Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Transition

Wright Thompson of ESPN has a very nice piece up today about the difficult transition from Japan to the US, and highlights some of the major cultural challenges for players seeking to master a new level of competition. I know hundreds of people who have struggled to make a life outside Japan, without the additional pressures of training and play at the Major League level and the travel associated with such and undertaking. It's not easy. There are however, musicians, scholars, business owners, salaried employees and their families in your community. Take this into account when you read Wright Thompson's piece.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Real Gyro-Secret

My parents are in Japan this week, all the way from the East Coast of the United States to meet their first grandchild. It's their second time in Japan, the first being my wedding in Kyoto almost two years ago. What to do with the parents during the day? I've elected to take several trips to key cultural spots in Akita Prefecture to give them a sense of the history, culture, and flavor of this Northern region of the country. What better way to do that than to take them deep into the heart of the Oga Peninsula to visit the Shinzan Shinto Shrine, home of the legend of Namahage?

Namahage is a Japanese bogeyman. He is an ogre who terrorizes the people of this small rural community, and has done so for hundreds of years....if not longer. I'll cut and paste some notes from the Shinzan Shrine's website to give you the background on this legendary fiend, before I tell you about his connection to the gyroball.

"Legend has it that the (Chinese)Han emperor brought five demonic ogres with him to Japan a little more than two millennia ago. These oni, as they are most commonly called in Japanese, stole crops and young women from Oga's villages. The villagers dicided to trick these ogres, promising to give up all their young women if the demons could build a stone staircase of one thousand stairs in a single night. If, on the other hand, the oni failed to reach the local temple to which the stairs were to be built, they would have to leave Oga never to return again. The ogres accepted, and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager imitated a cock crowing for the arrival of down. The surprised and dismayed oni fled, never to be seen again...."

On New Year’s Eve, pairs of Namahage return to the villages to cause havoc. They enter homes and demand to know if everyone has been working hard and caring for the elderly members of the family. The villagers try to appease the Namahage by offering sake and food, but eventually the ogres search the homes for signs of small children. They threaten to take the children with them to the mountain if they are not satisfied that everyone is putting in their best effort to tend to the crops and care for the elderly. Only when satisfied with a promise for the following year, and some material things, will the Namahage give their blessings for a good harvest and leave once again. This is repeated every New Year's Eve. (This is actually a real ritual where local people dresses as Namahage enter local homes and truly terrorize little kids. It's a bit painful to watch the film of this ritual, seeing the abject fear on the little boys and girls' faces, but it's a very very old custom. Go figure.)

My parents were highly entertained by the performance of the Namahage's story, and the museum in his honor. We climbed the steps to the Shrine and made a few prayers and an offering. It was only when we were leaving did the unthinkable happen. I needed to find a restroom before putting everyone in the car and shuttling the family back to civilization. I had the parents wait at the entrance to the shrine, while I headed around back to the toilet. It was a bit dark and nestled in the trees behind the building, so I had a bit of a creepy feeling as if I was being watched. Before I was able to enter the facility, I heard the crunching of leaves and felt the steamy breath of the Namahage on the back of my neck. I was frozen.

In his thunderous and ancient Japanese, he said, "You. You've been working hard, but you are no closer to what you wish to know, fool."

I was stunned and could only stand firm in one spot, anxiously awaiting his next pronouncement. "Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you?! Speak up!" he boomed.

" I guess you want my boy or something, right? Maybe I can buy you a sake, and we can talk it over", I replied.

Namahage wailed and thrust his giant butcher's knife at me. He reached into his straw robe and just as I thought I was finished he pulled out......a baseball. I was puzzled. First, why was the Namahage appearing to me here? What did he want from me? Second, what did he mean by "no closer to what I wish to know"?" Then there was the baseball. It was all too weird, and I shook my head trying to clear the cobwebs.

"The gyroball, Mike-san. The gyroball. That is what you seek, and only the Namahage has the answer", the gruesome thing bellowed. I bowed politely, reached into my pocket, and pulled out a 10,000 yen bill as an offering. He laughed.

"I have no need for money. I just want to set the record straight", he said. "I am the keeper of the gyroball. Stupid Matsuzaka. Why should he get all the publicity? I taught him everything he knows."

This was all too much. I had to ask him, "The gyroball isn't a magic pitch. It's just a really new way of throwing an old fashioned breaking pitch, right?"

"That's what Will Carroll wants you to think", he replied. "He also learned the pitch from me, but he never gives me an ounce of credit. Stupid Montefusco. Stupid Niezer. What about Namahage? All I want is for you to tell my story. Tell them that the ancient knowledge of the gyroball comes from an ancient line of Chinese ogres. Only then will they believe. If you do this for me, I will bless you with 1,000 bountiful harvests."

I had to tell him that I had no interest in harvests, but he simply took ten steps back, glared into my eyes, went into a windup, and threw the baseball straight at my head. I was terrified. The funny thing is, the rifle spin on the pitch gave it a kind of late breaking effect that sent the ball past me and into the darkness of the forest. When I looked back to watch it disappear, the Namahage laughed and ran off, never to be seen again. My parents don't believe me. Maybe you won't either. The thing is, I have a picture....sort of. Just tell me this isn't proof that his words aren't true. Judge for yourself.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

ESPN and the Gyroball

The ESPN "E-Ticket" piece on the gyroball is now available on-line. In my conversation with Will Carroll a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was excited about the piece and I've been making daily checks of late to find the link. This morning as I drank my coffee it appeared. Finally, something to sink my teeth into from the Sports and Entertainment leaders....

The piece is written by Patrick Hruby and is called "Chasing the Demon Sphere" and notes that Hruby will be searching for "sports' Loch Ness Monster". I had a feeling that I was going to be disappointed in it as soon as I saw that headline. Nevertheless, I gave it a read. The writing is interesting, written in a semi-diary style with loads of e-mail exchanges to trace each step in search of the correct story behind the pitch. He makes all the right moves.

Checked out the Japanese presentations on the science behind the pitch. Contacted Wayne Graczyk of The Japan Times to ask about it. (Wayne and I have traded a few e-mails, and he's a good read. Keep an eye on the link to his work.) Hruby makes the mistake of contacting Bobby V. to ask about it. I kid. Bobby V. is a great source of info about the sport over here, but he contradicts himself repeatedly if you go back and trace his comments over the years, and sounds like a crackpot on occasion. Contacted Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. Will Carroll in the house! Anthony Montefusco, who throws gyro-pitches. Bought the gyroball book. Talked to Mark Allen. Attempted to meet Joey Niezer. Went to the Japanese Embassy in DC to ask for a translation of the book (which is a bit bizarre). Worked with an English-speaking Japanese sportswriter out of Seattle to get more info from the laboratory that developed the pitch. Tried to set up a physics experiment to test everything out. Gave up.

The only criticism I have about the article is that all that information is available on the dear old internet. I've taken almost every step that Hruby did to research the pitch, and I didn't have to go nearly as far to get exactly the same info, and exactly the same conclusion. He does the journalistic due diligence, and finds out for himself, though. Good move.

