I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with former MLB & NPB pitcher Erik Schullstrom. Erik spent four years playing in Japan with Nippon and Hiroshima, and is now the Director of USA Scouting for the Carp. In his role as a scout, he's helped the Carp acquire players such as Greg LaRocca, Tom Davey, John Bale and Sean Douglass.
I'd like to thank Erik for taking the time to do this interview, and for his thoughtful answers.
NPB Tracker: How did you get the opportunity to play in Japan?
Erik Schullstrom: I played the 1997 season in the Mexican Summer League. That League is loosely compared with AAA, but the quality of baseball in that league was certainly not as good. I pitched quite well there, despite having a bout with Typhoid Fever mid-season. After the season, during which I played for both Monclova and Monterey, my newly hired agent was able to arrange for a tryout in Japan with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Kamogawa. I was there for roughly 10 days, and near the end, Ueda-Kantouku (manager) told me that he would recommend that I was given a contract for the upcoming 1998 season. That was the happiest day of my life up to that point.
NPB Tracker: How did you make the transition from playing in the US to playing in Japan?
Erik Schullstrom: I did not do anything differently in Japan than I did in the US as a player on the field. The toughest part was learning about, and then trying to accept, the differences in Japanese baseball as well as the Japanese culture in general. After playing in Japan for 4 years and now working for a Japanese team for another 6, I must say that I am still learning. I have a feeling that I will never be able to fully comprehend the unique and complex Japanese mind and spirit.
NPB Tracker: Any good stories you can share from your time as an NPB player?
Erik Schullstrom: Well, I can clearly remember when Ueda-Kantouku knocked the umpire in the noggin after he blew a call at Tokyo Dome. Apparently, Ueda had never been ejected from a game before and he was a tad bit upset. As incredible at that was to witness, what was more amazing was that Ueda was given no fine and no suspension!
On that same team, we had a pitcher named (Hiroshi) Shibakusa. He had thrown at or behind Domingo Martinez, and the comedy ensued (ed. note: comedy starts at 0:30). Maru-Chan chased Shibakusa around the field, which you may have guessed was not very long if you have ever seen what kind of shape Maru-Chan was in.
After the dust settled, Jerry Brooks, Nigel Wilson and I convinced Shibakusa that running was cowardly, even if you are outweighed by 170 LBS, and that he needed to stand his ground next time that happened. We assured him that we would be there to protect him as fast as we could, so he only needed to survive a few seconds before the Calvary arrived.
Sure enough, we were playing Daiei in some country town in the middle of summer. That jungle heat was making even Shibakusa sweat, and a forkball slipped out of his hand and behind the head of Louie Lopez. Before you could say "watashiwadebudesu", Loppi was in full charge (ed. note: starts at 2:15. Erik enters the scene at 2:20, and is featured as ハゲ① (bald 1). Nigel Wilson, ハゲ②, shows up at 2:29 ). I am an extremely slow human, and I would have arrived at the mound to protect poor Shibakusa right as the ambulance showed up. To everyboby's amazement, Shibakusa stood his ground. "Oh my god, Shibakusa is going to die," I thought. I am quite certain the person most amazed that Shibakusa had not gone gracefully retreating into safety of the outfield was Louie Lopez. This next part is debatable, depending on who you ask. I know this because Loppi and I were teammates later and he does not have the same memory that I had of the event.
Either way, the event I recall is better. I recall Loppi in a furious rage and lumbering at his full speed slowly toward the mound. His pace slowed even further as he came to the realization that Shibakusa was not going to run, and then, at the very last moment, at the pace of an elderly mall walker, Loppi jumped up a bit at Shibakusa and gave him what can only be described as a gentle chest bump. I am not sure if Loppi spared Shibakusa a brutal beating out of kindness and goodwill, or that in the 43 seconds it took him to get to the mound, he realized he would be heavily fined and suspended. Probably a bit of both. I know I was teasing Mr.Lopez a bit in this story, but truth is, I respect the fact that he held back from actually striking Shibakusa, and I feel that Lopez was among the top hitters to ever play in Japan.
NPB Tracker: How has your experience playing in Japan and the US helped you as a scout?
Erik Schullstrom: Without a doubt. Although I still have yet to grasp the Japanese culture and mindset, I did learn quite a bit about the style of baseball that is played in Japan. I was also able to see first hand many many talented foreign players in my four years. I saw some succeed, I some some fail, and I saw most fall somewhere in between. I could see what type of skills are needed to be a successful player in Japan, that is if you pair those skills with the desire to play in Japan and the ability to understand and accept who and what you are in the grand scheme of things. In my opinion, most of the requisite skills for success in Japan are intangible. Simply recognizing talent and skill as a scout is a challenge unto it's own, but trying to project how that skill will translate into a certain environment requires at least a reasonable understanding of that environment. I think that is how my playing experience in Japan has helped my scouting.
NPB Tracker: What attributes do you look for in a US-based player when scouting for the Carp?
Erik Schullstrom: I hate to say this, because when I played and even when I just started scouting, I thought that the Japanese teams themselves were oversimplifying things when choosing players (at least pitchers). Our team looks for a big, tall intimidating pitcher who throws hard. Duh! I think if that type of pitcher has a fairly clean and neutral/closed delivery, and he can throw the ball over the plate most of the time, he is halfway home to being successful. He doesn't necessarily need late movement or great command of the corners of the plate. One or two decent off speed pitches that he can get over and a players odds of success greatly. In hitters we like to see well balanced, well disciplined hitters who can hit the ball with some authority to all fields and have a good idea of what he wants to do each at bat. Seems like a pretty basic and crude way to evaluate, but if you get guys that fit that profile, odds are good that you'll have at least a solid player.
NPB Tracker: How does the Carp evaluate import players? Do you value statistics, physical tools, experience or potential differently?
Erik Schullstrom: We don't really have absolutes as far as evaluating a players' statistical history, but we do that history as a guideline. We also have a grading system to evaluate many of the different tools that we value in a player. Potential is the big question, but it's completely different than when a MLB scout looks at a 17 year old high school boy and has to judge his potential. The players we are looking at are generally Triple A/Big League tweeners. These 4A players have pretty much reached their full potential as players in the US, and there will be little increase or decrease in ability or performance. The "potential" we look for of course is the potential to succeed in Japan. Statistics, experience and physical tools are all things you can see. You can simply read the stats and what a player's experience is. An everyday baseball fan can recognize raw physical tools. I guess being a baseball lifer, and watching and playing so much, you see things in a player that most others do not. It is that experience that most scouts draw upon to ultimately evaluate a players' potential for success in Japan.
NPB Tracker: Has the presence of Marty Brown helped attract foreign players?
Erik Schullstrom: I know that many of his former players have shown a great deal of interest in coming over to play for the Carp under Brown-kantouku. Marty is well known to be a player's manager. If you play hard and are accountable, Marty treats his men very well, and his players respect him. I do believe that Marty's presence as our manager has perhaps gotten some players over the hump when deciding whether or not to forgo their dream of playing in the Major Leagues and make to jump to Japan. For many, the choice is not an easy one, and I think it must be a great comfort to some players knowing that they will have an American calling the shots.
NPB Tracker: The Carp challenged for a playoff spot for much of 2008 despite losing ace Hiroki Kuroda to free agency. What does the team need to do to take the next step forward in 2009?
Erik Schullstrom: With the Giants and Tigers fielding such solid teams, and with so much depth, many people believe that it is a four team race for that 3rd and final playoff spot. I totally agree with that. Colby Lewis essentially offset the loss of Kuroda. Losing (Takahiro) Arai was tough too, alleviated a bit by the acquisition of (Masato) Akamatsu. I think the club is moving in the right direction. There is a clear youth movement and opportunity is there for many of the young players. Not all the pieces are there, but some of the pieces are. The key is having these young men continue to develop and remain healthy. Hiroshima will certainly be an underdog again, but if (Kan) Otake can become a stabilizing force in the rotation, and the young pitching corps ((Junpei) Shinoda, (Kenta) Maeda, (Yuki) Saito) continues to progress, things will be looking good. If either (Katsuhiro) Nagakawa or (Kenta) Kurihara has any significant slump or injury, it will be a tough road. We are a long ways away talent-wise from those top teams, but making the playoffs is within reason, and in those short playoff series', anything can happen.
NPB Tracker: What are your thoughts on the new stadium?
Erik Schullstrom: I took a walk though in September.it was just barely a skeleton but the basic structure was there and I could tell it will be special. Mr. Matsuda has fought long and hard on this stadium project, and I think his tireless work will be rewarded at the unveiling. Except for the underground bullpens, I loved everything about it...the odd walls and dimensions, the layout, the sky bridge and especially the fact that is not Shimin Kyujo. I know many folks have fond and treasured memories of the old stadium, but to me, it was just an old run down stadium that we lost a lot of games in...