Category Archives: Research

A repository for research articles

NPB 2020 9-24 members notes

Martin No. 1 in hit (by pitch) parade

I’d been noticing for a few weeks how often Leonys Martin get hit by pitches and I got curious whether imported players get hit by pitches in Japan more often.

Although only one imported player, Greg LaRocca, ranks among the top 20 all-time in the category, that’s because they don’t play enough games here. LaRocca was hit 109 times in 583 games, a rate unmatched by any of the career leaders.

Twenty percent of the league leaders since 1950 are imported players (28 of 140) although imported players made only 0.7 percent of the plate appearances in NPB during that span.

If you compare imports and domestic-registered players who hit 20-plus home runs in a season, the imports have been hit by pitches 8.8 percent more often.

NPB 2020 7-30 GAMES AND NEWS

Simplified Takahashi outduels Fujinami

“Simple is best” poster boy Keiji Takahashi continued his mound turnaround on Thursday with eight impressive scoreless innings as he outdueled Shintaro Fujinami in the Yakult Swallows’ 6-0 Central League win over the Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium.

The lefty, whose old leg kick, arm raise, double-pump leg raise delivery used to look like one of those sci-fi movie transformers morphing into a car, has been precisely commanding his fastball, slider, changeup package with his new, very orthodox looking delivery this year.

After three starts in which he allowed six earned runs over 15-2/3 combined innings, Takahashi struck out six, walked one and hit one, while giving up three singles. After giving up a leadoff single in the first, he recorded two assists on a tricky force at second and a pickoff-throw caught stealing in a three-batter inning.

Fujinami brought his good stuff and was on target, walking just one batter over eight innings. The Swallows bunched their hits against him to score a run in the second, and added three more in the seventh, when shortstop Fumiya Hojo had a night to forget.

Hojo fumbled a grounder to allow the leadoff man to reach. With two outs and runners on the corners, Tomotaka Sakaguchi reached on an infield single and Fujinami’s throwing error allowed the runner on first to scoot over to third. Hojo then dropped a pop fly in shallow center when he ran into center fielder Koji Chikamoto, allowing two runs to score.

The Swallows opened the scoring in the second through a trio of their less-heralded players. Kotaro Yamasaki opened with a single, was sacrificed to second by reserve infielder Takeshi Miyamoto and scored on a double by another reserve infielder, rookie shorstsop Taisei Yoshida.

Fujinami pitched around a leadoff double in the sixth, but Takahashi followed with his third straight 1-2-3 inning–thanks to Norichika Aoki’s good catch in left to rob Jerry Sands of a leadoff single in the seventh.

BayStars make out like bandits against Giants

There’s an expression in Japanese baseball “breaking open the safe” that is used when the first run in a scoreless game finally crosses the plate. Gerardo Parra may have cracked open the safe on Thursday at Tokyo Dome, but the DeNA BayStars made off with the cash in a 4-2 win over the Yomiuri Giants.

For five scoreless innings, Giants lefty Cristopher Mercedes (2-3) dueled it out with BayStars right-hander Shinichi Onuki (3-2). Parra got the Giants on the board in the bottom of the sixth. He tripled with two outs and scored when Naoki Yoshikawa beat out an infield single, sliding head-first into the bag.

Mercedes, who had retired 19 of the first 21 batters he faced ran into trouble with two outs in the top of the seventh. Jose Lopez, a former Giants, singled, and Toshiro Miyazaki walked. Pinch-hitter Hiroki Minei singled in the tying run and Toshihiko Kuramoto singled home Miyazaki to put the visitors in front.

As he had the day before with a one-run lead in the seventh, DeNA closer Yasuaki Yamasaki came on in the seventh. He gave up a one-out single to Hayato Sakamoto. Yamasaki, whose splitter has been poor this year, threw two of his best to get ahead of Yoshihiro Maru, before striking him out looking at a 1-2 splitter low in the zone that failed to tumble.

The right-hander walked slugger Kazuma Okamoto. Lefty Edwin Escobar came in to face tough left-handed-hitting Takumi Oshiro, but Giants manager Tatsunori Hara sent in light-hitting right-handed hitter Shingo Ishikawa up to pinch-hit, and Ishikawa grounded out of the inning.

