Category Archives: History

articles about Japanese baseball history

Fix the hall

With the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame failing to elect a former pro player for the first time since it went two straight years in 1986 and 1987, people are asking what the heck is wrong.

It’s not a shortage of good candidates. In three years, the Players’ division has managed to elect only longtime Chunichi Dragons second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, while arguably the best candidate, Tuffy Rhodes, treaded water in the middle of the ballot.

This year’s ballot was both larger, increasing from 21 candidates to 30, and better stocked with players who had huge careers.

This year’s results

Reliever Shingo Takatsu and outfielder Alex Ramirez, each got the same number of votes as they did last year, but it’s not true that everyone who voted for them a year ago did so again, because I didn’t. But Masahiro Kawai, a perplexing high flyer dropped from 218 to 210, while Rhodes crashed from 102 to 61.

This year’s poor outcome, however, might encourage some changes to the way things are done.

What can be done

I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a concrete solution, like changing the way the ballots are structured or voted, but while the whole process is administered efficiently and above board, it is a closed circuit.

Baseball writers who cover players during their careers then vote on those players. The results are then announced to the media and only then relayed to the public through that media filter. The event is a press conference in the long narrow hall where the plaques are hung, and as wonderful as the surroundings are, it’s not a good venue for a press conference.

Unlike the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, Japan’s wonderful museum at Tokyo Dome is closed on the day results are announced. TV cameras are there to record the introductory speeches and the speeches of those being enshrined — or their survivors.

The only public part of the enshrinement process is when new members are presented with their plaques at Game 1 of the annual all-star series. There are fans in the crowd, but there’s no time for anything more than a wave to them.

The first thing to do is take the private process and make the fans a part of it.

Hold the induction ceremony outdoors and invite the public. Give honorees more than a day or two to prepare their remarks. Give their fans time to show up. Make it an event that for one day stops baseball time in its tracks.

Give voters a chance to go public

Look I may be wrong when I say Masahiro Kawai– whom I loved as the Yomiuri Giants infield anchor at short for years–is not really deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame. I’m wrong a lot. But if you think he is, why not tell everyone your reasoning?

Sure, full disclosure might bring abuse from the public, but it would ensure more careful deliberation by voters. How about we go halfway, and have the ballot committees give voters the chance to make their votes public. Then we can have a debate and I can learn stuff and the public can be more involved.

Of course, every writer has that option in this day and age, but I may be the only one who uses it other than a few Hall of Famers who take to the press each year to issue proclamations on who is and isn’t up to THEIR standards.

My podcast partner John E. Gibson complains about the lack of standards, but neither of thinks that’s really the problem, but I like the idea of looking at who is in and what the current candidates have in common with most of them.

If we don’t find a positive way to solve it, I’m sure the Hall of Fame can come up with a “solution” that causes more problems.

A little background

The first nine members were selected by the special committee, and that group included only one former professional player, the Yomiuri Giants’ first Japanese ace, Eiji Sawamura. The following year, his Russian teammate, Victor Starffin, became the first player to be selected by the competitors’ ballot in 1960.

The competitors’ ballot, considered anyone and everyone who played amateur or professional ball, managed, coached or umpired until it was disbanded after 2007 in favor of two competitors’ divisions, the players’ division for recent retirees and the experts’ division for those who hadn’t played in 21 years.

At least until 1965, former players still in uniform could be elected, since the manager of the Nishitetsu Lions, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi was elected in 1964. The next year, the Hall inducted the managers of the Yomiuri Giants, Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Nankai Hawks Kazuto Tsuruoka.

Perhaps someone didn’t like the idea of Hall of Famers in uniform, because from 1966 to 1996 nobody was allowed on the ballot who had been active as a player, manager or coach in the past five seasons.

Thus, Sadaharu Oh, who last played in 1980 and then coached and managed until 1988, couldn’t be considered until 1994. It created a huge logjam as guys like Oh, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao, Katsuya Nomura and Shigeo Nagashima had to leave the game for five years before they could go in the Hall of Fame.

The Players’ division can now consider guys in uniform if they haven’t played for five years, while the experts’ division can handle anyone out of uniform for six months, and can consider other contributions to the game. The special committee is now how non-players and amateurs get in. It used to be the last resort for players, and players selected by the special committee are not considered competitors, even if they did little else but play.

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The development gap

The shape of talent

One cause that was suggested for the gap was that CL teams look for players with more polished skills while PL clubs are more likely to go with players who have higher physical potential.

On Twitter, Brian Cartwright suggested it was a correctable issue if CL teams did a better job of evaluating and developing their talent. If that is the case, a study of value from the draft would reveal a talent gap leaning toward the PL, and it does.

In my story on the Hawks’ odds of winning this year’s Japan Series, I made a conservative estimate that the six PL teams would combine for a .530 winning percentage if thrown into a balanced schedule among all 12 teams.

“We don’t know how much better the Pacific League is than the Central League, but over the history of interleague play, the PL teams have a .532 winning percentage. Over the previous five seasons, the PL winning percentage was .555, and the PL’s Pythagorean winning percentage is .559.”

Jim’s Series odds

A note about using win shares

I’m going to measure individual player output using Bill James’ Win Shares. This system gives each team 3 win shares for a win. These are then divided between the offense, fielding and pitching. Those are assigned to individual teammates based on individual performance.

This method has pros and cons, but since a league’s win share total can’t exceed 3 times its total wins, one league outperforming another doesn’t show up in win shares except in interleague. The two leagues each played 120 games in 2020 with no interleague, and had the same number of wins (counting ties as two halves of a win), so even though the PL is evidently stronger, win shares won’t reveal it. What it does reveal is the relative shape of the talent in the two leagues.

And from a glance at the careers of players signed since NPB adopted its draft, it’s clear that the PL teams are now Japan’s draft kings.

Drafting and development

The draft began in 1965, and including undrafted amateur free agents, the career value of domestic players signed by CL teams was more than that of players signed by PL teams over the first 28 years. Over the last 28 years, that trend has reversed.

So while the two leagues have essentially equal access to domestic talent, domestic talent has become become a larger share of the PL’s overall talent base.

Draft yearsCL valuePL valuePL / CL
1965 – 197814,04013,1520.94
1979 – 199215,62914,2570.91
1993 – 200614,06715,5391.10
2007 – 20184,2224,9971.18
Value expressed in career value as calculated using Bill James’ Win Shares, and includes MLB WS

I did not know this trend existed at all. Did you? It should have been obvious, I suppose. From 1966 to 1979, the CL went 12-4 in the Japan Series. From 1980 to 2007, the two leagues split the Series 14-14. Since then the PL has lead 11-2.

Do CL clubs appease Giants in draft?

Another issue people in the game for a long time mentioned is the custom of CL teams sometimes shying away from competing with the Giants for amateur talent.

This latter assumption, if true, doesn’t appear to be a big deal now, although that may have more to do with teams not being able to sign top corporate and college players before the draft — something that had been in play from 1993 to 2006.

Although the Giants have the most value in Japan from their No. 1 picks since 2000, and the most total value from their picks 1-5 than any other CL team, this latter edge is not huge. The Tigers, BayStars and Swallows have all done nearly as well.

But looking at the overall amount of domestic talent taken from the draft, the PL has compiled a huge advantage. Using Bill James’ Win Shares, players signed out of the draft from 2000 to 2018 by PL teams have produced 9,046 win shares, or 3,015 wins — some of those are with other teams including some in MLB. Players signed by CL teams out of the draft during the same period, have produced 8,315 WS, or 2,770 wins.

Skeletons in the closet

NPB entered the 2007 season under a cloud when the guy assigned by the Seibu Lions’ parent company to take over the team decided to be of service to baseball by having a look into the team’s player acquisition closet and sweeping out the skeletons.

The boss assigned a third-party investigation to the task and found a long history of abuses of the system by Seibu and other clubs. Instead of being celebrated for creating an atmosphere of transparency, Seibu was punished for bringing the game’s disrepute into the light.

However, that also ended the systems where pro teams could agree to sign up to two corporate or college stars before the draft at the cost of reducing their access to high school talent, making the draft more of a crapshoot.

The Seibu Lions’ crusade for transparency cost them in 2007, when they were barred from the first two rounds of the high school draft. But embarrassing NPB and forcing it to eliminate the old draft system has done nothing to slow the PL’s dramatic improvement in drafting and developing domestic talent.

Free agency

Free agency started in Japan after the 1993 season, but until 2005, it was essentially one-way traffic. Atsunori Inaba changed that.

He left the Yakult Swallows ostensibly for MLB, but signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006 after failing to get a guaranteed contract overseas. Prior to Inaba, the total value from CL players moving to the PL was 12 win shares. Going the other way, players produced 190 for CL teams after leaving the PL via free agency.

Inaba had an MVP-caliber season for the Fighters in 2006, and after that year, the free agent scoreboard stood at 196-35 in favor of the CL. Things really began changing in 2011, when Seiichi Uchikawa, left the BayStars for the SoftBank Hawks.

Since 2006 the score is 477-436, but that’s even counting two players in the PL column who high-tailed it back to the PL after spending a brief time with the Giants, Hiroki Kokubo and Saburo Omura.

Import export business

Leaving on a jet plane

After the 1994 season, Hideo Nomo dropped the PL’s Kintetsu Buffaloes like a bad habit. His move began to put another dent in the PL’s growing talent surplus.

Players who left PL teams to play in the majors have produced 1,112 major league win shares from 1995 to 2019. The CL graduates produced 791 win shares in the big leagues during that time. The top of the list is Ichiro Suzuki at 324, followed by Hideki Matsui (150) and Nomo (123).

