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Upon further review

Star-crossed umpiring

Something I’ve wanted to do since umpires began taking requests from managers who felt wronged by their judgements on the field was see whether some teams were more or less likely to have the initial calls go their way.

There has long been a perception in Japan of umpiring bias toward the Giants, but without hard evidence, there’s not much one can say about it.

When Tokyo Dome first opened, Nippon Television, which owns the rights to the home games and is owned by the Giants’ parent company, frequently showed video of pitches from a camera suspended below the dome ceiling — until too many of those shots were called strikes not close to being over the plate.

Like watching from the cheap seats

One problem with the “Request System” is that the umpires have to work from whatever crappy little monitor the home team’s owner provides for them. This once led to a disastrous decision against the Orix Buffaloes, when forced to review a long foul ball in the top of the 10th inning at Kyocera Dome. On the crappy little monitor provided by Orix, the umps saw the ball disappear from the screen as it crossed the line of the foul pole. They called the ball a home run, and the Hawks won in extra innings.

After the game, they looked at the call on a better monitor and were shocked to see the ball pass on the foul side of the pole. Orix, whose fault it was the umps didn’t have better equipment to work with, was outraged that such an awful mistake could have happened to them in their home park.

Osamu Ino, the head of NPB’s umpiring technical committee, said recently that things haven’t changed much since then, that the monitors available to the umps are often substandard.

Since the Nakamura call, however, the umps have resolved to only overturn calls on the field when there is clear evidence that it was wrong. They seem to deviate from that standard from time to time, but it’s probably right to assume that if you can’t see it on the monitor, then perhaps the person on the spot was in the best position to judge.

Bad luck Alex

I noticed today that the data I’d collected this season included a record of which teams reviewed calls and whether the calls on the field were overturned or upheld, so I ran them into a database and had to wonder if some umps were among those singing for Daisuke Miura to replace Alex Ramirez as DeNA BayStars managers.

I have a record of 480 video requests during the 2020 season. There may have been more, but these are the ones I have notes on. Of those reviewed calls 63 were overturned or 32 percent. The Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles and the Central League’s BayStars ranked 1, 2 in the number of challenges by their skippers, and for good reason, those two teams led their league in calls against them that were overturned.

In last year’s CL, there really were four teams in the middle with little separating them, but one could argue the BayStars were really the second-best team in the league behind the run-away champion Giants. Finishing second might not have helped Ramirez’s chances of staying on with a team that was looking for excuses to get rid of him, but it didn’t help that he had to do extra work to correct the umps.

Of the 21 calls in BayStars’ games that were overturned upon review, 18 had originally gone against DeNA. The Eagles were second percentage-wise with 63 percent of the overturned calls having first gone their opponents’ way.

TeamOverturned against teamOverturned against oppsPct
BayStars183.86
Eagles2012.63
Carp1410.58
Fighters1914.58
Giants1110.53
Marines1515.50
Hawks911.45
Swallows912.43
Lions1520.43
Tigers1017.37
Buffaloes814.36
Dragons717.29

Hawks come up empty

I have only one year of data to work with but of the 243 requests by the batting teams, the SoftBank Hawks made just 15, the fewest in either league, and every one of those times, the umps’ call on the field was upheld.

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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: Hitters or pitchers?

There’s little doubt a gap exists between the Pacific and Central leagues in terms of quality, based on interleague results since 2005.

This is the second of three pieces I’m doing on the differences in quality between Japan’s two leagues.

Last time, I took up the issue of how the pitching in the two leagues differs now, and evaluated Alex Ramirez’s idea that the PL is a harder-throwing league and that the CL needs to do a better job of drafting and developing hard throwers.

This time I want to replicate a study I did a few years ago to evaluate how much of the PL’s advantage is on the pitching side. While I agree with Ramirez that PL hitters are better because they are used to seeing better pitching, this study suggests that the league’s competitive edge started in the batter’s box.

In the final piece, I’ll use my draft database to evaluate the quality of domestic player development by both leagues.

The study

A few years ago, when the PL’s superiority began to fill our rear-view mirrors like a tail-gating monster truck, I derived a study to figure out where the league’s advantage came from.

If we look at how well each team does against visitors from both leagues in their main stadiums, we can control for park and talent. If we limit the time frame to games prior to July — since interleague play runs from May to June — we can eliminate the noise from league games played in the year’s hottest months.

The study uses runs per nine innings and also wOBA, and takes a weighted average of performance against league and interleague opponents. If the PL pitching is superior we would expect offenses from both leagues will do more damage against visiting CL pitchers than visiting PL pitchers. If the PL hitters are superior we would expect visiting PL batters to do better than CL visitors.

