LAKELAND, Fla. — Kan Ikeda emailed all 30 MLB teams.
He moved to the United States from Japan to earn his college degree and begin a career in baseball. He enrolled in an English learning program in San Francisco, then worked as a student manager at Southwestern Oregon Community College, followed by another stint as a student assistant at the University of Minnesota.
The Detroit Tigers were the first team to respond to the emails, thanks to director of international operations Tom Moore, and officially hired him in 2017. This spring, Ikeda stepped away from the organization for a few weeks to help Japan win the World Baseball Classic.
“This WBC taught all of us how big of a deal it is for a lot of people, certainly for Team Japan,” Ikeda said. “We all grew up watching Ichiro (Suzuki), Daisuke (Matsuzaka) and even (Yu) Darvish back when he was young before he came to the States. We watched all of them at the beginning. I couldn’t have guessed I could be a part of it.”
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For the Tigers, Ikeda is the manager of major-league advance scouting. Advance scouts collect important information, primarily from videos and analytics, to formulate reports about upcoming opponents. The objective is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each player.
Those scouting reports can be the difference in wins and losses.
“It’s one thing for players and coaches,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said, “but Kan is an unsung hero for all the work he does behind the scenes and the interactions he has with the players, like FaceTiming with Miggy. Kan has such a great connection that nobody knows about outside our doors. It’s fun to have him on center stage.”
Ikeda started with the Tigers as a minor-league video intern in February 2017. He has been promoted several times, including to his current role, manager of advance scouting, in October 2021.
He also serves as an international pro scout.
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His journey to the WBC started in 2016.
Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama, then the manager for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, prepared his team for the Nippon Professional Baseball season with spring training in Arizona. Ikeda helped the Fighters during spring training in a part-time role before his internship with the Tigers.
Those connections, and his meteoric rise with the Tigers, led to Ikeda’s opportunity to work as an advance scout for Japan. He started his preparation for the WBC in November, earlier than the other international teams, by scouting four exhibition games in Japan.
He realized advance scouting for a tournament, as opposed to a 162-game season, would be a new challenge.
“It’s a totally different game in a way,” Ikeda said. “I was trying to understand Japanese baseball and remember it as much as I can in the WBC, balancing both — what Japanese players do usually compared to my understanding of Major League Baseball — as much together. That’s something I spent a lot of time on with the coaching staff.”
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On March 21, Japan played Team USA in the WBC championship at loanDepot Park in Miami. Ikeda viewed the historic matchup on a monitor in the video room. He was in charge of deciding whether or not to challenge close plays.
In the video room, he watched the epic battle between Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout with two outs in the ninth inning. Ohtani, a two-way player, started the game as the designated hitter before coming out of the bullpen in a save situation in the ninth.
Ohtani, the 2021 AL MVP, is arguably the best player in baseball.
Trout, himself a three-time AL MVP, might be the second-best.
“I was just staring at the screen,” Ikeda said. “‘OK, I’m not going to worry about the keyboard. Just stare at it. Anything close, hit-by-pitch, I’ll just tell them to go for it and challenge.’ Well, probably not, because I didn’t want to kill the moment between Ohtani and Trout, so I might have just let it go on that one.”
Ohtani and Trout, teammates with the Los Angeles Angels, battled for six pitches: 88.3 mph slider for 1-0 count, 100 mph fastball for 1-1 count, 99.8 mph fastball for 2-1 count, 99.8 mph fastball for 2-2 count, 101.6 mph fastball for 3-2 count.
In a full count, Ohtani threw an 87.2 mph slider on the outside edge of the strike zone for a swinging strikeout.
“I watched the last pitch, and all of us went straight to the dugout and hugged the coaching staff,” Ikeda said. “It took a while to hit me. I didn’t even imagine what it would look like to win.”
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Upon returning to Lakeland, Hinch put Ikeda front and center in a team meeting with coaches and players before a spring training game. For a little bit, all eyes were on the Tigers’ unsung hero.
Veterans who competed in the WBC for their countries, such as Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Javier Báez (Puerto Rico) and Jonathan Schoop (Netherlands), were listening while the WBC champion talked to the players about his experience.
Ikeda showed them his gold medal.
“I felt bad because I missed pretty much the whole spring training,” Ikeda said. “Our camp started way earlier than everybody else, so when I left here, I felt bad for my coworkers and coaching staff. I was skipping a lot of work. Now, it’s ready for the season.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.