Why the Pacific League is stronger

Swallows players celebrate capturing NPB’s interleague “championship.”

By Jim Allen

Through Monday’s interleague makeup games, the Pacific League led the Central League 1,037 to 920 since interleague was created in 2005 as a part of the settlement of Japan’s only players strike so far.

For a long time, most of us simply assumed the leagues were relatively even in terms of quality. But the lack of CL championships in the Japan Series and the typically one-sided interleague results suggests that in some way that the PL simply has more talent. I was pretty slow to accept this until Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama answered my question about why the PL did so well by saying, “Don’t you think it’s because they’re just better than we are?”



Looking at NPB interleague games from 2009 to 2017 played in NPB’S 12 main parks, Tateyama’s observation appears to be correct. The first thing everyone seems to point to is the pitching.

In February 2006, then-Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman said it was tough for the PL teams because few PL pitchers threw really hard. Other than Australian Brad Thomas, Hillman said, his hardest thrower at the time was a pitcher who probably would be in Double-A in the U.S. (Yu Darvish), and that his hitters were not used to the velocity of the hard-throwing CL pitchers.

A year ago, Alex Ramirez said the opposite, that the PL pitchers–particularly the relievers–throw harder, and that makes it harder for the CL hitters to adjust. This appears to be the case at the moment. According to analysis site Delta Graphs PL fastballs are 0.6 KPH faster on average than the CL heaters, although the site doesn’t permit comparisons of starters and relievers.

The big problem with comparing the leagues is context. It doesn’t help just to look at raw numbers, because the two leagues’ parks, and the DH, affect run scoring differently. The biggest issue is perhaps the ballpark contexts. Until recently, the PL was dominated by huge parks with vast outfields and high walls, where home runs were scarce and speed was at more of a premium. That has changed in recent years with the switch in the CL from small Hiroshima Citizens’ Stadium to more spacious Mazda Stadium, and by the Hawks and Eagles both decreasing the home-run distances by adding field seats inside the outfield wall.

If one looks only at the same main stadiums, and how each home team fares against visitors in league and interleague play in the same part of the season, then perhaps one can get a clearer picture. NPB’s interleague used to run from the middle of May to the middle of June, and now occupies the first 2-1/2 weeks of June in its new 18-game format.



Most speculation has been that PL pitching is superior. If that is the sole cause, one would expect the CL pitchers to do as well against visiting PL hitters in interleague as they do against visiting CL batters in May and June. To study this, a data set was constructed of all non-pitcher plate appearances in the 12 main parks in May and June from 2009 — when Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium opened — to 2017.

The data does not prove PL pitching staffs and defenses are superior but suggests that may be the case, but it also indicates that PL teams are better at hitting, playing defense and have superior speed in the outfield.

Pitching

PL home teams scored 3 percent more runs per 27 outs against visiting CL defenses in May and June than against PL visitors. In contrast, the CL teams score 9 percent fewer runs in their home parks against PL visitors than they do against their regular CL rivals. These findings are consistent with the idea that PL pitching is superior.

Batting

The data suggests PL offenses are also better than those in the CL. CL home teams allow 4 percent more runs per 27 outs when the visitor is from the PL, while PL pitching staffs have far less trouble with visiting CL teams than PL visitors in May and June, allowing 14 percent fewer runs per 27 outs.

Fielding

In terms of getting hits on balls in play, home offenses in both leagues do better against interleague opponents who rarely visit their parks. The PL home batters had an edge in this area, a 3 percent increase in interleague batting average on balls in play, while CL home offenses’ BABIPs improved by 1 percent against PL visitors.

There is, however, a huge difference in what goes on when the visiting team is at bat in interleague play.

Visiting PL teams in interleague batted .310 on balls in play against CL home defenses that held their own CL league opponents to a .296 average. PL home defenses, on the other hand, surrendered a .306 BABIP to PL teams, a .290 BABIP to visiting CL teams.

Strikeouts

Like visiting defenses, hitters also seem to have trouble in the unfamiliar parks of their interleague opponents striking out more and walking less.

It’s at home where the difference is obvious. At home in interleague, CL hitters’ strikeouts rose by 13 percent against visiting PL pitchers, while PL hitters’ Ks were 2 percent less frequent when a CL club was in town.


