NPB’s best of 2016

It’s award time again and so here are some thoughts about the best of the best in Nippon Professional Baseball.

The MVPs

@JBWPodcast has had a crush on second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Hiroshima Carp because of his clutch fielding. Kikuchi had a career year at the plate in 2016. According to Bill James Win Shares, he was the Carp’s most valuable hitter and NPB’s most valuable fielder. His fielding is so eye-catching that it’s easy to vote for him. But is he the most valuable player in the CL? Three players have more win shares:

  1. Tetsuya Yamada 36
  2. Hayato Sakamoto 34
  3. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo 32
  4. Ryosuke Kikuchi 28

No one makes as many big defensive plays as Kikuchi, and to do it on grass when everyone else plays on plastic makes it that much more impressive. These big plays can be game changers in the same way that a late-inning relief effort or a clutch hit can be. Sometimes they will tip a game from a loss to a win, but the clutch performances don’t do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

If Kikuchi makes a huge play that saves a run, it can turn a close game, but the one play doesn’t win the entire game. Lots of other things have to happen, and the people who do those things deserve credit, too. What I’m trying to say is if he turns 10 games around with his glove, it doesn’t mean he won 10 games with his glove.

Finishing high in the standings is important, and I’m willing to discount Yamada’s share of the Yakult Swallows’ successes because of that. But that’s a huge gap for Kikuchi to overcome to match the big three.

My standard test for MVP is this: If you had to fill out a team to win a pennant, and all players were considered to be the same age, who would you want more based on what they did THIS past season? Who would be your first choice? The numbers above are opinions of a system that attributes team wins to its individual players. I think it’s clear that Kikuchi was not as valuable as Yamada, but where these four rank is really difficult.

I’m inclined to go for Hayato Sakamoto as MVP rather than Yamada, but I wouldn’t really fault anyone for ranking any of the four in any order.

The Pacific League is the flip side to this. The player who lead the PL in win shares, played for the league champion Nippon Ham Fighters. The PL’s elite three according to win shares were more or less in a dead heat and all playing for the top three clubs.

  1. Shohei Otani 32
  2. Yuki Yanagita 32
  3. Katsuya Kakunaka 32

With Otani winning the league, he’s a no-brainer.

Shohei Otani two-times Hawks

Wednesday night, Shohei Otani (9-4) started on the mound and batted in the same game for the first time in over two months. Otani went eight innings, allowing a run on four hits, three walks and made a costly throwing error. Otani went 1-for-4 with a double and struck out three times, twice on good splitters from the SoftBank Hawks’ Kodai Senga.

Here‘s an evaluation of Shohei Otani’s potential in the big leagues by scout Dave DeFreitas.

The Fighters will post Otani when he wants to go — and a good bet would be a year from now after the World Baseball Classic — when he will likely both bat and pitch for NPB’s team. The Fighters have tried to persuade their stars to stay, but have not stood in their way and will likely post Otani should he request it.

A Fighters source has said Otani is loving both hitting and pitching, and spurned big league offers out of high school because the Fighters offered him the chance to do both. The same source said Otani would be interested in moving to the majors if teams over there are interested in giving him the opportunity to do both.

Two-way Otani forces writers to show award-winning flexibility

Shohei Otani’s ability to both hit and pitch has moved a group that has seemed impervious to change: the Tokyo Baseball Reporters Club, who vote on Nippon Professional Baseball’s postseason awards.

On Tuesday, the club’s board of governors announced a change to the rules for the Best IX awards for each of NPB’s two leagues to account for Otani,  who some considerJapan’s best pitcher, while also being NPB’s most effective designated hitter.

Until now, any ballot for the Best IX Award that named a player at two different positions was invalid. From this autumn, the ballots we expect to get soon will enable us to vote for one player as both his league’s best pitcher and the best player at another position he played.

Although there are no rules against voting for MVPs from teams that don’t win the pennant, unless they achieve the most eye-popping numbers, such as when Wladimir Balentien became the first player to surpass NPB’s long-standing, single-season home run record of 55. Nearly every MVP award goes to a player considered to be the big star on the pennant-winning team.

By the way, Otani’s club is in the thick of the pennant race, despite him not starting on the mound for about two months — he developed a blister on his pitching hand that didn’t hinder his batting and the Fighters were more interested in having him hit every day than taking him out of the lineup to tuneup for the mound. So if Nippon Ham does win the PL pennant, Otani is probably a lock to be an MVP-winning pitcher with perhaps just 10 wins on his resume (He is currently 8-4). But he does have 22 homers and in his second game back in the rotation, he threw a pitch 101.9 miles per hour, a Japanese record.

