100 years and counting

Six years ago, Nippon Professional Baseball tooted its horn about the 80th anniversary of pro baseball in Japan, citing the December 1934 organization of the Greater Japan Tokyo Yakyu Club, the team that was to play visiting major leaguers and become the founding member of Japan’s first pro league.

All of that is true, except for the part about 2014 marking 80 years since the start of pro baseball in Japan. But when the Yomiuri Giants say there’s something to celebrate, NPB organizes a party.

And because Japan’s baseball media suck up so much to the Giants that they create a vacuum, one rarely hears anything to the contrary. Thus it was a great surprise recently when I saw a headline referring to this year as the 100th anniversary of pro ball in Japan, marking the 1920 founding of Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Japan Athletic Association, also known as the Shibaura Association.

Not surprisingly, the story came from outside the mainstream baseball media, on FNN Prime, the website of Fukuoka broadcaster TV Nishinihon. The station has been championing the campaign of Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh to push for NPB to expand to 16 teams.

It’s said history is written by the winners but in this case, history was written by the survivors. The Shibaura club had no pro league to play in, although a second team was formed in 1921 in Seoul, the capital of Imperial Japan’s colonized Korean peninsula. On June 21, 1923, the Shibaura Association, while on tour on the continent, played the Tenkatsu Baseball Team in Seoul. The hosts won Japan’s first pro baseball game 6-5.

The Shibaura Association won the other two games played between the clubs, the last in Tokyo on Aug. 30. Two days later, the Seoul club lost its equipment in the Great Kanto Earthquake, when much of Tokyo was reduced to ashes. That was more or less the end of the Tenkatsu team, although a kind of Tenkatsu cover band toured the United States the following year.

The Shibaura Association’s ground survived the earthquake but was mobilized for relief efforts after the earthquake and was never returned to the team, which officially folded the following January.

The news was not lost on Ichizo Kobayashi, the owner of the Osaka-based Hankyu railroad, which services the area between Osaka and Kobe. In 1923 he had proposed a league sponsored by private railroads in the region in order to attract riders to the lines serving the clubs’ ballparks. Perhaps with an eye on realizing that dream, Kobayashi formed a new team out of the remnants of the Shibaura Club and located them in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, a hot spring town near Osaka.

A financial panic in 1927 forced the Osaka Mainichi Newspaper to fold its corporate team, costing the Takarazuka Association its principal rival, and the Association folded for good two years later when the Great Depression hit Japan.

Although members of the Shibaura and Takarazuka teams played leading roles in the organization of the first league five years later, the Giants have nearly succeeded in erasing those teams from history.

During my time at the Daily Yomiuri, I frequently had to argue long and hard to edit out the phrase “Japan’s first pro team” in stories referring to the Giants and change the reference to the “oldest existing pro team,” which the editors could live with. The editors kept wondering why I couldn’t just get with the program and settle for the word “oldest” which our revered Japanese paper treated like a fact.

Asian baseball on American TV

My late pal Wayne Graczyk used to talk about the time he worked on the U.S. TV feed for the 1994 Japan Series alongside Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek when the major leagues were on strike, but otherwise Asian baseball on American TV has been a hit-and-miss affair.

On Thursday, Yonhap News reported that ESPN’s talks with the Korea Baseball Organization to air pro games from South Korea fell through. The report said the U.S. giant wanted the content for free, so that would seem like a non-starter.

South Korea suffered more severe early infections of COVID-19 than the United States. Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, South Korea has done a vastly better job of controlling the coronavirus, and KBO is set to open its season, behind closed doors, on May 5.

Japan follows Trump’s lead

While Japan took some steps in February to stem the spread of infection by asking schools to close and event promoters not to attract crowds, the national government echoed Trump’s line that all was under control so that the Tokyo Olympics could go on as scheduled. Indeed, the biggest concern seems to have been suppressing the number of positive test results so as not to make people think Japan had a problem.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to enjoy being in Trump’s orbit and who owes allegiance to the monied right-wing elites who fund his agenda, has said in essence, taking harsh measures to control the coronavirus is against the law and we lawmakers are helpless to change the law.

