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.

Race for history

The Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama is challenging the record book this season.

“I’m enjoying it while it lasts.”

That was Seibu Lions center field Shogo Akiyama’s answer when reporters asked him two months ago about being on track to break Japan’s record for hits in a season. The record of 214 was set by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers over 144 games in 2010, when he broke the 210 mark established by Ichiro Suzuki in 1994 in a 130-game season.

On July 2, Akiyama hit for the 23rd straight game, establishing a record for the storied franchise. Akiyama took another step toward putting his name in the record book with 43 hits in June, making him only the second player – after Suzuki to have back-to-back 40-hit months.

Because of the hits, Akiyama has grabbed headlines, but Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, also a left-handed hitter, has held his own in the PL batting race with the two battling neck and neck. At the end of June, Yanagita was batting .381 to Akiyama’s .382. Because Yanagita bats third instead of first and walks much more often, it will be harder for the Hawks star to break the hit record.

Akiyama turned 27 on April 16, and although he began getting regular playing time in 2011, he was held back against left-handed pitchers his first year, when he posted a .403 OPS against southpaws. It’s an area where he has shown steady improvement, but this year Akiyama has taken a huge step forward against both lefties and righties with a .922/.962 left/right split.

Against the best pitchers in either league as measured by earned run average, the top 19 among pitchers with 74 or more innings pitched through July 4, Akiyama is 14-for-49 with four doubles, no homers, two walks and five strikeouts for a an OPS of .710 – impressive in that it is close to his career norm against all pitching.

However, against this same group of Japan’s best pitchers, Yanagita is 23-for-60, with six doubles, three homers and 10 walks against 12 strikeouts for an impressive OPS of 1.112 – impressive in that is as good as he is against everyone this season.

The Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita

Yanagita is six months younger than Akiyama and a rare type of hitter in Japan, a player who hits home runs, while frequently hitting the ball on the ground. If his past performance is any indication, he may be a better first-half hitter. If any of that was due to conditioning or fitness issues, then new Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s aggressive efforts in the area of fitnesss and conditioning may help that.

Akiyama has so far tended to get a little better as the season goes on, yet he is so far ahead of his past performance that it is hard to see him having a second half that is even as good. But even so, as of Sunday, July 5, Akiyama was 84 hits shy of Murton’s 214, and he had been collecting hits at an average of 1.65 per game. He can break the record even if that rate falls off by nearly 20 percent to 1.33 hits per game and he plays every game, so his fitness is going to be a huge issue.

Yanagita would have to improve his hit rate by 20 percent, which doesn’t seem likely. But if he were to hold steady – which seems possible, Yanagita would have a shot of breaking the single-season batting-average record of .389, set by Randy Bass in 1986.

Bunts and pitchers’ fielding

Beware of trying to bunt on Kenta Maeda.

There was a nice blog post the other day on Baseball Labo about fielding bunts and the huge difference in the record between last year’s Golden Glove Winners, Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Carp and Chihiro Kaneko of the Orix Buffaloes. While it didn’t go on to question Kaneko’s award — which it could have, it pointed out that the Buffaloes ace never defeats a sacrifice bunt by getting the lead runner.

In 51 sacrifice situations between 2010 and 2014, Maeda fielded 51 bunts and got one of the lead runners 11 times, for a Japan-best 21.6 percent. Kaneko, on the other hand had fielded 48 such bunts and never prevented the runner on first from reaching second.

Before last year’s Golden Glove voting, I had few tools with which to appraise pitchers — something that was annoying ever since voters handed the Central League’s Golden Glove in 2011 to setup man Takuya Asao, a strikeout pitcher who fielded a grand total of 16 balls that season. But since the sites I scrape to get my play-by-play data have noted bunt attempts since 2012, we can have perhaps a better sense of who the best fielding pitchers in NPB are.

The data set does not have base-out situations, so we are limited to total number of bunts fielded, the number of bunts in which no out is recorded and the number of sacrifices credited.

Since 2010, opponents have been credited with sacrifices on 81 percent of the bunts against Maeda which is among the best. But his teammate, right-hander Yusuke Nomura has allowed a sacrifice rate of 70 percent, the best in NPB. Considering both pitchers have allowed runners to reach safely on bunts (about 5 percent),  one might be tempted to think Nomura and his .985 fielding percentage would give him the edge over Maeda and his .939 fielding percentage.

Hiroshima’s Yusuke Nomura is not known for his fielding, yet.

Yusuke Kikuchi of the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions is also a candidate for NPB’s top fielder, with a no errors over the past four seasons, one bunter reaching safely in 44 attempts and a sacrifice rate of .84.

When is a slider not a slider?

The Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Takagi

When is a slider not a slider? When it’s thrown by Hayato Takagi.

