Akiyama going to Reds

The Nikkan Sports has reported early Tuesday morning in Japan that outfielder Shogo Akiyama has reached an agreement on a three-year contract worth in excess of $15 million, citing a source.

The 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man is easily the most balanced all-around hitter in Japan see my profile of him HERE. He is expected to take a physical with the Reds in the coming days. In addition to the Reds, the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs were all reportedly interested in NPB’s single-season hit record holder.

Akiyama home run collection.

The Reds are the only major league club that has never had a Japanese player on its active roster.

A collection of Akiyama’s defensive highlights.

Alex Ramirez, the flexible manager

DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, like pretty much any ballplayer you talk to, has a huge bag of cliches and simple rules to explain how to prepare for and play baseball games in the form of expressions “you always want to…” or “you never…”

But when you get past the superficial sound bites that come from being a former big leaguer, you get a guy who is always on the lookout for the next thing that might work.

On Sunday, Ramirez said he was open to using a reliever to break the first-inning ice for his starting pitchers as “openers.” If so, he would be Japan’s second manager to opt for that kind of a role following Nippon Ham’s Hideki Kuriyama.

Ramirez has long been used to getting flack in Japan. A lot of foreign players took exception to his choreographed home run celebrations that the fans loved, often saying, “If you don’t do that back home, don’t do that here.” To which Ramirez was fond of answering: “In case you hadn’t noticed we’re in Japan, not ‘back home.'”

As a manager, he has been criticized for batting his pitchers eighth, something which makes a ton of sense.

Having a batter who reaches base bat ninth means fewer RBIs from the No. 8 spot in exchange for more no-out, runner-on-base situations for the top of the order — something that will help you score a few extra runs a year.

Last year, when Ramirez had his best hitter, and Japan’s cleanup hitter, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second, the old farts screamed, calling it an insult to Tsutsugo and Japan.

Last year, I tracked how each team’s starting pitchers did before and after facing their 19th batter in a game. Last season, when bullpen games were becoming very common, the BayStars were second-fewest in NPB with only 55 games in which a starter faced 19-plus batters, but it didn’t really help them.

From the 19th batter on in those 55 games, BayStars opponents had a .382 OBP, the 10th worst in NPB, and a .511 slugging average, worst of all 12 teams. The Fighters were the flip side of that. The pitchers who were allowed to go past 18 batters were really good, posting a .250 OBP and .196 SLUG.

Mind you, the Hiroshima Carp had 125 games in which their starters went through the opposing order more than two times while being nearly as good as the Fighters starters in those situations. But the Carp rotation — which led NPB with a .469 quality start percentage, was deep and the Fighters’ wasn’t.

The BayStars young starting corps has the chance to be an elite group, but Ramirez isn’t going to turn a blind eye to the possibility that using openers as part of a well-thought-out plan could help. Like the Fighters, the BayStars have a solid analytics team, and it would be no surprise to see DeNA improve their pitching and defense next season just because of Ramirez’s willingness to fly in the face of ignorant criticism and try the next thing.

Rakuten acquires reliever Chargois

The Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Pacific League have acquired Los Angeles Dodgers reliever JT Chargois a day after he was released by the National League club, according to a report by Sports Nippon on Monday, citing sources.

The Eagles, who won their only PL and Japan Series pennant in 2013, are expected to move lefty closer Yuki Matsui into the starting rotation next year. Chargois, who turned 29 in December and made his big league debut for the Twins in 2016, has struck out 85 batters in 76-2/3 innings.

The Eagles, who hired former Dodger Kazuhisa Ishii as their general manager a year ago, finished third last year in the league, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2017. The club got a big boost from new import Jabari Blash, who posted a .936 OPS in a career-high 527 plate appearances for the Sendai-based Eagles.

Straight talk about NPB hitters

In Japanese, a fastball is called a “straight”, a running fastball a “shoot” and with the exception of a cutter or a two-seam fastball, which are oddly enough called cutters and two-seamers, all other pitches are labeled breaking balls.

Way to Tsutsugo

Of course, pitchers call their deliveries what they will, whether or not the pitches actually behave like others with the same name. When researching Yoshitomo Tsutsugo after he declared his desire to play in the big leagues, it was pointed out to me that he had trouble with fastballs.

There is anecdotal evidence of scouts, who report what they see in limited samples, and now there is pitch tracking data, although that is proprietary and only available to the clubs. Delta Graphs, following in the footsteps of Fan Graphs, has pitch value ratings for hitters effectiveness versus different pitch types.

I’ve combed through the Delta Graph data for players with 300-plus plate appearances since 2014, and compared each of those batters to how much better or worse they are against fastballs, curves and sliders than the average of these regulars.

Frankly, Tsutsugo had a relatively poor 2019 against fastballs, 1.12 runs above the NPB average per 100 fastballs. This ranked him 33rd among the 89 hitters with 300 PAs in NPB in 2019.

