There’s a thanklessness to catching in baseball. Catchers do a lot of the dirty work, and their efforts end up being both extremely challenging and easy for the casual observer to accidentally overlook.
A catcher has many jobs, to lead pitchers, know opposing batters’ strengths and weaknesses, help set fielders, control the other team’s running game and so on. Alex Ramirez, a former hitting maestro who now manages the Yokohama BayStars, used to say he spent as much time, sometimes more, studying catchers as he did pitchers.
Seiji Kobayashi has been the man behind the mask for Samurai Japan during this World Baseball Classic, and in some ways the 27-year old has been Japan’s most important player.
There will be others who get more publicity, because of the home runs they hit or the way they play defense, but Kobayashi’s contributions to Japan’s run to the semifinals have been substantial.
He hasn’t had a ton of time to work with all of Japan’s pitchers, the exception being his Yomiuri Giants teammate Tomoyuki Sugano. Still, he’s done an admirable job of mostly guiding them down the right path.
“The pitchers have been good, but the biggest thing has been Kobayashi,” Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said after the first round. “He told me he’s not used to this, but he has been playing with confidence.”
After the Japanese clinched first place in their second-round group with a win over Israel on Wednesday, that day’s starter Kodai Senga credited Kobayashi with helping him throw five scoreless innings. The two looked to have had a few issues getting on the same page in the past, with Kobayashi having a little trouble with Senga’s forkball. But the pitcher-catcher relationship between the two has been strong during the Classic as Kobayashi has found his footing.
“My forkball wasn’t so great today, but Kobayashi did well for me,” Senga said after the win over Israel.
Kobayashi has done a more than admirable job behind the plate. The pitchers have faith in him, and that has helped give them confidence to throw any pitch in any count with runners on base, because they know Kobayashi is going to do his part.
So far, his biggest miscues were calling for Ayumu Ishikawa to throw Jonathan Schoop consecutive curveballs during a game against the Netherlands — Schoop mistimed the first, homered when the Japanese went back to the well — and sticking to an off-the-plate strategy against Cuba that wasn’t working and helped lead to Sugano’s early exit.
Kobayashi has even come through in the batter’s box, where there hasn’t been much expected of him after a .204 average during the 2016 season. Japan has used him to move runners in some one-out situations, but when’s been allowed to swing the bat, he’s 8-for-18 with a home run and six RBIs.
Kobayashi’s play during the WBC has made him Japan’s No. 1 catcher, relegating Shota Ono and Ginjiro Sumitani to backup roles.
“I didn’t decide that Kobayashi was going to be the ace catcher,” Kokubo said Tuesday. “It was the way he played during the exhibitions, he played very well. It’s been huge for us that Kobayashi has been so impressive. He’s been a big part of our team.”
Japan will need Kobayashi’s game to travel as it prepares for the hardest stretch of what the nation hopes is a run to the title. The semifinals, and possibly the final, could bring opponents with better hitters and faster runners than Japan has seen so far.
The pitchers will need to be up to the challenge, and Kobayashi will have to continue to pull his weight if Japan is to get its Hollywood ending at Dodger Stadium next week.