In-Depth Research on Interviews with Team Officials Revealing Why This Year’s SoftBank Team is Dominating | FRIDAY DIGITAL

In-Depth Research on Interviews with Team Officials Revealing Why This Year’s SoftBank Team is Dominating

SoftBank has 18 points saved in 50 games! The team's batting average, home runs, and defensive efficiency are all No. 1!

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Hiroki Kokubo (52, Manager) returned to his former team as a head coach in 2021 after nine years, but the team fell to Class B. “The experience of being reassigned to the second team manager after the promotion to manager was postponed has also been valuable” (Team official).

“It’s okay up to five points.”

One day, a while after the season had started, Hotaka Yamakawa (32), who became a teammate this season, said this to the main pitcher, Shota Ishikawa (32).

“It was kind of a joke, and whether or not I could actually do it, I felt a lot more at ease. I didn’t have much interaction with Yamakawa before, but now that I’ve actually gotten to know him, I feel a sense of reliability.”

Later, Ishikawa shared his thoughts with those around him, encapsulating the strength of this season’s SoftBank team.

After 50 games into the season, as of June 2nd, they had an impressive 18-game lead. Dominating the league with the top team batting average, the most home runs, and the best team ERA, SoftBank’s batting lineup was led by Yamakawa, who was currently leading the Pacific League in both home runs and RBIs.

“Yuki Yanagita (35), Kensuke Kondo (30), and Ryoya Kurihara (27)—SoftBank’s main hitters were all left-handed. Adding a right-handed slugger who can aim for the home run and RBI titles was significant. With a solid cleanup hitter in place, Yanagita and Kondo, who bat before and after him, became even more effective. Their on-base percentages shot up. It’s a victory for the front office, who took the risk despite criticism and acquired Yamakawa,” said former team player and commentator Shinko Ikeda.

There were voices of opposition both within and outside the organization regarding the acquisition of Yamakawa, who had become a free agent after a scandal involving women led to his departure from Seibu. However, it was Chairman Sadaharu Oh (84) who insisted on getting him. It was a gamble driven by his inherent competitive nature and a parental desire to support his beloved disciple, manager Hiroki Kokubo (52), in his new role.

A hawk reporter for a sports newspaper reveals:

“Normally, performance bonuses like cash prizes awarded to players who excel in crucial games, typically those deciding championships are distributed starting from the opening of this season. The amounts are staggering, reportedly up to 5 million yen per game.”

Even the manager is determined towards reclaiming the championship. “You can see his resolve in how he’s using Yamakawa,” says the veteran journalist.

“In a sense, Kokubo placed the troublesome Yamakawa in the cleanup spot. Moreover, he persisted with him even when his batting average hovered around .200 early in the season. Kokubo was known for his impatience during his playing days. It was surprising, considering he used to get so angry that he would call in his high school seniors to lecture rookies who didn’t greet him.”

Sportswriter Fujimoto agrees with this veteran reporter’s opinion that Kokubo’s personal growth has had a positive impact on the team.

“As I mentioned in a meeting, ‘Victory resides in the details,’ our motto is to play baseball without giving any openings, without showing any vulnerabilities. Yet, it’s not rigidly controlling either. He’s hands-off with the key players. The balance between push and pull is exquisite. Kokubo-san has acquired coaching methods suited to the Reiwa era, having read extensively on management and gained experience both as a manager for Samurai Japan and as SoftBank’s second-team manager. He understands that ‘being too angry is no good, but not getting angry at all is also no good.’ Instead of shouting at players for mistakes, he communicates his senior perspective and explains things patiently. He’s diligent about ensuring his coaches follow this approach as well.”

The decision to promote developmental players like Yuto Kawamura (24), Riku Ogata (25), and Keisuke Nakata (24) from the second team to the registered roster is also seen as a ‘hit’ by Manager Kokubo, as evaluated by the aforementioned Mr. Ikeda.