Built for speed

One comment often heard about the PL teams is that they’re faster — especially in the outfield, a necessity in a league with lots of large turf outfields.  PL home teams allow 8 percent fewer doubles and 8 percent fewer triples against CL visitors than against PL visitors. Central League home teams surrender triples 8 percent more often against PL teams than against CL opponents.

When PL teams host interleague games, their batters’ triples and doubles increase. When CL teams host, their doubles and triples decrease.

Although PL teams appear to have a speed edge in interleague, the one area where CL teams actually do better is in preventing stolen bases. Stolen bases percentages go down for visitors in interleague, with the PL being hit slightly harder. At home, CL teams actually improved their stolen base success rate, while PL interleague hosts were less successful stealing bases than they were in league play.



This week’s JBW podcast and other news

Matt Carasiti made his first start for the Yakult Swallows over the weekend.

This week on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, John talked to Matt Carasiti of the Yakult Swallows. We then talked about Japan’s new interleague highest-win-percentage team, Eagles manager Masataka Nashida quitting to due his team’s poor record, NPB’s home run explosion and a listener’s question.

As mentioned before, the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association has asked NPB about changes to the baseball since a number of players have reported that the ball seems to be carrying more for them this year. Today, the union’s secretary general, Tadahito Mori, said he had not asked NPB for the data, and had not yet considered conducting its own study to explain the increase in home runs, but that the union executive may consider that possibility going forward.

A reader asked whether launch angles might be contributing to the location, and there appears to be some of that going on, since groundouts are decreasing slightly across NPB. More as this develops.

Dice-K sidelined

Daisuke Matsuzaka is still pitching professionally.

By Jim Allen

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who spent nearly all of his time with the SoftBank Hawks the past three seasons on their farm team nursing one injury or another, was deactivated by the Chunichi Dragons after suffering from back spasms prior to Sunday’s game against his old club, the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions. His back issue flared up while he was in the bullpen.

Matsuzaka has been a great story this year because he’s been able to get a lot of big outs despite having control issues and only one reliable pitch, his cut fastball. According to Deltagraphs Matsuzaka is throwing the cutter 41 percent of the time, while his average fastball velocity has been 139.1 kph (86.4 mph).

The cutter is a great pitch in Japan because most pitchers don’t throw it, and he is using it to stay away from barrels and mixing it with a slider that has been very tight on occasion and an occasional change, which has been dynamite.



NPB all-star voting being what he is, he’s leading in the voting for Central League starting pitchers because everyone loves nostalgia and he’s actually been useful when no one expected him to be.

He currently has a 3-3 record, which sounds ominous, since that’s how he finished his last two big league seasons with the Mets.

After three seasons with SoftBank, he was released. But there seems to be more to the story than that. Word is the Hawks wanted him to sign a different contract for much less money. Instead, he walked, but soon found that when players walk away from their teams like that, few other clubs show any interest in signing them.

This happened with an aging Norihiro Nakamura, when he left the Orix Buffaloes after the 2006 season in a contract dispute. Like Matsuzaka, Nakamura asked every club for a tryout, but was turned down by every team except the Chunichi Dragons. Nakamura, by the way, was the 2007 Japan Series MVP and continued playing for another six years — eight years after no one except Chunichi was interested out of deference to the way he left Orix.



You can’t make this dumb NPB stuff up

By Jim Allen

If Major League Baseball telling you in May, “The ball isn’t juiced, it only flies farther,” made you wonder whether the world was going mad, I say welcome to NPB, where that kind of pretzel logic would seem run of the mill.

On Sunday, the Yakult Swallows clinched the championship of the annual spring interleague competition. Except, for some reason, when the format was switched from 24 games to 18 in 2015, some bright person decided that the championship team will no longer be known as the “champion” (優勝チーム), but rather as “the team with the highest winning percentage” (最高勝率チーム).



In general, that is all well and good, except with only 18 games, it is very easy that two teams can finish with the same winning percentage, as happened in 2017, when the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp) both finished at 12-6. The first tiebreaker to determine which team wins the 5 million yen first prize (roughly $48,000), is head-to-head results. Barring one of NPB’s ubiquitous ties, that is fairly easy to figure out. So last year, one team, the Hawks were declared to have the highest winning percentage .667 based on their head-to-head record in interleague, and the Carp (.667), the second highest winning percentage.

I would report that it doesn’t get stupider than this.