Watching the Yomiuri Giants-DeNA BayStars game tonight with Giants rookie Hayato Takagi on the mound, viewers were treated to this exchange between the announcer and the analyst, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo.

Announcer: “There’s Takagi’s cutball (cut fastball). It’s really breaking for him and troubling the hitters.”

Kokubo: “Of course, when you see it, you know it’s not actually a cut fastball, but that’s what he calls it. Anybody using English would call it a slider, because that’s what it is.”

Announcer: “Yes. Of course.

Announcer: “And there’s the cut fastball again. Simply amazing.”

Opposing starting pitcher difficulty

All opponents are not created equal. The Giants’ Aaron Poreda is 5-1 in nine starts, three against Yakult and Hanshin, two against DeNA and 1 against Chunichi.  In calculating how tough a pitcher is against a given team, one should only count his record against OTHER teams. Thus while Poreda is 5-1,  he is 1-0 against Yakult and thus  his quality as concerns Yakult is 4-1.  Poreda is 3-0 against Hanshin, thus his record for calculating his difficulty against the Tigers is 2-1.

In the Yakult Swallows’ first 48 games, the opposing starting pitchers they have faced have a cumulative record against other teams of 102 wins and 69 losses or a .596 winning percentage. Of course, that is not entirely an accurate picture because the Swallows are below .500 in the Central League and haven’t had to face their own starting pitching, which combined for 93-153 record’s worth of difficulty on opponents. If we factor in 1/5 of the Swallows starters cumulative .378 win pct to adjust for the fact that the Swallows don’t play against themselves. That still leaves the difficulty of opposing pitchers vs Yakult at .561, the highest in Japan.

Yakult .561, Yomiuri Giants .558, Seibu Lions .553, DeNA BayStars .535,

Nippon Ham Fighters .523, Rakuten Eagles .510, Lotte Marines .509, Hiroshima Carp .507,

Orix Buffaloes .505, Chunichi Dragons .501, Softbank Hawks .498, Hanshin Tigers .493.

Broken-bat home run sighting and today’s events in NPB

Francisco Caraballo, who won the triple crown last season in Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League, showed off some awesome power on Friday night, when he broke his bat on a 1-2 pitch from former Pacific League MVP Mitsuo Yoshikawa — and knocked it over the fence at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome. If you can see the video above, take note of Yoshikawa’s priceless reaction. This stuff is not supposed to happen. The two-run shot didn’t change the outcome of the game, however, as the last-place Orix Buffaloes fell 8-3 at home to the Nippon Ham Fighters. Brandon Laird, who joined Nippon Ham this season, hit a two-run shot of his own, his fifth homer of the year.

Elsewhere in the PL, the league-leading Seibu Lions wiped out the Lotte Marines, winning on the road at QVC Marine Field in a game that saw former Atlanta Braves farmhand and 2014 PL home run leader Ernesto Mejia double in a run in a three-run first. The Lions’ DH, 19-year-old catching wannabe Tomoya Mori went 3-for-5 with his seventh home run and a pair of doubles.

In Fukuoka, former New York Mets reliever Ryota “formerly the pitcher known as ‘Rocket Boy” Igarashi did a little war dance when he escaped a two-on jam in the seventh for the Softbank Hawks in a 5-3 win over the Rakuten Eagles. Kazuo Matsui homered twice at Yafuoku Dome, which was made more home run friendly this season because Hawks ownership wanted the team to hit home runs the way they did when the balls were juiced. His second came off Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, who hadn’t allowed a run until “Little” took him deep in the ninth.

In the Central League, the three-time champion Yomiuri Giants blew a four-run lead in a 6-5 loss in Yokohama to the surprising CL-leading DeNA BayStars in which rookie closer Yasuaki Yamasaki struck out the Giants in order in the ninth with his 146-kph fastball and a pitch he calls a two-seamer that looks for all intent and purposes like the nastiest splitter you’ve seen. It was his 13th save of the season.

阪神vs広島 2015/05/08 ダイジェスト

In Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, freshly called-up lefty Takaya Toda continued his impressive spring by allowing two runs in six innings after winning six of his first seven games for the Hiroshima Carp’s Western League farm club. Toda (1-0) got the win in the Carp’s 8-3 victory over the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium. Tigers starter Shintaro Fujinami (1-4) bore the brunt of his club’s awful defense. The Tigers went into the game allowing opponents who put the ball in play to reach safely at an NPB-worst .365 clip. In his five innings on the mound, there were 18 balls in play and Carp batters reached safely eight times. It didn’t help that

Groundhog Day II: Juan Francisco in Hiroshima

In three Central League games this week between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hiroshima Carp at the Carp’s Mazda Stadium, we saw:

A play few of us had ever seen before in the opener, a Groundhog Day inning which seemingly went on for ever in Game 2, and new Giants first baseman Juan Francisco doing his best Bill Murray impression by making his fielding a focal point of all three games.