“Shifting from the previous season where they spent 8 billion yen on FA players and foreign reinforcements, using the developmental trio in the first team changed the perspective of young players. Moreover, Kawamura and Nakata have become valuable assets, bringing momentum to the team.”

The most impressive display of “Kokubo Hawks’ strength” this season likely came from the consecutive games against Rakuten on May 21, with scores of 21-0 and 12-0, dominating by wide margins. Rakuten alum Koichi Isobe chuckled ruefully, recalling, “It reminded me of when we lost 26-0 in the team’s founding year.”

“When we score 20 points, inevitably the pitcher’s tension loosens, and we don’t even use the relief pitchers for a winning pattern. Normally, we would have been taken back a few points, but it was zero points. And the next day was also a shutout. It’s quite rare to lose by a wide margin with consecutive shutouts in two games. As an observer, it’s very disappointing, but I felt a strength that exceeded simple differences in strength.”

Isobe attributed this “invisible strength” to their savvy in-game tactics.

“We have many players who know how to win. Even if their batting average is low, they’re strong in clutch situations or can hit crucial advancing hits. They leave no room for error. There’s Kenta Imamiya (32), a regular contender for the Golden Glove Award, and Akira Nakamura (34), who was the most hits leader in ’14. The return of Kurihara, who spent last season rehabbing from a right hook bone fracture, is also significant. He can play various positions, contributes to team batting, and is strong in crucial moments. Having such players is a boon for the bench. He’s also a mood-maker, so when he performs well, the team rallies. He’s a valuable presence.”

Mr. Isobe designated outfielder Ukyo Shuto (28), known as the ‘Slash Captain,’ as the early season MVP.

“Since entering May, his batting average has dropped slightly, but he hit .300 in early spring with an on-base percentage exceeding .390. Moreover, he led both leagues with a clear 15 stolen bases. Just having him on base wears down opposing pitchers significantly. This sets up a high-scoring opportunity when batting order turns over to the clean-up lineup featuring Japan’s representative left-handed hitters like Yanagita and Kondo, along with RBI leader Yamakawa. Therefore, the probability of scoring increases. Shuto has contributed significantly to creating a favorable momentum for SoftBank.”

Hotaka Yamakawa (32, First Base): He has already performed his “dosukoi” celebration after hitting a home run 12 times this season. He is leading comfortably with over 130 RBIs, showing dominant performance.
Yuki Yanagita (35, Right Field): Focusing on creating chances since Yamakawa joined this season, he has marked a .405 on-base percentage. His absence due to injury is painful, but his return in the late season is eagerly awaited.
Kensuke Kondo (30, Left Field): Displaying his hit-producing prowess with a .331 batting average this season. In recent years, his power hitting has improved as well, hitting 26 home runs last season and already 8 homers this season!
Ukyo Shuto (28, Center Field): Known as one of the top speedsters in the league, his hitting was a concern, but he has improved to a .267 batting average and raised his on-base percentage to .333. He’s become a formidable top batter.

The Return of the ‘Magical Coach’.

While attention often goes to the super-strong batting lineup, the pitching staff is also solid. An evening newspaper desk analyzes, ‘Successfully retaining closer Roberto Osuna (29), whose contract expired last offseason, is a big hit.’

“It seems like there was an acquisition offer from a Major League team, but SoftBank won the money game. Voices from within the team say that it seems to be the highest salary in the team’s history and comes with a substantial amount of incentives.”

In modern baseball, the theory of team organization is to strengthen from the back (closer). Osuna staying is good news, but the cost was also significant.

“Too much money was spent to secure Osuna and Yamakawa, the pillars of pitching and hitting. SoftBank, which has previously treated its contributors generously, has been cutting high-salaried veterans like Yuito Mori (32, currently with DeNA) and Shinya Kayama (34, currently with Yakult) one after another, presumably to secure funds.” (Team insider)

However, solidifying the “back” (bullpen) has been a major plus for the pitching staff. Last season, SoftBank had the league-leading bullpen ERA, but their starting pitchers logged the fewest innings in the league, which was a challenge. To address the issue of strengthening the starting rotation, they successfully transitioned Livan Moinello (28) and Ryosuke Otsu (25) from the bullpen to starters. 

