Kimiyasu Kudo almost became the manager of the DeNA BayStars during the 2011 offseason. The BayStars, though, didn’t want to cede as much control over running the team as Kudo wanted, so the parties went their separate ways.
The BayStars instead hired Kiyoshi Nakahata, who lost at least 75 games in each of his four seasons in charge. Kudo moved on as well, eventually going into TV before becoming manager of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2015.
The move paid off handsomely for both Kudo and the Hawks.
Instead of taking over a struggling BayStars team, Kudo was given the keys to a ready-made dynasty that flourished under his guidance. His teams captured three Pacific League pennants and have won five of the last six Japan Series titles, including the past four.
As Kudo reportedly prepares to step down — ostensibly to take responsibility for a subpar 2021 campaign despite an offer to stay on — he’s leaving behind massive shoes to fill and more questions than answers.
Injuries and inconsistent play have soured the Hawks’ season, and the team’s hopes of a fifth straight Japan Series title are hanging by thread. Kudo did not comment on reports of his impending departure after a 3-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes on Sunday left SoftBank 5½ games out of the final playoff spot as the season winds down.
“We are not going to give up as long as there is even a small chance,” Kudo was quoted as saying by Tokyo Sports. “We have 10 games left. We want to show all the fans the Hawks’ style of baseball.”
Assuming Kudo steps away, it will be up to the next manager to put their own spin on the Hawks’ style of baseball, but that person will not start with the same advantages Kudo did.
We’ll never know if Kudo would’ve done better than Nakahata in Yokohama. Alex Ramirez, though, eventually got the BayStars turned around years later and managed them to the 2017 Japan Series — where they fell against Kudo’s Hawks. We do know that starting off with the 2015 Hawks instead of the 2012 BayStars is akin to starting an inning with a runner on second base.
Kudo inherited a team that had just won the Japan Series under Koji Akiyama, and was set up for more. Among the batters, Yuki Yanagita was going into his age-26 season and entering his prime years and Seiichi Uchikawa and Nobuhiro Matsuda were both in their early 30s. Akira Nakamura was also about to enter some of his best years on the field.
Closer Dennis Sarfate was only in his mid-30s, pitcher Rick van den Hurk was in his age-30 season and Kodai Senga was in his early 20s and about to blossom.
Plus, there was also the team’s considerable financial resources.
Kudo jumped on a wave that was still building and managed to ride it all the way in That’s not to diminish his role. You can give a skipper all the talent in the world and, while there may be a greater margin for error, someone still has to manage it.
As Kudo departs, Uchikawa, Sarfate and Van den Hurk are gone and Matsuda is nearing 40. Slugger Alfredo Despaigne, 35, may or may not be around next year and there do not seem to be any pitchers on the same ascendant trajectory Senga was on back in 2015.
The team has been slow to give many of its younger players a chance to shine, even as the veterans have faltered. Of the six players who will end the year with more than 100 games played, only Yanagita and Ryoya Kurihara are hitting above .250.
Some have placed the blame on head coach Hiroki Kokubo, the former Japan manager who could very well be Kudo’s successor, but it’s clear the team needs to mix in new blood as age and injuries creep up on its current stars.
Kudo isn’t leaving the cupboard bare at least. Yanagita is in his early 30s, and Kurihara and Richard Sunagawa are promising young talents. SoftBank isn’t about to sink to the bottom, but it may not be as far out front as it’s been these past several years.
The next manager will also deal with the pressure of a fanbase Kudo has helped condition to view winning — not competing for, winning — Japan Series titles as the rule, rather than the exception.
Yokohama’s loss in 2011 allowed Kudo and SoftBank to find each other at just the right time.
As Kudo prepares to step away, the team can only hope fortune smiles on them the same way again this fall.
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