One of the things Hara was famous for in his first decade as Giants manager, along with going through second basemen like Kleenex and his fondness for pinch-runners, was in going with every platoon advantage regardless of the gap in quality of the hitters involved. Glad to see he hasn’t changed much with age.

BayStars right-hander Spencer Patton surrendered Zelous Wheeler’s eighth-inning leadoff single. Para’s single off lefty Kenta Ishida put runners on the corners with no out. But the lefty somehow gutted it out.

Ishida struck out veteran Hiroyuki Nakajima on six pitches, and a delayed double steal saw pinch-runner Daiki Masuda out at the plate. With first base open, Ishida walked Yang Dai-kang to face tough lefty Yasuyuki Kamei. On the eighth pitch after three two-strike fouls, Kamei grounded out to end the inning.

Miyazaki homered with a man on in the top of the ninth, and Okamoto blasted his 13th homer of the year in the home half off of Kazuki Mishima, who earned his second career save after collecting his first on Wednesday.

Johnson back with Carp, but Dragons craft tie

Hiroshima Carp lefty Kris Johnson returned to active duty and looked like his old self through two innings, retiring the first five Chunichi Dragons hitters on grounders in their 4-4, 10-inning tie at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium.

The lefty allowed two runs over six innings, which made it his best start of the season, but reliever Yasunori Kikuchi allowed Chunichi to tie it 4-4 in the seventh.

The Dragons opened the scoring in the third inning on a one-out single by Kengo Takeda, a sacrifice by the pitcher and a single by unlikely leadoff hitter Nobumasa Fukuda. Ryoma Nishikawa, however, tied it in the bottom of the second against Yuichiro Okano with his second homer of the year.

Dayan Viciedo doubled and scored the go-ahead run for the Dragons in the fourth on a single by catcher Takuya Kinoshita.

Again, the Carp had an answer. No-out singles by Seiya Suzuki and Ryuhei Matsuyama set the table for Shota Dobayashi’s seventh home run.

With two outs and the bases loaded after back-to-back pinch-hit singles and a walk to Fukuda, Viciedo singled in two runs and was declared a tie after this season’s coronavirus 10-inning limit.

Romero, Kubo clinch win for Eagles

Stefen Romero broke up a seventh-inning tie with an RBI single and 40-year-old Yuya Kubo (1-0) retired the only batter he faced in relief to win his season debut as the Rakuten Eagles came from behind to beat the Lotte Marines at Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium.

Former Marines captain Daichi Suzuki homered off Lotte right-hander Daiki Iwashita in the first, but Eagles southpaw Hayato Yuge surrendered the lead on single runs in the first and second on one hit, two walks and an error. Leonys Martin homered for the second-straight day with a towering blast to make it 3-1 before Hideto Asamura slammed a high-straight pitch from Yamashita into the stands for his 13th of the year and a 3-2 game.

With one on and two down in the fifth, right-hander Kubo came in to face the left-handed-hitting Martin and got him to tap back to the mound on the ninth pitch to end the inning.

Suzuki tied it against his former team when he singled to open the sixth and came home on a groundout after Iwashita walked Eigoro Mogi and Asamura to load the bases with no outs. Romero, who had homered in each of the last two games, singled in the go-ahead run.

Kazuhisa Makita worked the eighth for the Eagles, and former Eagle Frank Herrmann worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the Marines, but the hosts were unable to score against Alan Busenitz, who recorded his second save.

Fighters’ Sugiura corrals Buffaloes

Right-hander Toshihiro Sugiura (3-1) was happy to win but less so to allow a run over his eight innings in the Nippon Ham Fighters’ 7-3 victory over the Orix Buffaloes at Sapporo Dome.

With a 7-0 lead in the fifth, Sugiura took his foot off the gas, failed to execute his pitches and was fortunate to only allow a run before he recovered his composure.

“You have a big lead like that, you’re supposed to go all the way and give the relievers a rest. I failed to do that as well as I should have,” said the right-hander, surrendered a hit on his first pitch but still faced the minimum through four. He allowed four hits and a walk while striking out four.

Taishi Ota singled, drove in a run and scored in the Fighters’ four-run first off lefty Sachiya Yamasaki (1-1His two-run homer in the third made it 6-0

Sho Nakata, who struck out in the first, singled and scored on Ota’s third homer of the year. Nakata added the Fighters’ seventh run on a fourth-inning sacrifice fly. The Fighters might have had more but Kensuke Kondo was doubled off first on the play.

