Category Archives: Commentary

You can’t make this dumb NPB stuff up

If Major League Baseball telling you in May, “The ball isn’t juiced, it only flies farther,” made you wonder whether the world was going mad, I say welcome to NPB, where that kind of pretzel logic would seem run of the mill.

On Sunday, the Yakult Swallows clinched the championship of the annual spring interleague competition. Except, for some reason, when the format was switched from 24 games to 18 in 2015, some bright person decided that the championship team will no longer be known as the “champion” (優勝チーム), but rather as “the team with the highest winning percentage” (最高勝率チーム).

In general, that is all well and good, except with only 18 games, it is very easy that two teams can finish with the same winning percentage, as happened in 2017, when the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp) both finished at 12-6. The first tiebreaker to determine which team wins the 5 million yen first prize (roughly $48,000), is head-to-head results. Barring one of NPB’s ubiquitous ties, that is fairly easy to figure out. So last year, one team, the Hawks were declared to have the highest winning percentage .667 based on their head-to-head record in interleague, and the Carp (.667), the second highest winning percentage.

I would report that it doesn’t get stupider than this.

But I would be lying.

The epitome of Japanese baseball language logic is the “Climax Series.”

This event was introduced in 2007. After 4 years of complaining about the stupidity of the Pacific League’s playoffs, which the CL argued detracted from the pennant race, the CL wanted in. They simply got tired of watching most of the PL teams play meaningful September games in front of sizable crowds, at the same time that half the CL teams were out of contention and not drawing.

It wouldn’t do to have the CL’s new brilliant plan be just called “The Playoffs” as the PL had labeled its two-tier postseason championship tournament. It also wouldn’t do to have the Climax Series decide the league championship — as it had in the PL from 2004 to 2006.

So the CL decided that their version of the playoffs would not determine the league championship (the pinnacle of the regular season) but would in fact select the league’s representative to the Japan Series (the pinnacle of NPB’s entire season). And into the valley between these two high points, the CL brain trust inserted a two-stage playoff that would serve as the quarterfinals and semifinals for the Japan Series tournament. And instead of calling them what they are, these bright boys decided to call it the “Climax Series.”

They could have spit out a dozen better names that more accurately reflect what is going on, but perhaps, calling a preliminary a climax is perhaps appropriate. One can only imagine the decision making that took place. About a week before the decision needed to be made, some big shot with the Yomiuri Giants probably said, “Climax! Perfect!” So in his raw enthusiasm he pushed forward, began ordering promotional material, putting out hard copy and before anyone knew it, the name was everywhere and NPB was stuck with “Climax” all over its face.

Mr. Buffalo Nashida steps down as Eagles skipper

Masataka Nashida, right, shares a laugh with Yomiuri Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi.

By Jim AllenIt wasn’t a huge surprise that Masataka Nashida announced he was stepping down as manager of the Rakuten Eagles. After winning championships with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and again with the Nippon Ham Fighters, that the Eagles’ continued poor results would eventually cause him to step aside.

When I began getting paid to write about Japanese baseball in 1998, I had to learn how to talk to players and managers and get material for stories despite my horrible Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was perhaps the first manager to welcome my silly questions with open arms, and in 2000 Nashida became another.

Nashida, a former catcher who played his whole career with the Osaka-based Kintetsu Buffaloes, had been successful as Kintetsu’s minor league manager before moving up to the big chair. Nashida was one of those managers who would meet reporters before every game. The questions were often about the comings and goings of fringe players, the prospects of the new rookie, follow-ups on incidents from the previous day’s game and so on.

Not being a beat writer, but one who would go to the park once a week to write a game story and collect material for my column in the Daily Yomiuri, most of those questions went over my head and my attention would occasionally wander. It was those times when I might be staring at the dugout ceiling, that Nashida would pounce.

“That’s the way they do it in the majors, isn’t it?” he’d ask me, always when I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.

More often than not, I’d say, “No, not always” to a question that could well have been whether or not big leaguers ate raw squirrel meat before games. I was basically a nobody, but like Oh, and Lions manager Haruki Ihara, Nashida tried his best to explain things to me. I sincerely wanted to understand how Japanese baseball was the way it was, and he offered his time and insight.

He once explained what it meant to be a coach in Japanese baseball.

