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Why Japan lost out on a medal for baseball at the Olympics

by on Aug.25, 2008 @ 12:40 pm, under Other

It's been a couple of days since Japan lost to the US for the Bronze at the Olympics. News programs are finally begining to pick up on the headlines, but most of the focus has been on the softball team winning the Gold. If not for Yukiko Ueno's brilliant performance (3 complete games in 2 days and 413 pitches thrown), Senichi Hoshino would probably be getting a lot more negative press. It might do Hoshino well to take the entire softball team out to dinner for taking some of the load off his shoulders.

Senichi Hoshino answering questions at a
press conference after returning to Japan.

But here's the million dollar question: why did Japan lose when most of the Japanese media were predicting a medal?

A bigger baseball?
I'm not really buying this, but Koji Uehara was quoted as saying that the bigger ball put Japanese players at a disadvantage. Uehara also mentioned that the Korean leagues switched to the International standard baseball at some point (this year?) in order to ensure that their players would be ready for the Olympics. But pitching, on the whole, wasn't necessarily the problem, so I'm not even sure why Uehara would mention larger balls being a problem. But if there was one player that might have an argument, it would be G.G. Sato.

G.G. Sato isn't a gold glove calibre outfielder by any stretch of the imagination, but he did commit two fairly big errors on fairly routine plays in back-to-back games against Korea and the US. In defense of Sato, he's a right fielder by trade so he may have had a hard time adjusting to the angles from left field, as well as reading the wind patterns. But 3 errors in 6 games is still too many to make during a short tournament where every single play can affect the outcome.

Ultimately, this sounds more like an excuse rather than a legitimate reason for failure. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but if bigger baseballs were a cause for defeat at Beijing, then what happened at the World Baseball Classic?

A wider strikezone?
The announcers (and later on, analysts) pointed to the strikezone as being problematic for Japanese players. I think that for the most part, the pitchers were able to capitalize on the wider zones, as evidenced by the team's league leading 94 strikeouts in 78 inning, which works out to a 10.8 K/9. The only other team that came close to that was Taipei at 8.9 K/9.

One analyst did make an interesting point regarding the strikezone and how Japanese pitchers had to pitch in the later games. I don't really remember the pitch sequences all that well, but apparently Japanese pitchers couldn't be as aggressive inside during the final few days of the tournament because of a fear of giving up the long ball. But the long ball wasn't really a problem for Japan (5 HR in 78 innings). (Or perhaps it wasn't a problem because they weren't pitching inside that much?)

IMHO, the bigger issue was giving up walks in key situations. The pitching staff as a whole didn't struggle from this problem (26 walks in 78 IP for a 3 BB/9), but pitchers like Yu Darvish (5 walks in 7 IP; 1 scored), Tsuyoshi Wada (4 walks in 9.1 IP; 2 scored), and Kenshin Kawakami (4 walks in 7.2 IP; 1 scored) did. It seems as though they were nibbling a bit too much, or going after corners the umps just weren't giving them.

Similar to the bigger baseball theory, I don't think this carries much weight. These are professional players, they need to be able to make adjustments. The pitchers appeared to do that fairly well. The batters, on the other hand, seemed to struggle. It's never really a good thing when your offense walks 24 times and strikes out 58 times. Nor is it ever a good thing when your team grounds into 9 double plays in 9 games. You'd think that with some many GIDP's, Hoshino would have excuted more hit and runs, or tried stealing more bases (as a whole, the roster was somewhat slow).

Bad roster choices?
Both Atsunori Inaba and Munenori Kawasaki were nursing minor injuries before making the trek out to Beijing. And I believe that this is one of the reasons why Hoshino loaded the roster with 5 middle infielders. But that still doesn't explain why he decided to stick with Kawasaki. Perhaps it's hindsight 20/20, but Kawasaki ended up eating a potentially important roster spot for most of the tournament -- he played in only 3 games. And because Japan carried 5 middle infielders (Masahiro Araki 2B, Hiroyuki Nakajima SS, Tsuyoshi Nishioka SS, Munenori Kawasaki SS, Shinya Miyamoto SS), to go along with 2 corner infielders, 3 catchers and 4 outfielders, it meant they could only carry 10 pitchers.

Speaking of Shinya Miyamoto -- why was he even on the final roster. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy. He's a veteran presence and brings a lot of experience to the table. With a relatively young team (13 of the 24 players on the roster were born after 1978), Hoshino may have felt that his presence would be good to have, but was his presence important enough to take up a roster spot? Miyamoto also only ended up appearing in 3 games, only once as a starter.

And what was the deal with carrying 3 catchers? And I'm still not sure what Shinnosuke Abe and Tomoya Satozaki were doing appearing in 3 games (between the two of them) as DH's. Again, it all goes back to the 5 middle infielders. If Hoshino didn't carry 5 middle infielders, carrying 3 catchers wouldn't be as much of a problem. But without enough hitters on the bench, Hoshino had to resort to using Abe and Satozaki as DH's. Ridiculous if you ask me, since neither are really that outstanding with the bat.

I was also a little surprised with Shuichi Murata and G.G. Sato making the final cut. While both players have a lot of pop in their bats, they are somewhat prone to striking out (they combined for 14 strikeouts in 43 at bats and managed only 6 hits between the two of them) and appear to be, at least to me, quite streaky. Perhaps if the Olympics had caught Murata and Sato when they were hot, the results may have been different, but unfortunately for Japan and Hoshino, that was not the case.

So who could have been included on the roster instead?

Toshiaki Imae, Michihiro Ogasawara, Kenta Kurihara may have been an interesting options at third.
Norihiro Akahoshi, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and (I can't even believe I'm saying this) Hichori Morimoto may have been interesting options for the outfield.

All 6 of these players were on the original list that was presented back in April. Why they were skipped over, I'm not quite sure. And out of these 6 players, Morimoto may have actually been the most interesting option because of his quirkiness -- he may have actually been able to keep the team loose with his silly antics -- and his speed.

Imae and Matsunaka were both on the WBC rosters.

The other problem was the team carrying only 10 pitchers, 7 of them starters and 3 of them closers.

Pitching staff?
This is probably the area that bothered and confused me the most. And the three biggest questions that popped into my mind were: 1) what happened to Yu Darvish; 2) why was Hoshino so enamored with Hitoki Iwase; and 3) why did Hoshino choose 3 closers and 7 starters?

I'm not exactly sure what happened to Darvish, but going into the tournament Hoshino labeled him as the ace of the staff. And yet he only made three appearances (2 starts). Assuming a "four days rest" schedule, Darvish should have made a start against Canada on the 18th, but instead Yoshihisa Naruse did. Wakui started the next game, 4 days after his start against Taipei. Darvish didn't make a start until the 20th, giving him 6 full days of rest. According to some reports, he wasn't very effective against the US (I didn't watch the game so I can't really comment), but was it really necessary to remove him after 2 scoreless innings, 3 strikeouts, and 34 pitches?

Incidentally, here's how the pitching order ended up working out: Darvish, Wakui, Sugiuchi, Wada, off-day, Naruse, Wakui, Darvish, off-day, Sugiuchi, and then Wada.

Hoshino called on Iwase 4 times and gave up 10 runs (7 earned) in 4.2 IP. And just for reference, I've included Koji Uehara and Kyuji Fujikawa's appearances as well.

Hitoki Iwase (33)
DATE  IP   H  2B  HR  K  BB  ER  R
8/14  1.0  1   0   0  1  0    0  0
8/16  1.1  3   0   0  2  1    2  3
8/20  2.0  3   0   0  3  0    3  4
8/22  0.1  3   0   1  1  0    2  3

Koji Uehara (33)
DATE  IP   H  2B  HR  K  BB  ER  R
8/14  1.0  0   0   0  1   0   0  0
8/18  1.0  0   0   0  0   0   0  0

Kyuji Fujikawa (28)
DATE  IP   H  2B  HR  K  BB  ER  R
8/13  1.0  0   0   0  0   0   0  0
8/14  1.0  0   0   0  3   0   0  0
8/18  1.0  0   0   0  2   0   0  0
8/22  1.0  2   0   0  2   1   1  1

Iwase getting shelled against the US.

Unless something was hidden from the media, I'm not quite sure why Uehara wasn't used more often. That said, I (too?) was a little skeptical about Uehara's health and that may have ultimately kept Hoshino from calling on him more. But if you have that concern, why even select him? And that doesn't really even explain Fujikawa's usage.

While Fujikawa did give up a run in his final performance, he was pretty much lights out for most of the tournament. I'm guessing that he probably could have pitched in a couple more games without any major problems. For those interested, he has pitched on consecutive days 8 times during the NPB season in 2008: 3/28, 3/29; 4/1, 4/2; 4/8, 4/9; 4/12, 4/13; 4/23, 4/24; 5/14, 5/15; 5/24, 5/25, 5/26; 7/1, 7/2, 7/3. And prior to being pulled from the NPB for the Olympics, he had appeared in 44 of his teams 93 games.

If there was concern about over-using Fujikawa and Uehara, then the question ultimately becomes: why didn't Hoshino select a couple of middle relievers that could throw back-to-back days? Or at least pick starters who have spent some time in the bullpen within the last couple of years?

If there was one pitcher other than Iwase that Hoshino didn't seem to worried about using on a fairly regular basis, it was Kawakami. And up until his last appearance, he was actually quite effective. But by his last outing, I think Kawakami was feeling pretty drained. In total, he tossed 7.2 innings over 5 games and threw a total 148 pitches, which doesn't include getting up and down in the bullpen to warm-up.

Kenshin Kawakami (33)
DATE  IP   H  2B  HR  K  BB  ER  R  P
8/15  1.0  0  0   0   0   0   0  0  9
8/16  1.0  1  0   0   0   0   0  0  18
8/20  2.0  0  0   0   3   2   0  0  50
8/22  1.1  0  0   0   2   1   0  0  23
8/23  2.1  4  2   1   1   1   4  4  48

Not having an 11th pitcher may have actually hurt Japan somewhat, especially if Hoshino did have a problem with using Darvish and Uehara. Going into the tournament, I think if you had said that Darvish would only end up throwing 7 innings and Uehara 2 innings, no one would have believed you.

Turning Point
If there was one defining moment where I think things really started to fall apart for Japan, it was the loss against Korea. I don't know if there was some sort of rule Hoshino was following, but the initial thought was that Iwase would be used in the 7th, Fujikawa in the 8th, and Uehara in the 9th (or at the very least, some combination of the three for the final 2-3 innings). Neither Fujikawa nor Uehara pitched in the previous night's game, so the assumption (at least for me) was that after Kawakami pitched into the 8th, it would be Fujikawa to finish off the 8th and Uehara to close out the 9th. Instead, Iwase was brought in and lost the game in the 9th.

Japan did manage to re-group and beat Canada and China in their next two games, but neither of those two starts featured the supposed ace of the staff. Whether or not this had any effect on the team, I'm not sure. But when your manager goes into a tournament talking about how great the ace of the rotation is and then only uses him 3 times (twice as a starter with one start lasting only 2 innings)... Well, it can't look good from the player's perspective -- you've basically given up on your ace, the one man everyone was relying on. And if there were any confidence issues with Darvish after he was knocked around against Cuba, they were probably only compounded by a manager that was faltering on when to use him next.

Darvish's 1 inning appearance against the US in the finals

Maybe it's just me, but even with those victories against Canada and China, it was around this time that it seemed as though the team wasn't functioning as a unit anymore. I'm guessing that Uehara also wasn't too happy with the lack of appearances -- his game against Canada was actually the last time he stepped on the mound. Prior to the Olympics, Hoshino also spoke about how he believed Uehara would be an important part of the team, and yet all he did was use him twice for 2 innings. 2 innings of effective relief at that.

I'll close this article with the following translation I've done on an article I read posted by Sports Hochi. (If someone can find the complete interview in Japanese, I'd be more than happy to translate it.)

Managers Sadaharu Oh and Katsuya Nomura on baseball at the Olympics
Sadaharu Oh and Katsuya Nomura had some time to talk to the press after one of their games was recently rained out.

Katsuya Nomura: Too bad about the Olympics.

Sadaharu Oh: Yes, it really is too bad. Not much can be done though. But it's a difficult tournament. One loss and everything is over.

Nomura: Getting together a good group of members can be tough. The 3, 4, and 5 batters in the lineup really need to be on the top of their game.

Oh: But first time match-ups can be tought for the batters, even though hitters from other countries were able to hit our pitchers pretty hard. Even my pitchers (Wada and Sugiuchi) were hit pretty hard.

<In a prior interview, Nomura mentioned that the advanced scouting reports weren't used enough and that they were wasted pearls of wisdom. He went on to say that picking a group of close friends to make up the roster was also a mistake. I'm guessing that he means the players weren't pushing each other enough. Nomura also made sure to mention that an ex-pitcher like Hoshino can't know what it's like to be a positional player. I think he was making a stab at Hoshino's inability to choose the appropriate positional players for the final roster.>

Oh: The opponents weren't swinging at any pitches out of the zone. They had really good eyes. A good batting eye is really important.

Nomura: It seemed as though there were quite a few batters that didn't step into the ball to hit.

Oh: It's almost like they just pulled off on the ball and still got distance.

Nomura: Their muscles are different. (Our bodies are different.)

Oh: It's difficult for starters to make relief appearances. It's also difficult to select good middle relievers. And the fact that you only have room for 24 players on the roster makes things harder.

Nomura: The youngsters these days don't know how to suck it up. They foul a ball off their leg and take 10 days off. Back when I played, I didn't want to give up my position to anyone so I played through broken bones.

Oh: We happen to have the most career NPB game appearances (Nomura 3,017 games and Oh 2,831 games) so we're pretty durable. But there are players that are weak when it comes to pain.

Nishioka (7) and Araki (2) after losing to Korea in the semi-finals.

2 comments on “Why Japan lost out on a medal for baseball at the Olympics

  1. knucklehead7

    Nice write-up, Gen. It’s worth mentioning something you brought up before the Olympics, too, that anything can happen when you’re playing a small tournament like this.

  2. Gwynar

    Thanks. There’s definitely no guarantee anything would have changed had Hoshino dealt with things different, or if players were able to make adjustments better / quicker, but at least it would have felt as if they really tried.

    Some of the commentary floating around right now is that the team looked flat and uninterested. More than anything, I think that’s what is really bothering people right now.

    My GF was really disappointed to upset to hear that the entire team stayed at a 5-star hotel instead of at the Olympic village. Stories like this make it seem as though the players were getting too high on themselves.

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