But I would be lying.

The epitome of Japanese baseball language logic is the “Climax Series.”

This event was introduced in 2007. After 4 years of complaining about the stupidity of the Pacific League’s playoffs, which the CL argued detracted from the pennant race, the CL wanted in. They simply got tired of watching most of the PL teams play meaningful September games in front of sizable crowds, at the same time that half the CL teams were out of contention and not drawing.

It wouldn’t do to have the CL’s new brilliant plan be just called “The Playoffs” as the PL had labeled its two-tier postseason championship tournament. It also wouldn’t do to have the Climax Series decide the league championship — as it had in the PL from 2004 to 2006.



So the CL decided that their version of the playoffs would not determine the league championship (the pinnacle of the regular season) but would in fact select the league’s representative to the Japan Series (the pinnacle of NPB’s entire season). And into the valley between these two high points, the CL brain trust inserted a two-stage playoff that would serve as the quarterfinals and semifinals for the Japan Series tournament. And instead of calling them what they are, these bright boys decided to call it the “Climax Series.”

They could have spit out a dozen better names that more accurately reflect what is going on, but perhaps, calling a preliminary a climax is perhaps appropriate. One can only imagine the decision making that took place. About a week before the decision needed to be made, some big shot with the Yomiuri Giants probably said, “Climax! Perfect!” So in his raw enthusiasm he pushed forward, began ordering promotional material, putting out hard copy and before anyone knew it, the name was everywhere and NPB was stuck with “Climax” all over its face.

Mr. Buffalo Nashida steps down as Eagles skipper

Masataka Nashida, right, shares a laugh with Yomiuri Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi.

By Jim Allen

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Masataka Nashida announced he was stepping down as manager of the Rakuten Eagles. After winning championships with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and again with the Nippon Ham Fighters, that the Eagles’ continued poor results would eventually cause him to step aside.

When I began getting paid to write about Japanese baseball in 1998, I had to learn how to talk to players and managers and get material for stories despite my horrible Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was perhaps the first manager to welcome my silly questions with open arms, and in 2000 Nashida became another.

Nashida, a former catcher who played his whole career with the Osaka-based Kintetsu Buffaloes, had been successful as Kintetsu’s minor league manager before moving up to the big chair. Nashida was one of those managers who would meet reporters before every game. The questions were often about the comings and goings of fringe players, the prospects of the new rookie, follow-ups on incidents from the previous day’s game and so on.



Not being a beat writer, but one who would go to the park once a week to write a game story and collect material for my column in the Daily Yomiuri, most of those questions went over my head and my attention would occasionally wander. It was those times, when I might be staring at the dugout ceiling, that Nashida would pounce.

“That’s the way they do it in the majors, isn’t it?” he’d ask me, always when I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.

More often than not, I’d say, “No, not always” to a question that could well have been whether or not big leaguers ate raw squirrel meat before games. I was basically a nobody, but like Oh, and Lions manager Haruki Ihara, Nashida tried his best to explain things to me. I sincerely wanted to understand how Japanese baseball was the way it was, and he offered his time and insight.

He once explained what it meant to be a coach in Japanese baseball.

“The coach’s job is of course to prepare players to win games,” he told me. “But they are also like lightning rods. When a player makes a mistake, the coach is expected to show how tough he is in dealing with mistakes and correcting them — not for the player’s sake or for the team’s sake, but so the coach himself won’t be criticized in the media.”

“If a pitcher gives up a base hit on an 0-2 count, the battery coach is asked why he didn’t order a pitch that was too far out of the zone to be hit.”

I asked, “You’re a former catcher. Do you like those meaningless 0-2 pitches?”

“Me? No. I hated them when I was a catcher, and I hate them now when I’m a manager.”

“Then why do your coaches still ask the catcher to call for them?”

“It’s their job, unfortunately. Part of their job is to not be criticized the next day in the papers. It is what it is.”

Nashida had the look of a man who sincerely loved his players, and under him, a lot of Kintetsu and Nippon Ham players blossomed. As one of the Pacific League’s two Osaka-area clubs at the time, the Buffaloes took on a lot of journeyman rejects from the Hanshin Tigers. Having escaped from the Koshien pressure cooker, Nashida trusted them, taught them and let them find themselves, and many contributed to the Buffaloes’ 2001 pennant.

more to come…



The bunt, bushido and Japanese baseball’s issues with history

Japan’s home run explosion is making the obligatory sacrifice more and more of a stretch for NPB managers.

By Jim Allen

I love seeing a perfect bunt as much as the next fan, but hate the obligatory, let’s-take-a-bullet-for-the-sake-of-Japanese-winning-baseball-first-inning sacrifice as much as any of you, I’m sure.

Although the sacrifice bunt is celebrated as the epitome of Japanese baseball dogma, it’s popular now like it never was back in the day. Small ball has always been close to the heart of Japanese ball, but the bunt REALLY became popular in the late 1970s when former players of legendary Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami began taking over one NPB club after another.



The irony is that the bunt reached its most popular peak in the 1980s, when offense and home runs were at an all-time high and spearheaded by then Seibu Lions manager Tatsuro Hirooka. That’s when “the bunt IS Japanese baseball” was REALLY born. It’s not some age-old doctrine but a revisionist history — an explanation after the fact about how a policy that didn’t exist at the time of a perceived “golden age” was the secret to that era’s quality.

In that respect Hirooka’s popularization of the bunt is reminiscent of Japan’s belief that bushido was a code warriors of a purer era lived by, when in fact it was a code meant as a wakeup call to to men of samurai lineage who were warriors in name and social status only. It was a code that didn’t describe reality, but was rather a set of moral ideals for warriors in a society without war to aspire to.

Japan’s funny about the past. If one glorifies one’s famous predecessors, that goes over really well, whether it’s true or not. In fact, it’s something of a cottage industry that is hard to assail. If I tell you the Giants who won nine-straight Japan Series did so because of the sacrifice bunt, and you say it’s not true, your words can be perceived as criticism of a legend of the game.

The most famous example recent example of this was former BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo. The man, who asked his players to call him “Gondo-san” (Mr. Gondo) rather than Manager Gondo, was an iconoclast. He attacked a lot of Japanese pro baseball traditions as being moronic and a waste of time and was tossed out on his ear — despite a very successful run as skipper.



Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.

Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.

Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.

Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.

In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).

Visitors, 1st inning, Runner on 1B
2016: 187 chances, 54 attempts (29%) with a .537 win pct
2017: 57 chances, 14 attempts (25%) with a .357 win pct.

Home teams, 1st inning, Runner on 1B, scoreless game
2016: 194 chances, 77 attempts (40%) with a .622 win pct
2017: 58 chances, 11 attempts (19%) with a .364 win pct.



A brief history of Japan’s interleague

By Jim Allen

Players on strike sign autographs for fans outside Yokohama Stadium, where they practiced but did not play. The strike led to expansion and interleague play.

For years prior to its introduction, NPB’s six Pacific League teams lobbied for some form of interleague play against the six teams of the then-more popular Central League. These pleas were scoffed at by the charismatic but blowhard generalissimo who ran the Yomiuri Shimbun and held huge sway over NPB policy, Tsuneo Watanabe.

“You only want to make money off games with the Giants. Who’d pay to see Lotte play Chunichi? It’s a joke,” he said in various ways every time the issue was brought up. At that time, sale of terrestrial TV rights for each CL team’s 13 home games against the Giants provided the bulk of each CL team’s annual operating expenses, and none of them were in a hurry to replace a few of those games for home contests against unfashionable PL teams — until the mid-1990s that meant all PL teams with the exception of the Seibu Lions, whose golden age petered out in 1995.



What forced interleague to become a reality was the chaos caused in 2004, when NPB authorized a merger between two PL teams, the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The merger would leave a five-team PL and a huge scheduling mess, so all that summer, while owners plotted how they were going to move into the future with 11 or even 10 teams forming a single league, Japan’s docile players union located its spine and took action. When players took exception with the owners’ plans to contract NPB, Watanabe in his typical fashion, said, “Who cares what they think? They are only athletes.”

The players, needless to say, took umbrage with that remark, and Hall of Fame Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, then the head of the Nippon Pro Baseball Players Association, began negotiating to stop the contraction. The then commissioner, Yasuchika Negoro, urged owners to ignore the players, convincing them the players had no right to protest. In essence the former bureaucrat said, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. I personally wrote those labor laws.”

Unfortunately, the labor courts disagreed, slammed NPB for dealing in bad faith, Japan’s only baseball strike occurred, and NPB caved in. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave became the Orix Buffaloes, but NPB agreed to expedite a process for an expansion team that would keep the PL at six teams. Owners had argued this was impossible to do between the summer of 2004 and the autumn, when a new club would have to take part in NPB’s amateur draft.

Another provision of the settlement was the introduction of interleague play — in order to help the PL teams survive. At first it consisted of 12, three-game series, two each against each team in the opposing league.

Interleague play in NPB is a little oasis between the start of the season and the all-star break, and all the interleague games are completed before league play resumes through the end of the regular season.



“We would have been happy with 18,” former Nippon Ham executive Toshimasa Shimada said. “But they offered 36 and we took it.”

Two years later, the CL pushed for a change to 24 games, and 12, two-game series, calling the original 36-game format they came up with “intolerable.” The CL’s next brilliant idea, a 24-game setup proved even worse, because it meant teams were sometimes off on Friday, a prime day for baseball, and a more hectic travel schedule. So in 2013, the CL once more said, “This 24-game interleague format is ridiculous,” mindful not to mention that it was their idea in the first place.

The real problem of interleague has been the perception that the CL clubs just simply aren’t as competitive as the PL teams. This has been fairly obvious in the Japan Series as well, which the CL has won just 3 times since 2003. So far, only one CL team, the Giants has led the interleague standings, and entering play on Friday, heading into the final few games in PL parks, the interleague-leading Yakult Swallows were the only CL team without a losing record against the PL.

Despite the CL’s mediocre showing and predictions of gloom and doom, average interleague attendance has increased every year but one since it’s inception in 2005. That year was 2011, when Japan was reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. Through the games of June 14, attendance had increased this season by an average of 1,349, although that will deccline a little next week when the rainout makeups are figured into the equation.

This year, both leagues have drawn more for their interleague games than they have for games against league rivals prior to the start of interleague in June: 33,208 to 33,112 for the CL, 27,841 to 26,024 for the PL.



Dr. Wills, Japan needs you

By Jim Allen

Former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato revolutionized Japnese baseball and was kicked out for his troubles.By Jim Allen

I owe my podcast partner John Gibson an apology. Earlier this year, he felt home runs were really flying this year, and I wasn’t able to see it in the data. SoftBank Hawks Dennis Sarfate told me the same thing, that miss-hit balls were really carrying this year.

I was wrong and they were right.



Since juiced balls became the vogue in NPB starting in the late 1990s, Japan has gone through two efforts to deaden the balls, the first in 2005 — after it became obvious to fans that Mizuno was producing high flyers, and the last in 2011 when NPB adopted a standard ball for the first time.

Looking at all NPB games through June 13 from the past 15 seasons, home runs are more frequent now than at any time since 2005.

The Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association has since asked NPB for data on the resiliency of its official balls. In a May 21 working session, NPB told union representatives that tests revealed nothing unusual, that the standard measure used to evaluate how lively balls are, the coefficient of restitution, was within allowable limits.

According to Joseph Aylward, who spends a lot of time and energy tracking home runs in NPB, the average distances on balls over the fence have been gradually increasing at least early in the season through June 13:

2016: 119.1 meters
2017: 120.3 m
2018: 120.9 m

All fine and dandy, but how much energy a ball retains after its collision with a bat is only part of the equation, as MLB recently reported. The increase in major league home runs was due not to a livelier ball but due to the balls having less drag. MLB was unable, however, to explain why this was the case, since the materials used had not changed.

On June 6, Dr. Meredith Wills‘ groundbreaking research originally published in The Athletic on how major league balls made of essentially the same materials can be changed radically by just a 9 percent increase in the thickness of the thread used to stitch the cover together.

Japan has always had issues with MLB, and whatever rules MLB enacts are soon copied in Japan within a year or two. So perhaps when MLB balls began flying farther, NPB owners became envious.



One twitter follower has since commented that with the weather this season seeming to be somewhat colder than usual home runs should be down instead of up and was curious whether indoor-outdoor splits were available. Well they are. For this purpose, the roofed stadium formerly known as Seibu Prince Dome is counted as outdoors since it is an outdoor park with a roof that shields it from the rain but not the heat or cold.

Bingo. Or since we’re in Japan perhaps “当たった”(Atatta) is preferable.

Changes to home runs and strikeouts in 2018 (through June 15) compared to the previous three years through June 15.

I haven’t seen the MLB data, but strikeouts and home runs are way up, and more so in Japan’s indoor stadiums than in parks more susceptible to the weather. If it is the ball, when the summer heats up, we may see some historic home run production.



Two years ago, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked if MLB’s ball had been altered to make it livelier without telling anyone, he reminded everyone about what a dangerous move that can be.

“There are certain mistakes in life that if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you are not inclined to make,” Manfred said according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “There was a scandal in Japan over the baseball being changed that cost the commissioner his job. I like my current gig, so I think you can rest assured that the baseball is the same as it was last year.”

The incident he referred to was the 2013 ouster of commissioner Ryozo Kato, who radicalized NPB owners by instituting a uniform ball two years earlier and bringing Japanese baseball out of a kind of warring-states chaos in which teams could chose balls from up to three different accepted manufacturers per season.

This was a huge improvement for NPB, but the target coefficient of restitution specs for the ball were set at the bottom end of the allowable range, meaning many balls were less lively than they should have. Teams complained about the lack of offense, but Kato wanted to stay with those specs for three full seasons before evaluating the situation. Although he said he had great support from Japan’s most powerful team, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, his assistant secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, was one of those who engineered Kato’s downfall.

Commissioner Kato faces the music. Current secretary general Atsushi Ihara is on the left.

Although every commissioner has been essentially picked by Yomiuri, Kato had fallen out of favor with owners by instituting a fairer arbitration system for salary disputes that involved third party arbitrators. In 2011, the panel infuriated owners by rejecting the Seibu Lions’ ridiculous argument in their salary dispute with pitcher Hideaki Wakui.



At the end of the 2012 season, Ihara coordinated with his boss and sporting goods maker Mizuno to switch to a more lively ball, and kept it a secret from Kato, even after the commissioner was grilled about a ball switch when balls began jumping out of the park again.

Kato was forced to reverse himself in public when he found out the truth, and was replaced by a more owner-friendly commissioner. Kato, and his secretary general, a man who hadn’t worked for Yomiuri, took the fall for the switch, and Ihara was promoted to secretary general and has since run the show run under Kato’s two successors.



Shohei Ohtani: Behind the curtain

 

Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred has seen Shohei before.

By Jim Allen

It’s hard to tell sometimes where one story stops and another starts, and so it’s been for Shohei Ohtani.

A tall hard-throwing rookie pitcher with batting-practice power, Ohtani was perhaps the biggest question mark of the year. Major leaguers wondered whether he could succeed at both pitching and hitting. If he could, would he be able to keep it up, playing in a much-more competitive environment than he was used to?

The things people said about Ohtani this spring as a 23-year-old with the Los Angeles Angels are the same things said five years ago about him as an 18-year-old with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred was on hand at Mazda Stadium, when Japan watched as the two-way rookie batted and pitched in a game for the first time as a pro.

“I witnessed his draft and all the hype. There haven’t been that many players who’ve been as popular. I remember I saw him the day before going to the gym and I thought, ‘That’s a big guy,’” Eldred said.




Casey McGehee, now with the Yomiuri Giants, was the first player in NPB to bat against Ohtani in a game, a preseason contest between the Fighters and Rakuten Eagles at Tokyo Dome.

“Everybody knew about him,” McGehee said. “They said he threw 100 miles per hour, so I figured, maybe he might throw 90.”

McGehee struck out on a slider after seeing a 151 kilometer-per -hour (93.8 mile-per-hour) fastball, but Ohtani was just getting warmed up, he hit 157 kph (97.6 mph) and sat at 156 kph (96.9 mph).

“His breaking balls weren’t there,” McGehee said. “He still had kind of a high school curve, but his fastball. That was legit. I said to Andruw (Jones), ‘Did you see that?’”

Brandon Laird has had a three-year, front-row seat for the Ohtani show.

Third baseman Brandon Laird joined the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2015, Ohtani’s third spring as a pro.

“I didn’t hear anything about him till I was on the team,” Laird said. “Our interpreter, Ippei (Mizuhara), was saying, ‘This guy (Ohtani) is the next big thing and he’s going to go to the States.’ At first I watched him pitch. That was impressive, and then a couple of days later, I saw him take BP in Okinawa and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the same guy?’ He hit the ball farther than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

McGehee returned to Japan last year for the first time since 2013, and was stunned by Ohtani’s batting progress despite only being a part-time designated hitter.

“Not seeing him for a few years and coming back last year, seeing the progress he made to clean up his swing, I thought was pretty remarkable,” McGehee said. “So you can tell he has a high baseball intelligence, able to apply changes quickly.”




“I saw a pretty good progression as far as a hitter without having all that many at-bats between injuries and the way they managed him.”

After watching Ohtani up close for five years, Japan’s foreign players watched as big leaguers said over the winter they couldn’t conceive of a player actually doing both. When Ohtani failed to impress this March, panic buttons were being pushed, and Hiroshima pitcher Jay Jackson was asked by friends what was wrong with Ohtani.

“I said, ‘It’s spring training,’” Jackson said. “As a big leaguer, nobody cares about spring training. You’re just trying to get your reps in to prepare for the season. I said, ‘Ohtani will be fine. He’ll make adjustments.’”

“He wasn’t getting his leg down on really good fastballs. That’s all he had to was put the foot down and his natural ability and his raw power took over. Pitching-wise, all he’s got to do to be successful is start locating and getting his offspeed stuff around the zone and ‘Boom,’ everything else is history. He’s just too good and his talent is too good to not be successful.”

The speed of Ohtani’s adjustments against both major league hitters and pitchers has been closely watched by former major leaguers playing in Japan.

“You’ve got to root for him. I’ve become an Angels fan,” Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson said. “He’s extremely talented. He loves the game, and he’s a good guy. How can anyone not like him?”

Ohtani’s choice of the unheralded Angels may have surprised America, but drew applause here.

“There are probably a bunch of places that are just as good, but I know a number of the guys on the Angels pretty well, and he couldn’t have walked into a better group of baseball guys,” McGehee said. “When you’re talking to them, they genuinely like him and genuinely want him to do well at both.

“It seems like he wants to learn and is eager to learn, and knowing those guys, I know they’re eager to help and eager to teach.”




Jackson, who also knows Angels players, said much the same.

“I played with Justin Upton. I played with Blake Parker. Those guys say he (Ohtani) is quiet but is a good dude. He’s got a good vibe. That’s all you can ask for out of your teammates, having a good vibe, a good mentality and being positive.”

“He picked the place that was best suited to him, that would make him happy. I tell everyone, ‘Do whatever you feel is going to make you happiest.’”

Once the season started, Ohtani exploded onto the scene, setting up a high profile May 27 matchup against New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. As a rookie, Ohtani batted against that year’s Pacific League MVP 11 times, was hitless with six strikeouts. Despite five years additional experience against pro pitchers, Ohtani managed just a walk at Yankee Stadium. After the game, Tanaka said Ohtani was just another important out, but McGehee wasn’t buying it.

“(In 2013, Tanaka) turned it up a notch when a runner got on base, but he was always that way against Ohtani. It was like Tanaka was saying, ‘I’m going to show you that you’re not in the same league with me,’ and that game in New York was the same way. There was no way Tanaka was going to let Ohtani get a hit off him.”

It’s treatment Ohtani will have to get used to in the majors, although perhaps without the intensity Tanaka brings.

Shohei Ohtani shares a moment with Dennis Sarfate.

“He’s going to start seeing better stuff,” SoftBank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate said. “They’re going to start pitching to him like they pitched to Albert Pujols in his prime. He’s going to be that guy where they’re going to give a little extra.”

Over the winter, Sarfate said pitchers need to start Ohtani with hard pitches inside and get him to chase low pitches away. At the start of the season, however, Ohtani was ready for that tactic. He would back off the plate and open up in order to hammer inside fastballs. The watershed moment was homering off a 97-mph Luis Severino inside fastball. Since then, pitchers have stopped pitching Ohtani inside so much.

“The coaches are trying to help him and he’s listening,” Sarfate said. “He’s definitely a threat to both sides of the plate. I still think you have to go in on him. If he’s looking in, he’s going to hit it. That home run off Severino was Ohtani knowing he throws hard and he’s going to pound him in. I’ve seen a lot of guys try to go in and they think it’s in, but it’s coming back over the plate.”

Sarfate said the second half is going to bring an issue Ohtani is not accustomed too, fast bats in the hot summer months.