“The coach’s job is of course to prepare players to win games,” he told me. “But they are also like lightning rods. When a player makes a mistake, the coach is expected to show how tough he is in dealing with mistakes and correcting them — not for the player’s sake or for the team’s sake, but so the coach himself won’t be criticized in the media.”

“If a pitcher gives up a base hit on an 0-2 count, the battery coach is asked why he didn’t order a pitch that was too far out of the zone to be hit.”

I asked, “You’re a former catcher. Do you like those meaningless 0-2 pitches?”

“Me? No. I hated them when I was a catcher, and I hate them now when I’m a manager.”

“Then why do your coaches still ask the catcher to call for them?”

“It’s their job, unfortunately. Part of their job is to not be criticized the next day in the papers. It is what it is.”

Nashida had the look of a man who sincerely loved his players, and under him, a lot of Kintetsu and Nippon Ham players blossomed. As one of the Pacific League’s two Osaka-area clubs at the time, the Buffaloes took on a lot of journeymen rejects from the Hanshin Tigers. Having escaped from the Koshien pressure cooker, Nashida trusted them, taught them and let them find themselves, and many contributed to the Buffaloes’ 2001 pennant.

more to come…

The bunt, bushido and Japanese baseball’s issues with history

Japan’s home run explosion is making the obligatory sacrifice more and more of a stretch for NPB managers.

I love seeing a perfect bunt as much as the next fan, but hate the obligatory, let’s-take-a-bullet-for-the-sake-of-Japanese-winning-baseball-first-inning sacrifice as much as any of you, I’m sure.

Although the sacrifice bunt is celebrated as the epitome of Japanese baseball dogma, it’s popular now like it never was back in the day. Small ball has always been close to the heart of Japanese ball, but the bunt REALLY became popular in the late 1970s when former players of legendary Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami began taking over one NPB club after another.

The irony is that the bunt reached its most popular peak in the 1980s, when offense and home runs were at an all-time high and spearheaded by then Seibu Lions manager Tatsuro Hirooka. That’s when “the bunt IS Japanese baseball” was REALLY born. It’s not some age-old doctrine but a revisionist history — an explanation after the fact about how a policy that didn’t exist at the time of a perceived “golden age” was the secret to that era’s quality.

In that respect, Hirooka’s popularization of the bunt is reminiscent of Japan’s belief that bushido was a code warriors of a purer era lived by, when in fact it was a code meant as a wakeup call to men of samurai lineage who were warriors in name and social status only. It was a code that didn’t describe reality but was rather a set of moral ideals for warriors in a society without wars to aspire to.

Japan’s funny about the past. If one glorifies one’s famous predecessors, that goes over really well, whether it’s true or not. In fact, it’s something of a cottage industry that is hard to assail. If I tell you the Giants who won nine-straight Japan Series did so because of the sacrifice bunt, and you say it’s not true, your words can be perceived as criticism of a legend of the game.

The most famous example recent example of this was former BayStars skipper Hiroshi Gondo. The man, who asked his players to call him “Gondo-san” (Mr. Gondo) rather than Manager Gondo, was an iconoclast. He attacked a lot of Japanese pro baseball traditions as being moronic and a waste of time and was tossed out on his ear — despite a very successful run as skipper.

Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.

Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.

Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.

Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.

In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).

Yet, now, when more objective information is actually available, people will still argue that the first-inning sacrifice is key to winning games when it so obviously isn’t. But those days are numbered. It appears now that the current offensive explosion appears will finally drive the bunt’s arch proponents underground.

Digression aside, there has been a very peculiar relationship between win percentages and first-inning sacrifices.

Prior to the introduction of the deadened standard ball in 2011, see here and here, the relationship between wins and first-inning sacrifices favored visiting teams that bunted with no outs and a runner on first. From 2011 to 2016, home teams have done better bunting in the first inning of scoreless games with no outs and a runner on first.

Although the data this year is limited, in games through June 15, with home runs going through the roof in NPB like balls off Shohei Ohtani’s bat, the first-inning sacrifice by the No. 2 hitter appears to be approaching its final resting place.

In 71 games this season with a runner on first base in the top of the first, No. 2 hitters have had plate appearances ending in a bunt attempt (I have no record of fouled bunts before two strikes).

