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.

Is there an MLB match for Machi?

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro “Machi” Matsuda.

@bronxfanatic asked about Nobuhiro Matsuda’s chances of signing with a major league team.

The San Diego Padres had reportedly been interested in the dynamic third baseman of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks–just as they had been reportedly looking into Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani a year ago. Fox Sports reports the two sides met earlier this week.

The chances of someone offering Matsuda guaranteed major league deal are small, given his age; he’ll be 33 in May. Another factor is that while Matsuda is a quality third baseman, all of his career has been spent on artificial surfaces.

Matsuda stands far off the plate in the right-handed batter’s box, daring pitchers to throw him outside and then shoots pitches to right field. Because those are his favorite targets, he can be enticed by outside pitches well off the plate. When he fails to make contact with those, he regains his balance by bouncing around the plate on one foot–what John E. Gibson  calls the “hot-foot dance.”

His success, and I believe he has a chance to succeed is in scrapping his preconceived notions about what works for him and start fresh. The change in velocity and pitching style will require major adjustments that are not easy for a mature player, so a large drop off is to be expected. He is athletic and smart enough to find a new approach, but it’s not a good bet to make.

On the plus side, he has won four Pacific League Golden Gloves, is a LEADER on the field, and according to the foreign players on the Hawks, the funniest guy in the club house. He could easily be a team favorite like his mentor, Munenori Kawasaki, and prove valuable after winning a job in a spring training invite.

That being said, he has said he will return to the Hawks if no deal is pending. This is essentially a similar situation to the one Toritani found himself in a year ago. Because he’s not high on the board, teams will wait to see who moves where before making Matsuda an attractive offer. Last year, Toritani put a mid-January deadline on negotiations because he felt he had to tell the Tigers if he would be available on Feb. 1 for spring training.

So while, Matsuda could win a job in the spring, he is unlikely to leave the Hawks in the lurch by going without a contract, and thus he is not likely to get the opportunity he longs for.

Will Kenta Maeda be posted?

Kenta Maeda while pitching for Japan.

On Tuesday, Kenta Maeda told the Hiroshima Carp for the third straight year that he wants to be posted. But unlike the past two autumns, Carp GM Kiyoaki Suzuki has kept the door open.

Suzuki has in the past said, “when it’s the best time for him, the team and the fans,” and “when he performs like an ace,” adding that Maeda’s case is much stronger now then it was two years ago.

The best time for Maeda is now.

But for the team, which thrives on underpaying its stars while merchandising the heck out of them, it is obviously not the best time. The penurious Carp would lose a year from Japan’s best pitcher (at the moment) at a cost of around $3 million as well as licensing revenue from shirt sales and other trinkets in exchange for $20 million it  can still collect a year from now.

As for the fans, as much as they’d live watching Maeda on TV pitching in the majors, having him in red with the promise of pennant contention would be better.

The Carp began play in 1950 and went 25 years without a pennant. After a stretch 17 seasons as a CL powerhouse, 2015 was the club’s 24th straight season without a league title.

Premier 12 all-tournament team & 9th inning madness

 

The WBSC has named its all-tournament team for the inaugural Premier 12, which includes the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani (starting pitcher) and Sho Nakata (first baseman), while Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto was named the tournament’s outstanding defensive player.

Three days after third-place Japan blew a three-run lead to lose its semifinal to eventual champion South Korea, the smoke has yet to clear over manager Hiroki Kokubo’s game management.

Some question his removing Otani after 85 pitches over seven innings for two-time Pacific League strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who had been very sharp in relief through the tournament.

Others, including my podcast partner, John E Gibson, question Kokubo leaving Norimoto, a starter with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, who dispatched the Koreans in the eighth on eight pitches, in to work the ninth — since that is the domain of closers. After having zero luck with Norimoto’s fastball in the eighth, South Korea’s hitters began getting good swings at his secondary pitches. Good swings and good luck. The worst pitch he threw was a forkball that missed up over the plate, a pitch that leadoff hitter Jeong Keun Woo smashed just inside the third-base line for an RBI double. You can see the video here.

After the game, Kokubo said, “I wanted to bring in (lefty) Yuki Matsui with runners on second and third. But Norimoto hit the next batter. If there had been a base open, I think Matsui would have had more margin for error.”

