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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

Maru goes behind fielding numbers

I wasn’t the only one to take note of Yoshihiro Maru’s declining fielding metrics since 2016 with the Hiroshima Carp, but I may have been the most outspoken about them. The important thing to remember, however, is that they are measures of things. And those things only become place holders for skill and ability in our heads and don’t represent actual reality.

It’s important to remember that just because someone’s metrics have declined, things other than declining individual performance might be at the root.

The table below gives three metrics for each year: Fielding Win Shares, and his ARM and UZR 1200 ratings from Delta Graphs. While Maru’s skills may have not altered one bit, his numbers rebounded in 2019 after he moved to the Yomiuri Giants.

Maru’s fielding figures

YearFieldingARM1200
20144.3+1.9-7.4
20153.3+4.0+4.5
20164.7+4.1+11.1
20173.6+2.4+16.1
20182.9-4.6-4.9
20195.3+1.9+8.5

Maru’s story

“I don’t think my speed or the quality of my jumps improved any from when I was in Hiroshima. The difference was (Carp right fielder) Seiya Suzuki,” Maru said Sunday.

“As long as I’ve played, I’ve always gone to catch balls if there was ever any doubt. It wasn’t the case that I let Suzuki catch balls in the gap, but rather his being fast and getting to more balls first.”

“I think the reason my data in Hiroshima gradually shrank, was that Suzuki played more and got better.”

In 2018, Maru’s numbers took two hits, one from playing time when he missed 10 games, and another from having a good fielder in left, Takayoshi Noma, instead of the previous platoon combination of slow sluggers Brad Eldred and Ryuhei Matsuyama.

The Giants, on the other hand, put him in an outfield that frequently had Alex Guerrero (slow) in left and Yoshiyuki Kamei (old) in right, and voila! Maru’s best defensive win share season of his career.

Not my thing

One thing that took me by surprise was Maru’s opting for domestic free agency after the 2018 season instead of sticking with the Carp until he could go overseas under his own power. I always saw him as a similar player to South Korean star Choo Shin Soo.

“No that was never going to be my thing,” Maru said. “I just didn’t see myself doing that and had no interest.”

Tony Barnette and Japan

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Tony Barnette announced he is retiring from pro baseball after a career that included six seasons with the Yakult Swallows.

His success with Yakult coincided with a time when the club, tired of seeing their high-quality imports leaving after a couple of years to join the Yomiuri Giants, began handing out solid multiyear contracts. The deal offered Barnette and outfielder Wladimir Balentien, and the development of second baseman Tetsuto Yamada proved instrumental in the Swallows surprising 2015 Central League championship.

In March, I spoke with Barnette in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at their spring training base in Mesa, Arizona. We talked about what worked for him in Japan, and about his relationship with pitching coach Tomohito Ito.

“In Japan, you have to learn how to get guys to swing and miss. And if you can do it there, that plays anywhere. The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle, it’s all there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, keeping that competitive level all throughout the game.”

Tony Barnette on what he learned in Japanese baseball

After a rocky first season as a starter, when he allowed 6.21 runs per nine innings in a hitters’ park in a hitters’ league, there was no guarantee Barnette would even be back for a second season in 2011. He credited the support from then-manager Junji Ogawa and pitching coach Daisuke Araki and the guidance of Araki’s successor, Tomohito Ito.

Tony Barnette, chat in Mesa, Arizona, March 2019.

Tomohito Ito

Pitching coach Tomohito Ito

On March 30, I talked with Ito, currently coaching with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, about Barnette.

“He basically threw hard when he arrived,” Ito said. “But the slider and changeup were essentially his only secondary pitches, and his command of the change wasn’t that good. Some days he could throw strikes with the slider, and some days he couldn’t.”

“He pitched well in his first start, into the seventh inning, but opponents studied him.”

Ito said that although the results as a starter were not that good, Barnette was showing progress from the middle of the season, working on different pitches that would get him over the hump in Japan.

“He worked on his cutter, he learned a splitter, he threw a two-seamer,” Ito said. “In the process, that cutter became pretty good. By the time the season ended, the club didn’t rate him very highly as a starter, but he was throwing some nasty pitches, so my idea was to use him as a reliever, so I sounded him out about that.”

“He wanted the opportunity and gave it a shot. The fastball worked, and with the cutter, that would get him started in relief. When teams started adjusting, he’d have the splitter, and sometimes a sinker and then a curve that he was beginning to throw.”

