Chatting with Michael Westbay

With the influx of Japanese players to the AL East I decided perhaps it would be smart to get a hold of a writer familiar with the league across the Pacific, and so here he is, Michael Westbay of Japanese Baseball.com

R.J. Out of the three new Japanese imports, which one do you expect the
most success from? Is Matsuzaka really that much better than Igawa or Iwamura?

Michael Westbay Matsuzaka, without a doubt, has been ready for MLB for a long time, he
just needed a little more maturity - and I think he's finally there.

I still think that Igawa acts a bit like a child sometimes, but he has
the ability, just not as much talent as Matsuzaka.

Iwamura isn't a pitcher, so he doesn't compare to the other two.  He's
solid (only missed the beginning of the 2003 season due to injury) and
mature.  He strikes out a little too often (about twice as often as he
walks), but still has hit .300 or above 4 out of the last 5 years
(slugging over .500 over the same period).  I wouldn't rate him as among
the best third basemen defensively in Japan, but he does the job.

R.J. A lot of people have likened Iwamura to a Jason Varitek type of player(hits a lot of doubles, walks, ect.) is that a good comparison for what Iwamura will likely do in America?

M.W.
I don't follow MLB, so I don't know who Jason Varitek is.  Sorry.

In the last comprehensive park adjustments study done (by Jim Allen in
1997), Jingu Kyujo (the Tokyo Yakult Swallows' home) added 2% to
doubles, so it was fairly neutral in that regard.  (+40% triples, +13%
home runs, +34% foul outs made a much larger impact.)

Iwamura hit 27 doubles in 2006.  That ranked him #11 in the Central
League in doubles, behind teammates Adam Riggs (39) and Alex Ramirez
(28).  He did beat out Norichika Aoki (26), the second player to hit 200
base hits in a single season in 2005 (Ichiro was the first in 1994).

R.J. Yu Darvish is an up and coming pitcher, have you seen him pitch personally? Will he be the 'next big thing' and who would you compare him to?

M.W.
Again, I don't follow MLB, so I wouldn't compare him to anyone.

Still, at 20 years old, he's got great command of all of his pitches.

The only time I saw him live was for the final of the Asia Series
against the Taiwanese champions La New Bears.  He had them whiffing
early on, and dominated his 7 or so innings.  (He was then named MVP of
the game and the Series.)

Darvish is only just starting his 3rd year as a professional, so it'll
be another 4-5 years before the Fighters even consider giving him up to
the posting system (unless the time to free agency somehow gets shorter).

R.J Another Japanese pitcher on the way, although much sooner, is Koji Uehara who along with Naoyuki Shimizu, can you tell us anything about these players?

M.W.
Uehara is one of the last 20 game winners in the NPB.  He did that his
rookie year of 1999.  And he' dominated up until the past few years when
it's starting to look like overwork is taking its toll.  He's starting
off 2007 of the farm team with pain in his shoulder.  Because the Giants
don't recognize the posting system, this may effect when Uehara becomes
available as a free agent (if he misses too many days on the roster).

Unlike Uehara who started off with a bang, Shimizu has been getting
better with age.  The only thing is, as good as he is, he's not even the
#1 or #2 pitcher for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

R.J. What are the differences between the Japanese style of baseball and the American?

M.W. There are many little things.  And for some reason, many of them seem to
have become idioms.  Such as, "American play baseball, Japanese work
baseball."  Well, that's true to an extent.  But isn't it true that with
the higher salaries of MLB players that they take their trade a lot more
serious than they used to?  That is, they work much harder during the
off season than used to be the case - mostly with weight training, while
many go to the southern hemisphere and play in the various Winter
Leagues (a northern hemisphere centric name).

There was actually a great article in "The Daily Yomiuri" by Jim Allen
that talked about how many foreigners are amazed at how much the
Japanese focus on "the basics."

    http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/20070222TDY20002.htm

Also, there's "small ball."  Advancing a runner with the sacrifice bunt
has been a strong focus for many Japanese teams since the Yomiuri Giants
started doing it after spending a spring camp with the Los Angeles
Dodgers decades ago.  Many MLB fans have criticized Japanese baseball
for the over emphasis that many teams put on the sacrifice bunt.
However, with some teams' makeup (strong pitching staff that can hold a
one-run lead and not many power hitters), the strategy makes since.  In
fact, just ask Trey Hillman (manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham
Fighters) who resisted the sacrifice bunt the first several years he
managed the Fighters, then used it effectively in 2006 (more than
doubling its use) to win the Japan Series and Asia Series.

