Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with japanbaseballnews.com's Brandon Siefken


Last Friday my most recent essay about Japanese baseball appeared on the website Baseball Reflections, your one-stop shop for any baseball-related info you could ever imagine. For this essay I wanted to go a little bit deeper into the Japanese game, but I needed the knowledge of someone who is more familiar with it than I am. I turned to Brandon Siefken, a stats nut who runs the website japanbaseballnews.com, the place to go for comprehensive news and data on Nippon Professional Baseball. He's also a good friend to JapanBall, the group that runs baseball tours in Japan. Brandon was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I incorporated his insight into my essay. Since I regularly exceed my word-count limit, I couldn't include all of Brandon's excellent answers to my probing questions. So, I'm posting my questions and his answers here. Consider it bonus info.


Susan - You've seen MLB players and NPB players. How is the level of play different between the two leagues? We often hear that Japanese players want to test the MLB waters because they "want to play against the best." Why do Japanese players feel they are not competing against the best players already?

Brandon - They probably feel that way because it is true. MLB is the zenith of world baseball and I do not think any baseball expert would deny that with a clear conscience. That being said, the level of Japanese baseball has risen exponentially in the last decade or so. Japanese play the fundamentals of baseball better than anyone in the world. The work ethic, fielding, stealing bases, bunting, hitting for contact and the concept of small-ball manufacturing runs is played exceptionally well in Japan. What they lack is the power game, and I attribute that mostly to the lack of size. The average players in Japan are smaller than those in the US and less muscular. If a pitcher makes a mistake in Japan, he might get tagged for a single where the same mistake in the US would cost him a home run. MLB hitters not only have power, they are the best in the world at adjusting to a pitcher. There is no doubt MLB hitters are far more dangerous than Japanese hitters. The pitching side of the game, however, is a much closer race between Japan and MLB.


Susan - By now baseball fans are familiar with the Yomiuri Giants (because they are considered the Yankees of Japan) and Chiba Lotte Marines (because of Bobby Valentine), but what are the teams to watch this season? By contrast, who are the Royals and the Nationals of NPB? Who do you predict will win the Central and Pacific titles and eventually the Japan Series?

Brandon - As for teams in Japan on the rise, you would not be able to tell by the current standings, but I like what the Hiroshima Carp are doing. They have strung together two great drafts in a row, picking up players like Takeshi Komatsu, Ren Nakata and Takeru Imamura. They have two good starters in Kan Otake and Kenta Maeda as well as one of the better closers in Katsuhiro Nagakawa. Add to that a new stadium and slick new red uniforms from last year with an energized fan base and I see them challenging in the playoffs soon. I also like what the Chiba Lotte Marines are doing. Yuki Karakawa and Yoshihisa Naruse make for a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation and new draft pick Takashi Ogino is starting 2010 off with a tear, hitting .383 with 7 RBIs in 12 games.

As for the bottom teams, the Orix Buffaloes just do not seem to get it. (see my 2010 issue #4 feature article in Japan Baseball News Weekly) The Buffaloes string together years of terrible drafts, let the wrong players go and inexplicably acquire sub-mediocre talent through free agency. They are certainly a team going backwards and have been doing that for a while.

I believe the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions will win their respective divisions and that Yomiuri has too much fire power not to repeat as champions. They are very explosive and have spent the last few years replenishing their talent in the draft to stay fresh for a whole season.

Susan - Do you think the increased number of Japanese players in MLB is hurting Japanese baseball by depleting the league of its talent? Or could it actually be helping NPB gain interest and exposure? Is your website contributing to the exodus of Japanese players?

Brandon - I think this question is not only about baseball, but also about culture. The Japanese do not look at their baseball league the same way we Americans look at MLB. Americans are very serious about their sports. To the Japanese, professional sports are more of a side show to their every day lives. Yes, there are some fans here who make sports their lives, but that number is very small compared to their American counterparts. Japanese baseball games generally start at 6pm on weekdays but broadcasts of games on national TV always begin at 7pm, usually starting in the 3rd inning or so with highlights of the last hour of action missed. Likewise, broadcasts end promptly at 9pm despite how the game is playing out. It could be a 2-3 count in the bottom of the 9th inning of a 1-0 game and the broadcast will still end at 9pm for pre-recorded variety shows or news. Americans would never stand for that.

My point in explaining all of this is that Japanese like their baseball, but they do not "live it." They see it as one part of their lives. In that respect, I do not think Japanese baseball is hurt much by players leaving for the US. Japanese fans follow teams here more than players. They will still support their team when it is time to watch baseball. Once the players go to MLB, the fans support those players as a player instead of the team. In short, I think the level of fan support will not change even if the talent level decreases in Japan.

