NPB’s Free Agent System

Prelude

I want to apologize for misleading anybody about the free agent status of Yuki Yanagita. The 30-year-old SoftBank Hawks center fielder was eligible to file for domestic free agency this past week but did not, unlike Hiroshima Carp center fielder Yoshihiro Maru, who did. My confusion stemmed from Maru having come out of high school and needing eight years of service to be eligible for domestic free agency.

Every player needs nine years to file for international free agency, but unlike Maru, Yanagita came out of university and needs only seven years for domestic freedom. I was thinking, while focusing on the Japan MLB All-Star game in front of me, was that if Maru’s eligible next year to go abroad, so would Yanagita. Two twitter followers pointed out that this was incorrect as Yanagita had signed a three-year contract after the 2017 season, so couldn’t play abroad until 2021.

With that self abasement out of the way, let’s define free agency as it currently exists in NPB.

Defining service time

NPB defines a year of service time as one year with 145 or more days on the first-team roster with two exceptions.

  1. Players who spent at least 145 days on the first-team roster in the previous year, will be credited with up to 60 days between the time he suffers an on-field injury and appears in a minor league rehab game.
  2.  Players who fail to achieve 145 days in a single year, can add those days to days from other years with fewer than 145 to create a full year’s service.
  3. Starting pitchers who pitch within one week of the start of the season, and who pitch within one week of the start of the All-Star series and within one week of the end of the series are not docked service time for being deactivated.



By the way, if anyone needs to know exactly when a player is set to be a free agent, I’m available for a fee to scour NPB’s records and let you know. I asked colleagues at work and that is the only way to  know until NPB presents its fans with a summer of …

Stupid questions

At some point in the season in which a player needs 145 or fewer service days to qualify for free agency, NPB will inform the media that the player has qualified so that he can be bombarded with dumb questions about his future that so far only one player has given an interesting answer to.

This parade goes on all year as first one player than another is pestered. Th player who said, “I’m out of here as soon as I can file and I’m going to the majors,” was Koji Uehara. Everybody else says, “I am focused on the pennant race and I will make that decision when the time comes.”

The time comes

Players with the required service time have seven business days from the end of the Japan Series at the end of October or the beginning of November in which to declare their intent. The day after the deadline, players exercising their option are free to negotiate with any teams, including their present one.

Domestic free agency…

… comes with a catch: compensation. A team losing a player to a domestic rival gets compensation if the player is among the 10 highest-paid Japan-registered players on its roster. The three highest-paid on a team’s payroll are designated “Class A” players for purposes of compensation, while those ranking fourth through 10th are designated as “Class B.”

Teams signing “A” and “B” players must draw up a list of 28 protected players — that must include players on with multiyear contracts that extend beyond the following season (1). Roster players — other than those registered as foreign players and newly drafted players (2) — not on the list are eligible to be taken by the team losing those players.

Teams losing players can look over the list of players to choose from, ask for their contract details (2) and decide whether to take only compensation, 80 percent for Class As, 60 percent for Class Bs, or a player and compensation (50 percent and 40 percent, respectively).  The compensation for players who have previously been free agents is reduced — encouraging more teams to take players for those guys.



The three-year itch

Any player filing for free agency abandons his right to file again for another three years. By opting for domestic free agency, Yoshihiro Maru — who could have moved to the majors a year from now, cannot now move until after the 2021 season. Of course, there is another option. He could sign a deal with a team that is willing to rent him, sign him to a one-year deal and then post him — although the posting market for Japanese position players is not a very lucrative one for the NPB teams at the moment.

Speaking of posting …

… it probably never would have been a big thing if it hadn’t been for Japanese baseball’s universal belief in 1993 that no Japanese player was good enough to play in the major leagues. Once Hideo Nomo disproved that in 1995, the free agent system became an exit through which Japanese stars could depart with their teams getting zero compensation.

The free agent system that the Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe forced everyone to accept in order that he could scoop up big-name veterans meant players who signing overseas would earn zero compensation for their clubs — necessitating a posting system that Yomiuri has ridiculed and derided since Day 1 like the biggest toxic waste producer ridiculing the toxic waste disposal industry.

Notes

(1) Multiyear contracts are deals between a team and a player, that are not filed with NPB, although NPB is typically informed of their existence. They are, in essence, personal service contracts. 

(2) Thanks to Kozo Ota (@kojaxs) for reminding me about the foreign-player, new-draftee exemption.

(3) The details of player salaries are really not known in the industry until a player trade or purchase or compensation move is in the works. Then the team looking to acquire a player will find out what kind of contract they are taking on. NPB doesn’t always know, and the union doesn’t always know, a former team official told me.



Golden Gloves Part 2, outfielders

Yuki Yanagita unleashes a throw while playing for the national team.

Of my six picks for outfield Golden Gloves, four were elected. The other two missed selection by 100 votes apiece.

My picks, their final vote totals placing in the poll of Japan’s baseball media and overall rankings in their league from baseball analytics site Delta Graphs. Unless noted all players are center fielders
Central League
Yohei Oshima, Chunichi Dragons (177) 2nd, DG CF 2
Ryosuke Hirata, Chunichi Dragons (139) 3rd, DG RF 1
Masayuki Kuwahara, DeNA BayStars (38) 7th, DG CF 1

Others:
Yoshihiro Maru, Hiroshima Carp (230) 1st, DG CF 4
Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp (102) 4th, DG RF 3
Takayoshi Noma, Hiroshima Carp (61) 5th, DG LF 1
Norichika Aoki, Yakult Swallows (39) 6th, DG CF 3

Pacific League
Yuki Yanagita, SoftBank Hawks (156) 2nd, DG CF 3
Haruki Nishikawa, Nippon Ham Fighters (143) 3rd, DG CF 2
Kazuki Tanaka, Rakuten Eagles (29) 5th, DG CF 1

Others:
Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions (216) 1st, DG CF 4
Seiji Uebayashi, SoftBank Hawks (134) 4th, DG RF 2



My votes started using defensive win shares and pretty much moved straight on from there. Outfield defensive win shares are about the weakest part of the entire system in my opinion. Because win shares tries to establish a cumulative positive value with no rental cost for taking up playing time, one will see left fielders who play everyday get listed above center fielders who contribute much more defensively but who play fewer innings.

So I make a slight adjustment for playing time and I also consulted analytic site Delta Graphs to make my choices. Unfortunately, their analysis of defensive contribution over 1,200 defensive innings produced exactly the same results as Bill James’ team-oriented-holistic approach. DG uses Arm ratings and UZR — which I can’t calculate, but this year I have some interesting data about how many times runners advanced against each team on plays to the three different outfield positions. This data is cumulative. If there is a single with a runner on first and and the lead runner advances to third and the batter remains on first that’s coded as “R1 > R13.” Hits with two outs are different from those with fewer than two, so they are treated separately.

I currently have only cleaned up my 2018 data set, so their is more noise than a data set looking at two years worth of data points.

My decision to exclude Shogo Akiyama, who won his fourth straight Golden Glove, received the most attention, one twitter follower pointing out the disparity in the vote totals amassed. One does have to respect that more members of the baseball media voted for Akiyama.

But, let’s compare what little evidence I have:
The Hawks pitchers’ were slightly more likely to get infield ground outs than outfield fly outs than the Lions.

The Hawks’ center fielders fielded 20 fewer singles and 14 more extra-base hits, suggesting Akiyama might be better at cutting off balls in the gaps than Yanagita and his cohorts. Akiyama appears to have made a slightly higher percentage of potential catches — although that’s guessing. Delta Graphs gave Yanagita a higher UZR rating than Akiyama.

Here’s how the teams’ center fielders interacted with base runners after a single to center with fewer than two outs and a runner on first:

And here they were with two outs:

And with a runner on 2nd with fewer than two outs:

And with a runner on 2nd with two outs:

As a group, the Hawks center fielders had 10 assists, took part in four double plays and made three errors. Akiyama appears to be easier to run on, had four assists, took part in one double play and made four errors. He’s pretty good at going and getting balls, but he doesn’t have a great arm.

With runners on 1st and 2nd with fewer than two outs, four runs scored against the Hawks on 10 singles to center, while two outs were made.

Against Akiyama, seven runs scored on 14 singles without an out being recorded.



Pitchers and Golden Gloves

Now that the Golden Glove Award votes have been announced, there are a few things I’d like to add to my voting story.

Among the pitchers, I voted for Hiroshima Carp lefty Kris Johnson, and Rakuten Eagles righty Takahiro Norimoto. Both of these guys finished third.

The CL vote went to Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants for the third straight year, while Takayuki Kishi of the Rakuten Eagles won his first. I had Sugano rated very low, because he was below average in the three hard counting percentages I measured (see below).

