A second look at a first base mystery

Giants veteran Shinnosuke Abe was a novice at first base this season, and is at the heart of a fielding whodunnit.

While figuring out my ballot for Golden Glove winners, I often resort to Bill James’ Win Shares as a not-so-quick-and-dirty guide to fielding value. What? No Ultimate Zone Ratings? Nippon Professional Baseball HAS UZR info, but it’s not made public.

One of the things the Win Shares numbers pointed out was the absurd number of putouts by Yomiuri Giants first basemen, headlined by their longtime catcher, Shinnosuke Abe.  Because estimated unassisted putouts by first baseman carry a lot of weight in the system, the Giants’ 1,375 put outs at first on a total of just 1,309 ground ball outs to the other five positions around the infield, made Abe look like a glove wiz.

But to be honest, Abe often looked uncomfortable at first, making poor decisions about where to throw the ball and reacting poorly to ground balls. The play-by-play numbers, the number of ground ball outs he fielded and the number of flies he caught indicate a player who didn’t deserve a Golden Glove vote.

Adjusting for the Giants’ pitching staff’s composition of lefties and its ground-fly tendencies, Yomiuri first basemen fielded 13 ground ball outs less than expected and one fly less than expected, while starting two double plays, two fewer than expected — with Abe starting zero, despite being the most frequent contributor at first. Abe has yet to start one at first. Perhaps he’d do better if they let him wear his catchers mitt.

So what caused that egregious number of putouts? From the looks of it, the key to the mystery is at second base, where Giants’ fielders made just 189 non-fly putouts. It seems that force plays at second were a rare event at Tokyo Dome this year due to having so few runners on first base, nearly a hundred fewer than any other team in NPB. Fewer runners on first base meant fewer force opportunities at other bases — meaning many of the putouts that would have gone to other bases, instead went to first, skewing the Giants’ numbers.

And after slandering the vote for tubby RBI leader Kazuhiro Hatakeyama of the Yakult Swallows, I have to admit his raw numbers were good. Like the rest of the Yakult infield, Hatake read first-year skipper Mitsuru Manaka’s memo over the winter about the importance of defense. In the previous two seasons combined, Yakult first baseman had fielded 17 balls fewer than expected and been minus five in starting double plays. This year they were plus 32 and plus one.

I demand a new ballot!

Japan’s award weirdness

All-everything Tetsuto Yamada in full swing.

One hears a lot of teeth gnashing and groaning during Japan’s award season, and for good reason.

The MVP awards are, more often than not, an exercise in trying to pick the best player on the pennant-winning team. How this started, no one seems to know, but reporters I’ve quizzed about it say voters will never be criticized for selecting a player on a pennant-winning team or a player from another team, provided he has an outlier season — such as Wladimir Balentien shattering Japan’s single-season home run record despite playing for a last-place team. It seems progress is being made on this front.

Take 2014 for instance.

The 2014 Pacific League winner was Buffaloes pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, whose team lost the pennant by a matter of winning-percentage points. The runner-up was this year’s MVP, Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, and third place went to slugging Fighters ace Shohei Otani, who was the league’s second best pitcher and its second most valuable designated hitter and thus a better candidate than Kaneko…

A year ago, the Central League award went to Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose team won the pennant by seven games. But second place went to Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who like Yanagita had his breakthrough season in 2014 before running away with the 2015 vote. Third place in the CL last year went to Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger.

The Swallows dominated this year’s MVP voting despite winning the league by 1-1/2 games over the Giants. One has to wonder how the vote would have been different had the Giants won two more games. Would right-hander Miles Mikolas, the top Giants player in the poll, have been MVP after throwing 145 innings with a nifty 1.92 earned run average and a 13-3 record? Mikolas finished seventh in the voting because the Giants fell short. Certainly, a Giants pennant would have wiped out support for Swallows ace Masanori Ishikawa (13-9, 3.31 ERA), who finished fifth in the voting. But the way the Japan media votes, he could easily have been voted the best player in the league if his team had been just a little luckier.

Well maybe not.

It would have been hard to knock off Yamada, whose 119 runs were 32 more than teammate Shingo Kawabata’s total. That 32-run gap between the league leader and the runner-up is the second largest in history. Only Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh did him two better, leading the league by 34 runs in 1969. Though when people in Japan speak of titles, little things like that are typically overlooked.

Playing in a hitters’ park, Yamada led both of Nippon Professional Baseball’s leagues in doubles and home runs, and trailed in RBIs by five after spending part of the season in the leadoff spot. He tied for the Japan lead in stolen bases, was third in walks, was runner-up in batting average, while leading in OBP and slugging average.