Three former CL players are next in line — Hiroki Kuroda (81), Norichika Aoki (78) and Koji Uehara (76) but it hasn’t been updated for 2020, when Yu Darvish pulled even with Kuroda. Masahiro Tanaka (69) will pass those three former CL guys if he has three more productive seasons.

Foreign trade

Because of the nature of win shares, the value of a league’s important talent is essentially the flip side of domestic talent within that league. Thus, if the win shares attributed to domestic players increases in a league, the number of win shares that go to imports must decrease. That give us table below.

The same would be true if a bunch of extremely talented left-handed hitters suddenly peaked at the same time in a league. The right-handed hitters wouldn’t get worse, but as a group, they would create a smaller share of the league’s wins.

I suspect that the imported talent base in the PL is actually quite stable, and that the gap is not nearly as large now as it looks.

YearsCL valuePL value
1966 – 19791,4981,761
1980 – 19933,9594,243
1994 – 20073,0492,445
2008 – 20192,8542,219
WS values from imported players

Move it on over

A parallel to the movement of free agent talent is the value of imported players in the league other than the one they first signed in. Since 2008, the Pacific League, long a supplier of imported talent to the Central League, has had a cumulative trade surplus since 2008.

Years CL WS value from PLPL WS value from CL
1966 – 197910989
1980 – 199314940
1994 – 2007219131
2008 – 2019201252
WS values from imported players

Conclusion

The big difference between the two leagues right now is, as my Twitter follower suggested, simply a matter of talent evaluation and development, that has seen PL teams do a better job of drafting and developing domestic amateurs than the CL.

This appears to have been going on for some time, but for a long time was counterbalanced by what used to be a large drain of free agent talent from the PL to the CL, and by the PL’s losing more talent to the major leagues.

The PL for as long as I remember has been the more innovative league, and is has long been aware of the need to replace the talent lost to the CL and MLB. As mentioned in the previous article, the PL has taken more strides toward making baseball pay in Japan. And as the PL teams get better at both managing their businesses and organizing their talent, then it is going to be a tough slog for the CL to catch up.

The gap

On Nov. 25, 2020, the Yomiuri Giants failed to win a Japan Series for the eighth straight season, surpassing the franchise’s longest drought without a Japan championship. The Pacific League’s eight straight wins are now one short of the record, set by the Giants from 1965 to 1973.

Prior to last week’s win, the CL had won three series between 2003 and 2019. Now it has gone from three over 17 years to three over 18, barely a significant difference, but it took this PL victory to set alarm bells ringing in Japan’s media for the first time.

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious from 15 years of interleague play. So why now? The answer probably is two straight sweeps by the Hawks of the Giants. No team had ever swept in consecutive years, and the Giants are branded as Japanese pro baseball’s flagship franchise.

From 2005 to 2019, the PL’s record in interleague play was 1,098-966 with 60, a .532 winning percentage. But four more series wins and the stories suddenly flow about a dire state of affairs. It’s like no one saw what was in front of them, or did see but didn’t want to admit it.

What’s the difference

Alex Ramirez, who managed the CL’s DeNA BayStars from 2016 to 2020, said on his new Youtube channel that two factors create a synergy that lifts the PL above the CL, better velocity on the fastball and better base stealing ability.

Ramirez said as much when asked a couple of years ago, so this is not a new argument. According to Delta Graphs, the average CL four-seamer is slightly faster than in the PL, but Ramirez’s argument that more starting pitchers have better velocity in the PL is accurate.

Velocity

In 2020, 28 CL pitchers threw 70-plus innings. One, Shintaro Fujinami, had an average fastball velocity of 150 kph or more. Ten, or 36 percent, averaged 145 kph or more. The median average was 143.45 kph.

Three of the 25 PL pitchers with 70-plus innings threw 150-plus, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Drew VerHagen and Kodai Senga. Ten of those, 40 percent, averaged 145-plus, while the median was 144.4 kph.

This year was a good one for fastballs in Japan. I don’t recall seeing so many batters swing under heaters by so much, so it’s not just speed but better backspin. Ramirez argues that because CL hitters don’t face as many good fastballs in their own league, they have more trouble adjusting to the PL’s pitchers.

Former Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama is the first person I heard say, “The PL is just better.” My analysis had for years been based on the belief that the quality of the two leagues was essentially balanced and most of us were sort of trying to figure out how one league could consistently outperform another that was essentially its equal.

Tateyama said the designated hitter, which eliminates the need for pitchers to be pulled for pinch-hitters, combined with the PL’s huge pitcher-friendly parks — before the invasion of shortened distances in Sendai, Fukuoka, and Chiba — made it easier to develop pitchers in the other league.

So the first question that sprung to mind was: Is it the pitchers or is it the hitters, and how could one tell? What if one took each team’s pitching results and compared how it did in its home parks against CL and PL hitters? If the CL and PL hitters are the same, the visiting league shouldn’t matter.

The data

Interleague play is difficult to compare to league play in any way other than wins and losses because the contexts and numbers of games in each venue vary from year to year, and interleague play takes place from the middle of May to the middle of June and not in the peak offensive season from the mid July to mid September.

But if you average each team’s home performance against the other 11 NPB teams in their main stadiums up until say June 30, you can then get an average for how all 12 teams’ offense and defense perform in the same parks — their main stadiums — against the two leagues, and are thus comparing apples with apples.

If the PL advantage is all in the pitching, we would expect each league’s pitchers to be equally successful in their home parks against visiting hitters, regardless of their league, while the CL hitters at home do better against their own league’s pitchers than those from the PL.

So how did it work out? I used to repeat this study every year or so, but to be honest, I don’t remember when I did it last, but the numbers are basically from 2005 to 2016 or so. Here’s how four different groups compared in OPS.

  • PL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .707, vs CL pitchers: .714
  • CL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .728, vs CL pitchers: .713
  • PL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .697, vs CL hitters: .656
  • CL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .711, vs CL hitters: .681

The lone category where the CL outperformed the PL was in producing against visiting PL pitchers in the CL parks. Until about four years ago, all the PL parks were bigger than all the CL parks except for Nagoya Dome and Koshien Stadium. It’s only speculation but I wouldn’t be surprised if the PL pitchers were less comfortable pitching at the three super home run-friendly CL parks: Jingu Stadium, Yokohama Stadium and Tokyo Dome. I need to replicate and update the study, and I’ll get around to it.

Either way, it isn’t JUST the pitchers, but rather the overall quality of competition in the PL.

Base stealing and other issues

Because the PL is a better base-stealing league, Ramirez argues that in playing PL teams, CL pitchers are more likely to throw fastballs in order to give their catchers a better chance to control the running game, which plays into the hands of hitters who are a little better at hitting fastballs.

Although I think that is a very small thing, it probably does contribute to the PL’s advantage, but there are other differences, particularly in how the pitchers attack hitters.

The differences are slight, but for the past three seasons, PL teams have gradually thrown more and more pitches in the zone relative to CL teams. In 2019, four of the six teams with the highest percentage of pitches in the zone were in the PL, This year it was six of six. The Dragons and Tigers each threw a CL-high 44.5 percent in the zone, The Buffaloes were low in the PL with 44.8. All six CL pitching staffs produced higher swing rates out of the zone than the six PL clubs.

What’s it mean? Not a lot by itself. But the PL is trending toward a league that challenges hitters a little more in the zone, and the CL is trending more toward being the “try to get guys to chase” league. The PL is also trending more toward being a flyball pitcher league.

Talent base

The PL’s edge has continued despite that league losing more of its better players to MLB in recent years. That should not seem sustainable, but somehow it has been. However, the Nippon Ham Fighters are certainly feeling those losses in the standings and that talent drain is going to be felt more acutely next year without ace Kohei Arihara and leadoff man Haruki Nishikawa.

One reason why the PL has been able to maintain its edge may be finances.

Three CL clubs, The Giants, Swallows, and Dragons, are renters. Their home parks are expensive deadweights rather than cash cows. On the other side, every PL team but the Fighters either owns or has an operating license for its park, allowing those five clubs to keep every extra penny spent there. When the Fighters open their new park in 2023, watch out.

The Dragons are also on a tighter budget than before. Big buyers in the free-agent market from 2002 to 2009, the Dragons are now bargain shoppers. They’re awfully good at it, but sometimes money makes a difference. It used to be that virtually every star that switched leagues went to the CL from the PL. That’s no longer the case.

The Hiroshima Carp have taken up some of that slack with the help of their Mazda Stadium-driven riches. They are not spending on free agents but they have been investing in development and locking up their talented players. Since the current free-agent era started in 1994, the Carp’s lot was to introduce top talent to NPB and then pass it on to other teams with deeper pockets. But those days are gone.

The draft

Ramirez said the draft is the way to fix the imbalance. He suggested the CL adopt more of a major league-style draft strategy of prioritizing amateur pitchers who throw hardest above those who have the best command and secondary pitches.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. One former CL player was appalled at the large number of smaller guys his team drafted, ostensibly because of their baseball smarts and mature skills.

A former CL executive, from back in the day when the leagues were separate entities rather than just separate desks in the commissioner’s office, said recently CL teams sometimes shy away from drafting players the Giants want, supposedly to stay on Yomiuri’s good side.

The landscape

I don’t know how true it is now, but currying favor with Yomiuri used to be a key part of the business plan for the Swallows, Carp, BayStars and Dragons. One doesn’t really see that in the PL. The SoftBank Hawks may be the top of the class now, but none of the other teams in the league are going to hand them the keys to the car and let them drive the way Yomiuri does in the CL.

