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.

August players of the month

Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks is sure to be named the PL’s player of the month — although “batting average leader of the month” would be a better title since the folks that pick them don’t seem to care whether a candidate has any defensive value or does anything besides hit for average. Since layers who lead their league in batting in a month, while hitting .400, are generally a lock for the award, this month’s CL selection should be interesting.

There are two good candidates. Soichiro Tateoka, who hit an even .400 for the Yomiuri Giants, and Tetsuto Yamada, who led the league in a few categories (runs, home runs, total bases, RBIs, stolen bases, slugging average and OPS, while batting a measly .310 for the Yakult Swallows.

For pitchers of the month, it will be a surprise if anyone but Chunichi Dragons rookie Shunta Wakamatsu (4-1, 2.12 ERA) wins, although it could go to Miles Mikolas of the Giants (3-0, 0.75 ERA in three starts) to make up for not being selected in July after winning the June award.

There are four good candidates for the PL pitcher of the month award, three starters and one reliever. Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu, Orix Buffaloes youngster Daiki Tomei and Nippon Ham lefty Mitsuo Yoshikawa each went 3-0 — which is pretty much the minimum standard for a starter. Tomei had the best ERA, 1.55, while Settsu won all three of his starts and had a complete game, while striking out 23 batters in 22 innings. The reliever is Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in 11 games, won one, saved eight and had two holds. Sarfate struck out 19 batters in 11-2/3 innings.

Note:

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.

Where second base and the outfield converge

Yamato Maeda played his 16th game of the season at second base on Sunday  as he continues to fill in for Hiroki Uemoto. Maeda, who won his first Golden Glove Award last season for his work in center field, has played 75 games in the outfield this season, earned his first playing time in the Central League as a utility infielder (playing primarily at second).

But there is nothing new or unusual about a star center fielder playing second in Japan. A number of players have shifted back and forth between second and the outfield, mostly center and right. The champion of the second baseman-center fielders is Keiichi Hirano of the Orix Buffaloes, who had seven seasons in which he played a minimum of 35 games at second base and the outfield. Hirano first accomplished this in 2004, when the infielder was asked to play in the outfield as well. He shuttled back and forth a bit until current New York Mets manager Terry Collins took over the Buffaloes in 2007 and planted Hirano at second.

Collins returned for his second season to find Orix had traded Hirano, the club’s fastest player, for aging and often-injured Tigers slugger Osamu Hamanaka. Down the road at Koshien, Hirano became the Tigers’ center fielder-second baseman of choice for five straight years before he returned to Orix as a free agent in 2013 and continued to divide his defensive duties.

Next on the list after Hirano, is the late Takuya Kimura, who after his trade to the Hiroshima Carp, inherited the outfield-second base role that current Carp skipper Koichi Ogata vacated when he was made a full-time outfielder. KImura shuttled back and forth for five seasons. If all this is confusing, just think that while Ogata was shuffling around with the Carp, the Yomiuri Giants also had  second baseman-center fielder, and also named Koichi Ogata, who was a frequent contributor at both positions from 1990 to 1994.

The other name pair among the double-duty men are the Tomashino brothers, Seiji of the Seibu Lions and his younger brother Kenji of the Yakult Swallows.

The table below shows the guys who had multiple seasons in which they played 20-plus games at second base and in the outfield. Notice that this started in the ’70s with John Sipin and HIrokazu Kato, it was primarily a ’90s thing.

Japan’s bunt paradox part 2

Kenta Imamiya of the Hawks bunts with no outs in the top of the first inning against the Buffaloes.

In a previous rant and observation about Japan’s ubiquitous first-inning sacrifice bunts, I noticed that teams in Nippon Professional Baseball that bunt in the first innings of scoreless games gain no advantage in how often they put at least one run on the board AND score fewer overall runs, BUT win games more often.

Those results, based on the first innings of the 2,592 regular season games played between 2012 and 2014, looked suspicious, so I increased the study to include the games played from 2007 and 2011.  Of the eight years in the study, in only three of them did visitors win more often when trying to bunt the leadoff man to second in the first inning. The three years were 2007, 2013 and 2014–three of the lower-scoring seasons in the study.

NPB introduced a uniform, less-lively ball in 2011. Since then, scoring has decreased sharply. With that decrease, the cost of the first-inning sacrifice has decreased. Since the switch, visiting teams can expect to score .79 runs per inning when the leadoff man is not sacrificed to second. That is a decrease of .11 runs per inning in the same situations before 2011, while the number of runs expected per inning after a sacrifice has remained nearly constant (dropping from .69 to .68.

The strangest thing about bunting in the first inning–and almost half the time the leadoff man is on first in NPB a successful sacrifice follows–is that the chance of scoring one or more runs in the first inning after the leadoff man reaches first is NOT effected by a sacrifice. The NPB data show a slight advantage to sacrificing after the 5th through 8th hitters are on first base with no outs but no appreciable difference in the first inning with the team’s best hitters coming to the plate.

With current low levels of offense, bunting the leadoff man to second base in the top of the first is costing Japanese teams a 10th of a run per sacrifice — yet despite giving away outs and runs, the visitors employing this strategy are now making out like bandits: winning their games at a .513 clip compared to the .459 winning percentage of visiting clubs that “fail” to sacrifice the leadoff man to second.

One person suggested on Twitter that sacrifice bunts lead to more wins BECAUSE teams sacrifice more often with their best starting pitchers on the mound. A quick look shows there is something to this. From 2007 to 2014, Japanese visiting teams with a big winner on the mound (12 wins or more that season) will sacrifice the leadoff man to second in 54 percent of their opportunities. The percentage with lesser pitchers on the mound is 47 percent.

This bias remained more or less constant from 2007 to 2014, but somehow didn’t help visiting teams before 2011. Before 2011, visitors that sacrificed the leadoff man to second base in the first inning went 204-253 (.446), while teams that did not bunt the runner over went 255-265 (.490). 

Tony Barnette and July’s Monthly MVPS

Tony Barnette won his first monthly MVP award, photo courtesy of Deanna Rubin

Here is my latest original work in the Japan Times, although I have been assured that including bylines is company policy, that policy appears to be flexible depending on who is on the desk. The original is here, and here is the link to the Japan Times material:

By Jim Allen

TOKYO, Kyodo – Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette was one of three first-time winners on Friday, when Nippon Professional Baseball announced its players and pitchers of the month for July.

Barnette, who saved all eight games he appeared in, was named to the Central League honor roll along with Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who won his second player of the month award. The Pacific League honors went to a pair of first-timers, five-time home run king Takeya Nakamura of the Seibu Lions, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Rick van den Hurk.

Barnette allowed one run in 7-1/3 innings without issuing a walk to earn the nod over Yomiuri Giants starter Miles Mikolas. The June pitcher of the month went 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in four games and struck out 15, but was overlooked this time.

Although Barnette gets the saves, it has hardly been a one-man show in the Swallows bullpen, with Orlando Roman and first-year setup man Logan Ondrusek in to keep games tight before the ninth.

“Those two guys have been just as good or better than anyone in the league,” Barnette told Kyodo News by email on Friday. “Roman is a guy that you can put into any situation and he’s going to dig deep and fight his way through it.”

“Logan has made the adjustment to Japan as well as anyone could ask for. There are growing pains that come with the move to Japan but he has excelled on and off the field. That being said, when I have guys like them protecting leads in front of me, it takes a bit of weight off my shoulders and gives me a freedom to just be myself and do the job I’ve been asked to do.”

“You add (Ryo) Akiyoshi into that mix and a revived (Kenichi) Matsuoka, we are in a good place as far as bullpen health and stability is concerned.”

The biggest surprise of the day was not that Nakamura deserved to win the award, but that he had never won it before. The monthly honors are typically handed out to players with stratospheric batting averages — something a career .257 hitter such as Nakamura rarely qualifies for. Nakamura, who has also won five PL Best IX awards, hit just .289, but reached base at a .400 clip, and led the league in home runs (eight) and slugging average (.711), while leading the nation with 26 RBIs.

Last month, Nakamura hit his 300th career home run and his 15th grand slam, the last figure tying him for the most in NPB history.

