The Yokohama BayStars have played musical managers the past eight seasons, but this year they hope it's not the same old song and stance.
Yokohama turned to the pokerfaced Takao Obana--almost before interim skipper Tomio Tashiro was let go last year--to get the 'Stars realigned. Obana has been pitching coach extraordinaire for the Yakult Swallows, Chiba Lotte Marines, Fukuoka SoftBank (and Daiei Hawks), and--from 2006-09--the Yomiuri Giants.
The 52-year-old former Swallows ace, the club's fifth skipper in nine seasons, signed a reported three-year, 100 million yen deal to focus on revamping the pitching staff. Obana thinks he has the right formula to get the BayStars off the bottom of the Central League, where they've finished six times since 2002.
Wherever Obana has gone, pitching success has followed. Seven of his staffs have won league titles, and four of those clubs went on to capture the Japan Series.
Obana worked wonders with the Hawks in 1999 when he steered a staff with Kimiyasu Kudo and a number of no-names to a Series title.
That team won again in 2003 and he left after two more seasons to join the Giants.
The pitching guru was behind the scenes when Yakult won it all in 1997, and mentored the Marines' staffs in 1995 and '96.
He's coming off a stint with the Giants in which he turned around a staff that included reclamation project Dicky Gonzalez and polished a pair of developmental-roster nuggets in Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Dominican Wirfin Obispo.
He has gotten the BayStars to make "Analytical Baseball" part of this year's slogan, and he is convincing Yokohama hurlers that, even though it's not all in the numbers, careful statistical analysis can shed light on some of the finer points of the game.
"We're taking a closer look at last year's data and analyzing our opponents as well as ourselves," said longtime ace Daisuke Miura.
"We're examining ourselves to understand what we did well and what was lacking in us as individuals. It's important to know your opponents, but just as important to know yourself."
Miura, entering his 19th season, couldn't get into the specifics of the data, but said, "We're looking at more detailed aspects within the data that we've not seen before. But just looking at those numbers isn't enough--we have to make it work for us in games.
"I'm learning a great deal from him. There is so much I didn't know that I've become aware of."
One of Obana's former charges, lefty Tsuyoshi Wada of the Hawks, said Obana was thorough when it came to the analytical aspects.
"He's always thinking about things like pitch sequence and data. He has his pad and he's always making notes," said Wada. "Now this year he's with Yokohama, where the numbers haven't been good, and I think he will be a driving force for the team.
"We're in a different league, so I'll be looking forward to seeing how they do. But we play them in interleague and he's someone you don't want to see [on the other team].
"He knows just about everything about me, so there was a degree of difficulty for me last year [against the Giants]."
But Obana, who spent much of the spring planted in the pen with his pitchers, has to manage the entire team. His plan--on paper--is to get better defense behind his hurlers.
Yokohama was 11th out of the 12 teams in runs allowed, giving up 685 last season; the Orix Buffaloes were the worst in Japan with 715 allowed.
Obana has numeric goals for cutting down on opponents' scoring.
"He said he wants us to reduce the number of runs allowed by 100," said 2008 Central League batting champion Seiichi Uchikawa.
"We want to increase our run production by 20 percent and cut our mistakes by 20 percent.
"We had other managers, but there seemed to be a gap between where we wanted to go and the path we would take to get there," Uchikawa said.
"[Now] we know exactly where we're headed and it makes it easier to aim toward the goal. We've been a losing team for a long time and we have a new person in charge, so we have to change."
The BayStars allowed 71 unearned runs last season, while scoring a Japan-low 497. The win-by-numbers approach seems to be a more clear-cut route to success.
Takahiro Saeki, a veteran who has sparkled and fallen with the 'Stars over the past 18 years, said Obana wants each player to be more responsible.
"We have to be accountable for what we do on the field," said Saeki, who hit .258 in 114 games last year. "To be accountable for what we do, we need to be prepared and that's where the numbers come in."
Obana's winning tradition commands respect, and Uchikawa said the rookie skipper has that.
"Obana has been with some good teams--the Giants, Fukuoka Daiei and Lotte. Because he's with us now, we get the opportunity to learn the culture of a winning team--we learn what a winning team does," Uchikawa said.
"We really trust him and want to follow him. I've experienced both being at the top and at the bottom."
Newcomer Chris Bootcheck and Stephen Randolph, a midseason addition from last year, said when they came this year they received iPod touch units that included video footage of hitters.
"It's preparation to win, not just preparation to go out there and play the game," said Randolph, who went 5-2 in seven starts after joining the BayStars.
"There's a different attitude, a different work ethic this year," added the lefty, whose iPod touch also included his work from last season.
"He pays attention to every detail. He's always out in the bullpen checking on his pitchers. You can tell that things are going in a different direction this year."
Obana is passionate about the game and in the numbers in which he and the BayStars hope to find strength.