One thing about Golden Gloves is that reputation goes a long way. Had he foiled a single bunt all season, he would have rated much higher. But here’s the thing, and John Gibson (@JBWpodcast) and I discussed this Monday on our latest podcast. A reputation has value on the field — if opponents limit tactical options to avoid someone’s perceived strength. I know it’s backward, but that happens.

I once calculated that by throwing out runners at an astonishing rate, Hall of Fame catcher Atsuya Furuta was helping opponents create runs, because they abandoned trying to steal against him. This meant his Yakult Swallows were given fewer easy outs on defense that other clubs were getting when opponents tried to steal against them.



If opponents don’t want to risk bunting against Sugano, that’s something in his favor, I suppose. But my pick, Johnson, has been outstanding at starting double plays the past two years and fields bunts really well, and has an outstanding number of plays considering the number of untaken ground balls in the infield and singles that aren’t stopped before getting to center field.

Kishi was, before I did a more thoughtful analysis, my first choice, above average in four of the five measures I looked at. He and Sugano are both reasonable choices, I suppose.

I don’t think too many people care about which pitcher wins an NPB Golden Glove, but the information is so scarce, I thought I’d contribute to what little discussion there is by trying to answer a few questions.

Because tomorrow is the deadline for NPB Golden Glove voting, I’ll throw some things out there. There’s very little info available for pitchers so I spent way too much time on this.

I wanted to measure how pitchers compared to their NPB peers in errors, bunts foiled, double plays started.

Those three are concrete, because we know the number of bunt attempts each pitcher fielded and about how many times each pitcher got a ground ball in a GDP opportunity – and how many of those weren’t taken by one of his teammates.

I have two more categories that are iffier.

1. The number of “bonus” plays a pitcher makes more than the NPB norm from balls at are :
a) infield ground balls in play to the pitcher, catcher or first baseman.
b) fly outs to the pitcher.
c) sacrifice hits.
d) Other singles that stay in the infield or get through to center field.

I don’t want to put much weight on that since this context is mostly noise.

2. The number of first base infield singles, since a fair number of these occur every season when the pitcher is not in position to cover the bag.

Again there are lots of other infield singles to first that don’t involve the pitcher, so I wouldn’t give that very much weight.

The tables below are for the pitchers who are eligible for Golden Glove votes having pitched 143 innings or appeared in 47 games. They are ranked in the order of points I assigned to each category – which I’ll put at the bottom for those of you inclined to look under the hood.

CL pitcher fielding plays above NPB norms
PL pitcher fielding plays above NPB norms

Point weights used for rankings

2.25 points for each error fewer than the NPB average per fielding chance, and for each GDP started more than the NPB average for ground balls in GDP opportunities.

2.5 points for each good additional good outcome (no fielder’s choice, hit, error or sacrifice) on bunts fielded by the pitcher.

.25 points for: every play made by the pitcher from the set of balls in play (listed above), and every additional first base infield single.



Whys, wherefores and Win Shares

So, how many win shares was that Neftali Soto home run worth, smart guy?

今年のMVP、最優秀新人選手、ベストナインの投票について各NPB選手のWin Shares(ウィン・シェア)を計算しました。Win Sharesの日本語の説明はこちです。

I’ve written in the past that I use Bill James’ Win Shares methodology to generate my short list of candidates for my postseason award votes, the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Best Nine and Gold Gloves. It’s not an easy system to use, but has two very attractive features.

  1. The wins attributed to a team’s players cannot exceed the number of wins the team achieves.
  2. Because it works from the concepts of league defensive norms at different positions rather than raw fielding numbers — that are often skewed toward poor teams that have allowed more base runners.




The system also has many inherent flaws particularly the lack of loss shares — something James is ostensibly still working on — to account for defensive responsibilities and playing time.  The proposed new system would give every player a win-loss record, where the current system has to make do with a single figure.

This comes into play when you compare, for example, two DeNA BayStars outfielders, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Neftali Soto. Win Shares assigns Tsutsugo, the Japan cleanup hitter, with 22.5 percent of the club’s offense win contribution, and Soto — who also hit 38 home runs but in just five months and who was vastly more productive with runners on base and in scoring position — with 21.3 percent.

But here’s the catch, Soto made 7.7 percent of the BayStars’ batting outs, while Tsutsugo made 9.4 percent, a 20 percent increase. If we were assign the two loss shares to go with their win shares, I’m guessing Tsutsugo would be 22-11, while Soto was 19-7 and probably more valuable.

This sometimes creates disconnects for a variety of reasons. Two players with identical production on teams playing in similar offensive contexts can have quite different win share totals. If one team wins more games than its totals of runs and runs allowed would suggest, that team will have more wins to divide up among its players than a team that got fewer wins than expected.

