The rich get richer, and the Dragons get poorer

The Chunichi Dragons, whose pitching staff was arguably the worst of NPB’s 12 teams this year, have parted company with left-handed starting pitcher Onelki Garcia, according to the Sankei Sports. According to Bill James Win Shares, see here WS 2018 Top 20 Pitchers, Garcia, who went 13-9 with a 2.99 ERA in his Japan debut season, was the highest ranking pitcher on the Dragons staff.

The former Dodgers, White Sox and Royals farmhand reportedly asked for a bump in pay from 50 million yen ($440,000) to a contract of three-plus years at 200 million yen ($1.76 million) per year. The club is expected to release him.



Here (Team Win Shares 2018)are the 2018 Win Share rankings by team. The Dragons’ pitching staff was credited with an NPB-worst 51.2 win shares.

Going, going, Tsutsugone

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo told his Central League club, the Yokohama-based DeNA BayStars, on Friday that he would like to move to the major leagues. The left fielder, whom MLB scouts see as a first baseman, designated hitter because of his lack of speed, has steadfastly denied any interest in going since he returned from the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The BayStars have said they will consider the offer, which means they probably will post him.

Tsutsugo will not have the required nine years of service time until the start of the 2021 season, meaning he won’t be able to file for free agency until after that season.

Three years ago, Tsutsugo spent played winter ball briefly in the Dominican Republic. But more than he learned from his 10 games in action, he was overwhelmed by the attitude players showed — something he was not prepared for from Japan’s orderly stoic game.

“I felt the players there are really hungry, have strong desire. They face very severe situations, not like we do in Japan,” Tsutugo said They all played with a lot of heart. More than I could in Japan, I learned what it means to play with heart. They’re battling for jobs, but still, they are out there having fun.”

The Osaka native returns to his roots every winter to promote youth baseball in the city of Sakai. On Sunday, he joined three other NPB players in a “Kids Ballpark” event organized by the city and Japan’s player’s union.

“It’s important to have big dreams,” he said according to a Nikkan Sports report. “Since I was a kid I watched major league games on TV. We’re ballplayers, so we hope you would want to play baseball, but we also hope you’ll take on a lot of challenges and learn from your mistakes.”



“I want to put up some good numbers next season — not so I can go to the majors, but so the BayStars can win the pennant. Because that would be a new experience for me.”

Tsutsugo has blossomed under the management of Venezuelan manager Alex Ramirez, a former Cleveland Indians outfielder, who became the first foreign-registered player to reach NPB’s iconic 2,000-hit milestone. In 2017, batting cleanup for a lineup underpowered without Shohei Ohtani, Tsutsugo just barely missed a two-run homer that was the final out of the eighth inning in a 2-1 loss to the United States.

What  scouts say

In the poll I conducted this spring with MLB scouts, they had this to say about the BayStars outfielder:

Scouts believe Japan’s cleanup hitter could definitely play in the majors, but finding a starring role might prove difficult.

“Tsustsugo could definitely hit in the majors. The bat is not a question. The question is the athleticism. He has improved his defense in left to the point where he might be able to play, but I would still have to really be sure how well he hits left-handers if I were to think he could play every day.”

“At first base or designated hitter, he’d have to compete against elite major league hitters. Think of Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred. He is in Japan because he couldn’t get enough playing time in the majors at first base. Is Tsutsugo a better hitter now then when Eldred arrived in Japan? That’s a good question.”

That’s the majority opinion. One scout believes Tsutsugo has the ability to adjust.

“He should be able to hold down a platoon role at first or DH and even play left field, but I’ve seen him adjust and change. He has power to all fields. I think he’d be able to produce enough to help some teams in an everyday role, but it won’t be easy. At the worst, I see him as a fourth outfielder who has too much upside and who could be too tough an out to keep on the bench.”

“Tsutsugo is an average major league hitter, so a .265 would be reasonable. He has very good raw power with in-game power better than average. A lot depends on the park he plays in. A normal season for him could be 15 home runs, but if he plays his home games in Baltimore, 25 would be very reasonable.”



Yusei Kikuchi video

With Yusei Kikuchi set to be posted on Monday, Dec. 3, here is some video of him:

1st some slow motion of his delivery, from Sept. 7, 2018:

Now some game highlights from April 2017:

This is from his playoff start in October 2017:

The previous blog post has more information on his health issues and pitch quality.

And some video of the same game from behind the net:

Data update

Little by little I’m uploading data sets from my data base. The latest are tables are the foundation for the Bill James Win Shares calculations that produce the individual evaluations that can also be found on the data page.

