Does NPB type caste?

Three different things resonated with me recently and led to me wonder if NPB or perhaps the Japanese baseball community as a whole is molding players into particular types based on their size, speed and which side of the plate they bat from.

The first occurred during the summer while talking to foreign pitchers about their adjustments to NPB. Many, but all, mention a steep learning curve in figuring out how to put away guys who can foul off one two-strike pitch after another until the pitcher either hangs one in the zone or walks him.

This is a common type in Japan, perhaps best typified by Takuya Nakashima of the Nippon Ham Fighters, a guy who rarely drives the ball, but thrives on making contact and going the opposite way. Rather than being a home run threat, these guys are more a threat to pitchers’ mental health. What surprised me, however, was the comment, repeated a few times that these guys were left-handed hitters.

As the Texas Rangers’ Chris Martin pointed out recently when in Japan with the touring MLB All-Stars, there are right-handed hitters who belong to this class such as one of my favorite grinders, Keizo Kawashima of the SoftBank Hawks.

Toward the end of the season, I caught up with Kawashima at MetLife Dome and asked if he practiced fouling off pitches.

“No. Of course not,” he said. “OK. Not in batting practice. When I want to practice that, I do it off a machine.”

Thirteen years or so ago, at Yokohama Stadium prior to an interleague game between against the Yokohama BayStars, Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine said, “Watch this guy (1.73-meter Hitoshi Taneda). He’s trying to hit them foul.”

And sure enough, Taneda fouled off a half-dozen pitches in a row to the first-base side. I don’t know yet if Kawashima and Taneda are exceptions to the rule, and I didn’t give it much thought until a few weeks ago.

I was wondering whether Koshien Stadium still cut down left-handed hitters power. A cursory look said it did, since the home run percentage of right-handed hitters was vastly better than it was for lefties. OK. Well how does that vary in other parks?

In every NPB park, right-handers hit home runs more often, because in NPB, a higher percentage of right-handed hitters hit for power.

In 2018, the median of home runs per hit for right-handed hitters with 300-plus plate appearances was 10.45 percent. For left-handed hitters, it was 7.81 percent. This wasn’t a one-year phenomenon. Power hitters have made up a smaller portion of the left-handed-hitting population in all but about 10 years over the past 68. Since foreign hitters are often selected for their ability to hit home runs, I have excluded foreign-registered players from the pool.

The third thing that struck me and helped make a chord out of these disparate themes was a memory, the memory of Ichiro Suzuki’s first career home run.

To make a long — but good — story short. Suzuki hit a solo homer in a close game against Hideo Nomo and the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and was banished to the minors by then Orix manager Shozo Doi because that wasn’t the kind of hitter he was supposed to be. He was a speedy defensive asset who was supposed to be able to go the other way and steal bases I suppose.

Annual median of HRs per hit among left- and right-handed hitters from 1950 to 2018 in NPB.

If more left-handed hitters are being pushed into a slap-hitting role, then one would expect that the median of the left-handed-hitting population would strike out less. This also appears to be true. The following table, gives the median for Ks per PA for LHB (blue) and RHB (red) with 300 PAs in each season from 1950 to 2018.

Annual median of K per PA among left- and right-handed hitters from 1950 to 2018 in NPB.

While I was at it, I did the medians for sacrifice bunts per plate appearance, stolen base attempts per times on first base, and triples as a percentage of hits. I will present these below. The big surprise is that a higher proportion of right-handed hitters have been bunting, and since 1989, a higher percentage of LHB have been would-be base stealers.

Annual median of SH per PA among left- and right-handed hitters from 1950 to 2018 in NPB.

Annual median of SB attempt per time on first base among left- and right-handed hitters from 1950 to 2018 in NPB.

It’s not a surprise that left-handed hitters are more likely to be triples hitters than right-handers. I guess the surprise is that from 1960 to 1969, there was virtually no difference between the two.

Annual median of triples per hit among LHB and RHB from 1950 to 2018 in NPB.