Visitors, 1st inning, Runner on 1B
2016: 187 chances, 54 attempts (29%) with a .537 win pct
2017: 57 chances, 14 attempts (25%) with a .357 win pct.

Home teams, 1st inning, Runner on 1B, scoreless game
2016: 194 chances, 77 attempts (40%) with a .622 win pct
2017: 58 chances, 11 attempts (19%) with a .364 win pct.

A brief history of Japan’s interleague

Players on strike sign autographs for fans outside Yokohama Stadium, where they practiced but did not play. The strike led to expansion and interleague play.


For years prior to its introduction, NPB’s six Pacific League teams lobbied for some form of interleague play against the six teams of the then-more popular Central League. These pleas were scoffed at by the charismatic but blowhard generalissimo who ran the Yomiuri Shimbun and held huge sway over NPB policy, Tsuneo Watanabe.

“You only want to make money off games with the Giants. Who’d pay to see Lotte play Chunichi? It’s a joke,” he said in various ways every time the issue was brought up. At that time, sale of terrestrial TV rights for each CL team’s 13 home games against the Giants provided the bulk of each CL team’s annual operating expenses, and none of them were in a hurry to replace a few of those games for home contests against unfashionable PL teams — until the mid-1990s that meant all PL teams with the exception of the Seibu Lions, whose golden age petered out in 1995.

NPB’s summer of discontent

What forced interleague to become a reality was the chaos caused in 2004, when NPB authorized a merger between two PL teams, the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The merger would leave a five-team PL and a huge scheduling mess, so all that summer, while owners plotted how they were going to move into the future with 11 or even 10 teams forming a single league, Japan’s docile players union located its spine and took action. When players took exception with the owners’ plans to contract NPB, Watanabe in his typical fashion, said, “Who cares what they think? They are only athletes.”

The players, needless to say, took umbrage with that remark, and Hall of Fame Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, then the head of the Nippon Pro Baseball Players Association, began negotiating to stop the contraction. The then commissioner, Yasuchika Negoro, urged owners to ignore the players, convincing them the players had no right to protest. In essence the former bureaucrat said, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. I personally wrote those labor laws.”

Unfortunately, the labor courts disagreed, slammed NPB for dealing in bad faith, Japan’s only baseball strike occurred, and NPB eventually caved in. But that was after the players walked out on two consecutive weekends during the summer.

That summer owners and players held official negotiations on a weekly basis wherever the Swallows happened to be playing to accommodate Furuta’s schedule. At whatever park the Swallows were playing, the home fans gave the bespectacled catcher a standing ovation when he came to the plate.

The strike

At the time of the strike, I was working at the Yomiuri Shimbun’s English language paper, the Daily Yomiuri. On the first day of the strike, I went to Yokohama Stadium where fans were lined up to get refunds for their tickets. The players from both the hometown BayStars and the visiting Hiroshima Carp both practiced — without coaches, and afterward came out to the ticket plaza to meet fans.

BayStars players rep ace pitcher Daisuke Miura and the assistant players rep, outfielder Takanori Suzuki, got huge ovations from the fans. When I got back to the office in Tokyo to file my story about how the strike was being received, I saw the first morning edition of our Japanese language paper. The editorial blasted the players and said Japanese fans would never forgive them for ruining the game. That was the last gasp of the owners vitriol.

As it became clear that the fans stood with the players, the owners gave in. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave became the Orix Buffaloes, but NPB agreed to expedite a process for an expansion team that would keep the PL at six teams. Owners had argued this was impossible to do between the summer of 2004 and the autumn, when a new club would have to take part in NPB’s amateur draft.


Another provision of the settlement was the introduction of interleague play — in order to help the PL teams survive. At first it consisted of 12, three-game series, two each against each team in the opposing league.

Interleague play in NPB is a little oasis between the start of the season and the all-star break, and all the interleague games are completed before league play resumes through the end of the regular season.

“We would have been happy with 18,” former Nippon Ham executive Toshimasa Shimada said. “But they offered 36 and we took it.”

Two years later, the CL pushed for a change to 24 games, and 12, two-game series, calling the original 36-game format they came up with “intolerable.” The CL’s next brilliant idea, a 24-game setup proved even worse, because it meant teams were sometimes off on Friday, a prime day for baseball, and a more hectic travel schedule. So in 2013, the CL once more said, “This 24-game interleague format is ridiculous,” mindful not to mention that it was their idea in the first place.

