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!

Dave Okubo’s disappearing runner trick

Rakuten skipper Dave Okubo’s aggressive base running has led to some head scratching in Sendai.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, host John E. Gibson interviewed Julio Franco, the player-manager of the Ishikawa Million Stars in Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League. One topic they discussed was being aggressive on the bases. Japanese teams tend toward playing station-to-station ball,  but Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, the new manager of the Rakuten Eagles, likes players to take more risks on the bases.

John and I both appreciate the idea behind taking everything you can get on the bases, but the Eagles’ reckless abandon has come at a cost, something John has begun to comment on.

Through Sunday, Aug. 24, the Eagles have been caught stealing an NPB-high 54 times, a huge factor in the team’s losing the highest percentage of runners on base this season (not counting runners out on ground ball double plays): 6.7 percent. That, and the club’s lack of power — their 67 home runs are last in the Pacific League and 11th fewest in NPB, while they are last in Japan in doubles and triples — contribute to the Eagles scoring just a Japan-low 22.9 percent of their runners on base. The Eagles have the third lowest de facto on-base percentage (the percentage of runners who reach safely by any means): .318.

So the Eagles have the fewest runners on base in the first place, they lose more of those guys running the bases, and their 84 sacrifice hits are third in the PL, so they should be staying out of double plays. But the Eagles’ 73 GDPs are third in NPB, behind the Hawks and Swallows, the league leaaders in OBP.

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.

Japan’s bunt paradox part 2

Kenta Imamiya of the Hawks bunts with no outs in the top of the first inning against the Buffaloes.

In a previous rant and observation about Japan’s ubiquitous first-inning sacrifice bunts, I noticed that teams in Nippon Professional Baseball that bunt in the first innings of scoreless games gain no advantage in how often they put at least one run on the board AND score fewer overall runs, BUT win games more often.

Those results, based on the first innings of the 2,592 regular season games played between 2012 and 2014, looked suspicious, so I increased the study to include the games played from 2007 and 2011.  Of the eight years in the study, in only three of them did visitors win more often when trying to bunt the leadoff man to second in the first inning. The three years were 2007, 2013 and 2014–three of the lower-scoring seasons in the study.

NPB introduced a uniform, less-lively ball in 2011. Since then, scoring has decreased sharply. With that decrease, the cost of the first-inning sacrifice has decreased. Since the switch, visiting teams can expect to score .79 runs per inning when the leadoff man is not sacrificed to second. That is a decrease of .11 runs per inning in the same situations before 2011, while the number of runs expected per inning after a sacrifice has remained nearly constant (dropping from .69 to .68.

The strangest thing about bunting in the first inning–and almost half the time the leadoff man is on first in NPB a successful sacrifice follows–is that the chance of scoring one or more runs in the first inning after the leadoff man reaches first is NOT effected by a sacrifice. The NPB data show a slight advantage to sacrificing after the 5th through 8th hitters are on first base with no outs but no appreciable difference in the first inning with the team’s best hitters coming to the plate.

With current low levels of offense, bunting the leadoff man to second base in the top of the first is costing Japanese teams a 10th of a run per sacrifice — yet despite giving away outs and runs, the visitors employing this strategy are now making out like bandits: winning their games at a .513 clip compared to the .459 winning percentage of visiting clubs that “fail” to sacrifice the leadoff man to second.

One person suggested on Twitter that sacrifice bunts lead to more wins BECAUSE teams sacrifice more often with their best starting pitchers on the mound. A quick look shows there is something to this. From 2007 to 2014, Japanese visiting teams with a big winner on the mound (12 wins or more that season) will sacrifice the leadoff man to second in 54 percent of their opportunities. The percentage with lesser pitchers on the mound is 47 percent.

This bias remained more or less constant from 2007 to 2014, but somehow didn’t help visiting teams before 2011. Before 2011, visitors that sacrificed the leadoff man to second base in the first inning went 204-253 (.446), while teams that did not bunt the runner over went 255-265 (.490). 

The paradox of 1st inning bunts

Hichori Morimoto getting his “wa” on with the obligatory sacrifice bunt.

There may be nothing duller in sports than teams employing tactics routinely in a predictable fashion. In Nippon Professional Baseball, the biggest offender is the nearly automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff man reaches first in a tie game. This begins in the first inning and never stops.

Yet, as much as we despair of watching Japan’s bunt pageant, something very strange is going on.

As expected, bunting with a runner on first base increases the expectation of scoring at least one run, but decreases overall scoring. In 2,592 NPB games from 2012 to 2014, the visiting team’s leadoff man were on first base 731 times. The next batter bunted 385 times — 344 of which were credited as sacrifices).

The visitors scored in 168 of those innings for a total of 266 runs. That’s at least a run 43.6 percent of the time and an average of .743 runs per inning. In the 346 times when the next visiting bunter — I mean batter — does not strike out trying to bunt or put a bunt in play, teams scored 299 runs and scored at least one 148 times. Sounds like a good deal doesn’t it. Teams that “fail” to bunt score nearly as often — 42.8 percent to 43.6 percent — while scoring 16 percent more total runs.

Yes, it looks like the visiting teams should retire the bunt if they’re giving away so many runs for so little gain. But that’s not the whole story. The teams that benefited by failing to bunt, also failed to win as often. It doesn’t make sense, but visiting teams scoring fewer than three runs after a bunt, won more often than teams scoring the same number of runs in an inning without a bunt.

winning percentages with: 0 runs: bunt .455; no bunt .378 — 1 run: bunt .538; no bunt .485 — 2 runs: .700; no bunt .526.

