How would you pitch to Shohei Ohtani?

I was asked this morning how I would pitch to Shohei Ohtani, and since I can’t pitch, the answer would be to roll the ball up there until he takes first base.

Kidding aside, I hadn’t really thought much about it until now. It’s hardly an educated analysis, but he does hammer fat fastballs that aren’t at his knees, and chases sliders, splitters and changes that drop out of the zone when he’s looking to hit the ball hard. He’ll swing and miss a lot on those and on good high fastballs.

With that in mind…

He tries to drive the ball so much that he’ll chase splitters, sliders away, and change ups and look bad doing it.
I’d start him with a fastball or cutter (RHP) high and inside, then try to go low and away with something that drops. Two-seamers should kill him the 1st 6 months. NPB’s low mounds and rough balls make it hard to throw a good two-seamer here, so it’s a rarity.

You can mix in a slider on the hands to keep him off those pitches away. But don’t hang it. Same with fastballs that aren’t low in the zone. He’ll crush anything without bite or movement and drive it to center if its middle away.

He’s used to seeing the best curves in the world, so unless it’s coming off a fastball with two strikes it needs to be really good. To get ahead in the count, you have to throw strikes or be on the edge of the zone to start with because he has good discipline. However, because the NPB zone is truer horizontally — not shifted away from the hitter — than MLB’s used to be, so until he makes that adjustment, pitches outside that are balls in NPB but MLB strikes will be another challenge.

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.”,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.


NPB sells itself short Chapter 11: The new posting system and the future

By Jim Allen

What just happened?

By using Shohei Otani’s posting as leverage, the Major League Baseball Players Association has gotten Nippon Professional Baseball–to paraphrase one NPB team executive–to bend over and take it again.

The new posting agreement according to the Associated Press, changes future postings to a fixed scale at the following rates based on the value of the contract:

  • 20 percent of the 1st $25 million.
  • 17.5 percent of the next $25 million.
  • 15 percent of the remainder.

During negotiations, the “value of the contract” was construed by NPB as the maximum amount of signing bonus, salary and incentives on the table, however that definition may have changed during the negotiation–or it may have been a misconception given the limited abilities of NPB’s negotiators.

For players signing as under-25-year-old CBAmateurs such as Otani, the posting fee will be limited to 25 percent of the signing bonus.

In exchange for an enhanced posting fee schedule–it had been changed from a team-set amount up to $20 million to 15 percent of the total, NPB teams give up the right to reclaim a player who signs a contract that does not give them enough in return. There also appeared to be a proposal that would giveNPB teams an amount equal to some percent of a CBAmateur’s eventual major league deal, and that has not been reported as part of the new agreement.

What does it mean going forward?

Barry Bloom @Boomskie has suggested that the MLBPA wants NPB to adopt six-year free agency, which as much as that would be a good thing, is none of the MLBPA’s goddamn business.

As I’ve reported before, NPB’s useless commissioner, Katsuhiko Kumazaki, told an NPB executive committee meeting that he asked MLB commissioner Rob Manfred this past summer to increase the posting fee cap–to which Manfred was said to have answered, “We don’t want a posting system at all, because it’s not good for Japanese baseball.”

Kumazaki took this to mean that Manfred cares about Japanese baseball, and in the same way a cat cares about the bird that is almost within its grasp, Manfred does.

What MLB cares about is 1) treating overseas talent as badly as it treats domestic amateur talent, and 2) eliminating compensation to Japanese teams wishing to do with future young stars what the Nippon Ham Fighters did with Shohei Otani–make him MLB ready in 4 years.

Anyone who might have thought the Fighters were happy to move Otani in order to receive $20 million needs to rethink this. Otani is an extremely valuable player where he is and the Fighters would benefit much more by keeping him then selling him. But that was the promise they made when he signed with them instead of turning pro with a major league club at the age of 18 as he intended.

So if Japan’s next 18-year-old superstar can’t go to the States until he turns 25, will he stay in Japan or might he move to the majors as an amateur and sign for peanuts?

So far, the bulk of NPB’s talent transfer has been from pitchers. Why?

Because pitching in Japan is different but not THAT different. Japanese pitchers and hitters both have to make huge adjustments to the travel and conditioning demands when pulled from their five-game-a-week routine.

Both have to adjust to a more demanding competition and different kinds of approaches, but batters have to get used to velocity you don’t see daily in Japan and to movement experienced practitioners with the slicker MLB ball can give their straight pitches. This is a huge adjustment. People know that Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui found success here, but Suzuki is a fairly unique talent who went over at the age of 27, Matsui after he turned 28. Otani is interesting as a hitter BECAUSE he’s 23 and about as good a hitter as Matsui was at the same age.