Ito, too, pointed out that one reason so many foreign players have had success with the Swallows is the club’s situation on the fringes.

“Yakult is a good place for imported players,” he said. “We know that if the foreign players don’t do well, we’re not going to be successful as a team, so the culture on the team is to stay positive and supportive with them.”

“One of the advantages is that Japan gives players opportunities to try new things.”

Scout Diary: Jan. 25, 2020

It’s back to scouting Japanese amateurs today. I’ve got no assignments to work on today. I was going to look at college outfielders from the website ( http://www.baseballwebtv.com/ ) but couldn’t play any videos from that.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Scouting report on Takaya Ishikawa

Instead I thought I’d produce a report on one of the first-round picks from October’s NPB amateur draft, infielder Takaya Ishikawa. Unlike the other high school players I’ve looked at, there wasn’t a ton of video available on youtube, but I like the look of this guy as a hitter. He’s 6’1″, 200 lbs, a third baseman with average speed who is not polished as a fielder but who looks like he was born to hit.

The player he reminds me most of is Hiroshima Carp star Seiya Suzuki — who was also a slugging pitcher-infielder in high school. Suzuki had plus speed however and his fastball off the mound was clocked a little faster than Ishikawa’s.

As the cleanup hitter for Japan at the Under-18 World Cup in November, I figured there might be some video. What I found was even better. The WBSC’s tournament website has every game on video.

Using that, I’m going to comb through every game and have a look at as many players as I can.

Note: It’s vastly harder to make observations of games than it is of highlight videos. Video of games, however, allows you to get do-overs with your stopwatch, but you are at the mercy of camera angles that don’t show the runner crossing the bag at first and so on.

Having been through a number of chats with our experienced instructors, you realize how much there is to see and picking up on those things quickly enough to keep up is an amazing skill I can only marvel at right now.

Anyway, to return to Ishikawa. who will turn 19 in June, here are my notes so far.

Grades

Hitting ability 50 – 60, power 50 – 60, running speed 50 – 50, arm strength 60 – 65, arm accuracy 45 – 55, fielding 50 – 50, range 45 – 50, baseball instinct 60 – 60, aggressiveness 60 – 60. Hits the ball straight away.

Physical description

Tall with a well developed lower body. It looks like his school (Toho HS) doesn’t believe in upper body weight training. A slightly larger version of Seiya Suzuki. A toe tap (like the MLB version of Shohei Ohtani) without any of the typical Japanese high leg kick.

Abilities

Disciplined hitter. He’s looking to drive his pitches. Compact swing, good extension, power to pull and straight-away center. Alert fielder, with sound mechanics and soft hands and quick release.

Weaknesses

Fielding is mechanical, showed some hesitation.

Summation

This is guy knows what he is doing at the plate. He was named as top draft pick by three NPB teams. My main concern is that Chunichi does not have a good track record with developing players strength-training skills. He could definitely build up his frame — as Suzuki has done, but only time will tell.

Takaya Ishikawa

Dolis from Tigers to Blue Jays: Report

Right-hander Rafael Dolis, 32, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, according to a twitter report by Hanshin Tigers English News, who first reported the story early Sunday morning in Japan.

You can find Dolis’ NPB player page in English HERE.

Rafael Dolis 2019 strikeout collection

Dolis saved 30-plus games in both 2018 and 2019, but was pulled from the closer’s role on July 23, for reasons that are not obvious in his results. The club turned to ageless right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa, who converted every save opportunity that came his way the rest of the year.

You can read Kyodo News’ interview with Fujikawa HERE.

Since he arrived in 2016, Dolis has relied primarily on a fastball, a two-seamer and a split, which has been his most effective pitch and said he perfected with the help of Tigers coaches.

Two-seamers are still considered a rarity in Japan. Among pitchers last season who threw 200 or more of them, Dolis’ was ranked fourth in NPB by data analysis site Delta Graphs. His splitter ranked fifth, which may not sound as impressive until one realizes how many extremely good splitters are thrown here.

Shogo Akiyama spray charts

A recent comment about Akiyama suggested MLB’s extreme shifts could be trouble for him.


“Akiyama will have to adjust to more shifts in MLB. He’ll have to prove he can beat them.”