The pitch exists. It's not a Bugs Bunny Looptie-Loop ball. It's a nice breaking pitch. No one ever claimed that it broke 3-feet sideways, because it doesn't. It's not a big deal, except that it's new and has potential to save a few arms, add a little wrinkle to some pitchers' arsenals, and is a triumph of sports science in its commitment to innovation. I was looking for a lot more from ESPN, frankly. I hoped to see some discussion of a test. The network failed to provide Hruby with a single videographer, and couldn't pull any strings to even work with a single Major League pitcher. Hruby does a very nice job and I give him a lot of credit for showing the ESPN readership the many important voices that need to be heard in researching the pitch. Nice entertainment, but Baseball Prospectus would have done it more scientifically, in my opinion. Hruby deserves kudos. ESPN, not so much. Give it a read and judge for yourself.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Here We Go....

So, on Day Three of Spring Training, Daisuke hit the bullpen for a 103-pitch session. Day Three.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's beginning to look like the Sox are going to let him do whatever he wants. How will this play out down the road? Will he be throwing 100 pitches in the pen every day during the season like he did with Seibu? I guarantee he wants to, but he probably shouldn't. This could be the first glimpse at the free rein Matsuzaka will have over his own workout routine for the Sox. If he does what he did with Seibu no one will complain. If he hurts himself, or wears out in September and October, heads will roll.

No doomsday forecast here, but it's a huge red flag that we will all watch as we move forward.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Okajima Day

Mike Edelman over at MVN's "Firebrand of the AL" has written a nice piece on Hideki Okajima, cutting me off at the pass. Before my last piece "The Gut" came up, I was gearing up to do a little feature on the forgotten Japanese pitcher of the 2007 Spring. I won't get into it in great detail here, as I think he's done a nice job covering the basics, but I think my two cents are appropriate having seen him pitch several times.

Like Daisuke, and Ichiro, Okajima married a well-known television announcer named Yuka Kurihara in 2001. She left her NHK job in 2003 to give birth to their first born son in January of 2004, and followed a year later with the birth of their first girl. Mrs. Okajima has worked for many organizations in her career spanning radio and television and was a reporter at the Nagano Winter Olympics some years ago now. She did work for NHK, as I mentioned, Fuji Television's Pro Yakyu News, and even a bit of work for CNN Headline News. She comes from a prestigious academic background, having graduated from the Foreign Language division of Sophia University, with a concentration in French. She was also named "Miss Sophia" while studying at the famous university in Tokyo. I'm certain that she will be an important part of his adjustment to life in the United States, and should make herself well liked by those around the Red Sox organization.

As for the pitcher, Hideki Okajima features an unusually low release point which often makes his control an adventure. His hard looping curve ball is his featured pitch, and he often ties up lefties badly when he is locating well. Lefties only hit Okajima to the tune of .186 last season, while righties managed .254 against him. He had an outstanding season in 2006 for the NPB Champion Nippon Ham Fighters, and has parlayed that success into a Major League deal. His role for the Red Sox should be similar to Mike Myers job before he bolted to the hated Yankees. It would be something of a risk to allow Okajima to pitch to Major League right handers, although he is capable of fooling righties as well. To give you an idea about how he stacks up against other prominent relievers to make the move to the US, I'll highlight career numbers for Kaz Sasaki, Akinori Ohtsuka, and Takashi Saito using a few basic pitching ratios.

2.31 K/BB
9.44 K/9
1.315 WHIP
3.36 ERA

Kaz Sasaki
3.70 K/BB
12.20 K/9
1.007 WHIP
2.41 ERA

Akinori Ohtsuka
4.05 K/BB
12.17 K/9
1.010 WHIP
2.39 ERA

Takashi Saito
2.98 K/BB
7.63 K/9
1.236 WHIP
3.80 ERA

As you can see, Sasaki and Ohtsuka are two of Japan's absolute finest closing pitchers. How Texas thinks that Eric Gagne is the man to fill the closer's job for them ahead of their Japanese insurance arm is beyond me. Ohtsuka is the real deal. Saito came in last year and surprised for the Dodgers. I think he'll be hard pressed to duplicate his success in 2007, a year older, and a year longer look for hitters. Okajima at least compares favorably to Saito, but is really a tough comparison in terms of his role with the Sox. Saito is a more traditional pitcher, with a little more traditional approach and delivery. Okajima will be a pleasant surprise, and will shore up the lefty specialist role quickly, but we shouldn't expect him to be a candidate to close. He wasn't even able to consistently hold that job in Japan.

Thats' my two cents. I hope someone pays a little more attention to "Okaji" at camp. He and Yuka should be very nice additions to the Nation....

UPDATE: I may have confused readers with the mention of a "low release point" and Mike Myers in the same story. I want to clarify that what I mean by "low release point" is that Okajima tends to hold the ball a bit longer into his motion before releasing, creating a difficult sight line. He is an over the top pitcher. In the following YouTube clip you can see the curve on a number of occasions and I think there are a lot of places to observe the late release that has the ball drop into the dirt. When I watch it I almost think it's a mistake and that he's not going to throw the ball, but when he does it takes a heck of a drop. You'll also see that he can be a nibbler, which is fine if he's getting the calls (he did in the Japan Series), but if the umpire is feeling stingy, he can get himself into some trouble.

You'll also notice at the start of this clip that Okajima enters the game and walks the first batter, a lefty, to put runners on 1st and 2nd with one out. What does Dragons' manager Ochiai, a great player in his own right, do in this situation with a right handed batter at the plate? He bunts the runners over to make it two outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd. Yes, he has the lead, but the next guy in his lineup is a lefty, and we know that lefties hit .186 off of Okajima in 2006. It boggles the mind.

The Gut

A lot of people have been talking about the extra weight Matsuzaka is carrying around, and many readers of this blog have asked me about it. I'll give you the scoop via a conversation I had with my wife.

We were sitting in front of our tv watching an NHK recap of the Spring Training appearance of Mr. Matsuzaka, and I told her that American people seem shocked at his poor condition reporting to camp. (Not that anyone should be all that shocked when you see the proportions of Curt Schilling in comparison.) The Mrs. quickly pointed out that many Japanese baseball players report to camp out of shape because training camp is a time when everyone returns from their only short vacation of the year, when they let it all hang out, and the purpose of the seriously rigorous training is to get back into shape. This is very true. Major League ballplayers, give or take a few on each team, are generally in much better condition throughout the Winter than their Japanese counterparts. Training is a more year round endeavor, that means for most guys less intense work in Florida or Arizona. The Japanese player will get out of shape and report to what amounts to a boot camp, where every member of the team bonds through painful and strenuous conditioning drills.

My wife went on to say that she thought Matsuzaka was at fault for not understanding the Major League way of practicing at training camp, and that he should have come in better condition, to be ready and also to make a better first impression on the people of Boston and the Red Sox. I agree. I believe every ballplayer should come to camp ready to work on baseball and conditioning should be a very minor part of the training. When you are paid the salaries that these guys make, it's an obligation to take care of yourself better. We haven't really seen this from the big name Japanese players to this point as both Matsui and Ichiro are very committed to working out year round. I seem to remember Kaz Sasaki was a bit lax when he reported every year for the Mariners, and you can see Nomo's later years as evidence of this phenomenon.

