Jan. 19, 2010
When Vanderbilt’s baseball team traveled to the Far East during Thanksgiving week, those on the trip got more than just a new cultural experience, they also had a baseball experience unlike anything most had ever witnessed.
The mound was 60'6" from home plate, the bases were 90' apart — just as they are in the U.S. — and the objective was to score more runs than the opponent, but the similarities between what Vanderbilt’s team is used to seeing in the U.S. and what it saw in its four games in Japan just about end there.
There were teams that had rosters of more than 100 players. They played on a field that was made of all dirt. But what stood out most to the Commodores was the difference in how the game is played in Japan — from the style of play to the focus and discipline of the Japanese players.
“The difference in the style of their play was very noticeable,” senior infielder Brian Harris said. “It was especially noticeable with their hitting approach. They are not big guys, with the exception of a few of them, so instead of hitting a lot of fly balls, they will hit it on the ground and try to run it out because they are all fast. They choke up with two strikes. They will make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches and try to get him out of the game as quick as they can.”
Sophomore pitcher Sonny Gray was a part of Team USA this summer when it traveled to Japan. When on the mound, the biggest challenge the Japanese hitters present to him is how they battle at the plate.
“They go deep into the count and you might strike them out, but if you get up two strikes, you aren’t going to strike them out on the next pitch,” Gray said. “They will battle three or four pitches and just keep fouling them off, which will run your pitch count up.”
The differences don’t end on offense. The Japanese teams play with wooden bats, which presented a new challenge to the Commodores. Making the adjustment to wood even more difficult was the pitching style and defensive ability of the Japanese teams.
“The U.S. pitchers will throw a lot of fastballs, but (the Japanese) as a whole don’t have a lot of power arms, so they will try to fool you and mix pitches, throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts,” said Harris who was making his first trip to a foreign country.
For Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin it was his third time facing teams from Japan after coaching against them in 2000 and 2006 with Team USA. Each time he has faced them he has left even more impressed with how the teams execute and how fundamentally sound the players are.
“The teams are very skilled defensively, fundamentally sound and don’t make mistakes,” Corbin said. “Bunting and speed is a premium, and pitching execution is phenomenal. They just don’t misfire with their pitches. … A fastball count is a breaking ball. A 3-2 pitch is a breaking ball, and you don’t see that in the States.”
Vanderbilt finished the trip 1-1-2 against four Japanese universities. All four of the games were played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before the team finished up its trip by spending time in Hong Kong.
“We faced four really good teams,” Corbin said. “The last day we faced Waseda University, and they threw three first-round pitchers at us. From the standpoint of facing SEC pitching, we definitely did that.”
Because the team experienced so many differences in how the game is played by the Japanese, Corbin made a point to gather his team shortly after returning home to discuss what they learned about the style of play they saw.
“After the trip was over, we brought the team together and talked about what they did well and asked them, ‘If you needed to give a scouting report to someone in the United States, what points would you bring out?’ They brought out a ton of points about their style of play.”
For Corbin, having the players see the different way the game is played was a valuable part of the trip, which was generously financed by Vanderbilt alumnus Bill Kaye.
“I think we could incorporate some of what we saw in certain areas into our play, and I think that was what was part of our premise of going over there,” Corbin said. “It was kind of two-fold in that it was a great cultural experience and valuable from a baseball standpoint.”
In his two trips to the Far East, Gray has seen things that the Japanese teams do very well that he would like to emulate. One of areas in particular is the mental approach to the game.
“You’ll hear people talking about others taking pitches off, but they never take pitches off,” Gray said. “You have to stay focused the whole game, and I feel like that is the main thing I learned. I’ve gotten to sometimes where I’ll lose focus for a second. They never lose focus, so you have to make sure you maintain a high level of concentration.”
Like Gray, Harris believes the team learned a lot of things during the trip that they can work on improving.
“I think as a whole, we can just look at their culture and their discipline,” Harris said. “Things that we as Americans may see as maybe menial and not important, they see as very important. They take discipline to a whole new level, and it shows. They kind of showed us that size and strength don’t really matter. You just need to have a good head on your shoulders and just be as disciplined as you possibly can.”
The trip to the Far East also gave the Commodores the unique opportunity to play games against outside competition between fall practice and the regular season.
“In terms of getting over there and playing outside competition, it felt like we were already in midseason because when you are scrimmaging against each other in the fall, it is one thing, but when you start playing live competition against outside competition, you are already thrust into that game mode,” Corbin said. “It was like we got into that game mode two months before it really happened.”
The Commodores learned a lot about how baseball is played internationally, but most importantly they left the trip with experiences that many will never have again and memories that will last a lifetime.
“You just can’t describe that trip,” Corbin said. “I think it is something the kids five or 10 years from now will be thinking about. I think it came and went so fast that it was a hiccup of an experience for them. When they were in the middle of it, they were absorbed by it, but when they left it, it just became a memory, and I want them to hold on to the memory as long as they can.”