The real problem of interleague has been the perception that the CL clubs just simply aren’t as competitive as the PL teams. This has been fairly obvious in the Japan Series as well, which the CL has won just 3 times since 2003. So far, only one CL team, the Giants has led the interleague standings, and entering play on Friday, heading into the final few games in PL parks, the interleague-leading Yakult Swallows were the only CL team without a losing record against the PL.

Despite the CL’s mediocre showing and predictions of gloom and doom, average interleague attendance has increased every year but one since it’s inception in 2005. That year was 2011, when Japan was reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. Through the games of June 14, attendance had increased this season by an average of 1,349, although that will decline a little next week when the rain-out makeups are figured into the equation.

This year, both leagues have drawn more for their interleague games than they have for games against league rivals prior to the start of interleague in June: 33,208 to 33,112 for the CL, 27,841 to 26,024 for the PL.

Dr. Wills, Japan needs you

Former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato revolutionized Japnese baseball and was kicked out for his troubles.

I owe my podcast partner John Gibson an apology. Earlier this year, he felt home runs were really flying this year, and I wasn’t able to see it in the data. SoftBank Hawks Dennis Sarfate told me the same thing, that miss-hit balls were really carrying this year.

I was wrong and they were right.

Since juiced balls became the vogue in NPB starting in the late 1990s, Japan has gone through two efforts to deaden the balls, the first in 2005 — after it became obvious to fans that Mizuno was producing high flyers, and the last in 2011 when NPB adopted a standard ball for the first time.

Looking at all NPB games through June 13 from the past 15 seasons, home runs are more frequent now than at any time since 2005.

The Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association has since asked NPB for data on the resiliency of its official balls. In a May 21 working session, NPB told union representatives that tests revealed nothing unusual, that the standard measure used to evaluate how lively balls are, the coefficient of restitution, was within allowable limits.

According to Joseph Aylward, who spends a lot of time and energy tracking home runs in NPB, the average distances on balls over the fence have been gradually increasing at least early in the season through June 13:

2016: 119.1 meters
2017: 120.3 m
2018: 120.9 m

All fine and dandy, but how much energy a ball retains after its collision with a bat is only part of the equation, as MLB recently reported. The increase in major league home runs was due not to a livelier ball but due to the balls having less drag. MLB was unable, however, to explain why this was the case since the materials used had not changed.

On June 6, Dr. Meredith Wills‘ groundbreaking research originally published in The Athletic on how major league balls made of essentially the same materials can be changed radically by just a 9 percent increase in the thickness of the thread used to stitch the cover together.

Japan has always had issues with MLB, and whatever rules MLB enacts are soon copied in Japan within a year or two. So perhaps when MLB balls began flying farther, NPB owners became envious.

One twitter follower has since commented that with the weather this season seeming to be somewhat colder than usual home runs should be down instead of up and was curious whether indoor-outdoor splits were available. Well, they are. For this purpose, the roofed stadium formerly known as Seibu Prince Dome is counted as outdoors since it is an outdoor park with a roof that shields it from the rain but not the heat or cold.

Bingo. Or since we’re in Japan perhaps “当たった”(Atatta) is preferable.

Changes to home runs and strikeouts in 2018 (through June 15) compared to the previous three years through June 15.

I haven’t seen the MLB data, but strikeouts and home runs are way up, and more so in Japan’s indoor stadiums than in parks more susceptible to the weather. If it is the ball, when the summer heats up, we may see some historic home run production.

Two years ago, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked if MLB’s ball had been altered to make it livelier without telling anyone, he reminded everyone about what a dangerous move that can be.

“There are certain mistakes in life that if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you are not inclined to make,” Manfred said according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “There was a scandal in Japan over the baseball being changed that cost the commissioner his job. I like my current gig, so I think you can rest assured that baseball is the same as it was last year.”

The incident he referred to was the 2013 ouster of commissioner Ryozo Kato, who radicalized NPB owners by instituting a uniform ball two years earlier and bringing Japanese baseball out of a kind of warring-states chaos in which teams could choose balls from up to three different accepted manufacturers per season.