The change in the award rules was as perhaps as big a surprise as when the Fighters announced on May 29 that the team would ditch the DH rule in Otani’s start against the PL-rival Rakuten Eagles so that Otani could bat sixth. Otani, who is currently working his way back into the starting rotation, has batted in six of his starts. He has become the first pitcher to lead off a game with a home run, but has typically batted in the 3 Hole. In those six games, he is 7-for-17 with a double, a homer, seven runs, four RBIs, seven walks and four punch-outs.

In 2014, Otani posted 8.1 batting win shares and 11.7 pitching win shares, and finished a distant third in the voting for Best Pitcher with three votes behind, MVP and Sawamura Award winner, Chihiro Kaneko (232 votes) and Takahiro Norimoto (4). Otani (nine votes) was also more valuable (overall) than those who finished ahead of him in the voting for Best DH: Takeya Nakamura (81), Wily Mo Pena (69), Lee Dae Ho (63) and Ernesto Mejia (11) — Mejia tied Nakamura for the PL home run lead in less than a full season and won the vote at first base by a landslide.

The new rule might not have made any difference in 2014, since Otani was neither the best pitcher in the league nor the best DH, but at least voters won’t be troubled by the dilemma of having to split their votes.

A brief history of futility

Sometimes, a tweet is not enough, so here is a list I was fiddling around with, the longest number of seasons without a pennant in Japanese baseball history.

This was not as easy as it looks to compile because of Japan’s seasons, and I don’t mean the four seasons everyone tells you about until you get to June and then add on that there’s another one — the rainy season. Japan had two seasons a year in 1937 and ’38 with separate champions, and the Pacific League pennants were decided by playoffs (first half/second half) from 1973 to ’82, and (1st, 2nd, 3rd) from 2004 to ’06. From 2007, both leagues adopted playoffs, given the jizzy new name of the “Climax Series” that copied the PL format, but WOULD NOT IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM determine the pennant winner. How about that for anti-climactic? It would, however, select the teams to compete in the Japan Series.

So we figure in all those little pearls, we get the following list of the franchises with the longest suffering fans.

  1. 37 seasons: The Taiyo Whales / Yokohama Taiyo Whales / Yokohama BayStars. After winning their first CL pennant in 1960, the franchise didn’t win another until 1998.
  2. 31 seasons: The Hankyu Braves. Before they became manager Yukio Nishimoto’s “Golden Braves” and the annual postseason whipping boys of the V9 Yomiuri Giants, the Braves went without a pennant from their inception as one of Japan’s first teams until 1967.
  3. 30 seasons: The Lotte Orions / Lotte Marines. The Orions, who won the first PL pennant and Japan Series as a brand new team in 1950, won the most games in the PL in 1974 despite playing only 50 percent of their home games in their main park, Sendai’s dilapidated Miyagi Stadium in the days before the Rakuten Eagles took it over and turned it into an amusement park. They wouldn’t win again until they had relocated twice and become the Chiba Lotte Marines. They finished second in the league behind the Daiei Hawks in 2005 but beat the Hawks in Fukuoka to grab the pennant.
  4. 29 seasons. The Kintetsu Buffaloes. Another hard luck story. The Buffaloes led the PL in over winning percentage in 1975 but Nishimoto’s Buffs were knocked out of the playoffs, by the Braves, now managed by his apprentice and future fellow Hall of Fame skipper, Toshiharu Ueda. The Buffaloes would have to wait until the arrival of Charlie Manuel in 1979 to win their first PL pennant. They then won two in a row but were beaten both times by another previous hard-luck team: The Hiroshima Carp.
  5. 28 seasons. The Kokutetsu Swallows / Sankei Swallows / Yakult Atoms / Yakult Swallows. The Swallows began with the CL in the 1950 expansion and didn’t win until Tatsuro Hirooka came in to manage a club that won in 1978 with the help of Charlie Manuel and won the Japan Series over Ueda’s Braves with the help of a controversial home run.
  6. (tie) 25 seasons. Hiroshima Carp and Nankai Hawks / Daiei Hawks. The Carp were underfunded but never underloved by the their loyal but cantankerous fans. A foreign manager, Joe Lutz, was brought in to make huge changes and he did. But his lack of control saw him quit early in the season over constant disagreements with umpires and one showdown with team executives. Lutz made two huge moves, moving Sachio Kinugasa to third base — where he became a Hall of Famer, and using ace (and another Hall of Famer) Yoshiro Sotokoba exclusively as a starter.