Adam Jones drove in two in the ninth with his fifth home run of the year for the Buffaloes.

Mori breaks out of funk against Hawks

Tomoya Mori, moved to second in the order from third due to his poor run of form, doubled, homered twice, scored three and drove in three for the Seibu Lions in their 6-0 win over the SoftBank Hawks at Fukuoka’s PayPayDome.

Rookie Hawks right-hander Yugo Bando (0-1), making his first career start after three long relief appearances, gave up a Mori double and a Hotaka Yamakawa single that put the Lions on the board in the first.

Corey Spangenberg homered with one out in the second, and Mori did likewise in the third. Sosuke Genda, batting in the No. 9 spot due to poor form, singled to open the fifth and Mori homered in his second-straight at-bat to make it 5-0.

Submarine right-hander Kaito Yoza (2-2) threw five scoreless innings for the Lions to earn the win, the first time this season that SoftBank has been shut out.

Lions to re-sign 2015 top pick Tawata

The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions announced Thursday that they have re-signed pitcher Shinsaburo Tawata. Their top pick in the 2015 draft, Tawata was not extended a contract after he was diagnosed with dysautonomia, an autonomic nerve disorder.

Although not under contract, Tawata began working out with the club’s third team on March 24 according to website Full Count.

Tawata is the second prominent Japanese player to be sidetracked by dysautonomia. It also struck popular former major leaguer Munenori Kawasaki prior to the 2018 season. Kawasaki spent last winter as a player-coach for Taiwan’s Wei Chuan Dragons.

Fighters’ Villanueva, Buffs’ Rodriguez dropped

The Nippon Ham Fighters deactivated third baseman Christian Villanueva on Thursday after he fouled a ball off his foot in Wednesday’s game against the Orix Buffaloes at Sapporo Dome.

He was joined on the deactivated list by Orix’s Aderlin Rodriguez, who was hit by a pitch to force in the tying run in the same game. Rodriguez was diagnosed with a contusion on his left forearm, according to Hochi Shimbun.

Fighters reliever Katsuhiko Kumon, who hit Rodriguez and blew the Fighters’ one-run lead was also sent down due to a strained adductor muscle in his left leg. He is expected to miss four weeks, Full Count reports.

Active roster moves 7/30/2020

Deactivated players can be re-activated from 8/9

Central League

Activated

CarpP42Kris Johnson
SwallowsP61Takuma Kubo

Dectivated

CarpP26Ren Nakata
SwallowsP16Juri Hara

Pacific League

Activated

FightersP34Mizuki Hori
FightersP35Takahiro Nishimura
FightersOF4Yuya Taniguchi
BuffaloesP60Yu Hidarisawa

Dectivated

EaglesP60Ryota Ishibashi
FightersP49Katsuhiko Kumon
FightersIF44Christian Villanueva
BuffaloesIF42Aderlin Rodriguez

Starting pitchers for Friday, July 31

Pacific League

p>Fighters vs Buffaloes: Sapporo Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Kohei Arihara (1-4, 3.51) vs Tsubasa Sakakibara (1-1, 2.95)

Marines vs Eagles: Zozo Marine Stadium 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Ayumu Ishikawa (0-2, 4.42) vs Takahiro Norimoto (3-2, 2.93)

Hawks vs Lions: PayPay Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Nao Higashihama (2-0, 1.91) vs Zach Neal (2-0, 3.96)

Central League

Giants vs Carp: Tokyo Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Seishu Hatake (-) vs Masato Morishita (2-1, 2.36)

Dragons vs Swallows: Nagoya Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Yudai Ono (0-3, 4.04) vs Daiki Yoshida (0-1, 8.59)

Tigers vs BayStars: Koshien Stadium 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Koyo Aoyagi (4-1, 1.80) vs Taiga Kamichatani (0-0, 6.00)

NPB 2020 7-21 pitchers

Announced starting pitchers in Japanese pro baseball for Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Pacific League

Eagles vs Buffaloes: Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Ryota Ishibashi (1-3, 7.20) vs Andrew Albers (1-2, 3.48)

Lions vs Marines: MetLife Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Tatsuya Imai (1-3, 6.14) vs Manabu Mima (2-1, 3.65)

Hawks vs Fighters: PayPay Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Kodai Senga (2-0, 4.09) vs Toshihiro Sugiura (1-1, 3.14)

Central League

BayStars vs Swallows: Yokohama Stadium 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Michael Peoples (0-0, 4.91) vs Juri Hara (-)

Dragons vs Giants: Nagoya Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Takumi Yamamoto (1-2, 6.62) vs Tomoyuki Sugano (3-0, 2.36)

Tigers vs Carp: Koshien Stadium 6 pm, 5 am EDT

Takumi Akiyama (1-1, 4.41) vs Allen Kuri (1-1, 4.24)

What I meant to say about catching

I’ve been going down a rabbit hole the past week or so, trying to identify catchers with substantial careers despite being particularly weak hitters or fielders. After a podcast listener asked whether Japanese teams favored hitting or defense, I tried to identify various kinds of careers.

The question was sparked by the Chunichi Dragons’ inability to settle on an everyday catcher since Motonobu Tanishige stepped away from that role. I believe teams will give playing time more easily to good defensive catchers who can’t hit than good hitting catchers who are poor defenders.

What I found is that teams will give the everyday job to guys who have the physical tools to be good-fielding catchers who are decent hitters and who eventually develop into good fielders. Some of those guys do become better-than-average fielders and some don’t. Sometimes those guys develop reputations as good handlers of pitchers, something that is virtually impossible to quantify with the available data.

I also suspect that a lot of the variability in these careers comes from the frequent injuries that come with catching.

Catchers’ fielding

The first trouble is measuring defensive quality. Bill James’ win shares system gives teams’ catchers a chance to seize a large share of their team’s defensive wins if they are relatively better than the league in the following categories in descending order: Throwing out would-be base stealers, errors and passed balls and opponents’ sacrifice bunts, these last two combine for only 10 percent of the team score. Based on those scores and the scores of other positions, all a team’s catchers receive a share of the defensive wins, these are then split up among individuals based on their respective playing time and achievements.

It is mute on the subject of calling pitches, but if a team’s catchers are good at preventing sacrifices, commits few passed balls, and has a relatively large number of non-strikeout putouts, and assists on plays other than foiled stolen base attempts, they will rate higher. Barring other quality information, the system attempts to measure catchers’ value as fielders rather than pitch callers.

Playing time

Then we have the problem of making a rough estimate about playing time since the number of innings played in NPB has only been published for the past few seasons. If you base it strictly on defensive win shares relative to plate appearances, then good hitters will have their defensive evaluation docked by the virtue of getting more PAs.

I evaluated offense as win shares per 500 plate appearances in seasons spent primarily as a catcher.

So between the fact that we’re only looking at fielding since players’ total defensive value is beyond our grasp and that catchers are extremely vulnerable to injuries that fill their careers with potholes and can wreak havoc on careers, this is at best a tricky exercise. But with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s have a look at some careers.

Long careers despite below-average fielding metrics

Katsuhiko Kido, Hanshin Tigers. Kido was the regular catcher for Hanshin’s 1985 Japan Series championship team. That was his career year both batting and fielding — probably the only year he was above average in his career and when he won his lone Golden Glove. Chronic shoulder issues limited his ability to control the running game as time went on, but he still caught in 943 career games.

Shinichi Murata, Yomiuri Giants. A solid hitter, Murata was the Giants’ primary catcher from 1990 to 2000 despite an injury to his throwing arm as a youngster that nearly drove him out of the game. Surgery allowed him to continue playing, and the Giants won four pennants with him as their main catcher. He was highly regarded by the team’s pitchers and won a Best Nine award and was MVP of the 2000 Japan Series.

Satoshi Nakajima, Hankyu, Orix, Seibu, Yokohama, Nippon Ham. One of those guys who was athletic and could hit as a youngster who became a respectable fielder when he got older. A number of catchers, particularly good-hitting ones, develop into respectable fielders late in their careers, which reminds me of one of John Huston’s great lines:

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

John Huston’s character Noah Cross in “Chinatown.”

Perhaps we can add catchers’ fielding to that group. Late in his career with the Fighters, having earned a reputation as an exceptional handler of pitchers, he would be brought in to catch in the final inning in save situations along with the closer.

Isao Ito, Taiyo Whales, Nankai Hawks. Another good hitter, Ito was the regular catcher for the Whales between 1964 and 1976. He was a five-time all-star playing in a great hitter’s park for a club that during his tenure devolved into one of the CL’s doormats.

Shiro Mizunuma, Hiroshima Carp. Although he does not rate well in overall fielding, Mizunuma was highly regarded for working with the Carp pitchers. He earned his first regular playing time in 1975 when the club won its first pennant. Mizunuma was the regular from 1975 to 1980 before an injury suffered in a traffic accident and the rapid development of Mitsuru Tatsukawa — one of NPB’s best defensive catchers turned him into a backup.

Yoshiharu Wakana, Lions, Tigers, Whales, Fighters. A journeyman who played from 1972 to 1991, Wakana was known for the large number of incidents he was involved in, particularly with foreign hitters. He was an above-average hitter, with below-average fielding numbers. Wakana was the No. 1 catcher for at least one season with three of his clubs. Like Nakajima, he finished with Nippon Ham, developed a reputation as a good defender and had decent numbers to back that up.

He holds the NPB record for passed balls in a season with 17 – the same season he controversially won his only Golden Glove.

As Hawks battery coach, he was credited with turning Kenji Jojima into a solid defensive catcher, but his coaching career ended after the 2001 season. That year Tuffy Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record when Oh was the Hawks’ skipper. Wakana was not asked to return for 2002 after saying it would have been “distasteful for a foreign hitter to break Oh’s record.”

Of these six, two, only Kido and Ito, appear to have never developed good reputations for their handling of pitchers.

Long catching careers despite below-average offense

Here are the guys who were terrible hitters even compared to his catching peers but still had long careers:

Takeo Yoshizawa, Chunichi Dragons, Kintetsu Buffaloes. Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.

Despite his lack of offense, Yoshizawa played in 1,355 and had 3,876 plate appearances.

Ginjiro Sumitani, Seibu Lions, Yomiuri Giants. This guy is at the crux of the offense vs defense debate behind the plate as he lost his job to a guy who could mash but was still raw as a pro catcher, Tomoya Mori.

Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves and played for the national team.

Takashi Tanaka, Nankai Hawks, Hiroshima Carp. Tanaka had both the rep for being a quality handler of pitchers and solid fielding metrics. He only had three seasons in which he amassed 300 plate appearances but he was the Carp’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1966 and had 3,347 career plate appearances. By my estimation the worst hitting catcher to have more than 1,200 career plate appearances.

The boring stuff

Since expansion in 1950, 48 catchers have had at least 2,500 plate appearances from seasons in which they caught in 80 percent or more of their games, each of those had at least two seasons in which they were primarily catchers with 300-plus plate appearances, a status I’ll label as “everyday.” These are the players I looked at.

The average career defensive value for these players is 1.25 fielding win shares per 100 PA. I estimated that 33 of the catchers fall within one standard deviation of the mean for their careers. Hall of Famer Atsuya Furuta was two standard deviations above the mean. Five were 1 SD above, while two were 2 SDs below average and seven were 1 SD below average.

The catchers whose fielding rated at least one standard deviation above the mean averaged 12.2 seasons as everyday catchers and 6,330 career plate appearances from their seasons when primarily catching. Those who were 1 SD or more below the fielding mean averaged 4.3 seasons as an everyday catcher and 3,239 plate appearances.

Two catchers with substantial careers are more than 1 SD below average offensively, 2 were 1 SD above the mean, while three were 2 SDs above the mean offensively.

The catchers with the longest careers are, not surprisingly, those who are better-than-average fielders and better-than-average hitters. We don’t see any long careers by guys who are really poor hitters, or really poor fielders.

The best hitting catcher in NPB history — at least until the Seibu Lions’ Tomoya Mori gets a few more years under his belt — is Koichi Tabuchi, who did not quite collect 3,000 plate appearances in seasons when he caught in 80 percent of his games because he often played at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. As a fielder, Tabuchi was probably around average.

Below are some of the lists the study produced:

Weakest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1983木戸 克彦Katsuhiko Kido0.674.792538
1984村田 真一Shinichi Murata0.706.933089
1987中嶋 聡Satoshi Nakajima0.883.793870
1961伊藤 勲Isao Ito0.905.663846
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1974若菜 嘉晴Yoshiharu Wakana1.035.124210
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291

Strongest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1978達川 光男Mitsuo Tatsukawa1.633.984181
1982伊東 勤Tsutomu Ito1.616.228155
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1970大矢 明彦Akihiko Oya1.504.624933
1981田村 藤夫Fujio Tamura1.446.815126
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336
1972梨田 昌崇Masataka Nashida1.376.023058

Weakest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1954吉沢 岳男Takeo Yoshizawa1.121.003867
2006炭谷 銀仁朗Ginjiro Sumitani1.331.223593
1954安藤 順三Junzo Ando1.101.572518
2002細川 亨Toru Hosokawa1.111.593906
1978袴田 英利Hidetoshi Hakamada1.241.672538
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
2003鶴岡 慎也Shinya Tsuruoka1.192.113007
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387

Strongest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1954野村 克也Katsuya Nomura1.2919.4811747
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1964木俣 達彦Tatsuhiko Kimata1.2513.467131
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1981中尾 孝義Takayoshi Nakao1.2310.052622
1999里崎 智也Tomoya Satozaki1.139.843617
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

Growing your own

The Pacific League has now won the last seven Japan Series and has a .532 interleague winning percentage. People have attributed the gap to more hard-throwing pitchers in the PL, or to larger ballparks and the DH that helped that league be better at developing pitchers.

But two years ago, former Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson attributed it to the drafting philosophies of the two leagues, that the six Central League teams have shown more inclination to draft “baseball instinct” over physical tools.

Is it the draft?

This study won’t address that question, but it does ask whether one league has had an advantage in the draft and its Siamese twin, player development.

The answer is yes, and no one will be surprised to find that the PL has had a clear edge in this area.

To answer this and another question for another study, I created a database with the draft ranking of every signed player in Nippon Professional Baseball’s annual autumn amateur draft. For each player there is also a corresponding measure of career value, using Bill James’ win shares as I have adopted them to fit NPB.

Since we’re more interested in the CL’s current troubles, I looked at the drafts since 2000 and broke them down into two, ten-year periods. Interestingly enough, the top four players drafted since 1999 all were by CL teams: Shinnosuke Abe, Takashi Toritani, Hayato Sakamoto and Norichika Aoki.

The win share totals include those from the major leagues.

Players drafted from 1999 to 2008

LeagueWin SharesEdge
Pacific League9,714+21%
Central League8,041

The results of the second group are of course much smaller since many of these players have had little or no chance to impact the score, so it’s probably too early to think the PL’s edge is shrinking.

Players drafted from 2009 to 2018

LeagueWin SharesEdge
Pacific League4,317+10%
Central League3,914

The good and the bad

Here are the breakdowns of the return on amateur talent by team draft. Just a note, the three players still active from the 1998 draft, Kosuke Fukudome, Kyuji Fujikawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka, are not included in the study.

The first PL table includes the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Rakuten Eagles, since the Eagles are the team that took Kintetsu’s place in the league.

In both the 1999 to 2008 group and the 2009 to 2018 group, the CL placed just two teams in the top six. Another interesting point is that while the Yomiuri Giants have invested heavily in developmental players, essentially the team’s return came from two guys who are both retired, reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi and center fielder Tetsuya Matsumoto, who both won CL Rookie of the Year Awards over a decade ago.

Central League drafts 1999 to 2008

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Giants1,6431,5191244
Swallows1,4631,46306
Carp1,4121,41207
Tigers1,2641,26319
BayStars1,2471,247010
Dragons1,0831,083012

Pacific League drafts 1999 to 2008

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Fighters1,9501,95001
Lions1,9471,94702
Hawks1,8111,80473
Eagles1,5791,579535
Marines1,3111,226858
Orix1,1161,116011

Central League drafts 2009 to 2018

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
BayStars828792362
Carp73173015
Giants70169747
Dragons59959549
Swallows545543211
Tigers5105001012

Pacific League drafts 2009 to 2018

TeamTotalRegularDevelopmentalNPB rank
Lions89389121
Marines77677243
Fighters73973904
Hawks7115401716
Buffaloes63662888
Eagles568562610