Category Archives: Baseball

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.

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.