Friday, April 08, 2011

A painful lesson to learn

In just over a week of regular season games, it became clear that Tsuyoshi Nishioka had a slow learning curve when it came to the nuances of baseball on this side of the Pacific.

Coming over from Chiba Lotte Marines, Nishioka was lauded for his eye at the plate, racking up numerous walks and an impressive on-base percentage to go along with it. Yet, we had not been privy to this discerning eye rather one that does not seem quite calibrated. After all, in 26 plate appearance he has struck out eight times - going down looking whopping six. Most fans knee-jerkingly want to deem Nishioka overmatched by Major League Baseball’s superior firepower without considering that Japan’s strike zone, while vertically larger, is typically narrower than the one we have over here.

Although he had the ability to hash out the details of the stateside strike zone without the threat of bodily injury, he was not afforded the same luxury when discovering the realities of the American basepaths.

This past winter, when asked if he had any advice for his incoming countryman based on his experience assimilating to the American game, Kaz Matsui offered some words of wisdom for Nishioka including:
Be careful about getting spiked during double plays
With just a handful of middle infielders making the conversion from Nippon Professional Baseball to the major leagues, it has been a slow process for those players to embrace the type of play necessary to compete with the vigorous effort shared by their major league counterparts around second base.

At TheBaseballCodes.com, a website dedicated to many spoken and unspoken rules of the game, the authors discussed the differences of the style between the two countries on the basepaths. Former major leaguer and ex-Yakult Swallow second baseman, Rex Hudler, said of his tenure in Japan’s Central League in 1993 that:

“They didn’t come after me on double plays. They didn’t like to break up double plays. They weren’t real physical in their game. I was a physical guy, I liked contact. I had to ask the Americans on the other teams to come get me. I said, ‘come on, let’s make it fun, let’s make it exciting.’ ”
To be sure, this non-aggressive behavior has been practiced for generations in Japan. It had been an element missing from their game for so long that, back in 1987, the Tokyo Giants sent a handful of their prized prospects to workout with the then-low A Miami Marlins in order to indoctrinate them in the ways of “hard-nosed” baseball. More specifically, they were sent to learn how to go into second base with their “spikes” up. Seeing has the “hard-nosed” movement just began to take roots in the early 1990s in Japan, it is easy to see why, as middle infielders began to transition from the Far East to the United States, most were not adequately prepared for the intensity that is shown on this side of the globe.

In another instance cited at TheBaseballCodes.com, according to Rod Allen*, the color commentator for the Tigers at Fox Sports Detroit, referenced another second baseman that came over to the White Sox in 2005:

“(Japanese infielder) Tad Iguchi’s first couple of months here he just about got killed because he didn’t know that the American players came in that hard at second base.”
*Allen, who also played in Japan himself, is remembered for one of the more bizarre incidents when charging the mound, another practice not observed overseas.

While Iguchi never suffered a serious injury like Nishioka’s, he was sent sprawling several times including one that resulted in a deep knee bruise courtesy of Oakland’s Scott Hatteberg in 2005. However, another celebrated Japanese infielder, Akinori Iwamura, a third baseman for most of his career with the Yakult Swallows, was badly injured in a brush up at second.

Unlike Iguchi or Matsui, Iwamura’s initial introduction allowed him to maintain his original position of third base in 2007 but was soon pressed off of the hot corner when prospect Evan Longoria was deemed ready. The Rays moved Iwamura around the diamond to second where, with the exception of a dust-up with the Yankees’ Shelley Duncan in spring training, he handled himself quite well. In 2009 however, Iwamura would suffer a very similar injury to Nishioka in the very same manner.

While playing a series against the cross-Everglades Marlins, in the bottom of the eighth inning Florida’s Wes Helms bounced a check-swing double-play ball to Rays pitcher Dan Wheeler. Wheeler fielded the ball and spun to second to feed the covering Iwamura. Iwamura received the throw on the base but then planted his front foot out in front of the bag to make the relay throw to first. Instead of completing the throw, the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan came in hard to the exposed Iwamura and wiped the infield dirt with him.



The play resulted in a torn knee ligament for Iwamura and he was sidelined for the majority of the 2009 season. The following year, Iwamura never really regained his pre-injury abilities and wound up hitting just .173/.285/.250 in 229 plate appearances split between Pittsburgh and Oakland. Because of his unfamiliarity for needing to bail out quickly when turning the double play, Iwamura likely accelerated his way out of major league baseball.

In addition to not only lacking the awareness to have a quick release, there is another element contributing to Nishioka’s unfortunate injury at second.

As a shortstop, Nishioka was in the process of transition back to a position he had not played since 2005. This was a similar plight shared by his predecessor Kaz Matsui. When the Mets decided that Matsui’s defense at short was not up to snuff for the major league level, they switch him over to second base. Of course, while some might think that simply moving 50 paces to your left is an easy task, Matsui had some issues:
“Matsui said … that his biggest challenge remained becoming proficient on double plays, in large part because he cannot see the runner coming toward him the way he could while playing shortstop.
That description sounds awfully familiar to what transpired in the Bronx on Thursday afternoon.


In revisiting the clip, the footage clearly shows that Nishioka’s focus is on the baseball and not the whereabouts of the incoming Swisher:



So for Nishioka, in just his sixth game at second base in seven years, he had to relearn the situational awareness that comes with the territory. Whereas when he was playing shortstop, the play happened before his eyes. Similar to a quarterback being rushed by a blind-side blitz, here we see a prime example of someone who is not entirely cognizant of the unfolding events.

With these cases in mind, it can easily be concluded that because Japanese players do not grow up in a baseball culture that is taught to be vigilant of some two-hundred and ten pound individual bearing down on you, they seem to have a harder time adapting to the position – particularly the middle infield. This is exacerbated when accounting for the fact that they receive little on-the-job training at the minor league level.

As much as it was likely stressed in Florida to Nishioka regarding the league’s ability to go gung-ho into the keystone, there really is no way of conveying this message (even more so when considering the language barrier) until a player is actually experiencing it. And for a player like Nishioka, he had to learn the lesson the hard way. 

6 comments:

Maija said...

That was a pretty interesting read, thanks! I feel bad for Nishi, I bet he's pretty bummed especially with the timing.

I do think it's unfair to come out saying Nishi has a slow learning curve. He hasn't even been here that long. I don't think any of us have transitioned from playing pro-baseball in Japan to playing pro-baseball in America, or coached someone who has, and I think that makes it a little hard to judge what is fast and slow learning. I certainly never expected Nishi to be flawless after only two months here.

Twins Fan c.1981 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Twins Fan c.1981 said...

Probably a better description would have been a "short" learning curve...to tell you the god's honest, I used slow as a subtle reference to no moving his feet.

jimbo92107 said...

If there's one thing Nishi should learn from this, it's that you simply can't plant that lead foot on the pivot throw. You plant the right foot, then leap and sling it. Luckily, the break appears to be a minimal fracture. Six weeks and he'll be back, with several more memorized English phrases!

Maija said...

Ah, I can understand the reference to the feet when you point that out. Didn't catch that!

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