It was no real surprise that he won in a landslide. The surprise came the day before when the two leagues’ Best IX Award winners were named, and three voters, the same ones who vote for the MVPs — the ballot is on the same sheet of paper along with the Rookie of the Year — thought Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Carp was a more valuable second baseman than Yamada. Kikuchi is a heck of a fielder, and a productive hitter, but let’s get real.

If you think Kikuchi is better, it’s not the end of the world. We all have dumb ideas or fixations now and then. But if those three thought Kikuchi was better, how come he didn’t get any MVP votes? This is puzzling because Yamada was named on every single ballot cast for CL players with 262 first-place votes, seven seconds, and one third. Kikuchi went 0-for-3, so one has to wonder what happened to those three voters.

Yanagita was not a dominant force like Yamada, but the PL is a tougher league than the CL is. Although Yanagita hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals like Yamada and even won a batting title, he spent a lot of the season in the shadow of Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who rewrote the single-season hit record in dramatic fashion over the final two games of the season.

There was really no contest for MVP as Yanagita was the dominant player on a historically dominant team, but Akiyama got 11 first-place votes to finish runner-up. In the Best IX vote, Akiyama was named on every ballot, while Yanagita was left off three (perhaps they were Seibu beat writers).

It’s hard to argue the singles-hitting Akiyama is a better player, but if you think so, that’s OK and he was a decent choice for No. 2, but demoting Yanagita off the Best IX ballot? Too weird.

Is there an MLB match for Machi?

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro “Machi” Matsuda.

@bronxfanatic asked about Nobuhiro Matsuda’s chances of signing with a major league team.

The San Diego Padres had reportedly been interested in the dynamic third baseman of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks–just as they had been reportedly looking into Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani a year ago. Fox Sports reports the two sides met earlier this week.

The chances of someone offering Matsuda guaranteed major league deal are small, given his age; he’ll be 33 in May. Another factor is that while Matsuda is a quality third baseman, all of his career has been spent on artificial surfaces.

Matsuda stands far off the plate in the right-handed batter’s box, daring pitchers to throw him outside and then shoots pitches to right field. Because those are his favorite targets, he can be enticed by outside pitches well off the plate. When he fails to make contact with those, he regains his balance by bouncing around the plate on one foot–what John E. Gibson  calls the “hot-foot dance.”

His success, and I believe he has a chance to succeed is in scrapping his preconceived notions about what works for him and start fresh. The change in velocity and pitching style will require major adjustments that are not easy for a mature player, so a large drop off is to be expected. He is athletic and smart enough to find a new approach, but it’s not a good bet to make.

On the plus side, he has won four Pacific League Golden Gloves, is a LEADER on the field, and according to the foreign players on the Hawks, the funniest guy in the club house. He could easily be a team favorite like his mentor, Munenori Kawasaki, and prove valuable after winning a job in a spring training invite.

That being said, he has said he will return to the Hawks if no deal is pending. This is essentially a similar situation to the one Toritani found himself in a year ago. Because he’s not high on the board, teams will wait to see who moves where before making Matsuda an attractive offer. Last year, Toritani put a mid-January deadline on negotiations because he felt he had to tell the Tigers if he would be available on Feb. 1 for spring training.

So while, Matsuda could win a job in the spring, he is unlikely to leave the Hawks in the lurch by going without a contract, and thus he is not likely to get the opportunity he longs for.

Will Kenta Maeda be posted?

Kenta Maeda while pitching for Japan.

On Tuesday, Kenta Maeda told the Hiroshima Carp for the third straight year that he wants to be posted. But unlike the past two autumns, Carp GM Kiyoaki Suzuki has kept the door open.

Suzuki has in the past said, “when it’s the best time for him, the team and the fans,” and “when he performs like an ace,” adding that Maeda’s case is much stronger now then it was two years ago.

The best time for Maeda is now.

But for the team, which thrives on underpaying its stars while merchandising the heck out of them, it is obviously not the best time. The penurious Carp would lose a year from Japan’s best pitcher (at the moment) at a cost of around $3 million as well as licensing revenue from shirt sales and other trinkets in exchange for $20 million it  can still collect a year from now.

As for the fans, as much as they’d live watching Maeda on TV pitching in the majors, having him in red with the promise of pennant contention would be better.

The Carp began play in 1950 and went 25 years without a pennant. After a stretch 17 seasons as a CL powerhouse, 2015 was the club’s 24th straight season without a league title.

Premier 12 all-tournament team & 9th inning madness

 

The WBSC has named its all-tournament team for the inaugural Premier 12, which includes the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani (starting pitcher) and Sho Nakata (first baseman), while Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto was named the tournament’s outstanding defensive player.

Three days after third-place Japan blew a three-run lead to lose its semifinal to eventual champion South Korea, the smoke has yet to clear over manager Hiroki Kokubo’s game management.

