Samurai Japan? More like the NPB indentured servants

Junichi Tazawa, the man without a national team

We’re a a little more than a year from the start of the 2017 World Baseball Classic group stages, and Japan is beginning its final year of preparations with games against Taiwan on March 5 and 6. Yet, the team doesn’t deserve to wear Japan’s emblem, the hinomaru, on their uniforms.

As long as manager Hiroki Kokubo is not allowed to choose stars who exercise their individual right NOT to play in Nippon Professional Baseball, then the team can’t truly represent Japan. The example is Junichi Tazawa. While Kokubo has said he’d like to have him on the team, Tazawa can’t be picked because NPB won’t let him.

Tazawa is banned from playing in Japan or for Kokubo’s NPB Indentured Samurai. The pitcher broke no law or contract. He failed no drug test. But he’s an outsider because he chose a career path NPB didn’t approve of. We’re not talking about organized crime or some other group that will get you banned from NPB, but rather a major league team. Before Tazawa signed with the Red Sox as an amateur, there were no rules against it. But after he signed, NPB’s teams agreed to ban him. Should Tazawa desire for any reason to return to Japan he would have to wait three years after he stops playing abroad.

Since Tazawa is currently ineligible to play for an NPB team, he is ineligible to play for NPB’s facsimile of a national team.

It wasn’t long after Tazawa was banned that Shohei Otani said he wanted no part of indentured servitude in NPB. Otani stayed in Japan, but only after the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him persuaded him that NPB was his best option. But Toshimasa Shimada, the Fighters’ top executive said Otani’s asking teams not to draft him was proof that the Tazawa rule had failed and is now only hurting the teams as they pursue a path of segregation — who will not be able to sign players who don’t put NPB’s wishes ahead of their own.

What’s wrong with this picture?

For the second straight spring, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo opted to take a group of middle rotation starters to what he calls his “best team” ahead of March’s spring internationals.

“Looking ahead one year from now (to the World Baseball Classic), these are the top players at this moment,” Kokubo told a press conference in Naha on Monday, when he announced his squad for two games against Taiwan on March 5 and 6.

Right. The reason for leaving Shohei Otani, Shintaro Fujinami and a few others off the team is that they are candidates to start the season for their teams on March 25 and selecting them for national team duty 10 days before that could hinder their preparations.

Huh? The best pitchers in Japan can’t figure out how to start on Opening Day after pitching a few innings 10 or 11 days earlier. Something is definitely wrong with that.

The rationale makes as much sense as Kokubo’s explanation for the timing of his pitching changes in the ninth inning of Japan’s Premier 12 semifinal in November.

Who is Kihachi Enomoto & why he deserves to be in Hall of Fame

Kihachi Enomoto is more than deserving to be in Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame

Prior to Japan’s Hall of Fame election, a listener on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast asked who should be elected this year.

In the sense of should as in most likely, the obvious answers are former Yomiuri Giants ace Masaki Saito and former Seibu Lions and Daiei Hawks ace Kimiyasu Kudo, who is on the ballot for the first time this year. And as guessed, they both were elected, although Kudo made it with just five votes to spare

That was the off-the-top-of-my-head answer. I then went through my data base, found players still on the ballot, and came up with a list of the most worthy candidates.

No. 1 on the list and the player with the most valuable career not previously in Japan’s little Hall of Fame at Tokyo Dome is Mainichi and Tokyo Orions first baseman Kihachi Enomoto. He was not the best player of his generation, but he was among the best in NPB in the 1960s and among the best players in the Pacific League year in and year out from the age of 18. Enomoto was named on Jan. 18 to join the Hall, but just barely. A panel of 119 “experts” — living Hall of Famers and the museum’s directors gave 83 votes to Enomoto, the exact number needed.

