Category Archives: Commentary

Kudo wins the Shoriki Award

SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo and Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh

It was hardly a surprise to learn today that SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo was named the winner of the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, which is intended to honor the greatest contributor to Japanese pro baseball.

In a season when no players really captured the nation’s attention, the selection committee, comprised of Hall of Famers Sadaharu Oh, Shigeru Sugishita, Futoshi Nakanishi and Koji Yamamoto, and journalist Ryusho Kadota,  settled on the usual suspect, the winning manager of the Japan Series.

Attending the Shoriki Award press conference for the first time, I was surprised with how interesting the discussion of the various candidates was. I figured, since the selections are fairly predictable, that the explanations for the decision would be bland and predictable, too. In one sense that was true, but in other ways it seemed a bit more open-minded than I expected.

Like its brother award, the Eiji Sawamura Award for Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher, the Shoriki Award is sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun and is decided by a small panel.

In the press conference, Oh and Nagata mentioned four names considered for this year’s award. In addition to Kudo, they were:

  • Hiroshima Carp manager Koichi Ogata
  • Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada
  • Seibu Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji

Ogata has won three straight Central League pennants and was credited by Oh and Yamamoto with turning the Carp franchise around, and by Sugishita for overseeing a rapid development of the team’s young talent.

Yamada this year had his third career “triple three” season, the Japanese expression for a season in which a hitter has 30 or more homers and steals, while batting .300-plus.

Nakanishi indicated that Tsuji deserved similar credit for the Lions winning the Pacific League for the first time in 10 years.

But in the end, it came down to the big question, what did you do in the postseason, what color was your championship flag.

Oh spoke at some length about Ogata’s accomplishment, but added that the Carp were poised to win again, so better luck to them next year. The same for Yamada, saying, it’s not only about individual achievements, and that he would have been a super candidate had the Swallows won either the league or the Japan Series.

Nagata rattled off the committee’s praise of Kudo:

  • Kudo yanked his faltering starters out of the rotation and made them useful in middle relief.
  • They thought highly of his creativity in the Japan Series, using two-time batting champ Seiichi Uchikawa to bunt in Games 5 and 6,  running aggressively despite possessing a power-laden lineup and having a proactive approach with his bullpen.
  • Being patient with reliever Yuito Mori, when he inherited the closer role following a season-ending injury to Dennis Sarfate.

Notes: Kudo has now won three times, once as a player, twice as a manger. Oh, who was the first recipient after surpassing Hank Aaron’s career home run total in 1977, and has won three other times, twice as Hawks manager and once for winning the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

Yomiuri Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara has won three times as a manager during the period when the award became almost exclusively for the Japan Series-winning managers from 2001 to 2017. The three exceptions to that rule were:

  • 2003, when beaten Japan Series skipper Senichi Hoshino was named co-winner.
  • 2006, when Oh won instead of Japan Series-winning skipper Trey Hillman. 
  • 2012, when Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe was named co-winner with Hara.

The run of automatic wins for Japan Series managers—which started in 2001, when Tuffy Rhodes hit 55 home runs to tie Oh’s 37-year-old single-season home run record and led the Kintetsu Buffaloes to the Pacific League pennant—ended last year when Sarfate was named the winner after setting NPB’s single-season save record and finished with a dramatic Japan Series effort.

This got really silly in 2016, when Shohei Ohtani grabbed the baseball world’s attention with his second “Babe Ruth” season of 10 wins and 10 home runs. That year Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama won 1)  because the Fighters won the Japan Series and 2) because he did such a great job developing Ohtani. I wasn’t at that press conference, but his starting-pitching management was noteworthy, and I’m sure he got credit for that. Had Ohtani been a force in the Japan Series, he probably would have won, but instead became a reason his skipper was the winner.

A tale of 2 catchers…

… or how many times can you beat a dead horse?

… with new notes about Tomoya Mori’s defense at the end.

I wrote recently about the Seibu Lions’ catching situation. The Lions this year became the first team to win a pennant and finish last in their league in ERA since the 2001 Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Having added the 2017 data for opponents’ offense against each catcher in NPB. This year, Ginjiro Sumitani was shoved aside as Seibu’s No. 1 catcher so that Tomoya Mori could hit more, and the Lions ERA soared from 3.53 (third best in the Pacific League) to 4.24.

I have heard that catchers’ ERAs — like batting average on balls in play against a pitcher — are not very predictive. I’m not going to replicate Sean Smith’s research here for NPB just yet, and I may be freaking out too much with small sample sizes BUT, when I saw the batting averages, on-base percentages and slugging averages against the three principle Lions catchers over two years, I was taken back.

First, the numbers for 2017:

2017 offensive results against the top three Seibu catchers.

Now the numbers for 2018, when Sumitani became No. 2 and Mori spent less time as a designated hitter and more time throwing out would-be base stealers:

2018 offensive results against each Lions catcher.

In 2018, Sumitani caught roughly half as much facing 1,433 batters instead of 3,233, but other than that and a poorer performance against base runners, his two seasons were carbon copies.

  • Batting average against: .247 (2017), .241 (2018)
  • On-base percentage: .308 (2017), .309 (2018)
  • Slugging average: .373 (2017), .374 (2018)

You can find the data for opposing hitters’ offense against NPB catchers in 2017 and 2018 here in roman characters and Japanese: 2017 romaji, 2018 romaji, 2017 日本語, 2018 日本語

I know this isn’t evidence that the Lions’ inflated their team ERA by making Tomoya Mori their No. 1 catcher, but it’s not a good look.

Something I was going to mention that on this week’s podcast but didn’t get around to it was whether Mori did more poorly in different counts than Sumitani or Masatoshi Okada. And it appears that he did in 2018. When the count was even, batters did quite a bit worse against Mori as they did against Okada and Sumitani. (.680 OPS vs .725 for Okada and Sumitani combined). But when behind or ahead in counts, Mori was worse.

I had speculated that Mori might be too predictable with runners on first since he improved a lot at throwing out base stealers this season, but there is  no hint of that in the data.

The bad news for the Lions is that Sumitani, who started all of Seibu’s postseason games behind the plate, has filed for free agency. In addition to lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who is being posted, and whose games Sumitani caught, the Lions could also lose slugging second baseman Hideto Asamura–who has also filed for free agency. If there is any good news there, it is that Okada, who began his career like Mori as a hitter who could catch, appears to be developing into a good game-caller.

Notes: After being criticized on Twitter for stating the fact that opposing batters hit better when Mori caught than when Sumitani or Okada did with the same pitchers, I mentioned my perception that Mori is not as good at blocking pitches. One of my followers disagreed, so I looked.

Mori was charged with a lot of passed balls BUT had fewer wild pitches charged to his pitchers, so the net effect was that he let relatively few runners advance on pitches that got past him. Is Mori weak at blocking balls? I don’t know, but the raw data I’ve seen doesn’t support that.