Hotaka Yamakawa and the art of 1st team survival

Nobody in Japan hits home runs as often as Hotaka Yamakawa, not Shohei Ohtani, not Yuki Yanagita, not anybody. So how come it took the Seibu Lions’ big bopper so long to earn playing time?

It’s complicated.

And in case you’re curious about who in NPB history with 50 or more home runs has hit them more often than Yamakawa, there are only two. One is in the Hall of Fame, one is likely to earn admission to the Hall of Fame through the expert’s division ballot within a few years. They are Sadaharu Oh (10.66 at-bats per career home run), Randy Bass (10.93) and Yamakawa (11.08).

This summer I spoke with Yamakawa several times about his early playing time mystery and he explained how an attitude adjustment — and good luck opened the door for him. You can find that story on Kyodo News here.

Complete NameABHRAB per HR
Sadaharu Oh925086810.6566820276
Randy Bass220820210.9306930693
Hotaka Yamakawa9538611.0813953488
Chuck Manuel212718911.253968254
Orestes Destrade181616011.35
Rick Lancellotti6675811.5
Ralph Bryant298025911.5057915058
Tony Solaita178615511.5225806452
Hal Breeden9217911.6582278481
Tyler Van Burkleo6565511.9272727273
Roberto Petagine283023312.1459227468
Wladimir Balentien310325512.168627451
Tyrone Woods294024012.25
Koichi Tabuchi588147412.4071729958
Larry Parrish8747012.4857142857
Alex Cabrera451035712.6330532213
Adrian Garret130210212.7647058824
Clarence Jones318224612.9349593496
Mike Diaz12569313.5053763441
Tuffy Rhodes627446413.5215517241
Gene Martin256218913.5555555556
Takeya Nakamura523338513.5922077922
Jack Howell136510013.65
Bernardo Brito6845013.68
Hideki Matsui457233213.7710843373

Genda and NPB’s best

It took a while for the Japanese language media to catch on to Sosuke Genda’s shortstop fielding records in 2018 because fielding data in Japan is considered even more esoteric than it is in the States, and I’m referring to just the basics, put outs, assists, errors, double plays, fielding percentage.

There’s really nowhere to scan a publicly available database and find out who had the most assists or putouts in an NPB season or in their career. Things are getting better, but it’s still to quote Mr. Spock, “Stone knives and bearskins.”

The data is out there, it’s just inaccessible. This year, NPB’s website (the Japanese language version) did us the great service of posting a player page for every past NPB player. Of course, this includes batting and pitching. When NPB was publishing its encyclopedia, it did not include fielding records.

So here are the top 10 Japanese pro baseball seasons by a shortstop ranked in terms of total double plays and then assists

YearLeagueTeamName RGPOAEDPField
2018PLLionsSosuke Genda14327152611112.986
1963PLHawksKenji Koike14729549323111.972
2008CLTigersTakashi Toritani14426347615107.980
1985CLCarpYoshihiko Takahashi13023946816107.978
1998PLMarinesMakoto Kosaka12323641716106.976
1981PLBravesKeijiro Yumioka13021044917104.975
1964PLHawksKenji Koike14928949836103.956
2007CLCarpEishin Soyogi13523143913103.981
1991CLSwallowsTakahiro Ikeyama1322704124101.994
2006CLTigersTakashi Toritani14621349021100.971
2001CLBayStarsTakuro Ishii14025241712100.982
2016PLFightersTakuya Nakashima14321944714100.979

Top 10 NPB shortstop seasons ranked by total assists

2018PLLionsSosuke Genda143271526111120.986
19481LDragonsKiyoshi Sugiura13726850245900.945
1954PLBuffaloesTakeshi Suzuki13221950144680.942
1964PLHawksKenji Koike149289498361030.956
1963PLHawksKenji Koike147295493231110.972
2001PLMarinesMakoto Kosaka14025249216990.979
2006CLTigersTakashi Toritani146213490211000.971
2000PLMarinesMakoto Kosaka13522648911980.985
2003PLMarinesMakoto Kosaka1342264838860.989
2017PLLionsSosuke Genda14322848121890.971

Other than Genda, the big name on this list is Kenji Koike of the Nankai Hawks. Bill James’ win shares credits him with having four of the six most valuable defensive seasons at shortstop in the history of pro baseball in Japan. Koike’s rival for the title of Japan’s greatest shortstop is Hall of Famer Yoshio Yoshida, who had more career value at the position but did not reach the amazing peaks Koike did.