“It’s going to be a little different between pitching against Chiba Lotte in July and August and pitching against the Astros in July and August,” Sarfate said. “Japanese hitters tend to get tired. Everyone gets exhausted. The Japanese pitchers have thrown a million pitches, swung a thousand times a day. Guys get tired. They work so hard every day.”




“I want to see his adjustments come July and August, because big league guys don’t do as much as the guys in Japan do. Guys get tired, but it’s not the same tired. You’re not going to see these long slow swings. You’re still seeing all-stars. So that’s an adjustment.”

The data over the past four seasons from America and Japan indicates Japanese baseball slows down more after June than in the majors. Two speed indicators — the percentage of triples per plate appearance and the stolen base success rates — drop much more in Nippon Professional Baseball. And though Ohtani was a solid second-half hitter in NPB, his 2.80 ERA from the start of July was over half a run higher than it was through June (2.25). Since 2013, ERAs across NPB rose by 1 percent from July 1. Ohtani’s increased by 25 percent.

Everyone, even those who believe Ohtani should focus on either pitching or hitting, is pulling for him to succeed in his dual role. For years, players and scouts doubted whether any club would actually let Ohtani bat full time. Now Japan’s foreign players are thrilled the Angels are letting him continue down his unusual path.

“I thought the same thing. He’s got a great arm. He’s going to pitch. They’re not going to let him hit,” Eldred said. “Hats off to the Angels for allowing him the opportunity to do it. I’m sure they’re going to let him keep doing it as long as he continues to do his job. He’s got the talent to do it.”
Laird, who believes Ohtani is a future major league ace pitcher, still wants to see what he could do as a full-time hitter.

“In Japan he would easily hit 40 homers,” Laird said. “A full season in the big leagues he would easily hit 30-35 home runs. With his power and his talent, I feel he could do it.”

Sarfate, goes further. He believes the batter’s box is Ohtani’s natural habitat.

“He’s exceeded my expectations on pitching so far. I didn’t think he’d do this well, because I’m a strong believer that he’s a hitter for his career,” Sarfate said. “He’s just got so many tools. I am starting to see some stuff with the pitching, but I just don’t see the same demeanor, like when you watch Darvish or Tanaka, he doesn’t have the same mound presence, but he has a hitter’s presence.”

Although Sarfate believes it is impossible to continue doing both, he too is entranced by Ohtani’s quest, following every game closely as he rehabs from hip surgery in Arizona.

“It’s cool to watch,” McGehee said. “I find myself checking on him more than I thought I would. It’s one of the first things I do in the morning is check the box score. A couple of my buddies play on that team, but that’s one of the first scores I go to every day.”

“It’s obviously cool, and it’s obviously difficult what he’s doing. But at the same time, it (pitching and hitting) is about the purest form of baseball you can get.”

Eldred said, “That’s every player’s dream. Everybody wants to see it.”
It’s a story – whether at its beginning, its end, or somewhere in between – that never gets old.




Ditching the DH for Shohei Ohtani

By Jim Allen

  wrote on Twitter about using Shohei Ohtani to bat when he pitches in American League games in response to my comment that Ohtani was quite successful in those games with Nippon Ham in 2016.

I’ve written in the past that as a pitcher, Ohtani’s OPS is virtually identical to his OPS when he was in the lineup but did not pitch, and that his pitching was quite a bit better in those games.

The table below breaks down his 82 regular season starts into games in which he batted — either in interleague or when Nippon Ham opted to ditch the DH in five games from May 29 to Sept. 21 and again in his final start in NPB on Oct. 4, when he batted cleanup and pitched.

But from a team perspective, how did the Fighters do with Ohtani as a pitcher only, as a hitter only, in a dual role and without him playing at all.

The quick answer is:

The big surprise is that in his five seasons since turning pro in 2013, the Nippon Ham Fighters overall were better without Shohei Ohtani. That is largely because he was not very good as an 18-year-old rookie.

Both his pitching and batting took a big stride forward when he was 19 in 2014, and his batting took another huge step forward in 2016. In 2017, he was hurt a lot (ankle, thigh, elbow) and was often not that good.

But wait a second. Ohtani appeared as a fairly useless pinch hitter in 57 games, and in those the Fighters went 19-36-2, and it’s hard to blame him for that. If we put those pinch hit games in with the others we get the following table.