to be injured, only to be spotted at nightclubs.

1962 Don Newcombe, Larry Doby: 1962 saw the first players with significant MLB careers move to NPB, with Doby and Newcombe both joining the Chunichi Dragons. Neither should need an introduction to baseball fans: Doby broke the color line in the American League and is a Hall of Famer; Newkcombe was among the first generation of black Major Leaguers, an ace pitcher and on a path to the Hall himself before alcoholism lead to a premature decline. Doby had retired from MLB in 1959, and hit .225/.302./.396; Newcombe played left field and hit .262/.316/.473. Neither player made a big impact on the field with the Dragons, but they started the trend of MLB veterans extending their careers in Japan, which still continues to limited extent today.

1953 Leo KielyThe first Major Leaguer to play in NPB, Kiely was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who was drafted into the military and stationed in Yokosuka. The Mainichi Orions (currently the Chiba Lotte Marines) needed pitching help and, in August 1953, signed him to a “part-time” contract that allowed him to appear in games around his military schedule. Kiely went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 45 innings over six games on the mound, and 10-19 at the plate. In September, Kiely’s assignment to Yokosuka ended, and he returned to the US. Kiely resumed his career with the Red Sox the following year, and NPB’s commissioner enacted a rule prohibiting teams from signing US servicemen as part-time players.

The late Cappy Harada said NPB of the early 50’s was around the level of an American Class C minor league (modern day 1A). The league has come a long way over the last 60 years.

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