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Archive for May 9th, 2007

Major League Baseball has been seeing a major influx of Japanese players recently, as U.S. teams have started to speak with their pocketbooks in an attempt to pry talent away from the Nippon Leagues. For all of the attention lavished on a Daisuke Matsuzaka, there is an Akinori Iwamura who signs for much less but provides immediate impact. I became aware of Mike Plugh, a baseball writer living in Japan, when he commented on Digital Headbutt a while back. He is the creator of Matsuzaka Watch and other blogs focusing on Nippon baseball, and he writes for Baseball Prospectus as well. In an effort to peek behind the curtain of international baseball, I asked him a few questions about the similarities and differences that define the sport in Japan and the U.S.

Here are my questions (in bold) along with his generous and precise replies:

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Baseball takes a backseat to the NFL in the U.S. Is it at least the national pastime of Japan?

Baseball is most definitely the national pastime of Japan. From amateur to industrial league to the professional circuit, Japanese people digest a lot of baseball year round. I believe that Sumo is the official national sport, but the popularity of baseball is unparalleled.

japan_ballpark_map.jpgThere are fewer teams in Japanese Baseball – how long is the season?

The Pacific League plays 136 games, while the Central plays 146.

Do the two leagues compete for players (like the ABA/NBA or USFL/NFL once upon a time)?

The two leagues are more like the NL and AL. It’s all under the umbrella of the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), like the National and American are under MLB.

Does this create any controversy as to which player is the best in a statistical category?

There is no controversy. The Japanese aren’t nearly as into advanced metrics as Americans. I suppose there is a small minority of people who care, but by and large I think the numbers are taken in the context of the individual leagues, rather than scrutinized for what they mean overall. Baseball is a game of process, a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Of course, winning and losing are the overriding goals, but getting there is very very important to the Japanese.

Is there a championship of Japan, like the World Series?

Yes. The Japan Series is exactly like the World Series. Central champs play Pacific champs in a best of 7.

When American players come over to play in Japan, are they embraced?

mrbaseball.jpgAmerican players are not automatically embraced. It really depends on the reputation of the player, but most Americans coming to play in Japan haven’t established much of a track record back home. The fans take a wait and see approach before latching on to their new imports. They’ve seen too many come and go after failing miserably.

What is the hardest thing for an American player in Japan to get used to?

I think the hardest thing to adjust to for Americans here is the structure of the team meetings, workouts, and all the rules that go with being a professional here. Players are employees of the parent companies in effect, and as such they have to be good representatives. They are the face of the company to the public. Japanese baseball clubs are much more like the orderly, military-like football clubs in the US, although they’ve lightened up a lot in recent years.

Are the parent companies sporting consortiums, or corporations that just happen to own teams as part of their holdings?

hokkaido_nippon-ham_fighters.pngThe parent companies are largely independent businesses. For example, Yomiuri Shimbun (newspaper and media), Hanshin Railways (freight and railroads), Seibu (hotels, bus lines, trains, and a department store), SoftBank (software, communications, cellular phones). The funniest one to me is the Nippon Ham Fighters parent company who are a meat products manufacturer. Also the Yakult Swallows seem like a team with a bird nickname, but it’s a double-entendre for the yogurt beverage that is the mainstay of the company. If any of those companies experiences financial hardship the team suffers. The Daiei department store chain used to own the Fukuoka Hawks. The parent company went bankrupt, and they spent a lot of the team revenues trying to stay afloat. In the end they couldn’t pay the rent on the stadium and they couldn’t continue to be aggressive with free agency, so they sold the team to SoftBank. SoftBank has infused the team with money as a way to generate interest in their products, and the team is full of talented players top to bottom.

What is the hardest thing Japanese players have to learn in MLB?

I think this really depends on the player, but I think there are two main things. First, players have to figure out how to “stay Japanese” while living and traveling extensively across America. By that, I mean they have to figure out how to get the foods they are familiar with, tap into the various Japanese communities and resources for Japanese ex-pats in the US. The Japanese are very particular about their own way of life, so it’s a factor. Second, I think Japanese players need to figure out how to train and practice in a way that suits their comfort level. Japanese players practice very hard every day, and spend a lot more hours on the physical part of preparation that their US counterparts. It’s drilled into them from elementary school that practicing as hard as possible, as much as possible, will lead you down the road to perfection. In the US, player tend to “pace themselves” a bit more, and that can be a tough adjustment.

I had heard that Japanese baseball was somewhat less aggressive than the U.S. version. That managers didn’t like to go for extra bases, etc. Is that true, or is it a thing of the past?

