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.

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.

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:

 

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.

Preseason complete games

Nippon Ham’s Satoshi Niimi was one of at least 13 pitchers who threw nine innings in a preseason exhibition in March 1975.

OK, so it’s hardly the heart of darkness, but back in the 1970’s, pitchers in preseason exhibitions occasionally threw complete games as they prepared for the Nippon Professional Baseball season.

When you look at old box scores, the numbers of pitches thrown by starters can be an eye opener, but the sight of seeing a guy throw 90 pitches in an exhibition game on March 1, 1975, catches one’s attention. The pitcher in question, journeyman right-hander Toru Hamaura, threw 91 pitches over five innings that day for the Fukuoka-based Taiheiyo Club Lions.

This was when teams looked at innings, rather than pitch totals — although pitch counts were dutifully reported in Japan’s sports newspapers. What you notice is that guys aren’t throwing more than six innings the first two weeks.

So while innings were curtailed, Hanshin Tigers veteran Tomohiro Tanimura threw 111 pitches over five innings on March 11. Shigeo Nagashima, then a rookie skipper with the Yomiuri Giants, may have just been showing off on the same date in Florida, when Osamu Shimano was allowed to throw a 100-pitch complete game in the Grapefruit League.

By the third week of March, seven-inning starts and 100-pitch outings became more and more common. One of the features of the schedule then was a large number of double headers, and this even penetrated the preseason, with teams frequently playing two. In a March 23 doubleheader against the Yakult Swallows, Satoshi Niimi threw 124-pitch complete game in the opener, while Fighters ace Naoki Takahashi wrapped up the nightcap with an efficient 113 pitches. The apex or nadir — depending on one’s view point — came on March 27, when Lotte Orions ace Fumio Narita threw 144 pitches over nine innings.