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Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

No starting pitcher announcement creates confusion, intrigue in Central League


Japan's Central League has said it is considering to join its Pacific League cousin in adopting the "yokoku sempatsu" policy of announcing starting pitchers in advance this season. The starters for each Pa. League contest are officially designated 24 hours prior to game time, and anyone can watch the evening sports news or check the NPB website and know who will be throwing the next day.

The CL, until now, has allowed managers to keep their starting hurlers a secret until the lineup cards are exchanged — usually 40 minutes before games are scheduled to begin. According to reports, representatives of the six Central League clubs are to meet on March 1 to consider the matter.

Supposedly, this would be another step for Japanese baseball to become more like the major leagues where managers routinely and openly reveal their starting pitchers for a three-game series well in advance. In Japan, however, there are two schools of thought and debate about the advantages and disadvantages of saying who will be pitching and when.

One side, favored by older and more stubborn managers such as Katsuya Nomura who managed the PL's Rakuten Eagles from 2006-09, believes keeping the starters confidential is to their advantage because, since the opposing team might not know if it would be facing a right-hander or a lefty, it is more difficult to decide a batting order.

The opposing view is that teams win because their starting pitcher is better than his opponent, not as a result of "tricking" the other manager into stacking his lineup with right- or left-handed batters in anticipation of a certain pitcher starting a particular game.

There is also the argument, if the starters are known and a team is putting its ace or a fan-favorite player on the mound, it would boost attendance. For example, since PL fans know ahead of time when Masahiro "Ma-kun" Tanaka will be on the hill for the Eagles, or Yuki "Handkerchief Prince" Saito will be toeing the rubber for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, ticket sales will surely increase.

If the Central League decides to announce the pitchers in advance, we should see an end the "teisatsu member" tactic, and team representatives and media members will no longer have to moonlight as "spies."

A manager will insert the teisatsu member into his batting order when he does not know if his team will be facing a righty or southpaw. He will write in the name of a player (almost always a pitcher) who will not be used in that day's game but is listed as one of the 25 men registered to be on the bench.

The lineup cards are exchanged and the teisatsu member is officially announced as a position player, but he never sees the field. When the game starts, the manager substitutes with a right- or left-handed batter (depending on the opposing pitcher) as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement for the teisatsu.

There is a story of one American pitcher, playing his first year in Japan and who had not heard of the teisatsu maneuver. He arrived at the ballpark one day and was scheduled to start the following day's game. He had learned to read his name in katakana and was shocked to see himself listed as batting seventh and playing third base on the lineup card. His interpreter had to go through the lengthy explanation about what is the teisatsu member, why it is used and why it was him.

Scott Anderson, an American right-hander with the Chunichi Dragons in 1991, is among those who thought the secrecy is silly. He felt it made no difference who knew when he would be starting a game, despite the fact he was told by his coaches not to reveal the rotation. "Yes, I am pitching tomorrow," Anderson would tell the media and whoever else might have been listening.

There was a time when you could tell which pitcher would be starting a game, because he was the one who would leave the field early during pre-game batting practice to prepare mentally and physically. Opposing teams would assign a staffer to peek out and see who was first to go into the clubhouse.

Pitching coaches countered that, though, by telling two pitchers — a righty and a lefty — to exit the field and go in the locker room together.

The Yomiuri Giants, for the past three seasons, have prior to games partitioned off a section of the first base side corridor at Tokyo Dome and posted a security guard, so no one except team members and staff could see which pitchers were passing from the clubhouse to the bullpen.

I have also seen beat reporters from Japanese sports newspapers standing on chairs in a Tokyo Dome hallway and holding up cell phones over their heads to take photos through an overhead screen to know what was going on and who might be warming up inside a team's bullpen.

Announcing the starting pitchers in advance would also help broadcasters prepare, and perhaps save major league scouts some time and travel money.

One day last season, play-by-play announcers for NTV and Radio Nippon had data on two pitchers, a lefty and a righty, who might have started a game for the Hiroshima Carp against the Giants. When the lineups were exchanged, however, a third pitcher (Dominican Dioni Soriano) was announced. With only 40 minutes until game time and 10 minutes until pre-game microphone check time, the guys had to scramble to find out what they could about the surprise starter.

Also in 2011, a couple of scouts from MLB teams took the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya to see a probable start by Chunichi Dragons pitcher Chen Wei-yin (now with the Baltimore Orioles). When they got to Nagoya Dome, they found manager Hiromitsu Ochiai had decided to start another guy.

We will see what happens but, if the Central League agrees to the yokoku sempatsu system, a lot of people will be happy.

***

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com



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