Monday, September 11, 2006

Japan in Brief

I spent a good deal of time today chatting on the YES Network bulletin boards about Daisuke Matsuzaka. It was an unusually intellectual debate about the possibilities that lie ahead for the Japanese pitcher and his projections in the Majors. Anyone who reads my work, knows how I feel about the player. I used my blogging time today to write up a comparison of his Japanese ratios with the Major Leaguer leaders. You can catch it over at Matsuzaka Watch.

Likewise, on the evening news tonight in Japan, I saw a story about the young Waseda Jitsugyo high school ace, Yuki Saito. After winning the Koshien championship, Saito joined an all-star team of Japanese players and travelled to the US to take on their American counterparts. They ended the series 3-1-1 and Saito teamed with fellow high school superstar Masahiro Tanaka in striking out over 15 batters per 9 innings each. Tanaka hasn't announced his future plans yet, although I'm guessing he'll turn pro right away. Saito had a press conference to announce that he would forgo the pros to attend one of Japan's outstanding universities, Waseda. It has been widely speculated that the young ace would either go to college or try to jump directly to the Majors.

I never saw the Majors as a possible destination for Saito. He's still too small and inexperienced. He needs to grow an inch or two and put on about 15-20 pounds of muscle mass. He's barely 18 now, so he has time. The Japanese teams were circling him like vultures, and would have Matsuzaka-ized him by throwing him to the wolves at 18 and subjecting him to 130 pitch counts day in and day out. I think I have a sense of what he wants to do though. He wants to pitch for the Yankees.

In his elementary school graduation message, Saito listed as his dream "To pitch for the New York Yankees." The Japanese press picked up on this right away, as it became clear he would be the most sought after pitcher of the next generation. Saito didn't comment at all on the possibility of moving to the Majors after Koshien, preferring to concentrate on the goal of winning the championship. On his tour to the United States, he found himself in the Yankees dugout during the rained out game versus the Tigers a few weeks ago. Matsui was on hand and came into the dugout to greet all the players. The Japanese media were watching them closely, and Saito was in complete awe. They picked up on it, and the photos of the current and future prince were plastered everywhere, Saito's eyes big as saucers. (left to right: Tanaka, Saito, Matsui)

Saito asked Matsui a question in the dugout that made it on the air as well. It went something like, "What's life playing in the Major Leagues like?" Matsui obliged him by describing the language and cultural barriers that need to be overcome. He talked about the differences in food and travel. Saito took it all in. He also took in a couple of Angels games out West as the team was in LA for the games against the American kids. He commented to the media for the first time about his plans for the Majors. Basically, it had become clear to him that he needed more American-style pitches to make his dream come true. He pledged to add a two seam fastball to his wicked slider and plus four seam fastball.

Now, again on tonight's news program, fans reaction was clear. They hope he goes to the Majors. More than one group of salarymen sitting around the bar drinking beer and sake were interviewed, and to a man they said he'd be playing for the Yankees in a few years. I was stunned and thrilled at the same time. I don't know if he'll ever develop the talent to pitch for the Bombers, but he is the pitcher defining his generation the way Matsuzaka did some years ago. He is a Yankee fan, and by the time he graduates at 22 years old he will be able to sign with whatever team he wants, provided they'll take him. No Matsuzaka posting madness and no 9 year mandatory contract with a Japanese pro team to navigate. What you're seeing here people is the possible future of the Japanese talent pool unfolding before your eyes. If Saito forgoes Japan to play in the Majors, and does so by spending his developmental years in a Japanese university environment, like several of his superstar idols (Igawa, Uehara), he will open the door for the top talent in Japan to bypass the posting system and forge a new era for star quality players in their prime on US soil. Keep watching and I'll keep you posted.