The Hawks won in Katsuya Nomura’s first year in charge as nominal player-manager in 1973, but fired him because he was married and news of his girlfriend, his current wife, surfaced. The Hawks went from competitive to being doormats and that wouldn’t change until Rikuo Nemoto, the man who laid the foundations for both the Carp and Seibu Lions dynasties was brought in, and used his personal skills to gain as much of the best amateur talent as he could through a wide variety of means. In 1999, under Sadaharu Oh, the Daiei Hawks finally broke through.

7. (tie) 24 seasons. Nippon Ham Fighters (1982 – 2005) and Hiroshima Carp (1992-2015) or so it seems.

Madison Bumgarner, eat your heart out

Japanese ball may be famous for being overly dogmatic and choking on its old-school ways, but sometimes it does things right. I’m no fan of the pre-game home run derbies that typical mar the start of every year’s All-Star games, but this year was a huge improvement. A fan vote selected the four competitors for Friday’s pre-game derby in Fukuoka and Saturday’s pre-game derby in Yokohama — and unlike stodgy MLB, the fans wanted a pitcher to bat.

MLB may have Madison Bumgarner, but Japan — for the time being — has Shohei Otani, who was voted into both home run derbies. On Friday, Japan’s best pitcher, Otani of the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters went head-to-head with Japan’s best power hitter Tetsuto Yamada of the Central League’s Yakult Swallows — in the first round of the home run-hitting contest, and the pitcher won.

After dispatching last season’s CL MVP, Otani moved on to the final round, where he defeated last season’s PL MVP, Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks.

On Saturday, Otani and former Atlanta Braves farmhand Ernesto Mejia will represent the PL against the same CL duo who competed on Friday, Yamada and DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.

Former Yankee Kuroda stuck on 199

Hiroki Kuroda came up empty in his second attempt at his 200th career victory in top-flight pro ball as his Central League-leading Hiroshima Carp were shut out for the fourth time this season in a 6-0 loss to the Yomiuri Giants at Mazda Stadium.

Kuroda, who has 79 wins in MLB and 120 in NPB, fell to 6-5 on the season, in a game that was tight through five innings. The Carp had a chance in the bottom of the fifth with no outs and one on and trailing 1-0. Giants third baseman Shuichi Murata passed a reflex-test by leaping for a liner near the third-base bag for an out.

In the top of the sixth, the 41-year-old Kuroda came within an inch of working around a leadoff double. The threate started when 23-year-old rookie Yasuhiro Yamamoto put a great swing on a good splitter. After two ground outs, first baseman Takahiro Arai stabbed at a bad hop, but it deflected off his glove for an RBI single and Murata followed with his 11th home run of the season.

Kuroda made few mistakes early but luck was not on his side. The right-hander’s ERA rose to 3.10 after allowing six runs in 6-2/3 innings.

Also in the CL, Zach Petrick, in his first game since April 28 and his first start after seven relief appearances, allowed two runs in five innings and went 2-for-2 with two RBIs for rookie manager Alex Ramirez‘s DeNA BayStars in a 7-2 win over the Chunichi Dragons. Elian Herrera doubled twice, scored twice and drove in a run for the BayStars.

At Tokyo’s historic Jingu Stadium, evergreen outfielder Kosuke Fukudome went 3-for-4 with two walks, a home run and a tie-breaking, two-run, 11th-inning double to lead the Hanshin Tigers past last year’s CL champion Yakult Swallows.

In the Pacific League, Felix Perez, who homered in his first NPB at-bat on Tuesday, delivered an encore on Wednesday, going 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs as the Rakuten Eagles came from behind to defeat the Seibu Lions at Seibu Prince Dome.

In Chiba, Kodai Senga allowed three hits but no walks over eight innings as the league-leading SoftBank Hawks beat the Lotte Marines 3-0, shutting the third-place club out for the second straight night.

In Osaka, the second-place Nippon Ham Fighters regrouped to beat the Orix Buffaloes 3-2 behind a three-run double from Sho Nakata. Former New York Yankee Chris Martin worked a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his 10th save since being promoted to closer on June 19.

Here’s the PL TV replay of Nakata’s double:

All good things must end, Fighters KO’ed after 15 wins

And so must streaks. Three wins shy of the NPB record for consecutive wins, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ winning streak ended at 15 on Tuesday night in a 4-3 loss in Osaka to the Orix Buffaloes. As mentioned on this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, Orix has played with a little more spark since bringing up a bus load of players from the farm team a week ago and telling them to go out and play.

Shohei Otani batted for the first time in a week and didn’t have much of an impact, going 1-for-3 with a walk — although he did hit one on the screws for an out that nearly took shortstop Ryoichi Adachi’s glove off.

