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.

Hiroshima’s hot corner

 

Hector Luna appears headed to Hiroshima after three seasons with the Central League-rival Chunichi Dragons.

Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times @JCoskrey tweeted today that the Hiroshima Carp were moving to sign former Chunichi Dragon third baseman Hector Luna and commented that it would be a good pick up for them.  He is probably spot on because the Carp offense at third base was easily Japan’s worst.

If you look at NPB offenses as a whole in 2015, ranking them by OPS of the starters of the nine positions on the field, you get the following order: 1B: .759, 3B: 734, RF: .730, LF: .723, 2B: .696, SS: .655, C: .584, P: .248.

The .613 OPS posted by Hiroshima’s starting third baseman was not only the worst by any team in NPB. Not only that, but because the Carp catchers were more productive than the NPB norm this year, Hiroshima got less offense at third base than any other position — except the pitchers. Except when Tetsuya Kokubo started, the Carp third basemen kicked the pitchers’ butts.

However, when you say “Carp,” the first word that comes to mind is “defense.” When you say “2015 Carp,” the word is “worse than expected defense,” which is also what comes to mind if you say “Hector Luna at third base.” But you know what, that’s just an impression. Even in an off year, Hiroshima’s fielding was about average.

The Carp were a fairly well-balanced team last year with very good starting pitching thanks to Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda. A few of their hitters had terrible seasons, and Brad Eldred started the season hurt. If their pitching takes a step backward without Maeda, but the offense rebounds and they get a good year from Luna and Eldred, their fielding should be enough to get them into the postseason.

My defensive nature when it comes to word association games aside, I think Luna will be, as Jason stated, a good acquisition.

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:

 

The Boys of Winter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Terry Collins had a lot to smile about at the winter meetings.

While there are plenty of news junkies this week in Nashville at the baseball winter meetings, the absolute best part is running into people you’ve known for a long time or have wanted to meet for a long time. On Tuesday, I spoke briefly with former Orix manager Terry Collins, who is now riding high and aiming higher with the NL champion New York Mets.

My story for Kyodo News is here.

Later that day, burdened by the jet lag albatross, I ran into former Triple Crown-winner Boomer Wells and former Seibu Lion Terry Whitfield. Boomer’s the greatest and as usual had several stories to make my day. Terry is someone I’d wanted to talk to ever since fate steered me toward Japan. I had been a fan of his with the San Francisco Giants, and I remember him coming back to the Dodgers after he left Seibu.

I also ran into Charlie Manuel, who told me that what he got out of Japan was the lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around Charlie Manuel — which we now know is true, because science has proved it revolves around Boomer Wells.

Boomer Wells

Nippon Ham Fighters scout Matt Winters, whose quest for beer nirvana is awe-inspiring, said he’s “trying to catch up with Boomer,” which seemed an impossible chase, given Boomer’s inspired start. But Boomer, the former New York Jets lineman and Japanese baseball legend, is being a sport and has slimmed down considerably, looking much fitter than he has in a long time. Man that was good to see.

Winter meetings warming up

The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.
The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.

The good thing about Opryland is that you don’t have to ride the boats to get from one end of the facility to the other, but the sight of the Baseball Winter Meetings a HUGE facility.  One element of the meetings is the continual stream of front-office people mingling in lobbies and corridors. At Opryland, the miracle mile, is a bridge near the lobby.

Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.
Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.

After a slow start on Sunday, in which the main piece of news was a “reported” signing of Hisashi Iwakuma by the Los Angeles Dodgers, things picked up a little bit on Monday as the managers press conferences began and more and more team officials and agents arrived. Monday, however, brought no clarity to Iwakuma’s status, as agent Adam Katz, who also represents Carp ace Kenta Maeda, refusing to comment on a deal that has not been completed.

Maeda is currently in posting limbo as his paperwork is cleared by MLB, so Katz said he was as free with his words as he’ll ever get regarding the two-time Sawamura Award winner.

“I expect that once the process starts, I’m not going to be providing updates, unfortunately. It’s not something I’ve done in all my years of representing ballplayers. So this will probably be it,” Katz said.

 

 

Does Japan’s game slow down in 2nd half?

Unlike most NPB teams, the Yakult Swallows were at full speed in the second half this year. Shingo Kawabaa slides into third with a September triple against DeNA BayStars third baseman Aarom Baldiris.

Many years ago, while exploring ways Japanese ball varied from the major league variety, I noticed that in Nippon Professional Baseball, triples declined in the second half of the season, while in the majors they increase slightly. Despite fewer games played over a longer season with a less arduous travel schedule, a lot of Japanese players look gassed in the second half.

Take Kosuke Fukudome. Back in his heyday with the Chunichi Dragons, running on the right fielder’s arm in April was a risky proposition. But three months into the season, runners would go from first to third with impunity on balls hit to right field. Considering the long practice schedule on off days and the two or more hours of practice before each game, it’s no wonder.

With the magic of the internet comes better access to potential sources of answers, and you know what? While the batting average on balls in play increases in the second half of the season — regardless which side of the Pacific you are on, the frequency of batters reaching third on those hits still decreases in the second half.

Splitting the season between June 30 and July 1, NPB teams since 2006 have hit triples on 1.73 percent of first-half hits, and 1.6 percent of second-half hits. In the majors, using the All-Star break from mlb.com as a convenient break point, MLB teams since 2006 increased from 2 percent in the first half to 2.1 percent in the second half.

I did a story for Kyodo News last month about the conditioning programs of the SoftBank Hawks and Yakult Swallows, the two teams that met in the Japan Series after beating up their leagues in the second half. It’s a small sample size, but the Hawks and Swallows were both below average in triples in the first half but well ahead of their leagues in the second.

Hawks players did intense training from the spring, flipping and hammering truck tires, and it appeared to pay off. Conditioning coach Atsushi Toriida, left, looks on.

Remembering Fukudome, I wondered if outfield assists followed a similar pattern. For NPB as a whole, outfield assists decreased in the second half this year, the first year I have kept regular fielding totals during the season. Hawks outfielders threw out eight runners in the first half, 10 in the second half, while the Swallows declined from 16 to 10.