This was a huge improvement for NPB, but the target coefficient of restitution specs for the ball was set at the bottom end of the allowable range, meaning many balls were less lively than they should have. Teams complained about the lack of offense, but Kato wanted to stay with those specs for three full seasons before evaluating the situation. Although he said he had great support from Japan’s most powerful team, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, his assistant secretary general Atsushi Ihara, a former Yomiuri employee, was one of those who engineered Kato’s downfall.

Commissioner Kato faces the music. Current secretary general Atsushi Ihara is on the left.

Although every commissioner has been essentially picked by Yomiuri, Kato had fallen out of favor with owners by instituting a fairer arbitration system for salary disputes that involved third-party arbitrators. In 2011, the panel infuriated owners by rejecting the Seibu Lions’ ridiculous argument in their salary dispute with pitcher Hideaki Wakui.

At the end of the 2012 season, Ihara coordinated with his boss and sporting goods maker Mizuno to switch to a more lively ball, and kept it a secret from Kato, even after the commissioner was grilled about a ball switch when balls began jumping out of the park again.

Kato was forced to reverse himself in public when he found out the truth and was replaced by a more owner-friendly commissioner. Kato, and his secretary-general, a man who hadn’t worked for Yomiuri, took the fall for the switch, and Ihara was promoted to the position of secretary-general and has since run the show run under Kato’s two successors.

Shohei Ohtani: Behind the curtain


Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred has seen Shohei before.

By Jim Allen

It’s hard to tell sometimes where one story stops and another starts, and so it’s been for Shohei Ohtani.

A tall hard-throwing rookie pitcher with batting-practice power, Ohtani was perhaps the biggest question mark of the year. Major leaguers wondered whether he could succeed at both pitching and hitting. If he could, would he be able to keep it up, playing in a much-more competitive environment than he was used to?

The things people said about Ohtani this spring as a 23-year-old with the Los Angeles Angels are the same things said five years ago about him as an 18-year-old with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred was on hand at Mazda Stadium, when Japan watched as the two-way rookie batted and pitched in a game for the first time as a pro.

“I witnessed his draft and all the hype. There haven’t been that many players who’ve been as popular. I remember I saw him the day before going to the gym and I thought, ‘That’s a big guy,’” Eldred said.

Casey McGehee, now with the Yomiuri Giants, was the first player in NPB to bat against Ohtani in a game, a preseason contest between the Fighters and Rakuten Eagles at Tokyo Dome.

“Everybody knew about him,” McGehee said. “They said he threw 100 miles per hour, so I figured, maybe he might throw 90.”

McGehee struck out on a slider after seeing a 151 kilometer-per -hour (93.8 mile-per-hour) fastball, but Ohtani was just getting warmed up, he hit 157 kph (97.6 mph) and sat at 156 kph (96.9 mph).

“His breaking balls weren’t there,” McGehee said. “He still had kind of a high school curve, but his fastball. That was legit. I said to Andruw (Jones), ‘Did you see that?’”

Brandon Laird has had a three-year, front-row seat for the Ohtani show.

Third baseman Brandon Laird joined the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2015, Ohtani’s third spring as a pro.

“I didn’t hear anything about him till I was on the team,” Laird said. “Our interpreter, Ippei (Mizuhara), was saying, ‘This guy (Ohtani) is the next big thing and he’s going to go to the States.’ At first I watched him pitch. That was impressive, and then a couple of days later, I saw him take BP in Okinawa and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the same guy?’ He hit the ball farther than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

McGehee returned to Japan last year for the first time since 2013, and was stunned by Ohtani’s batting progress despite only being a part-time designated hitter.

“Not seeing him for a few years and coming back last year, seeing the progress he made to clean up his swing, I thought was pretty remarkable,” McGehee said. “So you can tell he has a high baseball intelligence, able to apply changes quickly.”

“I saw a pretty good progression as far as a hitter without having all that many at-bats between injuries and the way they managed him.”

After watching Ohtani up close for five years, Japan’s foreign players watched as big leaguers said over the winter they couldn’t conceive of a player actually doing both. When Ohtani failed to impress this March, panic buttons were being pushed, and Hiroshima pitcher Jay Jackson was asked by friends what was wrong with Ohtani.