A surprise from this year’s win shares calculations involved Yakult Swallows closer Taichi Ishiyama. He finished second in pitching win shares in the Central League behind Tomoyuki Sugano. How could that be?

Because the Swallows’ parks this year gave them the highest run adjustment — meaning runs were easier to come by in their games than in any other team’s in Japan this year — Yakult’s 658 runs scored — the second-highest CL total was not nearly as impressive as their CL-worst 665 runs allowed. Win Shares estimates the Swallows scored 297 runs more than the worst offense imaginable would score, but saved 416 runs more than the worst possible pitching and defense would allow.

That gives a huge amount of the credit for their 75-win total to the pitching and defense, and since the Swallows also won more games than expected given the number of runs scored and allowed — it means pitchers who excelled for them this season could potentially be credited with contributing to more wins than expected.



According to Win Shares, the top 10 CL pitchers this season were, in order:

1. Tomoyuki Sugano,
2. Taichi Ishiyama
3. Katsuki Azuma
4. Daichi Osera
5. Yasuaki Yamasaki
6. Onelki Garcia
7. David Buchanan
8. Yasuhiro Ogawa
9. Randy Messenger
10. Kris Johnson

I would never argue that’s right, but there are bits of truth that the system can illuminate.

Publishing award voting in NPB

The Twitterverse had a few things to say after I posted a photo of my ballot on Friday for the Central and Pacific leagues’ postseason awards .

2018 PL award ballot
2018 CL award ballot

 

 

 

 

 

 

In roman script my pics were:
Central League
MVP
1. OF Yoshihiro Maru, Hiroshima Carp
2. 2B Tetsuto Yamada, Yakult Swallows
3. OF Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
Rookie of the Year
P Katsuki Azuma, DeNA BayStars
Best Nine
P: Tomoyuki Sugano, Yomiuri Giants
C: Tsubasa Aizawa, Hiroshima Carp
1B: Dayan Viciedo, Chunichi Dragons
2B: Tetsuto Yamada, Yakult Swallows
3B: Toshiro Miyazaki, DeNA BayStars
SS: Hayato Sakamoto, Yomiuri Giants
Outfielders
Yoshihiro Maru, Hiroshima Carp
Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
Ryosuke Hirata, Chunichi Dragons

Pacific League
MVP
1. OF Yuki Yanagita, SoftBank Hawks
2. OF Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions
3. 1B Hotaka Yamakawa, Seibu Lions
Rookie of the Year
OF Kazuki Tanaka, Rakuten Eagles
Best Nine
P: Takayuki Kishi, Rakuten Eagles
C: Takuya Kai, SoftBank Hawks
1B: 1B Hotaka Yamakawa, Seibu Lions
2B: Hideto Asamura, Seibu Lions
3B: Nobuhiro Matsuda, DeNA BayStars
SS: Sosuke Genda, Seibu Lions
Outfielders
Yuki Yanagita, SoftBank Hawks
Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions
Masataka Yoshida, Orix Buffaloes
Designated Hitter
Alfredo Despaigne, SoftBank Hawks

岡本和真ではなく、ピシエドに入れのか?? – You picked (Dayan) Viciedo over Kazuma Okamoto?
平田よりソトじゃね?– You picked Hirata over (38-home run man) Neftali Soto?
みんなこういう風に公表すればいいのにね!–I wish everyone would publish their ballots this way!
パリーグで岸だけ防御率が2点台なんですよね。– Kishi was the only PL pitcher with an ERA under 3.00 wasn’t he?
127打点と.310打率の成績を残しながら、リーグ優勝にひっぱた選手(浅村栄斗)はMVP投票から外したの?–A guy that had 127 RBI and hit .310 in leading his team to the league championship is not on your (MVP) list?
こうやって全員が全員公表してくれたら謎GGとかなくなると思うんだよなぁ–I think that if all the members make public this way, mystery GG is gone
完全同意. 迷うとしたら3位を誠也か大瀬良かてところやな–I completely agree, but I’d prefer if the third-place MVP vote went to (Carp) pitcher Daichi Osera instead of giving a vote to Seiya Suzuki.

