Koshien and Japanese High School Baseball
Posted by simon c on 2008 July 28日 Monday
Some random notes:
- This year’s Summer Koshien tournament (basic information like this can be found around the net, so I’ll try to provide additional info) will begin on 2 August (Japanese). This is earlier than usual because of the Beijing Olympics, with the latter 10 days of the tournament still overlaps with the Olympics. All the prefectural qualifying tournaments concluded yesterday on 27 July, giving players at least 5 days rest, minimum, between their prefectural finals and their first Koshien game.
- There are 55 teams participating in this year’s 90th anniversary tournament. In a normal year, there would be 49 participating teams. 1 each from each prefecture, and 2 each from Tokyo (east and west) and Hokkaido (north and south). They have the largest number of schools out of all the prefectures at well over 200, the former because of its sheer population, and the latter because of its vastness.
- This year, the additional spots in the tournament has been given to Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka, and Hyogo prefectures. As these prefectures rank between 2nd and 8th in prefectural population, they have accordingly large number of schools participating in the qualifiers which makes them usually very tough prefectures to qualify for Koshien from.
- This year, most qualifying tournaments have about 100 schools or less participating in them. There are many smaller prefectures with around 30-40 schools in their qualifiers, with Tottori’s 25 being the least. While in normal years, the populous prefectures that have 2 teams each this year have about 150-200 teams in their qualifiers, making them very difficult tournaments to win. The prefectural tournament with the largest number of teams in it is East Tokyo with 144 teams (West has 119, meanwhile North and South Hokkaido have 119 and 128 schools). So, this year’s tournament probably has the fairest qualification and representation considering the size of each prefecture.
- Because of the difficulty of reaching Koshien from prefectures such as Osaka (185 schools), many kids move from populous prefectures to less populous ones to attend powerhouse baseball schools to increase their odds of making it to Koshien. Middle school players are scouted in senior/boys leagues and agents hook them up with baseball schools. Some schools are notorious for doing anything to attract talent, there’s a saying “show up just with your toothbrush and underwear, we’ll take care of everything else for you” for the top talents. Meanwhile marginal schools and players’ parents often get duped into paying fees to these agents/scouts even if the kids and schools chances of reaching Koshien hasn’t really improved. This topic deserves a separate post, and I’m reading a book on it right now, so it’ll be on the todo list (if I ever get around to it 😛 ).
- So, a total of over 4000 teams from across the country take part in their respective prefectural qualifier tournaments. Some schools have trouble fielding 9 players necessary for a team, so they pull students from other sports teams just to participate in their qualifier, true Olympic spirit at work here. But this can produce some really ugly results with massively lopsided games with the weak team being shutout by another team by dozens of runs. The worst blowout in Koshien qualifier history is 122-0 in the 1998 Aomori prefecture tournament (Japanese). This was caused partly because the losing team didn’t concede after 5 innings like they can as part of tournament rules, instead they completed 7 innings to have the mercy rule automatically kick in. It was some sort of character building thing, apparently, though I only see it as needlessly running up the score and hurting the pitchers arm (39 runs were scored in the 1st inning alone!) The team that scored almost gross runs? Well, they lost by the mery rule themselves a little later in the tournament, and this is in Aomori, a prefecture that has never produced a Koshien champion, so you can see the vast chasm in playing ability from top to bottom of high school ball.
- Due to the large number of games played (often 4 per day in the early rounds of qualifiers and Koshien itself), umpires are notorious for calling letter high and very wide strikes to speed up the game. I’ve also seen strikes being called on quarter-swings, not even close to a checked half-swing. This is less obvious but close calls at the bases seem to get called outs more often than not as well.
- Until the finals of qualifiers and later rounds of Koshien, the crowd usually mostly consists of each schools’ cheering squads, complete with a brass band, teammates who couldn’t make it onto the bench, sometimes cheerleaders, fellow students, and alumni. The fight songs are much more old school than NPB, though I’ve heard some modern NPB style cheer songs used by some schools.
- Game balls are used longer (new balls are brought out much more rarely than in the pros), and looks like they’re reused as staff collect foul balls (NPB used to do this until a few years ago as well though).
- Players numbers are their positions, usually. 1 being the starting pitcher, 2 the catcher, 3 being the first baseman, etc.
- Though this is anecdotal, even compared to 10 years ago when Daisuke Matsuzaka had his legendary (and his rubber arm proving) performance, teams these days seem to carry more starters and some even have specialist relievers, as the value of a fresh arm and not blowing out prospects arms seems to be slowly gaining foothold in the old boys world of high school baseball:
- In the quarterfinal of that year’s Summer Koshien, Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in 17 innings in a win over powerhouse PL Gakuen. (The previous day he had thrown a 148-pitch complete game shutout.) The next day though trailing 6-0 in the top of the eighth inning, the team miraculously won the game by scoring 7 runs in the last two innings (four in the eighth and three in the ninth). In that game he started in left field, but came in as a reliever in the ninth inning to record the win in 15 pitches. In the final, he threw a no-hitter, the second ever in a final. This performance garnered him the attention of many scouts.
- As the tournaments progress, quarters, semis, and finals tend to be held on consecutive games, which makes having multiple competent starters necessary, even if you have a Dice-K on your team. Because all games from the quarterfinals on in both Tokyo tournaments are held at Jingu Stadium, the East and West tournaments alternate using the stadium, giving extra days rest for the players, which is especially a good thing for the usually overworked pitchers. I thought this may have been a trend, but it seems to be a unique thing for Tokyo, for now.
- Relievers often start warming up from the 1st inning, but this is no different from other levels of baseball in Japan.
- The best athlete on the team used to be the pitcher, so having the pitcher hitting cleanup was not unusual until some years ago, but I haven’t looked this up so this is just anecdotal. These days, pitchers often hit in the bottom third of the lineup, as they’re more specialized.
- After each game, the winning school’s anthem is played. Yes, every Japanese school from elementary to university have their own school anthem.
- Some players share the same aluminium bat, I’m not sure why. But I saw players passing their bats to the next hitter, or the one after. And this wasn’t uncommon. Superior bat or lucky bat?
That’s it for now, hopefully someone finds this information interesting or useful.