The study suggests these conclusions:

  • The belief that the difference between the PL and CL is mostly related to pitching is unsupported.
  • CL pitching was probably a little better from 2005 to 2012, but is no longer as good.
  • PL pitchers used to struggle in the CL’s home-run friendly parks

The pitchers

I’m going to measure the quality of each league’s pitching by looking at the weighted league averages of: runs allowed per nine innings by visitors and home opponents’ basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home parksCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.144.23
PL4.164.23
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.310.316
PL.309.308

These figures support Trey Hillman’s 2006 after the first round of interleague play that the CL was the better-pitching, harder-throwing league. But that was then and this is now. Here are the weighted averages since 2013.

The gap actually might not be as large as the tables above indicate, as I’ll go into below. It seems that size does matter when it comes to ballparks.

2013-2019

Home leagueCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.294.05
PL4.524.27
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.311.308
PL.319.310

Since 2013, whatever advantage CL pitchers might have had over their PL counterparts has evaporated, and as Ramirez suggested, the PL pitching (and defense) is definitely better than what passes for good enough in the CL.

The hitters

We’re going to flip this around and now look at weighted league averages against CL and PL visitors in home pitchers’ RA9 and visitors basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.784.02
PL3.404.02
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.298.308
PL.289.299

2013-2019

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.884.13
PL3.543.97
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.301.312
PL.290.305

So if the PL advantage in interleague play has been primarily on the pitching side, then somebody better tell their hitters that. I did a parallel wOBA study that removed pitchers and designated hitters from the equation, but it made little difference.

The big and small of it

The one area in the study where PL pitching was inferior when measured by both visitors’ runs allowed per nine innings and opposing home teams’ wOBA was in the CL home parks from 2005 to 2012.

Former Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama thought that the PL was better at developing pitchers because their big parks were more forgiving. Before Fukuoka’s Home run terrace and the new shorter dimensions in Sendai and Chiba’s Home run lagoon, all six PL parks were tougher home run parks than Tokyo Dome, Jingu and Yokohama — and Hiroshima Shimin until 2008.

I broke them down into these four small parks, and three large parks, Koshien Stadium, Nagoya Dome and Mazda Stadium — more neutral than large, really. Here are the weighted averages of RA9 by visitors from each league since 2005 in the months prior to July.

2005-2008 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
4 smaller CL parks4.444.94
2 larger CL parks4.244.26
2009-2012 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks3.433.80
3 larger CL parks3.613.42
2013-2019 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks4.484.57
3 larger CL parks4.193.51

That’s not a lot of information but it’s about what I expected. The steady proliferation of with three downsized PL parks would make a further breakdown since 2013 difficult and there are times when I’m adverse to work.

Conclusion

So that’s the footprint of the PL’s current advantage. No matter which league you play in, both leagues’ batters and pitchers playing in their home park put up better numbers when the visitors are from the CL than when they are PL teams in interleague.

When I ask people why the PL is better, the standard answer is pitching, perhaps because it’s easier to see how it could be better. But from here it simply looks like the PL pitching and hitting developed in tandem — starting with the hitting.

Next time, I’ll get into the makeup of the talent in the two leagues, and how talent has flowed into them and between them.

Another look at pitchers

Since I’m on a Hall of Fame jag, I want to dig deeper into the subject of pitchers, who gets in and who gets out. I only included one pitcher, Masahiro Yamamoto, on my 2021 ballot, and perhaps I should more carefully examine the credentials of a few other pitchers on the ballot.

In the first run-through, I looked to see how often pitchers were elected into the Hall of Fame based on their MVP, Sawamura, and Best Nine Awards, and also on three measures using Bill James’ Win Shares: career value, the average value of their five best seasons, and the average value of their three best seasons.

Next year’s big new names will be two pitchers whose quality went largely overlooked because they played for weak offensive teams in hitters’ parks, Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Miura. But while I’m at it I’ll try and right a wrong and have a look at the pitchers I passed over in my 2021 ballot.

For a slightly different look, I’m doing pitcher Hall of Fame points that I’m going to call “career highlight points” because unlike Win Shares, anyone can count them. These are as follows:

  • MVP award: 3 points
  • Sawamura Award: 2 points
  • Leading the league in wins: 2 points
  • Leading the league in saves: 2 points
  • Best Nine award: 2 points
  • Key pitcher on a championship team (40+ games or 100+ IP): 2 points
  • Each 100 career wins: 5 points
  • Each 40 career saves: 1 point

So far, each of the 18 eligible pitchers with 21-plus career highlight points is in the Hall of Fame with the exception of the scandal-hit Yutaka Enatsu. Eight of the 12 players from 17 to 21 are in. Below 16 and it’s fuzzy.