For the most part, guys today know this. It's not like the days when Mickey Mantle and company would drink and tan and spend all hours relaxing with their families. Nowadays, athletes in all sports spend time working out. Curt Schilling, especially at his age and in his role as the "ace" of the rotation, should be a better leader in that respect. I hope to see Papelbon, Matsuzaka, and Beckett show up to future camps as the leaders of the Red Sox pitching staff, ready to rock and roll.

I can't believe I'm saying this. As a Yankee fan, I should hope they show up full of chocolate like Uter.

But since I'm a committed Red Sox blogger now, so here's to moderation and self-restraint for pitchers!!! Huzzah.....

Monday, February 19, 2007

Which Media?

Hello Matsuzaka True-Believers. It seems that Spring Training has begun in earnest and the big boys are out to get ready for the long season ahead. I say big boys because we saw Curt Schilling show up in his full off-season glory, and many fans unfamiliar with Matsuzaka were surprised to see him sporting quite a nice spare tire as well. I can't speak to Schilling, as he generally pitches with a hefty front section, but Daisuke may have been enjoying LA more than he was working out. Nevertheless, I expect you'll see him ramp up his training and get into decent shape by Opening Day. His high school coach told an ESPN reporter that he was mainly concerned about Matsuzaka's conditioning going to the States because he can get lax if someone isn't on his case riding him to stay fit. Keep an eye on it.

This post is mainly about the media issue. It's interesting to me that people are still surprised at the amount of Japanese media that follow these players around. I thought this was common knowledge. A lot of major media outlets are reporting the media throng over and over as if it were an invasion of aliens. Yes, the Japanese media is serious. Yes, they are fanatics about their athletes on the international stage. The interesting irony of all this, to me, is the fact that Japan has no "All Sports" network that covers athletics 24 hours a day like ESPN, for example. Who is more ravenous? Take this screencap from, for example.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a CNNSI fan. I like many of their writers. Read the caption under Matsuzaka's picture. It says:

Every time Daisuke Matsuzaka so much as stretches at Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., dozens of Japanese media will be there to capture the moment.

Japanese media will be there to capture the moment? That's an AP photo posted at! Not only that, but in addition to the photo and caption, Matsuzaka's name appears two more times in the main headline section. One of those lines says, "Matsuzaka arrives at Sox Camp" and has a video link!! I know the Japanese media is fun to play on. It's hilarious to see 50 Japanese men and women with cameras and mics huddled together in a wild pack chasing after an athlete, but let's keep some perspective. This is a lot of fun, isn't it. Wait until he pitches against Boston College and the Marlins...his first scheduled outings. He'll face BC for about 2 innings on March 2nd, the Marlins for a bit longer on the 6th (I believe), and it has been announced that he will debut in the regular season at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City against the Royals on April 5th.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Media Man

I'm not going to get wrapped up in the walking-breathing press conference that is Daisuke Matsuzaka. He's a true cult of personality, besides being a world class pitcher, and while I find that fascinating, I don't fancy myself much of a tabloid news fan. I don't generally get worked up over "boxers or briefs" to quote that famous Town Hall moment in President Clinton's first campaign circuit for the presidency.

That said, Jason Stark at has done a fine piece on the first major conference of Spring Training that includes a thin but accurate depiction of the frenzy that is Koshien. If all the US media treatments on Daisuke are this well written, we're in store for an interesting season. I won't hold my breath though. I'm mainly looking forward to actual Spring Training games and the first real glimpse at Matsuzaka in full "kaibutsu" mode. (That's "monster", his Japanese nickname.)

Until then, I'll drop a note or two if anything interesting happens, but I'm not all that excited about which flavor Wrigley's he chews, spearmint or juicyfruit. (It's spearmint, by the way....Just kidding.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's Just Beer

I recently posted a Japanese television ad for Asahi Super Dry Beer at Matsuzaka Watch. The Super Dry ad campaigns are very popular in Japan, and it's not unusual for celebrities, athletes, and people from all walks of life to appear in tv ads downing beer. It's just beer. The Japanese do not come from a culture of Judeo-Christian moral values, and as such are not even remotely wary of the "evils of drink". It's just beer.

Apparently, the ads are creating something of a furor with moralists, and those in government protecting their little private kingdoms of regulation. Mind you these ads never air in the US. They air in a foreign country where it is normal to see people drinking beer. After all, it's just beer. For Americans to become so provincial and highly sensitive about this issue is beyond ridiculous to me. Forgive me for being a moralist myself, and I don't intend to sound holier-than-thou about this story, but I have to ask myself, "How is it that a group of people can become so horrified over something they will never see?"

The argument by the moralists is that athletes should not promote the consumption of alcohol, as it will have a bad effect on the children that look up to them. I wonder how this affects American kids who will never see the ads. Yes, maybe they can see them on YouTube, but they can also see provocative music videos, R-rated snippets from NBC television outtakes, and all manner of other bizarre offerings. Are these people worried about the well-being of little Japanese children everywhere? Well, I'd say that's an issue for Japanese parents and the Japanese government to work out. In Japan, there isn't the threat of a vengeful God looming over the people, forcing them to repent and toss aside their wicked ways. In fact, you'll be surprised to hear that this wasn't the case in the United States either until the 1800s. The Puritans arrived on American soil, a people we've come to know as historically famous for self-denial, and this idea from Wikipedia illustrated the false perception we have of our national Christian heritage, and the consumption of alcohol:

The English Puritans were temperate partakers of "God's good gifts," including wine and ale.

In fact, the same Wikipedia discussion of alcohol and Christianity tells us that the Pilgrims landed in the New World with an abundance of alcohol and immediately began brewing to uphold their local community rituals and customs. Even the Puritans and the Pilgrims knew that it's just beer. It wasn't until the urbanization movement that was brought about as a result of the Industrial Revolution that we saw moves to ban the use of alcohol to curb public drunkenness and somehow become a solitary beacon of Christian perfection on Earth. We can see the roots of our current moral relativism in this era of social change.

Back to Matsuzaka. Alcohol consumption in Japan is very high. I don't have figures to compare the US and Japan in terms of alcohol consumed, and frankly it's not necessary to get that specific here. There is also a form of legalized gambling in Japan. Sex is also a part of life that is not regarded as particularly "sinful". The Japanese may have the reputation for being a repressed people, but it's a completely false idea. The type of repression that exists in Japan is more a kind of self-regulated behavioral repression tied to maintaining the common peace. If one's behavior is somehow so outrageous as to upset the delicate social balance, they are shamed. Alcohol is not part of this equation. Alcohol is a release from that very rigid code of behavior, and while Japanese are famous for indulging in alcohol to the point of extreme inebriation, it is controlled in a very reasonable and balanced way. For the most part, work and family life are not adversely affected by the consumption of alcohol. Working long, hard hours and staying away from the home is more an issue that drinking.