Genda’s 2018 season ranks 20th. A lot of that has to do with context. Genda is an amazing fielder, but NPB’s defensive standards are now remarkably high.

Win shares rates former Marines shortstop Makoto Kosaka as the best to play the position in the past 25 years and he is the only player in the last 50 years to have a season value ranked in the top 10.

For non win shares people, be warned that while win shares does give credit to various performance data, it is heavily weighted toward the context in which those data are compiled. It matters how many games your team wins, how good the team’s fielding is in relation to its batting and pitching, and how good the overall team defensive numbers at each position compare to the league norms. Good teams have more credit to pass around than weak teams and players who perform above the league’s norms will have a larger share of his team’s defensive credit than those who are below average and so on.

I’ve tried to post output from my database here in large files that can easily be read, but I’m not a database person or much of a coder, so that technology escapes me. I hope to remedy that by posting files of the top 20 in each defensive category by position on the data page, at least that way readers can monitor what the different records are.

Saito-san, we missed you

Takashi Saito looking resplendent at the 2016 winter meetings in National Harbor, Maryland.

One of the annual pleasures of the winter meetings has been a chat with former Takashi Saito. Currently with the San Diego Padres front office, we didn’t run into each other, so I think it’s well time to renew some of the great things he told me last year in Florida after the Padres lost the Shohei Ohtani derby.

Saito went from being unwanted by a marginal NPB franchise to becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers’ closer and a National League All-Star. A graduate of Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University, he’s one of the more eloquent and informative voices in the game.

“You never know what is going to happen, so being prepared for different possibilities is so important. That lesson really hit home. Really, so many things happened that year, 2006, that it was simply amazing. That year was one of the treasures of my life…it was valuable for my career and for my life. It was a life-enriching experience overall.”

San Diego Padres advisor Takashi Saito

See the story on Kyodo News here.

Toronto comes to Ohtani

David Pollard, executive director of Shohei Ohtani Fan Club Canada, represents his nation, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and Los Angeles Angels last spring in Phoenix, Arizona. Pollard presented Ohtani with the team Canada mittens, but he hasn’t been spotted wearing them.

If Shohei Ohtani won’t come to Toronto, then Toronto must come to Ohtani, and it did, or rather a small bit of it did.

When Ohtani was named the American League rookie of the year this past autumn, it was cause for celebration, not only in Southern California and Japan, but in Toronto as well.

A year ago, a group of dedicated Blue Jays fans opened their hearts to the 24-year-old slugging pitcher in the hope they might encourage him to take his act to Toronto. And though that effort failed, the group cheered on Ohtani when they could in person and from afar with their website

The story begins with Blue Jays fan John Yeh’s disappointment when the Blue Jays failed to land another Japanese pitcher in 2012, and when he caught word of Ohtani, he and his colleagues hatched a plan.

“My buddies and I were watching the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and the North American announcers were talking about this kid who threw triple-digits (in miles per hour) and hit, so I started following him,” Yeh said this summer by telephone.

“Even though he wasn’t playing in the WBC, they were still talking about him (Ohtani). They were showing highlights, the one that showed him hitting the ball into the ceiling at Tokyo Dome.”

Yeh sold his friends on the idea of a fan club, and mapped out a plan to show Ohtani Toronto if he needed persuasion.

“The Jays really went hard to get him,” David Pollard, another executive director, said. “We all thought, ‘This is perfect.’ He’s played in Sapporo for five years and like Sapporo, Toronto has four seasons. The Jays have a huge fan base. We have a large Japanese community. We thought it would be perfect for him.”

Ohtani’s decision to play in Anaheim, California, for the Angels came as a shock to his Canadian supporters.