The Seibu Lions have begun investing heavily in development infrastructure, and the Fighters have a great minor league facility that can step up even further once the money starts pouring in from their new ballpark in Hokkaido. The Rakuten Eagles have not been shy about investing in either veteran talent or their stadium. There is no need for PL teams to wave white flags as they gradually find more ways to profit from their ballparks.

There is no mistaking, however, that SoftBank does things differently. The Hawks are probably the most MLB-like team in Japan, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

They probably manipulated the service time of their best player last summer, keeping Yuki Yanagita on the farm two weeks longer than necessary after an injury to keep him from becoming an international free agent this year. And SoftBank refuses to be swayed by the kind of Japanese cultural norms that see other teams posting players to the majors “out of consideration for their contributions.”

The Hawks may not be driving the PL car, but it may only be a matter of time before other clubs decide that to compete with them, they, too, have to start being more ruthless in their pursuit of victory. The PL has for most of its history been the underdog league and has consistently toyed with new innovations, much to the amusement of the CL teams. The CL clubs have followed the Giants lead in asserting that THEY knew how to run baseball businesses.

The CL has consistently been picking up lessons from its PL rivals, the biggest being the playoffs. The CL laughed while PL teams raked in better attendance late in the season until in 2007, the CL came on board. This year, the CL followed the PL and found its first league sponsor. But when the coronavirus gave the CL a chance to ditch its playoffs, which the Giants have been firmly against from the start, it did so at the drop of a hat, suggesting the Giants’ wishes still matter.

The Giants see themselves as ruthless winners, but they are also wedded to making sure the system they rode to the top of the CL and have rewritten to stay there, never ever changes, lest someone else replaces them.

I’ve written this many times before, but the Yomiuri Giants are in some ways similar to Japan’s last feudal rulers, the Tokugawa shogunate, hell-bent on maintaining an obsolete system, whose principal function is keeping them in power, while the world marches on outside.

Is change on the way?

A colleague at work asked whether the latest Japan Series setback was enough to spark change. It might be since it at least has people talking about the difference between the leagues as being one of quality rather than some kind of mirage caused by the weird interleague format.

A case of baseballs

It sort of reminds me of what happened in 2004. OK, a lot happened in 2004, but one of the things that happened that tumultuous strife-torn summer had to do with the baseballs. For years, Mizuno had been getting a bigger and bigger market share by producing more and more lively baseballs, even ones that often exceeded the COR specs.

In the late 1990s a few teams were still using balls by more than one manufacturer, and before balls became an issue in 2004, you could call up each team and they would tell you which company’s balls were used in which games. From that, it became clear that Mizuno’s balls were largely responsible for a steady increase in home runs.

In the summer of 2004, the Dragons, playing in cavernous Nagoya Dome and possessing a lineup with virtually no power, decided to switch from Mizuno, thus breaking the first rule of the Mizuno Home Run Club, which is don’t talk about the Mizuno Home Run Club.

Suddenly, every paper in Japan began researching balls, home run distances, and rates. They concluded that Mizuno’s balls were indeed juiced. This did not sit well with fans who were already fed up with owners’ handling of that summer’s restructuring and labor strife.

The first solution to this PR problem was to talk about it but not really do anything.

Mizuno introduced “less-lively balls” and home run rates kind of stalled, but resumed their climb within a few years. Japan got in 2011 a single uniform ball that was less lively. That’s a whole nother story, but it took nearly 10 years from the time the public became aware of the issue and a palace coup that overthrew the commissioner before Japan got a reliably uniform ball.

If it takes the CL that long to get its act together and make the structural changes needed to catch up, the league probably won’t win more than one or two Japan Series over the next 10 years.

An interleague shortcut to change

I’ve never been an advocate of getting rid of the leagues and merging them into one 12-team competition but the easiest way to get the CL to improve might be to throw those teams into the deep end of the pool where the PL’s sharks are swimming.

Let’s say we keep the two six-team leagues and kept the team who wins the most games in each league as the champion. We then expand interleague play to say 36 games again and then at the end of the season take the teams with the four best records in NPB and have them playoff to see who gets into the Japan Series.

In that format, we might have five years in which no CL teams even make it to the Japan Series. That would definitely light a fire under some butts, as the Giants win pennant after pennant only to watch the Japan Series on TV.

The other easy way to change will be when the Giants realize that winning an easy league is no longer reward enough when they get pounded every year in the Japan Series. At some point, Yomiuri will stop talking about the value of their old-school business model — that helped it secure a chokehold on the league — and start talking about how change is necessary for the good of the game.

The order of Japan

This is the second part of a look at the history of pitchers in Japanese pro baseball batting orders, how a need to achieve orthodoxy in the 1980s turned Japanese baseball into a cult of orthodoxy and how some managers, like Alex Ramirez have learned to survive despite going against the grain.

Part 1: Why ninth?

Japanese history

While having the pitcher bat eighth is looked as a fad or a failed experiment, it used to be extremely common in NPB.

In the Japan Series, there have been two distinct phases when it comes to pitchers batting higher than ninth. From 1950 to 1971, 17.3 percent of Japan Series starting pitchers batted eighth or higher. Since 1972, it’s been 2.2 percent, with the 2017 DeNA BayStars accounting for three of the eight pitchers who’ve batted higher in the last 48 years.

The operator of 2689web provided me with a data set of every starting pitcher who has ever batted higher than ninth in a regular season game.

The use in the regular season had two spikes.

When pro baseball had its first year of league play with split spring and fall seasons in 1937 and 1938, pitchers batted higher than ninth more than 55 percent of the time. The figures remained in that ballpark until 1941. They spiked after Japan’s war in China spilled over South East Asia and the Pacific. In the final wartime season, 1944, pitchers batted ninth in less than 19 percent of all games.

That wave declined, with pitchers batting ninth more often than not for the first time in 1949 –the year a smaller strike zone was introduced and offense exploded. That year, on-base percentages jumped by 30 points and runs scored increased by 1.3 runs per nine inning.

There was a kind of backlash to the big offense numbers that were further boosted by 1950’s big expansion. And though rules were not changed, small ball became the way to play, and offense levels sank to their lowest point since the war. In 1956, 91 percent of pitchers were batting ninth. By 1960 it was 98 percent. By 1965, it was 99.6 percent.

Then a weird thing happened.

In 1966, first one manager then another started doing it. The year before he won the first of his five PL pennants with the Hankyu Braves, Hall of Fame manager Yukio Nishimoto, began batting his pitchers eighth, once in April, once in May, three times in July and five times in August. In 1965, only six pitchers batted higher in that season’s 1,680 lineups. In September, Chunichi Dragons manager Michio Nishizawa started doing it, and he kept it up in 1967.

Nishizawa began his career as a pitcher, who batted eighth 54 times in his career, and who finished his Hall of Fame career as a slugging first baseman. The weird thing is that it wasn’t like different managers all doing it once. It was more like a conspiracy to preserve the old ways.

Nishimoto did it for a while and then stopped. Then Nishizawa picked up the torch in the CL in September, and started doing it again from the end of May 1967 until the end of July. Then Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami started up. As a player, Kawakami was a rival of Nishizawa’s, and like him a good-hitting pitcher who found his true calling at first base. Kawakami’s interest slackened a bit in September—when another Hall of Famer and a former teammate of Kawakami’s, Tigers manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto, picked it up. By the end of the 1967 season, everybody was doing it.

It wasn’t just the managers. There was at that time, a cadre of good hitting pitchers, like the Giants’ Tsuneo Horiuchi and Masaichi Kaneda, and sometimes their managers would drop them into the No. 8 hole.

Before Kawakami achieved legendary status as a manager, Hawks skipper Kazuto Tsuruoka and Kawakami’s Giants’ predecessors, Osamu Mihara and Shigeru Mizuhara were the three most influential managers in the 1950s and 1960s. Tsuruoka, perhaps the most innovative manager in Japanese history, abandoned the practice between June 1950 and August 1956, when he used it a lot down the stretch. Then at the end of September, 1967, he once more developed a taste for it with a select set of his pitchers.

In 1966, 98 percent of pitchers were still batting ninth, but in 1967 it was 93 percent, and by 1968, all of the most influential managers were doing it, with only 81 percent batting ninth. In 1969, orthodox lineups were down to 75 percent.

From 1970, however, the idea that pitchers could bat anywhere but ninth began disappearing from the scene, perhaps because offensive levels began to rise again from 1971 and perhaps because the wily old guys who had played when pitchers typically batted eighth, Kawakami, Tsuruoka, Mihara and Mizuhara were leaving – or in Kawakami’s case, forced out.

Why the batting order?

The funny thing is that batting the pitcher eighth or higher was a real part of Japanese pro baseball, but it died out as these managers’ disciples had no use for the eccentricities of their elders. At the same time, another aspect of Japan’s traditional game, the sacrifice bunt, took on a Frankenstein’s monster life of its own as a larger-than-normal misshapen misunderstood representation of the real thing.

Kawakami’s most influential managing disciples were Giants shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka and Giants catcher Masaaki Mori, who became Hirooka’s right-hand man, successor with the Seibu Lions, and eventually his arch-enemy. Those two took the sacrifice bunt, polished it and created a cottage industry around it with the Lions.

The campaign to romanticize the sacrifice based on the Lions’ success in the 1980s and 1990s, in some ways mirrored that of warriors’ code “bushido.” Although the ideas of proper warrior behavior existed in a feudal society, the actual written documents known as “Bushido” were a kind of Edo-era MAGA PR campaign, designed to get the idlers, wastrels and scoundrels born into warrior families to act like samurai in a society that had no need for warriors. It essentially told them to accept their poverty with dignity in the knowledge that they were better than others.