Children growing up in Japan are not subjected to the sexualization of alcohol on television the way we are in the US. There are no bikini-clad pitch women "cat-fighting" in public and plunging into a public fountain. (I recall that was a controversial ad in the US some years ago.) Japanese beer ads feature hearty consumption of the product, a la Daisuke's commercial, but almost always attach the drinking to healthy social behavior like delicious meals with friends, and such. The attachment of beer consumption to American football broadcasts are just as strong a message that beer and sports are married, as anything we see from Japan. Beer sales at American stadiums are responsible for almost ever major problem in the stands that we see every year, and also play an important role in the riots that we see post-championship celebration. In my opinion, the portrayal of beer consumption in the Japanese ad is not only more honest, but also less attached to subtle cultural messages about sex....if you want to get moralistic about it. I don't because I believe it's just beer.

The last point here is about America growing up. I love my country. I love my country more now that I've been away for several years than I ever realized. I am proud to be American. I am proud to have been born in a country which has been responsible for some of the greatest innovations in social and technological science over the last 200 years. One of our greatest flaws as a people is our cultural myopia. What goes on in other nations, and in other cultures, is part of the fabric of the human experience. It may or may not be good for us as a nation, but it most certainly can't be judged by our own biases and via our particular cultural lens. Baseball is a microcosm of society, and as such is a fascinating case study filled with historical benchmarks on things like integration, dealing with the death of cultural icons like Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, and the healing of post-September 11th society.

Now, more than ever, we are integrating the sport as a part of the globalization phenomenon of the modern world. Part of that trend is the realization of America that we are but one part of a larger world. Athletes coming to our shores to play, make a living, and participate in our national culture must adjust to the way we do things, but that is not to say that we shouldn't do likewise. As Americans, we are lucky to attract the brightest and best talent from around the world. Our greatest gift to the people of the Earth is our openness to providing opportunity to those with great potential. If we hope to benefit from their genius, we need to be equally open to the opportunity they bring to push our culture to evolve. Part of that evolution is a new openness to accepting and understanding ideas which are different from our own. In this case, Matsuzaka's beer ad adds a new wrinkle to something we've only known from our own narrow perspective. While we may decide that it may not be good for Americans to see ads of this nature, and particularly our children, it is not for us to say that the ads shouldn't run in Japan. It is our unique opportunity, as we get to know this player, to see things from a different perspective and ask questions about our own ideas and beliefs. We may find them reinforced, but we must at least ask the questions. That is the gift of a more international perspective.

But, in the end, it's just beer. That's only my opinion. I may be wrong. If you'd like to judge for yourself, you can head to the Asahi Super Dry webpage and view the ads yourself. Just follow the link and look for the following icon in the middle of the page, on the left.

Click and you'll be able to view both the Matsuzaka ad, and the Matsui version. You'll also note that the tea-totalers are a rather powerful force in baseball, as they've long fielded an entire team of Bugs Bunnies. I believe you can even see the earliest recorded appearance of the gyroball if you follow this link.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New England Japanese

In all my efforts to bring information about Daisuke Matsuzaka to the American public, I have also endeavored to introduce a captive audience to the real culture of Japan. This is not only true of my work here, but in the entire body of writing I have done regarding the Japanese game and its players. One of the angles that I think is most important to my coverage of Matsuzaka's career in the US is the relationship that a player of his profile has in forging a bridge between nations. It may sound a bit melodramatic, but in many ways it's true. How much do American's really understand about Japan? How much first person experience have you had with Japanese people?

For many, the answers to those questions are "not much" and "none". That's not to say people aren't interested in Japan or Japanese culture. I've always found that, when asked, it's common for most people on the street to show a great deal of interest in all things Japanese. The obstacles, however, are large. Japanese people rarely set roots in the US, preferring to stay temporarily and return to their homeland. The language is a mystery, with its multiple writing systems and a grammatical system nearly the exact opposite of our native English, Spanish, or other Indo-European groups. The overwhelming popularity of Japanese imagery from the Edo period and earlier is also a big reason for people's interest, while also providing ample disconnects from what is actually modern Japanese life. You rarely see anyone wearing a kimono on the street, except maybe in Kyoto, and many of the exotic mental pictures of what Japan is like would quickly wash away if you were to set foot on the other side of immigration at Narita.

It's not to say that things are all the same. Far from it. The difficulty in discussing Japan is the actual diversity that exists among regions. Japan seems like a homogeneous nation, and in some ways it is, but in many other ways people from one side of the country are as different from their countrymen on the other side, as New Yorkers are from Los Angeleans, and Floridians are from Minnesotans. Some things remain firmly rooted in custom and tradition, while others are very modern and adapted directly from foreign nations. Japan is not one thing.

I was contacted this morning by one of the editors at the Boston Globe. The paper has a very interesting piece, written by correspondent Adam Smith, about Daisuke Matsuzaka's adjustment to Boston. It's much less about Matsuzaka than it is about Boston's relationship with Japanese culture. Matsuzaka has been a wonderful excuse to examine this relationship more closely and fish out what is really there. Please read it for yourself. The story and a related audio slide show will appear in the Globe's City Weekly section on Sunday and on It's a very interesting look at the disparity between what's "Japanese" in Boston and what's more broadly "Asian". For many people with little firsthand experience with Japan, it's often difficult to separate the two.

To that end, I've had a wonderful opportunity to become fast friends with the President of the Japan Society of Boston, Peter Grilli. He's an intelligent and engaging man, with a very long standing relationship with Japan and Boston. Perhaps there is no one more qualified to speak on the subject of Japanese-American relations, particularly with respect to New England, than Peter. Throughout our communications, we've shared a lot of ideas, baseball-related and otherwise. I've come to value his experience and his openness to sharing his perspective a great deal. I spoke with him on the telephone this morning, and asked him a few questions about "the meaning of Matsuzaka" to Boston. Peter is quoted several times in the aforementioned Globe article, giving me more food for thought.

Not surprisingly, he talked a lot about his hopes for the future of this international relationship. It's obvious that deepening the Japanese love for New England and for Boston is an important goal in his work. The profile that Matsuzaka brings to the region can only impact the reputation of the area in a positive way. There's so much to see, and so much to fall in love with. It is noteworthy that Peter raised several key points of interest to the Japanese. Cape Cod is a fishing community with authentic American historical and cultural appeal. It's something that reminds the Japanese of their own tie to the sea, but it offers a very special twist to their own experience. Likewise, the legendary Fall foliage of New England is sure to be a fast favorite among the throngs of Japanese tourists that will be spending their first quality time in the region. If Matsuzaka happens to be pitching in the World Series during the time when the leaves are the most beautiful, you can bet that all of Japan will know.

