There’s something special about bringing on a “thought leader” superstar.

Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer is playing in Japan. He was never able to play in the major leagues due to his off-field issues. The Yokohama club signed him for more than just his performance.
This year, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has its biggest foreign player in its 88-year history. Trevor Bower, 32, is a right-handed pitcher for the Yokohama DeNA Basestars. Bower made his major league debut in 2012 and went on to post a career record of 84 wins and a 3.79 ERA through 2021. In 2020, a season shortened by 60 games per team due to COVID-19, he won the National League Cy Young Award with a 1.73 ERA in 11 games. The award is given to the most outstanding pitcher in each of the two major leagues.

The NPB has had a foreign player program since its inception in 1936. Since then, countless players have gone through the program, but none like Bower. In the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the bubble economy, big-time Major League Baseball stars stepped on Japanese soil, but no “pitchers” won the Cy Young Award. Don Newcomb, the first Cy Young Award winner in 1956, did play in NPB before Bower. But when Newcomb joined the Junichi Dragons in 1962, he was signed as an outfielder, not a pitcher. He only pitched in one game. He was already past his prime.

Unlike Newcomb, Bower is playing in an era of sports science where baseball players in their 30s are still performing at their peak. In NPB this year, Bower’s four-seam fastball is averaging 151.9 miles per hour. That’s faster than it was in the Major Leagues in 2021. Still, he chose to play in Japan because he couldn’t get more playing time in the majors. Baehr signed a huge three-year, $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021. However, he only played until June when the issue of assaulting women surfaced. Although he was ultimately cleared by the prosecution, Major League Baseball issued a severe punishment and the Dodgers released him in January of this year. No other major league team was interested in the “troublemaker”.

So why did Yokohama decide to sign Bower, who has a history of trouble, according to a source close to the club. He said that parent company DeNA asked the question, “Can Bower bring positive change to the team?” and the club’s staff answered “yes”. There was more to it than just the performance.

Bower was notoriously nerdy, but when it came to baseball, he was serious. He studied mechanical engineering at UCLA. As an amateur, he was well versed in the pitching data and biomechanics that were common in American baseball at the time. Finding the best combination of pitches for hitters on his own pitching form, and building a body that could handle them well, is how Bower, who is relatively unathletic, became a successful baseball player. The Yokohama organization appreciated this.

Since the 2000s, Major League Baseball has undergone dramatic changes due to the proliferation of pitching and batting tracking data and advances in biomechanics. On the pitching side, advances have included improved velocity, pitch design to find an effective repertoire of pitches, and the development of new pitches like the sweeper. NPB is also embracing these changes. Yokohama, whose parent company is IT company DeNA, is considered the most innovation-friendly club in the Central League.

In 2021, Yokohama introduced a motion analysis device called Optitrack to its secondary camp. Pitchers wear a suit with 39 sensors and their pitches are analyzed by motion capture. It’s possible to visualize which parts of the body are exerting effort. The year before, in 2020, the team introduced a tracking device called the Rhapsodo, which measures ball rotation, and a high-speed camera called the Edgertronic, which shoots 700 frames per second. In addition, 41 cameras are installed at the second team stadium and training grounds to capture and analyze play and provide feedback to players.

Bower is no stranger to utilizing this equipment. The “sweeper,” a modified slider, is all the rage in Major League Baseball right now. Shohei Ohtani’s last strikeout in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) final in March was a big curveball. In Korea, former major leaguer Eric Peddy of the NC Dinos is using it to dominate the KBO. In 2018, Bower completed the sweeper and posted his first career sub-2 ERA. The equipment that helped him perfect the sweeper was Edgertronic, which can analyze the relationship between pitching grip and rotation.

A Yokohama club official said, “There is a feeling among young pitchers that they want to use equipment and data to improve their baseball skills. We were hopeful that Bower could help them grow.” And that’s exactly what’s happening. Yokohama, which plays its home games at the hitter-friendly Yokohama Stadium, has traditionally worn the team colors of Tagatuzor. As of Aug. 2 this season, Yokohama has a 3.23 ERA. It’s their best record since 1972. Bower also struggled in his NPB debut in May with a 6.86 ERA, but since June, he’s been on a roll with a 2.16 ERA in nine games.

The debate between Darvish and Ichiro

Professional baseball players are professionals. They take pride in their craft. Performance translates into salary, so they prefer to stick to tried-and-true methods rather than experiment. Japanese baseball is known for being a particularly conservative league. In this environment, the role of star players as role models is crucial for innovation to take place. The Yokohama team saw Bower as a role model.

Japanese baseball already has such a role model. Pitcher Darvish Yuda has 93 career wins and a 1.99 ERA in the NPB and 103 wins and a 3.57 ERA in the major leagues. Darvish, who is of Iranian descent, is known as “Vangol” in Japanese baseball. Since breaking into the major leagues in 2012, he has been a vocal critic of Japanese baseball’s outdated training methods. This includes his “weight training controversy” with Ichiro Suzuki in the mid-2010s. NPB has traditionally been slow to embrace weight training, lagging far behind Korea in this area. But that changed after Darvish emphasized the importance of weight training. “The controversy led to a change in perception of weight training,” Seito Uchida, an expert in pitching and training theory, said in an interview in March this year. As a result, pitchers’ velocity increased, which he believes led to their WBC victory this year.

An official from Japan’s national baseball team, Samurai Japan, said, “The national team pitchers asked Darvish a lot of questions. He was happy to answer them,” said a representative from Samurai Japan. NPB sluggers like Munetaka Murakami, who hit 56 home runs last year, often asked Major League Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani for his opinions on strength training. Ohtani, like Darvish, doesn’t often make direct statements. But he agrees with Darvish that Japanese baseball needs to become more scientific.토스카지노

The KBO is not far behind the NPB in terms of hardware. The Samsung Lions installed a tracking system called Trackman at Lions Park in 2018. In the NPB, the Rakuten Golden Eagles were the first to install the system in 2015. The Lotte Giants introduced similar equipment to Yokohama’s Optitrack in 2019. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) attempted to consolidate the tracking systems that each team had individually contracted for last year. Mokdong Stadium, which hosts the high school national baseball tournament, is also equipped with Trackman. However, the KBO has yet to see the same dramatic changes as the NPB. “In the end, it’s not the numbers that matter, it’s the people,” said Cha Myung-joo, director of the Korea Baseball Softball Association (KBSA). The stories of Bauer, Darvish, and Ohtani illustrate the importance of the “good influence” of superstars in transforming baseball.

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