 “Dave and I started talking, and Dave was supposed to show Shohei around,” Yeh said. “He (Ohtani) never showed up, because he stayed in L.A. (to meet teams). We had put together an itinerary. We were going to take him to Unionville. It’s a quiet, quaint little town up north.”

The fact that he didn’t become a Blue Jay, proved only a slight bump in the road for his Canadian fans. Pollard traveled to Arizona to see Ohtani in spring training and to present him with a pair of mittens like those worn by Canada’s team at February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

“We were excited years ago about getting Yu Darvish, because the Jays have always needed pitching. And my buddies and I wanted to take it more seriously. We wanted to host him. We thought if we started something, the chances of signing him would be a little more bright,” Yeh said.

When the Angels traveled to Toronto, his local fan club turned out.

“The Jays fans were so appreciative. Shohei didn’t have to do anything. The Jays fans applauded him so thoroughly, just showed their appreciation for this guy,” said Pollard, who had been hoping to see Ohtani with the mittens he’d brought to Arizona.

“I got word later that when he came to Toronto, he was going to hold up those mittens. We followed him when he left the field because he had to go through one exit. I said, ‘The gloves. The gloves.’ But Ippei (interpreter Ippei Mizuhara) pushed him away so fast. He said, ‘I’ll wear them.’ But he never did.”

“I expected him to hold a press conference and hold them up. He’d say, ‘These are from Dave.’ But it didn’t happen.”

“We would have loved to have had him.”

Japan’s favorite game

Shogo Akiyama, center, appears set to follow teammate Kazuo Matsui (left) to the majors.

Shogo Akiyama demonstrated Monday that he knows the game, not baseball, but Japan’s tradition of avoiding what you mean so that others will imply your intent without the necessity of being blunt or confrontational.

“All I can say (about playing in the major leagues in 2020) is that the possibility is not zero.”

–Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama

This linguistic genre, known as “tatemae” is akin to lip service on steroids. It would be an exaggeration to say that Japan runs on tatemae, but not by much.

When Akiyama’s Seibu Lions teammate, Yusei Kikuchi was asked on Oct. 21 what he planned to do after the Lions announced they would post the pitcher, Kikuchi stuck his hands in his pockets and said, “Shucks guys. I’ve never given much thought to playing in the majors,” or something to that extent.

Despite this disclaimer, a source close to Akiyama has since disclosed that the lefty had been planning the move for years. This effort includes studying English every week, testing out a two-seam fastball in 2016, and hiring a pitching analysis company this year to help him improve his pitches in anticipation of such a move.

On Dec. 3 Akiyama refused a long term deal with the Lions that would have kept him in Japan’s Pacific League through 2021 and prevented him from exercising his option to file for international free agency next autumn. Since then, it has been a kind of open secret that he has the majors in his sights.

And though it appeared Akiyama might avoid the issue altogether, he proved in the end that he might too blunt to remain in Japan, when he clarified his position directly.

“I’ll need to put up decent numbers or its no dice. If I have something left to prove here, then I can’t really go to the majors,” he said.

My favorite story of Japan’s of linguistic two step is from 1999, when Kazuhiro Sasaki spoke to reporters at the Yokohama BayStars’ minor league facility in the waning days of the season. It was widely expected that Japan’s leading closer would file for free agency and bolt for the majors at the first opportunity — which he did.

“How do you respond when scouts say you could be the best closer in baseball,” I asked Sasaki, who answered that he was happy to hear such talk but had never given free agency a thought.

“It’s something I’ll have to think about going forward,” he said.

Two days later, the front page of Japan’s Nikkan Sports said, “Sasaki to be free agent.” The day after, it was “Sasaki headed for majors.”

A year ago, I asked Hiroshima Carp second baseman Yusei Kikuchi if he had any interest in the majors. His answer, “I’m not the kind of player who succeeds over there.”

This summer I asked the same question.

“Oh yes. I’d like to go. I’ve been training in America in the offseason, and I can’t wait.”