The average of regulars relative to the NPB norm since 2014 has been 0.63 runs per 100 fastballs, and Tsutsugo’s 1.12 runs in 2019 was 0.37 standard deviations above that mean. For him it was a terrible year. Since 2014, he’s averaged being 0.90 standard deviations above the mean for NPB regulars. That ranks him 10th in NPB among current players with three years of regular service during that stretch.

Without further adieu, here are the best (according to Delta Graphs) fastball hitters in Japanese baseball based on the unweighted average of how many standard deviations they are above the mean in each 300-PA season since 2018. The one hitter who is head and shoulders above the rest will never make it to MLB following Yuki Yanagita‘s announcement this past week that he will forgo free agency in lieu of a seven-year contract with the SoftBank Hawks.

Japan’s best fastball hitters (3-plus seasons as regulars)

NameTeamFastball Score (SDs above avg)
Yuki YanagitaHawks2.42
Yoshihiro MaruGiants1.38
Tomoya MoriLions1.36
Alfredo DespaigneHawks1.30
Dayan ViciedoDragons1.30
Tetsuto YamadaSwallows1.24
Seiya SuzukiCarp1.20
Wladimir BalentienHawks1.06
Takeya NakamuraLions1.01
Yoshitomo TsutsugoRays0.94
Hideto AsamuraEagles0.90
Ryuhei MatsuyamaCarp0.89
Takahiro OkadaBuffaloes0.86
Alex GuerreroFighters0.73
Hayato SakamotoGiants0.69
Jose LopezBayStars0.59
Shogo AkiyamaLions -> ?0.55

Honorable mentions

If we only include players with two years as regulars, Neftali Soto of the BayStars would rank second (1.78) and Masataka Yoshida of the Buffaloes would be third (1.56).

Of course, there are two big differences between NPB and MLB in terms of the quality of fastballs. These are:

  1. While the tackier NPB ball is easier to spin, it doesn’t appear to run as much — giving less horizontal movement on fastballs, two-seamers, splitters and straight changes.
  2. The average velocity one sees in NPB is a few ticks lower than in MLB for several reasons. Japan imports virtually no international amateur talent, weight training is only beginning to take hold, and the year-round throwing practice and the necessities of pitching game after game in tournament play wipe out many of the nation’s best pitchers before they finish junior high school.

Because of those differences, one expects players — especially those in their prime or past it, to face serious adjustment issues in MLB.

Yamaguchi concludes Blue Jays deal

Right-hander Shun Yamaguchi has concluded his two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, Kyodo News has reported, citing an official source.

Yamaguchi, who joined the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League three years ago as a free agent from the DeNA BayStars, is the first player ever posted by the Giants, Japan’s oldest pro team.

My profile of Yamaguchi is HERE.

Yamaguchi is coming off a career year in 2019 when he tied for the Central League in wins with 15 as the Giants won their first pennant since 2013.

Although pundits are saying Yamaguchi could be effective as a reliever, people should know he became a starter after developing a case of the yips as a reliever. The switch back to starter allowed him to push the reset button and develop his other pitches — a development that was accelerated during his time with the Giants.

Part of that metamorphosis was also likely due to his needing a new challenge, something pitching in the majors will provide in any context.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale was the first to report that Yamaguchi’s contract was completed with the Blue Jays as well as the salary info.

The kotatsu league: 4 more years, Kikuchi to remain with Carp

Second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi will remain a Hiroshima Carp, he told a press conference at Mazda Stadium on Friday, Kyodo News reported in Japanese, when he signed a four-year contract extension after failing to get a timely guaranteed major league contract.

Below are some Kikuchi highlights so you all can see what you’re missing.

Soon after the Central League club agreed to post him, Kikuchi said he would only move to the majors on a guaranteed major league contract. After meeting with teams at December’s winter meetings in San Diego, he has now told Hiroshima that he intends to remain with the Carp for 2020.

My profile of Kikuchi is HERE.

Former Tigers skipper Yoshida blames “undignified” Solarte for troubles

This year, the Hanshin Tigers rushed Yangervis Solarte into the firing line with a minimum of exposure to Japan’s game. His immediate success was quickly followed by failure and a trip to the minors, from which the former major leaguer never recovered.

Solarte was given 80 first-team plate appearances, then judged unworthy and demoted to the farm team. When he said a few days later that he was unable to “get motivated,” he declined promotion to the first team and returned home.

Yoshio Yoshida, a deserving Hall of Famer as a shortstop who also managed Hanshin to its only Japan Series championship in 1985, told the Nikkan Sports on Friday that Solarte’s problem was a “lack of dignity.”

“That Solarte, he COULD play at shortstop but he demonstrated a lack of dignity.”

Former Hanshin Tigers manager Yoshio Yoshida

Solarte went 13-for-69, but four of those hits were home runs. He drew nine walks, scored sic runs and drove in nine. Hardly a disaster.

The Tigers are a proud organization steeped in tradition. Unfortunately, one of those traditions is discarding foreign imports who fail to meet the team’s expectations for instant success and blaming the individuals for the club’s traditional lack of patience and understanding.