For some, it was a chance to extend their playing careers in the Nippon Baseball League. For others, it was an opportunity to earn a simple paycheck, one they couldn’t cash while playing in Major League Baseball.
Along the way, they each witnessed the Zen of Bobby Valentine firsthand in the Far East. As outsiders in Japan, the trio observed Valentine –– then the skipper of the Chiba Lotte Marines –– barge through cultural barriers and evolve into a rock star.
“When we went to their place, you could tell how much the fans were really behind him,” said Atchison, who pitched for the Hanshin Tigers from 2008 to 2009. “He was that franchise for a few years. He took them from a team that didn’t win much to a team that finally won with him there, so he had a big presence.”
Valentine soaked up the experience from 2004 to 2009, learning Japanese and adopting the overseas philosophy on baseball. And now, he’s infusing the Red Sox clubhouse with some of those very same Japanese ideologies.
His eye for detail is impeccable. Since the start of spring training, Valentine has abandoned the traditional practice routines that Terry Francona once employed, opting to implement his unorthodox methods –– with a long-term purpose in mind.
It started on day one, when Valentine banished his AL pitchers to the batting cages to master their bunting. The purpose was for them to prepare for interleague play and possible at-bats in the World Series. He was already planning seven months ahead.
“He obviously puts a lot of attention to detail and that’s a Japanese thing,” Atchison said. “It’s like ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this a lot and that’s how we’re going to perfect it and become the best we can at it.'”
During the second exhibition game in March, the skipper continued to turn heads with his logic, tapping David Ortiz to play first base. It signaled the earliest the designated hitter had ever patrolled the position. Ortiz did so frequently early on, too.
No doubt, the tactics are trivial. But Valentine is determined to prepare to hedge his bets thoroughly. First-base coach Alex Ochoa, who played for the Chunichi Dragons and Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan from 2003 to 2008, can appreciate that mentality.
“[Detail] is a big thing in Japan,” Ochoa said. “If you can do that and make it second nature –– and not have pitchers worry about it, or position players worry about it –– that’s why in spring training we work on a lot of things to get it in sync, so you don’t have to be like ‘Oh, what’s the play.'”
Pregame fielding routines have also been amended under the new Red Sox administration. Before Valentine’s regime, players and hitting coaches would use fungo bats to uncork grounders for fielding practice.
But upon taking the job in December, the 61-year-old manager ditched the fungos for regular bats. And the explanation for the decision reeks with detail.
“Fungos are a very inefficient way of catching a ground ball because it has backspin on it and you never hit a ground ball with backspin,” Valentine said. “They get more repetitions and at times get a ball that’s coming from a bat that will have proper spin instead of backspin. It’s a way of keeping those guys active and also giving some simulation of real-life spin on a grounder.”
Valentine’s dedication to detail isn’t solely limited to baseball. After one of the first spring training games, he plopped down for his routine postgame news conference and scanned the reporters’ recorders on the table. He quickly detected a discrepancy.
“Someone’s missing,” Valentine said, noting there were eight recorders on the stand as opposed to the standard nine. Impeccable eyes, indeed.
Repetition is synonymous with success in baseball. Regardless of the country or league, the adage has never changed. But for every 200 reps a major league club attempts, Atchison estimates Japanese teams shoot for “400 to 500.”
Although the team hasn’t reached overdrive yet, pitchers have recognized the amplified repetitions and urgency during pitchers’ fielding practice –– a drill known as PFPs –– compared to most MLB camps. It stems from Valentine’s roots in the Far East.
“If you think about the quantity of PFPs we did early on here, that’s a big thing in Japan,” said Germano, who toed the rubber for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2009.
“He gets the pitchers involved quite a bit rather than other [MLB] teams, where you don’t focus on pitching and fielding. We [would still] do PFPs, but it’s almost like if there’s nothing to do, ‘Go take PFPs.’ But here there’s a purpose for it. Bobby thinks if we can field our positions the best that we can, that will help.”
Pitchers have performed PFPs early and often, bolting off the mound to field slow grounders or rushing to cover first base. Considering Red Sox pitchers finished last in defensive fielding last year, Valentine made PFPs a staple of the spring routine.
A native of Kanita, Japan, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka grasps the premise behind Valentine’s madness.
“It’s to be prepared for anything that might happen in a game,” Matsuzaka said, through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “Because those little differences, those little mistakes is what’s going to cause a team to win or lose. In order to not make those mistakes, it’s repetition that covers for that.”
Holding baserunners is another principle that Valentine has preached. Last season, Red Sox pitchers allowed opposing clubs to run rampant around the bases, surrendering a league-high 156 steals.
Under Francona’s watch, pitchers were primarily instructed to focus on the batter at hand. Not Valentine. To correct the woes on the basepaths, Valentine and staff assistant Randy Niemann have repeatedly harped on pickoff mechanics.
From Jon Lester to Alfredo Aceves to Aaron Cook, the majority of Boston pitchers have noticeably embraced the strategy and tested it come game day. For Germano, the commitment to pickoffs is reminiscent of his days in Japan.
“They’re huge on keeping the steals down [in Japan],” Germano said. “They wanted us to slide-step on like every pitch, especially coming from here where we slide step just a couple times a game. That’s a big change. I’ve never seen so many pickoffs from guys at any time, especially this short time that we’ve been here.”
Rest is a key ingredient to an athletic routine. Valentine believes in that concept –– at least in spring training –– and is willing to ease the gas pedal for his players after a grueling four-day stretch.
Atchison said that wasn’t necessarily the case with Francona. Then again, rest remains a valuable tenet in the Nippon Baseball League, and Valentine has a 2005 Japan Series championship to show for it.
“[Valentine] knows when to cut guys a break like when we’ve worked really hard for four days,” Atchison said. “Over in Japan, their thing was to work hard for three or four days in the spring and then you kind of have a day off. I think he’s done that with some of the things we’ve done in camp.”
The overseas experience should lower Valentine’s stress just a little. When MLB elected to add a wild card to each league, the Red Sox manager wasn’t fazed. There was no added pressure to win the American League East.
After all, he’s faced much more stringent circumstances. In Japan, Valentine said wild-card teams weren’t allotted any home games in a best-of-five series and are immediately docked a loss before the round begins.
“That’s a real advantage to win the division,” Valentine said.
He’s two years removed from his tenure as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, but the lessons still resonate. Unlike the majority of the Red Sox roster, Ochoa, Germano, Matsuzaka and Atchison can truly appreciate his growth.
“He’s mixed some [Japanese] styles, some of the style over here and tried to throw them together,” Atchison said. “And he tries to come up with what he feels is the best.”
In other words, the Zen of Bobby Valentine is slowly but surely infiltrating the Red Sox clubhouse.