FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz had just concluded a live batting practice session against Red Sox prospect Junichi Tazawa. It was early in the spring, but the slugger was nonetheless impressed after an introduction in which he swung and missed at a number of pitches.
Ortiz was asked whether the young hurler, who came to the Sox directly from a Japanese amateur industrial league, created deception in his delivery, and whether he hid the ball well.
“They all do,” the slugger suggested of not just Tazawa, but Japanese pitchers in general.
The World Baseball Classic offers an opportunity to highlight some of the differences in national styles of play. It is easy, of course, to exaggerate the idea that countries feature singular distinctions in the way that they play the sport. Yet there are clearly differences of training and upbringing that become dramatically evident.
“(The American pitching style) certainly seems distinct from the way pitchers pitch in Japan,” said Red Sox reliever Takashi Saito through interpreter Masa Hoshino.
The WBC presents an opportunity to explore those distinctions. So, for that matter, does a Red Sox staff that now features four of the top Japanese pitchers in the U.S.: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Saito and Tazawa.
Many of the pitchers who are in Major League Baseball by way of Japan feature fascinating signature elements in their deliveries that are rarely seen among U.S. pitchers. The intrigue began when Hideo Nomo shattered barriers by coming to the U.S. in 1995.
“The Tornado” dominated his opponents in part because his delivery was unlike anything else in the Majors. He slowly drew his hands over his head as he commenced his windup, pausing with his arms fully extended behind him before corkscrewing back towards second in a fashion vaguely reminiscent of Luis Tiant.
He would then uncoil and unload towards the plate. Opposing hitters were baffled.
Since Nomo’s unveiling, the number of Japanese pitchers arriving in MLB has increased steadily. Each, seemingly, has brought a unique style with him. The Red Sox pitchers are no exception.
Matsuzaka (video here) features what has been described as his “hippy hippy shake,” bringing his hands over his head and wiggling in his windup. He thrusts his glove towards and past the batter while kicking his leg straight out in the opposite direction before releasing the ball.
Okajima (example here) draws his leg high to maximize the load on his back leg before he drives towards the plate. As he does so, he flashes he thrusts his red glove towards the hitter before delivering the ball. Then, as he delivers the ball, his head snaps towards the ground to further confound opposing hitters.
Tazawa features a somewhat jerkier motion as he moves back to his balance point, offering something of a Rick Sutcliffe-style hitch before thrusting his glove towards the batter as he moves towards the plate.
Saito, though more “conventional” than his Red Sox teammates from Japan, moves slowly back into his balance point and then drops his hands while coming forward.
These techniques are all, quite literally, foreign to American pitchers. Of course, that merely raises the question: why are there apparently different delivery styles in the two countries?
In most cases – Okajima notwithstanding – the image of a Japanese and American pitchers at the point of releasing a baseball would reveal few differences. In both baseball cultures, success depends on a consistent and repeatable release point.
Yet the journey to the release often appears different for those from the U.S. and their counterparts from Japan. In particular, the beginning of a windup or pitching motion can be drastically different because of the emphasis in Japanese training techniques on setting up the lower half to create power.
“The balance point being the most critical event in the chain of events that takes place to allow themselves to be on time with their drive—the power, the release—(Japanese pitchers) do focus on that spot much more consistently,” said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “Whether it’s a trademark or just a technique, it certainly seems to be drilled into them.”
Distinct body types – or the perception thereof – may create the motive for distinct teaching techniques. Okajima, Saito and Tazawa each remarked that the most obvious difference in the two baseball cultures pertains to physique, a fact that helps to explain why the deliveries of players from Japan might differ from their American counterparts.
Japanese pitchers are typically taught to generate power from their lower halves. American pitchers, whose training to pitch often emphasizes not just repetition and practice but also carefully designed strength programs for the upper and lower body, rely more on total body strength.
The standard U.S. delivery features a smooth tempo throughout, reflecting the involvement of the entire body in generating power. Many Japanese wind-ups features a change of tempo, with a deliberate initial phase and sometimes a pause in order to focus on loading the lower half.
“The first thing that’s obvious is the difference in body size,” said Saito. “Not only are American pitchers a fair amount larger, they also have longer arms and legs but perhaps a shorter torso. To me, they’re able to use their body in a very simple way.
“What I mean by that is, I pay really close attention to using my lower body well, feeling the ground, then transferring the power of my lower body through my core and keeping my balance throughout the process of pitching. Whereas American pitchers from what I see will sort of (move their entire bodies) into the pitch in a very easy way and they’re able to whip the ball out at a good velocity.”
According to the Red Sox, prospect Daniel Bard touched 100 mph in an exhibition game on Thursday. Such triple-digit readings are nearly unheard of in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League.
Velocity is a less central element of pitching in the Japanese major leagues. Instead, pitchers are left to emphasize deception rather than pure power to attack opposing hitters.
“The power (in the major leagues) is totally different from the Japanese league,” said Okajima through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. “Even Japanese pitchers with power, it’s about 94, 95. Nobody throws 100 miles (per hour). So Japanese pitchers need to use their heads a little bit.
“If everyone throws the baseball with the same motion, it’s easy for the hitter,” the reliever continued. “Hitters are usually sitting on the same tempo and rhythm. So pitchers need to change their timing to put them off balance.”
As such, pitchers in Japan are encouraged to find techniques that create disruptive elements in the timing and appearance of their deliveries to the plate. Many slowly rock back to their balance points before accelerating towards the plate.
The use of the glove as a weapon of mass distraction is also common. So, too, is the effort to make a concerted effort to bring the ball behind the back to hide it from opponents.
“In Japan, it’s often taught that it’s good to keep the ball hidden behind your body,” Tazawa said through Hoshino. “I had a hard time doing that at first, keeping the ball hidden behind the rest of my body. It’s really over the past couple of years that I’ve been able to do it more consistently.”
“Certainly things like hiding the ball, making it more difficult to pick up, making it more difficult for the batter to get timing on the ball, those types of thing are really my lifeline, and those are things that Japanese pitchers take a lot of time to develop, work on and focus on,” added Saito. “I don’t know whether American pitchers feel the same way about that.”
In contrast, particularly at the amateur level, U.S. pitchers often seem as if their deliveries have been standardized to mimic a Platonic pitching form. Deception is secondary to velocity.
More often than not, it is those pitchers who cannot throw hard who then turn their attention on techniques meant to disguise their pitches and release points. Deception is an option of secondary resort, rather than something that is encouraged of all pitchers.
“Our game, the young guys who stand out, it seems to be centered around power, whether it’s power arms, power bats, those are the guys that catch the eye,” said Farrell. “A lot of our techniques are built around basic principles—balance point, direction, follow-through—but also on creating as much leverage as possible, which translates into greater velocity.”
Of course, the argument can be exaggerated. There are American pitchers with wildly unconventional deliveries that are repeatable and work to brilliant effect. Giants starter Tim Lincecum may be the most notable such example.
On the Red Sox, Michael Bowden is a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery that is nonetheless repeatable (as evidenced by the pitcher’s excellent minor-league control numbers). Javier Lopez, a sidearmer, and Justin Masterson, who throws from a three-quarters slot, also feature throwing motions that, despite being fluid and maintaining a consistent tempo are unusual.
That being the case, Tazawa had a particularly interesting perspective. As a newcomer to the U.S., he is getting his first taste of a different baseball culture. Thus far, he has been left to marvel at the variety of pitching deliveries that he has seen.
“In general, I think the pitchers over here are not forced into a mold as much as they are in Japan,” said Tazawa. “It’s fun to see the variety and be able to learn from all these different pitching styles. It’s been a good experience for me so far.”