Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Sho" Me the Way to Go Home

The 2nd round of Koshien's 79th annual Spring Invitational has just launched itself both literally and figuratively into action. The first game of the 2nd round featured Osaka Toin High School against Sano Nihon University High. If you've been reading here recently you'll know that Osaka Toin means Sho Nakata. In the post just prior to this I recapped Nakata's first game of the tournament in which he was the starting pitcher and #4 batter. I was highly critical of his pitching ability, although I think he's a very good thrower. He was not the starter for Toin today, and instead took his more natural right field.

Sano leads off a very interesting left fielder named Viana Welisson from Sao Paolo, Brazil (pictured above, left). He learned about baseball from the many second and third generation Japanese growing up in a country where soccer is king. Those kids play baseball, and taught Welisson about Koshien. He took to the sport, and came to Japan to pursue his dream. On the big stage today he was excellent, going 2-4 with a walk, a run, and 2 RBIs. Unfortunately for the 3rd year leadoff man, his team was defeated in a slugfest 11-8. Welisson will have to hold his dreams for a Koshien title until the Summer Tournament, when the pressure is at its highest. He finished the event hitting .500 after 2 games.

The story of this ballgame was Sho Nakata. After an 0-3 performance with an HBP and an RBI in Game One, Nakata put on a show today.

In the first inning, with two outs and a runner on 1st, Nakata worked a walk against the clearly intimidated starter, Idei, of Sanichi. He scorched the first pitch foul, took a high fastball for ball one, took an outside fork for ball two, laced an inside fastball foul past the third baseman, took a high fastball four ball three, and then watched a change up just miss for ball four.

In the third inning, with one out, runners on 1st and 2nd, and a run in, the young slugger took strike one on a fastball down the middle. On the second pitch he watched a fastball sail outside for ball one. On the third pitch, Nakata took a high and inside fastball off the hands foul. The fourth pitch was a fastball outside, for ball two. With the count now 2 balls and 2 strikes, Toin's cleanup man leaned into a pitch and sent it sailing over the left field wall into the stands for a huge three run shot to break the game open. The home run was measured at 150 meters, or 492+ feet.

His next at bat came in the fourth inning with no outs and a runner on 1st. At this point the score was already 6-3 in favor of the Osaka club. Idei fell behind Nakata 2 balls and 1 strike on a couple of missed fastballs and a hard foul ball. Nakata looked at a fat fastball and took a full swing lining a bullet into the left center field stands for his 2nd home run of the game. This was the first time a player had hit home runs in consecutive at bats during Koshien since Hideki Matsui did it in 1992. The news services are all running headlines calling Nakata a "monster like Godzilla" this afternoon.

Nakata attempted to make this a 3 home run affair in his very next at bat flying out to center, and then duplicating that result in his final at bat in the 8th. Toin advances to face Tokoha Gakuen Kikugawa on the 31st for a chance to advance to the Final Four. What will Sho do for an encore?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Koshien Round One

The 79th Edition of the Koshien Spring High School Baseball Tournament is underway, and we've just completed the first round. I had hoped to write up a tournament preview, but simply have been too busy to get to it. This year is a new beginning of sorts. The Komadai Tomakomai team from Hokkaido, which had dominated the sport for 3 years running, has graduated a number of its most important players, including ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. Waseda Jitsugyo, the school which dominated the 2006 season behind current Waseda University starter Yuki Saito, is also noticeably absent from the competition. Being that this is Koshien, there are always fresh new faces and potential heroes to pick out and follow. To that end, I selected a list of 5 schools and their star players to watch and cheer on. Here is that list:

1. Osaka Toin (Sho Nakata - OF/RHP, 6'0" 207 pounds )
Osaka Toin beat up on Nihon Bunri High 7-0 behind Sho Nakata's no hitter for 6.2 innings. He gave up one hit and then sat down after 7 innings and 114 pitches.

Mets' scout Isao Ojimi calls him the best prospect in Asia and the Cubs and Twins both feel he can be a Major Leaguer in a few years. The NPB teams are hoping he stays put and falls to them in the draft next year. That's the good part. The rough part is that he also walked 7 hitters and blasted a hitter in the midsection in the first inning as he was squaring to bunt. That man was promptly picked off first. Who can blame him? It was the first time I'd seen Nakata pitch and I must say I was not that impressed.

He hit 88 on the gun and looked a bit like a stocky right fielder with a little pitching ability. His frame on the mound reminded me a little of the Orioles Jaret Wright. If he were to continue pitching down the road, I think he'd only have a reasonable career as a reliever. Just my opinion after one start. He also went 0-3 with an RBI ground out in the first, and was hit by a pitch himself.

2. Sendai Ikuei (Yoshinori Sato - RHP, 5'10" 157 pounds)
All eyes have been on Yoshinori Sato for some time now, and the Sendai ace was out to make a run at a championship this Spring. The tournament started against little regarded Tokoha Gakuen Kikugawa High. Despite hitting 93mph on the radar and showing stellar command in striking out 14, the Ikuei offense never got it going and the boys from Tohoku were sent home 2-1 on the first day. We'll be sure to watch for Sato's revenge this Summer at the big event in August. He'll need to build a little better size to do anything at the next level, but the tools are there.

3. Narita (Yuki Karakawa - RHP, 5'11" 172 pounds)
Karakawa was a hard luck loser in 12 innings versus Hiroshima's Koryo High School, 2-1. It really wasn't his day, however, as he gave up 13 hits, 2 walks, and 3 hit batsmen while striking out only 4. At Koshien you're very lucky if you can survive that kind of shaky outing, and the ace of Narita High almost did just that. Almost. Koryo's coach ran himself out of two prime scoring opportunities in this game as he tried the suicide squeeze to no avail. In both attempts, his batters were not able to make contact with the pitch and cost the team a runner on 3rd. You MUST make contact if that's your strategy. In the end, Koryo won despite itself and we will have to wonder if a better second outing was in the cards for the senior righty. Summer.

4. Teikyo (Atori Ota - RHP, 6'1", 200 pounds)
Atori Ota is a force of nature. This was my first look at this exciting young player and I have to say WOW!!! He has size, excellent mound presence, and a ridiculous array of pitches. I suppose it's not the variety that impressed me as much as it was his ability to use the fastball anywhere in the zone, and hit the black at will. When he used his fork or change it was truly, truly unfair. This is the best young pitcher outside Darvish and Saito.

Ogi High School fell to Teikyo 9-1 (the one run was unearned) and had zero chance from the start. Ogi is a small program, but when a 6'1", 200 pound high school senior goes out and deals 20 strikeouts with only 4 hits and a walk over 9 complete, you have to tip your cap. The 20 Ks was one away from the all time Koshien record. He's got great size as you can see, and he's ready for the next level now. I may have to start an Atori Ota Watch soon. Yes, he's that good.

5. Hotoku Gakuen (Reo Chikada - LHP, 5'9" 185 pounds)
Hotoku Gakuen found itseld upset by no name Muroto High, 2-1. Hotoku Junior lefty Reo Chikada was on the mound and looked a bit immature to me. He has an immature physical frame, despite a promising lower body, and attitude to match. He smiled a lot and stuck out his tongue each time he surrendered a hit or walk. His mound presence was poor, and I think he needs to grow up a lot before he's a legitimate pitcher. He'll be a pro in 2008, but he needs work. Nevertheless, he struck out nine and worked a shutout through 6 before coughing up two in the 7th inning. That was all she wrote, as his teammates couldn't generate any offense against a very impressive and gutsy Morisawa of Muroto. I have to cheer for Morisawa after watching his passion for the game. Good story. Too bad for Chikada.

That's the main scoop from Koshien's 1st Round. I'll do my best to keep you posted on the next round and particularly the Nakata and Ota updates to follow. Stay Tuned!!!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Sho Nakata

Welcome to the new century. This is the century of Yuki Saito on the mound, and Sho Nakata at the plate. You have seen my blog Yuki Saito Watch by now, I'm guessing, but this is the coming out of Sho Nakata to an international audience. Let me introduce you.

Nakata was born on April 22nd, 1989 in Hiroshima Prefecture. He began his baseball career as an elementary school 2nd grader, and played catcher. By the time he had reached junior high school his reputation preceded him to the point that he started over his seniors, although only a first year player. This honor is only reserved for the most outstanding talent in the game. As a third year player in junior high school, Nakata was selected to the All Japan team and was awarded the privilege of representing his country at the Continental Amateur Baseball Association 15-Year Old World Series in the United States. He won the MVP of the competition and the US coaches remarked at the unreal talent they had witnessed in such a young man. From the August 3, 2004 edition of the NorthWest Herald(Chicago):

Already a top prospect in his country, Sho Nakata is a name to remember. His long-term goal? He wants t o pitch for the New York Yankees.

"He's special," Japan team advisor Fujio Seki said.

Already, Nakata's fastball has been clocked at 86 mph. It may be about 5 or 6 mph slower than the Seattle Stars' Cam Nobles, but Nakata's presence helped Japan to wins in its first seven CABA outings, including a 9-8 victory against the McHenry County Hurricanes on Thursday at Lippold Park. Propelled by Nakata's 17 hits, Japan was averaging 11.9 runs per game. Nakata also won both of his pitching starts, including one complete game....

After high school, Nakata is eligible for the top level of Japanese baseball. After a couple seasons there, Nakata wants to come back to the United States – and pitch for the Yankees.

"I practice every day," he said through the team's interpreter, Seki. "The whole year, I play baseball."

Nakata has flashed five-tool potential throughout CABA. His power – both on the mound and in the batter's box – is overwhelming. This is where the damage comes in. Nakata claimed the CABA home run derby Wednesday night, and he launched a first-inning home run against the Hurricanes that developed on a pitch Giesey called to be in a different location. On the first fastball he faced, following three curves, Nakata raised the plane of his swing, connecting on a three-run shot to right-center field.

As a first year player at Osaka Toin High School, Nakata was relegated to the bench. His ballclub made the final four at the Summer Koshien in 2005 and he contributed several big hits along the way. Last year was his big chance. As a second year player, Nakata hit cleanup and both pitched and played right field. He had grown to a healthy 183cm(6 feet) and 94kg(207lbs) and was a force all over the field. He reportedly benches 105kg(231 lbs) and squats 240kg(528 lbs), and can run a 6.2 second 50 meter dash, which seems slow for a track athlete, but very nice for a power hitting right fielder. As a pitcher, Nakata topped out at 151kph(94mph) and proved to be an imposing presence with a curve, slider, and palm ball in his arsenal. As a hitter, he is the most fearsome force in Japanese baseball at any level. Well, he may have some things to work on to rate him that highly compared to his professional seniors, but the ceiling is unlimited. In the 2006 Summer Koshien, Nakata hit a 140m(459 foot) line bullet to the left center field back screen against Yokohama High School. Unfortunately, in the second game of the tournament, Osaka Toin was matched up with the bulldozing Yuki Saito of Waseda Jitsugyo and young Sho fanned three times in four unsuccessful at bats against the ace.

In the 2006 Kinki Regional Fall Tournament, Osaka Toin managed a strong 2nd place finish and Nakata was a monster. In a quarterfinal game against Ohmi High School, Nakata blasted his 65th career home run, passing PL Gakuen legend Kazuhiro Kiyohara for 3rd place in Japanese high school baseball history. Kiyohara is still clinging to a professional career at the age of 39, with 525 home runs and a Hall of Fame career behind him. He rounded first and threw up a "guts pose", pumping his fist. Against Ichikawa High School of neighboring Hyogo Prefecture, the eye-popping outfielder launched a 1-2 slider 560 feet, which left Kimiidera Field, traveled over several houses, and landed in an irrigation ditch! His 66th career home run merited a special certificate from the stadium owner, showing his appreciation for the unprecedented feat as no ball had ever traveled remotely so far in the long history of the park.

Sho Nakata enters the 2007 season with a total of 68 home runs, tied with current Seibu Lions infielder, Hiroshi Hirao. Next on the list at 70 are Ryosuke Hirata, Nakata's Osaka Toin senior of two years and Chuinichi Dragons outfielder, and the Mariners' Kenji Johjima. At 74, SoftBank Hawks minor leaguer Ryuya Ina sits in 3rd place just 15 behind the two players tied for second place with 83, Takeya Nakamura (current Seibu 3B) and Ken Suzuki (aging Yakult infielder). Current Seibu reserve outfielder, Hiroyuki Oshima is the all-time leader with 86. It only seems a matter of time before Nakata holds that record with a two year average of 34 home runs, and only 18 ahead of him to tie Oshima. Oops. Make that 17. On March 12th, playing on the grounds of Osaka's Daito City Stadium, the Toin slugger crushed the first pitch of his first at bat in the first inning against Kyoto Ryoyo High School sending a high line drive over the left center field fence. Number 69 in his storybook career, and with only 11 days to go before the open of the 2007 Spring Koshien Tournament.

I'll keep you posted on Nakata's amazing run. He has been scouted already by the Minnesota Twins and more recently by the Mets' scout Isao Ojimi who apparently posted a report to his bosses in Flushing about the slugger. Ojimi has also been seen in attendance at a few Yuki Saito practices recently. It is almost certain that Nakata will be a pro in 2008. The NPB draft awaits him eagerly, and I'm quite certain that he will be the #1 pick. If he wants to sign a deal with a Major League club, that's certainly out there as well, but I wonder if any of the teams across the Pacific will ante up as much guaranteed money as the Japanese teams. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Baseball Prospectus

I'd like to announce that I will be writing for the outstanding baseball think tank Baseball Prospectus during the 2007 season, covering Japanese baseball in all its various forms. This is an exciting opportunity to expand the coverage of the Japanese game in an English language medium via the most respected and intellectual organization in the baseball writing community.

Baseball Japan, and the other blogs I have created to cover specific players, will continue as a source for information and analysis on the Japanese game. These blogs will only be made better by the association with BP, and I hope to provide expanded and in-depth coverage of the issued raised and examined in my work there. These sources should provide a synergy that will help the rabid baseball fan dig deeper into the specifics of the sport in Japan, while also giving the casual fan a broader scope on the personalities and cultural points that exist across the Pacific.

Thank you for your continued support here and across the range of my other work. Please drop by Baseball Prospectus as often as possible to read our work and make sure to pick up your copy of Baseball Prospectus 2007 for the skinny on anything and everything related to Major League Baseball in 2007. See you around!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Yuki Saito Watch

This blog has been a long time in the making, and there is perhaps no player I am more excited about in Japan than the star of the 2006 Summer Koshien, Yuki Saito. The Waseda University season is about to start, and so is my intense coverage of Saito's young career. In 2011, he will be a free agent at 23 years old and perhaps open to the market in the United States. Keep an eye on him and support Yuki Saito Watch.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I Made It

Recently I posted about ESPN's coverage of the Asian game, and noted that I missed the cut in the pieces on their website. It appears that I was premature in that statement, as Eric Neel's latest piece on who to watch is now available, and yours truly gets a little mention at the bottom of the article. Thanks to the always informative and enjoyable Eric Neel for the mention. Look for more from me very soon at Baseball Prospectus. More on that to come.....

If you're arriving for the first time via the ESPN story, welcome. The content here is still a bit thin, but 2007 will be absolutely full to the brim with both NPB and Koshien coverage. Likewise, my player specific blogs will continue, with a much more active Darvish Watch, Uehara Watch, and the debut of Yuki Saito Watch. Of course, Matsuzaka Watch is still in full force. Come back often and tell your friends!