As for my website, I believe it is broadening the reader's view of Japanese baseball and the players here, who have been relatively anonymous for years. For the same reasons I stated about Japanese fans here, I do not think there are other sites that break down the numbers and stats of Japanese baseball like mine does. That can only be a good thing for MLB and for NPB Japanese baseball.


Susan - In "You Gotta Have Wa," Robert Whiting described the difficulties foreign players faced while playing in Japan in terms of discrimination from management, players, and fans. Yet, foreign players in the '70s and '80s were given lavish contracts and perks their Japanese counterparts did not receive. How has that climate changed in the last decade? NPB has a limit to how many foreign players are on each team. Do you see this changing in the future?

Brandon - The area of contract and salaries is not my specialty, as I like to focus on stats and analysis of the players. However, my opinion on this is that foreign players here are viewed as somewhat of a necessary evil. Japanese teams want these players for power hitting to help the team win, but these players are not respected or adored like the Japanese players. Japanese media often refer to the foreign players as "rentals" or "helpers." This is due to the fact that most foreign players do not last long here, so it is difficult for fans to get attached to them. The long term foreigners like Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes are few and far between.

As for lavish contracts, Japanese players are much better today so I think the salaries might be evening out a bit. The foreigners still make good money, but they probably do not stand out like they used to because the Japanese salaries are going up as well. Contracts for foreign players are usually short-term deals because they are viewed as a gamble by the Japanese. Japanese contracts can be 10 years long, so the foreign contracts look bigger because they are for shorter terms.

For these reasons, it is rare for a foreign player to be adored by the Japanese fans like Randy Bass back in the Hanshin Tiger glory years of the '80s. Alex Ramirez for the Giants is close to that though, but still a very rare case.


Susan - Will Yu Darvish eventually play in the Major Leagues? If so, how soon? What do you think his chances are of succeeding? Were you surprised he was named the Pacific League MVP for 2009?

Brandon - Firstly, I would not be surprised that Darvish wins any award. He should win them all. He has an amazing natural talent that is rare. I believe he is close to leaving Japanese baseball, and it could be this year. There is one AL East MLB team with a scout following Darvish's every start. I have also heard that Darvish is teaching his young child the ABCs.

His wife is a model named Saeko, and Darvish is said to respect her opinion on matters very much. He is also influenced by his father, who is Iranian. Those two people may have some say in the decision process, but this is the first year Darvish himself has commented in a positive way in public about going to MLB. Darvish is kind of a quirky guy, he does not talk much and is known to be a little awkward socially. His opening up about the possibility of playing in MLB is a big deal here. There are many rumors he will come out after the 2010 season and I believe he might as well. When he does, I think he will be a very good pitcher in the US. He is too talented and physically gifted not to succeed. If there is anything that could potentially hold him back it would be something mentally hindering him or bad coaching. Talent-wise he is a lock to succeed.

8 comments:

Daniel said...

Wow, no love for the Nats! I think the Nats of this year are the Orioles (or the Mets!).

Maybe I've been drinking a little too much of the DC/Maryland kool-aid.

shrinecastle said...

That's right! No love for the Nats! To be fair, Washington is only one of the several bad teams in MLB, the Mets included. You did get some love for your Carp, though.

Deanna said...

I have this feeling Brandon Siefken has never gone to a game and sat in the outfield with actual Japanese baseball fans, because the statement that "Japanese people do not 'live it'" and also that "Japanese fans follow teams more than players" are both patently untrue. You would be surprised by how devoted Japanese fans can be to particular players -- it's not uncommon at all for someone to be a fan of one team but to still go to another team's games just to cheer for a particular player that they like. That player may have been someone originally on the main team they follow -- or it may just be someone they liked in high school or college. Hell, the question I get asked more often than anything else is always "Which player are you a fan of?" People expect you to have a favorite player or two even moreso than a favorite team.

And as for not living the game? Jesus -- in the US, people show up late for the game and leave early, and generally have no clue who anyone is or what is going on. In Japan, baseball fans structure their lives around the game, they show up hours early, and they know every player on the major and minor league rosters (and which high schools they came from).

I teach in a junior high school and despite the fact that I read the baseball news as fervently as most other fans (seriously, if news breaks, half the time I learn it from emails from other baseball fans here), often my students will know about stuff going on with the Fighters before I even do! And they're not even fans of the team!

Also, there are plenty of Japanese sites that do plenty of stats breakdowns (especially the draft sites), if you bother to, you know, actually read them.

shrinecastle said...

