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Many have fallen victim to NPB’s ‘false spring’

by Wayne Graczyk

As a high school student back in the early 1960s, I can recall reading a book titled, “A False Spring.” It was authored by Pat Jordan, a Connecticut native and a superb teenage baseball pitcher who, according to Wikipedia, was pursued by more than 15 major league organizations in 1959. Interesting, as there were only 16 big league clubs at the time.

He signed a contract with the Milwaukee Braves, which included a $36,000 bonus, a huge sum of money at the time. A “can’t-miss” prospect, Jordan somehow missed. He labored through three miserable seasons in the minor leagues before retiring to embark on a writing career.

Here in Japan, spring training camps wrapped up last week, and the Japanese pro baseball teams are playing exhibition games in preparation for regular-season openers on March 28. Excitement will arise as some rookie pitchers and position players put up great statistics during the “open” games, as they are called in Japan, and some foreign players may get the feeling Japanese baseball is easy.

A word to the wise, though; what you’re seeing now is not necessarily what you’re going to get when the games start to count four weeks from now. Beware of your own possible “false spring.”

In June of 2005, I wrote a column about what happened to Gabe Kapler, a major league veteran outfielder who had left the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and joined the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants. He expected to play every day during the entire 2005 season for a winning team, and everything went fine throughout the exhibition campaign. Kapler hit for a high average with a couple of homers and thought he was set.

When the bell rang for opening day, however, the guy was lost and could not seem to get a hit even if his life depended on it. What happened, I suspected, was the pitchers had been toying with him in the preseason, not throwing their best stuff and searching for his strong points so as to avoid them when the true season began.

Then, when the pennant race started, opposing pitchers beginning with then-Hiroshima Carp ace Hiroki Kuroda, began firing their 150-kph fastballs, snapping off sharp-breaking sliders and sudden-dropping forkballs. Kapler was confused and, by midseason, the Giants released him and his .155 batting average.

I also pointed out in that column Kapler was not the only foreigner to have been tricked, and imported players new to Japan should take heed and not become complacent even after putting up great stats during the “open” games. The real adjustment comes once the season begins, so be ready.

Some Japanese position players have also performed to a high level during the spring tuneup contests, only to fizzle out once the season commences, and it is likely the local sports newspapers this month will feature front-page headlines of some hot-shot rookies knocking the cover off the ball in the exhibition games. But, where will they be in July? Still on the front page — or in the backwoods of Japan playing in the farm leagues?

One guy making an impact in the early going is Chiba Lotte Marines infielder Seiya Inoue. He was Lotte’s fifth-round draft choice in 2013, but he’s 25 and has experience playing in Japan’s industrial leagues. He’s a huge guy, weighing in at 114 kg, so he’s not easy to miss.

A few players have over the years proven during the preseason they were more than just high batting statistics. One who comes to mind is Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto who, in 2008 at age 19, was so good and so consistent, it became obvious to Giants manager Tatsunori Hara that Sakamoto was something special, and he won the starting shortstop job, ousting veteran Tomohiro Nioka.

Sakamoto started almost every game at short that year and was not yet 20 when Yomiuri clinched the pennant in October. The kid had to put tape over his mouth during the team’s “beer fight” celebration, because he was still under age for drinking alcoholic beverages. Now 25 and with six full seasons under his belt, Sakamoto is one of Japan’s best players.

Most often, though, a superb performance in March does not buy a regular job in April. Will there be another Sakamoto on one of the clubs this year? Probably not. Can Inoue keep up a strong showing throughout the exhibition play and make the opening day, first-team roster for the Marines? We shall see.

Will any new foreigners be tricked into the same fate as Gabe Kapler was nine years ago? That too remains to be determined.

Who, if anyone, will be experiencing a “false spring?”

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

  • cariedmann

    I think the most notable American overseas, Kevin Youkilis, has one of the most translatable skills with his batting eye. Barring setbacks from his injuries, I can see him being productive because of this asset . Do Japanese pitchers have better control and/or pitch in the zone more often?