With Japan at peace, its warrior class had become – at best – petty bureaucrats and civil servants on fixed stipends paid in rice, the value of which fluctuated. Bushido described a warrior class that was far closer to historical fiction than reality and told those suffering in the current circumstances to just suck it up, straighten up and fly right.

And that’s what happened to the sacrifice bunt in the 1980s. Hirooka and Mori created historical fiction about how the sacrifice bunt was Japan’s secret to baseball success.

This campaign to sanctify the sacrifice bunt as a sacred right, was part of an ideological movement that had been building within the game and without that espoused uniformity and “quality control” and was popular with those pushing the idea of Japanese ethnic and cultural uniqueness.

The 1980s were a time when writers around the world were trying to explain Japan’s economic miracle. As a student of Japanese history at the University of California Santa Cruz, one course focused on modern Japanese history and interpretations of its growth and systems.

Many scholarly explanations focused on the acceptance of quality control philosophies and government intervention, and these analyses often tripped over themselves trying to explain why Japanese so easily bought into quality control programs in the work place – with some arguing Japanese culture simply placed a higher value on quality workmanship and efficiency.

Not quality control but failure control

The truth probably has less to do with how Japanese respect the importance of quality work and more about the way people improve their social and economic standing in Japan’s group-oriented society. People essentially advance their status when others above them make mistakes. Japanese may crow about some noble samurai spirit where quality is pursued with warrior-like intensity, but the truth is that Japanese quality is more often driven by a desire not to be singled out for failure.

I can’t speak about Japan before I arrived in 1984, but it often seems the easiest way to avoid failure is to keep your head down and follow the most orthodox path, because failure can be mitigated if done by the book.

In the 1980s, the automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff hitter reached base in the first inning became the only way to play. A name was attached to the set of orthodox tactics and techniques of which the bunt was one component: “Winning baseball.” Opting not to bunt in such situations was criticized. Using a slugger in the No. 2 hole was wrong.

This was an era when a baseball-loving nation that had long adored individual quirks and a diversity of batting and pitching styles changed. Informed by ideologs such as Hirooka and Mori, those seeking to avoid criticism began attacking diversity with a kind of missionary zeal. The Seibu Lions under Hirooka and later Mori, succeeded because they had solid pitching and defense and a tremendous power-hitting lineup, who could also beat you by playing small ball.

Yet, despite playing in an era of unprecedent offensive levels, the sacrifice bunt snake oil remedy Hirooka and Mori pedaled tirelessly became the only acceptable way to win.

Iconoclasts

Not every manager fell into line, however. Nippon Ham Fighters manager Keiji Osawa antagonized Mori in public, calling the PL-rival Lions boring and predictable. Mori’s answer: “Who cares if it’s boring? So what if winning is boring?”

But following blindly creates opportunities for those with vision. The era’s two best managers, who succeeded despite lacking the resources of the Lions or Giants, were Akira Ogi and Katsuya Nomura. Both were old school, disciples of Mihara, and Tsuruoka, respectively, who exploited the period’s mindless march toward homogeneity by going against the grain.

Ogi gave free reign to players with unorthodox styles, most notably Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki. Nomura, in addition to his uncanny eye for talent and his belief in analytics, excelled in developing pitchers, polished Japan’s greatest catcher of that era, Atsuya Furuta, and filled out his team with rejects and castoffs, often guys whose primary skill was drawing walks.

Most managers, however, flout orthodoxy at their peril.

In the 1986, Taiyo Whales manager Sadao Kondo batted his pitchers eighth 25 times and was fired. In 1988, Sadaharu Oh did it 15 times and he was fired, although in his case it had to more to do with not winning the pennant for the fourth time in five years.

Batting pitchers anywhere but ninth does not help job security.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Ramirez’s batting his pitcher eighth 108 times 2017 was why some speculated he wouldn’t be re-hired despite pushing the SoftBank Hawks to the very brink in the Japan Series. The following year, 2018, he batted his pitcher eighth in every game, something that might have been without precedent. In the summer of 2019, after not batting his pitcher anywhere but ninth for the first three months of the season, Ramirez said his pitching coach didn’t want his pitchers batting eighth.

How to be different

That’s when he laid out the No. 1 condition for batting the pitcher eighth: “He has to be a good bunter.” But I believe his thinking is deeper than he lets on. He is well versed on how to thrive in the Japanese baseball world in a way few imported players have been, and sometimes his explanations smack of being pre-packaged for media consumption like McDonalds Happy Meals. He knows when he needs to step back and conform and what to say when he believes doing it his way is best.

It’s actually OK to be unorthodox in Japan, provided one shows Ramirez’s kind of political savvy.

