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.

Free agent center fielder Akiyama could have deal this year: Report

Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Friday the Cincinnati Reds have put a multiyear offer on the table for free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, and are the top candidate to sign the 31-year-old, citing multiple major league sources.

The Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs have all been tied to the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the two-time defending champions of Japan’s Pacific League. Those teams met with Akiyama at December’s baseball winter meetings in San Diego.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kikuchi, a record-setting glove wizard, has roughly a week to sign before his rights revert to the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Yamaguchi, too, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

Reds making strong bid in pursuit of Lions center fielder Akiyama: Report

The Nikkan Sports reported Thursday that the Cincinnati Reds are shaping up as the top candidates to sign free agent Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama.

The Reds are the only major league team never to have a Japanese player on its active roster. The 31-year-old Akiyama has more power than former major leaguer Norichika Aoki, but the two are otherwise comparable.

Akiyama, who holds NPB’s single-season hit record, is represented by agent Casey Close.

Akiyama’s side met with four teams at the 2019 winter meetings in San Diego, including the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Yamaguchi, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The kotatsu league: Marines’ Ishikawa looks to go postal

Lotte Marines right-hander Ayumu Ishikawa on Wednesday joined the line of players desiring to move to the majors via the posting system. On Thursday, Katsumi Kawai, the Marines’ owner’s proxy, gave a diplomatic response.

“As a team, our No. 1 desire is that our players aspire toward ambitious targets. It’s natural for us to encourage him,” Kawai said as the club’s office closed up shop for the year according to multiple media sources.

“For a player to do that, he must show effort and results.”

The 31-year-old Ishikawa expressed his desire to play abroad at a press conference announcing his 2020 contract. Ishikawa posted a 3.64 ERA and went 8-5 in 27 games last season, and received a 10 million yen ($80,000) pay cut.

“I told them I want to play in America, but before that, I want to get good results in Japan,” he said.

My profile of Ishikawa is HERE.

Buffaloes make former Olympian NPB’s 1st female scout

The Orix Buffaloes have moved former Olympic softball champion Emi Inui from the club’s “community group” into the team’s amateur scouting department.

The 36-year-old, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Bejing Olympics and a bronze medal in 2004, had been coaching youngsters at the Buffaloes’ youth academy. She becomes the first woman to be officially hired as a scout in NPB.

Moore concludes SoftBank connection

The SoftBank Hawks on Thursday announced the acquisition of lefty Matt Moore. My story on Moore is HERE. Although they have finished runner-up in Japan’s Pacific League the last two seasons, the SoftBank Hawks have been unstoppable in the postseason, winning the last three Japan Series and five of the last six.

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman has reported Moore’s deal is worth $3.5 million with escalators.

Another Hawk’s major dream bites the dust as Yanagita signs on for duration

For years Yuki Yanagita has made scouts wonder how much of an impact he could make in the majors when he was finally able to file for free agency and leave the SoftBank Hawks. On Wednesday we found out that the answer is nothing.

At a press conference, Yanagita, 31, announced a seven-year contract to stay with the Hawks. The Hawks will maintain his current salary of 570 million yen with additional performance incentives with salary boosts possible afterward depending on his numbers.

The deciding factor was a muscle tear behind one knee that saw him miss most of the 2019 season. He failed to make it back to the first team roster in time for the season to count as the eighth year of service time he needs to file for international free agency. Yanagita was deactivated on April 8 and didn’t play again until he reported no problems in his first farm team game on Aug. 8.

“I was able to swing like usual,” he said at the time. “I had no trouble running.”

There had been talk in early July of bringing him back in July as a DH so as not to put extra strain on the knee because he had been hitting in rehab. But at the time of the minor league start, the Hawks said Yanagita would need 10 games before being activated. Eventually, they settled on six games and 13 more days off the active roster.

13 days can be worth a year

Those 13 days, it turned out, were crucial to Yanagita’s future.

When the Japan Series ended on Oct. 23, Yanagita had 135 of the 145 days needed to count 2019 as a full season and potentially file for free agency 11 months from now. He was on the roster for 75 days, and players hurt in first-team games get an extra 60 days of service time. Had the Japan Series gone seven games, Yanagita still would have been six days short.

With that innocuous little delay, the Hawks, Japan’s most stubborn opponent of Japanese players moving abroad, were able to add an extra year of control. The Hawks are the only team in Japan that has yet to agree to post a single player, and now the club won’t have to deal with its best player leaving as a free agent.

That extra year and the extremely generous salary offer that was almost too good to turn down was enough to keep the best player of his generation in Japan for the rest of his career or at least until he’s 38.

My profile of Yanagita is HERE. Because of his extremely high peak value — he’s the only player other than Sadaharu Oh to lead his league in on-base percentage and slugging average in four consecutive seasons — I have Yanagita ranked as the 15th greatest player in NPB history.