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March 13, 2009

Nippon Prospectus

World Yakyu Classic

by Mike Plugh

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For everyone else in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the sport is baseball. Not so for the group of professionals from Japan, dubbed by their marketing machine as "Samurai Japan." For this group of assorted MLB and NPB players, the sport is yakyu. In English, that translates literally to "field ball," and it highlights the single most important difference between the American sport that we've known and loved all our lives, and the Japanese version grown out of American missionary education in the late-19th century and continued ritualistically through the present day. The tools are the same, the field looks the same, and the rules are essentially the same, but the baseball ideology, to borrow a politically charged term, is radically different.

I direct you to the bottom of the eighth inning of the Pool A title game between Japan and arch-rival Korea. In case you were sleeping during these East Asian opening-round affairs, the Japanese had administered a 14-2 drubbing of the Koreans in their earlier Round Two qualifying contest, only to find themselves in the midst of a terrific pitching duel, down 1-0 in the bottom of the inning. Ichiro Suzuki, in his inimitable way, slapped a ball through the infield to give the Japanese club a one-out baserunner, and hopes of a game-tying rally at the very least. Up to the plate came the second-slot hitter, Hiroyuki Nakajima, a 26-year-old shortstop for the NPB champion Seibu Lions, who hits for average, understands how to get on base-a rare trait in a Japanese ballplayer-and has some pop in his bat (a .331/.410/.527 line in 2008). He clearly offers a range of skills that a manager, down a single run late in an important ballgame, might put to use.

Yomiuri Giants and "Samurai Japan" manager Tatsunori Hara then made a managerial decision that left me scratching my head: he followed the yakyu way, and had Nakajima lay down a sacrifice bunt with one out already on the board. This left everything up to the outstanding young talent Norichika Aoki, who promptly ended the inning on a weak grounder to the pitcher. The Baseball Prospectus audience already knows the numerous ways in which this tactical decision is wrong, and I don't really need to spell it out, but I'm going to anyway because it will make me feel better. A player with a 40 percent-plus chance of reaching base was asked to sacrifice with one out and Ichiro Suzuki on first. The same Ichiro who stole 65 bases for the Seattle Mariners in 2008 at a 91 percent success rate. The game ended at 1-0; Team Japan was humiliated at the hands of the Korean club.

The morning news covered the WBC game extensively the next day. I flipped from channel to channel to see if anyone dared criticize Hara for his bone-headed managerial move. I knew that they wouldn't, and I heard precisely what I expected to hear, for I've had the conversation a thousand times with a thousand different Japanese fans. They always say the same thing. "This is not baseball. This is yakyu." If you care to read more about this maddening philosophical approach to our national pastime, I suggest you dig into the BP archives and check out my piece on bunting in Japan. Sure enough, antiquated announcer after over-the-hill announcer almost acknowledged the idiocy of the strategy, proceeding to explain that this was not, in fact, baseball we were talking about, but yakyu. The only indication of annoyance at this wasteful and counterproductive ideology was the fuming exit interview given by a defeated Ichiro Suzuki, who offered a veiled swipe at the decision to bunt, but nothing more.

As we enter the more meaningful rounds of the WBC, you'll undoubtedly watch as the Japanese team employs its yakyu sensibilities in game situations that will seem puzzling and often go against the established science of the sport. Remember that you are not watching baseball. You will be watching yakyu. It's also important to remember that while the Japanese like to boast that yakyu won the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the truth is that the club out-pitched, out-slugged and out-hit each of its opponents, rarely relying on yakyu methods at all. Should we see more of Hara's handiwork in upcoming games, however, it will be interesting to see if "Samurai Japan" will be able to advance beyond its pool.

Things to Watch For:

Yu Darvish will undoubtedly be the focus of intense scrutiny and media attention. I've done my part for several years to tout him as the next hot thing from the Far East, and I still believe strongly that he has a chance to one day surpass Daisuke Matsuzaka in raw ability. That day is nowhere close to today, however. Anyone paying attention to the Beijing Olympics knows that Darvish is not ready for prime time on a number of fronts. First of all, his fastball remains far too straight and hittable, even when it's crackling. His demeanor on the mound, confident and brash against Japanese hitters, collapses against international competition. His performance against the minor league-laden US Olympic roster is prime evidence, as hit batsmen and balls thrown behind hitters seemed to be all the young man could muster in a terrifically embarrassing debut on the international stage. Perhaps the jitters that he experienced are a thing of the past, and perhaps he'll impress, but I'm not convinced that this young star is ready for the challenge facing him should he take the mound when the Japanese club meets Cuba or any of the teams featuring major league talent.

From among the hitters, you'll want to watch Norichika Aoki, who will bat third in the lineup, to see how he responds when facing major league-caliber pitching. He's not necessarily close to joining the majors, but a strong performance for his national team would certainly offer a glimpse into the future should he ever make the jump across the ocean. He isn't a power threat by big-league standards, but his bat is very good, and he has a superb batting eye as well.

Related Content:  The Who,  Japanese Baseball

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