GINOWAN, OKINAWA PREF. - Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo is banking on team-building rather than flexibility as he heads into the World Baseball Classic next month.
On Sunday, Kokubo clarified the seemingly peculiar choice of naming only one active pitcher on his roster as a member of the team’s replacement pitching pool — who can be switched out after either of the tournament’s first two rounds without injury.
The designated pitcher pool, a new facet of this year’s WBC, gives pitching-rich nations, such as the United States and Japan, the luxury of keeping big arms in reserve for the later rounds, but Kokubo emphasized he has chosen to ignore the allure of additional flexibility.
“We selected one pitcher, (Yoshihisa) Hirano, merely as a procedural matter,” Kokubo said at Okinawa’s Ginowan Stadium, where he was observing a Yokohama BayStars spring training practice. “I would have been happy going with none, because these guys on my team are the ones I want to compete with.
“From the start, I’ve said I would not replace any player other than for injury. And I am aware we can replace any injured players (without using the designated pitcher rule). As far as Hirano goes, it was explained to him thoroughly — by NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball).”
An NPB source told Kyodo News Japan would have chosen no players, but was under the impression at least one pitcher had to be designated as a candidate for replacement — even though it was not obliged to.
“We knew about the reserve pitchers and the other rules such as the pitch limits well in advance, but until they were made official recently, we were told they were subject to change,” the source said.
“Kokubo’s policy has been to not switch out any players unless injury demands it, but we thought we needed to choose one. We were not really clear about it and were curious what other teams would do.
“We explained this all to Hirano so that he would understand before it was announced.”
Kokubo, who never coached or managed before being named to run the national team after its ignominious semifinal exit in the 2013 WBC, has managed less than 30 games in his career.
As such, it is not so surprising that some of his decisions have been difficult to understand, including not having his bullpen ready in the ninth inning of the biggest game of the 2015 Premier 12, a 4-3 semifinal defeat to South Korea.
Throughout his tenure, however, Kokubo has been positive and supportive of his players despite their failures, noticeably sticking with continually misfiring Sho Nakata in the cleanup spot.
This latest decision, abandoning a chance for more pitching staff flexibility in order to cast a vote of confidence, is perfectly in keeping with his policies so far.
Japan will open its WBC first-round action on March 7 against Cuba at Tokyo Dome in a pool that also includes China and Australia.