So I don’t want to say Akiyama IS going, but I will say the chance of his staying is not quite zero.

Japan reacts to pitch limits

I scanned Japan’s twitterverse for opinions on the pitch restrictions that Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation plans to implement for its spring tournament next year. There’s a lot and here is a sample of the most common threads.

@hoyu412 writes: I’m opposed I suppose. This rule favors private schools who stockpile pitchers. We’ll see fewer pitchers who create legends at Koshien like Matsuzaka, (Yuki) Saito and (Kosei) Yoshida. Suguru Egawa’s strikeout record will never be surpassed. We’ll no longer praise those pitchers with stamina who avoid injury.

@kaichi4280 writes: Perhaps the problem is more about proper mechanics than pitch counts. Care for arms has progressed since the old days. There’s no mistaking this rule will give an advantage to private schools. I hope this arrangement doesn’t spread nationwide. I’m opposed.

Most of the tweets I’ve seen appear balanced and understanding of the need for arm health. If these rules were to expand nationwide, opponents fear the elimination of any possibility of no-hitters and legendary performances, the dominance of private schools — which is more or less already the case. One sentimental tweet asked: “Are you going to deny a boy his last chance at glory and leave him with a lifetime of regret because he needs to be yanked off the mound after throwing 100 pitches?”

@fukuda_yu2 writes: I agree with the pitch limits. People who love baseball like things the way they are, but the views that this will favor private schools or hinder the development of act pitchers are too short-sighted. The root of the problem is decreasing baseball participation. It’s great that there are baseball clinics but we need the courage to change the fundamental system. Our chance to adapt for the future is now.

A lot of those in support of changes to the system admit it that it will take getting used to, but generally say, “How can you talk about fairness and developing ace pitchers, when this is about the health of each and every individual.”

Under the heading MBGA, there was this response in English:

Arms control comes to Japanese high school ball

Japanese high school baseball, where epic feats of pitching endurance are as much a part of the narrative as who wins or loses, will get a new look next spring, thanks to the efforts of Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation.

The local federation will prevent pitchers in next spring’s prefectural tournament from starting an inning after throwing 100 pitches. That’s it. No recommended rest, no reduced limits for pitchers on short rest.

But for Japan, this is radical stuff.

A Kyodo News story reported Saturday that the prefecture acted because too few youngsters are signing up for high school ball. After forming a committee to look into the problem, it was decided that one way to maintain participation in the sport was to keep players healthy.

“If we ruin fewer talented players, the level of Japanese baseball will improve.”

Dr. Kozo Furushima, head of Keiyu Orthopedic Surgical Hospital

reported Saturday that the prefecture acted because too few youngsters are signing up for high school ball. After forming a committee to look into the problem, it was decided that one way to maintain participation in the sport was to keep players healthy.

The story cited MLB’s “Pitch Smart” guidelines, which you can find here. The story also quoted Dr. Kozo Furushima, whose hospital in Gunma Prefecture is a go-to for Tommy John surgeries in Japan.

“If we ruin fewer talented players, the level of Japanese baseball will improve,” Furushima said.

Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama was also quoted by the Kyodo story, saying, “There will be a lot of objection to this (pitch limit) but I want them to give their best shot.”

Pitch smart risk factors:

  • The American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) found that adolescent pitchers who undergo elbow or shoulder surgery are 36 times more likely to have routinely pitched with arm fatigue.
  • ASMI found that players who pitched more than 100 innings in at least one year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured than those who did not exceed 100 innings pitched. Every inning — whether it be during a game or showcase event — should count toward that threshold.
  • ASMI also found that pitchers who competed more than 8 months per year were 5 times as likely to suffer an injury requiring surgery. Pitchers should refrain from throwing for at least 2-3 months per year and avoid competitive pitching for at least 4 months per year.
  • Daily, weekly and annual overuse is the greatest risk to a youth pitcher’s health. Numerous studies have shown that pitchers who throw more pitches per game and those who do not adequately rest between appearances are at an elevated risk of injury. While medical research does not identify optimal pitch counts, pitch count programs have been shown to reduce the risk of shoulder injury in Little League Baseball by as much as 50% (Little League, 2011). The most important thing is to set limits for a pitcher and stick with them throughout the season.
  • Pitchers should avoid pitching on consecutive days, if possible, irrespective of pitch count. According to Yang et al., pitchers who pitched on consecutive days had more than 2.5 times greater risk of experiencing arm pain, compared with pitchers who did not pitch on consecutive days.

