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!

Author: jballa5_wp

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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