It was obviously important for him to hold back his excitement over this turn of events, as it figures that most Japanese in the Boston area will be tourists or temporary residents, students and the like. The permanent or long term residency of Japanese in New England is not likely to increaae as a result of this windfall of publicity, but it is Peter's hope that those who come will choose to stay longer. Boston will no longer be a one day stop on a longer trip to New York, for example. To that end, in place of the typical museum visits and photos in front of John Harvard's statue in Harvard Square, perhaps more Japanese will dive further into the enchanting New England waters and learn more about the people of the city. Forging relationships of this kind is the way that the Japanese learn more about us, and vice versa. In the end, that's what this blog is about. Yes, the conversation starts with baseball, but it can go much further if we keep an open mind.

For more information about the Japan Society of Boston, their schedule of events, or to find out about how you can enroll in Japanese language courses, please head to their website. Tell them Mike at Matsuzaka Watch sent you. You won't regret it. I guarantee your life will be richer and more rewarding for having participated in their programs.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Conversation with Will Carroll

At 10:30pm I sat in my home office, looking over some articles on the web. At any moment, the little green "online" icon was going to appear next to Will Carroll's name on my Skype contacts list, and we'd begin our long overdue conversation on Japanese pitching phenom, Daisuke Matsuzaka. I'd first contacted Will in October, prior to the posting process. We'd exchanged some e-mails and both agreed that a conversation would be a good idea. Unfortunately, that conversation didn't materialize until two days ago. Life intervened, and the mayhem surrounding the posting and negotiations provided enough blogging fodder to keep 10 people busy 24 hours a day. Now, in the calm of the offseason, and in the waxing hours of night in Japan, I waited to bring this conversation to life.

For Will, this "phone call" meant dragging himself to his computer at 8:30am EST. The quiet of the Japan night was simultaneously the coffee-fueled beginning to the American morning. We'd agreed in advance on a few topics of interest, and I'd accepted his gracious offer to be interviewed for Baseball Prospectus Radio, when our talk wrapped. As I stared out the dark second story window of my Japanese home, the call came.

Will Carroll is an excellent writer for the baseball think tank, Baseball Prospectus. He is an astute observer of pitching, among many other things, and brings an advanced understanding of physiology to his work. His specialty is injury analysis, although that niche is far too limiting to capture the scope of his perspective. I've enjoyed his writing for a long time, including his weekly column at BP called "Under the Knife", but my connection to him has developed over a long period of time, from afar, and quite anonymously. You see, for the past few years both of us have been eagerly observing Daisuke Matsuzaka, and writing about him.

To begin our talk, the two of us exchanged a few thoughts on Japanese baseball in general. In the course the ensuing conversation, Will asked me what I thought Matsuzaka would do. It was an interesting question to me because I felt that over the last few years, as I’d been talking to people about my belief that Matsuzaka could be one of the top 10 pitchers in the world, there was really only one other voice out there that was talking about the player, and talking about him in the same terms as I. That was, of course, Will Carroll. After a long-winded and winding response to the question, I eventually got back to that same assessment and was curious about how Will got to know this player on the other side of the ocean. His response was very interesting.

MW: At what point did you first become aware of him?

WC: I became conscious of him through the gyroball. Mostly the whole mythology of the gyroball and his connection to it, and trying to figure out….I’ve been on this “gyroquest” for three years now, and then when Matsuzaka’s name came into it I was like, “Oh! Look at this guy.” Y’know, aside from it, he was just good, and at the Seibu website they actually showed the games. So, I would wake up at, like, three in the freakin’ morning and watch the games on this one inch screen. What can you learn from that? I don’t know, but then at the World Baseball Classic he came out there and Jeff Passan did the article on him and he’s kind of become my little player.

It’s kind of the way you find a band before everybody else has heard of them and you tell all your friends, “Hey, you should listen to this band.” Well, Matsuzaka’s my baseball player, which is really strange because he was good well before that and it’s not only that he’s good and fun to watch but I also have this emotional investment in him that he should be good because I’ve been talking about him for three years and now I need him to be good. If he’d throw the gyroball occasionally that would help me a lot too.

MW: When I started researching him, as I got more interested in him, you were the sole voice that I found repeatedly saying that you thought this guy was one of the top pitchers in the world, and I was glad that my own opinion of him was sort of verified by seeing that. I think that now our interest in him has kind of converged that we’re talking about it now. I think I saw recently you did a piece on YouTube ….

WC: Well, we use YouTube to save the bandwidth cost. (laughs)

MW: Sure. (laughs) You talked about the kind of pitches that you felt he has and scouts say he has some 70 (rated) pitches, and that the slider’s an 80. That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to harp on with people who automatically see a Japanese name and say, “Irabu” as soon as they see it. And, the whole reason behind what I tried to do at the beginning is kind of get people used to the fact that you haven’t seen a top Japanese pitcher come over yet and especially one of this caliber who comes around once in a generation.

WC: Well, yeah, I don’t know if you saw Rob Neyer [say] that we should be looking at Nomo rather than anybody else. And the more I think about it, the more I think Rob’s right. I mean, because Nomo was….I don’t know exactly how good he was if you rank the Japanese pitchers at the time he came over, but he was up there because he had crazy, nasty stuff.

[Editor's Note: To see how Matsuzaka stacks up against guys like Irabu and Nomo, check out my piece on Matsuzaka vs. Japan's Best]

And I know a lot of people got thrown off by Nomo’s little delivery. Matsuzaka has the same sort of…it’s not the same twist, but he’s got that pause at the top, and a lot of people had trouble with Otsuka because he had that three beat delivery. I wonder if anybody’s going to try to mess with Matsuzaka’s delivery. Whether they’ll say that pause in there’s illegal.

MW: You mean in terms of the rules of the game? I’ve wondered that as well.

WC: I don’t think it’ll effect him, but I think Joe Torre’s wondering if it will.

MW: (laughs) Yeah, I’m sure the Yankees will be the first ones to call attention to it.

At this point in the conversation, we paused so Will could grab cup of coffee #2. The idea that Matsuzaka's mechanics, and his style of delivery might be an issue in the Major Leagues is something that has rarely been discussed, but merits a bit of thought as Spring Training approaches. There are a host of questions about the Japanese routine that will come into play over the next few weeks and months, and when the brief break for coffee refill was over, our conversation turned to that very subject.

WC: With Matsuzaka, there’s two things that I haven’t seen anybody talk about with his preparation, and the first is whether he does anything “typically Japanese”, because I know they’re into throwing a lot, which I think is good and there are always the stories about a guy has a bad outing so he goes to throw 300 pitches in the bullpen. Is there anything he does along those lines that they’re almost sure not to let him do here?

MW: Yeah, I was actually going to ask you the same thing because over here he’ll throw 100-pitch bullpen sessions every day before his start, except for the day before, I think. I think last year he threw a pretty heavy bullpen one day before he pitched because he felt he didn’t get a good workout in the day before, which made the news. They’ll throw 100 pitches, in the offseason sometimes they throw 200 pitches, and the crazy thing to me is that not only do they do that every day but between innings they’ll just stand there on the side and play “long toss” or even throw seriously.

WC: Now, when they’re throwing a bullpen, what percentage are they going at?

MW: I would say, probably 60 to 70 percent.

WC: So it’s like throwing warm up pitches?