So what if it does behoove Japanese batters to go abroad early when Japanese batting talent is so thin?

Well, one area where Japanese hitters have lagged far behind is strength training. As few as three NPB teams actually intervene in their young players’ strength training, believing it is unwise to sacrifice power for flexibility. Otani is an exception, and so is a growing wave of amateur sluggers like first baseman Kotaro Kiyomiya–who ironically will take Otani’s place on Nippon Ham’s roster next spring.

This year four hard-hitting high schoolers were taken in the first round,  while another five position players went in the second, both fairly large numbers for the top rounds in an NPB draft. As Japanese amateur ball catches up, and more youngsters see MLB as their future, we may see those in the States look for new ways to get them to bypass NPB.

That’s really not ideal for anyone. Because there are things a player can learn in NPB that he cannot learn in the U.S. minors or majors.

If you’re a high-caliber 18-year-old like Otani was, NPB gives you the ability to bat against some of the best pitchers in the world while not getting entirely overwhelmed and completely discouraged because NPB’s talent floor is lower than MLB’s. Pitchers have the same advantage. How many 18-year-old pros in Japan get to pitch against some of the best hitters in the world on a daily basis?

There’s also the different environment. Playing in Japan, hitters will see breaking balls you don’t see in the States, pitchers face extreme contact hitters you don’t see in the States. Fundamentals are hammered home.

Anybody going straight from Japan to the majors will be missing NPB’s baseball graduate program that has produced not only Japanese major leaguers, but has also redeveloped former big leaguers for MLB. It would be a mistake to think that those lessons are a waste.

What’s up with the posting system?

By Jim Allen

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the current state of the posting system negotiations and the system in general, and I’ll try to clarify those things I can.

1) The current hangup is not about Shohei Otani

Despite reports by @JonHeyman that players were concerned about the gap between Otani’s minimal compensation as an under-25 “CBAmateur” and the $20 million posting fee already agreed upon with Nippon Ham, any MLBPA member taking umbrage with that, deserves a kick in the ass.

When the union agreed with MLB to raise the age at which overseas professionals would be treated as amateurs from 23 to 25, it limited Otani’s earning power in 2018 to much less than the $20 million the Fighters could ask through this year. There was concern prior to Otani’s retaining an MLBPA-certified agent that he was not aware he was throwing away 100s of millions of dollars by going when he was 23.

But that is to be expected, since everyone in MLB and its related media elite KNEW Otani would not come this year, just as they knew water didn’t run uphill, because no one in MLB would do that. @Ken_Rosenthal said it, Jon Heyman said. You name him (with the exception of Barry Bloom @Boomskie) he probably said it. They knew. Except they didn’t.

It IS about Shohei Otani only because he’s the most intriguing player on the planet at this moment, and holding up his transfer gives the union something to draw attention to their objection — except they have been reluctant to say what those objections are in public.

2) The posting system proposed by MLB/MLBPA prevents Japanese teams from naming a price for their players.

This is Exhibit 1,405 of how much MLB hates free markets. The posting system used to be a kind of free market. The high bid in a closed auction that met or exceeded the posting fee asked by a player’s NPB team meant allowed one team a one month window to sign a player before his rights reverted to his Japanese team.

This was not very efficient. Two players, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Hisashi Iwakuma,  failed to reach contracts with the team that won their rights and returned to Japan. MLB teams didn’t like it because exorbitant posting fees didn’t fall under the luxury tax, which favored big-spending clubs. After $50 million fees to the Seibu Lions and Nippon Ham Fighters for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, MLB was in mind to have to shell out a likely $100 million for Masahiro Tanaka – so it wanted a $20-million cap.

So while 10 of NPB’s teams held Rakuten steady, MLB stabbed the Eagles in the back, and Masahiro Tanaka was, however, able to negotiate with up to 30 teams before signing with the Yankees for $155 million – which was a good thing.

The newly proposed system, however, changes compensation for teams willing to part with players under contract to 15 percent of the total contract offered to a posted player by an MLB team. This would mean Japanese teams must relinquish their limited right to ask for up to $20 million and instead accept whatever their 15 percent cut is.

3) When we slap you, you’ll take it and like it.

According to Ken Rosenthal, and confirmed by other sources, the union is opposed to NPB being able to rescind a posting should it’s 15 percent fee falls below a number it is willing to accept. Since MLB agreed to this but the MLBPA is opposed, one can guess that this proposal was offered to NPB at the union’s request and rejected, quite reasonably by NPB.

