Katsuya Nomura – Thinking Baseball

Having read only one Katsuya Nomura book prior to this one (and not liking it much), I picked this one up only because of the man’s reputation as a great thinking player and manager. His obnoxious octogenarian rants, I can do without. Well, this book contains a mix of wisdom, history, and crusty criticisms, but fortunately the latter are few and even poignant at times.

Katsuya Nomura is probably the greatest catcher to ever don the mask in Japan. (Incidentally, his adopted son’s name is Don. Yes, that Don Nomura. He is a big part of the book’s final chapter. More on that later.) As catcher, and then manager of 4 different clubs, Nomura was on the cutting edge of the game during his playing years, and as he grew into an outstanding manager (even though his 3 years with Hanshin in 1999-2001 go unappreciated), he piled up a ton of knowledge about the game. More, perhaps, than anyone else in Japan. Here are some of his reflections from this book.

There are two types of pitchers: power arms and crafty arms. The former can’t be taught – it’s a natural gift. The latter has to be groomed and requires far more mental cleverness. But the radar gun does not tell the whole story. (Most of you probably know this already, but it bears repeating.) How well can the pitcher conceal the type of pitch he’s throwing? How long can he hold the ball out of the hitter’s sight – a tool that doesn’t boost your speed numbers but certainly gives the pitcher a further edge. Nomura tells the story of a young Masahiro Tanaka, who after his first season, wanted to get more out of his fastball. Nomura told him speed was not the problem, but control/location/game plan. But Tanaka insisted he wanted to try to bring it up a few ticks. The result (says Nomura)? A subpar sophomore season.

One key to a baseball player’s success is the ability to work the inside part of the plate. This goes for both pitchers and hitters alike. If a pitcher cannot work the hitter inside, that batter will dig deep into the batter’s box and wait for a fat outside pitch to drive. On the other hand, a batter who cannot figure out how to hit the inside pitch will get fed a steady diet of balls there. Again, Nomura makes the claim that you cannot teach power hitting – either you have it or you don’t. No sense it trying to make a home run slugger out of a guy whose game is better as a contact hitter. Some guys have had their careers ruined by pursuing the wrong kind of numbers or game. In fact, Nomura says that the best power hitters don’t even try for home runs. He talks anecdotally about his conversation with Hiromitsu Kadota (who went on to have the third highest home run total in NPB history). Kadota wanted to swing for the fences all the time, so Nomura (#2 on the all-time list) brought him to Oh (#1 on the list) and asked if his hitting philosophy involved trying for home runs. Oh and Nomura were in the “home runs are extensions of good hits,” while Kadota (and, incidentally, Masayuki Kakefu, too) believe the opposite.

One of the more fascinating parts of the book was when Nomura talked specifically about the history of data baseball, at least from his own life story. Nomura was not especially athletically gifted, but made the Nankai Hawks roster out of high school after passing his tryouts. Until he figured things out, NPB was still in the “fighting spirit” mentality, i.e., very little analysis of play. In order to turn himself from a .250 hitter into a .300 hitter, he (literally) reviewed (literal) film of his opponents’ pitchers, looking for flaws and subtle hints that would tell him what pitch might be coming next. Once he was able to hit even the elite pitchers, he had made a name for himself. Ultimately his secret strategy was leaked (by a teammate at an all-star game, of all places) and others around the league started doing the same. Pitchers, too, would at last keep their grip on the ball cloaked until the last possible moment. Nomura also observed the batters at the plate to get even the slightest hint of what pitch they were waiting on, or how they felt about particular locations. He consequently had a proper game plan against other hitters, not just “getting them out.” Nomura credits Don “Blazer” Blasingame for helping him think more deeply about baseball and changing things up situationally.

And the book continues with Nomura talking about his woes as a catcher. When he did not have strategy, and when pitches did not go as expected, it became increasingly hard to call the next pitch. Panic might set in, more poor decisions as a catcher, more hits against, and the downward spiral would soon get steeper.

I was also fascinated by some of Nomura’s observations about catchers. First, he once told a pitcher that the reason they are called a “battery” is because of their roles: the pitcher must think positively in all situations. Just throw, expecting to make your pitches and get guys out. The catcher has to think about the worst case scenario and how to get the team out of defensive jams. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Negative and positive. A battery. (This is not the real reason it’s called a battery, by the way. But interesting, no?)

Second, not every player drafted as a catcher is meant to catch. (This is especially comforting, given how many ex-catchers Hanshin has: Keisuke Kanoh, Ryota Imanari, Masahiro Nakatani, Fumihito Haraguchi.) What often happens, according to Nomura, is that guys get put behind the plate in junior high or high school by their coaches because they have good arms. But they only do it because they were told to do it. They don’t necessarily have the right mind to be a professional catcher.

Third, Nomura’s way to raise players, particularly catchers, is to enable them (give confidence), then praise them for what they are able to do, and finally scold them for their shortcomings. In that order. It didn’t work when he managed Hanshin, but that’s another story. One he also briefly talks about in this book. He gives his take on what is wrong with the Hanshin organization (not open to new ideas, new people, and the media is too quick to turn mediocre players into full blown celebrities), the Yomiuri club (impatience with young talent, therefore no strong core players like they used to have), and more.

There’s plenty more to like in this book, including Nomura’s anecdotes about his working (and personal) relationship with ex-Hanshin ace hurler Yutaka Enatsu. He talks about how the trade (between Hanshin and Nankai) went down, how he successfully convinced Enatsu to become a reliever (somewhat of an insult back in the day, until Nomura and Enatsu revolutionized the way pitchers are used), and how he helped take care of Enatsu personally, essentially preserving the mahjong-loving pitcher’s marriage.

Several rants about the all-star game, star power (or the lack thereof), the playoff system, the talent-drain to the MLB, and more, end the main part of the book. Most of his thoughts are actually enjoyable to read here, while some are laughable. For instance, to prevent the best players from going to MLB, impose a rule whereby an American star has to come to NPB in return. His example? Hideki Matsui for Barry Bonds. (Keep in mind this book was written in 2011.) Laughable!

The book concludes with stepdad Katsuya and stepson (super agent for MLB-bound Japanese players) Don answering some interesting discussion points: (1) the Nomuras would not have survived as a family were it not for baseball; (2) are player agents necessary; (3) advice about the talent drain to MLB; (4) advice to baseball organizers in Japan. Quite interesting to hear these guys respectfully disagree with each other on a few of these points.

On the whole, this is an excellent book. If you want to understand Japanese baseball better, I think you have to understand Katsuya Nomura: a man who, despite sounding a bit like Al “I invented the Internet” Gore at times (so much of modern baseball is because of Nomura’s influence, he claims), should be respected as one whose knowledge of the Japanese game is second to none.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.