Here are the breakdowns for the Win Shares measures:

  • Career WS above 233: 20 out of 21 in Hall
  • Best 5-year stretch average above 24 WS: 12 out of 13 in Hall. Essentially an old-timers category since the last pitcher in that group retired in 1988.
  • Best 3 season average above 29 WS: 12 out of 13 in Hall (see above).

Hiroki Kuroda

  • Highlight points: 10 – 58th
  • Career Win Shares: 244 – 13th
  • Avg WS Best 5-year stretch: 17.1 – 54th
  • Avg Best 3 seasons: 21 – 59th

As an exercise, let’s start with Kuroda.

Because of his career win shares value, the former Carp ace seems like a shoo-in, but his peak value is not as great as some of his contemporaries, and he lacks the eye-catching things like playing for multiple championship teams and winning MVP awards and so has just 10 career highlight points

Kuroda’s Wins Shares profile is similar to recent experts’ division selection, Taiyo Whales ace Masaji Hiramatsu and his contemporary, Yakult Swallows ace Hiromu Matsuoka, who has struggled on the experts’ ballot. The obvious difference? Hiramatsu had a famous pitch, his “kamisori” (razor) shoot, had two big seasons and 21 career highlight points while Matsuoka has just nine. Hiramatsu was not a lot better but LOOKED a lot better, and now he’s in.

In Kuroda’s favor, the Hall of Fame voting system is different from when those two retired in the mid-1980s, and he was both popular and a durable, successful major leaguer. My guess is he won’t have to wait for the experts’ division ballot to get in. Matsuoka’s “fault” was to be consistently good for a long time without having at least one more big year when everyone was talking about how great he was.

Here’s how the the players on the ballot this year and next year compare:

NameLast seasonHighlight PtsCareer WSBest 5-year stretchBest 3 seasons
Hiroki Kuroda20161024417.121.0
Masahiro Yamamoto20152622613.718.8
Daisuke Miura2016721115.118.6
Masumi Kuwata20071719119.624.2
Shinji Sasaoka20071517214.418.9
Fumiya Nishiguchi20152216916.018.5
Kazuhisa Ishii20131016613.617.5
Kenshin Kawakami20152013615.018.4
Shingo Takatsu20101612010.114.0
Takashi Saito2015919214.720.6

Again, this is not about who I want to see in the Hall of Fame, but rather an effort to answer the question “Who does the Hall of Fame think belongs?”

By the established standards, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Yamamoto and Fumiya Nishiguchi are all Hall of Famers, and Kenshin Kawakami and Masumi Kuwata are likely to get in at some point.

Win Shares sees Miura as being better than Nishiguchi and way better than Kawakami, but he lacks the career highlights that will likely make their resumes sing to the voters. As it is Miura is probably going to fall about one good, not great, season short of getting in on career value.

You decide

Here is a table of every pitcher who is eligible to be in the Hall of Fame, and is not currently on the players’ division ballot who has a career Win Share total as high as the lowest of any pitcher in the HOF, former Carp closer Tsunemi Tsuda. An “E” in the HOF column indicates they are currently on the experts’ division ballot. HOF indicates an original member, and a year indicates when they were inducted.

I would like to say who has a chance to get on a ballot again and who is out of chances, but that’s a huge project, and anyone who is in uniform again as a coach or manager has a chance to get back on the experts’ ballot.