Here is a list of the 10 most valuable players of the 1960s in total win shares with their win share totals from 1960 to 1969:

  1. Sadaharu Oh 1B 360
  2. Katsuya Nomura C 335
  3. Shigeo Nagashima 3B 320
  4. Isao Harimoto OF 297
  5. Kazuhiro Yamauchi OF 259
  6. Kihachi Enomoto 1B 250
  7. Shinichi Eto OF 241
  8. Yoshinori Hirose OF 211
  9. Minoru Murayama P 206
  10. Kazuhiko Kondo OF 205

Of these 10 players, only Enomoto and Kondo are not in the Hall of Fame. The highest ranked middle infielders of the decade were Hall of Fame shorstop Yasumitsu Toyoda and Hall of Fame second baseman Morimichi Takagi, whose value in the decade ranked them 18th and 27th, respectively.

Thirty-five of the 75 professional players in the Hall of Fame who played after the war were pitchers, including Junzo Sekine, who was successful as both a pitcher and an outfielder. Of those 35, 10 began their careers before the 1950 expansion, and another 13 began their careers between 1950-1959. Japanese ball during that period was a low-power, low-scoring affair with the exception of the period from 1949 – the last year of the single-league era, when the strike zone was downsized, and the first two years of the two-league system.

Another seven began their careers in the 1960s, two in the 1970s. There was one in the 1980s – the sentimental but absurd choice of Hiroshima Carp closer Tsunemi Tsuda, who played for nine years and died of cancer at the age of 32. Two pitchers who started their career in 1990 were first-ballot hall of famers, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo.

Among position players, 14 began their careers before 1950, another 15 in the subsequent decade, six in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, one in the 1980s (Koji Akiyama), and one in the 1990s, (last year’s inductee, Atsuya Furuta).

It’s hard to know what to think other than how hard it is for recent players to match the gaudy records compiled by the best players in the first three decades of the current pro baseball establishment.

One way to look at this is the huge gap in competitive ability between the teams. The mean of the standared deviations in winning percentages for each season from 1946 to 1959 is 0.117. From 1960 to 1989 it’s 0.074, and since 1990 it’s 0.068. It’s the same for the spread in batting averages and on-base percentages among hitters who qualified for batting titles. There was less quality in terms of batters’ ability to hit safely and reach base. From 1946 to 1959, 22 percent of the players with 3.1 plate appearances per game, had on-base percentages lower than .300: lots of easy outs there.

Although the dead-ball ‘40s and ‘50s made it harder to set records for hitters, the scarcity of quality rivals meant batters could dominate the competition more easily. During the 14 years from 1946 to 1959, there were seven active players with three or more batting titles in their career. In the 22 seasons from 1960 to 1981, that total was five. Since 1982 there have been four.

The Hall of Fame voters appear to have often rewarded players for their level of dominance. In his career, Hiromitsu Ochiai 15 times led his league in a triple-crown category and that was in a career that ran from 1979 to 1998, when the competition was much stiffer than it was for Hall of Famers such as Shigeo Nagashima or Isao Horimoto.

Love him or hate him, Kazuhiro Kiyohara was one of the great players of his generation. But his failure to lead his league in a single triple-crown category was frequently commented on during his career and may be holding him out of the Hall. It’s likely a combination of that and his not getting along well with the press. Although Enomoto wasn’t as big a power hitter as Kiyohara, their careers are extremely similar, and Kiyohara is the second most valuable player who is eligible for Hall of Fame selection who is not in.

Enomoto won two batting titles and won nine Best IX awards to Kiyohara’s three, win shares judges Kiyohara to have been his league’s best player twice, and he did win five Golden Gloves, although win shares wouldn’t give him any. They each led their league in runs once, walks four times, on-base percentage twice and slugging average once. Kiyohara led his league in doubles once and Enomoto twice.

Some other stuff about Enomoto, courtesy of wikipedia :

He was intentionally walked as an 18-year-old rookie on Opening Day after going 0-for-3, and whoever ordered it knew what he was doing, since Enomoto set records for first-year hitters straight out of high school in runs, hits, doubles, walks and on-base percentage. He also tied the record for triples.