MW: Yeah, they throw warm up pitches, but I’m sure they put some pop on it at times. But, they throw so many pitches, I don’t think they could go 100 percent the whole bullpen session. I think they go at a pretty good clip though. I wonder if any of these Japanese pitchers have come over to the Majors and have actually been told by their Major League teams, “Your not going to be allowed to do that anymore.”

WC: All of them.

MW: And do you think they listen?

WC: Some. The one that didn’t was Sasaki. He would go to the bullpen and throw 100 pitches just for the hell of it....But, he had a lot of success. Nomo, they didn’t. There’s even been some other guys. Like, Chan Ho Park, when he went to Texas, they would stop letting him do his…it’s not really a “yoga” workout…I’m sure it’s not yoga…but he ended up having hamstring problems, and the hamstring problems led to back problems.

With a new pitching coach in Boston, a guy who was a pitcher, but he really doesn’t have any pitching coach background, I’m very curious whether he’s going to have his own ideas or he’s going to be a blank slate or whether Matsuzaka’s going to be special. Because already Schilling gets to do his own thing, and Beckett is Beckett, so it wouldn’t be hard to say, “Hey. He’s special. He’s just going to do his own thing. Especially given the fact that everybody’s going to be watching him anyway. So, I’m very curious about that, and the other thing I’m curious about that I haven’t been able to find, old stats that aren’t in Japanese characters. Does Matsuzaka have his own catcher? Has he had a guy long term?

MW: Not that I know of. I’m not sure about that. I think they rotate catchers quite a bit actually. I’ll have to go back and look again, but I’m pretty sure the Lions have had a couple of catchers over the last few years and neither one of them has been particularly good with the bat, so I think they’ve kind of rotated them back and forth.

[Editor's Note: I went back and looked at the catching situation for Seibu since 2001. I was able to determine that in 2006, Matsuzaka pitched to light hitting Tooru Hosokawa 21 of his 26 starts, including the post-season. This is not unusual as Hosokawa caught 99 of Seibu's 136 games last year, and 113, 116, and 93 going backwards to 2003. Before Hosokawa was the #1 guy for Seibu, Tsutomo Ito was the catcher for 22 or 23 years.]

Will and I discussed the strong personality of Jason Varitek, and how it might affect a strong-willed guy on the mound, like Matsuzaka. His command of 4 or 5 pitches will be something different for Varitek to handle this season, and it will be interesting to see how the two work together. Both Will and I have thoughts, but we're going to take a wait and see on this situation. So many questions!

One of those questions, central to many American fans' thinking is the abuse that is inflicted upon Japanese pitchers. More than Varitek's catching, the pitch repertoire, or cultural adjustment Matsuzaka's ability in the US to earn his contract, and make the Red Sox look like geniuses, is his ability to dominate AND stay healthy. I ran a piece about midway through the 2006 season about Pitcher Abuse Points, or PAP. If you care to read up on the finer details of that analysis, head over to that story. The gist of it is, pitchers who throw over 100 pitches in a game, increasingly subject themselves to exponentially worse "damage" in 10 pitch increments. In our early e-mail exchanges, Will told me that PAP doesn't work for Japanese pitcher. I had to ask him why...

MW: Something I wanted to ask you, since we began to e-mail back and forth…I did a piece a while back using a PAP chart that I was running on Matsuzaka, just to see how he stacked up, and it’s off the charts compared to even the most abused Major Leaguers….

WC: It doesn’t work.

MW: Yeah, I was wondering what’s your perspective on it? Why doesn’t it work?

WC: A couple things. First off, PAP is based off a five man rotation and even though the Japanese use five man there’s more rest days in there, so it essentially factors out to six days rest, which is something I’m curious about…his adjustment to that…the five days versus six. But, it’s just a different game. It’s not played the same way, and all the assumptions made off PAP were based off, I wanna say, it went back to like 1978.

Japan is actually more equivalent to the 60s, and we’re working on this project where we’re doing this book on pennant races and two of the chapters I’m working on are 1934 and 1967. So I’m looking at all these pitch charts and it was just different. They didn’t throw as hard, but they would throw 150 pitches a game. And, there weren’t as many strikeouts because they were throwing for ground balls. And I think the Japanese have been kind of the same way. They are a little more strikeout happy so I think that they’re throwing harder, especially from the games I’ve seen. But even so, the strikeout totals, and the strikeout rates equate more to a game of the late 60s or early 70s than the PAP era, so I just don’t think the math works.

MW: It’s hard, because from what I’ve read about PAP, there were some differing opinions as to whether the 6 man rotation is a factor in lessening the impact or whether it a matter of how many times he’s thrown more than 130, 40, 50, 60 pitches in a game.

WC: I think the fact is, and we’ve learned this all along, PAP is a proxy for fatigue. And, it’s a pretty good one. I mean, it stands up statistically, but it’s still a proxy and it’s far from perfect. I’ve been involved in a study, where we’re trying to use heart rate to predict how fatigued someone’s getting and it’s interesting but we’re really really early at this stage. We can’t figure out how to take someone’s pulse on the mound without getting really intrusive which teams obviously won’t allow. So, I think we’re still at a proxy for fatigue.

We’re looking more at how much more does the extra day of rest affect their fatigue. Does the differing conditioning regimen affect their fatigue? Does just a different mindset affect them, and so I just don’t think PAP works, perfectly. There’s probably an adjustment in there.

MW: It’s been one of the more puzzling things that to look at because one of the cultural factors that exists here is that in whatever profession you take up, whatever activity you engage in, it’s sort of a forgone conclusion that you’re going to finish what you start. And there’s a certain element of pride. It’s sort of the Japanese equivalent of macho. You’re expected to finish what you start, so you see these guys with…. I think Matsuzaka had 14 complete games last year, and that’s not unusual. The thing that puzzles me about it is, there are closers on these teams but they don’t use them when there ace is on the mound, and they let these guys throw…I mean, they’ve scaled Matsuzaka back the last couple of years but he still throws on occasion 150 pitches, 160 maybe, and regularly tops 125-130, so I’m wondering, I’ve read some of the things you’ve written in terms of pitch counts, is there a reasonable ceiling that we can say is madness to go over?

WC: No. You’ve caught me at a really bad time because I’m working on an article about why pitch counts are hurting pitchers. (laughter) No, I think again, we’re using pitch counts as…y’know, PAP is a proxy for fatigue, and pitch counts is a really bad but simple proxy for fatigue, it’s more a fact of, are we taking pitchers who could throw 150 pitches, if done reasonably and technically well, and a lot of other things, and not letting them get over-tired. I think it’s pitching tired, where you’re either overexerting or your mechanics break down because of muscular fatigue that you get into a situation.

I mean, we saw what happened to Pedro Martinez when he altered his mechanics, and he altered his mechanics because he was hurt and started this feedback loop. I think it’s a fact that if they’re in condition to do it, and they do it safely, we don’t know what the extra day of rest does, and one of the things I’ve been advocating for years is a four-man rotation, but you would throw less pitches. You would get him out of there right at 100. You would have not quite the fatigue to get out of, theoretically, but then you have a guy like Matsuzaka who can throw 150 pitches, and you have a guy like Maddux, who right about 80, he starts thinking he’s done. So, I think there should be a place for both of those. You should be able to say, “This is my pitcher and today he is really good for “x” number of pitches and then at some point he’s “less than” and my reliever is “better than”. I don’t think the pitch count itself, in the absence of any other information, tells us a whole lot.