Huh? He had a base open before Norimoto’s pitch came close enough to Lee Yong Kyu’s elbow for the umpire to award the batter first base. Kokubo wanted Matsui in with a base open, and didn’t bring him in then to face the lefty Lee, but waited for a bases-loaded to bring in a 20-year-old with a history of spotty control who is playing for the national team for the first time. Matsui walked the only batter he faced to make it a one-run game. Lee Dae Ho, who has seen Fighters closer Hirotoshi Masui pitch for four years, did well to lay off a 1-1 fastball off the outside corner before making  contact on a forkball over the outer half of the plate for a two-run single.

Norimoto’s control was horrible to start the inning, but he made two decent pitches that were hit for singles before Jeong’s double. Norimoto was part of the plan, no problem. But Kokubo wasn’t prepared for what he might need if the inning got out of control early, as it did.

Kokubo had four guys on his roster who close out games for a living, and a starter, submariner Kazuhisa Makita who has been deadly in relief, and none were ready when Kokubo could have used them the most.

Premier 12 or Premie 12?

The biggest moment of the Premier 12, South Korea’s stunning semifinal win over Japan at Tokyo Dome.

A pal referred to the Premier 12 as the Premie 12. Which kind of makes sense.

The tournament, which concluded Saturday night at Tokyo Dome, is living, breathing, andworth seeing. But it’s also underdeveloped and in need of love and care if it is to grow into a part of fans’ lives.

The tournament, organized by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, brings together teams from the 12 top national federations in the WBSC’s rankings. Two, six-team groups played a total of 30 group games for four quarterfinal berths.

Japan, which has turned its national team into a business (NPB Enterprises) with a full-time manager, Hiroki Kokubo, has had this tournament on its radar for years. The WBSC’s inability to negotiate a deal with MLB meant no players on MLB 40-man rosters were eligible to play, meaning nations with strong domestic leagues such as Japan and South Korea had an advantage.

Although Japan failed to reach the final due to a ninth-inning, four-run meltdown against South Korea at Tokyo Dome in Thursday’s semifinal. Kokubo, who was named to manage Japan in 2013 with no managing or coaching experience, carried four NPB closers on his roster but none were warm when South Korea’s first two hitters reached base in the ninth.

The 4-3 victory by manager Kim In Sik’s team over a previously undefeated Japan team was a mirror image of South Korea’s effort in the 2006 WBC. That year, Kim’s squad beat Japan twice en route to a 6-0 record through two rounds only to lose eventual champion Japan in a semifinal that was a scoreless tie through six innings. That result was much closer than Japan’s 10-6 win over Cuba in the final, when Japan led 6-1 after five innings.

Japan mauled Mexico 11-1 in the third-place game, while South Korea socked the United States 8-0 in the final to grab the gold.

As with the 2006 WBC, the Japan-South Korea semifinal was the tournament’s big game, as was their final at Dodger Stadium in 2009, when Yu Darvish blew the lead in relief after a strong start by Hisashi Iwakuma only to have Japan win it on a two-run, 10th-inning single by Ichiro Suzuki.

Overall, the games have been entertaining.

Shohei Otani hit 100 miles per hour in both of his impressive starts against South Korea and finished with 21 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

The attendance was abysmal except in games played by Japan or Taiwan — or the final which was the second game of a doubleheader which many Japan supporters stayed to watch. The slick website was outsourced and, according to a WBSC spokesman, designed to support 15,000 visitors at a time, instead of the 1 million trying to log in.

Given the popularity of international soccer, it is possible to see how international baseball can capture imaginations and create a massive new market in the coming years. It’s not nearly there yet, but at some point the marginal value of 20 days of league play in a long season could be outweighed by a two-week international break in which national teams compete in front of huge summer crowds around the northern hemisphere and attract worldwide TV audiences.

Prior to the tournament opener on Nov. 8 at Sapporo Dome, Kim said he wanted the world to know how good the games were between his country and Japan, and the Premier 12 allowed him to deliver.

