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.



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.



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.



Japan’s double-edged weapon

By Jim Allen

Few aspects of Japanese baseball are as reviled by outsiders as much as the routine first-inning sacrifice bunt by a low-average, slap-hitting, small middle infielder. Boring because it’s predictable, and because teams score fewer runs when sacrificing seemingly indefensible.

At times, Japan seems like the land that logic forgot, but the arguments against the first-inning sacrifice may be making some headway. In 2013, 49 percent of first-inning plate appearances by No. 2 hitters after the leadoff man reached first ended in an attempted bunt. Since then, they appear to be in decline. In 2016, that figure was down to 29 percent.

Some managers appear to be listening to the argument that scoring fewer runs is a bad thing.

We know sacrifice attempts decrease run scoring. It follows that teams costing themselves runs at the start of a game when it is not clear how many runs will be needed are shooting themselves in the foot. Following that rational, if one matches actual wins and losses with games in which these first-inning sacrifices occur, one should be able to measure the cost of bunts in terms of wins.

So by bunting less, Japanese teams are ostensibly getting smarter, but are they winning more games?

The answer, if you are a visiting team, is no.




Using play-by-play data since 2003, one can track what No. 2 hitters do after the leadoff man reaches first.

From 2003 until 2010, when juiced balls disappeared after the season, visitors scored 0.76 runs per inning after 736 sacrifice attempts. Those teams had a .456 winning percentage.

When not bunting, visitors in that era averaged 0.92 runs in 1,107 innings with a .504 winning percentage.

Since then however, the tables have turned. Visitors from 2011 to 2016 averaged 0.68 runs in the 669 first innings they sacrificed in. They posted a .502 winning percentage. In the 732 innings without a sacrifice attempt, visitors averaged 0.81 runs and posted a .459 winning percentage.

When I raised this possibility a couple of years ago, at least one reader suggested the possibility of quality leakage, because teams tend to sacrifice more with their better starting pitchers on the mound.

Since 2011, the visiting starters when their teams sacrificed after the leadoff man reached first allowed had an average season runs allowed per nine figure of 3.92. The opposing starters in those games averaged 4.00 runs per nine.

In games without sacrifices, the visiting starters averaged 4.00 R/9, the home starters 4.12. It’s a small difference. Indeed, visiting managers are slightly more inclined to sacrifice in the first inning when their best pitchers are on the mound, but those pitchers don’t appear to benefit from the bunt anymore than their less-heralded colleagues.

In the tables below, I have included the average of the season R/9s of the visiting teams and opposing starters. The column labeled “Expected” is the expected winning percentage if teams scored and allowed runs at the same rates as the starters of those games.




Here is the next table:

Japan’s most bunt-happy manager is Hideki Kuriyama of the Nippon Ham Fighters. This past season, he had 28 situations with a runner on first and no outs in the first inning at home. His guys attempted a bunt 10 times, and his team managed an impressive .600 winning percentage. In the other 18 games, however, the Fighters were .875. On the road, the Fighters followed the NPB norm, a .600 win percentage with the bunt, a .556 win percent without it.

Teams are bunting less in the first inning, but what they should be doing is bunting less at home, and more on the road — where it appears to make a difference.

Bunts are not always just free outs. Who would have thunk it?

The lucky ones and 2 unlucky ones

Yesterday, I mentioned some of Japan’s best minor league hitters and the (perhaps) surprising fact that Ichiro Suzuki was the best 19-year-old minor leaguer NPB has ever had. Suzuki reached that dubious pinnacle because A) He was really, really good, and B) Then Orix BlueWave manager Shozo Doi didn’t think he could hit. Because of the lack of belief in him, Suzuki was able to establish in the minors what a good hitter he was.

Had Doi continued to manage the BlueWave for several more years instead of being replaced in 1994 by Akira Ogi, Suzuki’s career might easily have looked more like — Teppei Tsuchiya’s. Teppei, as he became known after he was sold to Rakuten, had proved on the Chunichi Dragons farm club at a young age that he could hit. Once he got a chance in Sendai, he became one of the Eagles’ best players.




Because Suzuki’s manager didn’t believe in him, he spent an inordinate amount of time proving how good he was down there. While there are precious few players as good as Ichiro wasting their time on the farm, there are lots of real good players who never get half a chance.

If you look at all minor league hitters since 1991, who were: under 27, with an offensive winning percentage of.700 or better over two seasons in a minimum of 400 plate appearances, and who had at least 400 PAs in one of their next two seasons with the first team, you get the following players sorted by their second big year. Note that Kensuke Tanaka and Akinori Iwamura each had a third big year in the minors…

  • Ichiro Suzuki 1993 Orix, 19.2 years old – MVP (3)
  • Katsuhiro Nishiura 1996 Nippon Ham, 21.1
  • Akinori Iwamura 1998 Yakult, 18.9
  • Nobuhiko Matsunaka 1998 Daiei, 24.0 – MVP(2)
  • Akinori Iwamura 1999 Yakult, 19.9
  • Shogo Akada 2002 Seibu, 21.3
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2004 Nippon Ham, 22.6
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2005 Nippon Ham, 23.6
  • Yoshio Itoi 2007 Nippon Ham, 25.4
  • Tomotaka Sakaguchi 2007 Orix, 22.5
  • Kazuhiro Hatakeyama 2007 Yakult, 24.3
  • Ginji Akaminai, 2011 Rakuten, 22.8
  • Katsuya Kakunaka, 2011 Lotte, 23.6
  • Akira Nakamura, 2012 SoftBank, 22.2
  • Yuki Yanagita, 2012 SoftBank, 23.2 – MVP(1)
  • Itaru Hashimoto, 2013 Yomiuri, 22.7

Most of these guys need no introduction, most of them have won Best IX awards. In addition to the actual MVP winners, Iwamura deserved to win win one, while Yanagita was robbed in 2014. Two players who might be less familiar are Katsuhiro Nishiura, and Itaru Hashimoto.

Nishiura had one shot at regular playing time in 1998 and hit 20 homers and stole 18 bases but batted .245. The next year, the Fighters gave his playing time to Michihiro Ogasawara. Hashimoto has played well, but he’s had injury problems and the Giants have rarely given regular jobs to guys to low draft picks out of high school.




The list of minor leaguers who are just as good offensively as these guys, but who get far fewer opportunities at the first team is HUGE.

I’ll assume few of you know about Yukio Kinugawa, whose first-team career consisted of 53 at-bats over 50 games with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yakult Swallows. He was a slugging catcher who was converted to an outfielder-first baseman. For three seasons, from the age of 23 to 25, he was a minor league terror. The only player in his age group who was AS good as Kinugawa was Takeshi Omori, a famous minor league slugger and first baseman in the same generation whom the Giants gave up on after a handful of games. Ironically enough, for 1-1/2 years, before his trade to Yakult, Kinugawa and Omori were teammates on the Buffaloes Western League club.




Kinugawa in the minors was similar to Kazuhiro Hatakeyama and Ryota Arai — in his days with Chunichi — years before Hanshin showed the Dragons Arai was a pretty good hitter. Kinugawa was better at his age than Tomoaki Kanemoto and better than Nobuhiko Matsunaka. This is not saying Kinugawa could have been better, but neither Kintetsu nor Yakult seemed very interested in seeing how good he could be.

Ichiro Suzuki, Akinori Iwamura & other NPB minor league stars

Ichiro Suzuki is some day going to be the first player to begin his career in NPB and end up in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Akinori Iwamura won’t make it, but people familiar with his career in Japan know what a good ballplayer he was.

I recently re-added the minor league batting and pitching data from 1991 to 2001 to my data base — I lost my originals about 20 years ago in a hard disk crash — and asked which under-20 minor league hitter (minimum 200 PA) had the best seasons with offensive winning percentages over .700.

  1. Ichiro Suzuki (19.2 years old), Orix 1993, 214 PA, .883
  2. Akinori Iwamura (18.9), Yakult 1998, 430, .810
  3. Seiji Uebayashi (19.4), SoftBank 2015, 332, .799
  4. Akinori Iwamura (17.9), Yakult 1997, 297, .785
  5. Ichiro Suzuki (18.2 years old), Orix 1992, 270, .784
  6. Kensuke Kondo (19.4), Nippon Ham 2013, 227, .781
  7. Tomoya Mori (18.4), Seibu 2014, 257, .755
  8. Hisashi Takayama (19.1) Seibu 2001, 343, .708





Suzuki took a nice jump forward in 1993 and the next year took another when he won the first of his three straight PL MVP Awards. Most of the rest of the guys you know, although some of you may have forgotten Hisashi Takayama. He was an outfielder without outstanding speed or power and had one chance to play regularly at the age of 28 in 2010, when he played quite well, but was otherwise a guy on the fringe. Takayama’s minor league season at the age of 20 was the 10th best by a player aged 20-21 since 1991, so it’s fair to say Seibu REALLY missed the boat on him.

When Hisanobu Watanabe was promoted from farm manager in 2008, Takayama was one of the guys he gave a shot to in the spring, but at the age of 26 he needed an ally and didn’t have one. Then batting coach Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, wasn’t a fan of Takayama’s and insisted on keeping hustling and likeable-but-underqualified Kenta Matsusaka as his right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder.

Uebayashi, who is mentioned here, is someone who lacks some plate discipline but who does everything else fairly well but has yet to break into SoftBank’s regular lineup. Had he played for Nippon Ham, however, like Kensuke Kondo, he’d no doubt have a job by now. Mori, it seems is caught in a crunch as well, he’s probably a better hitter than the other guys who are taking his playing time, but he needs to go out and prove.

The best minor league season for a player aged 20 was by Lotte’s Toshiaki Imae in 2004, a year before he became the Marines’ regular third baseman for a decade. At age 21, the best was by Ken Suzuki of the Seibu Lions in 1991. Suzuki went on to be a DH-third baseman for the Lions pennant-winning teams in ’97 and ’98 and a corner infielder with Yakult in 2001.







A tale of two cities

With the season around the corner, it’s time for predictions, something I’m not overly fond of doing, but people ask and so one has to offer something — if only to give people something to criticize. My predictions last year were guessed based on these categories:

  • Performance of younger and older teams
  • Performance based on previous season’s finish
  • Performance based on minor league team strength
  • The most basic components of a team’s record: bases earned and surrendered, outs made on offense and defense.

That guesstimate had the Yomiuri Giants finishing last in the Central League because: first place teams tend to decline, as do older teams. Despite Yomiuri’s 2014 record, they won more games than expected based on their runs scored and allowed, and scored more runs than their bases earned and outs made would have predicted, while allowing fewer runs than their opponents’ outs and bases would have predicted.

Those predictions had the Carp first, the Swallows second, BayStars third (I think), then the Dragons, Tigers, Giants in that order. While the Tigers lived a charmed existence and finished third by a miracle — a lazy call by the umpires on a video review, the Giants overcame a lot of adversity to finish second.

The Giants, as a rule, don’t finish last, and there’s a reason for that, but how big is the effect that keeps the Giants from collapsing when everything says they should?

While trying to work on this year’s predictions, I discovered that a team’s offensive performance (relative to the league) is to a greater or lesser degree predictable based on two factors, the age of the players who produce the runs in the previous year and the degree to which the offense rose above the league the season before. Young teams tend to improve more as do teams that underperform offensively.

But here’s the kicker. There’s a huge gap among teams. While the total balances out to around zero for all teams, there are franchises that generally exceed expectations, and others for who rarely fail to meet them.

You probably see where this is going.

From 1990 through 2015, the Yomiuri Giants’ offense has produced an average of seven more wins a season than the formula that works for NPB teams as a whole would predict. But if the Giants are plus-seven wins, it stands to figure that the rest of NPB, on the average,  fails to meet expectations.

Of course, this is just one side of the picture. If you look at some managers, you can see they improved the offense at the expense of the defense and overall balance. It doesn’t help much if you give the runs you gain on offense away in the next inning.

In addition to the Giants, three other teams since 1990 have showed a strong inclination to overachieve offensively, the Hawks (+ five offensive wins a season), the Dragons four and the Lions three.

It shouldn’t take too many guesses to identify the dead weight that allows the leagues to balance and a few teams to overshoot their predictions. Give yourself a prize if you said the BayStars. Nobody has been as good as the BayStars have been bad, missing their offensive predictions by an annual 9-1/2 games a year. The Eagles are at -4, the Marines and Fighters around 3, while the Tigers, Carp, Swallows, Buffaloes have been very close to their predictions the past 26 seasons.

The Dragons’ effect was mostly the result of former manager Hiromitsu Ochiai, and Chunichi is now smack in the middle. Because a huge part of the Yakult Swallows’ offense last season came from Tetsuto Yamada, the team’s run production was the youngest in either league.

I haven’t had a chance to look into pitching and defense, but it would be cool if it works the same way.



NPB’s all-time fielding team: second and third basemen

This is the second part of my look at the top fielders at each position in NPB history. Today, I’ll go through the second and third basemen.

Second base

This list is surprisingly dominated by active players, although there’s no mistaking how much better Shigeru “Buffalo” Chiba was compared to his contemporaries. Chiba’s 1949 season, when he turned a record 128 double plays with just 18 errors for the league champions, ranks as the most valuable fielding year ever for a  second baseman in Japan. Chiba has two of the top-10 seasons and had golden gloves been awarded before he retired, he would have won it every year from 1946 to 1952.

On top of that, when he went to manage Kintetsu, they named the team after him, and he is credited with being the origin behind the popular dish “katsu curry,” which combines what he said were his two favorite foods, Japanese-style curry on rice with pork cutlets (katsu) on top.

As before, the numbers given are: career fielding win shares, and fielding WS per 27 outs & number of “win share golden gloves”:

  1. Shigeru Chiba, Giants, 1938-1956: 63-.500, 7
  2. Yuichi Honda, Hawks, 2006-present: 58-.469, 6
  3. Kazunori Shinozuka, Giants, 1977-1994: 66-.426, 5
  4. Shozo Doi, Giants, 1965-1978: 57-.383, 4
  5. Kensuke Tanaka, Fighters, 2000-present: 46-.377, 1
  6. Minoru Kamada, Tigers, 1957-1972: 50-.369, 3
  7. Chico Barbon, Braves, 1955-1965: 52-.369, 4
  8. Yasuyuki Kataoka, Lions-Giants, 2005-present: 49-.366, 0
  9. Hatsuhiko Tsuji, Lions, 1984-1999, 49-.366, 5
  10. Hiroyasu Tanaka, Swallows: 2005-present: 44-.387, 3

There are some surprises here. Shinozuka was less known for his fielding than his outstanding offense, while Hiroyasu Tanaka has always seemed more solid and workmanlike than outstanding… Yasuyuki Kataoka could easily rank higher because the fielding win shares per 27 outs hurts a player like Kataoka — who makes lots of outs, and helps players like Kensuke Tanaka and Chico Barbon — although Kamada was a good-field, no-hit type…

Third base

When one hears so much about how great a particular player is, it is easy to believe that some of it must be hyperbola, and no one generated more hyperbola than Shigeo Nagashima. But that’s what happens if a charismatic player achieves his peak early and plays consistently well for a fair amount of time. Defensively, he was easily the best regular at third base.

  1. Shigeo Nagashima, Giants, 1958-1974: 76-.342, 9
  2. Hiromi Matsunaga, Braves, 1981-1987: 59-.337, 4
  3. Kinji Shimatani, Dragons-Braves, 1969-1982: 55-.341, 5
  4. Norifumi Kido, Swallows-Lions, 1957-1974: 46-.373, 4
  5. Michiyo Arito, Orions, 1969-1986: 55-.279, 3
  6. Norihiro Nakamura, Buffaloes-Dragons, etc., 1992-2014: 58-.265, 5
  7. Tatsunori Hara, Giants, 1981-1995: 46-.351, 5
  8. Koichi Hada, Buffaloes, 1973-1989: 50-.298, 2
  9. Hideo Furuya, Fighters, 1978-1992: 47-.312, 3
  10. Masayuki Kakefu, Tigers, 1974-1988: 46-.301, 3

Nobuhiro Matsuda, who TALKED about going to the majors this winter, but opted to stay put in Japan will now have the opportunity to crack this list in the next three years.

NPB’s all-time fielding team: catchers and first basemen

Catcher

Atsuya Furuta. Although Motonobu Tanishige caught more games than anyone else (2,964), and has the highest career win share total from his catching, and a certain Hall of Famer, he is in the words of John E. Gibson, a compiler, a quality player with an extraordinarily long career.

The three best NPB seasons for throwing out base-stealers belong to Furuta. He set the record in 1993, when opponents tried to steal just 45 times against him 45 times in 130 games, and 29 of those paid the price for a caught-stealing percentage of .644. Here’s a list with career total fielding win shares, fielding win shares per 27 outs made and number of years he was probably the best fielder in his league:

  1. Atsuya Furuta, Swallows, 1990-2007: 130-.648, 8
  2. Mitsuo Tatsukawa, Carp, 1978-2002: 72-.639, 3
  3. Tsutomu Ito, Lions, 1982-2003: 126-.575, 8
  4. Fujio Tamura, Fighters, 1981-1998: 74-.545, 4
  5. Akihiko Oya, Swallows, 1970-1985: 75-.526, 4
  6. Motonobu Tanishige, BayStars-Dragons: 1989-2015: 138-.513, 5
  7. Akihiro Yano, Tigers, 1991-2010: 70-.487, 2
  8. Shinnosuke Abe, Giants, 2001-present: 85-5.7-.479, 5
  9. Takeshi Nakamura, Dragons, 1987-2005: 80-.464, 4
  10. Tatsuhiko Kimata, Dragons, 1964-1982: 84-.435, 2

Since we lack counts of defensive innings played in NPB, win shares per 27 batting outs are substituted as a measure of playing time. Because of this, and because Furuta was a tremendous offensive player who made relatively few outs, he gets more mileage in WS per 27 outs. On the other hand, Tatsukawa was an offensive zero for the powerhouse Carp teams of the 1980s.

First base

While the catchers’ list is dominated by recent players, good-fielding first baseman have become something of an endangered species. Out of respect for limitations, I’ll skip trying to pretend I could select a golden glove first baseman…

  1. Kiyoshi Nakahata, Giants, 1977-1989: 28-.221
  2. Tokuji Iida, Hawks-Swallows, 1947-1963: 42-.213
  3. Makoto Matsubara, Whales, 1962-1981: 44-.201
  4. Junichi Kashiwabara, Hawks-Fighters, 1973-1988, 29-.191
  5. Toru Ogawa, Buffaloes, 1968-1984: 30-.170
  6. Tetsuharu Kawakami, Giants, 1938-1958: 27-.165
  7. Kozo Kawai, Braves: 1948-1959: 19-.165
  8. Sadaharu Oh, Giants, 1959-1980: 42-.163
  9. Kihachi Enomoto, Orions, 1955-1972: 34-.157
  10. Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Lions-Giants, 1986-2008: 33-.150

 

Kenta Maeda from Day 1

C.J. Nitkowski pointed out here that things will change when Maeda has to adapt to a different ball and a shorter rotation in MLB. How well is he going to do?

A long-time MLB scout who has watched Kenta Maeda since he turned pro, talked recently about the new Dodger’s tools.

He’s not that power arm guy that’s going to get swings and misses all the time. (His game is locating) to the bat rather than away from the bat, where as (Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei) Otani is away from the bat. Otani is about 10-12 strikeouts a game, whereas Kenta Maeda is about six-to-eight, and get a lot of ground balls.

He’s knows himself as a pitcher and I’ve seen him pitch without his best stuff on a given day and he still gives you the opportunity to win. To me, that’s a pitcher, rather than just a thrower, you know, throw harder and harder. Maeda can figure a way to get off the bat head and get outs.

Masahiro Tanaka had to learn about the tendencies of hitterrs (in the majors) and that’s something Maeda’s going to have to learn.

The adjustments to the rotation and other things are up to Maeda. He has to find his niche. If anybody can make the adjustments he can.

That’s from an outsider.

Before Marty Brown moved on to manage Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles in 2010, he told me about his first impression of Maeda, who became the understudy of  Hiroki Kuroda with the Hiroshima Carp and eventually that team’s ace.

“The first thing you noticed was his arm strength,” Brown said in a 2009 interview. “He could stand on one side of the field and throw it to the other side effortlessly. He had an extreme looseness to his ability to his ability to get out in front and release the ball and really throw it a long way. He was way more advanced than a lot of kids his age. He was only 17. You could tell that he caught on things really quickly. He could be doing a mound or a bullpen and he had a real good feel for figuring things out. His aptitude was in some ways was a lot more advanced.

“(When he turned pro) he had a big rolling curveball. He had a slider. Really good fastball command. we gave him a changeup and within about three pitches he could do about whatever he wanted with it.”

Hiroki Kuroda and a number of foreign pitchers here in Japan have also commented on how being a starter in Japan is much easier. Not only is the rotation longer, but NPB rules allow for a 28-man active roster, with 25 on the bench for each game. That means that for every game, three starting pitchers who are between starts are through at the end of pregame practice, they can go home. They don’t have to wait until the end of a 16-inning game to get rested up for their start the next day, since Japanese games end after 12 innings.