So it is that while Japan could have been in the same place as South Korea, with solid testing regimes and aggressive measures in place, it chose to test as few people as possible in order to keep published infection totals low. And while baseball might start here in June, it might not.

When it does, it will be very interesting if U.S. networks have any interest in broadcasting Japanese games. The Central League, where all teams hold exclusive broadcasting rights to their home games, is pretty much a no-go, but the Pacific League, whose clubs can market their rights jointly through Pacific League marketing, might have some attractive options available if baseball is being played here but not in the U.S.

Of course, there is always the chance that Japan, like ESPN, will boot its opportunity.

NPB and the fear of failure

In 2007, if I recall correctly, Bobby Valentine tried to introduce NPB to ESPN for the purpose of airing the Japan Series. The Series rights belong to NPB not to the individual clubs, although they have the right to select broadcasters for their home games in the postseason.

At the time, Valentine was the de facto general manager of the Lotte Marines, and team representative Ryuzo Setoyama — until he engineered Valentine’s ouster in a 2009 coup d’etat — sometimes cooperated with the skipper to pursue reforms. Setoyama broached the idea of having NPB sell the Japan Series broadcasting rights to ESPN, but according to Valentine, the other teams vetoed it.

“They said they were afraid that some kind of mistake might happen that would embarrass them,” Valentine told me at the time.

Of course, weird stuff has happened in the Series. Hall of Fame manager Toshiharu Ueda pulled his team off the field in 1978 to protest a home run he thought was foul. In 2004, accident-prone umpire Atsushi Kittaka’s poor execution of an out call at home plate caused Game 1 of the Japan Series to be delayed for 49 minutes.

And since Japanese baseball is about not losing by making mistakes, there may be some here who would consider vetoing a deal that could expose NPB to ridicule a victory.

What I meant to say about catching

I’ve been going down a rabbit hole the past week or so, trying to identify catchers with substantial careers despite being particularly weak hitters or fielders. After a podcast listener asked whether Japanese teams favored hitting or defense, I tried to identify various kinds of careers.

The question was sparked by the Chunichi Dragons’ inability to settle on an everyday catcher since Motonobu Tanishige stepped away from that role. I believe teams will give playing time more easily to good defensive catchers who can’t hit than good hitting catchers who are poor defenders.

What I found is that teams will give the everyday job to guys who have the physical tools to be good-fielding catchers who are decent hitters and who eventually develop into good fielders. Some of those guys do become better-than-average fielders and some don’t. Sometimes those guys develop reputations as good handlers of pitchers, something that is virtually impossible to quantify with the available data.

I also suspect that a lot of the variability in these careers comes from the frequent injuries that come with catching.

Catchers’ fielding

The first trouble is measuring defensive quality. Bill James’ win shares system gives teams’ catchers a chance to seize a large share of their team’s defensive wins if they are relatively better than the league in the following categories in descending order: Throwing out would-be base stealers, errors and passed balls and opponents’ sacrifice bunts, these last two combine for only 10 percent of the team score. Based on those scores and the scores of other positions, all a team’s catchers receive a share of the defensive wins, these are then split up among individuals based on their respective playing time and achievements.

It is mute on the subject of calling pitches, but if a team’s catchers are good at preventing sacrifices, commits few passed balls, and has a relatively large number of non-strikeout putouts, and assists on plays other than foiled stolen base attempts, they will rate higher. Barring other quality information, the system attempts to measure catchers’ value as fielders rather than pitch callers.

Playing time

Then we have the problem of making a rough estimate about playing time since the number of innings played in NPB has only been published for the past few seasons. If you base it strictly on defensive win shares relative to plate appearances, then good hitters will have their defensive evaluation docked by the virtue of getting more PAs.

I evaluated offense as win shares per 500 plate appearances in seasons spent primarily as a catcher.

So between the fact that we’re only looking at fielding since players’ total defensive value is beyond our grasp and that catchers are extremely vulnerable to injuries that fill their careers with potholes and can wreak havoc on careers, this is at best a tricky exercise. But with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s have a look at some careers.

