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  • Lions manager Watanabe and Taiwanese baseball

    Posted by simon c on 2008 June 13日 Friday

    I didn’t know that one time ace of the Seibu Lions during their dynasty in the 80′s and early 90′s and now manager of the team Watanabe spent time in Taiwan as a player-coach, and that his appreciation for the power game is partially responsible for the Lions success this season, especially with the long ball. The Lions have half the number of sacrifice bunts (42) as the ultimate smallball team, the Fighters (84). But the team up in Hokkaido is more of an exception, as the rest of the PL teams have sacrificed 36-51 times so far this season.

    Watanabe, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Lions starter in Game 1 of the 1994 Japan Series (featured because the majors were on strike that year), has come a long way since he was considered the pop idol of the otherwise-stodgy club.

    After retiring from Japanese ball, Watanabe went to Taiwan, ostensibly as a coach.

    “It was funny. My career was over and I was there as a coach. But I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese so I had to demonstrate,” Watanabe told The Hot Corner early this season. “And I could still throw hard–so I became a player-coach in camp.”

    Living in a rural town between Tainan and Taichung, Watanabe studied with a tutor and within a year his Chinese language skills were “fairly useful.” He is still fond of the country and its game. Although Taiwan’s baseball people have a lot of respect for Japan’s skill level, Watanabe says the thinking there is somewhat different.

    “They’ve had Japanese coaches going over there for the last 20 years, so they look to Japan,” Watanabe said. “But they aspire to a more powerful game; the hitters take big swings.

    “I liked that.”

    In Watanabe’s early days as a pro, the Lions were the hardest hitting team in Japan. But that didn’t prevent managers Tatsuro Hirooka and Masaaki Mori from steering the club toward a painfully predictable Japanese-style game, picking opponents apart with sacrifice bunts, pitching and defense.

    I have a pet theory that the fact that Watanabe is letting his team run wild on the bases with league leading 53 steals might help because that places runners in scoring position without sacrificing an out, thus leading to higher probabilities for big innings (especially with all those homeruns). But then again, being caught stealing 24 times is too undisciplined, as a success rate below 70% must surely be detrimental, but maybe it’s still better than bunting.

    Then again, the big bats of Seibu were no match for the shutdown bullpen (JFK + Watanabe) of Hanshin Tigers, as the CL leader took 3 of 4 from the Lions in their interleague games. The fact that the Tigers don’t have to leave their starters in games accumulating fatigue and losing effectiveness with every pitch over 100, coupled with the powerful bullpen and lineup full of on base machines means that the Tigers are a way more balanced squad than the Lions and the best team in the nation at the moment.

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