MW: I wanted to ask you while we were talking about pitch counts for a second, because I tend to follow what you’re saying about the differences in situation and physiology and so forth, that make it difficult to put a number on it and there is something insane which happens over here that…..I’ve seen that you wrote in something I read a little while back that a high school pitcher threw 144 pitches….

WC: 166.

MW: …and what you see here, actually, is a little bit more frightening than that even. There’s a kid, I don’t know if you’ve heard his name, Yuki Saito, and he was the big star…. What we saw him do this year in the High School Tournament was typical of what you see a lot of these high school kids do during the tournament. Over a 14 day period he threw 931 pitches, and in back to back days he threw 300 pitches in less than 24 hours.

WC: Well, I mean, that’s very Matsuzaka-like from…what was it ’98?

MW: Yeah, ’98.

WC: Um…Yeah, and again, you’ve got the fact that high school pitchers tend not to have quite the same control, that they throw a lot more pitches just to begin with. The kid that threw the 166 was over 7 innings....Yeah…y’know…..was he effective? Did his mechanics change? Was he still getting people out? We see a lot of it. It’s not as well documented because, y’know, high school baseball over here is nothing, and getting moreso. In college we see that a lot. Like [Tim] Lincecum, the kid with the crazy arm action. He would regularly start on Friday, relieve on Sunday. And he would go out and throw 120 and 130, I think he had one 140 pitch outing, and then come back and throw 20 on Sunday. If you did that with….pick a Major League pitcher….people would scream and holler. I’m not sure it’s bad.

MW: It seems insane to me but at the same time the kid didn’t look like he was laboring, and was still popping the gun in the low-90s after 14 days of pitching and and back to back days of over 100 pitches, he was still popping the gun at the end of the game when he won.

WC: Yeah, and if his mechanics were solid, and if he wasn’t fatigued, and…Earl Weaver always said, “The hitter will tell me when he’s tired.” I think there’s so much truth to that. If I had the energy I had when I was 18, I would be exploding or something. But, I think it’s the same way. These kids can do things at 18, that maybe they can’t at even 22, 23, 24. I still think I’d rather err on the side of caution, but the fact is that some of these kids can, and one of the things that bugs me about pitch counts and the standardization of them, is that we have guys out there who can probably safely throw 140-150 pitches an outing. We have no idea who they are because we have no development system to get them up to that number....So, I think we’re probably leaving pitches on the table with some people, but the worst part is we don’t know.

I always say, “If you look at Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, you wouldn’t think they’re the same species, let alone the same occupation. And, they don’t do anything the same, but yet they get very very similar results. And, Randy can probably go out there for 120 pitches and outing and not even blink. Y’know, his back would act up, but….he’s crazy anyway. Where Greg will go out there and at 75 he starts whining. It’s too hot. My hands are sweating. He starts kvetching about everything. Which is good? Which is better? They both get good results. If you get Greg out at 90 pitches, you’re having a good day. If you get Randy out at 90 pitches, he’s going to shoot somebody.

Having a conversation with someone like Will Carroll brings out these great gems. The conversation we were having started at Matsuzaka and wound itself into a very interesting take on the issue of pitch counts in general. His explanation brings an entirely different context in which to examine the Japanese pitching phenomenon. If pitch counts are truly as poor an indicator of a pitcher's threshold as Will states, and PAP is a system unable to account for much of the Japanese routine, how does anyone know, short of an MRI, whether a Japanese pitcher has been abused without seeing his entire body of work. The answer may be, it's impossible. If Will's analysis is correct, every pitcher has a different ceiling and a different breaking point. Only when we see him visibly fatigue, and his mechanics break down, can we know for sure that he's had it. Bringing the conversation back to Matsuzaka specifically, I asked about what happens with the focus on pitch counts in the Majors, and how it will affect Matsuzaka.

MW: Yeah. It should be interesting to me. He’ll go back into the dugout, sit down, and he won’t say a word, but I’ve got to wonder what he’s going to think about his Major League experience as soon as they start yanking him at 110 pitches or whatever.

WC: ....I imagine Farrell’s talked to him. I imagine Boras has explained to him, “Forget the complete game. You’ll get one.” (laughter.) But, is he going to adjust his game to where he’s more efficient? Is he going to try to complete games? There’s obviously places for it, who was it? Mulder did one on 90 pitches a couple of years ago, and Halladay did the 99 pitch, 10-inning complete. Could he become that kind of pitcher? Yeah, absolutely. And, I’m curious to see what kind of adjustment he makes on that.

MW: There was a game this year that he threw a complete game….it wasn’t actually a complete game, but he pitched a 3 hitter over 7 innings on 70 pitches and didn’t walk a batter, struck out 9.

[Editor's Note: What I found when I went back to check this game, was that Matsuzaka was not 100% during this outing and was forced to pitch out of the stretch for virtually the entire game!!]

He’s definitely got it in him. He likes to try things. And I think that gets him into higher pitch counts. But I wonder if he’ll stop trying things, and he’ll just go with the stuff that works and he’ll stop playing around with pitch four and pitch five.

WC: I completely agree. I think that goes back to, is Varitek gonna call the game? Varitek’s not a nibbler. That was the problem that Varitek had with Beckett, was that Beckett always wants to nibble and Varitek would call for the ball and so Beckett would just say, “Screw you. Here comes 100 miles an hour, and usually it went out at about 120 miles an hour. So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of factors that go into….how’s he going to deal with the catcher? How’s he going to deal with not being able to complete games? Is not being able to complete games going to adjust his pitching style? Is his pitching style going to lead to more complete games? It’s this big circle. And, there’s so many factors that we don’t know. How is Francona going to deal with it? How is Varitek going to deal with it? How is a brand new pitching coach going to deal with it? How’s the media going to deal with it?

More questions. There will be a lot of scrutiny early in the season. Matsuzaka will have two countries watching him and evaluating his performance. If he does well, it may pave the way for a new understanding of Japanese pitching. If he falters, it will be another nail in the coffin for the reputation of Nippon Pro Yakyu. Will and I spent some time discussing this, as I alluded to earlier in this piece. Both of us agreed that Kei Igawa would be the real make or break pitcher for the next wave of guys hoping to sign contracts from Japan. If Igawa is even league average, it bodes well. If not, it may be tough for the other top players to make a big money deal. The last series of questions I had for this conversation were centered around the gyroball. Will Carroll is the United States' #1 advocate for the pitch and has done more to bring it into the forefront in the US than any other person. He continues to speak about the pitch, teach it, and I wondered where on Earth he first heard of this unusual pitch.

MW:’s kind of what makes him the story of the offseason in the Major Leagues. You’ve got this guy who’s a legend over here and he’s a big mystery over there with the gyroball and everything following him around. I’m sure you’ve been asked about it a million times. I’m curious where you learned the gyroball the first time. Where did you hear about it?

