Posted on 01 March 2013.
Japan Looks to Maintain WBC Title Monopoly
By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Fourth in a series of 2013 World Baseball Classic previews
Samurai Japan will begin the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC) in a unique position. Not only is the white-and-blue the defending champions, but the third-ranked nation has won both of the first two Classics. The team is missing its major league baseball players, but has reloaded once more with star players from its own Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in search of its third straight title.
A Brief History of Japanese Baseball
The Japanese have played baseball for almost as long as Americans. Though some maintain that there were baseball games as early as the 1850s, most credit missionary Horace Wilson with the introduction of the game in 1872. The first team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club, was formed in 1878, and yaky? (field ball), as the game is known in Japanese, began to take hold.
After the turn-of-the-century, Japanese university teams began travelling to the United States to learn from American teams, and for the next three decades, both nations sent college teams across the Pacific on tours. Interest in the sport was high, and the first Japanese league was formed in 1925 of university teams.
A tradition began in 1908 when a group of American professional players visited Japan for a series of exhibition games and instruction. By the 1920s, major league all-star teams came frequently, including a famous tour in 1934 that had such luminaries as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer. America’s top players faced a team of Japanese all-stars organised by the owner of Yomiuri Shimbun, a major newspaper.
The Yomiuri team remained together after the exhibition season was over and were paid full-time by the company from 1936 onward. The Hanshin Tigers were the next professional team to form, joining the Giants and five other teams in the nascent Japanese Baseball League in 1936. The league was reorganised in 1950 and renamed Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), by which name it is still known.
NPB shares many similarities with MLB, including division into two leagues (the Pacific and Central). As with the Giants, most teams are owned by corporations and take the company’s name rather than a geographical one. Along with the US and Korean circuits, it is one of only three leagues in the world to play more than 100 games per season. The rules are essentially the same, though the style of play is somewhat different, focussing more on fundamentals, contact hitting, and strong defence.
Americans have played for Japanese teams since the league’s inception in 1936 and hold a number of NPB records, but with few exceptions, the opposite was not true until the mid-1990s. Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player to join MLB after pitching in Japan’s big leagues (several Japanese players had played minor league ball in the US). Nomo, one of Japan’s top pitchers, inked a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers after using a loophole to retire from NPB.
Nomo, known for his deceptive and unique windup, went on to a distinguished career in the US circuit, pitching for 12 seasons and winning 123 games. That number is one fewer than Korea’s Chan Ho Park for career wins by an Asian pitcher. The right-hander won Rookie of the Year in 1995, threw two no-hitters, and had a pair of strikeout titles before retiring.
Fearful of a steady stream of top Japanese players moving to MLB, Nippon Baseball negotiated an agreement with MLB. NPB operates with a much smaller budget than Major League Baseball, and the majority of teams do not make a profit. Because of this, the rule prohibited American clubs from signing Japanese players before they became free agents unless they paid what has become known as the ‘posting fee’. When a player is ‘posted’, any MLB team may offer a secret bid to the club during a set period, and the NPB club may accept it, keeping the fee in exchange for the player’s rights.
Since the agreement, dozens of Japanese players have spent time in the big leagues, with four achieving particular fame. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the most famous batters, while pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish both garnered their teams posting fees of more than $51 million.
Japan in International Tournaments
Japan has traditionally dominated Asian baseball tournaments and finished just behind Cuba or the United States in international competitions. The nation has taken a medal in all 26 Asian Baseball Championships (ABCs), with 17 first place finishes. In five Asian Games, they have two gold medals and were twice runner-ups.
The nation has always been a threat in the Olympic Games and the World Cup, but failed to win either before play was halted in both. They took a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics and bronze in two others. They did win gold at the 1984 Olympics and silver four years later, but baseball was considered a demonstration sport at both Games.
