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Players still split about ball’s effect on offense

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

It would be an understatement just to say there was a decline in offense in Japanese baseball last season.

The 2011 season was not a good one for sluggers or fans of the long ball, as power numbers went down at a torrid pace. Where 2010 was highlighted by the exploits of sluggers such as Alex Ramirez, who hit 49 homers, and Craig Brazell, who finished with 47, 2011 was punctuated by a parade of hitters trudging back to the dugout after long outs.

Many observers placed the blame on the NPB’s newly mandated official ball, which the league warned wouldn’t carry as far as the balls that were previously in use.

If the ball was indeed the culprit, hitters across Japan can expect more of the same.

But what if there were other things which factored into the offensive decline? The ball played a big role for sure, but if other variables were present, it’s reasonable to think numbers will begin to creep back up, at least to a small extent.

“It had a little bit to do with the ball, I think,” Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima said of the offensive environment. “But I don’t think it affected us as much as some were saying. Perhaps the media made it a big deal and exaggerated it, which influenced the players, making them think it wouldn’t fly very far and making them swing a little too hard.”

The ball was a tangible, physical change everyone could see and feel. Some players, however, felt there were more subjective forces at work as well.

“I think that we have been able to adjust to the ball itself, but the strike zone has gotten bigger,” said Tokyo Yakult Swallows veteran Shinya Miyamoto. “I think that for a batter, the fact the strike zone became wider was a bigger factor than the ball.

“I mean (umpires) would call strikes even when pitchers missed their locations last year, and batters were astonished. The thing is, the ball and strike zone combined to affect us and that was the biggest factor.”

The difference at the plate was evident early on. Offense was down across the board and the shift wasn’t gradual. With the exception of a few offensive bursts here and there, hitters were having a much tougher time driving the ball in the season’s first few months. Offense seemed to pick up after the All-Star break — maybe due to player adjustments or something as simple as the manufacturer, Mizuno, getting better at producing the ball — but hitters never totally regained their footing.

“My personal opinion is that at the beginning of the season, the ball was really bad,” Yokohama BayStars slugger Alex Ramirez said. “That’s just a fact. At the end of the season, the ball was better. It was carrying a little bit more, and we were able to produce a little bit better.

“If we keep the same balls that we used the second half of the season, it’s going to be a little better for us (hitters). From what I have seen in spring training, I think we’re still using the balls we were using last year at the beginning of the season. I don’t see any improvement in this ball.”

There were 1,605 home runs hit in 2010, 863 in the Central League and 742 in the Pacific League. The Yomiuri Giants led all teams with 226. Of the 12 NPB clubs, only two (the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Orix Buffaloes) failed to reach 100.

Last season, there were 939 homers hit in Japan, 485 in the CL and 454 in the PL. The Giants again led the way, but with 108. In stark contrast to the previous year, only two clubs (the Giants and Lions) even reached 100.

“Obviously there had to be some change, because home runs definitely went down,” said Lions reliever Micheal Nakamura. “But I spoke to some hitters and they said when you hit it well, it travels just as well.

“The people that manufactured the ball are professionals, so they know that it doesn’t go quite as far.”

The outlier, of course, was the Lions’ Takeya Nakamura. The Seibu slugger didn’t have any trouble making the ball fly out of stadiums across the country, leading Japanese baseball with 48 homers — two more than the entire Chiba Lotte Marines roster.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows outfielder Wladimir Balentien had the second-highest total with 31 and was the only other player to hit at least 30.

With the exception of Takeya Nakamura, many hitters struggled to adapt. Ramirez went from 49 homers to 23; Brazell went from 47 to 16; Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe went from 44 to 20; and Chunichi outfielder Kazuhiro Wada went from 37 to 12.

Buffaloes cleanup hitter Takahiro Okada, who won the PL home run title with 33 in 2010 and hit just 16 last year, said it was an issue of mechanics for him.

“It didn’t fly as far,” Okada said. “But more than that, I wasn’t able to produce good swings. So I don’t think the ball affected it all that much. I have yet to find my best form, but I’m definitely getting better. Hopefully I can manage to discover my best form by Opening Day.”

That many hitters were able to have more success in the latter half of the season lends credence to the belief that power numbers may improve a bit.

“I think the hitters, they changed their approach,” Micheal Nakamura said. “They put the ball in play a lot, instead of trying to hit home runs. They manufactured runs differently.”

It is also possible a more normal run-up to the season will lead to a slight rise in offense.

The new ball was one of the more minor issues players dealt with early in 2011, when their routines were altered drastically in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“I definitely think the offense will be better than it was last year,” said Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton. “I think there were a number of factors involved there. I don’t think we can fully grasp and understand, not only us, but the entire country, what happened last year with obviously that terrible, devastating earthquake and tsunami.

“The effects of that just in general, and spring training being thrown back, there’s a lot of different things, and obviously the pitchers dealt with that also. But then there were a lot of things that trickled off that earthquake and tsunami. Whether it be energy issues or speed of the game or any of those things. All of those things kind of set us up for somewhat of that kind of a year.”

Nakajima felt the coverage of the ball got into some players’ heads. Murton agreed.

“It’s kind of the placebo effect,” said Murton. “At the beginning of last year when that ball changed, everybody had a problem dealing with it. Because they couldn’t accept the fact that the ball they used to hit which was getting to the gap is not getting there anymore. The ball they used to hit that was going out of the ballpark is not getting there anymore. Some of the pitches the guys are seemingly throwing have gotten a little bit better, and it’s made it a little bit tougher. That’s hard to deal with as a hitter.

“So it takes time just for you to accept it and say, ‘you know what, this is the way it’s going to be and I’m just going to have to make the most of it.’ I think with all those things said, guys know more what to expect.

“I definitely don’t see why there shouldn’t be an increase in numbers this year. I don’t think it’ll be 2010 though. I definitely think there should be an increase, but maybe it’ll fall somewhere between 2010 and last year.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.