Japan’s Hall of Fame & Sadao Kondo’s claim to Fame

Chunichi Dragons manager Sadao Kondo

On Friday, Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame will announce its class of 2015. There are currently 184 members enshrined. Of those 184, roughly 73 are there because of their pro playing careers, while another 15 are there primarily as pro managers. Instead of launching into a rant, I’ll just say that the breakdown of those enshrined as pro players fairly reflects Japan’s lack of defensive considerations when it comes to giving out the big honors to position players.

The 73 guys who made it as players break down as follows:

  • 32 pitchers
  • 20 outfielders
  • 8 first basemen
  • 7 middle infielders
  • 4 third baseman
  • 2 catchers

The irony is that Japanese baseball puts so much emphasis on defense within its game. As for the pitchers, Japan loves its aces — although there are two relievers in the Hall, Tsunemi Tsuda – who was quite good and who died very young, and record-setting closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.

While browsing the list of Hall of Famers, the inscriptions for Sadao Kondo, a pitcher and manager, caught my eye. Kondo is described as the man who “introduced the division of labor on pitching staffs.” It’s a pretty cool thing to be known for, especially if it’s true.

There certainly is some truth to it, but as usual there’s more to the story than the simple description that makes up the popular record.

What is known is that Kondo was the pitching coach for the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons in 1961 when 22-year-old rookie Hiroshi Gondo took the league by storm. Gondo started 44 of the Dragons’ 130 games, completing 32 of them, and pitched 25 times in relief, finishing the game 24 times as Chunichi finished one game behind the Giants in the Central League race. Gondo was the Sawamura Award Winner, rookie of the year and won the league’s Best IX Award for pitcher – a consolation prize since players on second-place teams rarely win MVP awards. Gondo won 35 games as a rookie and 30 the next but his shoulder was shot and he retired at the age of 30 after giving it a go as an outfielder.

While Gondo’s career crashed, manager Wataru Nonin was fired after the 1962 season and for reasons I’m not clear about, pitching coach Kondo left, too. Kondo, however, returned a year later in 1964, and it was from that point that he reportedly put his stamp on the game, pushing former high school legend Eiji Bando further on the course toward becoming a relief specialist. Bando had relieved a little more often than he had started over the first five years of his career, had a 31-35 record and was finishing about half the games in which he relieved. After Kondo returned as pitching coach, Bando started 19 more games the remainder of his career, yet he is not known as Japan’s first star relief pitcher.

That fame goes to Yukinori Miyata of the Yomiuri Giants, who was successful in relief as a rookie in 1962 and pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the rest of an eight-year career that ended at the age of 29.

One report says Kondo’s system of clarifying pitching staff roles contributed to the Dragons pennant in 1974, but his big starters still worked in relief and his closer, Senichi Hoshino, started 17 games. Kondo did, however, have three guys who relieved in more than 90 percent of their games and only one other club had that many.

That other club was the Pacific League’s Nankai Hawks. And in almost every part of the transition from the old role of ace pitchers to a division of labor between specialized starters and relievers, the Hawks, under Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka, were there before anyone.

The first front-line starter who relieved in fewer than 10 percent of his starts? Hawks right-hander Joe Stanka in the early 1960s.

One of the first prototype relief specialists — even before Miyata? Hawks right-hander Ichiro Togawa. Togawa went 12-5 as a sophomore in 1955 and was honored as the Hawks’ best player in their seven-game defeat to the Giants in that year’s Japan Series.

Who was the first bullpen tandem? Hawks lefty Tadashi Sugiura and Japan’s first major leaguer, Masashi Murakami after his return from the San Francisco Giants.

When it comes to the use of the bullpen, Tsuruoka certainly deserves as much of the credit as Kondo.

How times have changed

It is quite surprising to those of us who weren’t in Japan in the 1970s how different the ballpark experience is now compared to 40 years ago. Combing through newspaper clippings from 1973 and 1974 while looking to document changes within the game, I was struck by what a dangerous place Japanese ballparks were.

I had witnessed some pretty obnoxious behavior in the ’80s and early ’90s, when people cheering for the wrong team in the wrong part of the ballpark were punched in the bleachers, but that is pretty rare in my experience here and that also happened sometimes at games I’d attended at Candlestick Park.

The first to catch my eye was a report on May 3, 1974, in which Hall of Fame outfielder Isao Harimoto attacked an opposing player before the start of a game, kicking a member of the Lotte Orions with his spikes, apparently because the guy had been heckling him for a couple of games.

Five days later, Nippon Ham Fighters infielder Toshizo Sakamoto was in the field at his home park, Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium, while Taiheiyo Club Lions manager Kazuhisa Inao had a heated exchange over a called third strike, when a sake bottle came hurling out of the stands. It didn’t hit Sakamoto, but the Fighters shortstop walked toward the stands and said, “Hey, don’t you think that’s dangerous?” Another fan answered Sakamoto’s rhetorical question with an empty beer bottle, that struck Sakamoto in the head

On May 30, empty beer bottles were thrown at reporters in the press seats at Koshien Stadium,  the Hanshin Tigers’ home park, while several stories in the spring detailed incidents involving Orions manager Masaichi Kaneda’s threatening abusive fans with a bat — after he’d been warned in the offseason to mind his Ps and Qs after calling Pacific League owners cheapskates. The owners were cheapskates, of course, as documented by the union’s demand over the previous offseason that the teams pay for the players’ bats and gloves.

At some point, commissioner Nobumoto Ohama took notice and on May 31 instructed the teams to avoid arguing too much as it would “enflame the passions of the fans” and lead to bad behavior.

Until I came across these articles, I was under the impression that the fan riots during the 1975 season at two different games between the Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons were rare and isolated instances.

Pro baseball’s anniversary amnesia

There seems to be something about organized baseball and the habit of fudging on the truth about the past.

Major League Baseball long stuck to a ridiculous story that the sport was a purely American invention in 1839 of Abner Doubleday, a man who during his life never made that claim or professed any affection for the game. (Seymour PP 8-12)

In Japan, too, truth sometimes suffers at the hands of established institutions – even those who justify their existence by claiming to present the truth. One such organization is the Japan News, a daily English language publication run by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

In line with Yomiuri editorial policy, the ever-vigilant Japan News recently ran a story calling 2014 the 80th anniversary of professional baseball in Japan. story here

The anniversary being touted is that of the 1934 founding of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s team, the Giants – Japan’s oldest active professional club – and the charter member of the professional baseball organization now known as Nippon Professional Baseball. It’s a great story, but the idea that the Giants were Japan’s first pro team is nonsense.

The team recognized by Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as the nation’s first professional baseball team is not the Giants, but rather the Nihon Undokyokai (the Japan Athletic Association). The Japanese wikipedia entry that relates to the club’s founding is here:

It’s an easy mistake to make, since NPB follows the Giants’ lead in just about everything and is also touting this year as pro ball’s 80th anniversary. Even the Yomiuri’s arch-rival paper, the Asahi, has gladly gone along with the charade.

One can assume the JN is ever eager to get to the truth, because of its Dec. 16 public prostration over the realization it had been using incorrect language for over two decades to describe indentured sexual servants who were used by Japan’s military during the second world war. The JN chose to refer to these women, euphemistically known in Japanese as “comfort women,”  as “sex slaves.” It seems the management was in a pickle about how to describe these “so-called comfort women.” story here

So one can only assume that once this so-called newspaper realizes it is currently propagating misinformation about the origins of pro baseball in Japan, we can all expect in the interest of truth to see a similar mea culpa. Of course, it might take two decades.

Notes: Harold Seymour, BASEBALL THE EARLY YEARS,  Oxford University Press 1960.

There and back again: Kuroda returns to the Carp

Hiroki Kuroda agreed to return to the Hiroshima Carp, the Central League club announced Saturday. Their former ace, who left after the 2007 season, posted a 79-79 record in the big leagues, where almost everything was new. Unfortunately, one adjustment Kuroda didn’t have to make was learning how to live without run support.

Before he left, the Carp had one of Japan’s weakest offenses — a fact that was masked by their playing in one of the nation’s best hitters’ parks. For most of the 1990s, Kuroda and Yokohama BayStars ace Daisuke Miura were undersupported and their quality largely unnoticed. But there is a body of evidence to suggest that for several years Kuroda and Miura, both toiling in great hitters’ parks for bad teams with mediocre batting and fielding, were the CL’s best two pitchers.

Here is a reprint of the interview I did with him in September for Kyodo News:

Kurodasept.txt

Hawks, home runs and the balance of power

Japanese baseball is full of paradoxes.  A nation schooled in the righteousness of the sacrifice bunt lusts after the long ball, while the less popular Pacific League has clearly become the best of Japan’s two major leagues.

