Japan’s Standardized Baseballs Are Popular With Pitchers
By BRAD LEFTON
Published: October 22, 2011
TOKYO — Unlike Major League Baseball, for whom Rawlings has been the official supplier of baseballs since 1977, Japan’s top league has long used multiple manufacturers.
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In any given season, as many as nine manufacturers had supplied baseballs to Japan’s 12 teams. Many clubs, in fact, contracted with multiple suppliers and freely switched the balls they used in their home games depending on the series, the month or some other variable that had to be revealed in advance to the commissioner’s office.
Citing rising costs and declining domestic production, Commissioner Ryozo Kato began the tedious and touchy process of unifying Japan’s ball last year. Mizuno emerged as the lone supplier.
But old customs are hard to break, and in tradition-bound Japan, the move to a unified ball comes with a twist: it is required only for official games played between major league teams. Individual clubs can continue choosing their own baseballs for minor league games, spring training games and practices. According to the commissioner’s office, at least two teams that contracted with multiple baseball makers last year, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yakult Swallows, continue to use those balls in unsanctioned events.
In Japanese baseball, power has traditionally rested with the teams. Franchises have operated independently on a variety of issues, including deciding which ball manufacturers to contract with, much as players in the United States and Japan decide which manufacturers’ bats, gloves and spikes they use.
In Japan, a culture evolved in which sporting goods makers, especially smaller regional ones, became dependent on their relationships with local clubs to supply thousands of balls each year.
“In order to build relationships that stand the test of time, you have to be willing to endure lots of hardships on your customers’ behalf,” Katsuhisa Matsuzaki, a spokesman for N.P.B, said in Japanese, describing the traditional arrangement. “For a team to then turn around and say to a supplier that persevered, ‘Sorry, we don’t you need anymore,’ is not the Japanese way.”
So instead of trying to undo longstanding relationships, Japan’s commissioner’s office established standards over the years to attain a degree of uniformity among the game balls being produced by multiple manufacturers.
That began as far back as 1950, when the Central and Pacific Leagues came under one governing umbrella. Over the years, standards pertaining to the balls were gradually tightened. This happened, for example, in 1981, after a game was delayed by 20 minutes as one team accused another of using a suspicious ball with extra zip. But until this year, teams could use any ball that adhered to the standards.
The new Mizuno ball for this season has been called the noncarrying ball, a reference to the effect of the lower-elasticity rubber that encases the cork center. Not surprisingly, pitchers like the new ball for that and other subtle changes they can use to their advantage.
“It breaks better, moves more advantageously for the pitcher,” Hisashi Iwakuma of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, speaking in Japanese, said of the new ball. “Whether you throw a fork or a curve or a slider, the break is bigger. Even your fastball doesn’t have to be perfectly straight; you can make it miss the sweet spot of the bat.”
Iwakuma said pitchers could manipulate the slightly lower height of the red stitches and their slightly wider spread.
Japan’s regular season was extended until this week because of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March and unusually heavy rain. But the ball is believed to be responsible for an abundance of curiosities.
Through Friday’s games, seven pitchers among the 12 clubs had earned run averages below 2.00 while throwing more than 170 innings. By comparison, despite his dominant performance of 24 wins in 29 decisions, Detroit’s Justin Verlander, the major league leader in E.R.A. among starters at 2.40, would not crack Japan’s top 10.
Among those Japanese pitchers is Yu Darvish, 25, who many believe will be made available to American teams this winter by the Nippon Ham Fighters. But Darvish’s 1.44 E.R.A. was only second best in the Pacific League. As a testament to his acumen, though, he had a 1.78 E.R.A. last season.
In another oddity, Darvish’s team tied a Japanese record with five consecutive shutout victories during a stretch in May. That was part of nine shutouts in 11 games by the Fighters’ staff, three of them complete-game shutouts by Darvish.
Robust pitching has turned the batting races into rather pedestrian competitions. Worry abounds that the race in at least one league could produce the lowest average for a batting champion in Japanese history. The Hiroshima Carp’s Katsuya Morinaga holds that distinction, capturing the Central League’s 1962 title with a .307 average. This season’s race has come down to the Yomiuri Giants’ Hisayoshi Chono (.315) and Hanshin’s Matt Murton (.312), with three others teetering around .300. Last year, 14 players in the league hit .300 or better, with .358 taking the title. In the Pacific League, five players were hitting over .300, with the leader at .339.
Most noticeable of all, home runs were down. With three players totaling 40 or more homers last year, the overall title was claimed with 49. This season, only the Seibu Lions’ Takeya Nakamura and the Yakult Swallows’ Wladimir Balentien will finish with more than 30.
Although Japan’s new ball is not meant to replicate the American major league ball, a conscious effort was made to make it much more similar than before. That is a crucial point in Japan, where performance in international competitions like the quadrennial World Baseball Classic, which uses the American ball, weighs on the national conscience. Kato, the commissioner, said as much at a news conference when he unveiled the new ball before the season.
“Certainly, an impetus for the uniform ball was seeing with my own eyes the difficulties Japanese pitchers had with the different ball at the W.B.C.,” he said of the 2009 tournament, which Japan won. “By unifying our approach to the domestic game, we can lessen such discomforts that arise for our players on the international stage.”
That could pave the way for Mizuno to bid on the contract to supply the American major leagues. The leagues’ contract with Rawlings, which replaced Spalding after a century as the sole ball supplier, expires in 2013.
At the preseason news conference, Kato was seemingly focused on something larger than his own league when he proclaimed Japan’s new ball to be “of a higher quality than the one used in the American major leagues.”