YOKOHAMA – After making adjustments to Japanese baseball as a hitter that few foreign players could match, Alex Ramirez told Kyodo News last month about the different adjustments he had to make as a first-year manager.
Between skepticism over his entering the job without having coached at this level and a poor start to the season last year, Ramirez did not have an easy transition into the managing ranks. Yet, he did adjust, coping first with his team’s inability to hit the ball.
Through the end of last April, the team’s batting average on balls in play was .268, 34 points below the Central League average. The team wasn’t scoring and on May 3 was in last place, eight games out of first.
Ramirez, with 2,017 career hits and 1,272 RBIs in Japan, specialized in making hard contact and settled on a simple plan to get his batters to be more proactive: attack the first strike.
“We started talking more in the meetings and I started telling my hitting coaches, ‘We have to present to the players, (the idea) that once you hit the first strike, you will have a better understanding of the strike zone and won’t have to swing at so many bad pitches.’ And they’re going to produce better,” Ramirez said in an interview last week.
It was not an easy sell, but it was easy to comprehend. From May, the BayStars’ average on balls in play mirrored the league at .298, nothing great but enough being shut out every fifth game.
“I want my players to be aggressive,” Ramirez said. “Every single day, we need to tell the players to be aggressive because we wanted them to keep it in their minds.
“You see fewer pitches, but the players are not going to strike out as much. When you swing early in the count, you avoid those things. Your batting average is going to be higher. In those kind of situations, I put on a lot of hit-and-runs to make sure the batter was going to swing. Once we created those things, the team became a better hitting team.
“When you face a No. 1 pitcher, Japanese players think you’ve got to take a lot of pitches . . . but my approach is a little bit different. I strongly feel that when you face a No. 1 pitcher, he will give you one pitch to hit. One good pitch, and that will be the best pitch you’re going to see and you’ll have a better chance to hit it.”
As a player, Ramirez made good use of the knowledge his managers shared and worked hard to apply it. As a skipper, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the task of studying and being the best-prepared man on the field.
But the season still proved to be a reality check.
“I thought I knew the guys,” he said. “As a first-year manager, you speak and you say things, ‘I think we can do these things with these guys,’ but once the games start, you realize you can’t compete with these guys: This guy cannot do this, this guy’s good, but this guy can only hit lefties, he cannot hit righties. So everything had to change.
“Now in my second year, I have a clearer understanding about how to use my players, what is going to be my approach to my pitching staff: starters, relievers, winning situation, losing situation. What do we need? How many lefties? How many righties? I need to prepare myself regarding the other teams, if they’re good against lefties, good against righties, so I can prepare my players and use my players the best way I can.”
For years, Ramirez had longed to manage in Japan and last year consulted with the Orix Buffaloes regarding their batting. But interacting with coaches as their manager was a departure for everyone.
“At the beginning of the season last year, it was a little bit hard because the coaching staff didn’t understand my way of managing. It is understandable,” Ramirez said.
“I used to be a player and I accomplished many things here, doing things my way. But my first year as a manager, I have to show what I can do as a manager and everybody is going, ‘I’m not sure this is going to work. I’m not sure about this play.’
“But it took over a month and a half for them to start understanding. ‘Oh, this may work,’ and ‘Oh, I see the reason why we’re doing this.’ At the end of the day, we worked out a very good direction and we finished in a very good way. And I know what they can do.”
Unlike some teams, where the batting coach makes out the lineup and the pitching coach contrives the pitching plan, Ramirez did that after input from the coaches, but recognizes that mistakes come with the learning process.
“I use my coaching staff and they give me a lot of good advice, and I use their advice, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who makes those calls,” Ramirez said.
“We’re not always right. Sometimes I make mistakes, and sometimes I would tell my coaching staff when we were changing pitchers or position players, sometimes I’d say, ‘I think I made a mistake right here, so next time we can work along a different angle, so just give me more advice.’ “