08 March 2010

Japanese Baseball Blog: Yakyu Baka (interview)

To many in the United States, Japanese baseball is a rather vague concept. We are aware every once in a while of an impressive player like Yu Darvish, but often only pay attention when an individual is being posted or is an unrestricted free agent. It is rare for most MLB fans to pay attention to any player's career as it unfolds. Difficulties include finding comprehensive analysis packaged for a reader of English as well as just a basic understanding in the differences between the game in Japan and in the United States.

The past few years, we have seen more interest in international baseball as MLB teams are reaching into Europe, India, and with a rapid influx of Cuban talent after Dayan Viciendo signed. Greater awareness has also turned to Japan where youth (Junichi Tazawa) is beginning to trickle into the States. This has created a much broader and informed group of fans that actively search out information about baseball in these regions.

Earlier we discussed the game in Cuba with Cubano and today we are interviewing Gen, the author of the Japanese Baseball Blog Yakyu Baka. This web site is a great source of information for those of us who are taking more of an interest in the Japanese game. I suggest everyone to check it out.

After the jump, Gen answers several questions quite extensively. It is a great read.

Camden Depot: Can you introduce yourself, your background, and explain what you do with your website?

Gen: My name is Gen. I was born and raised by Japanese parents in New York. I was a huge Yankee fan (since the 1980s) before moving to Japan 6 years ago. I now find that I'm spending less time following the Yankees / MLB and more time following Japanese baseball.

I started providing daily coverage on as much as I can about Japanese baseball (or yakyu) about a year ago, beginning with the WBC. It wasn't until later that I started doing it under the Yakyubaka title. I'm just a one man show so there are obviously limits in what I can do, but I try my best. I'm also not a professional analyst, just a really big fan of baseball.

CD: When the Orioles' Koji Uehara was signed, it was mentioned that he threw a shuuto. It was roughly explained to me that a shuuto is similar to a screwball. It also appears that any Japanese pitcher that throws one, abandons the pitch when he moves over to Major League Baseball. Is this accurate? Why do you think the pitch is more effective in Japan?

G: The shuto (or shuuto) is a tough pitch to put your finger on. Mostly because different people have different opinions on it. If you talk to baseball people in the US, they'll probably say that the shuto looks like a sinker or a two-seam fastball. If you talk to baseball people in Japan, some will probably say there is no US equivalent, while others might agree that it's similar to a two-seamer. You'd figure by now that there would be some sort of general consensus, but that doesn't really appear to be the case. To make things even more complicated is that not every pitcher throws it the same exact way.

I found this video that might help explain the shuto a bit more. It's in Japanese, but I think you can get a feel for what they're saying just by watching. This particular video explains the shuto as being something opposite to the slider. Incidentally, during the graphic where they show the grips, they also mentions that some pitchers don't use the seems at all.

As for why pitchers might abandon the pitch... There's a difference in the style of play between the MLB and the NPB. Perhaps the following will help illustrate the point a little better.

Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham Fighters), Hideaki Wakui (Seibu Lions), and Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles) are likely in the top for pitchers in the NPB right now. They're also all under 25. I suppose it should also be noted that they pitch in the Pacific League.

Now, as for why I bring them up, it's because of the following stat (from the 2009 season):

Darvish threw his fastball 34% of the time. Wakui 36%. Tanaka 38%.

While there are pitchers in Japan that throw a lot of fastballs, the fact that three of Japan's top pitchers throw the fastball less than 40% of the time shows a different trend than in the US.

To extend the thought further, according to data posted at Data Stadium's blog [ http://www.plus-blog.sportsnavi.com/input/article/70 ], the fastball was thrown 46% of the time (the data is for 2009 and only through to July 1). In comparison, based on what I could gather at Fangraphs [ http://www.fangraphs.com/teams.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&&type=4&season=2009&month=0 ], the fastball was thrown close to 60% of the time in the Majors in 2009. It seems pitchers in the NPB also throw a lot more sliders as well: 25% vs the MLB's 14% or so.

Of course, this is over just one year. And not even a complete year for the NPB, but I think its a good start in terms of showing how differently the game is played in Japan.

One other thing: I wonder if it might be possible that the shuto is getting "lost in translation" when it hits the Majors. In other words, how do we know if Japanese pitchers are abandoning their shutos if they're throwing two-seamers and sinkers? Couldn't it be possible that those pitches are just re-packaged shutos?

Incidentally, that Baseball Stadium chart also lists the shuto at 6%.

* for those that don't know, Baseball Stadium is the company that records / stores baseball data for the NPB.

CD: It has been mentioned (most recently with Dice-K) that rest between starts, pitches thrown per game, and pitching loads differ between Japan and the US. Could you elaborate on the differences that a pitcher might face?

G: Most teams in Japan tend to go with a 6-man rotation. And with at least one day off each week, that means pitchers usually have one start per week. There's also usually no such thing as a pitch limit, unless there's concern for an injury. For example, during Spring camp this year, there were pitchers that threw 200+ pitches in one bullpen session. I'm guessing that's something you would never see happen in the US. But in Japan, it shows fighting spirit and is considered one of the best way to improve stamina.

There are other things to take into consideration like longer travel times, longer seasons, different timezones, different diets, different training programs, different cultures, language barriers... All of these things can add up and create fluctuations in a pitcher's stamina.

I think there's also something to be said of the size of the balls and the mounds as well.

While the basic requirements for baseballs between the two countries are basically the same, Japanese baseball makers (ZETT, Mizuno, ASICS, Kubota) tend to make baseballs based on the minimum values while the US baseball maker (Rawlings) tend to make them based on the maximum values. This is why you hear lot about MLB baseball being bigger than Japanese baseballs. MLB baseballs also tend to have smoother surfaces with stitching that more pronounced. Depending on the pitcher, they may abandon certain pitchers based on whether or not they can comfortably throw it.

For a comparison, take a look here:



As for the mounds, based on things I've read, Japanese mounds tend to be softer than their MLB counterparts. I have no idea which is actually better for the leg, but it would seem a softer landing surface would be better suited to absorbing shock. I wouldn't be surprised if the harder mounds were causing more strain (or at least different kinds of strain) which could maybe explain why Japanese pitchers get tired more quickly.

These are just guesses though. Someone that knows more about muscles and surfaces would be better suited to diving further into this topic.

And to take all of this further, I think I might go so far as to say that NPB pitchers will never have pro-longed success AS STARTERS in the Majors. Age will of course determine length -- the older player is when they get to the Majors, the fewer years they'll have, in general, to have good years. But more than that, I think that by the time an NPB pitcher gets to the Majors, it's almost too late to re-program their bodies.

Maybe that's an extreme view to take. The jury is still out on Daisuke Matsuzaka. He could certainly break the mold.

A couple of players I'll be watching this season, with keen interest, will be Colby Lewis and Junichi Tazawa.

Lewis played under Marty Brown so there might not be much different with him (in terms of conditioning), but he did have success in Japan. I'm interested in seeing how that translates in the Majors. As for Tazawa, I hear the Red Sox might give him a look as a reliever. That could actually work out in favor of Tazawa. Let him get used to the rigors of the MLB as a reliever and once he does, shift him into the rotation when a spot opens up.

In fact, just on a whim, I think it might make more sense to start Japanese pitchers as relievers and then move them out once they get a hang of pitching in the Majors. It would take more time, but it would give them the prep time to make the conversion. Tazawa may be young, but he grew up playing baseball in Japan. If you think NPB practices can be tough, high school practices can sometimes be even tougher.

CD: What are your thoughts on the Gentleman's Agreement between the leagues in which MLB has agreed not to sign Japanese amateurs? From what I have seen (particularly with Junichi Tazawa) that teams will eventually ignore the agreement. What would that mean for Japanese baseball?

G: This is a tough one for me because I really love watching Japanese baseball. The last thing I want to see is the domestic talent pool drained because of the MLB. I don't know think that will necessarily happen, for a number of reasons which I won't get into here, but the fact that it can does bother me a little.

At the same time, I also understand why players would want to go the MLB -- more money, more security, better competition.

The biggest problem with the NPB faces right now is the 4 player limit on foreign players (you can also never have all four spots taken up by just pitchers or just position position players). If the NPB can either increase that number or get rid of the limit entirely, it would like boost the level of play across the board.

While I can't ever imagine the NPB removing the limit completely, I think even a slight increase, to say 6 players, could change things drastically.

CD: Long-term, what do you think will be the state of Japanese baseball? Some have compared it to the Pacific League in the 1940s and 1950s, which rivaled MLB until MLB relocated and established franchises on the West Coast of the United States.

G: This is a tough question. I think if nothing changes, the NPB will be in serious trouble (financially, it already sort of is). I tend to see the glass half-empty in these kinds of situations, so maybe things aren't quite as dark as I think they are, but I honestly do feel that what happens over the next 3-5 years will help determine which direction the NPB is really going. After all, there's only so many years a league can operate in the red. The NPB is hoping international tournaments can help bring in some extra revenue, just like the WBC did in 2009, but I think that's just a temporary solution to a much larger problem.

CD: Thanks again for your time, Gen.

Gen is the author behind the blog Yakyu Baka.

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