“Moinello came to Japan in 2017 when I was the hitting coach for Rakuten’s first team. Even back then, we would talk about how interesting it would be to see him start. Now, he’s actually winning games consistently. He’s young and fantastic. Otsu is also fitting into the rotation nicely, and this season, Ace Kohei Arihara  (31) is in good form. There’s also Stewart Junior (24) throwing at 160 km/h, and Nao Higashihama (33) bouncing back. The team is in great shape,” said Mr. Isobe, as mentioned earlier.

Their successors are the strong bullpen units, with Osuna waiting at the very back, but even here, there were challenges.

As pointed out by Kazumi Saito (46), who served as the first-team pitching coach and fourth-team manager in an interview with this magazine (December 29, ’23 issue), management of the bullpen’s condition – the management by the leadership team was lacking in last season’s SoftBank.

However, Manager Kokubo had already taken action. It was the appointment of Pitching Coach Shinji Kurano (49), who had coached for two years until last year with the Major League team Rangers.

Several years ago, there was a period when Hard-throwing pitchers who threw over 150 km/h were born one after another in SoftBank. One of the key figures at that time was Coach Kurano.

“His skill was praised as ‘Kurano’s magic remodeling.’ Upon his return, Coach Kurano commented that he spent two years in the Major Leagues remodeling himself. He also mentioned the possibility of developing pitchers who could surpass Major Leaguers by blending cutting-edge American techniques and coaching with Japanese-style instruction. His motto is ‘not now.’ Looking ahead, he seems to be fighting while simulating dozens of pitcher usage scenarios. He’s implementing bold strategies, such as rotating starting pitchers with not just the traditional five but eight, aiming to avoid excessive appearances and ensuring optimal performance throughout the year,” (team insider).

Mr. Fujimoto mentioned earlier, “It’s often overlooked, but he’s actively using Takashi Umino (26), which is something to pay attention to.”

“SoftBank’s main catcher is Takuya Kai (31). As an absolute presence who also served as the starting catcher for Samurai Japan, no one could say anything even if Kai’s pitch calling was anticipated or biased, especially with younger pitchers. The coaching staff intervened in this area. There is learning for Kai too, by warming the bench.”

If things go smoothly, Kai will become a free agent this offseason. There may also be a hedge against the risk of losing the starting catcher.

If there were any concerns—former players and sports reporters unanimously pointed to “a malfunction in the core.” On May 31, when Yanagita suffered a right leg injury and had to leave the front lines, it was an unexpected incident for the team. However, clutch hitter Nakamura, who was batting in his place, stepped up and covered for him. They achieved three consecutive victories against the leading team in the Central League, Hiroshima. Fujimoto continues.

“It really showcased the depth of the players. However, if we were to point out a concern, it would be Kokubo’s ability in crucial moments. When he led Samurai Japan, they lost in the Premier 12 semifinals to Korea after giving up a three-run lead in the ninth inning. In his own retirement game, he unexpectedly suffered a no-hitter. He chuckled, saying, ‘I’ve never experienced anything like this before, on the day of my retirement. I guess I’ve still got it’ (laughs).”

But these mishaps from the past are just that history. Under the leadership of a commander who has grown significantly since then, there seem to be no blind spots in SoftBank.

Roberto Osuna (29, closer):  With a total of 155 saves in the majors, this absolute guardian who also claimed the title in ’19 with the Astros continues to protect the final innings this season.
Livan Moinello (28, starter): Known as “Doctor K” whom power hitters in the Pacific League fear to face. Even as a starter, his ERA remains 1.77, showcasing his unparalleled dominance.

From the June 21, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

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