“It was an OK month,” he said. “I’m glad to win.”

Van den Hurk, who spent much of the first half on the Hawks farm team after suffering an injury in the spring, has finally landed a regular spot in the club’s starting rotation. The Dutch international went 3-0 in July with a 2.53 ERA and 41 strikeouts in a PL-high 32 innings.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/08/07/baseball/japanese-baseball/swallows-closer-barnette-among-three-first-time-monthly-mvp-award-winners/#.VcU9GEKUnto

 

The paradox of 1st inning bunts

Hichori Morimoto getting his “wa” on with the obligatory sacrifice bunt.

There may be nothing duller in sports than teams employing tactics routinely in a predictable fashion. In Nippon Professional Baseball, the biggest offender is the nearly automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff man reaches first in a tie game. This begins in the first inning and never stops.

Yet, as much as we despair of watching Japan’s bunt pageant, something very strange is going on.

As expected, bunting with a runner on first base increases the expectation of scoring at least one run, but decreases overall scoring. In 2,592 NPB games from 2012 to 2014, the visiting team’s leadoff man were on first base 731 times. The next batter bunted 385 times — 344 of which were credited as sacrifices).

The visitors scored in 168 of those innings for a total of 266 runs. That’s at least a run 43.6 percent of the time and an average of .743 runs per inning. In the 346 times when the next visiting bunter — I mean batter — does not strike out trying to bunt or put a bunt in play, teams scored 299 runs and scored at least one 148 times. Sounds like a good deal doesn’t it. Teams that “fail” to bunt score nearly as often — 42.8 percent to 43.6 percent — while scoring 16 percent more total runs.

Yes, it looks like the visiting teams should retire the bunt if they’re giving away so many runs for so little gain. But that’s not the whole story. The teams that benefited by failing to bunt, also failed to win as often. It doesn’t make sense, but visiting teams scoring fewer than three runs after a bunt, won more often than teams scoring the same number of runs in an inning without a bunt.

winning percentages with: 0 runs: bunt .455; no bunt .378 — 1 run: bunt .538; no bunt .485 — 2 runs: .700; no bunt .526.

To say that Japan adores the sacrifice bunt is no exaggeration, and despite doing much better on the scoreboard without first-inning bunts, visiting teams from 2012 to 2014 did worse in win the win column when not executing the nation’s favorite tactic.

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.

Preseason complete games

Nippon Ham’s Satoshi Niimi was one of at least 13 pitchers who threw nine innings in a preseason exhibition in March 1975.

OK, so it’s hardly the heart of darkness, but back in the 1970’s, pitchers in preseason exhibitions occasionally threw complete games as they prepared for the Nippon Professional Baseball season.

When you look at old box scores, the numbers of pitches thrown by starters can be an eye opener, but the sight of seeing a guy throw 90 pitches in an exhibition game on March 1, 1975, catches one’s attention. The pitcher in question, journeyman right-hander Toru Hamaura, threw 91 pitches over five innings that day for the Fukuoka-based Taiheiyo Club Lions.

This was when teams looked at innings, rather than pitch totals — although pitch counts were dutifully reported in Japan’s sports newspapers. What you notice is that guys aren’t throwing more than six innings the first two weeks.

So while innings were curtailed, Hanshin Tigers veteran Tomohiro Tanimura threw 111 pitches over five innings on March 11. Shigeo Nagashima, then a rookie skipper with the Yomiuri Giants, may have just been showing off on the same date in Florida, when Osamu Shimano was allowed to throw a 100-pitch complete game in the Grapefruit League.

By the third week of March, seven-inning starts and 100-pitch outings became more and more common. One of the features of the schedule then was a large number of double headers, and this even penetrated the preseason, with teams frequently playing two. In a March 23 doubleheader against the Yakult Swallows, Satoshi Niimi threw 124-pitch complete game in the opener, while Fighters ace Naoki Takahashi wrapped up the nightcap with an efficient 113 pitches. The apex or nadir — depending on one’s view point — came on March 27, when Lotte Orions ace Fumio Narita threw 144 pitches over nine innings.