What prompted that thought was the news this week that the Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are turning their spacious dome with its imposing outfield ramparts into a home run park. Yafuoku Dome is being transformed with inner fences that will give the stadium similar dimensions to Tokyo Dome, whose power allies are the shallowest in Japan.

The Japanese story is here: http://www.daily.co.jp/baseball/2014/12/24/0007607586.shtml

Essentially, the isssue is that the Hawks hit just 95 home runs over their 144 regular season games, the ninth fewest in Japan. Some must be longing for the days before the 2011 introduction of a standard ball, when teams could just choose livelier balls for their home games. But with everyone forced to use the same ball, the club is bringing in the fences, creating what the Japanese call “lucky zones,” where cheap home runs can drop in. It remains to be seen how the change will impact Softbank’s performance, but it’s kind of sad when a good PL club feels it has to take a page out of the Central League playbook.

It has long been a given that Japan’s two leagues are equal. Although that view remains the accepted norm in Japan, it is hard to support when one looks at the records since interleague play was introduced in 2005. In 1,592 games between the leagues, including the Japan Series and excluding ties, PL teams have a .526 winning percentage — that is much lower than expected (.545)  given the number of runs scored and allowed.

http://jballallen.com/files/League results.pdf

Some of the talent gap might be explained if the CL clubs were losing their biggest stars to the majors and to the PL — instead of it being the other way around. Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka all came out of the PL. The bulk of quality players going to the States have been from the PL, while until very recently no stars in their prime left the CL as free agents to sign with PL clubs.

Given the just mentioned cast of former PL characters, the common explanation for the PL’s interleague dominance is better pitching, and that appears to be part of the reason but not the main one.  Although offensive levels vary quite a bit from month to month, NPB’s interleague action conveniently starts in the middle of May and wraps up before the end of June. A look at how well teams hit and defend depending on whether their visiting opponents are in the PL or CL in May and June is instructive.

The biggest difference between the two leagues appears to be CL clubs not having big-hitting designated hitters when they play in PL parks.  Since 2006, when detailed game data became available, PL designated hitters have posted a .747 OPS in interleague, while their CL rivals have managed only .681. While the CL’s pitchers make up some of that slack, their edge over their PL counterparts has been just .269 to .246. Indeed, the average visiting OPS in the main PL parks in May and June drops from .713 to .655 when the opponents are from the CL.

http://jballallen.com/files/League to league differences.pdf

But that’s not the end. PL teams also outperform CL teams when visiting CL parks (.713 to .700) without the DH. As for the PL’s famous pitching, that shows up in their home parks, when the home offenses pick up against visiting CL pitchers, seeing an average increase in OPS from .704 to .718.

These data cannot explain the whole story, but they do indicate the designated hitter gives the PL a real advantage. The exception is the CL’s best interleague team, the Yomiuri Giants. They happen to have NPB’s deepest pockets and usually a few guys on the bench who could cut it as front-line DHs. Over the past nine seasons, the Giants’ interleague DHs have a .744 OPS, just a hair shy of the PL average.

The Hawks and the rest of the PL have had a pretty good thing going on, playing in huge, pitcher-friendly parks in a league that uses the DH. The PL game is a little faster with more emphasis on fielding and base running, but there is something about the home run that many cannot resist and that seems like a step backward.

Each main park’s individual OPS averages for league and interleague play from 2006 to 2014 can be found here: Interleague park data.pdf

Junichi Tazawa & culture of denial

Boston Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa is hardly a man without a country, but he is a man without a national team to play for. Although he would have been a great asset for Samurai Japan in the 2013 World Baseball classic, the right-hander was systematically excluded — ostensibly because he exercised his right to choose for whom he works.

How this happened remains a mystery, since no one is claiming credit or shouldering the responsibility.

In an August interview, legendary home run-hitter and 2006 Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said it was perfectly understandable that Japan should spite the Red Sox reliever.  As the ace pitcher of Japan Energy’s corporate club, Tazawa had two choices, freedom to choose a major league club or nine years of indentured servitude to whatever Nippon Professional Baseball team drafted him and offered him the maximum allowable rookie package of a $1.5 million signing bonus and a first-year salary of $150,000.

He broke no rules in choosing to begin his pro career in the United States. Yet, he is now being punished for breaking NPB’s wish that all Japanese amateur stars play first in NPB.

“The baseball world has made up its mind,” Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo told me in August, the day after I spoke to Oh. “I can’t pick him.”

Japan’s ‘baseball world’ is an ambiguous term for the players, teams and organising bodies and is the perfect front for denial. In December 2012, former commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “I think it was Oh and (then Japan manager Koji) Yamamoto who decided from the first that Tazawa would not play.” Oh said he thought the exclusion was Kato’s decision.

Certainly, Tazawa was never ever considered. Both 2013 head coach Masataka Nashida and No. 2 pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda said they’d have loved to have him along in 2013, but told me his name was never offered as a candidate by Yamamoto. When I asked the skipper about it, Yamamoto said, “Nobody here knows Tazawa, because he didn’t play in NPB. Lacking that common experience would make his presence awkward.”

Japan’s spiteful owners — who have an unofficial agreement to ban Tazawa from playing in NPB for up to three years should he desire to play here — are the likely suspects, but an  NPB administrator recently pulled me aside to say it was the amateur federation’s pressure that has made Tazawa untouchable.

The Japan Baseball Federation  has yet to respond to requests to discuss the issue. Oh admitted that any policy that would banish a national star was childish and hoped in the future Japanese ball would be mature enough to deal positively with such issues but added a kicker, “the national team belongs to (Japanese) pro baseball,  you don’t see amateurs. Tazawa skipped pro baseball so it makes sense that he should be excluded.”

This is the root of the problem.

Because the national team needs Japan’s pros, it can’t do without NPB, who then drape their stars in Japan’s national flag, the Hinomaru. But the goal of winning for Japan is subordinated to the goals of an ambiguous “baseball world” — one of which is to ostracise Tazawa for his temerity.

So the national federation outsources the team to NPB and no one is prepared to either admit that Tazawa is being banned or willing to accept responsibility for it.

None of this should surprise people familiar with Japan,  whose current prime minister is zealously air-brushing over the more detestable acts carried out in Japan’s name by civilians and soldiers during the second world war.  “There is no evidence,” can be interpreted as, “There is no evidence we want to evaluate.”

No one denies that atrocity and evil are the companions of warfare. When pressed, Abe relies on that maxim to say, Japan was no worse than anyone else, therefore Japan is innocent rather than equally guilty. And since Japan is innocent, we can just move forward and ignore it.

There is a similarity between how the ill-defined “baseball world” operates and the way Japan prosecuted its war effort 65 years or so ago. Japan’s military doctrine, particularly in the Imperial Army was top-heavy, with its main emphasis on front-line fighting spirit rather than command, control or logistics.  Instil the proper fighting spirit, and results will follow. Unfortunately, the fighting spirit among commanders of Imperial Army’s units in China and Manchuria propelled Japan into a war it didn’t plan.

Rather than seek to stabilise the situation, the Japanese government condoned the acts by doing nothing. In a sense, Japan didn’t start it’s war in China. It merely placed soldiers on the continent and allowed things to run their course. When it came to looting China of goods in order to prosecute an ever expanding war, Japan enlisted the aid of an organized crime figure, Yoshio Kodama, who supplied Japan and himself from China’s riches.

A similar story, which is now big news in Japan, surrounds the military’s use of the euphemistically called “comfort women,” women who were used by the military as sexual servants. To some degree, this was an extension of Japan’s custom of human trafficking. It was not uncommon in Japan for families to try an alleviate debt by selling daughters to brokers.

The current debate is not that it never occurred, but whether the government was responsible and to the degree that the women were held against their will and not compensated. Saying the government was not responsible is the same as saying Japan was not responsible for  waging war against China because it was not government policy to start the war in the first place. The large body of testimony and evidence can be disputed, but regardless how bad it might have been, everybody else did it and it wasn’t the government’s fault.

Of course, there is nothing unique in this unwillingness to face inconvenient evidence. The United States was eagerly prosecuting Japanese war criminals, such as Kodama, until the communists won China’s civil war. At that point, what the U.S. needed was not a left-leaning wobbly Japan suffering from democratic growing pains, but a strong, anti-communist thug as an ally. People like Kodama suddenly became cherished allies and all was forgiven.

The idea that anything unpleasant can be swept under the carpet, called something else, ignored and lied about is pretty common around the world, although Japan may be the ultimate master of the art.

Blue is the new red

Yohei Oshima of the Chunichi Dragons.

On Thursday, Dec. 18, Chunichi Dragons center fielder Yohei Oshima caved in and agreed to a contract for ¥74 million for the 2015 season in the third meeting in which the team failed to budge from their original offer.

The 29-year-old is an excellent fielder, whose offensive numbers are diminished by playing at Nagoya Dome.  A year ago, with Oshima coming off an injury-affected season that saw him bat just .248, Chunichi gave him the largest pay cut they could without giving him the option of turning it down in favor of becoming a free agent. His new salary is ¥1 million shy of his deal for the 2013 season.

He said he considered going to arbitration but his wife talked him out of it. Arbitration in Japan is not a one-way street. In the past, the arbitrators have done a fair job of trying to see when a player is underpaid compared to his peers.

So the question is who are his most comparable peers and what are they paid?

Based on what they did in 2014, the most similar players in offensive and defensive value (using Win Shares)  were, with their salaries this past season:

Year League Player Age Batting WS Fielding WS Raw WS Total Salary
2014 CL Takayuki Kajitani 25 13.15 3.24 16.39 ¥23,000,000
2014 PL Yuya Hasegawa 29 12.59 3.11 15.70 ¥200,000,000
2014 CL Ryosuke Hirata 26 11.74 3.89 15.63 ¥35,000,000
2014 CL Yohei Oshima 28 11.33 3.98 15.32 ¥56,250,000
2014 PL Shogo Akiyama 26 12.03 3.25 15.28 ¥65,000,000
2014 PL Nobuhiro Matsuda 31 11.54 3.01 14.55 ¥200,000,000
2014 CL Shingo Kawabata 26 11.45 3.10 14.55 ¥56,000,000

If you can’t see this table, it’s also here: http://jballallen.com/blueisreddata.pdf

Kajitani’s salary was doubled to ¥46 million for next year after leading the CL in stolen bases. Kawabata got a raise to ¥85 million. Hirata signed for a ¥12 million raise at ¥47 million, Akiyama took a ¥3 million pay cut, Matsuda  remained at ¥200 million for the 2nd year of his 2-year-deal after being hurt for much of 2014, while Hasegawa has yet to sign.

All in all, Oshima is pretty much on a par with his peers — as long as you don’t include Softbank or Yomiuri, who are pretty liberal with the cash.

The Dragons are going to use whatever excuse they can to cut your salary, so you better hit for average. As for the title, I suppose some of you got it, since the red-cladHiroshima Carp are famous for their tight-fisted dealings with their players. The Dragons, whose parent company is a newspaper, the Chunichi Shinbun, have been cutting costs like crazy the past two seasons.

Hiroshima center fielder Yoshihiro Maru was the CL’s best outfielder last season and just saw his pay increase from ¥51 million to ¥90 million. If he played for Yomiuri, he’d be making at least as much as Giants center fielder Hisayoshi Chono (¥180 million), who’s not nearly as good.

It’s been a while…

Surprise

At the Baseball Winter Meetings last week in San Diego, a number of people told me how much they appreciated my work. This was a bit of a surprise since I really hadn’t published anything in so long and my old Japanese baseball webpage hadn’t been updated in over a decade. Other people have been using data I’ve provided for them, but I can’t take any credit for work they’ve done in making that stuff public .

Since then, “The Hot Corner,” my weekly column on Japanese baseball in the newspaper formerly known as the Daily Yomiuri was canceled after 10+ years over what one could generously call philosophical differences. More recently, the day job has changed and the new gig at Japan’s national press agency does not encourage opinion. Being a wire service, they like things short and sweet.

A brief poll on Twitter for content suggestions resulted in:

  • research studies
  • breaking news
  • historical research
  • stats
  • Japanese park factors
  • blog

Good thing nobody mentioned projections 🙂

When Nippon Ham Fighters assistant GM Hiroshi Yoshimura, one of my first readers back in 1995 when he toiled for the Pacific League, said, ‘You should do projections!’ I thought,  ‘Who would want Japanese projections?’ It turns out that by 2005 the answer was just about every one– which may be why he’s a team executive and I’m starting a blog 20 years after our first conversation.

I’m not certain what was going on in that field after Bill James came out with his Brock Projection system in the mid-1980s, but come 2010 and team executives say, ‘If you’ve got data, you’ve got projections, too?’ Uh no.

In the meantime there are a dozen or so studies I’d like to rescue from my past, dust off and see if they’re still valid. I’ll be publishing those when possible. Thanks to the proliferation of data on the internet, the days of typing in each day’s game data — as I did from 1992 to 1999 are over and I don’t miss them. I do miss the data, however, since a hard disk crash lost almost all of it…

When I learn to upload things on to this site and include links to as many of the people publishing good things as I can, I will.

It’s good to be back.