Teams are a little more aggressive these days, but the Japanese believe strongly in the idea of sacrifice. Sacrificing your individual self and goals for the larger collective is not only a cultural viewpoint, but also extends to the baseball field. There is still a 1960’s National League mentality with many teams. If you are facing a good pitcher and get the leadoff runner on in the 1st, you don’t think twice about it. You bunt. I’ve seen teams sac bunt twice in certain situations. There are some American managers over here who are managing like 2000s National League managers, so there is an evolution, but it will never look like the AL.

Do Japanese fans play fantasy baseball?

Not that I know of.

Do Japanese players/fans chafe at the perception that their top league is sort of a glorified farm league for MLB?

I think the owners are the most upset about the perception that the NPB is a glorified farm team. The players probably don’t see it that way, since most of them are stuck in 10-year mandatory service contracts before they are granted free agency. The older fans are worried, but the younger fans genuinely enjoy seeing their heroes play in the world’s toughest league. The owners have a financial interest that scares them. The players don’t get a fair deal, so they are losing their sense of loyalty. The older fans remember when the game was at its peak popularity. The younger fans increasingly look at the NPB as a mildly interesting collection of teams that are run by greedy old men, who care more about funding the parent company than they do about building a great league. And, they’re right.

So that’s why we’re seeing these enormous “negotiating fees” for players like Daisuke Matsuzaka?

The only reason for the enormous fees are the law of supply and demand. There is a demand for talented and polished ballplayers, especially pitchers. The Japanese have the supply. Put billion dollar American corporations together with stretched-thin Japanese corporations with desirable assets, and you have a gold mine.

Americans have gone crazy for Matsuzaka, but from what I hear, it’s even more insane in Japan.

Yes, the students who were in high school at the same time as Matsuzaka are often referred to as The Matsuzaka Generation by sportswriters here. This comes up particularly frequently when discussing the other high school players of the same graduating class, although it extends to “civilians” as well. Kind of crazy how popular he is…..

What is the process for getting to the major leagues in Japan? Are there minor league teams? College teams? Do kids come straight out of school?

If you are good enough to be drafted in the 1st round of the amateur draft, you’ll probably be thrown to the wolves right away. There are minor leagues, but they are generally not that developed or useful. They merely hold onto talented draftees until an opening presents itself on the big club. There are a lot of college teams. Amateur baseball is huge in Japan, and the college circuit gets a lot of attention. The aforementioned Yuki Saito is so popular that the Tokyo Big Six League (Japan’s Ivy League) will have all its games televised for the first time this year. I suppose the best players either enter the pros straight out of high school at 18, or they attend university. The minors aren’t as great an option. The one other way to get to the big clubs is via the industrial leagues. Tokyo Gas and Electric, Toyota, YKK, and a million other companies field teams of players that missed the cut in the amateur draft, and didn’t go to college. Those teams aren’t all that good, and the best players are usually marginal pros at best.

darvish.jpgWho are the players still in Japan that we’ll be hearing about in the next season or two?

Kosuke Fukudome is an outfielder with the Chunichi Dragons that will be headed to the US via free agency after this season. He is famous for a .400+ OBP, a million doubles, and a cannon throwing arm. The Yomiuri Giants’ ace Koji Uehara will also be coming via free agency, and while he’s in his early 30’s, he’ll be plenty good enough to garner a lucrative contract and make a fairly strong impact on whichever division he enters. Outside those two players, there’s always a group of people wringing their hands at the prospect of a posting or two. The names bandied about are Yakult’s Ichiro-esque outfielder Norichika Aoki, Nippon Ham’s 20-year old ace Yu Darvish, and SoftBank Hawks’ ace Kazumi Saito. I have no indication that any of them will be posted, but if I had to guess, I’d say that only Saito will realistically be available at the end of the year. Finally, Waseda University freshman ace Yuki Saito will probably jump directly to the Majors when he graduates in 4 years. He’s like a mini-Matsuzaka and should be fun to watch in college.

Does it seem likely that U.S. clubs will begin negotiating with Japanese players straight out of college – sort of “snap them up” before they can get locked in?

Yes. Yuki Saito may be the first to actually make the move in 4 years, but the MLB clubs have been trying for a generation. Koji Uehara, the Giants ace, was offered a contract out of college to play for the Angels but was intensely pressured to play for Yomiuri instead. There is far less meaning to that pressure in 2007, although it still exists. The precedent for good players to go to the Majors has been set, and evolves every year. College players will start to come very soon.

koshien000818.jpgSpace is a major constraint in Japan – how do they find room to build baseball stadiums? Are the costs higher for such an extravagant use of space?