The 15 percent cut would represent a modest increase for A-listers – Tanaka’s $155 million would have pulled in $23.25 million for Rakuten. But the Hiroshima Carp would have received $15.93 million instead of $20 million for Kenta Maeda.

4) There is a mysterious 20 percent figure that seems to be an issue

I have heard repeated reference to a 20 percent posting fee to teams posting those under-25 CBAmateurs, but how it is calculated, what it is based on and when it would be paid has not been clearly explained to me. The MLBPA appears opposed to this to.

5) The CBA and the new posting system appear to have been planned as a package last year.

At last year’s winter meetings, MLB made it perfectly clear that there would be no exception to Shohei Otani’s CBAmateur status should he try and come to the majors in 2018 – and they KNEW he wouldn’t. Yet, Barry Bloom told me then that there was an exemption in place for Otani. That exemption turned out to be an agreement with Nippon Ham that whatever changes might be made to the posting system, that Otani’s fee would still be $20 million.

The same top MLB executive who helped negotiate the CBA and told me at the 2016 winter meetings  Otani’s name never once came up in discussions about it, also told me that there was no way Otani would move to the majors in 2018, because you know, nobody would do that.

Golden Glove voting

Here’s how I voted for this year’s Golden Glove Awards

Central League
Pitcher: Takumi Akiyama, Tigers
I would have prefered Nomi, but he’s not on the ballot. Shoichi Ino and Kazuto Taguchi also appear to be deserving winners.
Catcher: Ryutaro Umeno of the Tigers.
More playing time would have made Umeno a no-doubt selection this season over Seiji Kobayashi and Yasutaka Tobashira…
1st Base: Jose Lopez, BayStars.
2nd Base: Tetsuto Yamada, Swallows.
Ryusuke Kikuchi was well off his game this year. He still makes lots of fantastic plays, but he was well off his norms, while Yamada – has become increasingly dependable.
3rd Base: Toshiro Miyazaki, BayStars. Tomohiro Abe of the Carp probably wins this if he spent more time at 3B.
SS: Hayato Sakamoto, Giants.
Sakamoto took a stride forward from last year, when he was about even with Kosuke Tanaka of the Carp.
OF: Masayuki Kuwahara, BayStars
OF: Takayuki Kajitani, BayStars
OF: Yoshihiro Maru, Carp.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo had a terrific year and should get some votes, although Yang Dai-kang was probably the CL’s best outfielder in terms of quality.

Golden Glove
Pacific League

Pitcher: Hideaki Wakui, Marines.
He NEVER hurts himself with his fielding.
Catcher: Tatsuhiro Tamura, Marines
This is really a tough choice. There are indications Kai was a little better defensively, but Tamura played a LOT more, so he deserves credit for that.
1st Base: Sho Nakata, Fighters.
2nd Base: Daichi Suzuki, Marines
3rd Base: Nobuhiro Matsuda, Hawks
Zelous Wheeler had a great season and should get some votes.
SS: Kenta Imamiya, Hawks.
Takuya Nakashima missed playing time, while Ryoichi Adachi was fit and playing well. This could be the most interesting race of all next year if Sosuke Genda cuts down on his errors, since he could be right there among those three.
OF: Haruki Nishikawa, Fighters
OF: Yuki Yanagita, Hawks
OF: Shogo Akiyama, Lions
An off year for Shogo Akiyama, and Hiroaki Shimauchi of the Eagles could easily have gotten a vote instead of him, while Akira Nakamura had an excellente season for the Hawks as well.

Why Sarfate and not Kikuchi?

So why does Yusei Kikuchi play second fiddle to Dennis Sarfate in win shares? The essential answer is context.

First of all, it is very hard for relievers to rank so high unless they are extremely dominant and pitch a fair number of innings and get lots of saves – indicating many high leverage innings and that moves Sarfate into the conversation.

Still, the win shares system recogizes that Kikuchi was better at one level – the estimated contribution his raw numbers made to his club’s success. So why does Sarfate end up on top despite that.

The answer is wins. Not being credited with wins as the pitcher of record, but team wins.

On one level, this is a normal part of the system: Teams that win more games have more credit for wins to be shared by their players. But in the Pacific League in 2017, the Hawks won four games more than their run production and prevention would predict, and the Lions five games fewer.

Because the system is anchored on wins, you can’t get around the fact that in the big picture, the Hawks’ players’ numbers were therefore more valuable than the Lions’ players – who needed to score and prevent more runs to produce the same number of wins.