To say that Japan adores the sacrifice bunt is no exaggeration, and despite doing much better on the scoreboard without first-inning bunts, visiting teams from 2012 to 2014 did worse in win the win column when not executing the nation’s favorite tactic.

CL simply inferior to PL

When the DeNA BayStars beat the Hanshin Tigers on Friday, July 3, Japan’s Central League finished the day with each of its six clubs below .500.

The historic fluke is the result of the annual bashing at the hands of the rival Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball’s interleague play combined with an unusually tight CL race. The Tigers’ loss left the Yakult Swallows in first place at one game below .500 and the next four teams within a half game.

The CL’s inability to keep up with the PL has been masked by normal distributions in the CL standings and — until 2005 — the lack of interleague play. But this year, with no CL club able to dominate league play and the PL winning this interleague by a 61-44 margin, the blinders are now off.

But this is not something the media is keen to note. Aside from a brief mention, on Friday night, the story has been spun about the historic balance in the CL. Guess it’s probably better to bury the obvious conclusion — that Japan’s most popular circuit, the one that for years has held most of the power — can’t cut the mustard in head-to-head competition against the league it — or perhaps more precisely, Yomiuri Giants kingpin Tsuneo Watanabe — enjoys disparaging.

In 11 years of interleague play, the CL has led the competition just once and this year’s whipping left the PL holding an 865-774 edge for a winning percentage of .528. The chances of two equally balanced leagues competing, with each club having a 50 percent chance of winning any contest and league winning 53 percent of 1,639 decisions is 1.3 percent. Any assumption that the two leagues are equally strong has to contend with that. The PL has also won 7-of-10 Japan Series since 2005, with a .569 winning percentage in the 88 individual decisions.

The more popular of Japan’s two leagues since they were created by expansion after the 1949 season, the CL has long lorded it over the PL at the ticket gate, but the head-to-head competition between the leagues tells a different story. Until 2004, Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues only battled each other in the Japan Series and the summer all-star exhibitions — in which the PL has more than held its own.

For decades, the PL’s all-star success was attributed to CL squads being overloaded with players from Japan’s oldest franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, who would be overmatched against the PL’s best — leading to the phrase “Popular Ce(ntral), Powerful Pa(cific).”

Even when it came to player movement, the CL has long benefited from its clubs’ popularity. The current version of free agency was introduced in 1993 — by the Giants as a way of securing more big name talent — and until the end of the 2010 season, every star in his prime who switched leagues directly moved from the PL to the CL.

Although the Pacific League boasts more financial heavyweights among its clubs’ parent companies, Nippon Professional Baseball was thrown into crisis from the PL side in 2004, when the remaining two PL teams in the Kansai region, playing in the shadow of the better established Tigers, decided to merge. The announcement that the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes would merge due to the constant strain of red ink, and the question over what to do with a five-team league led to talk of contraction, reorganization and Japan’s first player strike.

Interleague play — something long rejected by CL owners — was introduced as a part of the labor settlement as was an agreement by owners to expedite the approval of the Sendai-based Eagles, owned by Internet market giant Rakuten. That spring, the Nippon Ham Fighters had moved out from under the Giants’ shadow in Tokyo to baseball-starved Sapporo. And in the autumn, telecommunications powerhouse Softbank take over the Hawks and add even more energy to the once lackluster PL.

Over the past five years, the Hawks and the new Orix Buffaloes have become two of the biggest free agent spenders, while the CL’s Chunichi Dragons, a powerhouse from 2002-2011, have scaled back on player acquisitions.

Bunts and pitchers’ fielding

Beware of trying to bunt on Kenta Maeda.

There was a nice blog post the other day on Baseball Labo about fielding bunts and the huge difference in the record between last year’s Golden Glove Winners, Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Carp and Chihiro Kaneko of the Orix Buffaloes. While it didn’t go on to question Kaneko’s award — which it could have, it pointed out that the Buffaloes ace never defeats a sacrifice bunt by getting the lead runner.

In 51 sacrifice situations between 2010 and 2014, Maeda fielded 51 bunts and got one of the lead runners 11 times, for a Japan-best 21.6 percent. Kaneko, on the other hand had fielded 48 such bunts and never prevented the runner on first from reaching second.

Before last year’s Golden Glove voting, I had few tools with which to appraise pitchers — something that was annoying ever since voters handed the Central League’s Golden Glove in 2011 to setup man Takuya Asao, a strikeout pitcher who fielded a grand total of 16 balls that season. But since the sites I scrape to get my play-by-play data have noted bunt attempts since 2012, we can have perhaps a better sense of who the best fielding pitchers in NPB are.

The data set does not have base-out situations, so we are limited to total number of bunts fielded, the number of bunts in which no out is recorded and the number of sacrifices credited.

Since 2010, opponents have been credited with sacrifices on 81 percent of the bunts against Maeda which is among the best. But his teammate, right-hander Yusuke Nomura has allowed a sacrifice rate of 70 percent, the best in NPB. Considering both pitchers have allowed runners to reach safely on bunts (about 5 percent),  one might be tempted to think Nomura and his .985 fielding percentage would give him the edge over Maeda and his .939 fielding percentage.

Hiroshima’s Yusuke Nomura is not known for his fielding, yet.

Yusuke Kikuchi of the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions is also a candidate for NPB’s top fielder, with a no errors over the past four seasons, one bunter reaching safely in 44 attempts and a sacrifice rate of .84.