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THE HOT CORNER: Japan finds quality in quantity

by Jim Allen (Feb 10, 2011)

Japanese pro baseball is a riddle. How can such an economically powerful nation with such an overwhelming passion for the game of baseball produce such a small share of the world's greatest players?

How many Japanese ballplayers are among the world's 10 best? At the moment, perhaps none--although Ichiro Suzuki could have cracked that list a few years ago. How many in the top 100? Perhaps a half dozen. Considering that no economic powerhouse is more serious about the sport, Japan produces very little in the way of world-class talent.

Why is that?

The most likely answer is a lack of games. Each Nippon Professional Baseball team has a 70-man roster, with 28 players active on the first team at one time. That leaves 42 players per club to share playing time in one of NPB's two minor leagues.

Each of the seven Eastern League teams will play 108 league games this season, the five Western League teams 104. That's approximately 2.5 games on the schedule per available player on the roster. Compare that to the situation in North America, where 24-man minor league squads play in excess of 138 games--or a ratio of 5.75-plus games per player.

In his book "Outliers," author Malcom Gladwell examines factors that separate outstanding successes in any given endeavor from the rest of the population. He cites numerous studies indicating that one factor is getting 10,000 hours of practice.

Japanese kids certainly practice a tremendous amount. But even at a rate of 20 hours a week, it takes more than 9-1/2 years to reach 10,000 hours.

Yet, by "practice" Gladwell means not only the rote learning of specific skills, but also their practical application. Young Japanese ballplayers can get a maximum of the former, but the chances to apply those lessons in games are limited.

A few years ago, when the Chiba Lotte Marines selected no catchers or middle infielders in the amateur draft, then-manager Bobby Valentine was quizzed about the team's draft strategy.

He answered that players at those positions needed more playing time to hone their defensive skills than he could give them.

"Hitters," he said, "can take BP, and pitchers can throw in the bullpen. Middle infielders and catchers need games."

Valentine was constantly coming up with schemes to give his youngsters more games. One idea was to stock a team in the independent Shikoku League with young Lotte farm hands.

Another was to schedule games between young minor leaguers prior to Pacific League games in Chiba and give the fans a double header.

Neither idea came to fruition during his tenure in Chiba, but the idea that quantity leads to quality has apparently taken root.

The length of minor league seasons has varied quite a bit as teams sought to strike a balance between the cost of operating a farm team and the necessity of developing talent.

In 1967, EL and WL teams played just 48 games a year. From 1997 to 2000, both leagues played 100-game schedules. Although the game total dipped from 2005 to 2008, Japan's minor leagues are now playing more than ever.

The EL hit a new high with 108 games in 2009, while this year's 104-game WL schedule is its most ambitious.

Even better news is that NPB teams are not satisfied with these historic highs.

For several seasons, idle EL teams have played pick-up squads of players collected from other clubs.

The Marines and Yomiuri Giants have also been fielding a joint minor league team to take on amateur opposition, and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Hanshin Tigers began a similar collaboration last June.

"Their combined team will play a variety of opponents," Kazuo Nakano, an NPB executive in charge of WL matters, told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.

"SoftBank is also creating a 'third-team,' although technically there is no league at that level. They will play corporate league teams, independent league teams and college teams in March and August."

What it means is more games and a better chance to allow talented youngsters to cross the threshold that separates the extremely good from the world's best.


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