Today’s new one is this year’s park adjustments — estimates of how much the parks that team played in influenced run scoring. These are not the same as park factors and combine the effect of a team’s home, road and neutral venues. These come in three flavors:

  • Team Run Adjustment: Fairly straight forward. A run adjustment of 1.1 means that the parks that team played in over the course of the year appear to have inflated runs scored and allowed by that team (per inning) by 10 percent.
  • Team Home Run Adjustment:  Again fairly straight forward.
  • Team S Factor: This is a measure of how much this team’s parks during the year affected scoring aside from home runs, essentially how easy or hard it is to hit and draw walks there. Tokyo Dome is a classic example of a good home run park, that is a pitcher’s park, because it suppresses singles, walks, doubles and triples.

Below is a screen shot of the latest table. The data page is all downloadable PDFs which if you care to you could copy and paste from. I’ll be posting each team’s individual adjustments for this decade, so please check back.

 



2018 NPB team run adjustments and so on

 

Meikyukai Gallery

Former Hawks skipper Koji Akiyama.
Former Hawks manager Koji Akiyama is in no hurry to get back into uniform–except for old-timers games.
Former Carp, Dodger, Yankee righty Hiroki Kuroda and NPB’s all-time saves leader Hitoki Iwase.



The 1st time I interviewed Norihiro Nakamura at Seibu Dome, he was also chilling with Kazuo Matsui, left. That’s former Chunichi Dragons lefty Masahiro Yamamoto in the background.
Just two of the Golden Players from the Swallows on hand.



The very first NPB player I ever interviewed. I wonder if he remembers it as the disaster it felt like at the time.
Longtime coach Masahiro Arai with one of his former charges, Kazuhiro Wada.



The king and I, Sadaharu Oh. Photograph by Koji Yamamoto. 写真家:山本浩二。

More to come from PL MVP Yamakawa

Hotaka Yamakawa has only been the Seibu Lions’ regular first baseman for 1-1/2 years, but the Okinawa native has already established himself as an elite home run hitter, but during the Japan MLB-All Star Series, he sounded an ominous warning.

Although he led both of NPB’s elite leagues in home runs with 47, Yamakawa said his glass was only half full. He hit well enough against pitchers he sees over and over during the year, and was honored as the Pacific League’s MVP this year, but against major leaguers he’d never faced he looked completely lost.

“I dislike facing pitchers for the first time,” he said. “On top of that, the major league pitchers have good late movement on their fastballs. It’s clear from this that I have a lot to learn about getting the barrel of the bat on the ball.”

Among all players in NPB history with a minimum of 750 plate appearances, Yamakawa ranks third in home run frequency behind only Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh, and iconic Hanshin Tigers slugger Randy Bass.

[supsystic-tables id=38]

“I hit 40 home runs this year, so I know I have power. But you know what? I hit almost all of them without really squaring it up. So that’s something I need to work on,” He said that prior to Game 3, when he had a good pinch-hit at-bat that turned series around.



“What ever I learn here, I’m going to apply as much as I can going forward.”

And as scary a hitter as Yamakawa already is, the idea of him making even better contact is not a pleasant one for PL pitchers.

In the clubhouse with ShoTime

 

 

 

When two-way player Shohei Ohtani had his biggest batting game of the season hours after hearing he would need Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, his Los Angeles Angels teammates were not that surprised.

Ohtani learned on Sept. 5 that he would need the procedure to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and the slugging left-handed hitter went 4-for-5 with a pair of towering home runs, a walk and a stolen base. It was just part of an offensive tour de force that earned the 24-year-old his second American League Player of the Week Award.

“It’s kind of surprising, but once you look at his character, it’s really not,” shortstop Andrelton Simmons said.

Read the full story here.



Your new pitcher Yusei Kikuchi

Who is Yusei Kikuchi?

The 27-year-old lefty tried to move to the States in 2009, when he was a senior at Hanamaki Higashi High School, in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture–graduating just before Shohei Ohtani entered as a freshman. The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions won his negotiating rights in a draft-day lottery, when half of NPB’s 12 teams selected him as their first-round choice.

Kikuchi signed with Seibu, announcing his decision in a tearful press conference. Many in NPB have spoken in whispers about how the Lions strong-armed the youngster into staying in Japan.

“…he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”

The day before his posting, he appeared back in Hanamaki with two of his teammates to participate in an event, where he spoke of his upcoming challenge.

“I’m not going to be on an emotional roller coaster,” Kikuchi said about the posting according to Nikkan Sports. “The negotiating period is 30 days and a lot of unexpected things are likely to happen I suppose, so I’m going to train and prepare so that I can produce next season.”