Long careers despite below-average fielding metrics

Katsuhiko Kido, Hanshin Tigers. Kido was the regular catcher for Hanshin’s 1985 Japan Series championship team. That was his career year both batting and fielding — probably the only year he was above average in his career and when he won his lone Golden Glove. Chronic shoulder issues limited his ability to control the running game as time went on, but he still caught in 943 career games.

Shinichi Murata, Yomiuri Giants. A solid hitter, Murata was the Giants’ primary catcher from 1990 to 2000 despite an injury to his throwing arm as a youngster that nearly drove him out of the game. Surgery allowed him to continue playing, and the Giants won four pennants with him as their main catcher. He was highly regarded by the team’s pitchers and won a Best Nine award and was MVP of the 2000 Japan Series.

Satoshi Nakajima, Hankyu, Orix, Seibu, Yokohama, Nippon Ham. One of those guys who was athletic and could hit as a youngster who became a respectable fielder when he got older. A number of catchers, particularly good-hitting ones, develop into respectable fielders late in their careers, which reminds me of one of John Huston’s great lines:

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

John Huston’s character Noah Cross in “Chinatown.”

Perhaps we can add catchers’ fielding to that group. Late in his career with the Fighters, having earned a reputation as an exceptional handler of pitchers, he would be brought in to catch in the final inning in save situations along with the closer.

Isao Ito, Taiyo Whales, Nankai Hawks. Another good hitter, Ito was the regular catcher for the Whales between 1964 and 1976. He was a five-time all-star playing in a great hitter’s park for a club that during his tenure devolved into one of the CL’s doormats.

Shiro Mizunuma, Hiroshima Carp. Although he does not rate well in overall fielding, Mizunuma was highly regarded for working with the Carp pitchers. He earned his first regular playing time in 1975 when the club won its first pennant. Mizunuma was the regular from 1975 to 1980 before an injury suffered in a traffic accident and the rapid development of Mitsuru Tatsukawa — one of NPB’s best defensive catchers turned him into a backup.

Yoshiharu Wakana, Lions, Tigers, Whales, Fighters. A journeyman who played from 1972 to 1991, Wakana was known for the large number of incidents he was involved in, particularly with foreign hitters. He was an above-average hitter, with below-average fielding numbers. Wakana was the No. 1 catcher for at least one season with three of his clubs. Like Nakajima, he finished with Nippon Ham, developed a reputation as a good defender and had decent numbers to back that up.

He holds the NPB record for passed balls in a season with 17 – the same season he controversially won his only Golden Glove.

As Hawks battery coach, he was credited with turning Kenji Jojima into a solid defensive catcher, but his coaching career ended after the 2001 season. That year Tuffy Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record when Oh was the Hawks’ skipper. Wakana was not asked to return for 2002 after saying it would have been “distasteful for a foreign hitter to break Oh’s record.”

Of these six, two, only Kido and Ito, appear to have never developed good reputations for their handling of pitchers.

Long catching careers despite below-average offense

Here are the guys who were terrible hitters even compared to his catching peers but still had long careers:

Takeo Yoshizawa, Chunichi Dragons, Kintetsu Buffaloes. Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.

Despite his lack of offense, Yoshizawa played in 1,355 and had 3,876 plate appearances.

Ginjiro Sumitani, Seibu Lions, Yomiuri Giants. This guy is at the crux of the offense vs defense debate behind the plate as he lost his job to a guy who could mash but was still raw as a pro catcher, Tomoya Mori.

Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves and played for the national team.

Takashi Tanaka, Nankai Hawks, Hiroshima Carp. Tanaka had both the rep for being a quality handler of pitchers and solid fielding metrics. He only had three seasons in which he amassed 300 plate appearances but he was the Carp’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1966 and had 3,347 career plate appearances. By my estimation the worst hitting catcher to have more than 1,200 career plate appearances.

The boring stuff

Since expansion in 1950, 48 catchers have had at least 2,500 plate appearances from seasons in which they caught in 80 percent or more of their games, each of those had at least two seasons in which they were primarily catchers with 300-plus plate appearances, a status I’ll label as “everyday.” These are the players I looked at.

The average career defensive value for these players is 1.25 fielding win shares per 100 PA. I estimated that 33 of the catchers fall within one standard deviation of the mean for their careers. Hall of Famer Atsuya Furuta was two standard deviations above the mean. Five were 1 SD above, while two were 2 SDs below average and seven were 1 SD below average.

The catchers whose fielding rated at least one standard deviation above the mean averaged 12.2 seasons as everyday catchers and 6,330 career plate appearances from their seasons when primarily catching. Those who were 1 SD or more below the fielding mean averaged 4.3 seasons as an everyday catcher and 3,239 plate appearances.

Two catchers with substantial careers are more than 1 SD below average offensively, 2 were 1 SD above the mean, while three were 2 SDs above the mean offensively.

The catchers with the longest careers are, not surprisingly, those who are better-than-average fielders and better-than-average hitters. We don’t see any long careers by guys who are really poor hitters, or really poor fielders.

The best hitting catcher in NPB history — at least until the Seibu Lions’ Tomoya Mori gets a few more years under his belt — is Koichi Tabuchi, who did not quite collect 3,000 plate appearances in seasons when he caught in 80 percent of his games because he often played at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. As a fielder, Tabuchi was probably around average.

Below are some of the lists the study produced:

Weakest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1983木戸 克彦Katsuhiko Kido0.674.792538
1984村田 真一Shinichi Murata0.706.933089
1987中嶋 聡Satoshi Nakajima0.883.793870
1961伊藤 勲Isao Ito0.905.663846
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1974若菜 嘉晴Yoshiharu Wakana1.035.124210
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291

Strongest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1978達川 光男Mitsuo Tatsukawa1.633.984181
1982伊東 勤Tsutomu Ito1.616.228155
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1970大矢 明彦Akihiko Oya1.504.624933
1981田村 藤夫Fujio Tamura1.446.815126
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336
1972梨田 昌崇Masataka Nashida1.376.023058

Weakest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1954吉沢 岳男Takeo Yoshizawa1.121.003867
2006炭谷 銀仁朗Ginjiro Sumitani1.331.223593
1954安藤 順三Junzo Ando1.101.572518
2002細川 亨Toru Hosokawa1.111.593906
1978袴田 英利Hidetoshi Hakamada1.241.672538
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
2003鶴岡 慎也Shinya Tsuruoka1.192.113007
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387

Strongest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1954野村 克也Katsuya Nomura1.2919.4811747
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1964木俣 達彦Tatsuhiko Kimata1.2513.467131
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1981中尾 孝義Takayoshi Nakao1.2310.052622
1999里崎 智也Tomoya Satozaki1.139.843617
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336

NPB goes viral: Catching up

A couple of slow news days and a research project that is failing to reach a conclusion have kept me away for a couple of days. My apologies for that. We did have some news on Friday, so I’ll share that.

Nashida out of ICU

The wonderful Mr. Masataka Nashida is out of ICU and off his ventilator. Hopefully, that means the 66-year-old gent will survive to tell us more stories. There are many kind people in baseball, a huge number of them, and Nashida is one of those.

Kataoka goes public

Atsushi Kataoka, revealed this week that he’d been in the hospital battling the novel coronavirus, speaking weakly like someone with pneumonia — I speak from experience there — and with tubes up his nose, Kataoka sent a video of himself from his hospital bed.

Many prayers for these two guys’ full recovery, and not just because they were two of the people who took this nobody’s questions seriously despite how bad my Japanese was 22 to 25 years ago.

125 games and counting down

On Friday, NPB announced that it has scrapped interleague play for the 2020 season and will not start before the end of May. Considering Tokyo hits a new high for infections nearly every other day and they’re barely testing anyone without serious symptoms, that should be no surprise.

I strongly recommend you listen to next week’s Japan Baseball Weekly podcast, where Wladimir Balentien will explain what it’s like training with the SoftBank Hawks when players are not allowed to interact at the facilities.

And finally a plug

On Sunday in Japan at 10 am (6 pm Pacific Daylight Time) , I’ll be on a live twitter chat with Angels broadcaster Jose Mota and Angels staff member Saya Nomura.

I hope you can drop in. I’ll be on from 10:30 am (6:30 pm PDT) while former Angel and Yakult Swallow Jack Howell will take questions from from 10 am in Japan ( 6:00 pm PDT).

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

Dragons reliever Tajima to meet TJ

Chunichi Dragons right-hander Shinji Tajima (30) will undergo Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery this month in Nagoya. He was shut down after feeling muscle pain around his elbow during a February practice game, but the pain did not subside.

After the spring training concluded, Tajima was reexamined in Nagoya. The second opinion found that the muscle pain was caused by damage to the medial collateral ligament of the right elbow.

Tajima’s 34 saves in 2017 were second in the Central League that season and third in Japan behind Rafael Dolis’ 37 for the CL’s Hanshin Tigers and Dennis Sarfate’s NPB record 54 for the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks.

But Tajima’s strikeout rate plunged the following season when he appeared in just 30 games. Last season, his strikeout rate returned to normal, but he allowed five home runs in just 21 innings pitching in the toughest home run park in Japan.

Tajima has pitched for the national team and in 2016 set a record by not allowing a run in his first 31 games of the season.

Although America’s top Tommy John surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, has closed up shop during the coronavirus pandemic, apparently using personal protective equipment for sports injury procedures during the current crisis is not an issue in Japan.

The road to 16 teams: the talent pool

This is the second part of a series on the possibility of NPB expanding from 12 to 16 teams. Part 1 is HERE.

Expanding Japanese pro baseball from 12 to 16 or more teams is a tricky operation for a number of reasons but let’s address one here: the talent pool.

Because expansion will dilute the existing talent pool, some will argue it would make Nippon Professional Baseball’s product unmarketable. There is some truth to that. Suddenly adding 280 players to the existing 840 would force many players into starting jobs who could not make that jump without expansion or a rash of injuries.

That would make the games more interesting and lower the quality of execution in each game.

But the other side of the equation is that new jobs will open the door to groups of players: Those teams know can play but can’t commit to, and those that teams don’t know can play but who can.

Take Ichiro Suzuki. He fell somewhere in between those two categories. For two years, manager Shozo Doi wanted him to be a pinch-running, bunting and infield-single hitting defensive replacement. The team knew he could play a little but his refusal to adopt an orthodox batting stance limited his value in the eyes of the organization’s eyes — despite his amazing minor league results.

Even managers who are really good at spotting talent miss guys. Former Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai was one of the best in the business at spotting what players were capable of, but he missed the boat entirely with outfielder Teppei Tsuchiya, who became a Best Nine-winning regular with the Rakuten Eagles.

The point is that teams make decisions about players, and often those decisions are wrong. An increase in jobs means more opportunities for players whose only failing is working for a team that doesn’t believe in him.

A side benefit of adding four teams would be bringing an end to NPB’s ridiculous limitation on imported talent. The purpose of that limit is ostensibly to give job opportunities to Japanese players, but it also means intentionally marketing an inferior product to the paying customers. The fans aren’t paying to see players who are Japanese, they’re paying to see baseball, and NPB needs to remember that.

Next, a look at how to identify new teams and cities.

What Japan needs to grow its game

The talk of expanding Nippon Professional Baseball by one third and increasing from 12 to 16 teams raises many questions, especially if one only sees it as grafting four additional teams to the current system, where only four or five of the existing clubs have made serious efforts at player development beyond the bare minimum.

What’s needed is a new set of rules and a new vision that sees Japan’s game as the visionary founder of the current establishment, Matsutaro Shoriki, ostensibly did, not just as a rival to Major League Baseball, but a superior product.

There are several obstacles preventing Japan from achieving these goals.

  1. The small number of professional players 70 players per team with an additional 60 or so on developmental contracts.
  2. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of playing time for those not on the active roster.
  3. A youth baseball culture that culls many of the best athletes from the talent pool through elbow and shoulder injuries caused by overuse before they even reach high school.
  4. This issue runs parallel to a declining birth rate and an even sharper decline in youth baseball participation as parents and kids opt for less dangerous sports with a less burdensome practice culture — as NBA player Rui Hachimura did.
  5. Limiting imported players to four on the active roster, making it difficult to invest in overseas amateurs.

No. 1 cannot be solved by keeping the current system as it is. Teams are tackling No. 2 piecemeal: Some have been aggressively investing, while others have done precious little. No. 3 is one area where progress is being made, with youth organizing bodies beginning to implement limits to curb coaches’ excesses, while No. 5 offers a solution to No. 4.

Considering Japan’s population — even with its declining birthrate, the idea that 12 pro baseball teams in a country with minimal competition from other pro sports is in itself a stretch. What is lacking is not money or population but sports business know-how and desire to be bigger. It doesn’t help that the Yomiuri Giants hate when teams gobble up their share of Japan’s unclaimed markets — as happened when Nippon Ham moved to Hokkaido.

The importance of being No. 1

Although top major league stars earn more than any players in NPB, many Japanese players will go to the States knowing it will mean a pay cut. Yet they go because it is a chance to compete against the best and because it is something different. It’s not always about money after a point.

If Japanese pro baseball were able to absorb a greater share of international amateur talent and develop it, and that is entirely possible, then that would put this country on a road that could lead to it having the best baseball in the world.

Of course, one of the benefits of having leagues on par with those in MLB is overseas revenue, something NPB has been blissfully ignorant of all these years. What’s the market in America when some of the best American players are in Japan? In Canada? In Mexico? You’ve got it.

Instead, the message has been: “Let’s keep it small. Let’s keep it Japanese. That’s enough.”

Starting small

My Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast partner, John E. Gibson, suggested that a development network be put in place first before expansion, and that’s a valid point. It’s also problematic.

Japan has pro teams in seven metropolitan areas, or eight if one wants to separate Yokohama and Kanagawa from the Tokyo megalopolis. The point is that until recently, pro baseball was about 12 first teams and farm teams. Independent minor leagues have been operating now for more than a decade but they are a new thing and are not really considered professional but exist in a kind of limbo world between the amateur and pro ranks.

The point is that unlike the United States, where every reasonably large city has a pro baseball team, either major or minor, Japan is either major or nothing. There is no tradition of local pro teams because pro baseball began in essence as a fully-formed league. Before then, there had been company teams and club teams and one independent pro team — the Shibaura Club.

Although the Yomiuri Giants tout themselves as Japan’s first pro team, they were, in fact, the second. If anything, the Hanshin Tigers have a better historical pedigree, as they were organized by former members of the original Shibaura Club.

The point is that the idea of most Japanese cities having their own pro ballclub may be kind of an alien idea. But having said that, when I lived in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the people there talked about having an NPB franchise — instead of being a Chunichi Dragons satellite town.

The question is how does one get the locals to give their hearts to a hometown team that is professional but not NPB?

No joke: 4 cities seek new NPB clubs

In contrast with my belated April Fools story “NPB to expand, rescue US amateurs, Hall of Fame catcher Atsuya Furuta appeared on Kyushu’s TNC TV to say that four cities have been in talks to host future expansion clubs that would — if all goes well — change Nippon Professional Baseball from a 12-team, two-league system to one with 16 teams.

The four cities he named, according to Nishi Nihon Sports, were Naha in Okinawa, Matsuya in Ehime, Shizuoka, and Niigata. Furuta said the plan was for two teams to join in two years.

SoftBank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh has long been a proponent of a 16-team NPB.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, John E. Gibson and I discussed our sides to this possibility, with John wanting a developmental stage added to increase pro baseball’s ability to handle more players.

The Hanshin Tigers blog has been dead set against expansion, fearing a dilution of talent, considering the inability of teams to develop more players as it is and Japan’s declining birth rate.

Ironically, this is the second time Furuta has been involved with the shape of NPB, having led the 2004 players’ strike that won an expansion franchise to preserve the 12-team, two-league system after the owners approved a merger between two Pacific League teams and were prepared to switch to a single league with 10 or 11 teams.