Burly

It’s true that shifts in NPB are pretty tame, there’s a reason for that: Japanese kids learn from an early age to go to hit the ball back up the middle or — especially fast left-handed hitters — hit it to the opposite field. It’s a huge difference between NPB and MLB.

And like most speedy left-handed hitters, Akiyama is adept at shooting the ball between third and short. You could shift on him a little and it might help, but too much and he’ll kill you.

Shogo Akiyama, career NPB hits
Shogo Akiyama, career NPB outs

The only team that tries extreme shifts here now is the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters. In one game they over-shifted to the right against left-handed hitting Tomoya Mori. In response, the slugging Lions catcher poked the ball on the ground into left, and expressed his thanks to the Fighters for giving him a freebie.

The kotatsu league: Hawks’ Colas quits Cuba for MLB

Left-handed-hitting SoftBank Hawks outfielder Oscar Colas has reportedly fled Cuba in order to pursue a career in MLB.

Colas is currently on the Hawks’ 70-man roster unlike fellow Cuban outfielders Alfredo Despaigne and Yurisbel Gracial, whose status is pending negotiations with Cuban authorities.

The slugger played in seven Pacific League games this season, homering in his first plate appearance on Aug. 18 in Fukuoka.

Oscar Colas goes deep in his first-team debut in Japan on Aug. 18, 2019.

After failing to get any kind of memorable results in his first two minor league seasons with the Hawks, Colas slashed .302/.350/.516 last year in the WL, a notorious pitchers’ league. A left-handed pitcher, he did appear on the mound for the Hawks’ third team, where younger players compete against amateur sides — this is the level where first-year Hawks pitcher Carter Stewart Jr competed in 2019.

Colas pitching against an independent minor league side.

Colas becomes the third player to defect after signing a professional contract to play in Japan, following Yuli Gurriel, who played in 62 games for the DeNA BayStars. His brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was to join him in Yokohama for 2015, but neither reported and were eventually released.

Alex Ramirez, the flexible manager

DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, like pretty much any ballplayer you talk to, has a huge bag of cliches and simple rules to explain how to prepare for and play baseball games in the form of expressions “you always want to…” or “you never…”

But when you get past the superficial sound bites that come from being a former big leaguer, you get a guy who is always on the lookout for the next thing that might work.

On Sunday, Ramirez said he was open to using a reliever to break the first-inning ice for his starting pitchers as “openers.” If so, he would be Japan’s second manager to opt for that kind of a role following Nippon Ham’s Hideki Kuriyama.

Ramirez has long been used to getting flack in Japan. A lot of foreign players took exception to his choreographed home run celebrations that the fans loved, often saying, “If you don’t do that back home, don’t do that here.” To which Ramirez was fond of answering: “In case you hadn’t noticed we’re in Japan, not ‘back home.'”

As a manager, he has been criticized for batting his pitchers eighth, something which makes a ton of sense.

Having a batter who reaches base bat ninth means fewer RBIs from the No. 8 spot in exchange for more no-out, runner-on-base situations for the top of the order — something that will help you score a few extra runs a year.

Last year, when Ramirez had his best hitter, and Japan’s cleanup hitter, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bat second, the old farts screamed, calling it an insult to Tsutsugo and Japan.

Last year, I tracked how each team’s starting pitchers did before and after facing their 19th batter in a game. Last season, when bullpen games were becoming very common, the BayStars were second-fewest in NPB with only 55 games in which a starter faced 19-plus batters, but it didn’t really help them.

From the 19th batter on in those 55 games, BayStars opponents had a .382 OBP, the 10th worst in NPB, and a .511 slugging average, worst of all 12 teams. The Fighters were the flip side of that. The pitchers who were allowed to go past 18 batters were really good, posting a .250 OBP and .196 SLUG.

Mind you, the Hiroshima Carp had 125 games in which their starters went through the opposing order more than two times while being nearly as good as the Fighters starters in those situations. But the Carp rotation — which led NPB with a .469 quality start percentage, was deep and the Fighters’ wasn’t.

The BayStars young starting corps has the chance to be an elite group, but Ramirez isn’t going to turn a blind eye to the possibility that using openers as part of a well-thought-out plan could help. Like the Fighters, the BayStars have a solid analytics team, and it would be no surprise to see DeNA improve their pitching and defense next season just because of Ramirez’s willingness to fly in the face of ignorant criticism and try the next thing.