The video above is from the bottom of the ninth inning of Monday’s game, with the score tied 2-2 and the Carp batting with one out and the bases loaded. Facing Canadian right-hander Scott Mathieson, pinch hitter Tetsuya Kokubo hits a high pop in front of home plate. Francisco and third baseman Shuichi Murata converge on the ball, while third base umpire and crew chief Koichi Tanba calls Kokubo out on the infield fly rule, although nobody seems to notice other than Carp third base coach Takuro Ishii.

Murata stabs at the ball after taking his eye off to ensure he doesn’t collide with Francisco, who picks up the ball, steps on home, where home plate ump Hideto Fuke calls a force out on the runner from third. Francisco turns his back on the plate to check the bases. Saying later he thought he was being forced at the plate, rookie Takayoshi Noma headed home.

After Noma crossed the plate, Ishii dashed down the line to inform the ump that the Carp had scored because Kokubo’s out had eliminated the force at home and Francisco had neglected to apply a tag to the approaching Noma. Ishii was soon joined by rookie Carp skipper Koichi Ogata, who said he’d once played in a game against Ishii’s old club, Yokohama, when a similar play had unfolded. They convinced Fuke to consult with Tanba, who informed him the run should count. The home plate ump signaled safe.

When Francisco stepped on home, Fuke had no business calling Noma out, which contributed to the Giants’ confusion.

So the Giants come out the next afternoon and after being retired 1-2-3 in the top of the first, they have two on with one out, when Francisco drops a foul pop behind first. He was not charged with an error, so the 10 runs that scored in that inning, starting with a two-run double, were all earned as batter after batter reached base against some poor pitching by southpaw Toshiya Sugiuchi, who was charged with six runs, and his successor.

“When you give up so many hits in a row like that, I think the pitches are a problem,” was Giants’ catcher Kazunari Sanematsu’s appraisal.

On May 6, the Carp scored twice in the first after Kosuke Tanaka reached on a leadoff double and Ryosuke Kikuchi reached on a bunt back to pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano. The third inning started the same way. With the infield playing in against the speedy Kikuchi, Francisco was left on his own to defend against the bunt and cover first. Sugano fielded the ball, Francisco retreated to where he could tag Kikuchi going by but dropped Sugano’s poor throw as he tried to apply the tag.

Francisco was pulled for defense after the top of the fifth inning, and was dropped from Yomiuri’s the 28-man active roster the day after the 4-1 defeat. In the video above, you can see the Shinkansen running just behind Mazda Stadium’s left field stands.

 

 

No need to touch rule book in Japan

Last night’s game between the Yakult Swallows and Chunichi Dragons featured NPB’s laughable interpretation of how to record an out at home plate — where a catcher can tag a runner out without even bothering to tag him.

In a scoreless game at Nagoya Dome between the Central League’s top-two clubs, the Swallows’ Shingo Kawabata tried to score on a single to right by Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, but a super throw from Dragons right fielder Atsushi Fujii arrived at the plate on a hop just barely ahead of the runner. Dragons catcher Masato Matsui waited for the throw a few feet from home up the third-base line and was obstructing home plate (illegal but permitted).

Kawabata slid into Matsui, who then caught the ball and juggled it. Meanwhile Kawabata’s momentum took him behind the catcher. The catcher, who never attempted to tag the runner, simply held the ball up for umpire Kazuhiro Kobayashi singled for the out on a tag play — or “touch” in Japanese — without a tag being attempted. This, too, is a violation of the rules in Japan but common practice.

The proper call would have been none, as Kawabata knowing he was out, but perhaps only knowing the rule book as well as Kobayashi, never bothered to touch home plate.

NPBreddit , found this video of the play.

A photo of the play’s finish can be found here.

Here‘s another play of the fairly common technique of catchers saving their energy by not tagging the runner.

 

Slipping through the cracks

As Dragons fans were reminded tonight, Nobumasa Fukuda is a pretty decent hitter. The 26-year-old right-handed-hitting first baseman hit his fourth homer of the season for Chunichi tonight and the question is not when he became good? but rather, at what point did we forget that he was good?

Fukuda’s been playing regularly in the Western League since 2009, and he MUST have appeared somewhere in annual scans of minor league hitters with outstanding results, but somehow he fell off the radar — his results have been consistently good although his OBP had been pedestrian until last year when he drew 34 walks in 334 plate appearances. He had a bad year in 2013 and that might have made it easier to overlook him. He’s not really young any more and he’s a first baseman.

But that being said, the Western League is a tough league to post gaudy batting numbers in and he’s been overshadowed by a barrel full of young Hawks guys who can hammer it, but Fukuda can play.

An injury to Masahiko Morino, one of Chunichi’s better players, and the Dragons are an improved team. Funny how things turn out.