“I was always pitching to a smaller strike zone,” Ryan Vogelsong said of his time in Nippon Professional Baseball. “That’s just the way it is, it’s the unwritten rule of baseball there, the foreigner’s strike zone is going to be smaller.”
Vogelsong is not alone — other returnees from Japan report unfair treatment from umpires there. A first look at the numbers seems to hint at the possibility that the strike zone is called differently for Japanese and foreign players. But closer inspection reveals that this could also come from a clash of cultures — baseball cultures.
Last Friday, Giants Ryan Vogelsong and Casey McGehee — while highly appreciative of their time in Japan and the things they learned while playing there — both independently referenced preferential treatment for homegrown stars in Nippon Professional Baseball.
From the other side of the plate, McGehee said that “you end up striking out looking a lot because there were a lot of times that if the catcher caught it, you were sitting down.” Using the Japanese word for foreigner, McGehee said the matchup was important: “Your best case scenario was when you had a gaijin pitching and a gaijin hitting.”
Jason Coskrey covers baseball for the Japan Times and has heard foreign players say this sort of thing before. He reached out to Jeremy Powell, who was with the Expos for two years and pitched in both NPB’s Central and Pacific Leagues from 2001-2008. While Powell felt that umpires were “focused on simply doing their best to do a good job,” it was a bit different when it came to big calls — “in crucial counts that really had an impact on how the inning may end up there were times that the call would favor the native player — it came with the territory (literally), it’s part of the game and I had to move on, albeit it was never easy.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.