Japan’s double-edged weapon, Part 2

By Jim Allen

In the last post, I mentioned how visiting NPB teams were winning more often when they bunted in the first inning with no outs and a runner on first base. Someone suggested that perhaps scoring the first run when on the road was bigger than it is at home, but prior to 2011 — when teams were able to choose very lively balls, it was the home team that benefited by bunting in the bottom of the first in scoreless games.

Starting with play-by-play data from 2003 to 2016, I noted what the first batter did in the first inning what the following hitter did, how many runs were scored, each starting pitcher’s runs allowed per nine innings that season and whether the team won or lost.




From 2003 to 2010, visiting NPB teams posted a .458 win percentage in games when they attempted a bunt in the first inning after the leadoff man reached first base via a walk, a hit batsman, a single, an error, a fielder’s choice or an uncaught swinging third strike. When faced with those situations and the No. 2 hitter’s plate appearance did not end in an attempted bunt, the visitors posted a .504 winning percentage.

From 2011, visitors bunting in the first inning had .502 winning percentages, those not bunting in the top of the first with the No. 2 hitter had a .459 figure.

For home teams it was the reverse. Before 2011, they won more often when bunting. Since 2011, they are bunting more often and costing themselves wins.




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?

Getting Japan to do the two-seam: It’s not just the ball

By Jim Allen

Ever since talking with Tsuyoshi Wada last summer, I’ve had this curiosity about two-seam fastballs in Japan. The former Chicago Cub said he’s kind of on a mission to popularize the pitch in Nippon Professional Baseball — because Japanese hitters need to see it so they can hit foreign pitchers who feature it.




Until very recently, I thought the principle reason for the lack of two-seamers in Japan was the ball. The ball in the majors seems to give extra movement to straight pitches — essentially making them less straight. But talking to people who’ve pitched here and in the States during the winter meetings, I was told that Japan’s mounds are the biggest obstacle to a good two-seamer*.

According to Matt Skrmetta and Takashi Saito, a good two-seamer requires a good downward plane to begin with and the combination of low, soft mounds and pitchers that are shorter in stature makes that difficult to reproduce.

” Japanese mounds tend to be flatter and softer,” Saito said.

“In Japan, because the mounds are flat, a two-seamer doesn’t sink, it flattens out and runs, kind of like a shuto**. In America, you have a greater height difference that gives you sink, like a forkball. Because of that, those pitches outside become really hard to hit. The pitches are hard and can eat you up. Those are really nasty.”

Saito said he was stunned the first time he saw big leaguers bringing their good two-seamers in the bullpen.

“They were more spectacular than forkballs.”

Those comments brought to mind Japanese mounds. I haven’t heard reports on all the mounds — upcoming project alert — but those at Sapporo Dome and Tokyo Dome have received good reports from foreign pitchers. No one has anything nice to say about the hill at Koshien Stadium, but the one that really interested me was Seibu Lions’. MetLife Dome — the ballpark formally known as Prince– used to have a famously soft, sandy mound.

That came to my attention watching Luis Mendoza, then with the Fighters, vigorously landscaping the slope with his cleats between pitches. I asked former Lion Dennis Sarfate about that and he said that Seibu kept it soft out of deference for submariner Kazuhisa Makita despite it not suiting the Lions’ ace at the time, Takayuki Kishi.




After Sarfate mentioned that during the 2015 Japan Series, I checked and found that Kishi pitched relatively poorly at home. Kishi left the Lions as a free agent after the 2016 season to pitch with his hometown Rakuten Eagles — after the Lions told him in negotiations they had given the right-hander their final offer and he could take it or leave it. Way to go guys.

Anyway, what’s interesting now is that according to Delta Graphs the Lions suddenly shifted from having NPB’s second-lowest percentage of two-seamers thrown in 2016 to the highest in 2017, largely thanks to Brian Wolfe.