“I said, ‘It’s spring training,’” Jackson said. “As a big leaguer, nobody cares about spring training. You’re just trying to get your reps in to prepare for the season. I said, ‘Ohtani will be fine. He’ll make adjustments.’”

“He wasn’t getting his leg down on really good fastballs. That’s all he had to was put the foot down and his natural ability and his raw power took over. Pitching-wise, all he’s got to do to be successful is start locating and getting his offspeed stuff around the zone and ‘Boom,’ everything else is history. He’s just too good and his talent is too good to not be successful.”

The speed of Ohtani’s adjustments against both major league hitters and pitchers has been closely watched by former major leaguers playing in Japan.

“You’ve got to root for him. I’ve become an Angels fan,” Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson said. “He’s extremely talented. He loves the game, and he’s a good guy. How can anyone not like him?”

Ohtani’s choice of the unheralded Angels may have surprised America, but drew applause here.

“There are probably a bunch of places that are just as good, but I know a number of the guys on the Angels pretty well, and he couldn’t have walked into a better group of baseball guys,” McGehee said. “When you’re talking to them, they genuinely like him and genuinely want him to do well at both.

“It seems like he wants to learn and is eager to learn, and knowing those guys, I know they’re eager to help and eager to teach.”

Jackson, who also knows Angels players, said much the same.

“I played with Justin Upton. I played with Blake Parker. Those guys say he (Ohtani) is quiet but is a good dude. He’s got a good vibe. That’s all you can ask for out of your teammates, having a good vibe, a good mentality and being positive.”

“He picked the place that was best suited to him, that would make him happy. I tell everyone, ‘Do whatever you feel is going to make you happiest.’”

Once the season started, Ohtani exploded onto the scene, setting up a high profile May 27 matchup against New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. As a rookie, Ohtani batted against that year’s Pacific League MVP 11 times, was hitless with six strikeouts. Despite five years additional experience against pro pitchers, Ohtani managed just a walk at Yankee Stadium. After the game, Tanaka said Ohtani was just another important out, but McGehee wasn’t buying it.

“(In 2013, Tanaka) turned it up a notch when a runner got on base, but he was always that way against Ohtani. It was like Tanaka was saying, ‘I’m going to show you that you’re not in the same league with me,’ and that game in New York was the same way. There was no way Tanaka was going to let Ohtani get a hit off him.”

It’s treatment Ohtani will have to get used to in the majors, although perhaps without the intensity Tanaka brings.

Shohei Ohtani shares a moment with Dennis Sarfate.

“He’s going to start seeing better stuff,” SoftBank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate said. “They’re going to start pitching to him like they pitched to Albert Pujols in his prime. He’s going to be that guy where they’re going to give a little extra.”

Over the winter, Sarfate said pitchers need to start Ohtani with hard pitches inside and get him to chase low pitches away. At the start of the season, however, Ohtani was ready for that tactic. He would back off the plate and open up in order to hammer inside fastballs. The watershed moment was homering off a 97-mph Luis Severino inside fastball. Since then, pitchers have stopped pitching Ohtani inside so much.

“The coaches are trying to help him and he’s listening,” Sarfate said. “He’s definitely a threat to both sides of the plate. I still think you have to go in on him. If he’s looking in, he’s going to hit it. That home run off Severino was Ohtani knowing he throws hard and he’s going to pound him in. I’ve seen a lot of guys try to go in and they think it’s in, but it’s coming back over the plate.”

Sarfate said the second half is going to bring an issue Ohtani is not accustomed too, fast bats in the hot summer months.

“It’s going to be a little different between pitching against Chiba Lotte in July and August and pitching against the Astros in July and August,” Sarfate said. “Japanese hitters tend to get tired. Everyone gets exhausted. The Japanese pitchers have thrown a million pitches, swung a thousand times a day. Guys get tired. They work so hard every day.”

“I want to see his adjustments come July and August, because big league guys don’t do as much as the guys in Japan do. Guys get tired, but it’s not the same tired. You’re not going to see these long slow swings. You’re still seeing all-stars. So that’s an adjustment.”

