Category Archives: Baseball

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.

Prologue

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.

Interleague

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.