Otani, who is unlikely to pitch in the All-Star games — Japan typically has two — because of a blister on the middle finger of his right hand, might hit and might participate in one of the home run derbies if he is selected in the fan vote. By having him available to play — but not pitch — the Fighters may be able to avoid the 10-game, post-break suspension that goes to all-stars who fail to report for the game.

The Fighters’ loss dropped them six games back of the Pacific League-leading SoftBank Hawks, who earned their seventh shutout victory of the season, beating the Lotte Marines 4-0 at Tokyo Dome behind seven innings from Shota Takeda, who allowed just two hits but walked five.

At Seibu Prince Dome, Felix Perez hit a two-run, first-inning home run off Felipe Paulino to spark the Rakuten Eagles to a 5-1 win over the Seibu Lions. In doing so, Perez became the first player in the Eagles’ 12-year history to homer in his first NPB at-bat.

In the Central League, the Yomiuri Giants traveled to Hiroshima and were full of vinegar after a three-game home sweep of the DeNA BayStars. But lefty ace Tetsuya Utsumi didn’t have much to offer and the second-tier relievers got mauled by the CL-leading Carp in an ugly 13-3 loss.

The BayStars bounced back at home, where Samurai NPB cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (OK, I know he’s not THE cleanup hitter, but he is the guy who should be batting fourth to spare us from Sho Nakata) homered twice and former Seattle Mariner and Yomiuri Giant Jose Lopez cracked a sayonara homer off luckless Chunichi Dragons reliever Daisuke Yamai (0-8) in a 6-5 win.

In the other CL game, Randy Messenger held Yakult to a run over seven innings, and the Tigers waited until submarine right-hander Hirofumi Yamanaka had finished his seven scoreless innings to strike in a 3-1 victory at Nagano Olympic Stadium.

On tap for Wednesday, the Giants will take a second crack at the Carp, who will try for the second time to help Hiroki Kuroda earn his 121st NPB victory — giving him 200 in top-flight pro ball when added to the 79 wins he earned for the Dodgers and Yankees.

They call him the streak: Yoshikawa man of the moment

You’ve heard of streaky hitters? Mitsuo Yoshikawa is a streak pitcher. On Monday evening in Osaka, the Nippon Ham Fighters lefty survived a dodgy start against the Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome Osaka to earn the win, the Fighters’ 15th in a row. Yoshikawa worked 5-1/3 scoreless innings, but left the game with the bases loaded.

Nine years ago, on June 8, Yoshikawa toed the rubber for the Fighters in a June 8 interleague game at Matsuyama’s Botchan Stadium against the Yakult Swallows. The Fighters entered having won 13 in a row and were en route to their second straight Pacific League championshp. In that game, too, Yoshikawa was seemingly in over his head. He surrendered no runs despite giving up seven hits and four walks. Fernando Seguignol decided the game with a two-run homer off Shohei Tateyama — one of the CL’s most successful interleague pitchers, and the Fighters won a franchise-record 14th straight game. Yu Darvish, of all people, lost the next game to see the streak end.

Fighters streak survives Otani sputter

So much of the news about the Nippon Ham Fighters this year has centered around Shohei Otani, whether he’s hitting or pitching or both. But on Sunday, the Fighters matched Nippon Professional Baseball’s longest win streak since Nippon Ham won 14 straight under current Astros bench coach Trey Hillman. And the 14th win came despite a poor outing from Otani.

Otani had won his previous seven starts, in which he batted in six of them — despite pitching in a DH league — and moonlighting on weekdays as the Fighters’ designated hitter. But on Sunday, out of the batting order for the first time since May, Otani allowed three runs in 6-1/3 innings, while giving up five hits, walking two, hitting one and striking out eight.

The Fighters came back from a five-run deficit to tie it in the ninth on a Kensuke Tanaka solo homer off Lotte Marines closer Yuji Nishino, and Brandon Laird hit his 25th home run of the Pacific League season in the 12th inning, without which the game would have ended in a 5-5 tie at Sapporo Dome.

Otani left the mound in the seventh with a ruptured blister on the middle finger of his right hand, and the Fighters are saying it is unlikely he’ll pitch in this weekend’s all-star games.

“I don’t know how it will turn out. I’ll try to recover to be able to pitch, but I fear it’s probably not possible. It’s looking bleak,” said Otani according to Kyodo News.

A Fighters trainer said there are no issues with him batting at the all-star games scheduled on Friday and Saturday — Otani is likely to be voted into one of the pregame home run derbies.

Manager Hideki Kuriyama said, “We’ll do our utmost for him to be able to pitch.”

If so, he’ll need to take things one step at a time. Famous for his batting as for his speed off the mound, umpire Yoshiharu Yamaguchi and Fighters catcher Shota Ono tested Otani’s reflexes with a different kind of challenge on Sunday: