August players of the month

Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks is sure to be named the PL’s player of the month — although “batting average leader of the month” would be a better title since the folks that pick them don’t seem to care whether a candidate has any defensive value or does anything besides hit for average. Since layers who lead their league in batting in a month, while hitting .400, are generally a lock for the award, this month’s CL selection should be interesting.

There are two good candidates. Soichiro Tateoka, who hit an even .400 for the Yomiuri Giants, and Tetsuto Yamada, who led the league in a few categories (runs, home runs, total bases, RBIs, stolen bases, slugging average and OPS, while batting a measly .310 for the Yakult Swallows.

For pitchers of the month, it will be a surprise if anyone but Chunichi Dragons rookie Shunta Wakamatsu (4-1, 2.12 ERA) wins, although it could go to Miles Mikolas of the Giants (3-0, 0.75 ERA in three starts) to make up for not being selected in July after winning the June award.

There are four good candidates for the PL pitcher of the month award, three starters and one reliever. Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu, Orix Buffaloes youngster Daiki Tomei and Nippon Ham lefty Mitsuo Yoshikawa each went 3-0 — which is pretty much the minimum standard for a starter. Tomei had the best ERA, 1.55, while Settsu won all three of his starts and had a complete game, while striking out 23 batters in 22 innings. The reliever is Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in 11 games, won one, saved eight and had two holds. Sarfate struck out 19 batters in 11-2/3 innings.

Note:

Dave Okubo’s disappearing runner trick

Rakuten skipper Dave Okubo’s aggressive base running has led to some head scratching in Sendai.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, host John E. Gibson interviewed Julio Franco, the player-manager of the Ishikawa Million Stars in Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League. One topic they discussed was being aggressive on the bases. Japanese teams tend toward playing station-to-station ball,  but Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, the new manager of the Rakuten Eagles, likes players to take more risks on the bases.

John and I both appreciate the idea behind taking everything you can get on the bases, but the Eagles’ reckless abandon has come at a cost, something John has begun to comment on.

Through Sunday, Aug. 24, the Eagles have been caught stealing an NPB-high 54 times, a huge factor in the team’s losing the highest percentage of runners on base this season (not counting runners out on ground ball double plays): 6.7 percent. That, and the club’s lack of power — their 67 home runs are last in the Pacific League and 11th fewest in NPB, while they are last in Japan in doubles and triples — contribute to the Eagles scoring just a Japan-low 22.9 percent of their runners on base. The Eagles have the third lowest de facto on-base percentage (the percentage of runners who reach safely by any means): .318.

So the Eagles have the fewest runners on base in the first place, they lose more of those guys running the bases, and their 84 sacrifice hits are third in the PL, so they should be staying out of double plays. But the Eagles’ 73 GDPs are third in NPB, behind the Hawks and Swallows, the league leaaders in OBP.

Base Running Outs
Team League de facto OBP CS PO DP Outs BO Pct out on bases ROB run pct LOB pct
Hawks PL .345 36 6 86 31 .055 .297 .584
Fighters PL .339 32 7 71 26 .047 .298 .603
Lions PL .336 34 3 72 21 .042 .280 .625
Swallows CL .327 25 4 80 32 .046 .278 .615
Marines PL .324 19 2 69 28 .039 .288 .617
Buffaloes PL .323 45 8 70 19 .056 .254 .635
Carp CL .322 39 3 70 33 .060 .261 .623
Tigers CL .322 31 1 72 24 .043 .239 .662
Dragons CL .320 22 7 69 33 .047 .246 .655
Eagles PL .318 54 7 73 23 .067 .229 .646
Giants CL .315 29 11 71 27 .052 .243 .650
BayStars CL .312 28 2 61 27 .045 .256 .651

Where second base and the outfield converge

Yamato Maeda played his 16th game of the season at second base on Sunday  as he continues to fill in for Hiroki Uemoto. Maeda, who won his first Golden Glove Award last season for his work in center field, has played 75 games in the outfield this season, earned his first playing time in the Central League as a utility infielder (playing primarily at second).

But there is nothing new or unusual about a star center fielder playing second in Japan. A number of players have shifted back and forth between second and the outfield, mostly center and right. The champion of the second baseman-center fielders is Keiichi Hirano of the Orix Buffaloes, who had seven seasons in which he played a minimum of 35 games at second base and the outfield. Hirano first accomplished this in 2004, when the infielder was asked to play in the outfield as well. He shuttled back and forth a bit until current New York Mets manager Terry Collins took over the Buffaloes in 2007 and planted Hirano at second.

Collins returned for his second season to find Orix had traded Hirano, the club’s fastest player, for aging and often-injured Tigers slugger Osamu Hamanaka. Down the road at Koshien, Hirano became the Tigers’ center fielder-second baseman of choice for five straight years before he returned to Orix as a free agent in 2013 and continued to divide his defensive duties.

Next on the list after Hirano, is the late Takuya Kimura, who after his trade to the Hiroshima Carp, inherited the outfield-second base role that current Carp skipper Koichi Ogata vacated when he was made a full-time outfielder. KImura shuttled back and forth for five seasons. If all this is confusing, just think that while Ogata was shuffling around with the Carp, the Yomiuri Giants also had  second baseman-center fielder, and also named Koichi Ogata, who was a frequent contributor at both positions from 1990 to 1994.

The other name pair among the double-duty men are the Tomashino brothers, Seiji of the Seibu Lions and his younger brother Kenji of the Yakult Swallows.

The table below shows the guys who had multiple seasons in which they played 20-plus games at second base and in the outfield. Notice that this started in the ’70s with John Sipin and HIrokazu Kato, it was primarily a ’90s thing.

Second Basemen Center Fielders
Team Years Name Total G 2B Total G OF Double duty seasons
Orix, Hanshin 2004-2013 Keiichi Hirano 406 871 7
Hiroshima 1999-2004 Takuya Kimura 411 769 5
Yomiuri 1990-1994 Koichi Ogata 325 227 4
Yakult 1990-1993 Kenji Tomashino 122 391 3
Lotte 1994-2002 Koichi Hori 170 1287 3
Hiroshima 1982-1984 Ryuzo Yamasaki 556 215 3
Yomiuri 1976-1979 John Sipin 153 853 2
Hanshin 1979-1980 Hirokazu Kato 296 97 2
Chunichi 2001-2002 Masahiro Araki 153 1430 2
Orix 1998-1999 So Taguchi 493 167 2
Yakult 1994-1995 Katsuyuki Dobashi 275 982 2
Seibu 1990-1993 Seiji Tomashino 485 183 2
Hanshin 2001-2002 Taichiro Kamisaka 89 89 2

Japan’s bunt paradox part 2

Kenta Imamiya of the Hawks bunts with no outs in the top of the first inning against the Buffaloes.

In a previous rant and observation about Japan’s ubiquitous first-inning sacrifice bunts, I noticed that teams in Nippon Professional Baseball that bunt in the first innings of scoreless games gain no advantage in how often they put at least one run on the board AND score fewer overall runs, BUT win games more often.

Those results, based on the first innings of the 2,592 regular season games played between 2012 and 2014, looked suspicious, so I increased the study to include the games played from 2007 and 2011.  Of the eight years in the study, in only three of them did visitors win more often when trying to bunt the leadoff man to second in the first inning. The three years were 2007, 2013 and 2014–three of the lower-scoring seasons in the study.

NPB introduced a uniform, less-lively ball in 2011. Since then, scoring has decreased sharply. With that decrease, the cost of the first-inning sacrifice has decreased. Since the switch, visiting teams can expect to score .79 runs per inning when the leadoff man is not sacrificed to second. That is a decrease of .11 runs per inning in the same situations before 2011, while the number of runs expected per inning after a sacrifice has remained nearly constant (dropping from .69 to .68.

The strangest thing about bunting in the first inning–and almost half the time the leadoff man is on first in NPB a successful sacrifice follows–is that the chance of scoring one or more runs in the first inning after the leadoff man reaches first is NOT effected by a sacrifice. The NPB data show a slight advantage to sacrificing after the 5th through 8th hitters are on first base with no outs but no appreciable difference in the first inning with the team’s best hitters coming to the plate.

With current low levels of offense, bunting the leadoff man to second base in the top of the first is costing Japanese teams a 10th of a run per sacrifice — yet despite giving away outs and runs, the visitors employing this strategy are now making out like bandits: winning their games at a .513 clip compared to the .459 winning percentage of visiting clubs that “fail” to sacrifice the leadoff man to second.

One person suggested on Twitter that sacrifice bunts lead to more wins BECAUSE teams sacrifice more often with their best starting pitchers on the mound. A quick look shows there is something to this. From 2007 to 2014, Japanese visiting teams with a big winner on the mound (12 wins or more that season) will sacrifice the leadoff man to second in 54 percent of their opportunities. The percentage with lesser pitchers on the mound is 47 percent.

This bias remained more or less constant from 2007 to 2014, but somehow didn’t help visiting teams before 2011. Before 2011, visitors that sacrificed the leadoff man to second base in the first inning went 204-253 (.446), while teams that did not bunt the runner over went 255-265 (.490). 