The baseball stadiums in Japan are almost all built by the municipalities and the teams have to pay top dollar to rent them every year. It’s a major operating expense. Some of the stadiums are famous domes, others are smaller Fenway-like band boxes with an air of tradition. Other ballparks are a part of larger “entertainment complexes” with shopping and theme parks and the works.

What is ballpark food in Japan? Does anyone sing “Take me out to the Ballgame?”

onigiri.jpgBallpark food in Japan is largely regional, but includes a lot of beer, hot dogs, and other Western style ballpark fare. You can bring in your own food in many cases, which is unthinkable to Americans. Local food like yaki-soba noodles, ramen, yakitori, onigiri (rice balls), and of course sake can be found in most parks. The Japanese LOVE to eat, and the ballpark is a fun way to get your fill while taking in a game. There is no “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, but teams have fight songs galore. Part of the Japanese baseball experience is the “oendan” or cheering section. It’s a tradition that goes back to junior high and high schools, and extends to the pros. A bunch of wild and crazy fans decked out in team colors meet regularly, practice, and coordinate their efforts. They effectively lead the cheering in the stadium for everyone to follow. There are songs, chants, and a lot of flag waving. They also sell “oendan sticks” which are either plastic clubs or clackers that make tremendous amounts of noise and let the opposition know whose house it is.

Which Japanese player will most likely be the first in the U.S. baseball hall of fame?

That’s a very tough question. Most of the guys arrive so late in their careers, they can’t possibly put enough service time in to qualify. I’d give Matsuzaka an outside shot at it. He’s only 26, so he could conceivably put up enough numbers to merit induction. Outside of Daisuke, I’d throw Yuki Saito into the conversation. It’s way way too early to know whether he’ll even make a serviceable Major Leaguer, but he looks good so far and could jump into the action at 22 years old with a lot of talent. If it isn’t one of those two players, he isn’t on the radar yet.

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I’d like to once again thank Mike for taking the time to answer my extensive list of questions.  Keep this info in mind as we see more and more Japanese imports plying their trade in the MLB.

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voodoosabermetricsbanner1.PNGVoodoo Sabermetrics reminds us that our love for the team includes our love of individual players. We usually have a favorite superstar hitter or pitcher or both. But what about those guys that you just… like? Maybe someone who pinch hits or steals a base now and then. Maybe an aging vet who is like an extra coach in the dugout. Rather than judge everyone by their stats, we’re going to use unique categories and scoring methods to check out baseball’s characters.

Our High Voodoo Council are:

Jack Cobra from The Cobra Brigade Neighbor Quotient and Scrappiness
Texas Gal from Ladies… Hottness and Behavior
Sunil from Hurricanes Are For Drinking Atomic Mass and Exposure
Gary Gnu from The GNUru Fantasy Sports Clutchness
Sooze from Babes Love Baseball Jollyness
TC from Mr. Thursday’s Curious Mechanism Appearance and Quotability
Extra P. from The Extrapolater Name Quality (including nicknames)

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You’re never going to believe this, but we decided to write about blobby a full week ago, even before he shot his mouth off once again by flipping shit at one of the other most reviled players in baseball today. And his penance is that Texas Gal gets to savage him in public before giving her favorite Longhorn a big warm fuzzy the following week. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we run out of over-the-hill fat pitchers to berate in this space. Can anyone get YouTube of Terry Forster or Fernando Valenzuela? I’m going to need a fix.

Meet David Wells

Name: David Wells is a flat-out boring name. His full name is David Lee Wells, which has a certain presidential assassin/serial killer ring to it, however. Where Mr. Wells really makes his points is in the Nickname area – “Boomer” is an excellent nickname for a guy who reminds you of a big stupid labrador retriever. As Chris Berman has shown, it is also an excellent nickname for big guys who won’t shut up, so he’s got good company there. The only Boomer that doesn’t fit this mold is the token black guy from the old Battlestar Galactica series. And even less so for the sexycute asian woman who took the role in the newer version. Good lord – you write one post about David Wells and you start talking in sterotypes. I’d better wrap this up.

David Wells: 1 out of 10 David Lee Wells: 4 out of 10, going up to 10 out of 10 if he eventually murders someone. “Boomer” – 8 out of 10.

