Tag Archive > Sadaharu Oh

Guest Post: Two and Two are not Five

» 22 September 2013 » In nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

If you’ve followed Japanese baseball in English for any period of time, chances are you’ve encountered Michael Westbay’s work. Westbay-san is the founder of JapaneseBaseball.com, a columnist for Baseball Magazine, a video podcaster, and a general leader of the English-speaking Pro Yakyu online community. Many of the English language NPB bloggers, including me, started out as members of the JapaneseBaseball.com forums.

Part of the reason I started NPB Tracker was to combat misinformation about Japanese baseball in the American media. The confluence of the “juiced ball” scandal, Wladimir Balentien’s home run record, and the Masahiro Tanaka rumor mill is more than I have time to adequately ponder, much less write about… so when I saw Westbay-san’s lengthy post about the ball issue, I asked him if he’d be willing to turn his commentary into a post here. 


There has been a rash of articles coming out on CNN, ESPN, and other sites which are mashing together several news items coming out of Japan and either putting 2 and 2 together to get 5, or leading their readers to reach such a conclusion. What these mashup articles lack is context.

Let’s take this ESPN article as a prime example. The most insidious thing about this post is that everything mentioned in it, taken by itself, is true.

  • It is true that commissioner Ryozo Kato announced his retirement.
  • It is true that the league kept the switch to a livelier baseball a secret until June.
  • It is true that there has been a dramatic increase in home runs.
  • It is true that Kato is stepping down due to the ball scandal.
  • It is true that Wladimir Balentien broke Sadaharu Oh’s 49 year old home run record.
  • It is true that the commissioner claims to have never been informed of the ball change.
  • It is true that the player’s union called for his resignation when the issue came to light.
  • It is true that a third party is investigating the issue.
  • It is true that Kato will quit after the end of the regular season (although I have seen reports that have his last day potentially just before the start of the Nippon Series toward the end of October rather than October 6).

Now, one of the truths above is not like the others. Can you guess which one?

Here’s a hint, one commenter, Thomas Brennan, wrote, “This just screams of Nationalism. It’s fine. It’s their league and they can do what they want with it.”

In what way, shape, or form does this “scream of Nationalism”?

Oh, he put 2 and 2 together to get 5. The commissioner retires under the scandal of a livelier ball with Oh’s 49 year old record being broken by a foreigner, therefore everybody in Japan must be up in arms and calling for the commissioner’s head for allowing this to happen!

Others put 2 and 2 together to get that an asterisk needs to go next to the record.

Except nobody is calling for Kato’s head over the record. Nobody is suggesting an asterisk is needed. If there is anybody who thinks the record is due to the “livelier ball,” then he’s being shunned by everybody else as an ignorant idiot. And such idiots are not making public spectacles of themselves as it appears their North American counterparts are.

I’m perhaps being too harsh on the commenters, though. Giving a mish-mash of facts taken out of context like this, and a general ignorance of Japanese baseball other than the sensationalist mis-information that’s been floating around North America about Tuffy Rhodes’ and Alex Cabrera’s runs at the home run record, it’s not surprising that so many reach such a conclusion.

Now, let’s look at some context that this and every similar news article is missing.

As stated above, the “livelier baseball” and “dramatic increase in home runs” are both facts. But in the context of compared to the last two years.

In 2010, the year before moving to the Unified Ball, the Yomiuri Giants alone hit over 200 home runs. In 2004 they hit over 250. No single team is even close to projecting anywhere near 200 this season. Yes, the ball is livelier than the past two years. But nobody is claiming that is the reason for Balentien’s success. (There were some posters, such as “daclyde,” on a CNN thread who correctly pointed out how much Balentien has improved as a hitter while in Japan. This shows that there are some intelligent, well informed readers despite the poor execution of North American Journalists.)

The reason Kato-Commissioner is stepping down is not due to the home run record. The player’s union called for Kato’s resignation after his long insistence that the ball had not changed right up to the revelations that it was on June 12. With a livelier ball, players’ contract incentives, especially those for pitchers, were in jeopardy, and they did not have the opportunity to factor in a new ball during their contract negotiations.

