I was having a discussion with a twitter friend of mine the other day (@junko_seaside) briefly about what might happen at senbatsu in 2 months considering we will find out the invitees this Friday.
I had mentioned the fact that this past summer we saw perhaps the biggest example of young managers sending their teams deep into the tournament - in fact the final 2 teams Maebashi Ikuei and Nobeoka Gakuen both had very young managers. You could include Toyama Dai-ichi who got to the quarterfinals and perhaps the predecessor to them all - Hanamaki Higash's Sasaki-kantoku (Deanna prolly is still swooning over him - just kidding).
Still, there is something to be said for what is happening here. For the longest time, it seemed that the top of the 高校野球 world was dominated by older managers who have done things the same way since... well, ever. Takashima-kantoku over at Chiben Wakayama, Ogura-kantoku over at Nichidai-san, Wakao-kantoku first at Tohoku and then over at Kyushu Kokusaidai Fuzoku, Jyoukou-kantoku over at Saibi.
Yet now, when you flip the pages of the official program, you can see that the managers reaching there are getting younger and younger. Why is that?
Well, first of all, of course the older kantoku's eventually get old enough to retire and are replaced. Then there are always younger kantoku's who are trying to get in and make a name for themselves. It's just that now they're getting successful sooner.
In my discussion with said twitter friend, she mentioned about the fact that younger managers are strategic and come up with ingenious tactics.
Which led me to write this post because these ingenious tactics aren't really new per se. They're just a change in thinking from what has been regarded as the norm in 高校野球.
I think the first thing I started noticing with the younger kantoku's is the fact that the one thing I despise the most (yet understand because of the meaning carrying out the action implies), diving head-first into 1st base, was starting to be phased out of some schools. Not only does it carry injury risk, but it generally slows a player down. I cannot tell you in the short history of me following Koushien how many outs could have been saved if the runner had just run through the base like everyone else does. Same goes for immediately bunting after getting a runner on first. Sure, maybe you have a low-scoring offense and any runner you can get in scoring position is a good thing, but continuously bunting only shortens the game for the other team and has become so ingrained that teams automatically look for it - squeezes too.
Another is the fact that more managers are going to a multi-pitcher setup for Koushien. Nobeoka Gakuen last year is a prime example of it, though perhaps the one most memorable was Saga Kita several years back. Yes, when a team has a staff ace a manager generally tends to ride him for all he's worth. But, despite the fact that MLB teams are crying about it for the wrong reasons in my opinion, we have seen players get injured from throwing so much (Anraku Tomohiro being the most recent example). The sheer fact that the deeper you go, the less rest you get facilitates teams to perhaps go to a multi-pitcher strategy - especially given the fact that teams continue to practice on their days off during not just Koushien, but even during the prefecturals - something that I wasn't aware of until I talked to another friend of mine who returned from an ALT stint in Ishikawa. I'm surprised we don't see more dropoff in velocity for those aces when they get to the semifinals and finals. Also, if teams generally do indeed practice on the off-days, the new system to give teams at least one rest day doesn't even matter.
We're even at the point now where teams actually employ a shift. Jyoukou-kantoku against the speedy slap-hitting Chiba-kun, actually brought in his CF to play just right of the pitchers' mound. The idea was right, but the execution was a bit off as he also had his outfielders playing in as well. So when Chiba actually went to swing, he hit it into the vacated part in center for a triple - oops.
The thing is, none of these strategies are necessarily new. They're just new in the world of 高校野球. Carrying a "bullpen" is easily used in other areas of baseball, it's just that there is some romanticism in having your staff ace carry the team. Same can be said for diving into first. And shifts have been around for many years now in MLB, and in some cases implemented in NPB as well (Marty Brown at Hiroshima for example pulling an outfielder into the infield when it is a sayonara situation). Heck, even anime had extreme examples of strategy (see One Outs for what I mean). Nobeoka Gakuen rarely bunted at all on the road to the final.
The point is, there is nothing really that revolutionary in kokoyakyu that I'm seeing. Instead, I think we're seeing kokoyakyu catch up with the rest of baseball in terms of strategy. Some things I think we don't need to see (for instance a "closer", or the idea of defined relief roles). But a lot of things I'm seeing it's about time we did and it's better for the game.