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sunil.jpgAtomic Number: David Wells is the John Daly of baseball. He looks like a guy who should be harrassing the pitcher, instead of starting. At times, he pitches like he’s washed up, but by the end of the season, he’s always put in a stretch of solid, league average work. I don’t particularly care for Boomers, including Wells, but he seems to play on winning teams, so clubhouse chemistry around him can’t be terrible. David Wells’ atomic number is 3.422, the atomic number of Wild Turkey. And if this seems a bit muted, it’s probably because I don’t want to think about baseball right now. Josh Hancock, the Milwaukee Brewers, and Chris Carpenter’s bone chips (in chronological order) have made this a pretty crappy week.

Exposure: I’m going to make a case or David Wells being a fucking idiot, who should never stand in front of a microphone, and therefore, overexposed.

Let’s start with the book, Perfect I’m Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball [BIG FUCKING SIC]. I’ll blockquote Wikipedia:

The book upset the Yankees’ management, and Wells was fined $100,000 by the team for disparaging comments which appeared in it. One of them included himself having a hangover when he pitched his perfect game. Among the other controversial statements were claims that he strengthened his pitching arm as a youth by throwing rocks at homeless people and that his minor league team, the Kinston Blue Jays, had segregated stands in 1983 despite ample evidence to the contrary. Amusingly, Wells claimed to have been misquoted in the book, which was presumably penned by a ghost writer. The problems didn’t carry over to the field, however. Wells posted a 15-7 record and helped the Yankees win another pennant.

First, and foremost, if David Wells played in Minnesota, Tampa, St. Louis, or any other media market that doesn’t really matter, he would never have gotten a book deal. By (my) definition, that immediately makes him overexposed. He talked a lot of shit in the book, although I could see the hangover thing as being true. But if you’re getting misquoted in your own autobiography, then you’re almost certainly a fucking idiot, and there’s really no two ways about that.

wellsselig.jpgNumber two, the feud with Bud Selig. Now, Wells has said a lot about Selig, so I’m going to cherry-pick a quotation and rip him apart in a little FJM imitation. On Selig:

“It’s almost a burden for him to have to go to New York or a city like that. If he has that much passion for the game of baseball, then why isn’t he doing something good for it? Name one good thing he’s done for the game of baseball.

(let me preface this with a simple equation: HOPE=$$$$=GOOD)

  1. The Wild Card: Since its inception in 1995, the Wild Card has produced four World Champions, eight pennant winners, a lot more exciting baseball games in the last two months of the season, and a lot more teams and fans who still have hope in September. Sure, some people want to go back to the system of having just divisional champs fight it out in the playoffs. I go the other way on that, how about a 154 game regular season, and adding two more wild cards (making six teams per league), and another round of playoffs, kind of like the NFL. Sure, an 83-win team could take it all down, but hell, that has already happened. The national media can just bury their heads in the sand, and pretend that it never happened again (yeah, still bitter).
  2. Revenue Sharing/Parity: Sure, the Yankees and Red Sox just make a mockery of the luxury tax, but if you got it, you gotta flaunt it. The important thing to remember is that there hasn’t been a repeat champ since 2000, and only two teams (the Cardinals and Yankees) have made the series twice in that span. That gives fans in places like Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Oakland hope. And hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
  3. I’m not going to defend Selig’s handling of the All-Star Game, because, like regular season awards, the most important thing about it is the fact that it can give (or take away) a player’s bonus. All-Star Games, Gold Gloves, and MVPs are stupid honors, voted on by stupid people (FYI, I have already voted 25 times for David Eckstein, Yadier Molina, and Adam Kennedy), and really don’t matter. I would rather my favorite team’s players, and my fantasy team’s players, skip the damn All-Star Game, and take the three days of rest. But Bud Selig’s P.T. Barnum-esque innovation at least has people talking about the All-Star Game, even if they are ripping it’s stupidity. That’s a hell of a lot more than I can say for the Pro Bowl.

So, there you go, I kind of got off on a tangent there, and I the last couple hundred words made me feel pretty dirty, but the point was that David Wells is a fucking moron, who is very overexposed. Plus, he just kind of looks like the type of guy who would get a bit over-exposed in a different kind of way, the sexual predator kind of way. And nobody wants to see that. Guuuuhhhhh.

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jackcobra1.jpgNeighbor Quotient: We all know Boomer likes to drink, even on the night before he pitches no hitters, so in that sense he would be a fine neighbor to have. The veteran southpaw does seem to have a temper though and reportedly enjoys riding on Hogs (Harley’s) from time to time, so that could lead to some elevated noise in the neighborhood. For all of his brashness on the field, it has been said that Wells is a good family guy off of it and for that he gets 8 out of 10.

