Category Archives: Commentary

Hawks, home runs and the balance of power

Japanese baseball is full of paradoxes.  A nation schooled in the righteousness of the sacrifice bunt lusts after the long ball, while the less popular Pacific League has clearly become the best of Japan’s two major leagues.

What prompted that thought was the news this week that the Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are turning their spacious dome with its imposing outfield ramparts into a home run park. Yafuoku Dome is being transformed with inner fences that will give the stadium similar dimensions to Tokyo Dome, whose power allies are the shallowest in Japan.

The Japanese story is here:

Essentially, the isssue is that the Hawks hit just 95 home runs over their 144 regular season games, the ninth fewest in Japan. Some must be longing for the days before the 2011 introduction of a standard ball, when teams could just choose livelier balls for their home games. But with everyone forced to use the same ball, the club is bringing in the fences, creating what the Japanese call “lucky zones,” where cheap home runs can drop in. It remains to be seen how the change will impact Softbank’s performance, but it’s kind of sad when a good PL club feels it has to take a page out of the Central League playbook.

It has long been a given that Japan’s two leagues are equal. Although that view remains the accepted norm in Japan, it is hard to support when one looks at the records since interleague play was introduced in 2005. In 1,592 games between the leagues, including the Japan Series and excluding ties, PL teams have a .526 winning percentage — that is much lower than expected (.545)  given the number of runs scored and allowed. results.pdf

Some of the talent gap might be explained if the CL clubs were losing their biggest stars to the majors and to the PL — instead of it being the other way around. Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka all came out of the PL. The bulk of quality players going to the States have been from the PL, while until very recently no stars in their prime left the CL as free agents to sign with PL clubs.

Given the just mentioned cast of former PL characters, the common explanation for the PL’s interleague dominance is better pitching, and that appears to be part of the reason but not the main one.  Although offensive levels vary quite a bit from month to month, NPB’s interleague action conveniently starts in the middle of May and wraps up before the end of June. A look at how well teams hit and defend depending on whether their visiting opponents are in the PL or CL in May and June is instructive.

The biggest difference between the two leagues appears to be CL clubs not having big-hitting designated hitters when they play in PL parks.  Since 2006, when detailed game data became available, PL designated hitters have posted a .747 OPS in interleague, while their CL rivals have managed only .681. While the CL’s pitchers make up some of that slack, their edge over their PL counterparts has been just .269 to .246. Indeed, the average visiting OPS in the main PL parks in May and June drops from .713 to .655 when the opponents are from the CL. to league differences.pdf

But that’s not the end. PL teams also outperform CL teams when visiting CL parks (.713 to .700) without the DH. As for the PL’s famous pitching, that shows up in their home parks, when the home offenses pick up against visiting CL pitchers, seeing an average increase in OPS from .704 to .718.

These data cannot explain the whole story, but they do indicate the designated hitter gives the PL a real advantage. The exception is the CL’s best interleague team, the Yomiuri Giants. They happen to have NPB’s deepest pockets and usually a few guys on the bench who could cut it as front-line DHs. Over the past nine seasons, the Giants’ interleague DHs have a .744 OPS, just a hair shy of the PL average.

The Hawks and the rest of the PL have had a pretty good thing going on, playing in huge, pitcher-friendly parks in a league that uses the DH. The PL game is a little faster with more emphasis on fielding and base running, but there is something about the home run that many cannot resist and that seems like a step backward.

Each main park’s individual OPS averages for league and interleague play from 2006 to 2014 can be found here: Interleague park data.pdf

Junichi Tazawa & culture of denial

Boston Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa is hardly a man without a country, but he is a man without a national team to play for. Although he would have been a great asset for Samurai Japan in the 2013 World Baseball classic, the right-hander was systematically excluded — ostensibly because he exercised his right to choose for whom he works.

How this happened remains a mystery, since no one is claiming credit or shouldering the responsibility.

In an August interview, legendary home run-hitter and 2006 Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said it was perfectly understandable that Japan should spite the Red Sox reliever.  As the ace pitcher of Japan Energy’s corporate club, Tazawa had two choices, freedom to choose a major league club or nine years of indentured servitude to whatever Nippon Professional Baseball team drafted him and offered him the maximum allowable rookie package of a $1.5 million signing bonus and a first-year salary of $150,000.