When he first turned pro, Kikuchi’s first year was more or less wiped out by injury and he had an up-and-down NPB apprenticeship that largely consisted of managing shoulder stiffness and inflammation with one detour for elbow discomfort. Despite all that, he’s become one of NPB’s top pitchers–it just took him a little longer to get there.

What scouts say

In a poll I conducted this past year of major league scouts who cover NPB, Kikuchi was rated the fifth-best prospect of any player in Japan–including those who are not yet eligible to leave.

“He’s a left-handed power arm. What’s not to like about him? He’s developed control of his offspeed pitches and he is aggressive with his fastball. He’s not trying to fool guys. Major league teams like to see that. They need to see that guys aren’t afraid to throw their fastball in the zone.”

“Even in Japan, Kenta Maeda, threw mostly sliders, and major league teams want to see more confidence in the fastball.”

“He used to always be missing something. He used to have a lot of things going on. He had a reputation as being injury prone. But his body is a lot larger now (100 kg). He’s now confident in what he does. He appears more mature.”

To a man, the scouts see Kikuchi as a valuable middle-rotation starting pitcher.



Pitches

Overall: Kikuchi is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. He got swinging strikes on 12.2 percent of his pitches this year, fourth most among pitchers throwing 90-plus innings. Hitters made below average contact on his pitches in the zone, but he was No. 1 in terms of least contact out of the zone and well above average in getting batters to chase.

Fastball: Averaged 147.3 KPH this year. Kikuchi threw it about 49 percent of the time and got swinging strikes 9.6 percent of the time, the third highest figure of pitchers throwing 1,000-plus fastballs this year. In 2017, it was arguably the best fastball in NPB.

Slider: Since the start of his pro career, the slider has gradually become Kikuchi’s big pitch, and is easily the best slider thrown by an NPB starting pitcher. This past year, 35 percent of Kikuchi’s pitches were sliders, the highest figure for anyone who threw 2,000-plus pitches. He locates it extremely well, and got swinging strikes on 17.0 percent of his sliders – a shade behind the 17.1 posted by four-time PL strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who lacks Kikuchi’s location.

Curve: Kikuchi’s No. 2 secondary pitch, thrown about 10 percent of the time. It’s not a great pitch, but like a lot of Japanese pitchers, he’ll throw it for strikes to get ahead in counts a few times in a game.

Change: Used about 5 percent of the time and it has been effective in limited applications. It’s a chase pitch, generally not thrown for strikes.

Others: A few of his pitches in 2017 were labeled splitters, and a few this past season were designated as two-seamers–depending on who you ask. It’s not unusual in Japan for MLB-bound players to play around with two-seamers. Kikuchi might also have tried it in 2017, when Seibu’s mound was reportedly made harder.



Where he is now

In 2017, everything came together for Kikuchi. He was healthy the entire year, and was dominating the league, umpires flagged Kikuchi for his double-leg-pump pitching motion in August. It didn’t seem to bother him though, as he allowed just three runs over his last six starts of the season, (including one in the postseason) striking out 57 batters in 49 innings. He was named the PL’s pitcher of the month for September and October.

“I hated it that anyone might say I was getting people out because of that (illegal) delivery,” he said after winning the monthly honor.

This past May, Kikuchi dealt with a shoulder issue diagnosed as “degradation” of the shoulder that delayed recovery after his starts. He was deactivated from May 6 to June 1.

“It’s a concern of course,” one scout said about Kikuchi’s health and less-dominant results this year. “That’s where we scouts come in to see what he actually is doing.”

Another scout said, “Let’s see, he’s a lefty with great command of his slider who throws 92 miles per hour and throws strikes. I think somebody will be interested.”

Expectations

The injury issue is a question mark because he will be throwing a different ball from harder mounds that put more stress on the knees than the somewhat softer NPB mounds he’s used to. He’s been hurt in the spring, and he’s going to go through a spring training that is quite different from what he’s used to.

The less-intense but everyday workouts force new Japanese players to question whether they are getting enough work in or whether they will be ready when preseason games start a week after the start of camp instead of having a month before they start.

Kikuchi has become a strike thrower and is more confident and mature than the pitcher who started a game after feeling a tinge from an old shoulder injury and didn’t tell anyone until it began to hurt during the game.



History

His first pro season was limited to two minor league games due to pain in his left shoulder. He was sent back to the farm after 11 days when he couldn’t crack the starting rotation. He was brought up for spot starts throughout the 2011 season, spending the last 1-1/2 months on the first team.