The system rewards individual performance on claim points. Pitchers get points for preventing runs in your innings beyond that which your fielders are credited with saving the team per inning.

You get points for striking out more batters and walking fewer, and for giving up fewer home runs. Because Kikuchi pitched nearly three times as many innings, he was able to save many more runs, but Sarfate was extremely effective and had a high leverage bonus because of his 54 saves. Still, Kikuchi gets 87.8 claim points – more than Sarfate’s 75.5.

Kikuchi’s claims give him 21 percent share of the Lions’ pitchers’ win shares. That is larger than Sarfate’s 17 percent of the Hawks total. But because the Hawks’ players’ numbers were more valuable, a Hawks pitcher saving 20 runs in 100 innings (adjusted for context and team defense) created more wins than a Lions pitcher who did exactly the same.

The Hawks’ individual performances were not all that much better, but in terms of wins, they were noticeably more valuable. Because the Hawks pitching staff produced many more wins, Sarfate’s contribution to the Hawks was a smidgeon more valuable than Kikuchi’s contribution to the Lions.

This connundrum pops up when the star of one team that wins more games than its runs scored and allowed suggest is compared to the star of a team that wins fewer games than it ought to. The Hawks won four games more than expected, the Lions five fewer. But you have to give the credit for that to the players, meaning, the Hawks’ players’ stats need to carry slightly more weight than the Lions.

That’s the rationale.

Is it accurate? It has its failings here and there, and it is not hard to believe that somehow Kikuchi must earn more credit, but in the end, everything depends on wins. At least this system doesn’t give players credit for winning games that their team didn’t – as WAR would.

If the Lions’ wins had more accurately reflected their runs and runs allowed, then the system would have seen Shogo Akiyama as the PL’s most valuable player – instead of Yuki Yanagita.

It also explains the presence of so many BayStars players and the absence of Tigers. The BayStars were hyper efficient, while the Tigers were not.

My 2017 NPB Awards Ballot

Here is my postseason award voting for 2017:

I have four rules:
1) Everything is about THIS season. It doesn’t matter what a guy did last year, that’s a different staory.
2) If two players are really close and one won a championship, go with the guy on the league championship.
3) No weight is given to age or potential unless a player is overwhelmingly superior but whose season value is low only because he missed playing time. This applies generally to rookies, but also applied to Shohei Otani last year.
4) The Best Nine Awards go to the most valuable player at each position. Whoever gets my MVP vote is automatically going to win a Best Nine Award. In the case of Otani last year, I gave Rule 3 precedence since he was easily the most productive pitcher and DH, but had slightly less total season value at each position than another player.

Here are my votes and a brief explanation of how I derive them.

Postseason Award Voting
Central League
1. Kosuke Tanaka, Carp 田中 広輔 (広島)
2. Yoshihiro Maru, Carp 丸 佳浩 (広島)
3. Tomoyuki Sugano, Giants 菅野 智之 (巨人)

Rookie of the Year
Yota Kyoda, Dragons 京田 陽太 (中日)

Best Nine
P – Tomoyuki Sugano, Giants 菅野 智之 (巨人)
C – Tsubasa Aizawa, Carp 會澤 翼 (広島)
1B – Jose Lopez, BayStars ロペス (DeNA)
2B – Ryosuke Kikuchi, Carp 菊池 涼介 (広島)
3B – Toshiro Miyazaki, BayStars 宮﨑 敏郎(DeNA)
SS – Kosuke Tanaka, Carp 田中 広輔 (広島)
OF – Yoshihiro Maru, Carp 丸 佳浩 (広島)
OF – Seiya Suzuki, Carp 鈴木 誠也 (広島)
OF – Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, BayStars 筒香 嘉智(DeNA)

Postseason Award Voting
Pacific League
1. Yuki Yanagita, Hawks 柳田 悠岐 (ソフトバンク)
2. Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾 (西武)
3. Kenta Imamiya, Hawks 今宮 健太 (ソフトバンク)

Rookie of the Year
Sosuke Genda, Lions 源田 壮亮 (西武)

Best Nine
P – Dennis Sarfate, Hawks サファテ (ソフトバンク)
C – Takuya Kai, Hawks 甲斐 拓也 (ソフトバンク)
1B – Hotaka Yamakawa, Lions 山川 穂高 (西武)
2B – Hideto Asamura, Lions 浅村 栄斗 (西武)
3B – Nobuhiro Matsuda, Hawks 松田 宣浩 (ソフトバンク)
SS – Kenta Imamiya, Hawks 今宮 健太 (ソフトバンク)
OF – Yuki Yanagita, Hawks 柳田 悠岐 (ソフトバンク)
OF – Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾 (西武)
OF – Akira Nakamura, Hawks 中村 晃 (ソフトバンク)
DH – Alfredo Despaigne, Hawks デスパイネ (ソフトバンク)

The rationale behind my award votes
I base my votes on Bill James’ win share system, which – like all of us – has flaws, but also does one thing I like that WAR doesn’t: It only gives credit for actual games won. Players don’t accumulate wins by putting up numbers against a scale but by putting up numbers within the context of games won by a team within a league.