Name RName JHOFLast NPB gameHighlight Pts.Career WS5-year peakBest 3
Masaichi Kaneda金田 正一1988196952459.332.536.9
Takehiko Bessho別所 毅彦1979196050359.231.738.4
Yutaka Enatsu江夏 豊198448294.322.225.1
Kazuhisa Inao稲尾 和久1993196944312.73641.3
Hisashi Yamada山田 久志200619884132226.930.1
Masaki Saito斎藤 雅樹2016200140236.321.628.6
Keishi Suzuki鈴木 啓示2002198537381.227.932.9
Minoru Murayama村山 実1993197235242.122.830.5
Hideo Nomo野茂 英雄2014199334236.119.1624.5
Kimiyasu Kudo工藤 公康2016201033234.913.420.3
Tsuneo Horiuchi堀内 恒夫2008198329188.617.220.8
Osamu Higashio東尾 修2010198829254.81724.8
Shigeru Sugishita杉下 茂1985196128250.132.336.4
Manabu Kitabeppu北別府 学2012199428213.72023.8
Victor Starffinスタルヒン1960195525139.419.526.7
Tetsuya Yoneda米田 哲也2000197724318.521.627.5
Choji Murata村田 兆治2005199023255.623.726.4
Kazuhiro Sasaki佐々木 主浩2014200522170.315.0418.4
Masaaki Koyama小山 正明2001197321324.624.528.2
Masaji Hiramatsu平松 政次2017198421236.518.826.1
Suguru Egawa江川 卓198721165.723.826.5
Hiroshi Nakao中尾 碩志1998195720126.314.420.8
Kazumi Takahashi高橋 一三198220174.615.922
Takumi Otomo大友 工司196019136.223.228.8
Hideo Fujimoto藤本 英雄197619551818526.131.7
Motoshi Fujita藤田 元司1996196417117.11724.8
Tadashi Sugiura杉浦 忠1995197017198.126.534
Mutsuo Minagawa皆川 睦男2011197117234.219.225.9
Kazuhiko Endo遠藤 一彦199217177.92024.1
Yutaka Ono大野 豊2013199817233.415.418.6
Tadashi Wakabayashi若林 忠志196419531681.216.223.7
Takao Kajimoto梶本 隆夫2007197316245.921.125.7
Shigeru Kobayashi小林 繁198316153.120.123.2
Akio Saito斉藤 明雄199316182.516.319.5
Kuo Yuen-chih郭 源治199616169.316.219.9
Hisao Niiura新浦 壽丈199215148.516.221
Hideki Irabu伊良部 秀輝200415125.213.518.8
Jyuzo Sanada真田 重蔵1990195614202.73138.4
Susumu Yuki柚木 進195614130.418.620.7
Mitsuhiro Adachi足立 光宏E197914203.916.120.9
Tomehiro Kaneda金田 留広198114141.517.722
Kei Igawa井川 慶20141491.514.0616.1
Yoshiro Sotokoba外木場 義郎2013197913155.116.125.4
Fumio Narita成田 文男198213181.118.723.4
Tokuji Kawasaki川崎 徳次195712182.319.428.2
Gene Bacqueバッキー196912117.52126.5
Yoshinori Sato佐藤 義則199412174.614.818.2
Joe Stankaスタンカ19661192.815.919
Noboru Akiyama秋山 登2004196711189.420.624.9
Yukio Ozaki尾崎 行雄197311102.718.724.6
Takashi Nishimoto西本 聖199311198.721.124.2
Atsushi Aramaki荒巻 淳1985196210195.321.427.5
Hiroshi Gondo権藤 博201919681085.716.325.3
Shoichi Ono小野 正一197010179.822.327.4
Hiromi Makihara槙原 寛己200010193.714.518.4
Senichi Hoshino星野 仙一201719829133.316.220.7
Hiromu Matsuoka松岡 弘E19859232.621.422.8
Kazuhisa Kawaguchi川口 和久19989172.515.719.5
Yukihiro Nishizaki西崎 幸広20009163.216.220.3
Kunio Jonouchi城之内 邦雄19748132.318.620.6
Yasuo Yonegawa米川 泰夫19597144.519.825.8
Ryohei Hasegawa長谷川 良平200119637239.428.633.1
Masaaki Ikenaga池永 正明1970712122.926.6
Shigeo Ishii石井 茂雄1979716517.422.7
Hideyuki Awano阿波野 秀幸2000798.717.424.5
Masato Yoshii吉井 理人20077151.113.0414.9
Masahide Kobayashi小林 雅英2011790.110.4412.9
Tadayoshi Kajioka梶岡 忠義1955614819.327.6
Michio Nishizawa西沢 道夫19771958624324.829.3
Kiyoshi Oishi大石 清19706125.719.324
Naoki Takahashi高橋 直樹19866196.123.827
Akinori Otsuka大塚 晶則20036105.911.0415.6
Satoru Komiyama小宮山 悟20096139.511.5216.8
Yoshio Tenbo天保 義夫19575113.41723.4
Masayuki Dobashi土橋 正幸E19675155.121.727.1
Shigetoshi Hasegawa長谷川 滋利19945148.112.7215.6
Tsunemi Tsuda津田 恒美20121991479.910.816.8
Giichiro Shiraki白木 義一郎19523132.22632
Masao Kida木田 優夫2012386.86.712.7
Takeshi Yasuda安田 猛19812125.217.720.6
Shigeaki Kuroo黒尾 重明19550114.416.522.7
Kentaro Imanishi今西 啓介19550102.219.724.3
Zaichi Hayashi林 義一19580128.919.624.3
Jyunzo Sekine関根 潤三200319650172.613.919.9
Keiichi Yabu藪 恵市20100108.311.612.4

Deck the Hall time

Christmas is coming and so is the deadline to submit ballots for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players’ division.