The data over the past four seasons from America and Japan indicates Japanese baseball slows down more after June than in the majors. Two speed indicators — the percentage of triples per plate appearance and the stolen base success rates — drop much more in Nippon Professional Baseball. And though Ohtani was a solid second-half hitter in NPB, his 2.80 ERA from the start of July was over half a run higher than it was through June (2.25). Since 2013, ERAs across NPB rose by 1 percent from July 1. Ohtani’s increased by 25 percent.

Everyone, even those who believe Ohtani should focus on either pitching or hitting, is pulling for him to succeed in his dual role. For years, players and scouts doubted whether any club would actually let Ohtani bat full time. Now Japan’s foreign players are thrilled the Angels are letting him continue down his unusual path.

“I thought the same thing. He’s got a great arm. He’s going to pitch. They’re not going to let him hit,” Eldred said. “Hats off to the Angels for allowing him the opportunity to do it. I’m sure they’re going to let him keep doing it as long as he continues to do his job. He’s got the talent to do it.”
Laird, who believes Ohtani is a future major league ace pitcher, still wants to see what he could do as a full-time hitter.

“In Japan he would easily hit 40 homers,” Laird said. “A full season in the big leagues he would easily hit 30-35 home runs. With his power and his talent, I feel he could do it.”

Sarfate, goes further. He believes the batter’s box is Ohtani’s natural habitat.

“He’s exceeded my expectations on pitching so far. I didn’t think he’d do this well, because I’m a strong believer that he’s a hitter for his career,” Sarfate said. “He’s just got so many tools. I am starting to see some stuff with the pitching, but I just don’t see the same demeanor, like when you watch Darvish or Tanaka, he doesn’t have the same mound presence, but he has a hitter’s presence.”

Although Sarfate believes it is impossible to continue doing both, he too is entranced by Ohtani’s quest, following every game closely as he rehabs from hip surgery in Arizona.

“It’s cool to watch,” McGehee said. “I find myself checking on him more than I thought I would. It’s one of the first things I do in the morning is check the box score. A couple of my buddies play on that team, but that’s one of the first scores I go to every day.”

“It’s obviously cool, and it’s obviously difficult what he’s doing. But at the same time, it (pitching and hitting) is about the purest form of baseball you can get.”

Eldred said, “That’s every player’s dream. Everybody wants to see it.”
It’s a story – whether at its beginning, its end, or somewhere in between – that never gets old.

Ditching the DH for Shohei Ohtani

By Jim Allen

  wrote on Twitter about using Shohei Ohtani to bat when he pitches in American League games in response to my comment that Ohtani was quite successful in those games with Nippon Ham in 2016.

I’ve written in the past that as a pitcher, Ohtani’s OPS is virtually identical to his OPS when he was in the lineup but did not pitch, and that his pitching was quite a bit better in those games.

The table below breaks down his 82 regular season starts into games in which he batted — either in interleague or when Nippon Ham opted to ditch the DH in five games from May 29 to Sept. 21 and again in his final start in NPB on Oct. 4, when he batted cleanup and pitched.

But from a team perspective, how did the Fighters do with Ohtani as a pitcher only, as a hitter only, in a dual role and without him playing at all.

The quick answer is:

The big surprise is that in his five seasons since turning pro in 2013, the Nippon Ham Fighters overall were better without Shohei Ohtani. That is largely because he was not very good as an 18-year-old rookie.

Both his pitching and batting took a big stride forward when he was 19 in 2014, and his batting took another huge step forward in 2016. In 2017, he was hurt a lot (ankle, thigh, elbow) and was often not that good.

But wait a second. Ohtani appeared as a fairly useless pinch hitter in 57 games, and in those the Fighters went 19-36-2, and it’s hard to blame him for that. If we put those pinch hit games in with the others we get the following table.

Shohei Ohtani’s inside story

I guess we all remember the scouting report, heck I wrote one that was published in Japanese by Slugger Magazine. Prior to his MLB debut, a majority of scouts believed that Shohei Ohtani would be vulnerable to inside pitches because of his long swing.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that for the first few weeks, the majority of pitches (51.2 percent) to Ohtani were either inside over the plate or inside off the plate with the data thanks to Brooks Baseball.

Announcers and analysts noted his early tendency to back away from the plate — even on outside pitches — at the start of the season. But it seems after he hit too many balls hard on pitches in on his hands, pitchers have changed their tactics and are now trying more and more to get him out away.