On July 21, 1968, in the first game of a doubleheader at Tokyo Stadium, Enomoto doubled off Kintetsu Buffaloes Hall of Famer Keishi Suzuki, becoming the third player in NPB history to reach 2,000 hits — and the youngest at 31 years, 7 months of age. In the second game, Enomoto put a hard tag at first base on Kintetsu’s Toshinori Yasui, who was attempting to bunt his way on. The two exchanged words and then blows. Both benches emptied and Enomoto was taken unconscious from the field after reserve Buffaloes outfielder Shunzo Arakawa hit him in the head with a bat. The local police sent papers to prosecutors for a charge of assault but the matter was settled between the teams front offices and no assault charges were leveled.

Those were the days.

When Enomoto retired after playing briefly for the Nishitetsu Lions in 1972, he walked away from the game completely. One of the first members of the Meikyukai, the charitable organizations for players born in the Showa Era with either 2,000 hits or 200 wins, he never attended a single meeting and eventually quit. Enomoto told Sport Nippon in December 1971  he’d like to be a batting coach, but nobody offered, saying “I’m  not sociable. People who don’t chat or socialize don’t get offered jobs.”

Enomoto died of colon cancer in 2012 at the age of 75.

 

Kenta Maeda from Day 1

C.J. Nitkowski pointed out here that things will change when Maeda has to adapt to a different ball and a shorter rotation in MLB. How well is he going to do?

A long-time MLB scout who has watched Kenta Maeda since he turned pro, talked recently about the new Dodger’s tools.

He’s not that power arm guy that’s going to get swings and misses all the time. (His game is locating) to the bat rather than away from the bat, where as (Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei) Otani is away from the bat. Otani is about 10-12 strikeouts a game, whereas Kenta Maeda is about six-to-eight, and get a lot of ground balls.

He’s knows himself as a pitcher and I’ve seen him pitch without his best stuff on a given day and he still gives you the opportunity to win. To me, that’s a pitcher, rather than just a thrower, you know, throw harder and harder. Maeda can figure a way to get off the bat head and get outs.

Masahiro Tanaka had to learn about the tendencies of hitterrs (in the majors) and that’s something Maeda’s going to have to learn.

The adjustments to the rotation and other things are up to Maeda. He has to find his niche. If anybody can make the adjustments he can.

That’s from an outsider.

Before Marty Brown moved on to manage Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles in 2010, he told me about his first impression of Maeda, who became the understudy of  Hiroki Kuroda with the Hiroshima Carp and eventually that team’s ace.

“The first thing you noticed was his arm strength,” Brown said in a 2009 interview. “He could stand on one side of the field and throw it to the other side effortlessly. He had an extreme looseness to his ability to his ability to get out in front and release the ball and really throw it a long way. He was way more advanced than a lot of kids his age. He was only 17. You could tell that he caught on things really quickly. He could be doing a mound or a bullpen and he had a real good feel for figuring things out. His aptitude was in some ways was a lot more advanced.

“(When he turned pro) he had a big rolling curveball. He had a slider. Really good fastball command. we gave him a changeup and within about three pitches he could do about whatever he wanted with it.”

Hiroki Kuroda and a number of foreign pitchers here in Japan have also commented on how being a starter in Japan is much easier. Not only is the rotation longer, but NPB rules allow for a 28-man active roster, with 25 on the bench for each game. That means that for every game, three starting pitchers who are between starts are through at the end of pregame practice, they can go home. They don’t have to wait until the end of a 16-inning game to get rested up for their start the next day, since Japanese games end after 12 innings.

Hiroshima’s hot corner

 

Hector Luna appears headed to Hiroshima after three seasons with the Central League-rival Chunichi Dragons.

Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times @JCoskrey tweeted today that the Hiroshima Carp were moving to sign former Chunichi Dragon third baseman Hector Luna and commented that it would be a good pick up for them.  He is probably spot on because the Carp offense at third base was easily Japan’s worst.

If you look at NPB offenses as a whole in 2015, ranking them by OPS of the starters of the nine positions on the field, you get the following order: 1B: .759, 3B: 734, RF: .730, LF: .723, 2B: .696, SS: .655, C: .584, P: .248.

The .613 OPS posted by Hiroshima’s starting third baseman was not only the worst by any team in NPB. Not only that, but because the Carp catchers were more productive than the NPB norm this year, Hiroshima got less offense at third base than any other position — except the pitchers. Except when Tetsuya Kokubo started, the Carp third basemen kicked the pitchers’ butts.

However, when you say “Carp,” the first word that comes to mind is “defense.” When you say “2015 Carp,” the word is “worse than expected defense,” which is also what comes to mind if you say “Hector Luna at third base.” But you know what, that’s just an impression. Even in an off year, Hiroshima’s fielding was about average.

The Carp were a fairly well-balanced team last year with very good starting pitching thanks to Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda. A few of their hitters had terrible seasons, and Brad Eldred started the season hurt. If their pitching takes a step backward without Maeda, but the offense rebounds and they get a good year from Luna and Eldred, their fielding should be enough to get them into the postseason.

My defensive nature when it comes to word association games aside, I think Luna will be, as Jason stated, a good acquisition.

Let’s go back to the future

For lack of a better expression, this is a call to action.

If you live in Japan and have even the slightest interest in the history of the game, I would like you to join me in a quest to digitally document Japanese baseball history. Let’s get together and figure

Of course, we’d love to have play-by-play accounts of every game since the Japanese Baseball Federation revived pro baseball in 1936, but those kind of records  don’t exist in public. But Japan has libraries and collections of old newspapers, and together we can — game-by-game, season-by-season — uncover buried treasure.

Little by little, we can encode information about games, where were they played, who pitched, who played, what was the score, how many pitches were thrown? — Japanese papers have been publishing pitch counts since the 1960s!

I’ve always wondered how someone like Keishi Suzuki could throw huge numbers of innings and complete games from the age of 18 and keep doing it year after year until he finally slowed down a little at the age of 37 and then retired. The answer just might be out there.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve managed to compile a data base of seasonal data since 1946 for NPB’s pitchers, batters and fielders. Play-by-play data is freely available from 2006 thanks to the internet and I’ve been keeping records of various sorts since the mid-1990s. The detailed game data available to the media through BIS runs from 1970 to the present. Because we know how many runs are scored by a team in its main park(s), and how many home runs are hit in those games, we can make a good guess at park effects, but before 1970, that is going to take even more elbow grease

It’s funny how something can be in front of your face, and you never see it. After plowing through old game results and newspaper clippings from old papers for years at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library at Tokyo Dome, working on this or that project, it became obvious that charting Japan’s ocean of game history was beyond my reach. Yet, I hoped and thought that if I stuck at it, day after day, I could compile some kind of record of every pro game ever played How naive can one get?

Those days, from 1993 to 1997, I was writing my English language analytical guides to Japanese baseball and everything seemed possible. But upon becoming a full-time writer, that dream faded.

Then a funny thing happened. I decided to go to the baseball winter meetings a year ago in San Diego. Ira Stevens of Scout Dragon, my former collaborator on my guides, goes every year to market his product and asked me how come I didn’t check it out. It was a great idea and a great experience.

I filed a bunch of stories about Japanese players and teams, and met a number of people whose stuff I read. One of those, Rob Neyer, asked why I no longer had a website and why I didn’t try to start a Japanese version of Retrosheet. A website was the easy part. I came back and started this thing up. But a group, a network, organize? That’s not me…

That all changed today. I became attached to Bill James’ win shares because of the artful way it manages to handle fielding value, and having completed win shares for all the players in NPB from 1970-2015 today, I felt energized to tackle the basic park data needed to carry them back to 1936, so I put out a call for help on Twitter.

So if you are in Japan and can access a library to get the basic information from even one game, drop me a line and let’s work this out.

 

The Boys of Winter

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Terry Collins had a lot to smile about at the winter meetings.

While there are plenty of news junkies this week in Nashville at the baseball winter meetings, the absolute best part is running into people you’ve known for a long time or have wanted to meet for a long time. On Tuesday, I spoke briefly with former Orix manager Terry Collins, who is now riding high and aiming higher with the NL champion New York Mets.