He broke no rules in choosing to begin his pro career in the United States. Yet, he is now being punished for breaking NPB’s wish that all Japanese amateur stars play first in NPB.

“The baseball world has made up its mind,” Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo told me in August, the day after I spoke to Oh. “I can’t pick him.”

Japan’s ‘baseball world’ is an ambiguous term for the players, teams and organising bodies and is the perfect front for denial. In December 2012, former commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “I think it was Oh and (then Japan manager Koji) Yamamoto who decided from the first that Tazawa would not play.” Oh said he thought the exclusion was Kato’s decision.

Certainly, Tazawa was never ever considered. Both 2013 head coach Masataka Nashida and No. 2 pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda said they’d have loved to have him along in 2013, but told me his name was never offered as a candidate by Yamamoto. When I asked the skipper about it, Yamamoto said, “Nobody here knows Tazawa, because he didn’t play in NPB. Lacking that common experience would make his presence awkward.”

Japan’s spiteful owners — who have an unofficial agreement to ban Tazawa from playing in NPB for up to three years should he desire to play here — are the likely suspects, but an  NPB administrator recently pulled me aside to say it was the amateur federation’s pressure that has made Tazawa untouchable.

The Japan Baseball Federation  has yet to respond to requests to discuss the issue. Oh admitted that any policy that would banish a national star was childish and hoped in the future Japanese ball would be mature enough to deal positively with such issues but added a kicker, “the national team belongs to (Japanese) pro baseball,  you don’t see amateurs. Tazawa skipped pro baseball so it makes sense that he should be excluded.”

This is the root of the problem.

Because the national team needs Japan’s pros, it can’t do without NPB, who then drape their stars in Japan’s national flag, the Hinomaru. But the goal of winning for Japan is subordinated to the goals of an ambiguous “baseball world” — one of which is to ostracise Tazawa for his temerity.

So the national federation outsources the team to NPB and no one is prepared to either admit that Tazawa is being banned or willing to accept responsibility for it.

None of this should surprise people familiar with Japan,  whose current prime minister is zealously air-brushing over the more detestable acts carried out in Japan’s name by civilians and soldiers during the second world war.  “There is no evidence,” can be interpreted as, “There is no evidence we want to evaluate.”

No one denies that atrocity and evil are the companions of warfare. When pressed, Abe relies on that maxim to say, Japan was no worse than anyone else, therefore Japan is innocent rather than equally guilty. And since Japan is innocent, we can just move forward and ignore it.

There is a similarity between how the ill-defined “baseball world” operates and the way Japan prosecuted its war effort 65 years or so ago. Japan’s military doctrine, particularly in the Imperial Army was top-heavy, with its main emphasis on front-line fighting spirit rather than command, control or logistics.  Instil the proper fighting spirit, and results will follow. Unfortunately, the fighting spirit among commanders of Imperial Army’s units in China and Manchuria propelled Japan into a war it didn’t plan.

Rather than seek to stabilise the situation, the Japanese government condoned the acts by doing nothing. In a sense, Japan didn’t start it’s war in China. It merely placed soldiers on the continent and allowed things to run their course. When it came to looting China of goods in order to prosecute an ever expanding war, Japan enlisted the aid of an organized crime figure, Yoshio Kodama, who supplied Japan and himself from China’s riches.

A similar story, which is now big news in Japan, surrounds the military’s use of the euphemistically called “comfort women,” women who were used by the military as sexual servants. To some degree, this was an extension of Japan’s custom of human trafficking. It was not uncommon in Japan for families to try an alleviate debt by selling daughters to brokers.

The current debate is not that it never occurred, but whether the government was responsible and to the degree that the women were held against their will and not compensated. Saying the government was not responsible is the same as saying Japan was not responsible for  waging war against China because it was not government policy to start the war in the first place. The large body of testimony and evidence can be disputed, but regardless how bad it might have been, everybody else did it and it wasn’t the government’s fault.

Of course, there is nothing unique in this unwillingness to face inconvenient evidence. The United States was eagerly prosecuting Japanese war criminals, such as Kodama, until the communists won China’s civil war. At that point, what the U.S. needed was not a left-leaning wobbly Japan suffering from democratic growing pains, but a strong, anti-communist thug as an ally. People like Kodama suddenly became cherished allies and all was forgiven.

The idea that anything unpleasant can be swept under the carpet, called something else, ignored and lied about is pretty common around the world, although Japan may be the ultimate master of the art.