All pitches to Shohei Ohtani from March 30 to April 13, catcher’s view

During that time, Ohtani had the following batting averages per pitch in each zone:

Batting average on pitches from March 30 to April 14, catcher’s view

Since then, pitchers have been vastly more careful about throwing pitches inside to Ohtani, who likes to extend his arms and drive balls to center.

Catcher’s view of total pitches to Shohei Ohtani since April 14, 2018

Here are the results since then.

Batting average on pitches since April 14, catcher’s view

Japanese pitcher admits poor spring training “just hoax”

April 1, Oakland, California — In what has to be the most elaborate April Fools Day prank in major league history, a Japanese baseball player admitted Sunday, April 1, he spent all of his first major league spring training tanking in order to dampen expectations.

“I was getting tired of people calling me ‘Babe Ruth,’” the pitcher who wishes to remain anonymous, said in English on Sunday after he won his first game in the majors despite many in the American media saying he didn’t belong.

“Of course, I pitched and hit well in Japan, and I did say I wanted to be the greatest player in the world, but that was before I got to America and realized all the trouble it would cause. So I figured if I dumbed it down, people would just shut up about me.”

“But then, when I said batting practice pitchers in Japan throw from the mound and the American reporters not only believed it but reported it as the truth without checking, I realized I had the start of a good April Fools Day prank. Of course they don’t throw from the mound. What kind of person would believe that?”

“I figured if I played my cards right, I could make them forget Syd Finch.”

He admitted trying to look like a high school hitter in games and doing goofy stuff like going to the bullpen between innings of a spring game and throwing the ball against the bullpen wall.

“I thought about holding the bat by the barrel when I went to the plate, but my interpreter talked me out of it. We couldn’t believe how much the U.S. media bought into it. I even had people say that nobody throws curveballs in Japan. Of course they throw curveballs. Almost every pitcher in Japan throws a curve. Just wait until I see one in a game that matters.”

Asked why he prolonged his prank until he made his Major League debut, the player said, he’d reached a secret agreement with his new club to have him make his pitching debut on April 1, when he decided to show his real ability for the first time.

“I’ve always wanted to play an April Fools joke,” he said. “The American media seemed so gullible that I couldn’t pass it up.”

He said the only people who were in on the joke were the coaching staff and the minor leaguers he pitched and batted against every afternoon in games not open to fans or media. I did have to get my work in and show my team I actually belonged in the majors, after all.

The player admitted not needing an interpreter because he’d been practicing English since he was a child, but that his buddy with his Japanese team had grown up in America and was tired of the snow in northern Japan.

“He’s really from LA, and even the winters in Japan are just too much for him. People talk about how much I live for baseball, but in fact, I like English even more. My dad did too, but said that when he was a kid, his classmates who liked English were picked on and bullied, so I never told anyone about my secret passion.”

How would you pitch to Shohei Ohtani?

I was asked this morning how I would pitch to Shohei Ohtani, and since I can’t pitch, the answer would be to roll the ball up there until he takes first base.

Kidding aside, I hadn’t really thought much about it until now. It’s hardly an educated analysis, but he does hammer fat fastballs that aren’t at his knees, and chases sliders, splitters and changes that drop out of the zone when he’s looking to hit the ball hard. He’ll swing and miss a lot on those and on good high fastballs.

With that in mind…

He tries to drive the ball so much that he’ll chase splitters, sliders away, and change ups and look bad doing it.
I’d start him with a fastball or cutter (RHP) high and inside, then try to go low and away with something that drops. Two-seamers should kill him the 1st 6 months. NPB’s low mounds and rough balls make it hard to throw a good two-seamer here, so it’s a rarity.

You can mix in a slider on the hands to keep him off those pitches away. But don’t hang it. Same with fastballs that aren’t low in the zone. He’ll crush anything without bite or movement and drive it to center if its middle away.

He’s used to seeing the best curves in the world, so unless it’s coming off a fastball with two strikes it needs to be really good. To get ahead in the count, you have to throw strikes or be on the edge of the zone to start with because he has good discipline. However, because the NPB zone is truer horizontally — not shifted away from the hitter — than MLB’s used to be, so until he makes that adjustment, pitches outside that are balls in NPB but MLB strikes will be another challenge.