Some question his removing Otani after 85 pitches over seven innings for two-time Pacific League strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who had been very sharp in relief through the tournament.

Others, including my podcast partner, John E Gibson, question Kokubo leaving Norimoto, a starter with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, who dispatched the Koreans in the eighth on eight pitches, in to work the ninth — since that is the domain of closers. After having zero luck with Norimoto’s fastball in the eighth, South Korea’s hitters began getting good swings at his secondary pitches. Good swings and good luck. The worst pitch he threw was a forkball that missed up over the plate, a pitch that leadoff hitter Jeong Keun Woo smashed just inside the third-base line for an RBI double. You can see the video here.

After the game, Kokubo said, “I wanted to bring in (lefty) Yuki Matsui with runners on second and third. But Norimoto hit the next batter. If there had been a base open, I think Matsui would have had more margin for error.”

Huh? He had a base open before Norimoto’s pitch came close enough to Lee Yong Kyu’s elbow for the umpire to award the batter first base. Kokubo wanted Matsui in with a base open, and didn’t bring him in then to face the lefty Lee, but waited for a bases-loaded to bring in a 20-year-old with a history of spotty control who is playing for the national team for the first time. Matsui walked the only batter he faced to make it a one-run game. Lee Dae Ho, who has seen Fighters closer Hirotoshi Masui pitch for four years, did well to lay off a 1-1 fastball off the outside corner before making  contact on a forkball over the outer half of the plate for a two-run single.

Norimoto’s control was horrible to start the inning, but he made two decent pitches that were hit for singles before Jeong’s double. Norimoto was part of the plan, no problem. But Kokubo wasn’t prepared for what he might need if the inning got out of control early, as it did.

Kokubo had four guys on his roster who close out games for a living, and a starter, submariner Kazuhisa Makita who has been deadly in relief, and none were ready when Kokubo could have used them the most.

Premier 12 or Premie 12?

The biggest moment of the Premier 12, South Korea’s stunning semifinal win over Japan at Tokyo Dome.

A pal referred to the Premier 12 as the Premie 12. Which kind of makes sense.

The tournament, which concluded Saturday night at Tokyo Dome, is living, breathing, andworth seeing. But it’s also underdeveloped and in need of love and care if it is to grow into a part of fans’ lives.

The tournament, organized by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, brings together teams from the 12 top national federations in the WBSC’s rankings. Two, six-team groups played a total of 30 group games for four quarterfinal berths.

Japan, which has turned its national team into a business (NPB Enterprises) with a full-time manager, Hiroki Kokubo, has had this tournament on its radar for years. The WBSC’s inability to negotiate a deal with MLB meant no players on MLB 40-man rosters were eligible to play, meaning nations with strong domestic leagues such as Japan and South Korea had an advantage.

Although Japan failed to reach the final due to a ninth-inning, four-run meltdown against South Korea at Tokyo Dome in Thursday’s semifinal. Kokubo, who was named to manage Japan in 2013 with no managing or coaching experience, carried four NPB closers on his roster but none were warm when South Korea’s first two hitters reached base in the ninth.

The 4-3 victory by manager Kim In Sik’s team over a previously undefeated Japan team was a mirror image of South Korea’s effort in the 2006 WBC. That year, Kim’s squad beat Japan twice en route to a 6-0 record through two rounds only to lose eventual champion Japan in a semifinal that was a scoreless tie through six innings. That result was much closer than Japan’s 10-6 win over Cuba in the final, when Japan led 6-1 after five innings.

Japan mauled Mexico 11-1 in the third-place game, while South Korea socked the United States 8-0 in the final to grab the gold.

As with the 2006 WBC, the Japan-South Korea semifinal was the tournament’s big game, as was their final at Dodger Stadium in 2009, when Yu Darvish blew the lead in relief after a strong start by Hisashi Iwakuma only to have Japan win it on a two-run, 10th-inning single by Ichiro Suzuki.

Overall, the games have been entertaining.

Shohei Otani hit 100 miles per hour in both of his impressive starts against South Korea and finished with 21 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

The attendance was abysmal except in games played by Japan or Taiwan — or the final which was the second game of a doubleheader which many Japan supporters stayed to watch. The slick website was outsourced and, according to a WBSC spokesman, designed to support 15,000 visitors at a time, instead of the 1 million trying to log in.

Given the popularity of international soccer, it is possible to see how international baseball can capture imaginations and create a massive new market in the coming years. It’s not nearly there yet, but at some point the marginal value of 20 days of league play in a long season could be outweighed by a two-week international break in which national teams compete in front of huge summer crowds around the northern hemisphere and attract worldwide TV audiences.

Prior to the tournament opener on Nov. 8 at Sapporo Dome, Kim said he wanted the world to know how good the games were between his country and Japan, and the Premier 12 allowed him to deliver.