The reason this who topic came up in the first place was the hyperbola in Japan the past year about the “moving fastballs” major leaguers were throwing in the World Baseball Classic. The only major leaguer on the Japan roster, Norichika Aoki, was brought in partly to educate his fellow hitters about this secret weapon.

 

But if Japanese teams decide to standardize their mounds, as they’ve standardized the ball in a process that involved kicking, screaming and a coup d’etat, then it will add one more dimension to Japan’s game. Hey I love the game here and I loved the idiosyncracies of having five different kinds of balls, but it didn’t really make the game any more interesting.




*-I stay away from using “sinker” in Japan, since that implies a different pitch, essentially a changeup thrown by a right-hander with sink and arm-side fade.

**-The “shuto” is a fastball thrown slightly off center and cut to get more arm-side run. Essentially a reverse cutter.

Senichi Hoshino walks off into the sunset and a bit about another favorite manager

By Jim Allen

A week ago, Senichi Hoshino became Japan’s second Hall of Fame manager to die in the past six months, following the death of Toshiharu Ueda last July. Both were famous for hating to lose, but I became acquainted with both men late in their lives, when their inner furies were calmer and their big hearts easier to see.

As players they were extreme opposites. Hoshino was a marquee college star and Central League pitching ace. Ueda was a catcher whose college batterymate, Minoru Murayama, became a legendary CL pitcher, while he had the briefest of careers before being steered toward coaching.

As managers, Ueda and Hoshino became famous for their tempers.

I met Ueda first, when he was at the end of his run as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters. I was writing my annual sabermetric guides to Japanese baseball then and was able to wrangle visitors passes thanks to the intervention of one of my first readers, Hiroshi Yoshimura, who is currently the general manager of the Fighters.

I was at Tokyo Dome to interview pitcher Kip Gross, and not knowing anything about anything, we chatted in the home team dining room, which is off limits to the media. While we were there, Ueda noticed I wasn’t eating and said, “Help yourself to something to eat! It’s free!”

Years later, when I began working for the Daily Yomiuri, I would often run into Ueda at the ballpark, doing what former and or aspiring managers do, working as a media analyst. He sort of reminded me of a Japanese Santa Clause. Without fail, he’d walk up to me and offer me a piece of candy (“nodo ame” in Japanese). He seemed genuinely interested that a foreigner would care about Japanese baseball.

My first encounter with Hoshino was a little different. He was still managing the Chunichi Dragons, and I was writing the Japan Times season previews. That year I’d written that a pair of 34-year-olds coming off big seasons, the late Yasuaki Taiho and (current San Francisco Giants batting coach) Alonzo Powell  would likely see their combined production decrease the following season. Like a lot of ballplayers, Powell was not happy about that kind of “negative” stuff being printed about him in English where his friends and family could see it.

Powell asked to see me, and I interviewed him one afternoon before a day game at Jingu Stadium. He’s a wonderful guy and he said he understood that I had a right to my opinion but was just disappointed by it. While we were talking Hoshino was sitting a ways down the bench holding court with the Dragons beat writers and giving me the evil eye as if I was distracting from his show.

I told that to Robert Whiting, the Japanese baseball story teller emeritus,  and he recounted his own first contact with Hoshino in the spring of 1975 after the right-hander won the Sawamura Award and the Dragons had won the ’74 pennant. Whiting was talking to manager Wally Yonamine when Hoshino came in and said, “kono yarou ha dare?” — essentially, “who is this peckerwood?” After being told that Whiting was there to interview him, Hoshino apparently puffed out his chest and warmed up to the situation.

That story, the published accounts of his beating his players and my much more limited Japanese kept me from approaching Hoshino when I was sent out to cover the last three games of the 1999 Japan Series. But four years later, when Hoshino’s Hanshin Tigers were in their first Japan Series since 1985, I felt confident enough to ask him a question or two.

