Ever since the Orioles signed Kenji Uehara, I’ve been trying to find out more about him and Japanese baseball in general. I mean, if the Orioles are serious about tapping this resource, why not learn a little more about the Nippon Pro Baseball league?
The blog NPB Tracker has been an invaluable resource for all things regarding Japanese baseball. But I still had some questions, so I talked site founder Patrick Newman into a mini-interview so I could get some clarity on a few subjects. I asked him about Koji Uehara, minor league signee Ryohei Tanaka and Japanese baseball in general. Thanks to Patrick for his time…the interview follows.
Dempsey’s Army: According to the Atlanta papers, Kenshin Kawakami has a contingent of 6 or 7 memebers of the Japanses press following him around Spring Training. Kenji Uehara seems to have at least twice that contingent even though Kawakami was touted as the better pitcher this offseason. What's the draw with Uehara?
Patrick Newman: Koji Uehara pitched for the Yomiuri Giants, who are basically the Yankees of Japan, so he has a national following. He's also been talking openly about pitching in the majors for years, so it's a good story that he's finally getting to do it now. And although Kawakami has been more consistent for the last few seasons, Uehara's peak performance was better, with Sawamura Awards* in 1999 and 2002.
*Japan's award for the best pitcher. It's like the Cy Young, but it actually pre-dates the Cy.
DA: Uehara has been primarily a reliever for the past two seasons. Why was that decision made? Also, are relievers in Japan used in a similiar fashion to the way they are used in the U.S. (i.e. one inning at a time on average...) or do they have longer stints? I am wondering how long it will take Uehara to stretch himself out to a starter again.
PN: Uehara was moved into relief after suffering an injury before the 2007 season. He was dominant in the closer role, and the Giants didn't have any other obvious closer candidates, so they left him there for the duration of the season. After 2007, they signed Marc Kroon to close, and moved Uehara back into the rotation. He struggled in 2008, got demoted, and pitched in middle relief, but got back into the rotation and put together a string of good starts in August and September.
Reliever usage patterns in Japan are similar to MLB -- you have closers, lefty specialists, middle relievers, etc. I think this is one of the reason we've seen a number of NPB relievers come over to America and do well. Starters in Japan tend to throw more pitches per start, but get more time in between starts. This is something that Uehara will have to adjust to. I don't know how long it will take him to adjust, but I would be a little surprised if he throws 200 innings this year.
DA: Outside of having to face some imposing lineups in the American League East, what do you think Uehara's biggest obstacle will be on his road to becoming a successful pitcher in the U.S.?
PN: Uehara has been home run-prone in his NPB career, so he'll have to work on keeping the ball down. Another thing is that he could count on getting the close calls in Japan, because of his reputation and his team. He won't have the benefit of the doubt in American. He seems to be cognizant of both these points though.
Off the field, he'll have to adjust to more travel, different food, a new language, etc.
DA: When he's in a jam, what is Uehara's "out" pitch? Which pitch does he command the best?
PN: In Japan it was his forkball.
DA: "Power pitcher" or "junkball" guy?
PN: "Finesse" guy. He has some good stuff but that doesn't include a power fastball.
DA: The stats for RHP Ryohei Tanaka are not impressive. He struggled during a cup of coffee with the Chiba Lotte Marinesand his minor league stats that you posted on NPB Tracker are not encouraging. He's only 26 but why would the Orioles be so interested in him? Does he have a big arm or was he highly touted (or drafted) out of high school?
PN: I've never seen him so I can't speak to how good his arm is or what he throws. I always take minor league stats with a grain of salt, because he might have been facing rehabbing major leaguers, or had a bad defense behind him, or working on a new pitch. But he rates haven't been good and he didn't improve statistically in his eight years.
The Orioles gave him a tryout and must have seen something they liked. He got a minor league contract paying him something like $40k, so there's no risk involved for the team.
DA: What is the view of NPB as a league about Japanese players having success in America? Is it a source of pride or are they concerned about how much talent if leaving the NPB? How do the fans feel?
PN: The league isn't crazy about the trend -- they were particularly upset about Junichi Tazawa last year and actually enacted a ban on players who skip NPB returning to Japan.The fans are more amenable to it. Guys like Ichiro and Matsuzaka are on the news every time they do anything, and their success is obviously a source of pride among most of the Japanese population. I like seeing those guys succeed, because I'm a fan of NPB and I think their success gives the league credibility.
DA: Before I die, I plan on visiting Japan and attending a professional baseball game while I'm there. Any tips for the average American baseball fan taking in a NPB game for the first time? Also, what is the Japanese version of a hot dog and a beer? Is there a traditional ballpark food in Japan?
PN: Get to Koshien Stadium in Osaka and see a Hanshin Tigers game, if you can. The stadium is a dump but there's no other baseball experience like it. I used to eat yakisoba, edamame, and sometimes dried squid at games in Japan -- I would say those are among the most generic items. All of the six Japanese stadiums I've been to served hot dogs, but I've only ever tried them at Osaka Dome. Osaka Dome also had McDonald's and KFC inside the stadium last time I was there. The Japanese version of beer is beer.