Deanna,

Thanks for your comments. I must admit that I, too, was surprised by Brandon's statements regarding Japanese fans, especially since I wrote an essay about oendan the previous month.

I completely agree with you about the fans here in the States. I'm not a Yankees fan, but a friend of mine who is had an extra ticket to see a playoff game against the Angels last October. Honestly, I can't tell you what happened in that game after the 5th inning. Her friends kept texting her, and we went to different bars at Yankee Stadium to find them. The next thing I knew, Mariano Rivera was taking the mound. And this was a playoff game!

It's great that you have a network of fellow fans who e-mail breaking news to each other. So, who are your favorite players? And what sites do you visit frequently to get your NPB news? I like Yakyu Baka, NPB Tracker, and japanesebaseball.com, although I don't read them every day like I should.

Daniel said...

Deanna and Susan,

I think that you're right about the fans following particular players. I remember being in Tokyo last fall with Susan and talking to Yu Darvish fans on the train to the Seibu Dome. That's probably the most false statement he made in that interview.

As for how much the fans live for the team, I don't have any experience in the oendan and the language barrier prevents me from really understanding what's going on around me, but is the average fan in the ballpark the kind of fan who structures his life around a team? I worry that some of Deanna's impressions about the Japanese fan comes from all her experience in the oendan sections.

I did read your (Deanna) recent post about the Mariners game you attended and while I think you're right that the game is VERY different, I don't think that there is a complete lack of true fandom present in the MLB. I speak as one of the more hardcore fans out there, but in every one of these crowds there are many fans who do know the names of prospects and who do follow a team's every game. It's hard to judge the MLB based on the recent lackluster performance of the Mariners. Attend a game at Citizens Bank or the upper decks of Yankee Stadium and you'll see much more passionate fans who are there to see the game.

I hate being the MLB apologist here, but there are fans like me, even if we're in short supply. It would be great to see more of the NPB conventions come stateside. How sweet would it be if we had thundersticks and cheers for each individual player out here too.

Daniel said...

Oh yeah, forgot to say, I love both of your work. Keep it up!

Deanna said...

Daniel, actually, I grew up in Philly, we had season tickets to the Phillies until I was around 15 years old. My mother always told me not to ever behave like the fans around me; I had no idea Mike Schmidt was such a great player until he got elected to the HOF -- in my memory, everyone was always booing him! Philly fans are sure passionate, and really dedicated to the Philly teams, but what I've always seemed to notice was that they had very little idea of what was going on in sports outside of Philly teams. I've been to a bunch of games at CBP when I was home visiting family. It's nice enough, but I miss the crapmosphere of the Vet. I do like some of the little touches like the Connie Mack Stadium clock tribute, though.

(And I saw a game in the upper decks of Yankee Stadium back in the summer of 2005. But, well, I hate the Yankees, see...)

I know there are passionate fans out there in the MLB. It's just that they never seem to be sitting near me, and instead I get surrounded by people wondering what on earth I'm writing down in all of these funny little grids with the BB's and the K's and so on.

Shrinecastle -- as for where I get my NPB news, I've been WRITING about the NPB for over 5 years on my own blog. (I've been around way before NPB Tracker or Yakyu Baka, and I've met Patrick and Gen both at various times, and I wrote the old boxscore translator that was used on japanesebaseball.com a few years ago.) I pretty much read the news in Japanese and go to over 100 games a year here in Japan. My favorite players... that's a tough question, because I follow all kinds of stuff here. NPB top league? I'd probly say my favorite players are Kaneko and Hichori on the Fighters. Ni-gun Fighters is Imanari. I could list favorite players on every pro team, though. Favorite college player is currently Hosei's Kisho Kagami. Favorite high school player is currently Teikyo's Takuro Itoh. And so on. My "favorite" independent league player is Yuji Nerei. Industrial League, I'm pulling for all the college boys I used to watch to do well, in particular Shingo Kamegai and Nobuaki Nakabayashi. How about you?

It's not that out of the ordinary that I have fans emailing me about what's going on. That is just what people do here. Being a baseball fan in Japan isn't just about liking a team or a player, it's about being part of a community. Saying "I'm a ____ fan" actually identifies you as part of a group, really.

Daniel said...

Yeah, Phillies fans aren't exactly the nicest bunch of folks, but you're right that they're passionate. I wonder if their recent success will start to change them for the worse like it did for the Red Sox.

If you're ever in the Baltimore/Washington area and you want to catch some baseball, look me up. I'll buy you a (crappy American) beer, we can wear NPB jerseys to the game, and you can sit next to someone who's paying attention and knows what's going on in the MLB, haha.