I was following the Tigers as they were on the verge of clinching the pennant, and asked Hoshino about whether right-hander Trey Moore, banished to the farm team for much of the second half, was going to pitch. I don’t remember Hoshino’s answer, but his face lit up as if nobody had asked him such an interesting question all year.

That was prior to the first game of a series at Nagoya Dome against Hoshino’s old club. The day before the series finale, Hoshino walked up to me and whispered, “Your boy’s going tomorrow, haha!”

He smiled as if he were a boy being naughty and in a sense he was, since giving away starting pitcher information — which ostensibly could be used to help gamblers handicap games — was forbidden in NPB and players had been suspended in the past for passing that info on to gamblers.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the season, Hoshino feinted and was rushed to a hospital. He was told stress had caused him to collapse, and he quit managing at the end of the Japan Series.

He took a post as the Tigers’ senior director, and I’d occasionally run into him. But one night on the train with my wife, I noticed an ad with Hoshino’s mug on it and it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him in a long while — only to share an elevator with him the next afternoon at Tokyo Dome.

I told him that and he said out loud so that all the other occupants of the elevator could hear him, “That was an omen that was!” and he clapped me on the back.

After he took over the Rakuten Eagles in 2011, my wife baked him a loaf of bread for Opening Day — delayed for several weeks by the earthquake that had damaged his team’s home park and that of the Lotte Marines where the Eagles opened their season.

When he saw me at the park that day, he greeted me in what was to become our ritual: “What the heck are you doing here?”

To which I would answer: “I’m here to report on you.”

“That’s a lie!” he’d say, laugh and walk off before returning to chat. For a while though he’d answer, “Oh I thought maybe you brought me more bread.”

At that time, I had become acquainted with a couple of players from the Hiroshima Carp’s first pennant-winning team in 1975 and was thinking about a book on that. The Dragons, then the defending CL champs, lost a close race to the Carp and Hoshino would talk in dribs and drabs about that season and those days before game time, but when it came time to commit to a longer interview away from the field, he always kept his distance and the interview never happened.

About that same time, I began pushing Ueda for an interview, too, since he won his first Pacific League pennant as manager of the Hankyu Braves in 1975 and had defeated the Carp in their first Japan Series. Instead of an interview, Ueda invited my wife and I out to dinner with his grandson and gave us a lovely gift afterward. That was the last time we met.

Here’s a story I wrote for Kyodo News after Ueda died.

The last time I saw Hoshino was in January 2016 at his Hall of Fame induction. I congratulated him and asked if we couldn’t get an interview before too long, and he said, “Yes. Let’s do it,” but we never got beyond that. Because there were other people there that day whose stories I was less familiar with, and wanted to hear more from, I lost my last chance to spend time with “Sen-chan.”

https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2017/07/3cd64938220e-feature-baseball-uedas-passing-marks-end-of-an-era.html?phrase=Toshiharu%20Ueda&words=Ueda%27s,Toshiharu,Ueda

For a lot of people, an old-school, bust-your-chops manager like Senichi Hoshino could be a put off. He was after all, famous for intimidating umpires and his own players, but he got results.

As a pitcher, he was respected for his combativeness, particularly against the Yomiuri Giants — due to his grudge against them for passing over him in the 1968 amateur draft. He was more of a great competitor than a great pitcher, but he was a tremendous manager.

My first sort-of encounter with Hoshino came while I was chatting with Alonzo Powell on the visitors bench at Jingu Stadium. Powell was then still with the Chunichi Dragons. While we were talking,  Hoshino was chatting a few feet away with reporters, and the skipper kept giving me suspicious looks.

Although I had a better chance to talk to him when I went to Nagoya to cover the Japan Series for the first time in 1999, I was frankly a little frightened by him and not very confident in my truly lousy Japanese. So it wasn’t until he was managing the Hanshin Tigers in 2003 and they were on the verge of their first Central League pennant in 18 years that I mustered the nerve to speak to the great ornery one.