Cuba dominated World Cup play, winning 25 consecutive titles before the United States dethroned them in 2007. Japan had one second place effort in 1982, but won five third place medals in their 15 appearances. The Intercontinental Cup was also considered a world championship, and Japan claimed 12 medals in 15 attempts, winning it twice, most recently in 1999.
With such an impressive history of international competition, Japan entered the 2006 WBC as one of the favourites to contend for the world championship and did not disappoint. It hosted a first round pool in the Tokyo Dome, welcoming South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and China in what was a matchup of the top four teams in virtually every Asian tournament from the past three decades.
South Korea came out of the pool as the most impressive club, though Japan outscored the two Chinas by a combined 32-5 score before losing to their closest neighbours, 3-2. The second round shifted action to Angel Stadium in Anaheim, and the Samurai opened with a 4-3 loss to the United States before defeating Mexico 6-1. Korea bested them in another nail-biter, 2-1, but Japan advanced through a tiebreaker.
After playing second fiddle to their arch-rivals, Team Nippon took revenge in the semi-finals, riding Koji Uehara’s seven shutout innings to a 6-0 victory over Korea to advance to the title bout. It was the Blue Bogy’s only loss of the tournament. Japan tested Cuba, a long-time rival in the Baseball World Cup, and came out on top in a wild 10-6 win at Petco Park in San Diego. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was named MVP, tossed four strong frames for the victory.
The story was somewhat similar in 2009, as the Tokyo Dome hosted the same group of teams, but with the format changed, Japan and Korea squared off twice. After easing by China 4-0, Japan took out some frustration on Korea, 14-2, before the two sides met in the final pool game to decide who came out on top. Korea squeaked by the Samurai, 1-0, though both clubs advanced.
Japan once more had to face Korea and Mexico in round two, but was joined by Cuba. Matsuzaka threw six dominant frames to down the Cuban side 6-0 in the first contest, but Japan was then felled by Korea once more, 4-1. The white-and-blue, led by future Seattle Mariner Hisashi Iwakuma, then eliminated Cuba in another shutout, 5-0, before taking round two in a 6-2 victory over Korea.
The finals were at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where Japan beat the U.S. team in convincing fashion, 9-4, before advancing to the final game. Matsuzaka once more earned the victory and was later tabbed the most valuable player for the second time. Its title opponent was, almost predictably, Korea.
The teams battled for supremacy through nine evenly contested frames, but in the top of the tenth, Ichiro Suzuki pushed across a pair of runs with a single for Japan’s second WBC title and a 5-3 win. Iwakuma had a strong start, and future Texas Ranger Yu Darvish earned the save.
Japan is missing a number of star players from that event, including an outfield of Matsui, Suzuki, and Norichika Aoki, as well as a full rotation in Matsuzaka, Darvish, Iwakuma, and Hiroki Kuroda. With the exceptions of Darvish and Aoki, the other players are past their prime and Manager Koji Yamamoto has reloaded with the best players in NPB.
Many pundits believe that the absence of big leaguers will work in Japan’s favour in a number of ways. Without players signed to MLB contracts, the distractions of MLB Spring Training, contracts, approval of the big league clubs, and the timing of the tournament are no longer issues. Japan has always taken a lot of pride in Samurai baseball and, with only NPB stars, it is likely that players will take additional pride in wearing the white-and-blue against opponents that, after the first round, will heavily feature MLB players.
Yamamoto attempted to convince several of the MLB stars to appear, but was happy to declare that his team was “made in Japan.”
Indicative of Japanese baseball, the coaches have established behavioural guidelines for Team Nippon, identifying what makes the “Samurai Japan Spirit”. Players “must not show weakness and should always be looking to move forward” and “must be dignified and should not waver mentally and physically”, among other qualities. (Thanks to Yaky? Baka for the translation.)
U.S. manager Joe Torre expects the best from Japan should they meet later in the tournament. “[Not only their ability, but] the discipline, the motivation, the whole nine yards, the way they go about it” makes the Japanese so good.” The veteran skipper continued, “They rarely make mistakes. Whatever sport you’re looking at it’s usually the team that makes the least mistakes that has the most success.”
