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:

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.

The 1,172nd day after for Yoshinori Sato

The next step sometimes take a while. When Yakult Swallows flame thrower Yoshinori Sato left the mound on Sept. 3, 2011, little did he know his next start for the Central League club would not occur until Saturday night.

Nine months after becoming the fastest Japanese pitcher on record, with a fastball clocked at 161 kilometers per hour (100 mph), Sato began struggling with oblique muscle pain early in the 2011 season. And though he had a decent season — a 7-6 record with a 2.86 ERA in 15 games, in September, he suffered from stiffness in his shoulder that was diagnosed as rotator cuff trouble.

Here’s the youtube video of his fastest recorded pitch (against Terrmel Sledge).

The following year, more shoulder discomfort was followed by a fracture in his left shin. In 2014, he had the shoulder cleaned out, and pitched in the 2015 preseason. Last year, he was limited to just six farm games and was cut at the end of the season. Sato rejoined the team on a developmental contract — and worked his way back to the point where a team desperate for pitching, such as the Swallows, would want him.

His start against the Dragons, 1,171 days after his last first-team game, was not much to behold. Sato had some command of his pitches but not great velocity or location and surrendered six runs, five earned, in five-plus innings.

“I didn’t contribute to a win, but I left the start line, at last,” Sato, whose fastest pitch was clocked at 149 kph, told reporters after the game.

Here’s his first inning on Saturday:

Pitching coach Shingo Takatsu said, “This is the starting point. It will be OK if he can make steady progress from here.

Kanemoto goes old school with Fujinami

Having thrown 131 pitches through seven innings at rainy Koshien Stadium on Friday night, Hanshin Tigers manage Tomoaki Kanemoto sent right-hander Shintaro Fujinami back out to face the visitors in the top of the eighth inning. He allowed three runs on three hits and a walk, while hitting a batter before leaving the mound after 161 pitches.

After the game, Kanemoto said — according to Sankei Sports  that his purpose was to teach the 22-year-old a lesson.「(藤浪は)立ち上がりがすべて。四球から崩れて…。今日は何球投げようが、何点取られようが最後まで投げさせるつもりだった。(エースとしての)責任は感じてほしい。感じないといけないと思う。立場として」

Roughly translated: “The way he (Fujinami) opened the game was everything. The walks ruined him. My intent was that he was going to throw until the end, however many pitches he threw and however many runs he allowed. I want him to feel the responsibility (that comes with being an ace). I think that’s what he has to feel.”

On Saturday, when Fujinami goes out and begins to inventory the inflammation, his arm will know exactly what it felt like to be an ace back in the days when Kanemoto was coming up as a young player in the mid 1990s. In those days, former Carp player and manager Marty Brown said he recalled Kanemoto and other rookies being taken to the side and having balls thrown at them to instruct them. Hooray for old school

It was the highest pitch count of the season and the highest by a pitcher not named Hideaki “Don’t take the ball from me, I know where you live” Wakui in nearly eight years. There have been 10, 160-pitch games since the start of the 2006 season, and Fujinami’s start brought on some serious nostalgia. One of the things that fascinated me about NPB when I arrived here 30-plus years ago was the inclusion of pitch counts in the daily box scores that were printed in the different daily sports papers.

Ten years later, when I began writing analytical guides to Japanese baseball, I asked people in the game, “Why do you let pitchers throw so many pitches?” The answer I often got was a surprise.

“We know it is bad for the pitchers’ arms, but this is what we do in Japan.”

Obviously, that is no longer the answer, perhaps because of the large number of outstanding young pitchers in the 1990s whose arms did not last long enough for them to become good veteran pitchers — at least without Tommy John surgery.

Looking through my 1997 Guide to Japanese Baseball, I see 12 games between 170-199 pitches in 1996, and 51 games with between 150-169 pitches. Including Friday’s little gem, there have 47 games (nine by Wakui) since the start of the 2006 season in which a starter was allowed to throw 150+ pitches, that’s 12 times less common than they were 20 years ago. I’m just guessing, but if I look at my first guide, published in 1994, there would be some 200-pitch games.