My story for Kyodo News is here.

Later that day, burdened by the jet lag albatross, I ran into former Triple Crown-winner Boomer Wells and former Seibu Lion Terry Whitfield. Boomer’s the greatest and as usual had several stories to make my day. Terry is someone I’d wanted to talk to ever since fate steered me toward Japan. I had been a fan of his with the San Francisco Giants, and I remember him coming back to the Dodgers after he left Seibu.

I also ran into Charlie Manuel, who told me that what he got out of Japan was the lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around Charlie Manuel — which we now know is true, because science has proved it revolves around Boomer Wells.

Boomer Wells

Nippon Ham Fighters scout Matt Winters, whose quest for beer nirvana is awe-inspiring, said he’s “trying to catch up with Boomer,” which seemed an impossible chase, given Boomer’s inspired start. But Boomer, the former New York Jets lineman and Japanese baseball legend, is being a sport and has slimmed down considerably, looking much fitter than he has in a long time. Man that was good to see.

Winter meetings warming up

The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.
The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.

The good thing about Opryland is that you don’t have to ride the boats to get from one end of the facility to the other, but the sight of the Baseball Winter Meetings a HUGE facility.  One element of the meetings is the continual stream of front-office people mingling in lobbies and corridors. At Opryland, the miracle mile, is a bridge near the lobby.

Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.
Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.

After a slow start on Sunday, in which the main piece of news was a “reported” signing of Hisashi Iwakuma by the Los Angeles Dodgers, things picked up a little bit on Monday as the managers press conferences began and more and more team officials and agents arrived. Monday, however, brought no clarity to Iwakuma’s status, as agent Adam Katz, who also represents Carp ace Kenta Maeda, refusing to comment on a deal that has not been completed.

Maeda is currently in posting limbo as his paperwork is cleared by MLB, so Katz said he was as free with his words as he’ll ever get regarding the two-time Sawamura Award winner.

“I expect that once the process starts, I’m not going to be providing updates, unfortunately. It’s not something I’ve done in all my years of representing ballplayers. So this will probably be it,” Katz said.

 

 

Does Japan’s game slow down in 2nd half?

Unlike most NPB teams, the Yakult Swallows were at full speed in the second half this year. Shingo Kawabaa slides into third with a September triple against DeNA BayStars third baseman Aarom Baldiris.

Many years ago, while exploring ways Japanese ball varied from the major league variety, I noticed that in Nippon Professional Baseball, triples declined in the second half of the season, while in the majors they increase slightly. Despite fewer games played over a longer season with a less arduous travel schedule, a lot of Japanese players look gassed in the second half.

Take Kosuke Fukudome. Back in his heyday with the Chunichi Dragons, running on the right fielder’s arm in April was a risky proposition. But three months into the season, runners would go from first to third with impunity on balls hit to right field. Considering the long practice schedule on off days and the two or more hours of practice before each game, it’s no wonder.

With the magic of the internet comes better access to potential sources of answers, and you know what? While the batting average on balls in play increases in the second half of the season — regardless which side of the Pacific you are on, the frequency of batters reaching third on those hits still decreases in the second half.

Splitting the season between June 30 and July 1, NPB teams since 2006 have hit triples on 1.73 percent of first-half hits, and 1.6 percent of second-half hits. In the majors, using the All-Star break from mlb.com as a convenient break point, MLB teams since 2006 increased from 2 percent in the first half to 2.1 percent in the second half.

I did a story for Kyodo News last month about the conditioning programs of the SoftBank Hawks and Yakult Swallows, the two teams that met in the Japan Series after beating up their leagues in the second half. It’s a small sample size, but the Hawks and Swallows were both below average in triples in the first half but well ahead of their leagues in the second.

Hawks players did intense training from the spring, flipping and hammering truck tires, and it appeared to pay off. Conditioning coach Atsushi Toriida, left, looks on.