My favorite similar story is of Daiei Hawks manager Rikuo Nemoto. In 1994, he batted slugger Kazunori Yamamoto second and sacrificed only 39 times. Nemoto excused his shameful behavior by saying he had no one who could fill that crucial spot so often given to slap-hitting offensive zeros. Because of that, the skipper said he just had to just bite the bullet and use a guy who got on base and hit for power.

Nomura, the best manager in Swallows history, eventually wore out his welcome with Yakult. It probably didn’t help that he was thoroughly unapologetic about being an iconoclast or the smartest person in the room. The same thing happened to Yokohama BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo–still the most successful manager in that franchise’s history. Gondo was fired because people couldn’t endure his frank assessments about how much of Japan’s conventional baseball orthodoxy was nonsense.

People love to criticize Ramirez because he’s different. As a player, he was able to maximize his physical skills because he studied how teams and individual opponents would compete against him. He learned the context of the game as well as any import in history. And that’s how he manages, by using his understanding of context to do things his way while at the same time saying the necessary things to preserve the social order.

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

Baseball’s Narcischism

Players in new countries often suffer a kind of culture shock when immersed in another country’s baseball culture. Latin American players sometimes comment on the lack of joy in Japan’s game, while many from North America find the endless meetings to discuss opponents’ tendencies and weaknesses mind-numbing.

Japanese describe western baseball as a game of speed and power. What sounds like praise is also an opaque slite that says Americans attempt to physically overpower baseball in a way that lacks the science, art and discipline revered in Japan.

Former Seibu Lions manager Haruki Ihara was fond of saying Japan had nothing to learn from MLB. This was an extreme example of the kind of misinformed nationalistic dogma that sports sometimes encourages, where it’s us versus them. Ihara is proud of the effort Japanese put into the game, and rightfully so. But to be dismissive of other styles and ways of thinking is to restrict what one can learn.

Baseball is parochial at heart. As much as sports can bring people together, it can also highlight minute differences in approaches, and to fans of the local game, that can mean a constant critique of the way others play. What are unwritten rules but an effort to assert that one set of behaviors is the “right way” to play the game and that conflicting views are “wrong?”

You see this as much off the field as on, where social Darwinism seems to steer much of the discussion of what baseball is towards those with the most influence and money.

Within any league you can name, because of owners’ wealth and their power to gift a region their brand of the game or take it elsewhere, they sometimes talk as if their businesses grant them a degree of ownership of what baseball is.

Owners and team executives are also sources for stories about policy, so it’s very easy for us in the media to be swayed by their point of view that baseball is a business. It’s one thing to explain why teams and leagues make decisions that adversely affect their customers, by using blackout rules or by manipulating service time. It’s another to argue that fans should accept that behavior.

Arguing that teams should manipulate service time to lengthen the time prospects need to reach arbitration is akin to arguing that political office holders should give sweetheart deals to big donors because “that’s how the system works.”

Although people make money off of baseball, it isn’t itself a business, it’s a game, and how it’s played, watched, and marketed as entertainment varies a lot. Just because Major League Baseball attracts more of the best players in the world, doesn’t make MLB synonymous with baseball or give its owners the power to decide what baseball is and isn’t even if they talk as if it does.

When people refer to “baseball” they so often mean “their baseball,” the game they grew up with and the way it is played by the teams they follow. For most modern American fans, social Darwinism is really part of their baseball, since MLB essentially lords it over its imperial colonies in the minor leagues. These people tend to see baseball as a kind of order of quality, with the quality of a league defined by its location in the world hierarchy.

With MLB nowhere near starting in the current coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked at other leagues and some desired to know where they fit in their stratified social Darwinism models. How good a league is CPBL? Is it better than Double-A? How about KBO? To answer that question, someone published a graphic that had MLB at the top followed in descending order by NPB, Triple-A, KBO, Double-A, CPBL, and so on down to rookie ball. I don’t remember if it had the Mexican league or not, which MLB has nominally labeled as “Triple-A.”

But Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are different animals that aren’t organized by the same principles that govern talent within MLB’s imperial structure. In this regard, they are something like how minor league ball was in the United States, Canada, and Cuba before Branch Rickey and the Cardinals ruined it by spreading their tentacles across the continent much as the British Empire had around the globe in the preceding centuries.

By amassing resources, the Cardinals were able to compete at a high level and forced other teams to mimic them at a great cost to baseball across America. The creation of farm systems was a form of baseball eugenics to achieve efficiency at the cost of variety.

Pro leagues outside the majors’ imperial sphere aren’t “levels,” they are leagues, were like the majors, teams keep their top talent in order to win games. That makes their leagues vibrant sources of variation that enrich baseball as a whole. I believe baseball was better before MLB turned minor leagues and their teams into the baseball version of chicken houses, where poultry is grown to order in unhealthy conditions because they aren’t any part of a real ecosystem.

Baseball needs to grow and be part of places and cultures. And deciding where those cultures and their baseball ranks, as many baseball fans do around the world, is a vile, narcissistic exercise.