The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ trip to Arizona for spring camp may have been for work, but it was also an exciting venture for many members of the team. Nippon Ham hadn’t held camp abroad in 29 years, so it was a first for this generation of Fighters.
For Shota Ono, it was an inspiring time, and an experience he won’t soon forget.
“I enjoyed it,” he told The Japan Times. “I wanted to go there and wanted to play baseball there.”
Even so, the team’s American getaway wasn’t a vacation for the 29-year-old catcher. Ono spent the winter mostly thinking about what he could do to get better, and spring camp, no matter where the Fighters held it, was always going to be his first chance to put his offseason training to use.
“I’ve been thinking about what I can do to generate positive outcomes once the season starts,” Ono said. “I’ve been considering what training I should do and how to handle my conditioning in order to get good results.”
Ono hails from Ogaki, in Gifu Prefecture. He played baseball at Sogo Gakuen High before moving on to Toyo University. He was Nippon Ham’s first selection in the 2008 draft.
He appeared as a catcher in 72 games in 2015. Ono has been more valuable defensively — he posted a 1.7 WAR in 2015 — than with his bat during his career. As a catcher, his main responsibility is to provide leadership behind the plate and help the club’s pitchers chart a successful course through games.
Ono’s philosophy when it comes to working with pitchers is to make them feel comfortable. He says part of that involves maintaining a clear line of communication. Doing this keeps both Ono and the pitcher on the same page as they work to execute their gameplan.
“I try to listen to what the pitcher says and make him feel confident about his pitching,” Ono said. “Then I also tell him what I think about the situation.”
While Nippon Ham has veteran pitchers such as Hirotoshi Masui, Luis Mendoza and Mitsuo Yoshikawa, the Fighters also feature a group of young arms, including, of course, 21-year old ace Shohei Otani.
A young pitcher can present a unique challenge to the NPB catcher-pitcher dynamic. Because in some areas, Japanese baseball has retained the hierarchical structure that permeates some sectors of Japanese society and demands seniority be respected above all. This is the type of atmosphere Ono doesn’t want.
“You can’t have a situation where the younger guys aren’t able to speak frankly,” he said. “You can’t do that. They can’t grow in that situation. So we have to allow them to speak freely. It’s my job to facilitate that.”
Whatever Ono has done with Otani, in particular, has paid off to this point. The duo is paired together often, and Otani has continued to grow and has experience increased success as a pitcher. Last season, the pair was named the Pacific League recipient of the 2015 Battery Award.
“I used the forkball as one of my main pitches because there was a sense of security,” Otani said last year when the award was announced. “I’ll do my best to win this award with Ono-san many more times.”
Before he was paired with Otani, Ono was behind the plate for many of Yu Darvish’s starts in 2011. Having caught the team’s past and current ace pitchers, Ono can see some of the similarities and differences between the two.
“Daru thinks about how he can stay true to his style of pitching, and he enjoys when he can retire batters by pitching on his own terms,” Ono said. “Otani adjusts to individual batters, and he focuses on how he can deliver his best performance.”
Darvish wasn’t shy about speaking his mind either, and Ono has taken it upon himself to make sure Otani feels comfortable to do the same, for the good of both the team and its young star.
“It’s important that a senior player like me creates that type of atmosphere for him,” Ono said. “Because sometimes it’s difficult for younger players to speak up around the older players.”