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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Under New Management: Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is the Dragons new manager; backroom announced

 

1-Gun & 2-Gun Staff and Numbers Decided

It's official. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is the new Dragons manager. There's a lot of media to wade through as a result, but first one of the more important announcements, the staff. There's been large turnover with only six staff members surviving from the Yoda regime and only Masahiro Araki with 1-gun.

The new backroom staff was announced on the 4th of November. Nothing to surprise with either 1-gun or 2-gun as all those that were linked in the media were given jobs with the team. Shinya Miyamoto and Hirokazu Ibata were the only two linked that didn't end up inking a contract with the team. What Tatsunami has done however is create a literal All-Star backroom with only 3 staff members without a title or an All-Star appearance through their career. 


With no Ibata or Miyamoto, Eiji Ochiai has taken over duties as head coach alongside his pitching coach duties. Tatsunami has said he will more or less entrust anything regarding pitching to him. Ochiai has a good pedigree as a coach and it's perhaps surprising he hasn't linked up with the Dragons as a coach before not. He has apparently made comment now that he promised Tatsunami he would serve in his backroom around the time he retired in 2006. This loyalty to Tatsunami is apparently the reason why he hasn't come back since. 

The rest of the backroom is certainly a wait and see. Otsuka, Morino and Araki all have experience coaching with the Dragons while Onishi and Nishiyama have both cut their teeth in the Giants organisation. Everyone in this backroom has a connection to the Dragons except for Nishiyama who really is an out of left-field appointment. There have been rumors that Takeshi Nakamura may have been preferred but his recent illness meant he wanted to take a break from coaching. Nishiyama was hired apparently on the basis of providing "uncomfortable (for batters) game-calling" as a player. Expectations will be biggest for Nakamura and Morino however as they have the unenviable task of trying to turn a poor hitting staff into a half-decent one. Nakamura has already been given the job of helping develop Akira Neo and Takaya Ishikawa with the latter already claiming Nakamura's approach to be "a breath of fresh air" in their first session together on the 4th of November. Tatsunami has commented that he believe Nakamura has a great ability to teach. Here's hoping.

Tatsunami has also already made clear that Masahiro Araki will reprise his role as first-base coach while Onishi will be in charge of sending runners at third base. Both were adept base-runners in their playing days. Tatsunami's reasoning for Araki at first was his base-stealing expertise while Onishi previously has experience standing at third-base with the Giants.


Onto the farm, and it took a while for the coaching team to be announced. The first-team coaching set-up was more or less set in stone a week ago while it seems the farm coaching team has taken a little while longer to confirm. Tatsunami's buddy from high school, Atsushi Kataoka will manage the team. He has previous coaching experience with the Hanshin Tigers. Daisuke Yamai is also a new addition to the coaching staff having just retired this season. A seasoned veteran, Yamai's journey as a player should be a good experience to pass on to others as he worked hard to get to where he is now. Not many players of his pedigree can say they've pitched a no-no and an almost perfect (albeit shared) game. Former fan favourite, Kohei Oda comes in as battery coach to replace Shingo Takeyama. Yutaka Nakamura looks like an appointment made by Kataoka himself as they both journeyed from the Fighters to the Tigers during their coaching careers. Hidenori however has fallen on his feet as his demotion from the top team means he picks up a role that was previously held by Mitsuo Tateishi. One problem still remains however; Toshio Haru is the only batting coach. It will be hoped I guess that Kataoka can do some hitting classes as well, but given the team's issues with hitting, it's a surprise no one has been brought in. This also brings up an issue as well. One of the criticisms made by Tatsunami of players on the Dragons team is their compact approach to hitting rather than the more open attacking approach that bring more homeruns. Haru's hitting philosophy is one of being very compact so it is rather confusing as to why he's still in the organisation, let alone as the only hitting coach on the farm. 

Of the coaches that were replaced in both teams, no one has been retained in any capacity in the front office. Tsuyoshi Yoda, Hideyuki Awano, Motoyuki Akahori, Alonzo Powell, Kenta Kurihara, Tsutomu Ito and Takeshi Nakamura have all left the organisation. This is the same for Toru Nimura, Takahito Kudo, Shingo Takeyama and Mitsuo Tateishi. It is interesting that the farm team has not been shaken up as much as the top. Many of the key contributors from last year have stayed on. 

On paper at least, this coaching team seems an upgrade on Yoda's backroom. The lack of an exclusive head coach and the inexperience of the hitting coaches raises questions. Whether or not Haru is the guy to develop the next generation of Dragons hitters on the farm is another question if the hitting philosophy is to change. Nori Nakamura's addition has already made some positive news, as his instruction of Takaya Ishikawa to use his hand more when hitting has already seen some improvement in hitting the ball a bit further.