Dave Okubo’s disappearing runner trick

Rakuten skipper Dave Okubo’s aggressive base running has led to some head scratching in Sendai.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, host John E. Gibson interviewed Julio Franco, the player-manager of the Ishikawa Million Stars in Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League. One topic they discussed was being aggressive on the bases. Japanese teams tend toward playing station-to-station ball,  but Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, the new manager of the Rakuten Eagles, likes players to take more risks on the bases.

John and I both appreciate the idea behind taking everything you can get on the bases, but the Eagles’ reckless abandon has come at a cost, something John has begun to comment on.

Through Sunday, Aug. 24, the Eagles have been caught stealing an NPB-high 54 times, a huge factor in the team’s losing the highest percentage of runners on base this season (not counting runners out on ground ball double plays): 6.7 percent. That, and the club’s lack of power — their 67 home runs are last in the Pacific League and 11th fewest in NPB, while they are last in Japan in doubles and triples — contribute to the Eagles scoring just a Japan-low 22.9 percent of their runners on base. The Eagles have the third lowest de facto on-base percentage (the percentage of runners who reach safely by any means): .318.

So the Eagles have the fewest runners on base in the first place, they lose more of those guys running the bases, and their 84 sacrifice hits are third in the PL, so they should be staying out of double plays. But the Eagles’ 73 GDPs are third in NPB, behind the Hawks and Swallows, the league leaaders in OBP.

On a side note

Toru Hamaura during his time in the States.

One of the cool things I noticed when doing the post on preseason complete games was who was throwing all those pitches. Toru Hamaura was the first player who caught my attention. A guy I’d never heard of until a peek at Wikipedia hit home. There’s a nice little piece here about Hamaura by Mr. Bob Lemke.

Starting at the age of 19, Hamamura was among the California League’s better strikeout pitchers in his two seasons in Fresno. He returned to Japan to pitch for the Fukuoka-based Taiheiyo Club Lions but never won more than four games in a season. The control that was his calling card in Single-A, didn’t translate to NPB, where he walked almost as many batters as he struck out.

Frank Johnson, the original Mr. Baseball

Although I was unfamiliar with Hamaura, we are connected in a way. As a freshman and sophomore at Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto, California, one of the teaching assistants at the school was a former San Francisco Giants player named Frank Johnson. Frank helped coach the baseball team and wore a neon-blue Lotte Orions warm-up jacket. On one of my first days at school, when we were getting to know each other he commented that my classmate’s first name “sounded Japanese.” It didn’t mean much to me at the time until I learned a year later that he had played in Japan.

 I haven’t seen Frank since I was 21 or so and he was working security at a K-Mart not far from my part-time job at a 7-11 when I was in college.

He was a big friendly guy, always ready with a kind word and a smile, so it was a huge pleasure to find that Frank was — in a sense — the original Mr. Baseball: an American that the Giants traded to Lotte for Hamaura.

The other name that caught my attention was Osamu Shimano, who unlike Hamaura, is actually fairly well known — but more for being what Paul Harvey would have called, “the rest of the story.” Shimano was the Yomiuri Giants’ first draft pick in 1968. In March 1975, Shimano gave himself a life line with a complete game victory over the Atlanta Braves in spring training, but within a year, he was with the Hankyu Braves, having pitched in just 24 Central League games for the Giants.

He never pitched for the Braves at the top level, but became famous when after his retirement Shimano was asked to put on a bird costume and become Hankyu’s mascot “Bravey.” Shimano, who also created Orix’s mascot “Neppie” after the leasing company purchased the Braves from the Hankyu Railroad, is also famous for NOT being iconic fire-eating right-hander Senichi Hoshino.

Hoshino’s professional persona was largely shaped by his antipathy for the Giants — the team he longed to play for as a pro and expected to be drafted in the first round by in 1968. Instead, Hoshino was drafted by the Chunichi Dragons. As a manager, Hoshino beat the Giants in several CL pennant races, the Japan Series remained out of reach for him. That was until 2013, in a season marked by the heroics of Masahiro Tanaka, Hoshino’s Rakuten Eagles brought the disaster-ravaged Tohoku region its first Japan championship and a win over the Giants to boot.