Remembering Fukudome, I wondered if outfield assists followed a similar pattern. For NPB as a whole, outfield assists decreased in the second half this year, the first year I have kept regular fielding totals during the season. Hawks outfielders threw out eight runners in the first half, 10 in the second half, while the Swallows declined from 16 to 10.

Japan’s award weirdness

All-everything Tetsuto Yamada in full swing.

One hears a lot of teeth gnashing and groaning during Japan’s award season, and for good reason.

The MVP awards are, more often than not, an exercise in trying to pick the best player on the pennant-winning team. How this started, no one seems to know, but reporters I’ve quizzed about it say voters will never be criticized for selecting a player on a pennant-winning team or a player from another team, provided he has an outlier season — such as Wladimir Balentien shattering Japan’s single-season home run record despite playing for a last-place team. It seems progress is being made on this front.

Take 2014 for instance.

The 2014 Pacific League winner was Buffaloes pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, whose team lost the pennant by a matter of winning-percentage points. The runner-up was this year’s MVP, Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, and third place went to slugging Fighters ace Shohei Otani, who was the league’s second best pitcher and its second most valuable designated hitter and thus a better candidate than Kaneko…

A year ago, the Central League award went to Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose team won the pennant by seven games. But second place went to Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who like Yanagita had his breakthrough season in 2014 before running away with the 2015 vote. Third place in the CL last year went to Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger.

The Swallows dominated this year’s MVP voting despite winning the league by 1-1/2 games over the Giants. One has to wonder how the vote would have been different had the Giants won two more games. Would right-hander Miles Mikolas, the top Giants player in the poll, have been MVP after throwing 145 innings with a nifty 1.92 earned run average and a 13-3 record? Mikolas finished seventh in the voting because the Giants fell short. Certainly, a Giants pennant would have wiped out support for Swallows ace Masanori Ishikawa (13-9, 3.31 ERA), who finished fifth in the voting. But the way the Japan media votes, he could easily have been voted the best player in the league if his team had been just a little luckier.

Well maybe not.

It would have been hard to knock off Yamada, whose 119 runs were 32 more than teammate Shingo Kawabata’s total. That 32-run gap between the league leader and the runner-up is the second largest in history. Only Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh did him two better, leading the league by 34 runs in 1969. Though when people in Japan speak of titles, little things like that are typically overlooked.

Playing in a hitters’ park, Yamada led both of Nippon Professional Baseball’s leagues in doubles and home runs, and trailed in RBIs by five after spending part of the season in the leadoff spot. He tied for the Japan lead in stolen bases, was third in walks, was runner-up in batting average, while leading in OBP and slugging average.

It was no real surprise that he won in a landslide. The surprise came the day before when the two leagues’ Best IX Award winners were named, and three voters, the same ones who vote for the MVPs — the ballot is on the same sheet of paper along with the Rookie of the Year — thought Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Carp was a more valuable second baseman than Yamada. Kikuchi is a heck of a fielder, and a productive hitter, but let’s get real.

If you think Kikuchi is better, it’s not the end of the world. We all have dumb ideas or fixations now and then. But if those three thought Kikuchi was better, how come he didn’t get any MVP votes? This is puzzling because Yamada was named on every single ballot cast for CL players with 262 first-place votes, seven seconds, and one third. Kikuchi went 0-for-3, so one has to wonder what happened to those three voters.

Yanagita was not a dominant force like Yamada, but the PL is a tougher league than the CL is. Although Yanagita hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals like Yamada and even won a batting title, he spent a lot of the season in the shadow of Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who rewrote the single-season hit record in dramatic fashion over the final two games of the season.

There was really no contest for MVP as Yanagita was the dominant player on a historically dominant team, but Akiyama got 11 first-place votes to finish runner-up. In the Best IX vote, Akiyama was named on every ballot, while Yanagita was left off three (perhaps they were Seibu beat writers).

It’s hard to argue the singles-hitting Akiyama is a better player, but if you think so, that’s OK and he was a decent choice for No. 2, but demoting Yanagita off the Best IX ballot? Too weird.