What did the home run race look like on June 12?

Yokohama’s Tony Blanco had looked like he was going to run away with the Home Run Crown with 23 home runs in 58 of Yokohama’s 59 games played. But Balentien was closing in with 20 after playing in just 47 games, getting a late start to the season due to an injury during the WBC.

The June 13th, 2013 edition of Nikkan Sports had a table showing how the pace of home runs had changed since the introduction of the unified ball in 2011.  It featured both Japanese and foreign players. Some players not known for hitting home runs, like the Lions’ Takumi Kuriyama quadrupling his home runs per at bat compared to 2012. Balentien, who was the Home Run Title winner the previous two years, showed a steady, linear increase year to year. Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred, at that point, was actually hitting home runs at a lower pace compared to 2012. Tony Blanco, who led both leagues at the time, was not even mentioned in the table.

Kato’s resignation and Balentien’s home run record are not related. It’s poorly written articles like this, that mash together a bunch of facts as though there is some sort of causality, that really do a disservice to the baseball community.

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Career Retrospective: Kazumi Saito

» 04 January 2011 » In npb » 7 Comments

After three years on the sidelines, the Softbank Hawks offered former ace Kazumi Saito a choice this offseason: an entry-level ikusei contract, or a coaching position with the team. Saito chose to continue his comeback as a coach, fittingly one responsible for injury rehabilitation. Today we take a look back at Saito’s career, who between injuries has had some dazzling performances.

Saito’s baseball journey began on the southern side of Kyoto, the city where he was born.  It was at Minami Kyoto High School where he became a pitcher and first caught the eye of baseball scouts. Despite being unable to lead his teams to an appearance at Koshien (the school has never been), he was tagged as a top professional prospect. The then-Fukuoka Daiei Hawks selected the young right-hander in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft.

Just shy of his 20th birthday, Saito was already pitching at the ichi-gun level. He made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut on October 5, 1997. Though he would appear in only one game at the level (a feat he also repeated during the 1998 and 1999 seasons), he had ascended staggeringly quickly through the pro ranks.  However it was also at this time that Saito began to experience shoulder problems, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. Surgery was performed on his troublesome right shoulder for the first time in 1998, and coaches toyed with the idea of converting Saito to a position player.  Saito, however, was keen on remaining a pitcher.

His first full season came in 2000, when he reached a milestone of recording his first win at the major league level.  He used his unusual height (192cm) to his advantage, as well as the ability to throw a hard fastball in the 150’s (KPH), a sharp forkball, mixed with an excellent slider and curveball.  He finished 2000 with 5 wins against 2 losses and a 4.13 ERA.

His breakthrough season was delayed, however, when it came to light in 2001 that he would need additional surgery on his troublesome right shoulder. He was able to come back by the end of the 2002 season and regain some form of dominance that had led the Hawks to be so high on him.

2003 was the season when it all came together for Saito.  The numbers alone don’t do his season justice. After being called upon by then-manager Sadaharu Oh to become the team’s staff ace, the newly minted Opening Day starter responded with a 20-3 (.870), 2.83 ERA season. Saito didn’t lose a game until his 17th decision, becoming the first 20-game winner in the Pacific League in 18 years. He shared the Sawamura Award with Kei Igawa and helped his team to a Japan Series title, defeating Igawa’s Hanshin Tigers in an exciting seven games, though he was winless on the big stage.

As fruitful as 2003 was, what followed must have felt akin to running on ice for #66. After being so good, Saito posted an inexplicable 6.26 and even spent time at ni-gun in 2004 before shoulder pains popped back up in 2005. However, after being sidelined for the first month of the season, Saito rared back to his winning form, ripping off another furious streak of consecutive wins. This time it was 15 straight, exhibiting a penchant for control pitching (2.35 BB/9IP) and a healthy strikeout rate (7.39 K/9IP). He went 16-1 with a 2.92 ERA when it was all said and done, but maintained his reputation for underperforming in the postseason with a poor showing in the playoffs.

2006 was a pitching masterstroke for the ace. After skipping the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Saito tinkered with his windup (NPB placed new guidelines on pitchers prior to the start of the season) and was dominant. Once again making an Opening Day start, he beat the Chiba Lotte Marines and never looked back. The season featured a memorable near no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants, too. On June 8th Saito faced the minimum 27 batters, allowing only an infield single to Ryota Wakiya and subsequently picking him off base. The dominance continued all summer long, as Saito’s 18-5, 1.75 record reflects. He walked only 46 men over 201 innings, striking out 205. He picked up almost every major postseason honor, save the MVP award, which went to Micihiro Ogasawara. This time Saito was brilliant in the playoffs, but it ended in heartbreak, as the Nippon Ham Fighters crushed his dreams of returning to the Japan Series in a fantastic 1-0 game to decide the pennant.

2007 was the last we have seen of Saito, sadly. Though he appeared in 12 games and the Climax Series, arm trouble persisted and rehabilitation was prescribed. In 2008 he had rotator cuff surgery hoping to be ready for 2009. It didn’t happen, though, and in early 2010 more surgery was performed. As of 2011, he remains with the team as a rehab coach, though not officially retired from pitching and still hoping to regain his form.

With a career 72-23 record, there is no question that he should be counted among the elite Pacific League pitchers of the 2000s.  But his career has been a roller coaster ride.  As evidence of this, he has only accrued 6 and a half years of service time in NPB, in a professional career that now has spanned 15 seasons.  It will be interesting to see if Saito can make it back to ichi-gun as a pitcher; at age 33 and with his injury history, the odds are certainly stacked against him. Does he have one more surprise left for his fans?

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The Meikyukai

» 19 August 2009 » In nichibei, npb » 4 Comments

With Kaz Matsui becoming the latest player to enter the Meikyukai by surpassing a total of 2000 hits between NPB and MLB, it seems like a good time to address what the Meikyukai is and how players can enter the Golden Players Club.

The Meikyukai was first organized by Masaichi Kaneda in 1978 as a voluntary organization, but quickly became a corporate organization built by former players with Kaneda as the president and Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh as co-vice presidents. The Meikyukai was organized with the goals of giving back to disadvantaged in the community and contributing to build the grass roots of professional baseball. Main activities of the club includes teaching classes to the younger generations, promoting baseball and participating in volunteer activities throughout the communities.

In order to join the Meikyukai, there are some milestones players need to surpass. Pitchers are able to join after earning 200 or more wins or 250 saves. On the other hand, position players need to surpass the total of 2000 hits. The regulations changed in November 2003, such that the numbers can be a total combined from both NPB and the MLB. Three current players on MLB rosters have made it in to the Meikyukai; Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, and now Kaz Matsui of the Houston Astros. The list of every player in the Meikyukai can be seen here.

The next pitcher in line to join the Meikyukai are Masahide Kobayashi, who is 17 saves shy. Tuffy Rhodes, were he eligible, would need 114 more hits (as of 8/16; thanks to commentor passerby for the clarification). A list of the other players nearing induction can be found on the Meikyukai’s website.

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Offseason Changes: SoftBank Hawks

» 11 February 2009 » In npb » Comments Off

Coming: Justin Germano, Kameron Loe, Chris Aguila, Arihito Muramatsu, Brian Falkenborg, manager Koji Akiyama

Going: Jeremy Powell, Rick Guttormson, CJ Nitkowski, Jason Standridge,  Michael Restovich, Naoyuki Ohmura, manager Sadaharu Oh

Staying: DJ Houlton

Trending: neutral

Synopsis: SoftBank didn’t get much out of it’s foreign roster in 2008, hence the high turnover. The Hawks had reportedly been after Eric Hinske and Nelson Cruz, but so far haven’t landed either. Germano and Loe should be useful pieces, and a bit more MLB-caliber than the guys they replace. The Hawks did get the worse of the Muramatsu-Ohmura trade with Orix.

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Oh Announces Retirement

» 23 September 2008 » In npb » 2 Comments

It’s official: Oh has announced that he’s stepping down at the end of the season. Unfortunately, Oh’s Hawks are 10 games under .500 with 9 remaining to play, so we won’t see an inspired run to the playoffs down the stretch.