Unfortunately, some teams that don't have the pitching necessary get
caught in the "small ball" trap.  It seems that many teams want to
emulate what works for other teams without understanding why it works
for them.  It's as though they've been given the algorithm for winning,
but it's a black box without the documentation for what the proper
inputs are.  (I'm a computer programmer, so maybe that example isn't
right for your audience.)

R.J.
What made you decide to really get into Japanese baseball?

M.W. Well, I'd been a baseball fan since the early 1970s when Willie McCovey
hit a sayonara home run as my Dad was trying to usher us out of
Candlestick Park on my first trip to a Major League game.  After that, I
was hooked on baseball.

Living in Japan, I naturally turned toward Pro Yakyu (Japanese
professional baseball) for my baseball fix.  Back in the early 1990s
there as maybe one or two MLB games on TV per week during the season,
but rarely a San Francisco Giants' game.  When Nomo went over to the MLB
in 1995, I nicknamed the "MLB Stadium" program as "Nomo Stadium" as I
woke up numerous times at 3:00 am to watch the rare SF game only to find
a replay of Nomo's outing from a few days before.  Needless to say, my
interest in MLB whithered away to close to nothing that year.

However, the Internet had finally started spreading in Japan, and my
provider allowed users 1MB of free space for home pages.  I was able to
get SF Giants information on Usenet news groups, but there wasn't
anything useful on Japanese baseball - in English or Japanese.

Then after Kevin Mitchell spontaneously packed up and went back to the
States in the middle of the season, there was a report on ESPN-Net about
how the team mistreated him.  Well, his story didn't sound anything like
in the Japanese press, so I decided to start using my home page space to
"set the record straight" about what was going on in Japanese baseball.

After writing my first piece about Mitchell, and supplying some stats
from the newspaper, I got an e-mail the very next day from someone
wanting more information on how Bobby Valentine was doing with the Chiba
Lotte Marines.  Wow!  I thought it was amazing that someone half way
around the world had already read what I'd written and wanted more.

Well, long story short, I've been writing about Japanese baseball on the
Internet ever since.  I did discover later that a professor at Tokyo
University was putting up scores in text files on a daily basis, in both
English and Japanese.  So I was the second person on the Internet to
write regularly about Pro Yakyu.

R.J. Do you have a favorite team or player?

M.W. The Yokohama BayStars.  I live in Yokohama.

My favorite player used to be Toshio Haru, a gutsy outfielder who really
put his all into every play.  He got traded to the Chunichi Dragons and
later to the Chiba Lotte Marines (where he finished his career) after
some "disagreements" with Yokohama's management.  The BayStars'
management seems to be the cause for the loss of a lot of great players
and managers on the team.  But that's a different story.

R.J.
Do you feel that the posting system is fair to the Japanese league considering it robs it of it's greater talent while most of the players are entering their prime?

M.W.
The question is invalid on three counts.  You assume that it's a given
that the posting system (1) robs NPB of its (2) greater talent while
(3) most players are entering their prime.

1.  The posting system is giving monetary compensation for acquiring a
player (or at least the rights to negotiate with him).  This cannot be
called "robbery."  On the other hand, under the current free agency
course, whereby players go to the Majors without compensation, is more
of a robbery, and a major road block to shortening the length of time to
free agency in Japan.

2.  Much of the greater talent has chosen to stay in Japan.  And some
mediocre talent has choses to give the MLB a try.  Taguchi wasn't a star
player in Japan, yet he's shown that he can play at the Major League level.

3.  I think that with the work load on a lot of the pitchers who are
going over that some are past their prime.  That isn't the case for
Matsuzaka or Igawa, both of whom were drafted out of high school and
given high pressure roles early on.  But closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was
closer to the end of his career when he went to Seattle in 2000.  He
still pitched well, but he wasn't in his prime.

Finally, assuming that the question losing the false assumptions
starting from the word "considering," I still have an objection to the
word "fair."  Each side, MLB and NPB, is getting something out of the
deal, that's how they came to this agreement that saw the birth of the
posting system.  The deal may favor one side more than the other in one
way or another, but it's not my place to pass such a judgment.  If one
side feels that they're getting the short end of the stick, then there
will be changes when the agreement comes up for renewal.

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