“The players know what is at stake. They will make sure they are ready by March 2. And hopefully the team will pull together as one,” asserted Yamamoto at a press conference (Hat tip to Yaky? Baka for the translation).
Catcher Shinnosuke Abe is the captain and star offensive performer for the team. The Giants’ star won the Japanese MVP award in 2012 after hitting .340/.429/.565 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs. He has 295 home runs and a .290 average in 12 seasons.
Though he struggled with the bat during exhibitions games, Abe impressed with his eagerness to work with all the pitchers in practice and has consistently trained on his days off. While he performed well in the 1998 and 2001 World Cups, the backstop has likely not forgotten his previous two tournaments with Japan in which he hit .125 in 20 games between the 2008 Olympics and 2009 WBC.
Kazuo Matsui is the only team member with MLB experience, playing 630 games between 2004 and 2010. He was especially impressive during the Colorado Rockies’ 2007 World Series run, hitting .304/.347/.500 with eight RBI and two stolen bases. Matsui’s career major league line is .267/.321/.380, and he pilfered 102 bases. He was highly regarded at a second baseman, showing well above-average range and an accurate arm. Matsui has played at a similar level upon returning to NPB, though he has spent most of his time at shortstop.
Hayato Sakamoto has a chance of being a breakout star. Only 24 in December, Sakomoto took over the shortstop duties for Yomiuri at only 19 and has only improved since his debut. He hit .311 with 51 extra-base hits in 2012, and has a .284/.332/.439 mark and 54 stolen bases in five full seasons. Sakamoto is also a strong defender, recording a .974 career fielding percentage.
Japan has depth in the outfield and Yamamoto has chosen players with a blend of speed, defence, and hitting ability. While he left off two centerfielders who each led their league in stolen bases, the team has several other players capable of swiping a bag.
Hisayoshi Ch?no won the battle for center field, while Yoshio Itoi is the only pure right fielder on the squad. Seiichi Uchikawa will see time in left field.
Ch?no was the 2010 Central League Rookie of the Year and has only improved since then. He has a .303/.367/.461 line, with 51 stolen bases in 70 attempts. He led the league in batting average in 2011 and hits in 2012. He has performed well in three international events, highlighted by a .457 average in the 2007 World Cup.
Itoi offers a similar blend of contact hitting, power, and speed. He has hit over .300 in all four full seasons he has spent with the Nippon Ham Fighters. He has led the league in on-base percentage the past two seasons. Itoi’s career mark is .302/.391/.455 with 117 stolen bases in 610 games.
Uchikawa can play first base as well as outfield, and is a veteran presence in the lineup. His career record through 1153 games stands at .314/.358/.451 with an outstanding contact rate. He is the top returning hitter from the 2009 WBC, when he went 6-for-18 with two walks, a double, homer, three runs and four RBI in the Classic. Uchikawa tuned up for the 2013 edition with a .353 mark in practice contests.
Yamamoto has stated that aside from Abe in the cleanup spot, he is likely to use several different lineups. Second and third base will be split between Matsui and Takashi Toritani at the keystone sack and Toritani and Nobuhiro Matsuda at the hot corner. A composite lineup based on exhibition games and the manager’s comments to the press looks as follows:
Hayato Sakamoto – SS
Katsuya Kakunaka – DH
Seiichi Uchikawa – LF
Shinnosuke Abe – C
Yoshio Itoi – RF
Hisayoshi Chono – CF
Sho Nakata – 1B
Takashi Toritani– 2B
Nobuhiro Matsuda – 3B
The Pitching Staff
Despite the absence of four of Japan’s top hurlers, including superstar Darvish and two-time WBC MVP Matsuzaka, Yamamoto has crafted a surprisingly deep pitching staff. Most managers in the Classic have only two or three candidates for the rotation, but Yamamoto has six capable starters in the mix. The three most recent recipients of the Eiji Sawamura Award (the equivalent of the Cy Young Award in MLB) are on the club. Five of the 13 pitchers on his roster appeared in the 2009 WBC, with one of those set to appear in his fifth world tourney.
The newest Japanese pitching star after Darvish’s posting is Kenta Maeda. He has never worn the white-and-blue, but was 14-7 with a league-leading 1.53 ERA in 2012, allowing 161 hits in 206 1/3 innings, striking out 171.
The right-hander will be key to the white-and-blue’s success. In his career, the Hiroshima Carp hurler is 56-43 with a 2.47 ERA and an impressive 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio (meaning that he whiffs four batters for every walk he allows).
Masahiro Tanaka may also start a game for Japan, having already earned a reputation as an ace despite only being 24. He has 75 career wins (with only 35 losses), a 2.50 ERA, and 1,055 strikeouts (8.6 per nine innings) for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In 2011, he was selected over Darvish for the Sawamura Award. Tanaka followed that up with a 1.87 ERA and 169 strikeouts to go with a 10-4 record last season.
Tanaka allowed one run in 2 1/3 innings in the 2009 WBC, but struck out five. The right-hander was even more impressive in the 2008 Olympics, throwing scoreless innings against Cuba and the Netherlands, striking out the side each time. Tanaka hurled five frames against the U.S., striking out three without giving up a run.
Other players capable of going several innings are Tetsuya Utsumi, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Toshiya Sugiuchi.
Utsumi is a veteran presence from the Yomiuri Giants. He was 15-6 with a 1.98 ERA in 2012 and 18-5 with a 1.70 the year prior. The left-hander has a career line of 79-45 thanks to a 2.74 ERA. In 2009, he earned a start against South Korea, tossing 2 2/3 solid frames in the no decision.
Sawamura was the 2011 Central League Rookie of the Year after a dominant university career. He had a 2.03 ERA that season and followed that with a 2.86 in 2012. One of few pitchers on the staff with an electric fastball, the righty can hit 155 kmh/96 mph with his fastball and has attracted the attention of MLB clubs.
In his only experience for the national team, Sawamura earned a victory in the gold medal game of the 2009 Asian Championship. The hurler looked strong in a two-inning stint against Cuba in November, whiffing four. He hurled 4 2/3 scoreless frames in exhibition play, forcing Yamamoto to consider him for a more pivotal role.
Sugiuchi is coming off another strong campaign, tying Nomi for the lead in strikeouts (172) and recording a 2.04 ERA and a 12-4 record. He has a 76-37 record and 2.52 ERA in his career, striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings.
Sugiuchi has donned the white-and-blue in four tourneys, accruing a 1.93 ERA over 11 games in global tournaments. In his best performance, the left-hander pitched seven shutout innings in a 6-0 victory over the Netherlands in the 2008 Olympiad. He has appeared in seven World Baseball Classic games, second all-time among Japanese hurlers.
Japan also has a strong bullpen, if one that lacks the star quality of Maeda and Tanaka or the veteran presence of Utsumi or Nomi. Masahiko Morifuku or Kazuhisa Makita will likely close for the club. Yomiuri Online gives the edge to Makita.
Morifuku has a 2.03 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP, and 18 saves in 186 1/3 career innings. He has a 2-1 record with a 4.00 ERA in international play, all in 2006. Makita was the Seibu Lions’ closer and the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2011. He was a starter in 2012, with similar statistical results. His ERA over his two NPB seasons is 2.50 and he has walked only 1.5 batters per nine innings.
The First Round
The squad has had a chance to prepare for the Classic in a series of exhibition contests between Feb. 17 and Feb. 28. Manager Yamamoto has used the games primarily to try out a number of different defensive lineups and give players a chance to get used to several intricacies of the WBC. He tried out 20 position players for 15 roster spots, enabling him to pick those in best form.