Npb Visitors 1St-Inning Sacrifices, Leadoff Man On 1B
SH Ball Count Total Runs Runs per Inning 1+ runs RSI pct W L W pct
Yes mixed 469 322 .687 192 .409 204 253 .446
No mixed 530 476 .898 227 .428 255 265 .490
Yes standard 487 331 .680 205 .421 238 226 .513
No standard 499 392 .786 204 .409 219 258 .459

Npb Home Teams Scoreless 1St-Inning Sacrifices, Leadoff Man On 1B
SH Ball Count Total Runs Runs per Inning RSI RSI pct W L W pct
Yes mixed 364 313 .860 177 .486 231 125 .649
No mixed 358 368 1.028 168 .469 222 128 .634
Yes standard 418 286 .684 176 .421 239 159 .601
No standard 392 354 .903 175 .446 239 129 .649

Tony Barnette and July’s Monthly MVPS

Tony Barnette won his first monthly MVP award, photo courtesy of Deanna Rubin

Here is my latest original work in the Japan Times, although I have been assured that including bylines is company policy, that policy appears to be flexible depending on who is on the desk. The original is here, and here is the link to the Japan Times material:

By Jim Allen

TOKYO, Kyodo – Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette was one of three first-time winners on Friday, when Nippon Professional Baseball announced its players and pitchers of the month for July.

Barnette, who saved all eight games he appeared in, was named to the Central League honor roll along with Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who won his second player of the month award. The Pacific League honors went to a pair of first-timers, five-time home run king Takeya Nakamura of the Seibu Lions, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Rick van den Hurk.

Barnette allowed one run in 7-1/3 innings without issuing a walk to earn the nod over Yomiuri Giants starter Miles Mikolas. The June pitcher of the month went 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in four games and struck out 15, but was overlooked this time.

Although Barnette gets the saves, it has hardly been a one-man show in the Swallows bullpen, with Orlando Roman and first-year setup man Logan Ondrusek in to keep games tight before the ninth.

“Those two guys have been just as good or better than anyone in the league,” Barnette told Kyodo News by email on Friday. “Roman is a guy that you can put into any situation and he’s going to dig deep and fight his way through it.”

“Logan has made the adjustment to Japan as well as anyone could ask for. There are growing pains that come with the move to Japan but he has excelled on and off the field. That being said, when I have guys like them protecting leads in front of me, it takes a bit of weight off my shoulders and gives me a freedom to just be myself and do the job I’ve been asked to do.”

“You add (Ryo) Akiyoshi into that mix and a revived (Kenichi) Matsuoka, we are in a good place as far as bullpen health and stability is concerned.”

The biggest surprise of the day was not that Nakamura deserved to win the award, but that he had never won it before. The monthly honors are typically handed out to players with stratospheric batting averages — something a career .257 hitter such as Nakamura rarely qualifies for. Nakamura, who has also won five PL Best IX awards, hit just .289, but reached base at a .400 clip, and led the league in home runs (eight) and slugging average (.711), while leading the nation with 26 RBIs.

Last month, Nakamura hit his 300th career home run and his 15th grand slam, the last figure tying him for the most in NPB history.

“It was an OK month,” he said. “I’m glad to win.”

Van den Hurk, who spent much of the first half on the Hawks farm team after suffering an injury in the spring, has finally landed a regular spot in the club’s starting rotation. The Dutch international went 3-0 in July with a 2.53 ERA and 41 strikeouts in a PL-high 32 innings.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/08/07/baseball/japanese-baseball/swallows-closer-barnette-among-three-first-time-monthly-mvp-award-winners/#.VcU9GEKUnto

 

The paradox of 1st inning bunts

Hichori Morimoto getting his “wa” on with the obligatory sacrifice bunt.

There may be nothing duller in sports than teams employing tactics routinely in a predictable fashion. In Nippon Professional Baseball, the biggest offender is the nearly automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff man reaches first in a tie game. This begins in the first inning and never stops.

Yet, as much as we despair of watching Japan’s bunt pageant, something very strange is going on.

As expected, bunting with a runner on first base increases the expectation of scoring at least one run, but decreases overall scoring. In 2,592 NPB games from 2012 to 2014, the visiting team’s leadoff man were on first base 731 times. The next batter bunted 385 times — 344 of which were credited as sacrifices).

The visitors scored in 168 of those innings for a total of 266 runs. That’s at least a run 43.6 percent of the time and an average of .743 runs per inning. In the 346 times when the next visiting bunter — I mean batter — does not strike out trying to bunt or put a bunt in play, teams scored 299 runs and scored at least one 148 times. Sounds like a good deal doesn’t it. Teams that “fail” to bunt score nearly as often — 42.8 percent to 43.6 percent — while scoring 16 percent more total runs.

Yes, it looks like the visiting teams should retire the bunt if they’re giving away so many runs for so little gain. But that’s not the whole story. The teams that benefited by failing to bunt, also failed to win as often. It doesn’t make sense, but visiting teams scoring fewer than three runs after a bunt, won more often than teams scoring the same number of runs in an inning without a bunt.

winning percentages with: 0 runs: bunt .455; no bunt .378 — 1 run: bunt .538; no bunt .485 — 2 runs: .700; no bunt .526.

To say that Japan adores the sacrifice bunt is no exaggeration, and despite doing much better on the scoreboard without first-inning bunts, visiting teams from 2012 to 2014 did worse in win the win column when not executing the nation’s favorite tactic.