Frank Herrmann on Pitching in Japan

Frank Herrmann is acclimating well to baseball in Japan. In his first season in NPB, the 33-year-old Harvard alum has a 2.08 ERA, and is averaging better than a strikeout per inning, in 36 relief outings for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.Prior to taking his talents to another continent, Herrmann appeared in 36 games with the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies over parts of four MLB seasons.

Herrmann shared his thoughts on several facets of the NPB experience — and compared one of his Rakuten teammates to Masahiro Tanaka — earlier this week.

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Herrmann on transitioning to NPB: “I’ve been setting up all season, and am 25 of 27 in hold opportunities, so I would say I’ve transitioned well. I would attribute that to my velocity (92-96) which is something teams here seek, and to my strike-throwing ability.

“Teams in Japan have plenty of homegrown players that can spin the ball, throw strikes, are are fundamentally sound fielders and contact hitters. What they tend to lack is power bats and power arms. In my experience, I don’t see them training for power or quick twitch. They are more focused on throwing 100-pitch pens, running long distances, and taking a thousand ground balls, than they are in being explosive. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Japanese baseball — which is surprisingly good — but more a reality of how things are.”

On bullpen usage and roles: “They adhere to roles pretty well here. The amount of off days helps with that. They aren’t afraid to throw guys 4-5 days in a row if need be, though. The loose rules in the US — three days in a row, or three out of four days, usually gets you a couple days off — don’t really apply here. It’s more feast or famine. I pitched 13 of our first 19 games but am currently on an seven-game, nine-day drought. That’s just one of many adjustments for foreign players.”

On throwing programs and bullpen sessions: “Guys throw a lot here. Like, A LOT. Guys long toss pretty much everyday during batting practice. All bullpen pitchers throw bullpens scattered throughout the game, starting in the second inning. If you are a non set up guy or a young pitcher there really isn’t even an option.

“In spring training, pitchers routinely throw 100 pitch bullpens. In fact I always found it odd that the first question reporters would ask in spring training is for a pitch count on my bullpen. Definitely a change from MLB organizations where teams tend to stress ‘saving your bullets’ and quality over quantity.”

On off-speed pitches and the NPB ball: “You see a lot more off-speed pitches here. Guys don’t throw as hard, but they can spin it. Also, everyone seemingly throws a variation of a fork or a split. Perhaps it’s because the balls are a little smaller and tackier relative to MLB balls.

“I’ve tightened up my breaking ball this year, and perhaps it’s due to the balls — I can’t say for sure. My curveball was very good in Triple-A last year, too, but it lacked consistency in my MLB stint, which caused my bloated numbers. It’s certainly plausible that the balls could be a factor.”

On working with his catchers: “I have always been a guy to shake my catcher off more than most — for better or for worse. I tend to pitch with my fastball more than most guys here. I would say I’m free to pitch however I want as long as I get results. Our catcher can speak a little English, especially as it relates to baseball and pitching, so that helps.

“One thing that is consistently maddening is when pitchers get ahead 0-2, catchers tend to set up so far off the plate that even if you hit your target it’s a ball. There seems to be a universal fear here of giving up 0-2 hits.”

On 26-year-old teammate Takahiro Norimoto, who leads the Pacific League in wins and strikeouts: “Nori could pitch in the big leagues. He competes like few guys I’ve ever played with. He challenges with a hard 92-96 mph fastball, and he’s got a wipeout split and at times a plus slider. He just finished a run of eight games in a row striking out 10 or more batters, breaking a record once held by Hideo Nomo.

“One area he could develop in order to get to the next level would be managing his pitch count. He is a strikeout artist, but he generally throws 110-120 pitches to get through seven or eight innings. If he is able to add on a cutter or sinker to steal some quick outs he could move from a third or fourth starter profile (in MLB) to a number-two type.

“This may seem like a lazy comparison, but he reminds me of his former NPB teammate, Masahiro Tanaka. It’s just that many American guys don’t rely on the fastball-fork combo. Norimoto currently has a better fastball than Tanaka.

“Perhaps the most impressive thing about Nori is his down to earth personality and work ethic — two important traits were he ever to attempt a jump to the MLB.”

On analytics in NPB: “It seems most teams are starting to put in place analytics and teams of people to decipher Trackman data, etc, but I question how much of this information is used in the decision-making process. It’s seemingly very much instinct-based decisions, and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of calls.”

On the atmosphere at NPB games: “All of the games here are loud with a great atmosphere. People are constantly cheering on top of blaring horns. Ever hitter has his own cheer song (pitchers don’t have cheer songs) and it doesn’t matter what the score is — the fans are cheering. There is no heckling or bad mouthing whatsoever, but it is a very intense crowd. Most of the games are indoors, so the noise always plays a factor.”

Five things he likes about NPB:

1. Games start at 6 pm.

2. Same time zone travel-wise.

3. No pitchers shagging in BP.

4. Bullpens are an inside, air-conditioned area as opposed to on the field.

5. Every Monday is off, and sometimes you get two days a week off. It’s basically a minor league number of games over the course of a major league schedule, which helps keep players healthier and allows teams to play their best guys almost exclusively.

Three things he doesn’t like about NPB:

1. Incessant bunting from the first inning on, to bunting with one out to move the runner to second.

2. There are 12 teams split into two divisions — the Central League and the Pacific League — and we only play the teams in the Central three times each, which is 18 games.The rest of our games are against the other five teams in our division, the Pacific, which is 25 times each.

3. Practice on “off days,” though my team has been good about giving us time off.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Cool Lester Smooth

This is such a cool series, Dave!