もちろん今季の成績だけで選ぶなら丸山田菅野の三強だと思います。 しかし2016年のように優勝に強く貢献した選手が選ばれる傾向があるので大瀬良にも票がかなり入るんじゃないかと思います– Of course, I think that the three strongest this season in the CL were Maru, Yamada and Sugano–if one chooses only by the season’s results. However, I think that the final award vote will favor Daichi Osera because there is a tendency that the player who contributed a lot to the championship gets in — (as they did in 2016, when Takahiro Arai was MVP

MVPにその年の優勝に最も貢献した選手ではなくてその年の勝ちに最も貢献した選手に投票してるんですね👏
成績が大差ないなら優勝チーム優先でいいと思いますが私もMVPはその年に最も勝ちに貢献した選手が取るべきだと思います–You aren’t selecting the player who most contributed to the year’s championship, but voting for the player who contributed most to wins during the season. 👏 If players’ production is close, I think the MVP vote should go to the player who contributed to a championship.

投票用紙初めて見たよ。ちゃんと社名氏名も書くんだね。NPBがこれをファンに公表してくれたら不可解な投票やふざけた投票はかなり減るだろう。–This is the first time I’ve seen a ballot. If NPB made this public to the fans, it would reduce the number of inexplicable or throw-away votes.

優勝した西武を押し退けてMVP1位に選ばれる柳田凄スギィ–You pushed aside players who won the championship with Seibu to give your first-place MVP vote to (SoftBank’s) Yuki Yanagita, amazing.

A few people also asked whether publishing ballots was allowed. I couldn’t find any rules against it, but it’s less common in Japan than giving your No. 1 MVP vote to a player whose team didn’t win the pennant.

Is Tomoya Mori the PL’s most valuable catcher?

Tomoya Mori is greeted at home plate by Lions teammate Hideto Asamura.

i. value
So often the postseason awards are pretty routine. Evaluate a player’s contribution one way or another, and vote for the players you think contributed the most wins to their team’s record over the season. Sure, there are people like my buddy John Gibson who, from my standpoint, complicates matters by asking whether those games played are meaningful and whether that player was essential to the team’s success. I don’t really understand the concepts he is arguing so, I’ll leave them there.

Once on our podcast, I posited the question of who is the most valuable? Well, I’m no economist, but it seems one way to measure value is the resources one is willing to expend to acquire something. In that mind, I thought if you knew everything about a player except their age and what they had done in previous years — how well they fielded, how hard they hit the ball, how well they threw and ran, their leadership and makeup. Then ask yourself, if you were an owner trying to fill your roster and could choose from all the available players that season and had to buy them in an auction with other owners, who would you spend the most money on for your team? Wouldn’t that player be your choice as most valuable? If you said, ‘not necessarily, because a player who didn’t contribute as much was more valuable’ then you are arguing that your team would be better with people who do less to win.

That doesn’t mean we have to agree. How do you understand and value leadership, versatility? I doubt anybody sees those things the same way.

ii. Tomoya Mori
I use Bill James’ win shares as kind of a pickax to answer these questions. It’s not really definitive for reasons anybody who uses them knows, but its a nice way to eyeball disparate seasons by players at different positions.

This brings us to the Seibu Lions’ slugging catcher Tomoya Mori. By win shares, Mori is by far the most valuable catcher in Japan — because of his huge offensive value. He also gets points for being really good at throwing out would-be base stealers. He gets 21 win shares, 18.5 from his bat, 2.2 from his fielding — the worst total of any team’s No. 1 catcher. His closest PL rival this past year was Tatsuhiro Tamura of Lotte with 9 win shares, most from defense.

The first issue is Mori the DH. He spent half of his at-bats for the league champs as DH. but he was a lousy DH. As a catcher, he had a .396 OBP and a .497 slug over 341 plate appearances — better than most teams get from their DH. Ignoring his DH offense, he’s still more valuable just from the time he spent in his 81 games behind the plate than any other catcher in Japan. But that’s win shares.

If you look at how opposing hitters performed against different Lions catchers, Mori, Ginjiro Sumitani and Masatoshi Okada, it sure looks like Mori is costing the Lions runs every game he catches. We can throw out the games pitched by Seibu’s two top starters, since Yusei Kikuchi pitched almost exclusively to Sumitani, while Shinsaburo Tawata threw all his pitches to Mori. Lefty Daiki Enokida was caught by Mori and Sumitani in even ammounts, while Ken Togame split his workload between Mori and Okada. The rest of the pitchers were fairly mixed between the three.

The image below shows the batting results for each pitcher and catcher — ignoring stolen bases and caught stealing — with the runs created and the outs from those results.

When Mori caught Ken Togame, opposing batters created 6.25 runs per 27 batting outs. With Okada catching, that figure was 3.93.