Scrappiness: Wells has now been in the big leagues for two decades and in
order to do that you must have some scrappiness. Added to that is the fact that Wells has to get by on his ability to be crafty around the strike zone and Wells scrappiness rating continues to rise. To top it all off, I always envision Wells eating Nachos & Cheese in between innings while he pitches. I think I’ve even seen him come out with some cheese on his goatee from time to time. 9 out of 10 on the scrappiness rating system

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texasgal-96.jpgHottness: —

No. I refuse to talk about the relative hottness of David Wells, because there is none. It’s like a black hole of suck- there’s not even enough “nothing” there to give him a zero. No.

Behavior: Guarded (Green on the Terror Alert Scale)

Your dumb motorcycle facade does not fool me, Boomer. You are a dork of the highest order, who just so happens to play major league ball. You are a tattle-tale big mouth who has no tact whatsoever, and has no clue when to shut your piehole. (hint: you should ALWAYS shut it) You are a royal pain in the ass. Oh, and you just went to town on my baby the Rocket- which not only makes you a butt-in-ski (who gives a crap what you think on the subject?), it also makes you my mortal enemy. But you know what, Boom-Boom? I’m not giving you the satisfaction. I’m awarding you the bland rating of “Guarded”, because you don’t deserve any more attention.

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mrthursday-96.jpgMy numerical scores will correlate to the alcohol contents of various beers. In case you care, here’s the scoring system.

davidwells0204.jpgThis week, we’ll combine Quotability and Appearance for Boomer, as, well, for him, they seem to be running the same race. Boomer is obese, slovenly, and hairy. He looks like the guy at your local bar (or, at least, the guy in a neighborhood bar in South Philly) who sits on a stool all night, 6 nights a week, staring at the TV and telling the bartender–and anyone else who’ll listen–about what “they” oughta do to turn the ship around. David Wells is that guy. He has the most ferocious case of Dunlap’s in baseball history (note: Dunlap’s, according to Papa Thursday, is when your gut has dun lapped over your belt). He’s got a beard, or moustache, or scruff, or whatever suits him.

David Wells talks about whatever’s on his mind, and he dresses however the hell he wants. That’s the kind of thing I like to see. You’re no kind of class act, Boomer, but you’re my kind of people. Have a Sam Adams Utopias with its $100 price tag and its 25% alcohol. No, have two.

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suzyheadshot-1.jpgDavid Wells’ mustache/goatee may be all business, but he is six feet and three inches of pure, unadulterated jollity.

What am I even talking about? I’m not sure if Boomer has a jolly bone in his 250-pound body. He’s a husky biker with no tact and a sarcastic sense of humor. Since that’s exactly why I love him (not to mention his curveball) I’ll give him a Red Green on the jolly scale.

red-green.jpg

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gnurubaseball-brain.jpg

wellscheeseburgerdream.jpgIf you like the sounds of Rick Braun, Chris Botti, or Greg Adams you’ll love the smooth jazz sounds of David Wells.

Wells, a renowned flugelhorn player, was only 9 when he became drawn to the smooth, soulful sounds of the flugelhorn. When Mr. Wells can peel himself away from his cherished flugelhorn, he also pitches for the San Diego Padres. Although his best days as a pitcher are behind him, Boomer has been known to come through in the clutch as evidenced by his impressive 3.17 post-season ERA. However, David is more well know for his uncompromising honesty in an era of “Diva” professional athletes and flugelhorn players. While the portly pitcher may not be the most talented pitcher or musician, you have to respect a guy who likes the ball (or flugelhorn) in the big game and is not afraid to take it.

GNUru Clutchness factor:

flugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpgflugelhorns.jpg
(7 tooting Flugelhorns)

(editor’s note: I’m gonna go old school on you here with a little Chuck Mangione)

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This has been a deservedly long post, so I’m going to wrap it up all quick-like.

To me, the goofiest thing about David Wells is his tattoos. I have a four-year-old son, and I love him to pieces. That’s why I bought a digital camera, and one of those plastic wallet things you can flip through. I never once considered having his adorable toddler likeness permanently inked on my flabby triceps. But then again, I never rocked the flugelhorn or called Roger Clemens selfish as a way to divert attention to myself, either. Maybe there’s just a gulf that cannot be bridged here. Nonetheless, we salute Boomer for pitching well, hanging on well past his prime, and giving us plenty of fodder to write about. Sa-lute!

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