I just received a copy of the new MLB Insiders Club magazine. There is an article titled “Common Ground” by Brad Lefton which is quite revealing.
He is discussing the fact that the Japanese leagues have used a different baseball until last year. Part of it was wound differently and the stitching was different. When Japanese pitchers were signed by American teams getting used to a new ball was quite a challenge. Now they are similar so pitchers like Darvish are used to playing with it.
It is further in the article, in my opinion, he lets the proverbial cat out of the bag. He discusses the differences in the makeup of the ball. Here is what he had to say specifically, “Last year, Japanese maker Mizuno won the domestic competition and now supplies Nippon Professional Baseball with an official ball dubbed the “non-carrying ball,” a reference to the effect of the lower elasticity rubber used to encase the ball’s cork center.”
Later in the same paragraph he adds, “Indeed, home runs and earned run averages in Japan dropped dramatically last year – three players totaled 40 or more home runs in 2010, but just two players hit more than 25 in 2011.”
While the gist of his article is about pitching, to me the last sentence was pretty revealing. For example, might it explain why former Cub Kosuke Fukudome was a Japanese star and was a lifetime .260 hitter with the Cubs? Might it really taint the home run totals of the great Sadaharu Oh?
Having a son that played some serious college baseball, I have seen some real shots over the years. The scouts are quick to point out that the aluminum bat adds a lot of distance to home run balls. At one time, as I recall, the Japanese parks were rumored to be a bit smaller than their US counterparts. If that is true, coupled with an energized baseball, I would question the wisdom of assuming the statistics of a Japanese hitter would automatically bring about the same results in the US. Certainly Ichiro would be a star anywhere, anytime, he is one incredible athlete. At the same time in my younger years I would see marginal US players go to Japan and hit all kind of home runs. Certainly the home run drop off cited in the article is pretty dramatic.
Of course the wisdom of giving another team $50 million or more for the right to try to sign a player is one I questioned anyway. Now, realizing that in the past the ability to scout and evaluate has another huge variable, namely the ball itself, just adds to the crapshoot in trying to figure out how a foreign player will do in the US major leagues.
After reading the article, I cannot understand why the US did not demand the change of the baseball as part of the bargaining agreement where they pay Japanese teams for the right to negotiate.
Oh well, supposedly the ball is now similar enough that some of the advantages have been taken away from the hitters. Then again, the way averages are down here in the US; perhaps we should be using the old Japanese baseballs to liven up the game.