The pandemic that brought the whole world to a halt delayed the steadfast celebration that many of us may have previously taken for granted. One year later, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are ready to begin and baseball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Each team will get a preview article where we discuss a bit about baseball in the country, the team’s route to Tokyo, and which players to look for on the Olympic stage. For a refresher on the rules and format of the tournament, please refer back to Nicole Cahill’s preview article, which can be found here.
A Rich Baseball Tradition
Team Japan has been consistently successful at nearly every level of international baseball competition. Its youth teams regularly compete in the Little League World Series finals (in fact, Japanese teams won five LLWS championships in eight years, beginning in 2010), they have won multiple World Baseball Classic titles, and have never fallen below the top three finalists in the Asian Games. Team Japan (or Samurai Japan, according to the team’s website) has also won multiple Olympic medals in baseball, winning bronze in 1992 and 2004 and a silver medal in 1996. However, for all of Team Japan’s accomplishments, they have never reached the zenith of Olympic competition: the gold medal.
Japan has also produced a number of players from its professional league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), that succeed shortly after transitioning to Major League Baseball competition. NPB is considered the second-best baseball league in the world, with some scouts deeming the competition level equivalent to “AAAA,” so players who succeed in NPB generally have the talent to play meaningful baseball at the MLB level. For example, the incredible Shohei Ohtani spent five seasons in NPB before signing with the Los Angeles Angels in 2018. Ichiro Suzuki completed nine seasons in NPB before transitioning to the Seattle Mariners in 2001. And, Masahiro Tanaka played 7 seasons in NPB before signing with the New York Yankees in 2014. Japan’s roster is filled with NPB players, so its success on the world stage is not surprising.
For Samurai Japan, making the Olympics and succeeding against the very best teams is an expectation, not a lofty goal. The #1 team in the world (according to the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC)) will be looking to add to their legacy of success by winning the elusive Olympic gold medal in their home country. Unfortunately, Japan will have to win gold without the support of what would have been very raucous and Japan-friendly crowds, but if any team can do so, it is the team with a track record of success, MLB-ready players, and home-field advantage.
The Road to Tokyo
They don’t need to travel very far!
Samurai Japan automatically qualified for this year’s competition as the host nation. However, Japan would have qualified anyway, as they won the 2019 World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) Premier12 tournament, which guaranteed the highest-placing team from the Asia/Oceania region a spot in the Olympic competition.
The Premier12 tournament featured the top 12 teams in the world, according to the WBSC. Japan coasted through the early competition, beating Venezuela (#10 in world rankings), Puerto Rico (#14), and Chinese Taipei (#2) in their group’s round-robin competition and racking up a run differential of +15. Japan obliterated Chinese Taipei in their first-round matchup, winning 8-1 thanks to three hits and four RBI from star OF Seiya Suzuki.
In the Super Round (a giant round-robin between the top teams from the first groups), Japan went 3-1, beating South Korea (the final score was 10-8), Mexico (3-1), and Australia (3-2), falling only to the United States (4-3). But, by virtue of their record in the Super Round, Japan moved onto the gold medal game to take on South Korea. Japan’s starting pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays, coughed up three earned runs in the top of the first inning, putting Japan in an early hole. Japan was able to dig themselves out thanks to a superb performance from their bullpen (8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 7 SO) and a timely three-run home run from IF Tetsuto Yamada that would give Japan the lead for good. Japan finished off South Korea, 5-3, and finished the tournament with a 7-1 record and a +28 run differential, quite an impressive performance, even for the best team in the world. Suzuki finished as the tournament MVP, slashing an otherworldly .444/.529/1.037, with three HRs and 13 RBI. South Korea, as the second-place finisher and the top team from Asia/Oceania not already qualified for Tokyo 2020, was granted a spot in the Olympics.
I was not able to find Japan’s warm-up schedule for the Olympics. Some teams, like Team Israel, are playing tune-up games in New York before heading off to Tokyo, but it is unclear whether Team Japan is doing the same.
As with Korea and the United States, every athlete on Japan’s roster comes from their own professional league. Each player competes for one of 11 NPB teams (there are 12 teams in NPB), with some teams contributing as many as four players to the competition. This is a departure from the United States’ roster, as MLB, unfortunately, prohibited any player on a team’s 40-man roster from joining an Olympic roster. NPB’s season has a break specifically to allow players to compete in the Olympics, as the first half of the NPB season concluded on July 14 and the second half of the NPB season begins on August 13, which specifically allows Japan to bring some of its best players along for competition.
Notable players on the roster include Masahiro Tanaka, who returned to NPB after several seasons with the New York Yankees, Tetsuto Yamada, dubbed the “Japanese Mike Trout,” and Seiya Suzuki, a four-time NPB All-Star who may be posted for MLB teams to sign in the coming offseason.
Notable Players Missing: Oh, where to begin? MLB’s 40-man roster rule prohibits some of Japan’s most talented players from joining the roster, including Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels P/DH), Yu Darvish (Padres P), Yusei Kikuchi (Mariners P), Shogo Akiyama (Reds OF), Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Dodgers 1B/OF), and Kenta Maeda (Twins P), among others. Baseball fans will have to wait a little longer to see Ohtani play for Team Japan in an international competition.
There are also a few players that play in NPB that ultimately declined an invitation to join Samurai Japan in competition. Tomoyuki Sugano, who was posted for MLB teams to sign last offseason but returned to NPB, declined his invitation. Kazuhisa Makita, formerly the owner of MLB’s craziest windup, was not extended an invitation. The same goes for former MLB reliever Yoshihisa Hirano, who returned to NPB after three seasons in MLB. Japan’s decision not to invite two relievers with MLB experience to the roster speaks to the superior depth of Japan’s pitching staff.
On Wednesday, Carlos Marcano will preview Team Dominican Republic. On Friday, our Olympics preview coverage will conclude with Nicole Cahill’s look at Team USA.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns)