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.

Nishimura 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.

Nomu and Tabuchi

There are two players in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame who were catchers and deserved to be inducted regardless of other consideration. They are Katsuya Nomura and Atsuya Furuta. On top of having an extremely long career, Nomura was a great offensive player and would easily have been selected purely for his managing. I wrote about the lack of catchers in the hall in January, and gave some thought at the time to Hanshin Tigers great Koichi Tabuchi.

This morning,  tweeted: “Duration of career aside, am I crazy to think Koichi Tabuchi was a better offensive player than Katsuya Nomura?

Great question. Nomura began playing at the age of 19 with Osaka’s Nankai Hawks and had his first MVP-caliber season at the age of 22. Tabuchi, a university star, turned pro at 22 and began approaching his prime at 25 — ironically the same age at which Nomura began churning out one super season after another. The thing that is often held against Nomura is the conventional wisdom that his club’s home park, Osaka Stadium, was a great home run park and it appears to have favored home runs until 1971, when Nomura was past his prime at the age of 36.

Taking their parks into account as well as we can with the available data, Nomura was probably the better offensive player of the two between the ages of 25 and 29, while he was the undisputed king of productivity afterward. Here is how they compare at those ages using the old version of Bill James win shares:

Nomura won two Pacific League MVP awards during this span, and led the PL in win shares in 1962, while Tabuchi’s career year came at the age of 28 in 1975, when he led the Central League in win shares. When one considers the length and quality of Nomura’s career, it is hard to see any one surpassing him, although even Nomura can’t match Sadaharu Oh in terms of peak value and consistency. Oh’s career win shares total of 722 is far and away the highest in NPB history, with Nomura coming in second at 583 and Isao Harimoto third at 536.

The pitchers, part I

This is the start of a series trying to estimate Nippon Professional Baseball’s best  players at each position over the past decades, starting with the current 2010-2015. For the players from 1970 to 2015, I’ll be using Bill James original Win Shares — I still haven’t figured out some of the details of his new system. Without any estimates of park effects prior to 1970, I’ll look at other stuff. To avoid too much detail, one win share equals one third of a team win and the two balance out — every team’s individual win share total equals three times its wins. (You may see halves in my figures sometimes — and that’s because I’ll count each team tie as half a win and there are a lot of ties in NPB.)

2010-2015

Although Kenta Maeda has not been Japan’s best pitcher in recent years, his body of work — and the absence of Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, opened the door for him to shoot to the top of the rankings for the current decade. It will take a couple of years for the Orix Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko to pass Maeda — even if the Carp ace moves to the majors this winter.

To be realistic, other than Maeda and perhaps Dennis Sarfate, nobody on the top-10 list can expect to be really better than he is now — although Kaneko will likely rise from the tar pit that sucked the life out of his game in 2015. Giants closer Hirokazu Sawamura and Seibu Lions submarine starter Kazuhisa Makita are a good bet to move into the top 10 next year, while slugging Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani is still two good seasons away.

The table shows each player’s total win shares, the number of times he led his league in win shares, and the number of times he was league MVP.

The No. 4 pitcher on the list, Toshiya Sugiuchi, is 35 and was hurt for most of 2015. After which, he asked to be given the biggest pay cut in NPB history, a 450 million yen drop that saw him go from earning 500 million yen ($4.1 million) to 50 million yen. The lefty, however, has been remarkably consistent. From the age of 27 he had three-straight 17-win share seasons. For the five seasons after that, his season totals ranged from 10 to 12.5, so he was due a bad season I suppose.

Takayuki Kishi is something of a mystery. After his 2008 Japan Series MVP performance, his fitness has been spotty. But when he’s healthy, he’s about as good as they come. But because he misses a few games every year, it is surprising to see him rate consistently so well. Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in relief behind him with the Seibu Lions in 2013, said Kishi is burdened by the sand pile that passes for a mound at Seibu Dome.

Sarfate said the Lions keep it soft for Makita, and said I should take a look at Kishi’s ERA on the league’s hardest mound, at Sapporo Dome. OK, but it’s not just Sapporo Dome, Kishi’s career ERA is 2.63 away from the Seibu Tomb, and 3.72 at home. In the context of the Pacific League, Seibu Dome slightly favors hitters, with a median run adjustment of 1.035 over Kishi’s career, but nothing that should account for being a run better on the road.

Sarfate, by the way, makes this decade’s list as the only reliever, having arguably the best 2015 season of any PL pitcher out of the SoftBank Hawks bullpen. The other day, former Hanshin Tiger Matt Murton mentioned Sarfate as a player who had really benefitted from mastering Japan’s emphasis on secondary-pitch command.

There may be some truth to that. Sarfate was very good in his first season with Hiroshima in 2011, but has surpassed that after joining the Hawks at the age of 33 in 2014. Part of that may be getting away from the Seibu mound and another part may be a better working environment with the Hawks, who have become Japan’s model organization. Of course, Sarfate was able to be the best because 2015 was not a good year for PL starters.

After Sarfate on the list is another Yomiuri Giants lefty, Tetsuya Utsumi, who is two years younger than Sugiuchi, but whose career trajectory and value has been very similar to his teammates. Like Sugiuchi’s 2015 season, Utsumi’s was also a wash due to injuries.

Let’s go back to the future

For lack of a better expression, this is a call to action.

If you live in Japan and have even the slightest interest in the history of the game, I would like you to join me in a quest to digitally document Japanese baseball history. Let’s get together and figure

Of course, we’d love to have play-by-play accounts of every game since the Japanese Baseball Federation revived pro baseball in 1936, but those kind of records  don’t exist in public. But Japan has libraries and collections of old newspapers, and together we can — game-by-game, season-by-season — uncover buried treasure.

Little by little, we can encode information about games, where were they played, who pitched, who played, what was the score, how many pitches were thrown? — Japanese papers have been publishing pitch counts since the 1960s!

I’ve always wondered how someone like Keishi Suzuki could throw huge numbers of innings and complete games from the age of 18 and keep doing it year after year until he finally slowed down a little at the age of 37 and then retired. The answer just might be out there.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve managed to compile a data base of seasonal data since 1946 for NPB’s pitchers, batters and fielders. Play-by-play data is freely available from 2006 thanks to the internet and I’ve been keeping records of various sorts since the mid-1990s. The detailed game data available to the media through BIS runs from 1970 to the present. Because we know how many runs are scored by a team in its main park(s), and how many home runs are hit in those games, we can make a good guess at park effects, but before 1970, that is going to take even more elbow grease

It’s funny how something can be in front of your face, and you never see it. After plowing through old game results and newspaper clippings from old papers for years at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library at Tokyo Dome, working on this or that project, it became obvious that charting Japan’s ocean of game history was beyond my reach. Yet, I hoped and thought that if I stuck at it, day after day, I could compile some kind of record of every pro game ever played How naive can one get?

Those days, from 1993 to 1997, I was writing my English language analytical guides to Japanese baseball and everything seemed possible. But upon becoming a full-time writer, that dream faded.

Then a funny thing happened. I decided to go to the baseball winter meetings a year ago in San Diego. Ira Stevens of Scout Dragon, my former collaborator on my guides, goes every year to market his product and asked me how come I didn’t check it out. It was a great idea and a great experience.

I filed a bunch of stories about Japanese players and teams, and met a number of people whose stuff I read. One of those, Rob Neyer, asked why I no longer had a website and why I didn’t try to start a Japanese version of Retrosheet. A website was the easy part. I came back and started this thing up. But a group, a network, organize? That’s not me…

That all changed today. I became attached to Bill James’ win shares because of the artful way it manages to handle fielding value, and having completed win shares for all the players in NPB from 1970-2015 today, I felt energized to tackle the basic park data needed to carry them back to 1936, so I put out a call for help on Twitter.

So if you are in Japan and can access a library to get the basic information from even one game, drop me a line and let’s work this out.

 

Japan’s MVPs over past 25 years

23-year-old Tetsuto Yamada’s 2015 season may have been Japan’s best over the past 25 years.

Having finally gotten around to calculating win shares in NPB from 1989 to 2015, I might as well use them to ask the question: How often are Japan’s MVP winners actually in the ballpark?

While every system, including WAR is going to catch some flak for its omissions and assumptions, Win Shares is a good match for Japan because a lot of data, particularly UZR for recent players, is not publicly available.

One win share is equivalent to a third of a win and what is really neat is that the win shares for pitchers correspond very well over a period of time with actual pitching wins. Of the 50 MVPs selected over the past 25 years, there have been 15 players selected who were, through this measure, vastly underqualified for the award. Of those 15, it should not surprise anyone who follows Japanese baseball that 12 were pitchers.

The most egregious selection since 1991 was left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, the Pacific League’s 2010 MVP, whose 13 win shares were the fewest of any winner since then. The player with the most win shares that season (34) was the first shortstop to win a batting championship and a Golden Glove in the same season, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Of the 50 actual MVPs, 31 either led their league in win shares or were within 3 win shares and have to be considered really good candidates. Since I first wrote this, I have extended my win shares calculations to 1970, and Wada’s MVP stands as NPB’s worst choice in 46 years.

If MVPs were decided by an objective estimate of contributions to wins and losses, who in the past 25 years would have won the most MVP awards? If you guessed Matsui, you would be correct. You can go with Hideki Matsui or Kazuo Matsui, both led their league in win shares five times. Hideki actually won two, while Kazuo won one.

Which player in Japan was most poorly represented in MVP awards? That title might go to Hirokazu Ibata during his heyday as the defensive leader of the Chunichi Dragons. Ibata led the Central League in win shares in 2004, ’07 and ’09, although he did so with fairly modest totals of 24, 24 and 26, respectively.

Who has had most valuable season over the past 25 years? One wouldn’t have to look far for that one. After a year in which he led the CL in seven offensive categories, including being the second player in NBP history to surpass the runner-up in runs scored by 30 or more (and the one not named Sadaharu Oh) , Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada raked in 47 win shares in a 143-game season. Although the schedule has increased over this period from 130 games to as many as 146, Yamada’s 2015 season can arguably called the best in Japan in the last 25 years, narrowly beating out Ichiro Suzuki’s 1995 MVP season for the Orix BlueWave.

The other three in win shares per game top five are: No. 3 Yuki Yanagita 2015; No. 4 Ichiro Suzuki 1996 and No. 5 Tom O’Malley 1993. But O’Malley’s Hanshin Tigers finished fourth that season, and Atsuya Furuta, the catcher for the CL pennant-winning Swallows, was a fairly deserving winner with 32 win shares to O’Malley’s 34.

Here are the WS MVPs and actual MVPs in each league for the past five seasons with the win share totals of league leaders bolded and actual MVPs italicized: