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Senga in jeopardy

deja vu all over again

Originally diagnosed with a sprained ankle suffered in his April 6 season debut, SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga is now expected to miss two to three months due to ligament damage in his left ankle.

But the injury could cost him much more than that. If he does not make it back in three months it could delay his qualification to file for free agency for a full year.

Senga, who tied for the 2020 Pacific League lead in wins and strikeouts, while leading the league in ERA, has long expressed a desire to move to the majors and has petitioned the Hawks to let him move via the posting system, something the team has repeatedly refused to consider.

That makes this wonderful right-hander’s tenure in Fukuoka tied to the nine years of service time he needs to file for international free agency.

Senga, who was first activated on April 30, 2012, has amassed by my count seven years and 20 days. He needs another 125 days this season to make this year count and keep him on track for international free agency after the 2022 season.

Senga in the service

YearService timeRemainingYears
2012440
2013145 – full41
201472 + 60 for injury1361
201528 + 117 remaining192
2016145 – full193
2017145 – full194
2018145 – full195
2019145 – full196
2020145 – full197

Players injured on the field, can get up to 60 days of injury service time a year, and he’ll need that. This is a difficult year because I haven’t confirmed how the Olympic break — NPB will shut down between the middle of July and the middle of August — will affect service time.

It appears to be about 25 days, meaning that if he comes back on July 20, he’ll have 60 days of injury time, 78 days left in the regular season and more if the Hawks make the Climax Series, plus April 6 and 19 days he’s carried over since the end of the 2015 season.

That’s 158, and plenty to clear the 145 he needs to count this year. But if the injury sidelines him for four months, or he needs surgery, he’s screwed. He’s already missed more than a year for an injury suffered in June 2014, and got 60 days that year, but he lost most of 2015.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. As I wrote in March, Yuki Yanagita was in a similar bind in 2019. He missed half the season, and had the Hawks activated him from his rehab a few days earlier, he would have qualified for free agency five months ago, but they didn’t. Instead, they offered him a seven-year anchor of a contract and he’ll never leave.

So if Senga is still out of action or pitching on the farm in rehab games in August, expect the Hawks to err on the side of caution and not rush his return.

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Orix on the corners

As promised in the March 29 newsletter, I wanted to study the impact of the most infamous tactic of the Orix Buffaloes’ 2020 season, putting runners on the corners in motion with two outs. It all looks cut and dried because, well, former Orix manager Norifumi Nishimura is an old-school guy, and the visual impact of having the third-base runner walk into an inning-ending out is hard to put out of your mind.

So how bad were the Buffaloes in those situations? They were bad, although not the worst in Japan, but Nishimura was perhaps the most engaged in this tactic last season.

I pointed out in the newsletter that under Nishimura, the Buffaloes scored three runs in those situations, but were caught stealing five times. That should be two runs since I’ve decided to eliminate wild pitches, passed balls, and runners picked off and stuck to those things teams initiate with their baserunning.

Under his successor, Satoshi Nakajima, the Buffaloes ran out of one inning in 15 such situations, but never scored on a play initiated by their base runners.

Over 720 NPB games last year, managers in those situations tried to steal 141 times with 14 of those being run-and-hit plays in which the batter swung and missed. They made 19 outs and scored four runs.

We knew Nishimura did it a lot, but before this I didn’t have a sense for how he really owned that tactic. In 2020, he stole that mantel as it were from Seibu Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji, who led NPB in stolen base attempts with two-outs and runners on the corners each season from 2017 to 2019.

The manager who owns it, in the sense of being the best at it, is the one with the pinch-runner fetish, the Yomiuri Giants’ Tatsunori Hara, who scored three runs off those plays in 2019 while going 17-for-19. In 2020, Hara’s team scored once while going 18-for-19.

Nishimura only managed half a season in 2020 but during that time his team scored half of NPB’s runs and made a quarter of the outs. In 2019, Nishimura’s Buffaloes ran into three outs on these plays, but because they scored once — on a rundown that ended the inning — and collected seven other free bases, they came off better than the three teams that were 3-for-4 stealing without scoring.

To get a sense of the risks and benefits of sending the runners, here are the average run expectancies in NPB from 2017 and 2018.

2 outs, Runners 1st, 3rd = .497.

The most common results when running in that situation are:

  • 3 outs, no runs = .000
  • 3 outs + 1 run = 1.000
  • 2 outs, Runners 2nd, 3rd = .524
  • 2 outs, Runner 2nd + 1 run = 1.33
  • 2 outs, Runner 3rd + 1 run = 1.34

Improving to runners on 2nd and 3rd is the most common outcome. It’s practically a free base with a half-way fast runner on first. The payoff, however, is small, less than a three percent increase in the chance of scoring, and the cost high, going from a 49.7 percent chance of scoring one run to zero. To cash in on that easy gamble, teams need to be successful 38 out of 39 times – if they never try for home plate. If they try to score from third, they need to be successful half the time to make it work.

Of course, context matters, and this data doesn’t control for that. The cost is a bit higher with the cleanup hitter than the No. 8 or nine guy, and less – in terms of wins and losses if it’s a one-sided game in the late innings.

If we’re ONLY talking about the runner on first going, the success rate needs to be 98 percent to break even, and from 2017 to 2019, NPB teams were successful 89 percent of the time. The upside is the possibility of scoring a run.

Under Nakajima, the Buffaloes took those free bases but didn’t push it.

That’s the Alex Ramirez way. My more detailed baserunning data starts from 2017, and from then until 2020, the BayStars went 20-0 stealing second, but never scored except on passed balls and wild pitches.

NPB results

The table below gives the total number of situations, the number of runs scored, outs made, the average expected run gain per play and the total cost for the season. The winner for 2020 was actually a manager, who lost his job, Rakuten’s Hajime Miki, and his total gain of scoring one run from stealing nine times without being caught was an increase of 1.05 runs over 120 games.

The Eagles were worst in 2019, in a tie with the Yakult Swallows, who were worst again in 2020, making three of the four CL’s outs. The other thing you’ll notice is that this tactic is more of a PL thing. Even so, even the worst team at this is not costing itself a lot of runs.

To put it in perspective, having the pitcher bat eighth in your lineup will probably give you four or five extra runs a year.

TeamTotalRunsOutsAvg gain2020 Gain2019 Gain
Giants19110.0420.801.82
Dragons5000.0270.141.22
Carp6000.0270.161.02
Tigers16000.0270.430.73
Lions1001-0.078-0.780.60
'Stars4000.0270.110.24
F's1201-0.060-0.720.11
Hawks1002-0.078-0.780.10
Nakajima*1501-0.008-0.120
Nishimura*1325-0.049-0.64-0.28
Orix *2826-0.027-0.76-0.28
Eagles9100.1171.05-0.42
M's901-0.089-0.8-0.42
Swallows1303-0.094-1.22-0.42

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Sunday musings 3-28-21

The return of “Super Miya”

I kind of scoffed when Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times began calling him that about five years ago, but the SoftBank Hawks Kenta Imamiya is truly super or he would be if he were the man of steel and impervious from nagging injuries.

In a recent Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, our PL prediction show, I wondered what was to become of Kenta Imamiya, the PL’s premier shortstop before Sosuke Genda’s ascendence and a number of injuries, now that the SoftBank Hawks have flooded the middle of their infield with a track team, notably stolen base kind Ukyo Shuto.

The Hawks used to do everything better than everyone except steal bases. They had the best starting pitching, best defense, best on-base offense, best power offense, but it ain’t like that anymore. The OBP side of the equation is way down and the steals are way up. The Hawks have finished fifth or sixth in walks the past three seasons.

But Imamiya returned to the lineup after missing most of last season and cracked a two-run homer in his first game back, which reminded me why one would want him playing whenever he’s healthy: He really drives the ball. When healthy, Imamiya’s going to hit 12-15 home runs a year. Last year Imamiya hit 6 HRs in 177. The seven other guys who played at least one game at either second or short for SoftBank last year combined for seven HRs in 1,081 PAs.

On Saturday, Imamiya did it all with his offense and defense, making a huge difference in the Hawks’ Game 2 victory.

Fair compensation

One thing I’ve wanted to do for years but never got around to until this weekend was actually compare the value created by free agents after they moved to their new teams compared to the value of players taken in compensation by the team losing the free agent.

Long train running

I first got interested in this subject back when I was at Yomiuri and became friendly with Yakult outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi. He was a great story. Like a lot of speedy Japanese outfielders, he switched back and forth between the outfield and infield as a young player.

A junior high hurdles champion, Fukuchi turned pro with the Hiroshima Carp, who had no idea what they had when they needed someone to trade for marginal reliever Hayato Aoki.

To the Carp, Aoki was just another defensive replacement reserve outfielder and pinch runner. But in his first regular playing time with the Seibu Lions, Fukuchi proved he could hit for average, and draw enough walks to be a danger on the bases with his speed.

Then the plot thickened, the Lions decided they would be better off with Hiram Bocachica in the outfield. Bocachica is a kind, fascinating guy and a heck of a player, the only one who has ever told me his ambition was to write a children’s book, but the Lions decided Fukuchi was expendable and didn’t put him on the protected list when they signed free agent pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii.

In exchange for a good pitcher on his final legs, the Swallows got an everyday outfielder who could fly and lead the CL in stolen bases for two straight seasons. Fukuchi told me he bought Ishii dinner after that for reviving his career.

So about 12 years ago, I thought, I wonder how often a player received in free agent compensation turns out to be better than the free agent, as Fukuchi easily was – although the Lions won their last pennant the year they signed Ishii, so they can’t be too unhappy how that turned out.

Where’s my second baseman?

On Friday, however, second baseman Shunta Tanaka drove in six runs in his debut for the DeNA BayStars against the team that gave him away as free agent compensation, the Yomiuri Giants.

I like to dump on manager Tatsunori Hara for his inability to settle on a second baseman and joke that he has a smart phone app called “Who’s my second baseman,” so it seemed poetic justice that he let one get away. But to be fair, he’s only averaged using 7.5 different players at the position, his successor for three seasons, Yoshinobu Takahashi takes the cake among modern managers with over 400 games managed with 8-2/3 different second basemen per season.

You’re probably not curious, but in case you are, the champion of second baseman switchers was Yasuji Hondo, who from 1963 to 1965 as manager of the Orions, used 11-2/3 different guys per season as he finished fifth twice and fourth once.

On Saturday, Takayuki Kajitani, the player whose signing sent Tanaka to the BayStars, hit a grand slam, while on Sunday, the player the ‘Stars got in compensation for the Giants signing Shun Yamaguchi – currently with the SF Giants – threw six scoreless innings against his old club.

So after that weekend, I had to finally break down and do the study, using win shares to measure value. The study starts with pitcher Hirofumi Kono going to the Giants from the Nippon Ham Fighters after the 1995 season and Tadayoshi Kawabe going to the Fighters, the first player taken in compensation after two years without a single player being taken and ending with the first transaction with players still active, Kan Otake and Ryuji Ichioka.

The list

Free agents are listed on the top above the compensation player. Values are given using Bill James’ Win Shares total for all the season each player played for their teams after the transaction.

Of the 14 pairs where at least one player produced a minimum of 10 WS after the move, the free agent produced more value 10 times, which is about what I suspected. The Fukuchi-Ishii pair is the most lop-sided pair.

Teams don’t take players as compensation that often because it’s hard to get real value and taking no player means a larger cash package.

  • Hirofumi Kono, Giants: 8
  • Tadayoshi Kawabe, Fighters: 1
  • Yukinaga Maeda, Giants: 15
  • Kazuhiro Hiramatsu, Dragons: 0
  • Shinichi Kato, K. Buffaloes: 5
  • Yuki Tanaka, Orix BW 17
  • Shigeki Noguchi, Giants: 1
  • Kohei Oda, Dragons: 11
  • Kiyoshi Toyoda, Giants: 20
  • Akira Eto, Lions: 7
  • Hiroki Kokubo, Hawks: 73
  • Shintaro Yoshitake, Giants: 2
  • Ken Kadokura, Giants: 1
  • Kimiyasu Kudo, BayStars: 7
  • Takahiro Arai, Tigers: 97
  • Masato Akamatsu, Carp: 38
  • Kazuhiro Wada, Dragons: 159
  • Shinya Okamoto, Lions: 3
  • Kazuhisa Ishii, Lions: 23
  • Kazuki Fukuchi, Swallows: 39
  • Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Tigers: 1
  • Takuya Takahama, Marines: 5
  • Shuichi Murata, Giants: 83
  • Shugo Fujii, BayStars: 9
  • Saburo Omura, Marines: 20
  • Takayuki Taguchi, Giants: 0
  • Hayato Terahara, Hawks: 11
  • Takahiro Mahara, O.Buffaloes: 4
  • Keiichi Hirano, O.Buffaloes: 19
  • Kazuya Takahama, Tigers: 0
  • Yasutomo Kubo, BayStars: 22
  • Kazunari Tsuruoka, Tigers: 6
  • Kan Otake, Giants: 20
  • Ryuji Ichioka, Carp: 24

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Giant tricks, old and new

After their second straight Japan Series 4-0 sweep at the hands of the SoftBank Hawks, no one was surprised when the Yomiuri Giants’ public response to their failure was to claim the rules put them at a disadvantage. Even though it’s an old story for the Giants, this new one comes with a hidden twist and the possibility of the organization actually doing some good.

The irony of Yomiuri blaming a system that it has managed and contorted to suit the best interests of its team alone at the expense of its other 11 business partners was not lost on anyone.

When the Pacific League jumped on the Olympic baseball bandwagon in 2000 by sending stars and not playing on national team game days, Tsuneo Watanabe, the president of Yomiuri publicly threatened to kick the six PL teams out for breaking NPB rules.

Four years later, when Yomiuri became an Olympic sponsor and pushed “Mr. Giants” Shigeo Nagashima to manage the team, Yomiuri became was the loudest advocate for the Athens Olympics’ baseball tournament.

Yomiuri and its Central League minions have done this over and over, denigrating every Pacific League innovation, until they worked. Every successful PL policy has gone from being the target of CL ridicule to being coopted by the CL with a new name slapped on it.

This is why Japan’s postseason games between the regular season and the Japan Series are not called playoffs because the Climax Series was based on the PL playoffs. The CL owners made a few superficial changes and slapped a new name on it, although a decidedly stupid one, in the hope people would look see them as something more than whiny unimaginative imitators.

In the past, Yomiuri responded to its team’s failure to dominate by changing the rules.

  • 1934: Blackmailed amateur pitcher Victor Starffin into joining Yomiuri’s new pro team by using the owner’s influence to get the pitcher’s father off a murder rap.
  • 1948: Tampered with Hawks ace Takehiko Bessho to force Nankai to let him go to the Giants.
  • 1978: Failed to create a loophole that allowed Giants to sign amateur pitcher Suguru Egawa. When that didn’t fly, they forced NPB to accept a trade that sent the player to the Giants with pitcher Shigeru Kobayashi.
  • 1993: threatened to quit Nippon Professional Baseball if the other 11 owners didn’t go along with a free agency system that would let the Giants scoop up Japan’s top veteran players.
  • 2021: Having failed to win a Japan Championship for a franchise-record eight years running, the Giants suddenly realized that the PL’s designated hitter rule, adopted in 1975, gives that league an unfair advantage.

Of course, nobody is fooled by this Yomiuri PR move, since nobody thinks the organization cares one bit about the quality of pro baseball beyond that of players wearing Giants uniforms.

The Giants’ bullying and hypocrisy are normal. What is new is the stuff the Giants aren’t talking about, a renewed effort to build a talent base from the ground up, through the developmental roster.

A review of the developmental system

The first time I heard of the developmental “ikusei” system was a CL official complaining that it was just another Yomiuri scheme to hoard talent to keep it away from other clubs.

Yet, the Giants were one of the first two teams to grasp the possibility of the developmental draft. I don’t profess to know much of this story, but Giants manager Tatsunori Hara had a good relationship with Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, who was that PL club’s de facto GM from 2006 to 2008.

Valentine was an advocate of broader minor league development and after the Rakuten Eagles made the minor Eastern League a seven-team circuit, the Giants and Marines collaborated on a plan to get extra games between the teams’ youngest players and the EL team without an opponent for a few days.

After drafting more developmental players than the rest of the PL combined between 2005 and 2009, Lotte’s enthusiasm for developmental players waned after Valentine was ousted in the team’s infamous 2009 coup. The small amounts paid out in developmental contracts mean few opportunities for front-office grift and kickbacks that once were common in front offices.

It’s probably no surprise that the team that became the new champions of developmental deals started doing so in 2010. The winter before, SoftBank cleaned its front office, replacing the old-school grifters and hangers on with a more dedicated group, led at first by GM Itaru Kobayashi. After drafting no developmental players in 2009, the Hawks began grabbing five or more every year.

Signing lots of developmental players itself is no sign of a well-run organization, but when a team drastically changes the number of players it takes after the regular draft ends, it may signal a policy change.

What this has to do with the Giants

I didn’t notice it until doing this year’s rosters, but Yomiuri drafted 20 players in the regular and developmental drafts, almost a sixth of the 182 signed by all 12 teams combined. Of those, the Giants set an NPB record with 12 developmental picks.

With major league penny-pinching reaching new heights, people have for the past three years talked about when Japanese teams might take advantage of the situation. Until now, MLB has depended on Japan’s foreign player limits to prevent NPB teams from dipping into the majors domestic and amateur talent pool.

The Hawks, and more recently, the Chunichi Dragons, have been able to profit from some of Cuba’s impressive talent, but it took the signing of American pitcher Carter Stewart Jr in 2019 to crack open a door that MLB had expected would stay shut forever.

This past week, the Giants opened that door a little further by signing two 16-year-old Dominican prospects, outfielder Julian Tima and shortstop Jose De la Cruz to developmental deals.

Although there is no minor league free agency in Japan and players can only become free agents through first-team service time, developmental players can only be reserved for three years, by which time Yomiuri will have to either sign them to their 70-man roster or release them on Nov. 31, 2023.

A full-count story said the Giants see the pair as long-term investments and are preparing a support program that will include Japanese language instruction. Although the Giants have been big believers in mass farming of cheap amateur talent, the idea that 16-year-old imports were worth a longterm investment and a new setup is noteworthy.

If the Dominican amateur talent stream becomes a river for Yomiuri, it would be no surprise if the team that once boasted its pure Japanese lineup despite its best star, Sadaharu Oh, being a foreign national suddenly decided the four-player foreign limit was antithetical to the spirit of Japanese baseball and needed to go.

If that happens, it is easy to see how the Giants might find a way to combine their old trick, changing rules to suit their needs, with their new-found trick of mining foreign talent and, for once actually try to make the entire pro game better.

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major minor hitters

Every year, I’ll go through the hitters with standout numbers in the minors, looking for guys who should have do well at the top level if given time to adjust. It’s not complex analysis. I look for guys with decent playing time with high offensive winning percentages — a measure of their production in the context of the runs their team scores and allows.

I’m not 100 percent convinced these guys will be stars. I don’t see any can’t-miss prospects at the moment, but they might be very good if given regular playing time.

Taiki Sekine, DeNA BayStars

Sekine’s 25-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder, with discipline, speed, and some pop. Sekine’s minor league numbers began to take off in 2017 when he posted a .596 offensive winning percentage in the Eastern League. It’s gone up since then as his strikeouts have gone down and his walks have increased.

Takumaru Yaoita, Yomiuri Giants

Yaoita is a 24-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder, who has bounced around the developmental and 70-man rosters of first the Eagles and now the Giants, who got him to strike out less and hit for more power last year.

We should keep an eye on the Giants’ minor leaguers this year. Katsuya Katsuki basically did nothing for the Lotte Marines except hit for power. But he became a terror after the Giants acquired him in the Hirokazu Sawamura trade.

Masaru Watanabe, Chunichi Dragons

Watanabe is a 27-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder. He is speedy, hits for average and can steal bases. His numbers make him look like a clone of Teppei Tsuchiya, whom the Dragons gave away so he could be an all-star for the Rakuten Eagles.

Seiya Hosokawa, DeNA BayStars

Hosokawa is a 22-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder. He is a disciplined power hitter who hits for average. Former manager Alex Ramirez had his eye on Hosokawa from Day 1, and time is on his side more than it’s on Sekine’s.

Shogo Sakakura, Hiroshima Carp

Sakakura is a 22-year-old left-handed-hitting catcher. He’s a disciplined hitter who doesn’t strike out, which means he may draw 70 or 80 walks a year if he bats eighth in front of the CL pitcher’s spot. His 2020 slash line .287/.346/.411 looks about what can be expected from him with the first team.

Note: Two PL players would have been on this list, but both found their feet with the first team in 2020, SoftBank’s Ryoya Kurihara and Orix’s Keita Nakagawa.

Service time conundrum

The SoftBank Hawks apparently did not manipulate Yuki Yanagita’s service time in 2019 in order to discourage him from moving to the major leagues as a free agent, the players union said Thursday.

Satoru Kato, an official of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, said that while Yanagita’s case was cause for concern, it was not the only concern the union has about Japanese clubs manipulating service time.

Yanagita, easily the best player in Japan over the past seven years, suffered a leg injury in 2019, missed more than half of the season, and fell 10 days shy of the 145 needed to register his eighth year of first-team service time. That prevented him from qualifying to file for international free agency after the 2020 season, as he had planned.

Kato said Yanagita and his agent approached the union about the issue, so he spoke with the club and all sides were satisfied the Hawks did not prolong his rehab period for the purpose of denying him a year of service time — or perhaps it was just a case where there was not enough of a smoking gun to show the Hawks had acted improperly.

“They contacted us with their concerns and we talked to the team,” Kato said. “In this case it appears they did not keep him inactive for that purpose. But it isn’t like teams don’t push the limits, particularly with starting pitchers, calling them up to make one start every 10 days.”

“We’ve had to talk to teams about things like that a lot. But at the same time, we have to inform the players, because many of them don’t know what it means for them.”

Kato didn’t spell out which teams he might have spoken to about this but if one looked for a young pitcher who was starting every 10th or 11th day and being deactivated between starts, that would look suspicious.

Like this:

  • Aug. 20 Activated: 5 IP, 6 K, 1 ER, Aug. 21 deactivated
  • Aug. 31 Activated: 5 IP, 2 K, 2 ER, Sept. 1 deactivated
  • Sept. 12 Activated: 4-2/3 IP, 3 K, 4 ER, Sept. 13 deactivated
  • Sept. 26 Activated: 5 IP, 5 K, 2 ER, Sept. 27 deactivated
  • Oct. 9 Activated: 4 IP, 4 K, 5 ER, Season ends.

This is the 2017 activation history of one team’s 2016 fourth-round draft pick out of high school. The pitcher in question posted a 0.27 ERA in the 33-2/3 Western League innings that season and has since had three full years of service time

But despite making five starts for the Orix Buffaloes between Aug. 20 and Oct. 9, Yoshinobu Yamamoto amassed just five days of service time in his rookie season.

This isn’t an issue at the moment, but if one of Japan’s premier pitchers, should suffer an injury that causes him to miss half a season, those 45 days of service time could cost him a year before he files for free agency.

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