WC: Rob Neyer was doing a chat on ESPN and somebody asked him about it, and unfortunately when I finally thought to go back and look at the chat, they don’t have it archived. So, I’d love to know who asked him. He was doing his pitcher book at that point and, so, somebody asked him about the gyroball. He’d never heard of it. Sent out an e-mail to five or six people, of which I was one. And, being the obsessive compulsive that I am, I was like, “Well let’s look this thing up.” And, I found a website about knuckleballs, of all things, where they were talking about this pitch. I was like, “Well, what is this thing?”

At the time, I had a friend who was over in Japan. He was over there. He’s a securities analyst and happened to be over there. So I call him up and I asked, “Hey, have you ever heard of this book?”, and he goes, “No, I’ve never heard of this book. Why would I have heard of this book?” And, I go, “Well, could you go to a bookstore and see if they’ve got it?” He goes, “Hey, I just walked by the world’s largest bookstore over here in whatever section of Tokyo he was in.” And, I’m like, “Yeah, go get it”, and it was there. And, so, he bought it for me and he comes back. It takes me like a month to get him to remember to send it to me, and “boom” here it is. And, so I’ve got this book in Japanese and I can’t read a damn word of Japanese, but there’s lots of pictures. Have you seen the book?

MW: Yeah, I’ve seen the book and I have a bunch of the Power Points and a lot of the stuff they used in doing the research. Somebody sent it to me a while back.

WC: Oh, awesome. Going through it, it took me a year to get anything out of it. Every once in a while, I’d pick it up and look at it and initially I wrote an article for Rob about it and completely screwed it up, and everybody keeps referencing it and I keep telling Rob he needs to either take it down or let me fix it. (laughs) Because I confused the gyroball with the shuuto.

MW: I know the article you’re talking about.

[Editor's Note: I've linked to that article in the right margin since I started this blog. I didn't have the heart to tell him during our conversation, but it's still an interesting read, if for nothing than to follow the history of the conversation of this pitch in the US.]

WC: Yeah, and it’s embarrassing at this stage. But, it turns out it wasn’t horribly wrong because the gyroball does go down and in if you throw the true gyroball. But after a year of looking at the book I finally figured out one of them, and should technically be like the slider one. Then, one day working with a couple of pitchers I go, “Hey, you wanna try something?” And, one of the high school pitchers threw it and it broke like two feet, and I was like, “Holy crap! What is that?”

MW: Was that Joe Niezer?

WC: Yeah. And, it was just like, “Wow! What is that?”

MW: I saw the video of that and it looks pretty crazy.

WC: It was sick, and unfortunately he thought it was a gimmick and didn’t want to throw it and now he doesn’t even talk to anybody about it. I’ve got a high school kid in Jersey who throws a better one. I mean, he threw this thing and inside a half an hour, he was not only throwing it with that nasty break, he was controlling it. And we had the coach from Rutgers out there. ESPN was shooting a bunch of stuff. They’ve got a big article coming…I want to say February 15th….It’s one of their E-Ticket articles, like 10,000 words on it. Yeah, Montefusco. His breaks like nothing I’ve seen. It’s evil.

MW: I’d like to see that.

WC: Yeah. We’ve got some video. Of all the gyroball articles, this is the one I’m actually excited about. Most of them make me sound like I’ve seen the Loch Ness Monster.

MW: (laughs) That’s what’s funny to me. When I read about it, it reminds me of….I read recently that there are four different styles of gyroball, with different grips and things, and I didn’t know that, actually….and it reminds me of when I was a college student. We had a basement lounge in our dorm, and my buddy and I used to play whiffle ball down there. There was no wind, so we could do all kinds of crazy things and I had to laugh when I read it, that it reminds me of doing whiffle ball grips.

WC: It is. It is. But it’s such a fine adjustment to the grip, but it’s how you adjust your wrist at release and it’s so fine that I’m not sure that anybody can control it. One of the things we were having trouble with, especially with Joey, is that if you threw the pitch 20 times, one time it would go the opposite direction, and break just as hard. And, we were sitting there going, “Well, why does it do this? How could this possibly be?” And, it never occurred to us that by adjusting the position of the wrist and the axis of rotation that it would reverse....Two of the things I’ve been doing are….A, the pitch exists, and B, I can teach it to somebody in 10 minutes. So, I mean, it’s been fairly easy.

MW: Sounds like you’ve got the Holy Grail.

WC: No. No. I’ve got an interesting pitch. That’s the thing. Everybody keeps going, “This is the pitch that’s going to change baseball.” And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

MW: It’s another breaking pitch.

WC: (laughter) It’s a good breaking ball. Yeah, that’s very nice to have, but it’s not going to change the game.

MW: That’s how people treat it though. It’s like it’s the first new pitch in 40 years, and yeah, it’s cool and it may save some guys some arm trouble, but it’s not like it’s doing Bugs Bunny things and spinning around…..

WC: No. No. Everybody wants it to be…it break twice….no, no, it breaks once.(laughter) The was one guy, who asked, “How much does it break?” I was like, “Well we have to aim it a little behind the batter.” He (wrote)was like, “It comes from behind the batter!” I’m like, “No! That’s not what I said at all!” (laughter) It’s crazy.

So, there you have it. Our conversation wrapped up and I sat up for a while to think about all the information that Will had kindly shared. I'm sure he went for coffee #3 after we finished our talk, and I still feel very grateful that we were able to bridge the gap between East and West via our internet conversation. Will and I are kindred spirits in many ways, I believe, but particularly in our feelings about Daisuke Matsuzaka. This is a pitcher that brings with him more than skill and determination. He brings a presence, the mystery of a new pitch, and the hopes of an entire nation.

For more about the gyroball, and for the wisdom of Will Carrol, please check out his regular work at Baseball Prospectus, including the excellent new feature, BP Radio. I will be appearing in a BP Radio segment with Will in the next few days, speaking about Japanese baseball and Matsuzaka. I hope to revisit this conversation with him when some of our questions are finally answered during the season, and I will bring it to you here at Matsuzaka Watch as soon as it happens.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Stay tuned this weekend for a new piece at Matsuzaka Watch. I was fortunate to spend some time talking to Baseball Prospectus' pitching and injury guru, Will Carroll, last night and I asked him a good deal about our friend Mr. Matsuzaka. In the meantime, to hold you over, I'm presenting via the magic of YouTube the Asahi Super Dry Beer commercial in which Daisuke debuts his Red Sox uniform. Good stuff.....

One Japanese cultural note...a bit of trivia.....The Japanese are not so hung up on the consumption of alcohol on television, so you will notice that Matsuzaka freely chugs the frosty brew to indicate his satisfaction with the taste and distinct character of Asahi Super Dry. This is common practice in Japanese beer ads, where seasonal foods and power drinking celebrities replace the American tradition of bikini clad women and over the top humor. Come back this weekend for Will Carroll on Daisuke Matsuzaka and his take on the gyroball.