When Mori caught Daiki Enokida, opposing batters created 4.64 RC per 27 outs. With Sumitani catching it was 2.94.

Against other pitchers, mostly relievers, opposing batters had 5.40 RC per 27 outs, 4.92 against Okada, and 5.12 against Sumitani.

There may be reasons why these results occurred. If Mori WAS the reason opposing hitters created a half a run more per 27 batting outs against him than they did when his teammates were catching, the value of his offense as a catcher comes close to being a wash.

We don’t know that IS true, but I believe it might be. That being said, Mori is really, really valuable, because A, he can really, really hit, he throws out base stealers and can catch the ball, and the same can’t be said for lots of players. This might be an anomaly or there might be a cause for it that can be addressed and might learn to be a better receiver. But I’m not going to give him my Best 9 vote this year.

Ohtani unused to “normal” 1-way street

Shohei Ohtani is back in the batter’s box, but is still a fish out of water.

By Jim Allen

Shohei Ohtani and his legion of fans are all happy he’s back on the field and playing baseball for the Los Angeles Angels. And though it’s a vast improvement of his time on the disabled list, Ohtani said Wednesday that he now finds himself in an unusual position, batting without concern for his next start on the mound.

Unable to pitch following the discovery of a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, Ohtani is just hitting and said pro ball’s standard division of labor between hitters and pitchers feels definitely substandard to him.



“Because my normal rhythm is batting while I’m also pitching, the other side of that is what I’m now doing feels unusual, ” he said after he had two hits in the Angels’ 7-4 win over the Seattle Mariners.

Speaking about his desire to both a year ago at the Nippon Ham Fighters camp in Okinawa, he told Kyodo News:

 It’s not like ‘I really want to be a pitcher and hit, or that I am a batter who also pitches.’ That’s not it. I want to do both,” he said. “Since I began playing ball when I was little, I’ve wanted to do both. I started playing baseball not thinking, ‘I really want to be a great player as a pitcher,’ or ‘I want to be a great player as a hitter.’ I want to bat well. I want to pitch well. That’s the desire I’ve always had. For example, when it’s said, ‘if he focused on pitching, he’d be an even better pitcher so why doesn’t he do that?’ all I can say is that I really want to be a better hitter.

Although he is now prohibited from throwing in the bullpen as he continues to undergo treatment on his right elbow, Ohtani said  that the DH always trumps DL.

“Playing is better than not playing,” he said. “Compared to the past three weeks, this is so much more fun. Now I’m preparing myself for when the time comes (and I can return to the bullpen.)”



Yusei Kikuchi gets all technical on us

Yusei Kikuchi is using Japan’s latest data to polish his form ahead of his expected move to the majors this winter.

By Jim Allen

Yusei Kikuchi may not be the best pitcher in Japan, but he is among the best. On top of that, he is expected to move to the majors after this season ends. Nine years after his eyes filled with tears when he announced he would turn his back on major league offers to sign with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Seibu Lions, Kikuchi has now grown into an elite starter in NPB, and is making the most of the TrackMan pitch tracking data the Lions have been using at the end of the 2016.

“Now I check each game’s data with our analysts, three or four points, my release point, my extension and so on,” he said Saturday, a night after he threw seven scoreless innings against the Pacific League-rival Lotte Marines. “It allows me to make adjustments, and as I make adjustments and see how they go in games, I get a sense for where I need to be.”



“My release point has been higher recently. I noticed in my game against the Giants (on June 8). It turned out to be 9 centimeters higher than a year ago. I worked on that by tilting my torso slightly and got it down to around 3 cm higher than last year in my last start against Chunichi (June 15). I haven’t seen the data for last night’s game, but I would bet that in my final inning, I was within a centimeter of the release point I want, which is 167 cm.”

“In the past, all I had to relay on was video. This is completely different because just looking at a video didn’t give you an exact figure. In the end it was always about feel.”

Many, including myself, have attributed Kikuchi’s dramatic improvement in strikeouts and control to his maturity, and his growing confidence that he can attack batters in the zone, but after striking out around 8 batters per nine innings through most of his career, the lefty hit 10.5 a year ago. Where he had walked over 10 percent of the batters he faced in his first three full seasons in the rotation, 2017 saw that drop to 7 percent. This season, it’s 6.

Why the Pacific League is stronger

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

By Jim Allen

At the conclusion of this year’s interleague play on Thursday, the Pacific League’s cumulative record against the Central League 1,040 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.