Oh’s announcement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. As I mentioned in last night’s post, he’d suffered from stomach cancer in 2006. Although this is likely the end of his time in professional baseball in Japan, he left the door open for future involvement in Japan baseball during his press conference: “If there is a need in Japan baseball and I’m asked, I think I should cooperate”.

Sanspo has a photo retrospective looking at Oh’s 14-year career managing the Hawks.

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Sadaharu Oh to Resign

» 23 September 2008 » In npb » Comments Off

Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh is expected to announce his resignation as manager of the SoftBank Hawks following today’s game against Rakuten. I’ll have more details tomorrow morning (California time).

Oh has run the Hawks’ field operations for 14 years, an unusually long time for a manger in any league. Although his style is sometimes unorthodox, he made the Hawks perennial contenders and took Japan Series Championships in 1999 and 2003. After a prolonged slump, the Hawks uncharacteristically fallen to 5th place for the season.

Oh has battled health issues in recent years, most notably a bout with stomach cancer in 2006. Oh is widely considered to be the best player in Japanese baseball history, pounding 868 home runs in his distinguished career with the Yomiuri Giants.

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Softbank is Looking for a Slugger…

» 16 July 2008 » In nichibei, npb » 8 Comments

…and there’s an accomplished one available, Barry Lamar Bonds.

I had been thinking of Bonds since I read that the Hawks are looking for a new foreign power hitter a couple of days ago, but kind of dismissed it as being unrealistic. But after thinking about it for a while, it makes a certain degree of sense. There would be some drawbacks, too. Let’s run down the pros and cons:

The Case For:

  • The Hawks are 4th in the Pacific League with 70 home runs, and tied with Rakuten (who have played fewer games) for 3rd with 370 runs. Bonds in the middle of the lineup would change that.
  • The Hawks only have one foreign batter on their roster currently, Michael Restovich, who has mostly played first base. Softbank has used five foreign pitchers this year, and would still have to do some roster juggling to come in under the foreign player limit.
  • Restovich has underperformed this year with only three HR’s. The Hawks can put him on the bench and create a rotation of Bonds, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Hiroki Kokubo between LF, DH, and 1B.
  • The Hawks are managed by Sadaharu Oh. Oh holds the world record for professional home runs with 868 and has been under the microscope. He seems to sympathize with Bonds as well, probably for these reasons.
  • The Hawks’ parent company, Softbank, is owned by Japan’s richest man, Masayoshi Son. Son has made several statements that he wants to build a world-class baseball team and even once offered to host a “true” World Series, with $100M of his own money going to the winner. Signing Bonds would make a splash.
  • It would be a chance for Bonds to compete again. The Hawks will certainly make the playoffs and with a healthy Bonds could be the favorite for the Pacific League title. He hasn’t won a championship in MLB. A Japan title wouldn’t replace that but it would be a great achievement in it’s own right.
  • I’ve actually seen Bonds do interviews with the Japanese media, including one where they followed him around a spring training. Maybe he gets along better with the Japanese press.

The Case Against:

  • Bonds’ popularity in Japan has plummeted since all the BALCO stuff came out. He was once a star there; not so much any more.
  • He would probably be immediately subjected to a drug test.
  • There would still be intense media scrutiny over there; if anything it may be more intense than what it would be in the US.
  • It’s possible that Bonds’ tarnished reputation could backfire with fans.
  • Bonds’ presence could create a distraction for the other players.
  • It would probably be a month before we see him in action.

It would certainly be a gamble for Softbank to sign Bonds, but it makes sense for baseball reasons. I think it makes sense for both sides. As a fan of Japanese baseball, I was a little conflicted about writing this — in some ways I’d kind of like to see NPB prove itself on it’s own terms, without a guy like Bonds around. But then again, it would be great to see Bonds face off against pitchers like Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Yoshihisa Naruse. And maybe it would draw a little more attention to NPB internationally, which I think would be great.

Bonds’ agent issued a “no comment” when asked about Japan (SFGate via mlbtraderumors.com), which suggests to me that it’s not out of the question. Unlikely, yes, but not out of the question.

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