Matt Murton talks hit records, distractions

Japan’s single-season hit record-holder Matt Murton has some words of advice for Seibu Lions leadoff man Shogo Akiyama

By Jim Allen

The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, holder of Japan’s single-season hit record, had some words of advice on Friday for the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, who is in hot pursuit of his record.

“Obviously he (Akiyama) has had a tremendous season so far,” Murton told Kyodo News. “He just needs to focus on trying to help his team win. If he gets caught up in everything else going on around him, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed throughout the remainder of this year.”

In 2010, his debut season in Japan, Murton eclipsed Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 hits to establish the current mark of 214. Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130-game season, while Murton accomplished his over 144 games in 2010, the last year before Nippon Professional Baseball banned juiced balls. Akiyama entered play on Saturday with 133 hits, needing 82 hits over the Lions’ remaining 61 games to surpass Murton.

Akiyama extended his hitting streak to 30 games on Saturday.

Read the full story at the Japan Times: http://t.co/92lDaKOtDL

CL simply inferior to PL

When the DeNA BayStars beat the Hanshin Tigers on Friday, July 3, Japan’s Central League finished the day with each of its six clubs below .500.

The historic fluke is the result of the annual bashing at the hands of the rival Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball’s interleague play combined with an unusually tight CL race. The Tigers’ loss left the Yakult Swallows in first place at one game below .500 and the next four teams within a half game.

The CL’s inability to keep up with the PL has been masked by normal distributions in the CL standings and — until 2005 — the lack of interleague play. But this year, with no CL club able to dominate league play and the PL winning this interleague by a 61-44 margin, the blinders are now off.

But this is not something the media is keen to note. Aside from a brief mention, on Friday night, the story has been spun about the historic balance in the CL. Guess it’s probably better to bury the obvious conclusion — that Japan’s most popular circuit, the one that for years has held most of the power — can’t cut the mustard in head-to-head competition against the league it — or perhaps more precisely, Yomiuri Giants kingpin Tsuneo Watanabe — enjoys disparaging.

In 11 years of interleague play, the CL has led the competition just once and this year’s whipping left the PL holding an 865-774 edge for a winning percentage of .528. The chances of two equally balanced leagues competing, with each club having a 50 percent chance of winning any contest and league winning 53 percent of 1,639 decisions is 1.3 percent. Any assumption that the two leagues are equally strong has to contend with that. The PL has also won 7-of-10 Japan Series since 2005, with a .569 winning percentage in the 88 individual decisions.

The more popular of Japan’s two leagues since they were created by expansion after the 1949 season, the CL has long lorded it over the PL at the ticket gate, but the head-to-head competition between the leagues tells a different story. Until 2004, Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues only battled each other in the Japan Series and the summer all-star exhibitions — in which the PL has more than held its own.

For decades, the PL’s all-star success was attributed to CL squads being overloaded with players from Japan’s oldest franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, who would be overmatched against the PL’s best — leading to the phrase “Popular Ce(ntral), Powerful Pa(cific).”

Even when it came to player movement, the CL has long benefited from its clubs’ popularity. The current version of free agency was introduced in 1993 — by the Giants as a way of securing more big name talent — and until the end of the 2010 season, every star in his prime who switched leagues directly moved from the PL to the CL.

Although the Pacific League boasts more financial heavyweights among its clubs’ parent companies, Nippon Professional Baseball was thrown into crisis from the PL side in 2004, when the remaining two PL teams in the Kansai region, playing in the shadow of the better established Tigers, decided to merge. The announcement that the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes would merge due to the constant strain of red ink, and the question over what to do with a five-team league led to talk of contraction, reorganization and Japan’s first player strike.

Interleague play — something long rejected by CL owners — was introduced as a part of the labor settlement as was an agreement by owners to expedite the approval of the Sendai-based Eagles, owned by Internet market giant Rakuten. That spring, the Nippon Ham Fighters had moved out from under the Giants’ shadow in Tokyo to baseball-starved Sapporo. And in the autumn, telecommunications powerhouse Softbank take over the Hawks and add even more energy to the once lackluster PL.

Over the past five years, the Hawks and the new Orix Buffaloes have become two of the biggest free agent spenders, while the CL’s Chunichi Dragons, a powerhouse from 2002-2011, have scaled back on player acquisitions.