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Sunday, April 15, 2012


NPB, MLB should use same ball going forward

One of the most often asked questions by fans during the recent Tokyo Dome exhibition games between the visiting American League teams and Japanese teams was, "Which ball are they using — the MLB one or the NPB one?"

The answer is yes.

Both balls were in play when the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics played tuneup contests against the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at the Big Egg March 25-26. When the major leaguers were batting, Japanese pitchers were throwing their own NPB model to which they are accustomed. When the Central League hitters were at the plate, the A's and M's hurlers were tossing the MLB ball.

The thought occurred to me; maybe it is time for NPB to make yet another change toward becoming more like the major leagues by adopting and using the same ball as used in the MLB. There are two reasons to consider this.

First, the NPB in recent years has made a number of adjustments in an apparent effort to make itself more international and more in line with the way things are done in the MLB. Examples: allowing fans to keep foul balls hit into the stands, switching from the six-man to the four-man umpiring system for regular-season games, reversing the strike-ball count to the ball-strike count and revealing starting pitchers a day in advance for all games.

The latest change is staging the meeting of umpires and opposing managers to exchange lineup cards five minutes prior to game time instead of at the end of batting practice 40 minutes before the contest begins.

Second, it is obvious (at least to me) the "new" NPB ball, put into play in 2011, is taking away too much of the offense in Japanese baseball. I had decided to reserve judgment until seeing what will happen this season before commenting more on the ball, in case by some chance the offensive statistics return to pre-2011 figures. So far, they have not.

If the first two weeks of the 2012 campaign are any indication, things are getting worse. The pitchers have been way ahead of the hitters to begin with and, on occasion when a batter hits the ball on the nose, it simply does not carry.

We have already had a no-hitter (thrown by Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Carp against the Yokohama Baystars on April 6), and there have been a lot of shutouts and more than enough 1-0 games. It appears as though we have picked up where we left off last season.

The Baystars went through a slump of 46 consecutive innings without scoring, a franchise record. The Yomiuri Giants went through a 31-inning stretch without plating a run. No Kyojin player hit a home run until Shuichi Murata connected on April 11, in the team's 11th game of the year.

Don't get me wrong; standardizing the Japanese ball was a good idea, but all those tests that were done to come up with what was supposed to have been a ball that would play fairly to both pitchers and batters may have gone for naught. It is time to think about importing the MLB ball for use in NPB games.

Yes, I know the MLB ball is manufactured by Rawlings, and the NPB ball by Mizuno, but there should be some way these companies can get together on a "joint venture" to go even further.

If every high-level league in the world used the same ball prepared the same way, the need to adjust would be a thing of the past.

Pitchers moving from one country to another as well as those throwing in international events such as exhibition games, the World Baseball Classic and the Asian Series and the Olympics — should we ever get baseball back into the Games — would no longer have to worry about the ball feeling too big, too small, too rough, too smooth, too slippery or too tacky,

Another way Japanese ballparks could look a little more like major league stadiums would be to post the home run dimensions on the outfield fences. Thirty years ago, all the Japanese parks listed the measurements in meters but, over the years, the numerals gradually disappeared and, today, only a few still have them posted. You need to consult a guide book to know what they are.

Tokyo Dome, for example, does not indicate it is 100 meters from home plate to the left — and right-field foul poles, and 122 meters to straightaway center. When the Mariners and Athletics played there last month, the dimensions of 328 feet down the lines and 400 feet to center were displayed on the fences. As soon as the major leaguers left town, the numbers were removed.

I asked Murray Cook, MLB's stadium and ballpark maintenance consultant, if he had measured the distances at Tokyo Dome while he was here for the Seattle-Oakland series.

Are they accurate?

"Of course I measured them," Cook responded. "It is exactly 400 feet to center, and 327 and change to left and right."

It is Cook's job to gauge everything to ensure the pitching rubber is exactly 60 feet and six inches from home plate, the bases are precisely 90 feet apart and the dimensions of the field are as indicated. He also checks the height of the pitcher's mound, visibility from both teams' dugouts and the quality of the playing surface and dirt around the mound, home plate and the infield.

Cook could also be seen himself meticulously lining up the baselines and batter's and catcher's boxes to squared-off perfection. Hopefully, the Japanese grounds crews were able to observe and learn something from Cook about how the field should appear.

In the meantime, let's see if we can get those distance numbers on the fences and start thinking about the MLB ball.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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