Of all the staff, it is only Atsushi Kataoka, Yutaka Nakamura and Shuji Nishiyama that have no obvious ties to the Dragons. Kataoka is of course a pal of Tatsunami's from PL Gakuen while it certainly looks like Nakamura was added at Kataoka's request. Nishiyama is really the odd one out. Otherwise, Tatsunami's career has overlapped with every other coach that spent time at the Dragons. Another interesting thing to note is that 9 out of the 17 backroom coaches hail from the Kansai region of Japan, including Tatsunami himself (this is also about the only common thread I can find between Nishiyama and Tatsunami). Otherwise, Kanto is next best represented with five followed by Chubu (two) and Kyushu (one). Perhaps a bit of a Kansai boys club being created by the new manager.

Big Changes for Dragons

So, that's the staff. Now I'd like to take some time to address what Tatsunami has said in the media about his management style and what he want to see from players. To say it's been a bit of a shock would be an understatement as he has been drawing up some very Draconian rules summed up in the below from Bernard Black of BBC's "Black Books". 

This is perhaps the key point that has gotten the most attention. Tatsunami has outlawed facial hair, hair dying and otherwise unkempt hair from the team. In a Yankees-esque approach, it would appear that he wants his players to focus on the important things while impinging on their individual expression at the same time. The response from the players has been quick however, as Hiroto Fuku has shaved his head, Yota Kyoda has dyed his hair black while Toshiki Abe and Daisuke Sobue have shave off their trademark scruff. Tatsunami is said to be influenced by the managers he had, particularly Senichi Hoshino and Hiromitsu Ochiai, whom valued a clean looking player.

There have been a number of media appearances by Tatsunami that have given the media weeks worth of 1-topic articles to talk about. Here's a list of some of the major things he's brought up and I'll dissect and muse about them after:
  • Captaincy will be abolished
  • Starting pitchers should pitch 7 innings, pitch count doesn't matter
  • Isao "Hardass" Harimoto has been invited to be a guest coach in Spring
  • Hirokazu Ibata was invited to become part of the staff but couldn't accept because "reasons"
  • There will be no limit on how long players want to train (on a related note, Hiroto Fuku now has a stress fracture in his throwing arm)
  • Thoughts regarding baseball haven't changed since retirement, but says he understands modern players; i.e. he knows he can't smack his players like Hoshino did.
  • Catcher should play 130 games a season
  • Ōshima and Viciedo are the only regulars 
  • Solidifying the centre line is a priority 
I'll have to review some of the media appearances again to get some more ideas, but I think there's enough here to discuss. Firstly, pitch count. There's a reason that pitchers are pulled around the 100 pitch mark and that has to do with tiredness and stress. While there is still plenty of debate over the usefulness or helpfulness of a pitch count even in MLB, it's safe to say that the more a muscle is used, the more it tires and the more susceptible it becomes to injury. Oddly enough pitching to the 7th, is something that NPB saves leader, Hitoki Iwase agrees with.

No limits on training is an interesting one. Japanese players are notorious for pushing themselves too far. I wasn't aware of a limit imposed by Yoda, but it would be understandable to place limits on senseless training to ensure players are fresh and uninjured. Removing this gives players the ability to push themselves a bit harder, but it may also lead to more injuries. 

I'd like to touch now on the catcher. Tatsunami was lucky enough to have the everlasting Takeshi Nakamura and Motonobu Tanishige as the primary catchers during his playing career. The fact of the matter however is, catching is tiring. 130 games is equal to 89% of all games in the NPB season. In the 2021 MLB season, the highest percentage of games played by a catcher was 80% set by the Red Sox, Christian Vasquez.  The next, Salvador Perez of the Royals played in 75% of all games. It is just plain silly to suggest a player needs to play 130 games, particularly in a position where stress on knees becomes a major issue. In the NPB, only Ryūtarō Umeno (130) and Takuya Kai (143) hit this mark in 2021. It’s worth mentioning neither of their teams won the pennant this year, but anyway. There’s also the absurdity of catching talent the Dragons have which makes it a perfect situation to rotate them. Ariel Martinez, Kōta Ishibashi and Yuya Gunji are all very competent backstops. Takuya Kinoshita not playing every game is just not an issue. On doing alittle research, even Tanishige and Nakamura didn't play 130 games in a season too many times. Nakmura did it once in 2001 while Tanishige hit the mark in 7/13 years with the Dragons. It's worth noting that Nakamura helped produce two Sawamura Award winning pitchers (Shinji Imanaka & Masa Yamamoto) and one MVP (Shigeki Noguchi). Tanishige on the other hand only has Kenshin Kawakami's joint MVP & Sawamura season. Perhaps Tatsunami really saw the value behind Tanishige starting most of the time vs Nakamura's comparatively more sporadic appearances but there is a reason that the former holds the NPB appearance record. He was very special.

