On two separate occasions this month, shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka has failed to perform the elementary exercise of covering second base in key situations.
On August 3 in Anaheim, pitcher Brian Duensing fielded a comebacker and spun towards second to start a double play. Nishioka, whose responsibility it was to cover the bag, was nowhere near the base. To his credit, he did adjust in time to get the one out at second but they were unable to covert the double play. Similarly, on Friday in Cleveland, after a series of misplays by the shortstop Justin Morneau nabbed a grounder while ranging to his right, positioning himself perfectly to make the easy throw to second – the direction in which his momentum was carrying him. The problem was, once again, nobody was covering the base.
It was Nishioka’s play on Friday night that inspired columnist Patrick Reusse to write: “This young man knows less about the basics of playing shortstop (or second base) than any big-leaguer I've ever watched.” Given his body of work in the field this month, it is a statement that is hard to argue with.
All of the fielding metrics – RZR, UZR, LOL, OMG, INBD, etc - suggest that Nishioka is a bottom-feeding defensive talent this year. But you don’t need these stats to tell you the obvious. So why is Nishioka is struggling so much in the field?
First is the issue of inexperience. While those aforementioned plays in which he failed to cover second are inexcusable in any country, some misplays have been an extension of this inexperience. For example, in the play in which the Indians’ Travis Hafner chopped a ball past Carl Pavano, Nishioka charged hard and hastily tried to field and throw on the run. Now, had he been more familiar with his competition he may have taken his time to ensure he gloved the ball and made a set throw. After all, Hafner moves with the velocity of someone submerged in wet cement.
This is exactly the kind of situation that he was warned about. Over the winter, fellow countryman and failed MLB shortstop Kaz Matsui offered Nishioka some advice through the Japanese media. The first point was about not worrying about the transition from artificial turf to grass, the second was about being aware of getting spiked at second (d’oh), and the final point was for the incoming infielder to keep tabs on the foot speed of his competition. As I wrote back in January on the topic:
“The final word of advice from Matsui, “gather data on baserunners”, is fairly straight-forward. Unlike those that develop within the minor league system, Matsui had little experience educating himself on players in the majors. He was thrusted into a starting role without the proper knowledge of his opposition and, unlike someone like Cal Ripken who goes to great lengths preparing for each opponent, Matsui was likely manning a demanding position cold-turkey (particularly when you factor in a language barrier). Either way, Matsui’s message to Nishioka is clear: Spend time learning the competition.”
Had Nishioka been more familiar with the league, he would have known that Hafner’s grounder did not require the hurried play. Essentially, Nishioka – who was a superstar in Japan – needs to become a student of the game again. If he is not already, he needs to be reviewing video of upcoming opponents and discussing the base-running abilities of hitters with the coaching staff. This would help minimize miscues like the one against Hafner.
Then there is the issue of how Nishioka fields the ball.
For those who follow the Twins regularly, you may have noticed Nishioka’s propensity to maneuver his body behind the ball on plays towards the third base hole instead of backhanding the grounder like the majority of shortstops do. It is not so much his failure to do so but rather the method in which players in Japan are taught to field the ball. Reporter Naofumi Murakami explains why:
“In Japan, it's typical to catch a grounder facing front toward the incoming ball. There is more focus on the stability gained from not using the back of the hand to catch the ball. But in the major leagues, the backhand catch--in which the shortstop grab grounders to their right side with one hand by stretching out their arm with the glove--is mainstream. There is a risk of the ball bouncing off the glove, but the shortstop can get into a position of throwing the ball faster because of the lack of unnecessary moves.”
Here we see an example of this Japanese style of fielding. Instead of extending his arm across his body, back handing the ball and putting himself in a better position to throw, Nishioka slides his entire body in front of the Padres’ Ryan Ludwick’s ground ball:
Even though it worked in this instance, had someone speedier than Ludwick been running down the baseline that runner may have easily beaten the play.
Nishioka and the Twins continue to work on getting the shortstop adapted to the American-style of play however changing this deeply ingrained technique may not be as simple as flipping a switch. Nishioka says that the backed play in Japan is viewed as “lazy” and getting him to change his style of play after decades of indoctrination and thousands of hours committing it to muscle memory would be like trying to get an American shortstop to ditch the backhand in favor of getting their bodies in front of those grounders.
Finally, although the physical aspects of his game have relatively simple solutions, the mental side – like failing to cover second - is a bit more perplexing. Is it deference to his more experienced middle infield partners? Is it a communication problem? Or your average run-of-the-mill brain farts and lack of focus? Who knows?
Personally, I see parallels in Nishioka’s current situation to Denard Span’s conversion to a full-time centerfielder in 2010. While Span had all the talent and tools in the world to be an outstanding defender, he often backed deferred to his corner outfielders to try to make plays on the in-between balls. Many of those unfortunately fell to the earth. Meanwhile, before his injury this season, Span showed a much better tendency to go all-out after those same types of fly balls and taking command of the outfield. It is not unreasonable to think that after Nishioka acclimates and gains the confidence to quarterback the middle infield, we will see improvements in this department.
In hindsight, it was wrong for the Twins’ evaluators and decision-makers to assume Nishioka could seamlessly transition into the highest level of baseball in the world. While competition in Japan may be comparable to AAA, there is still plenty of difference in the style of play that keeps it from being an effortless jump for players. Obviously his defensive development has been stifled by the broken leg as well as a language barrier, but it seems apparent now that Nishioka would have benefitted from a season in Rochester to acclimate to the American-version of the game.