YOKOHAMA - After 13 years studying Japanese baseball as a hitter and outfielder, Alex Ramirez is taking a similar approach to his new job as the rookie manager of the Yokohama BayStars.
The Venezuelan, the first foreign-born player with 2,000 hits in Nippon Professional Baseball, is judiciously applying what he learned in his career, absorbing whatever he can to inform his managing, setting straight-forward goals and sticking to them.
Ramirez’s pregame press briefings occasionally provide surprises, such as Sunday’s in Yokohama, when the skipper said southpaw sensation Shota Imanaga was being sent to the farm team, not because he was hurt, but because it’s part of the plan.
“He’s been pitching a lot. At this point, he’s already got 72 innings, doing a great job. I think that at this point it’s a little bit overwhelming for him,” Ramirez told Kyodo News on Sunday. “He wants to produce the same way he was producing before, but the body gets tired.
“At the start of the season, he was striking out a lot of guys with fastballs. At this point, he’s not even striking the pitchers out with fastballs.
“He’s trying his best and his body’s not giving 100 percent, and I don’t want him to get hurt. I think it’s better to go down to the minor leagues, refresh, get better and then come back in the second half of the season and be better and help the team.”
Ramirez had previously spelled out his policy to keep pitchers fit when other teams’ pitching staffs may be wearing down because of Japan pro ball’s tradition of arduous and often inflexible practice regimens.
“We have eight starting pitchers, and they have been consistent,” Ramirez told the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast.
“At the beginning of the season, I’ve been using these guys for seven innings, eight innings, 110, 120 pitches, but my plan is to cut a little bit, have these guys throw less pitches, less innings. That way I can keep those guys healthy through the season and also rotate some of these guys.
“We have four young pitchers who are doing really good right now, but are they going to continue doing this the second half?”
It’s a simple plan. Indeed, much of what the BayStars are doing seems simple, like the policy for batters to go after the first strike and for pitchers to throw their first pitches for strikes. The batting plan worked better against Central League pitching than it did during interleague, but the aggressive pitching has paid huge dividends.
Under the guidance of rookie catcher Yasutaka Tobashira, who has amazed both Ramirez and battery coach Hidekazu Mitsuyama with his knack for calling pitches, the BayStars have the second best earned run average in Nippon Professional Baseball despite playing in one of the CL’s best hitters’ parks.
“He (Tobashira) may be a rookie, but he’s a leader,” said Mitsuyama.
“Our plan is to throw a strike with the first pitch. A lot of foreign hitters will hit it, and some batters may hit a first-pitch strike 10 times in a row, but we are not changing our basic plan.
“When I was catching, coaches would tell me to get a strike, but when the strike is hit, they’d say, ‘What were you thinking of, calling for a pitch in the zone?’ Here, we’re consistent.”
The BayStars are second in walks issued, behind only the two-time defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, whose pitchers have issued two fewer free passes in 22 less innings.
Head coach Tatsuya Shindo said the goal is a better future for a franchise that has won just two pennants and finished last 10 times since 2002.
“He (Ramirez) knows what the Japanese game is about and he’s learning little things about managing every day,” Shindo said. “The process is the key. He’s got a lot of ideas and the smarts to know when something is working and when it isn’t.”
Reporters have questioned the BayStars’ frequent lineup changes this season, but Shindo said that is part of the process.
“The skipper wants a fixed lineup, but we don’t have the personnel for that yet, so he is mixing and matching: a lineup against left-handed pitchers, a lineup against right-handers,” the coach said. “We’re seeing what players can do and evaluating. As the season gets into crunch time, we expect to go more toward a set lineup.”
While Tobashira has carved out a starting spot with his pitch-calling, the offense is built around slugging left fielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and the dynamic all-round talent of center fielder Takayuki Kajitani. The challenge for Ramirez and his staff is to broaden that talent base.
“Some of the players may have trouble adapting, finding a rhythm in this current situation,” Shindo said. “It’s our responsibility to help them adapt. Through this process, we will find one or maybe two guys this year who are core players for us.
“Through this process, we will be better than we were at the start of the season, but we are looking down the road. So this year it’s one player, maybe another one or two next year and so on. It’s all about building.”