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A new spin in Sendai

by Jim Allen (Mar 20, 2010)

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have a new manager, but don't expect sweeping changes from the new skipper in Sendai. Brown takes over from iconoclast Katsuya Nomura, who succeeded last season but was not rehired. Brown, discarded by the Hiroshima Carp after four challenging seasons trying to revitalize an antiquated organization, has no intention of trying to fix what ain't broken at his new club.

"I've always had a great deal of respect for what he [Nomura] has accomplished in his career," Brown said. "I don't necessarily do things the same way that he has. I don't fault the way he does things, I just don't do things that way. I just try to add a little something here. I don't think I've taken anything away."

The revolution, if one wants to call it that, will be one of empowerment, about defining roles and responsibilities so the Eagles can cover all the bases--on the field and within the organization.

Coming to a club fresh off a trip to the playoffs, Brown felt little need for the kind of radical overhaul his job in Hiroshima screamed out for. There, he and head coach Jeff Livesey tutored batters to adjust their plans at the plate according to the situation, but found it a hard sell.

"In our first year, Jeff and I were confused about why guys would not have a better plan," Brown said. "But here, guys do kind of have a plan. Guys have an idea about what they need to do. In Hiroshima, when I said something about those situations, it was like the first time they'd ever heard it. But they'd heard it here before and they have ideas themselves about what they need to do in those situations.

"In Hiroshima, I got feedback, 'This is taking five swings away from us.' They did it, but there were complaints. They didn't like to think about it. They just wanted to hit, just wanted to stay comfortable and hit."

In Hiroshima, pitch counts were a bone of contention, but, for the most part, he's planning to let things be in Sendai.

"I made it very detailed in Hiroshima and it became almost a challenge," he said. "Here, they've already had success. On the pitching side, they'd done some really good things. Obviously, you can when you have three top starters like [Hisashi] Iwakuma, [Masahiro] Tanaka and [Satoshi] Nagai. It's very difficult for me to come in and start shooting down everything they've done. I really needed to just sit back and watch.

"Some of the pitchers know themselves and some don't. But there are more of them here who know themselves than in Hiroshima."

That doesn't mean everything is the way he wants it. His Carp teams played more quickly than any team in Japan. Brown credited this to his pitchers, who learned to work quickly without wasting pitches. The Eagles under Nomura were at the opposite end of the spectrum.

"Iwakuma doesn't work very fast," Brown said. "He works relatively slow, but he gets quick outs, so he makes up there....Sometimes Iwakuma can take a lot of time. When I got to Hiroshima, [closer Katsuhiro] Nagakawa was horrible. I said, 'Naga, you've got to throw the ball, man. You've got to get it and go.' And that's something that he picked up on and it's helped him.

"I enjoy a quick-pace game and I think, defensively, things are much cleaner in a game like that, where you're not going to a full count every hitter.

"That's one thing we tried to impress on this pitching staff. For instance, yesterday we walked two leadoff guys and both of those guys scored, because we wasted pitches within that at-bat. Tanaka, that's how he gave up a run yesterday. And then [Tsuyoshi] Kawagishi, same thing. I told him yesterday, 'Son, your stuff is way too good for you to waste those kind of pitches.'"

Brown has focused on communication and clarity. He expects people to be accountable for their areas of responsibility--a concept that sometimes runs against the grain of the closed world of Japanese ball.

He wants his pitchers to develop their own plans of attack against opposing batters rather than be told what weakness to go after.

"We have a starter's meeting everyday, in which the starter is in control of how he wants to pitch that day," Brown said. "We talk as a group. We'll say, you're going to face this hitter, what are you going to do with him--without a scouting report. This is your history, how'd you get him out last year, how'd you get him out in the past?'"

Although the Eagles players and coaches are experienced and aware of what needs to be done, there is always room for improvement.

"I'm not trying to change anybody. I'm not going to give them pitch counts. But if Kawagishi throws 95 pitches in the pen one day and the next day he's got ice all over his arm, then whose fault is it?" Brown asked.

"If this guy, through his training, gets hurt and we allow him to do that, who's responsible? Is it him? Do we blame the player? Do we blame the coach? Do we blame the front office? Somebody has to be accountable. Is it my fault? Because if it's my fault and I'm going to take the blame, then he ain't going to do it that way.

"I think that's where it's a little bit eye-opening. It's different. We allowed this player to do this, with no awareness what was going on. So obviously, we've got a problem."

In Hiroshima, Brown, Livesey and their colleagues introduced ideas and achieved some success, but ownership support was often lacking.

When Brown arrived, Hiroshima's record of player development had been horrible. Yet, the man touted as a necessary agent of change was allowed precious little input into the process of developing players in the minors.

"That whole situation happened. I appreciated the opportunity," Brown said. "I think it got me this opportunity. I don't talk badly about what goes on. Do I think it was all right? No I don't. It could have been better.

"They wanted me to step up and take the blame for everything that went on there and I just couldn't do that. If I wasn't going to make the decisions, I wasn't going to take the blame."

With Rakuten, he has the luxury of not needing to improve the farm, where the Eagles have had tremendous success in developing talent.

It should be no surprise that a team owned by Internet mogul Hiroshi Mikitani would be on the cutting edge of accessing information. Brown's ability to stay in touch with the entire organization is boosted by being able see any minor league game on his computer and also by his personal relationship with Eagles minor league manager Tooru Nimura.

"We introduced a system in which we exchange information on the players, what they're trying to achieve up and down. Nimura...is very supportive," Brown said.

"We like being around each other talking. I think he's really on board with this, that there's a lot of communication, that there's no gray area, no pointing the finger, 'He didn't do it. I didn't do it. That's not my fault,' that kind of thing. Everybody's accountable.

"The same kind of things go on in the States. A lot of people point the finger. 'Who did this?'"

Even though his job description with the Eagles was too vague for his tastes until he got Rakuten to be more specific, Brown is satisfied he knows what is expected of him and what he'll be responsible for.

"My job description is not just to run the game and tell when there's a hit-and-run or a steal. I'm bringing about a certain uniqueness to what our team's going to be doing as opposed to other teams. This organization accepts it and wants it.

"It starts from the top with Mikitani-san. He's the difference maker."


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