You start with wins, although I have to assign half a win for every tie because they are so common in Japan. I wish ties were worth half a win in the standings, since that would push the teams tying games closer to .500. NPB used to do it that way, but never mind.

Each team gets 3 shares for each win and 1.5 for each tie. So how do you distribute them? Step 1 is to estimate how many runs an average team in its league would score and allow given the parks each team plays in.

Let’s take the SoftBank Hawks. They won 94 games with no ties. That’s 3 * 94 = 282 win shares to be distributed among their players. The Hawks scored 638 runs, while allowing 483. The Hawks playing context is extremely unusual. The parks they played in in 2017 increased season home runs totals by 22 percent, while suppressing runs by 3 percent.

It’s not just Fukuoka Dome, though. It’s all the small and large parks the Hawks play in through the season. But the Hawks’ context makes them the PL team for which home runs are easiest to hit and runs are hardest to score.

The system uses that information to split the Hawks’ 282 win shares as follows: 136.94 for the hitters and 145.06 for the pitchers and fielders. The system then splits the pitchers and fielders based on things like double play and fielding efficiency, strikeouts, walks and so on.

This then gives SoftBank 102.28 win shares to be divided among the pitchers and 42.78 to be divied up among all the fielders. From that point we get into determine the relative claims of each player to those totals. All the hitters on a team are compared to each other and the win shares are distributed accordingly. The pitchers are a little more complicated because they require claim points for the higher leverage situations that middle relievers and closers encounter.

Fielders are even more complicated, and therein is one of brilliant elements of James’ system.

While modern measures (unavailable to the general public in Japan) can calculate an fielders’ efficiency, a good job can be done by estimating defensive quality by the players at each position for a given team by comparing each team’s results at a position to its league rivals with adjustments for the frequency of innings pitched by lefties (which increases ground ball opportunities for third basemen and shortstops) and ground balls.

If you adjust for the number of strikeouts a team gets, its totals for catcher put outs become relevant. The same goes for pitcher put outs, which influence the totals of assists by first basemen.

Each team’s postion totals are compared to the league norms. The positions on a team that exceed league norms will have more of the team’s fielding win shares to divide among the team’s players at that position.

In the case of the Hawks, the position breakdowns for win shares for 2017 are:
Catchers = 9.2 (No. 1 in Japan)
1st Base = 2.0 (5th)
2nd Base = 6.1 (1st)
3rd Base = 5.8 (1st)
Shortstop = 7.7 (5th)
Outfielders = 11.9 (3rd)
The Hawks team ends up looking like this after each player’s total is converted into an integer:
(Hawks players with four win shares or more)
Yuki Yanagita 27 (23 Batting, 0 pitching, 3.7 fielding)
Kenta Imamiya 22 (14.8, 0 , 5.7)
Nobuhiro Matsuda 21 (15.3, 0 , 5.7)
Akira Nakamura 18 (14.2, 0 , 3.9)
Dennis Sarfate 18 (0, 17.5, 0)
Alfredo Despaigne 17 (17, 0, 0)
Nao Higashihama 14 (0, 14.2, 0)
Seiji Uebayashi 14 (11, 0 , 2.7)
Kodai Senga 12 (0, 11.8, 0)
Takuya Kai 11 (5.6, 0, 5)
Rick van den Hurk 10 (10.3)
Seiichi Uchikawa 10 (9.2, 0 , 0.9)
Sho Iwasaki 10 (0, 10, 0)
Kenji Akashi 9 (7.5, 0, 1.7)
Shuta Ishikawa 6 (0, 6.4, 0)
Ryota Igarashi 6 (0, 6, 0)
Hiroki Takayas 5 (2.1, 0, 3.7)
Tsuyoshi Wada 4 (0, 4.3, 0)
Munenori Kawasaki 4 (2.8, 0, 1.3)
Tomoki Takata 4 (2.4, 0, 1.6)
Livan Moinelo 4 (0, 4, 0)
Yuito Mori 4 (0, 4, 0)