There are 30 players on this year’s ballot and we get to pick seven. This year’s crop of new guys Kazuhiro Wada, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Michihiro Ogasawara, and Masahiro Yamamoto make the 2021 ballot a particularly packed one. In a normal year, three of those four would be candidates to go in on the first ballot. Wada might be one of those guys who has to wait a bit because his career got started so late.

I don’t have any straight-line calculation that says one guy is a Hall of Famer and another isn’t. I can just compare who’s in, who’s out and see if the various accomplishments of a candidate are common to those who get elected. This exercise is not about saying “This guy should be in the Hall of Fame” but rather “How well does this player fit with people who have been voted in before?”

To some degree, the quality of players who get in is somewhat determined by the quality of the players on the ballot. We’ve gone through some fairly slack ballots the past five years. It’s not that the guys who did get in weren’t worthy, but that they were at the lower end of the Hall of Fame spectrum. From this year, we’re going to get a surge of qualified players.

With each player, I’m going to give you three lists of 10 players who have been eligible for HOF voting as pitchers or position players and who are closest in three ratings: Career Win Shares, the average Win Share value of the player’s best five-year period, and the average Win Share value of his three most valuable seasons.

Golden Gloves don’t seem to equate much with Hall of Fame success, although it was cited when Tsutomu Ito won that his 11 awards were the most by a catcher.

Best Nine awards do appear to be a thing, as do MVP awards. Every two-time MVP is in or being voted on, as is every MVP who also won six or more Best Nines with the lone exception of the puzzling Hiromichi Ishige. By those considerations, five guys on this year’s players’ ballot will go in: Alex Ramirez, Michihiro Ogasawara, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Tuffy Rhodes, Kenji Jojima, and Kazuhiro Wada.

Every player with more than seven Best Nine honors is in the Hall except for a pair who must have really pissed some people off in their day, Michiyo Arito (10), who is now in the expert’s division, and Ishige (8). Six and seven is the grey area for those without an MVP in their trophy case.

Twenty-three players whose career ended by 2015 won six or seven Best Nines. Of those, 10 are in, seven are being voted on, three still have a chance to make the experts’ division, and three are in all likelihood out of chances. With five Best Nines, you get in the realm of candidates who only got in through the experts’ division.

The one thing I can’t really measure for is popularity, perhaps the only thing that can explain why Masahiro Kawai was named on 61.6 percent of the players’ division’s ballots last year. I get why Shingo Takatsu got 73.2 percent because after all, he was the career saves leader for a while. Alex Ramirez got 65.8 percent, and it’s not like he’s unworthy but Tuffy Rhodes (28.8 percent) and Kenji Jojima (17.2 percent) have much better credentials.

Here is my ballot for the 2021 Hall in the order I think they should go in:

  1. Nobuhiko Matsunaka 1B
  2. Michihiro Ogasawara 3B
  3. Masahiro Yamamoto P
  4. Kenji Jojima C
  5. Kazuhiro Wada LF
  6. Hirokazu Ibata SS
  7. Tuffy Rhodes CF

Nobuhiko Matsunaka

A two-time MVP and triple crown winner, with tremendous peak value and a good career. Matsunaka led his league in 17 offensive categories, and virtually everyone who did that and led in one of the triple crown stats is in the hall. He was a Japanese Randy Bass, but with even more peak value. Unlike Bass, he won’t have to wait for the experts’ division to rescue his candidacy from us non-experts who vote in the players’ division.

Career Value 310 WS
  1. Kazuhiro Wada 332 – on ballot
  2. Tuffy Rhodes 320 – on ballot
  3. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami 319 – HOF
  4. Hiroki Kokubo 311 – on ballot
  5. Tokuji Iida 310 – HOF
  6. Motonobu Tanishige 308 – on ballot
  7. Norihiro Nakamura 305 – on ballot
  8. Masayuki Kakefu 303 – Experts ballot
  9. Atsunori Inaba 302 – on ballot
  10. Taira Fujita 302 – Experts ballot
5 year peak 31 WS
  1. Katsuya Nomura 34 – HOF
  2. Hiromitsu Ochiai 33 – HOF
  3. Koji Yamamoto 32 – HOF
  4. Kazuhiro Yamauchi 32 – HOF
  5. Tomoaki Kanemoto 32 – HOF
  6. Isao Harimoto 31 – HOF
  7. Michihiro Ogasawara – on ballot
  8. Fumio Fujimura 30 – HOF
  9. Masayuki Kakefu 30 – Experts ballot
  10. Koichi Tabuchi 30 – HOF
3 best seasons avg 36.3 WS
  1. Sadaharu Oh 40.8 – HOF
  2. Shigeo Nagashima 38.3 – HOF
  3. Masayuki Kakefu 38.1 – Experts ballot
  4. Kazuhiro Yamauchi 37.3 – HOF
  5. Hideki Matsui 36.3 – HOF
  6. Tomoaki Kanemoto 35.8 – HOF
  7. Katsuya Nomura 35.2 – HOF
  8. Koji Yamamoto 34.8 – HOF
  9. Hiromitsu Ochiai 34.8 – HOF
  10. Tuffy Rhodes 33.8 – on ballot

Michihiro Ogasawara

Another two-time MVP and a similar player to Matsunaka with only slightly less peak value but better durability. I don’t know if they’re dead even or Ogasawara is behind Matsunaka. If Ogasawara is behind, he’s not behind by much.

The other two-time MVP on the ballot, Alex Ramirez is another step further down. One doesn’t want to compare raw career numbers when talking about imports, for whom it’s ALL about peak value, but Ramirez’s peak value was not in the same neighborhood as Guts’, and not among the seven most qualified this year.

Career Value 335 WS
  1. Kazuhiro Kiyohara 384 – not on ballot
  2. Kihachi Enomoto 360 – HOF
  3. Sachio Kinugasa 344 – HOF
  4. Atsuya Furuta 339 – HOF
  5. Masahiro Doi 338 – out
  6. Yasumitsu Toyoda 334 – HOF
  7. Koji Akiyama 334 – HOF
  8. Kazuhiro Wada 332 – on ballot
  9. Tuffy Rhodes 332 – on ballot
  10. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami 320 – HOF
5 year peak 31 WS

This starts with Koji Yamamoto, No. 3 on Matsunaka’s list, includes Matsunaka at 31 and adds the following two: Futoshi Nakanishi 29 – HOF; Yasumitsu Toyoda 28 – HOF, which is a similar mix to Matsunaka’s group with eight hall of famers, and two guys on the ballot.

3 best seasons avg 31.8 WS
  1. Koichi Tabuchi 32.9 – HOF
  2. Makoto Kozuru 32.8 – HOF
  3. Atsuya Furuta 32.6 – HOF
  4. Fumio Fujimura 32.5 – HOF
  5. Hiromitsu Kadota 32.3 – HOF
  6. Yasumitsu Toyoda 31.8 – HOF
  7. Kihachi Enomoto 31.3 – HOF
  8. Daryl Spencer 31 – out
  9. Atsunori Inaba 31 – on ballot
  10. Futoshi Nakanishi 30.9 – HOF

Masahiro Yamamoto

The Chunichi Dragons lefty won a Sawamura Award and had tremendous career value, Win Shares ranked him 26th all-time among pitchers, although Masahiro Tanaka likely passed him this year. But that is in the range where most pitchers have been elected to the Hall of Fame. His peak value — as measured by the average of his best five seasons, was not great, 95th, although a little better than Kimiyasu Kudo, a player of similar accomplishments who went in easily in 2016.

Kudo, however, won two MVP awards and three Best Nines, while Yamamoto only won two pitching Best Nines. As such Yamamoto may be a borderline candidate and my choice this year more of the heart than the head. But the ballot is in the mail.

Career Value 294 WS

Yamamoto is right on the margin between the haves and have-nots. Four of the next five pitchers with higher career values are in the Hall: Hideo Nomo, Kudo, Mutsuo Minagawa, Yutaka Ono. The next is Hiromu Matsuoka, who is on the experts’ ballot but struggling. Three below him are in the Hall and two of them have MVPs. Another is on the experts’ ballot and also struggling, former MVP Mitsuru Adachi.

5 year peak avg 14 WS

There are three Hall of Famers in this 10-player group, Kudo, old-timer Hiroshi Nakao, and Jyunzo Sekine, who was more valuable as an outfielder than a pitcher. Kazuhisa Ishii, and Shinji Sasaoka, both currently on the players’ ballot are there, too.

3 best seasons 18.5

Yamamoto’s three best seasons are comparable to those of: Sasaoka, Hideki Irabu, Hall of Famer Yutaka Ono, Fumiya Nishiguchi, who’s on this year’s ballot, Hiromi Makihara, Hall of Fame reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki, new players’ candidates Ishii and Kenshin Kawakami, and former Braves workhorse Yoshinori Sato — whom Yamamoto eclipsed as the oldest to throw a no-hitter in Japan.

Kenji Jojima

Jojima is the catcher who should go in next, but I’d bet a thousand yen that Motonobu Tanishige will be inducted first. For a time around 2002-2004, Jojima was arguably Japan’s best player, or perhaps it was Tadahito Iguchi or Alex Cabrera or Nobuhiko Matsunaka.

Jojima won six Best Nine awards to Tanishige’s one, and eight Golden Gloves to Tanishige’s six. Jojima ranks 36th in NPB history in peak value, Tanishige 296th. True, Tanishige faced tougher competition by playing his best years in the same league with Atsuya Furuta, but one has to go a long way to argue that Tanishige was better. Tanishige is, however, probably a lot more popular and that seems to matter A LOT in the voting.

Jojima was truly an elite player, but his tepid performance in the voting suggests that just being better than virtually everybody else is not always a big concern with most Hall of Fame voters.

Looking at the tables below, Jojima looks close to being a lock for the Hall of Fame, because he’s Japanese…

Career Value 294 WS
  1. Michiyo Arito 302 – Experts ballot
  2. HIromi Matsunaga 302 – out
  3. Takuro Ishii 300 – on ballot
  4. Shinichi Eto 297 – HOF
  5. Hiromichi Ishige 294- out
  6. Koichi Tabuchi 292 – HOF
  7. Yoshio Yoshida 290 – HOF
  8. Yoshinori Hirose 289 – HOF
  9. Tetsuharu Kawakami 286 – HOF
  10. Hideji Kato 286 – Experts ballot
5 year peak 28 WS
  1. Masayuki Kakefu 30 – Experts ballot
  2. Koichi Tabuchi 30 – HOF
  3. Futoshi Nakanishi 29 – HOF
  4. Yasumitsu Toyoda 28.3 – HOF
  5. Roberto Petagine 28.1 – out
  6. Tom O’Malley 28 – out
  7. Kazuhiro Kiyohara 28 – not on ballot
  8. Koji Akiyama 28 – HOF
  9. Tetsuharu Kawakami 28 – HOF
  10. Hiroshi Oshita 27 – HOF
3 best seasons avg 30.7
  1. Futoshi Nakanishi 30.9 – HOF
  2. Kazuhiro Wada 30.9 – on ballot
  3. Hirokazu Ibata 30.8 – on ballot
  4. Tetsuharu Kawakami 30.7 – HOF
  5. Kazuhiro Kiyohara 30.7- not on ballot
  6. Hiroshi Oshita 30.4 – HOF
  7. Alex Cabrera 30.4 – out
  8. Randy Bass 30.3 – Experts ballot
  9. Yoshio Yoshida 30.3 – HOF
  10. Roberto Petagine 30.1 – out

Intermission

Just a reminder, that while the ballot is packed with Hall of Fame quality players, the wonderful Masahiro Kawai got 218 votes a year ago. Here’s how he stacks up:

10 most players with most similar career value (148 Win Shares) : None in HOF. 10 players with most similar value from their best five-year stretch: None in HOF. 10 players with most similar value from their 3 best seasons: 1 in HOF – 2017 inductee Tsutomu Ito.

Recent players with similar career value: Norihiro Akahoshi, Hiroshi Shibahara, Makoto Kosaka.

Recent players with similar best 5-year stretches: Shibahara, Makoto Kaneko.

Recent players with similar 3 best seasons: Ito, Hatsuhiko Tsuji.

During his career, the media voted Kawai the CL’s best shortstop once, but now many of those people want him in the Hall of Fame.

Ito was great but not a Hall of Fame-caliber player in the context of those previously inducted. Instead, the field was a little thin and he got in. The same thing was happening to Kawai, but he’s probably going to start stalling.

Kazuhiro Wada

Is the best Japanese position player on the ballot to never win a Golden Glove. But with an MVP and six Best Nines, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t make it.

Career Value 332 WS

His career value is smack in between Ogasawara on the high end and Matsunaka on the low end.