There are three major differences that could affect some of the Classic rookies. The first is the larger international strike zone. Another issue is that American mounds are much harder than in Japan. Last is the use of the official MLB baseball, which has elicited a lot of scrutiny from Japanese and Korean hurlers, who describe it as ‘slippery’ when compared to the more tightly wound baseballs used in Asian leagues.
Japan finished 3-2 in its exhibition series, including two victories over Australia, which is competing in Pool B in Taiwan. The other three contests were against NPB clubs, including a 7-0 loss to the Hiroshima Carp and a 1-0 decision in favour of the Hanshin Tigers. The white-and-blue gave up only 11 runs in the five games, but hit .202.
“I think things with the offense will be difficult,” remarked Yamamoto after the first exhibition ended as a shutout. “I do not think it is capable of exploding for a lot of runs. That means the pitchers have to step up.”
Japan kicks off its title defence by hosting Pool A, which begins against No. 20-ranked Brazil on Mar. 2 at 10 a.m. GMT. Brazil and Japan share a unique history in that Brazil is the only country in South America to have been taught to play baseball by the Japanese instead of the Americans. Immigrants from Japan moved to São Paulo and the Amazon region to find work in the 20th century, leaving a lasting effect on Brazilian baseball.
The two nations have only been on the same baseball field once, squaring off in the 2003 Baseball World Cup. The Samurai earned an 8-2 victory over the inexperienced South American side.
Team Nippon has much more experience against the other two teams in the pool. Japan and China have played regularly since the red-and-yellow’s acceptance into the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) in 1981. Despite its diminutive size, Japan has dominated their Pacific neighbours, earning a 24-0 margin in the all-time series. China, rated at No. 18 in the world, will attempt what would be the country’s biggest upset on Mar. 3 at 10 a.m. GMT.
The final nation to visit the 42,000-seat Tokyo Dome is No. 1 Cuba. Cuba and Japan first squared off in the 1972 World Cup. In the last four decades, the two nations have developed quite the rivalry, though it has been a lopsided one.
Cuba holds a 50-12 advantage in the all-time series, and Japan only won a single time between 1972 and 1997. Most of the actual games, however, have been much closer that the record would make them appear. The average score in the 50 games with full results available is only 6-3 in Cuba’s favour. Most of the blowouts inflicted by Cuba were on Japanese sides lacking in top talent, while for most of the late 20th-century Cuba fielded teams of All-Stars.
Cuban manager Victor Mesa is not allowing his club’s past successes against Japan to give the team too much confidence. “Obviously, we rate Japan very highly. They won the previous WBCs and beat us in the process. They have earned everyone’s respect.”
“Obviously, everyone knows how good Japanese baseball is,” Cuban superstar Alfredo Despaigne told the Japan Times. “It is only natural to assume that to win the WBC, we will have to beat them. As the tournament approaches, I want to practice and prepare and play so I can win the championship.”
Pitch limits in the Classic require the use of a starter and a ‘piggyback starter’, who each throw around three innings. According to an article in Yomiuri Online and another from Sponichi, it is likely that Tanaka and Suguichi will be the first two pitchers against Brazil. Maeda and Sawamura will face China.
Yamamoto will announce his starter against Cuba after the second game. If Japan is undefeated, Utsumi would likely take the hill first with Kenji Otonari in immediate relief. Atsushi Nomi would get the start if Japan is 1-1, allowing Utsumi to pitch key frames in the middle innings. Utsumi might also be saved to start the first game of the second round.
China and Brazil are the two lowest-rated teams in the World Baseball Classic, so Japan and Cuba are both expected to advance. Though Cuba has the historical edge, to win the Pool they will have to defeat Japan for the first time in the WBC. The two nations will tangle in what is anticipated to be the de facto first round title bout on Mar. 6 at 10 a.m. GMT.
A special thanks to Gen Sueyoshi at Yaky? Baka for many of the articles and translations. For a more extensive look at the Japanese team, check out the full preview at Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World. Stay tuned for more news, previews, and recaps of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.