More about peak values

Having a lot of information at your finger tips doesn’t necessarily mean you know what’s going on.

I was reminded of this again on Friday, when doing a story about Yuki Yanagita’s new contract with the SoftBank Hawks. He revealed that he will be paid 570 million yen ($5.11 million) next year — which on the surface would make him the highest-paid Japanese player in team history.

And though I have given Yanagita first-place MVP votes three times over the past four years — the fourth went to Shohei Ohtani in 2016 — I’d never noticed that he’d led the Pacific League in both on-base percentage and slugging average the past four seasons.

Yanagita entered the season as one of only three players to have managed that feat for three straight years. With his fourth, he surpassed Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima. Next in line is Sadaharu Oh, who did it not five or even six straight years, but 11, so that record, like so many of Oh’s is safe.

Since delving into peak performance the past few days as a way of analyzing Hall of Fame candidates, I was curious how Yanagita’s past five seasons — I’d used five-year averages of win shares — stacked up all time. What I found was not entirely surprising.

Yanagita has averaged 32.6 win shares since 2014. The only recent player to better that figure was Hideki Matsui from 1998 to 2002. The only contemporary player to come close is, not surprisingly, Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada.

Aside from Matsui and Yanagita, no player has had as good a five-year stretch since Oh (1973 to 1977). Oh turned pro out of high school in 1959 and his career was winding down, but he was still a dominant hitter. But basically, what you get is a list of Hall of Fame pitchers in NPB’s dead-ball 1950s and a bunch of Hall of Fame hitters from the early 1960s.

This shouldn’t be a surprise because the talent depth in NPB in the 1950s and 1960s was vastly worse than today, and the best players towered over the competition to a greater degree than they have since. Still, it was only a few players, Oh, Nagashima, Japan’s greatest catcher Katsuya Nomura, Japan’s all-time hits leader Isao Harimoto, Kazuhiro Yamauchi and three great pitchers, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao and Shigeru Sugishita.

When Yamada had his huge season in 2015, I estimated it was the third or fourth best season in NPB history, but since then it hadn’t occurred to me how rare his and Yanagita’s accomplishments have been in the context of today’s game.

Why not Boomer?

Former Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Matt Winters, commenting on my Hall of Fame vote, said in a tweet: “You need Boomer in there somewhere.”

The answer, of course, is that no one lets me decide who is on the ballot. For the record, Boomer, LeRon Lee and Don Blasingame were all recently dropped from the expert’s division ballot, where Randy Bass is still going strong. The reason for this is not clear. Another guy who failed to make it in the expert’s division, former Lotte third baseman Michio Arito, was laughingly excluded.

There are few candidates in the Hall of Fame who were better players than Arito, yet he, Hanshin Tigers shortsop Taira Fujita and Lions outfielder Masahiro Doi, three guys who are more than qualified, are no longer qualified for election.

But just for curiosity’s sake, where does Boomer rank in terms of peak performance — as measured by his best five-year win shares average? The answer is 12th all-time among foreign registered players who had five-plus seasons. I’d suspected Tuffy Rhodes had the highest peak value of any foreign player in NPB history, but Rhodes ranks fourth — although he is No. 1 in career value. See the list below of the top-20 five-year peaks among foreign players in NPB.

A lot of things could be wrong with the model that produces these, but it seems reasonable that the honor of the first foreign player in Japan’s Hall of Fame went to the deserving Wally Yonamine. It seems also clear that Tuffy should be No. 2. Alex Cabrera was knocked off the ballot last year when he received just 2.7 percent of the vote. That may well indicate that player popularity with the media is a key factor.