Japan's Future Baseball Stars Shine at Koushien

by Greg in

Koushien, Japan’s national high school baseball tournament, is more like March Madness than anything you know about American baseball. Like the NCAA basketball tournament, it dominates water-cooler conversation for two weeks.

A scene from Japan's high school tournament, Koushien.

The following post is written by Jeremy Derfner, a friend who has written about sports and other topics for the online magazine Slate.com. Jeremy recently returned from Japan and filed this report.

To hear an earlier CodBall Conversation with Bob Bavasi, founder of JapanBall.com, click here.

* * *

But Koushien is older than the NCAAs—it’s celebrating its 90th year—so it’s steeped in tradition. Koushien Stadium in Osaka, where all the games are played, is home of the Hanshin Tigers and considered the Fenway Park and the Yankee Stadium of Japan. And Koushien is much more Japanese than college hoops, so it’s smothered in ritual. Lots and lots of bowing. They bow—to the other team and to their massive, color-coordinated cheering section—before they take infield!

And the quality of play isn’t bad either. In Japan, the most talented athletes play baseball, not basketball or football. And they practice all the time.

All! The! Time!

The American high schoolers who get extra credit for their dedication work about half as hard as the average Japanese kid. Moreover, the 50-plus teams at Koushien are the best of the best. To earn a berth at Koushien, they had to win a tournament (six games in a row) against the strongest teams in their prefectures.

On Wednesday, August 6, we watched Hokkai (from Hokkaido) play Toho (from Aichi) on a 100-degree day, if I converted from Celsius properly. Anyway, it was miserably hot, as Japan always is in August. To ward off the heat, beer girls wearing pony kegs on their backs wander the stadium, and other vendors sell bags of ice you’re supposed to put on top of your head.

Baseball-wise, the story leading up to the game was Kagiya, Hokkai’s hard-throwing ace, who pitched every single inning in the prefectural tournament. How good would he be?

The answer came on the second pitch: not very. Toho’s Yamada ripped a 90 mile-per-hour fastball over the left-center field wall, about 375 feet away. When Kagiya tried to snap off a curveball to the next hitter, we saw what his problem was. Toho’s hitters were sitting on his fastball, which was as live as advertised, because he wouldn’t be able to get them out with his mediocre off-speed stuff.

Kagiya’s limited repertoire was not the norm. In American high school baseball, most pitchers have two pitches, a fastball and a curve, and the curve isn’t always sharp. That’s what Kagiya seemed to have. But we’d watched half a dozen games on TV—every single game at Koushien is televised nationally—and the vast majority of the pitchers had three or even four pitches, and two out pitches.

Most of them threw a slider, which American high school pitchers tend not to do.

Shimodaira, Toho’s left-handed ace, was more typical in this regard. He didn’t have Kagiya’s arm, not even close. But he mixed his fastball, his curve, and his split-finger very effectively (though he tired in the fifth). He wasn’t overpowering, but he kept Hokkai’s hitters off-balance, like a 17-year-old Jaime Moyer.

Toho’s catcher Yamada was the offensive star of the game, which Toho won 15-10 (the late innings got wild). He hit the leadoff homer, and on the day he went 4-for-6 with five runs batted in. Yamada may be a player to watch. He hits and hits for power. Even though he’s a catcher, he can run. And he calls a good game. Given Shimodaira’s average stuff, Yamada deserves some of the credit for how well he fared. We didn’t get a good look at Yamada’s arm, because Hokkai didn’t try to run on him, possibly because his arm has a good reputation, or possibly because the baserunners couldn’t get a good lead off the lefty Shimodaira.

Over the course of a few days, we noticed many differences between Japanese and American high school baseball. Japanese kids play much better defense than American kids do. The Hokkai-Toho game was error free until the 7th, and even that was an excusable throwing error off a diving stop by the third baseman. Also, Japanese third base coaches are exceedingly conservative—the risk-reward calculus seems to be different—and the standard batting style is very noisy, with hitters moving a lot and diving into the pitch, as opposed to the quieter American style.

But by far the biggest difference is bunting. You have never seen so many bunts in your life. If the third hitter walks with nobody out and the team down a few runs, the cleanup hitter bunts. Truthfully, I think the Americans have the better end of this one. Not only are the Japanese taking the bats out of their best hitters’ hands, but they’re being so predictable that the infielders can defend more aggressively. As a result, we even saw a bunt double play! On the other hand, the Japanese ballplayers prove that it’s possible to learn how to bunt, which is a lesson their American counterparts might take to heart.