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.

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:

 

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.