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Hawks explore every avenue to improve club

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

It’s often said in professional sports that teams with bigger payrolls have a better chance to win games and championships.

In Nippon Professional Baseball, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks sometimes have their achievements downgraded by some, because it’s felt that they can capture so many title because of their extensive resources.

In fact, the Pacific League club will have 17 Japanese players with an annual salary of over ¥100 million (their overall payroll will be estimated at somewhere around ¥6-7 billion for 2018) for the 2018 season, which tops Japanese baseball.

SoftBank has deep pockets for sure, but the club also tries to use its money effectively.

For instance, since 2011, the Hawks are one of only a few NPB clubs that runs a san-gun, or a third farm-level team, akin to an Double-A team in North America, whereas most NPB organizations only have two levels.

Only the Yomiuri Giants and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles also have san-gun teams (though the Eagles refer to their squad as a “training team” rather than a san-gun team).

So the Hawks are hiring more players than others, which certainly cuts into the funds they have available to spend on payroll. But they consider it a worthwhile investment in order to maintain their winning culture.

The philosophy is not so complicated: The more players they have, the better chance the club has of having better players at the top level.

In keeping with that, the club has also directed resources toward the facilities for its farm teams.

In 2016, the Hawks moved their farm base from the Gannosu Recreation Center Baseball Ground in Fukuoka city to the Hawks Baseball Park Chikugo (the main field is called Tama Home Stadium Chikugo), located about 50 km south of Fukuoka. The team spent between ¥5-6 billion on the project.

Sugihiko Mikasa, head of the Hawks’ Baseball Operations Unit, said the club wants to acquire many players and have them compete against each other in order to develop into better players. The club wants to aid the process by providing the best circumstances possible.

“If one player out of 10 gets promoted to the top team and does well, we can say our development is successful,” Mikasa said in his presentation to introduce the Hawks’ front office activities at a “Marunouchi Sports Lab” gathering event in Tokyo on Friday night.

Mikasa, who has worked for the Kyushu-based club for the last decade, was not a baseball person originally.

He is a son of the late Yoichi Mikasa, the legendary chief director for the Nippon Steel Corporation Kamaishi rugby team, who built a dynasty in the 1970s and 1980s (it won the national championships for seven consecutive years from 1978), and served as the head coach for the Tokyo University rugby squad in 2007 himself.

“I came from a non-baseball background, but I’ve heard scouts say, ‘This players is good, this player isn’t’ and things like that,” Mikasa said. “But to me, there were just slight differences between those players. So we want to have many players and let them compete with each other.”

This course has proven to be right. The Hawks seized their fourth Japan Series title since 2011 last year and had four former ikusei (training) players on the team in pitchers Kodai Senga, Shuta Ishikawa and Livan Moinelo and catcher Takuya Kai.

Of the 91 players SoftBank had in 2017, 23 players were ikusei players.

SoftBank Group Corporation, a giant telecommunications company, also hasn’t been shy its utilizing its information technology to help further the development of the team.

Sabermetrics and the TrackMan radar system are both already being used by many team in Japan.

But the Hawks, who won 94 games in 2017, the fourth-most ever in the Pacific League, are looking further ahead.

Mikasa said the club wants to use artificial intelligence technologies for medical purposes and the physical supervision of the players.

Also, SoftBank Group acquired American engineering and robotics design company Boston Dynamics last summer. The Massachusetts-based company has made a quadruped robot called BigDog for the U.S. military while it has also created bipedal humanoid robots.

There are already virtual batting machines where hitters hit pitches that come out of the screen. But Mikasa hinted that the Hawks would like to use robotic batting pitchers going forward.

“Owner (Masayoshi) Son tells us to keep investing in IT and outdistance other clubs,” said Mikasa, who earned an MBA at Cardiff University after he graduated from Tokyo University.

The Hawks are on an upward spiral right now. They have better players and continue to win, and their fans keep coming back to Yafuoku Dome, allowing the club to turn more profit.

The Hawks were third in NPB in home attendance (just over 2.5 million) behind the Hanshin Tigers and Giants in 2017. It was only the second time a PL team surpassed 2.5 million, as the 2017 Hawks joined the 2015 team in that regard.

According to Mikasa, the yearly turnover for the Hawks in the 2017 fiscal year went over ¥30 billion, which was a first.

And their farm teams are not just a place to develop players. The team uses those games to experiment with different things.

For example, when the Hawks want to start a new project for their fans, they can’t afford to fail at the top level. But there is more margin for error with the farm teams. The fans also have fun with the contest the team comes up with in Chikugo.

Fans were able to watch games for free at Gannosu, but have been charged for tickets since the move to Chikugo.

Last year, the farm teams drew 135,000 fans to Chikugo, compared to only 19,000 in their final year at Gannosu in 2015.

The Hawks fully intend to continue to make the team even better.

Mikasa said that the Hawks’ goal isn’t to become the best baseball franchise in Japan, but the best in the world.