2012 was a big step forward despite not making his first start until July 1. He started all 17 of his games, going 9-4 with three shutouts over 108 innings, but shoulder inflammation caused him to miss two weeks from July 13 only to be deactivated seven days later when the problem was diagnosed. He finished the season on the farm, pitching as part of his rehab. His 2013 season was a similar story, going back to the farm to deal with shoulder discomfort on Aug. 8 and finishing the season in the minors pitching in rehab games.

Kikuchi didn’t start the 2015 season with the first team after suffering left elbow inflammation in camp as he was trying to iron out his mechanics.

On June 23, 2016, Kikuchi felt pain when he threw hard in his right oblique muscles. He returned on Aug. 5, and finished the year with the first team for just the second time in five seasons and with the exception of some shoulder fatigue this spring, has been fairly fit.

Activation / deactivation history

Figures in green represent Opening Day.

Activated Deactivated Reason
3/18/2010 Shoulder pain
9/23/2010 End of 2010 season
4/10/2011 4/21/2011
6/12/2011 6/13/2011
6/30/2011 7/1/2011
8/11/2011 8/19/2011
8/31/2011 10/19/2011 Postseason
10/29/2011 End of 2011 season
3/28/2012 Poor form
7/1/2012 7/27/2012 All-Star break
8/8/2012  End of 2012 season
3/27/2013 7/13/2013
7/30/2013 8/7/2013 Shoulder inflammation
3/26/2014 7/24/2014
8/6/2014  End of 2014 season
3/25/2015 Elbow discomfort
4/28/2015  End of 2015 season
3/23/2016 6/23/2016 Right oblique muscle
8/5/2016  End of 2016 season
3/29/2017 7/8/2017 All-Star break
7/21/2017 10/4/2017 Postseason
10/14/2017  End of 2017 season
3/29/2018 5/6/2018 Shoulder stiffness
6/1/2018 7/9/2018 All-Star break
7/29/2018 10/3/2018 Postseason
10/17/2018  End of 2018 season

Notes: NPB teams often deactivate starting pitchers around the all-star break and prior to the postseason, since there are no limits on roster moves other than the 10-day period it takes to reactivate a player.



How to vote for MVP: 6 easy steps

Yoshihiro Maru of the Hiroshima Carp and Hotaka Yamakawa of the Seibu Lions were named NPB’s MVPs on Tuesday and both were deserving–although I cast my Pacific League vote to Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks.

This year’s MVPs are fairly reasonable choices, which they often aren’t. So in case any of you one day get the grey envelope containing NPB’s league award ballots, here are six easy steps you need to follow to vote like an upstanding member of Japan’s baseball media:

  1. Be conscious of who wins the pennant and who on that team is the biggest statistical outlier or creates the biggest buzz all year.
  2. Look for player on the non-pennant winners with the most eye-popping stats. Did he set a Japan record in a triple-crown category? Did he win 20 games? Set a saves record?
  3. If step No. 2 produces a candidate, and none of the players on the pennant winner look THAT outstanding, then vote for the guy on the non-pennant winner to prove that you are not blindly favoring pennant winners in your voting when you in fact are.
  4. If No. 2 produces no obvious candidates, then pick the player on the pennant winner who has the most outstanding-looking numbers be it a pitcher or hitter, without regard to their fielding value or the offensive context in which their runs are produced.
  5. Ignore who you think is actually the best player. Even though the MVP and Best Nine votes are part of the same ballot, we still some pretty weird stuff. Yanagita was a unanimous selection as the PL’s best outfielder, one voted ahead of the Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, in the Best Nine voting, but receive 27 fewer votes in the MVP vote. Although this is not too weird, some people thought Yanagita was a better player, but not more valuable.
  6. Somebody, somewhere is required to cast a vote for Naoki Miyanishi. How this is executed and who is required to waste a vote on the Fighters’ wonderful left-handed middle reliever remains an unanswered question.



I’m not a big fan of WAR, but in case some of you are curious, the top three WAR values in each league this year were, according to Delta Graphs:

Central League

  1. Tetsuto Yamada, Swallows–8.4
  2. Yoshihiro Maru, Carp–7.1
  3. Hayato Sakamoto, Giants–6.3

Pacific League

  1. Yuki Yanagita, Hawks–8.9
  2. Hideto Asamura, Lions–6.6
  3. Shogo Akiyama, Lions–6.2

My measure of choice is Bill James’ Win Shares, which can be found in PDFs on my data page. Each win share is worth 1/3 of a win.

Central League

  1. Yoshihiro Maru, Carp–32
  2. Tetsuto Yamada, Swallows–32
  3. Seiya Suzuki, Carp–28

Pacific League

  1. Yuki Yanagita, Hawks–36
  2. Shogo Akiyama, Lions–34
  3. Hotaka Yamakawa, Lions–33