The last two points I’d like to combine as I feel they’re related. It’s hard to argue that Viciedo isn’t at least the mid-term option at first base particularly after his future has been sewn up for the next 3 years. Ōshima however is an interesting one. He’s 35 now and slumped a little in 2021 given his very high standards. Defensively he’s been on the decline since 2019. To say he’s a guaranteed starter next year makes sense but it’s also at odds with this solidifying of the centre line going into the future. The centre-line, for those unfamiliar, is catcher, short-stop, second base and centre-field. The current options aren't terrible in this regards with Kinoshita, Kyoda and Oshima all playing big roles over the past two years and being relatively successful while doing it. Kyoda's production could be better but his glove is very valuable. Oshima and Kinoshita however both performed above average offensively and defensively last year. Toshiki Abe's injuries made second-base a bit of a merry-go-round with no clear suitor. I think the Dragons missed a beat not drafting an infielder like Hibiki Yamashiro to provide competition at second. At the moment, Naomichi Donoue, Abe, Hayato Mizowaki and Wataru Takamatsu are the clear options but all have their weak points (mainly they either can't hit or are below average defenders) Anyone else would have to be retrained to play there. Masami Ishigaki is one such candidate, while Yuki Okabayashi is already taking knocks at second in fall camp. Tatsunami has said that Kyoda is no certain thing to start next year and has challenged Akira Neo to compete for a spot at his preferred position. The new manager has said that he'll find a place for Neo in the line-up as long as he starts hitting. 

Overall, all these comments and more have me uneasy. At the same time as Tatsunami coming into the Dragons, former rival, SHINJO has been making waves after being appointed as the new Nippon Ham Fighters manager. The messages are very contrasting from each club. Tatsunami represents a return to the old, the "successful" period of the Dragons that was highlighted by grit, anger, more grit and grim faces. SHINJO's return to the Fighters, whilst not one necessarily made for on-field success, is a fun, unconventional appointment that will really excite fans. While Tatsunami is probably more likely to have on-field success, his comments about the team are just frustrating to hear as the Dragons continue to advance significantly in the way they play baseball. It's perhaps too early to make too many calls, but Tatsunami's tenure has started with him spelling out that he's an old-school hard-ass. Is that really what this club needs? We'll see. Despite the success that may or may not come, the attitude that inspires it is despairing.

Three more years for Viciedo and R-Mart

For something a little different, here's the non-Tatsunami related news.

  • Raidel Martinez and Dayan Viciedo have been renewed with both being locked up for the next 3 seasons. The team splurged on keeping the Cuban duo awarding Viciedo with ¥1.1 billion ($9.6M USD) and Martinez with ¥600 million ($5.3M USD) over the course of their 3-years. This comes as a huge relief for many as Viciedo has been reportedly under the magnifying glass for the Softbank Hawks. Martinez similarly had been linked with a possible move away, but in the end it seemed unlikely either would leave in a hurry. 
  • Ayatsugu Yamashita has been isolated at home for 10 days as he broke government mandated COVID-19 restrictions while playing in the Phoenix League. Yamashita apparently went out for a meal when he wasn't allowed to. 
  • The Phoenix League has wrapped up and the team finished with a 7-7-1 record. Outgoing farm manager, Toru Nimura claimed that a manager with a "focus on winning would have won this league." 
  • Post-season awards for the Central League have now been decided, and Yuya Yanagi has topped the league in ERA (2.20) and strikeouts (168 in 172 IP). It's the third year in a row a Dragons pitcher as topped the ERA standings with Yudai Ono taking those honours in 2019 and 2020. Yanagi also performed well in other categories with a joint top 20 quality starts, 172 IP (1st), 8.79 SO/9 (1st), and .215 average against (1st) among qualified starters. 
  • It is the first time in 10 years that three Dragons starters  passed the innings total to qualify for post-season awards. Yanagi and Ono passed their totals earlier on, and a last day effort from Shinnosuke Ogasawara pushed them over the line. Say what you might about Yoda's tenure, but the pitching has been chef's kiss
  • The Dragons FanFesta "Ryujinsai" event will be held online on the club YouTube for free with limited fans in the stands of Nagoya Stadium. The event will take place on December 4th between 1pm and 3pm JST. 

2 comments:

  1. This old-school mentality is worrisome, let's hope that the players don't get hurt

    ReplyDelete
  2. This doesn't sound particularly encouraging. Is this a commonplace approach elsewhere in NPB?

    ReplyDelete