5 year peak 27 WS

The top three in Wada’s list overlap with the last three on Jojima’s. After that it’s:

  1. Atsunori Inaba 27 – on ballot
  2. Wally Yonamine 27 – HOF
  3. Tokuji Iida 27 – HOF
  4. Hiromi Matsunaga 27 – out
  5. Akinori Iwamura 26 – out
  6. Makoto Kozuru 26 – HOF
  7. Tyrone Woods 26 – out
3 best seasons 30.9 WS

Ogasawara is the top of Wada’s list, and Jojima is at the bottom. so basically solid candidates, Hall of Famers, troubled star (Kazuhiro Kiyohara) and foreigners.

Hirokazu Ibata

In contrast to Kawai, Ibata, who was also a shortstop, had something resembling a Hall of Fame career with five Best Nine Awards. He may have to struggle to get in, but he is probably a little better qualified than Ramirez.

Career Value 258 WS
  1. Yoshinobu Takahashi 262 – on ballot
  2. Tomonori Maeda 262 – on ballot
  3. Isao Shibata 261 – Experts ballot
  4. Makoto Kozuru 260 – HOF
  5. Shoichi Busujima 260 – out
  6. Fumio Fujimura 258 – HOF
  7. Akinobu Mayumi 256 – out
  8. Morimichi Takagi 254 – HOF
  9. Alex Ramirez 248 – on ballot
  10. Noboru Aota 245 – HOF
5 year peak avg 26
  1. Tyrone Woods 26 – out
  2. Yutaka Fukumoto 26 – HOF
  3. Randy Bass 26 – Experts ballot
  4. Hiromichi Ishige 26 – out
  5. Akira Eto 26 – out
  6. Norihiro Nakamura 26 – on ballot
  7. Kenjiro Tamiya 26 – HOF
  8. Tuffy Rhodes 26 – on ballot
  9. Atsuya Furuta 26 – HOF
  10. Shigeru Chiba 26 – HOF
3 best seasons 30.8

Ibata’s closest 10 are essentially the same as Kazuhiro Wada’s, which is not an exclusive Hall of Fame group, but is Hall of Fame-like.

Tuffy Rhodes

I suppose you are all tired of hearing me talk about Tuffy Rhodes. The good news for you then is that for the first time in about three years he is not the most qualified player on the ballot.

Career Value 320 WS

Rhodes’ career value is sandwiched between Kazuhiro Wada and Hall of Famer Kazuyoshi Tatsunami. If you have higher career value than a lot of solid candidates AND you’re an import, then that says something I suppose.

5 year peak avg 26 WS

Essentially the same group as Hirokazu Ibata’s, some guys who are in the Hall and some guys who would be if they were more popular.

3 best seasons 33.8 WS

The top six on Rhodes’ list are the bottom six on Matsunaka’s. And his list starts with Sadaharu Oh and will include Ichiro Suzuki when he’s eligible. So this, and the long career are really Rhodes’ strong suits.

Alex Ramirez and the other strong candidates

For a guy with 2,000 hits in Japan, the total career value should be Ramirez’s calling card, but it’s not as good as Rhodes, who didn’t reach 2,000 hits because he walked so much.

Rami-chan is going to get in because he won two MVPs and he has a ton of support, so I’m not worried enough to vote just to keep him on the ballot this year. He didn’t match Ibata in peak or career value and won two MVPs but only four Best Nines, the fewest of any two-time MVP in contention for the Hall.

Atsunori Inaba, who should have been the PL’s 2007 MVP instead of his teammate Yu Darvish is probably a step ahead of Ramirez in every category except the big hardware. Hiroki Kokubo is about even with Ramirez according to established norms. But if you are voting for Masahiro Kawai then you have to ignore a zillion players who are better than him. I think the world of Kawai, and he was a very good player for a long time.

I voted for Takuro Ishii in the past, but he’s not quite up to Ramirez’s level, so I’m going to have to pass on him. Shinya Miyamoto won 10 Golden Gloves, which is kind of a 50-50 grey area and he was named on 58 percent of last year’s ballots, but he also had less peak and career value than any of the nine Hall eligible players with 10 or more Golden Gloves. Ishii, who got 24.6 percent last year is a MUCH more fitting candidate. Kenjiro Nomura, another shortstop, is about even with Ishii although with a slightly shorter career and slightly more peak value.

I’m conflicted about Motonobu Tanishige. He’s going to get in because he’s on TV all the time, was a productive hitter for a while, and an excellent defensive catcher for a long time because he stayed fit for a long time.

Hall ballot
The 2021 Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame ballot… warts and all

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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.