Category Archives: Old stuff

Problems with punch-outs

The other day HERE I tried to answer the question whether foreign hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball have larger strike zones or not by looking at the percentage of strikeouts that are decided by a called third strike.

Having done that, I realized that individual variation makes such an analysis really, really murky. Some players hack, some are more disciplined. Pitchers that lack a good swing-and-miss pitch should conceivably have a higher CST (Called Third Strike) percentage.

Still, the study did lead to an interesting observation about the nature of Japan’s two leagues. As some of you know, either the Pacific League is the stronger of Japan’s two leagues or it’s just really, really good at hiding that fact, considering how poorly Central League teams do in interleague play and in the Japan Series.

The umpire merger

From 2003 until 2010, Pacific League position players were taking called third strikes in 20.53 percent of their strikeouts. In the Central League, the percentage was 22.84. The PL was dominated at the time by huge ballparks, where home runs were less frequent.

Since the umpires of the two leagues merged from the start of thew 2011 season, the PL called-third-strike percentage rose to 21.57, while the CL’s dropped slightly to 22.73.

The managers

In the previous article, I suggested that managers might be affecting how often called third strikes went their teams’ ways. But that was probably incorrect, for the same reason that judging individual hitters is fraught with danger. Unless you have the photographic evidence of the pitches in question, you can’t really tell.

Managers WILL effect the number of third strikes called against their team because of their batting and pitching policies. A look at how each manager’s team did relative to its league, shows that from 2003 to 2018 shows some interesting stuff, but it’s just that: interesting stuff.

Consider curmudgeonly “kantoku” Katsuya Nomura. His Rakuten Eagles struck out 3,369 times over his four seasons in charge, and his players went down on called third strikes 6.03 percent more often than the league, his Eagles were taken out of at-bats by umpires 203 extra times.

Anyway, the manager whose teams have ostensibly benefited the most from the umpires’ calls were Hisanobu Watanabe (Seibu Lions) with 92 fewer called third strikes on his hitters and 106 extra called strikes for his pitchers. No. 2 on this list (2003-2018) is Trey Hillman overall +194, and Koichi Ogata (+186). At the other end are: Nomura (-242), Hideki Kuriyama (-239), Akinobu Okada (-137) and Bobby Valentine (-136).

That’s interesting, but if you look at those Eagles hitters, what do you see? Tons of walks, few strikeouts. That was a team led on offense by Takeshi Yamasaki, a power hitter who frustrated managers and teammates by taking tons of called third strikes. He rarely swung at a two-strike pitch if he thought it might be outside of his zone, often putting his fate in the umps’ hands.

Again, I don’t think there is anything the least bit instructive about those. I just thought they were fun. But as mentioned above, managers can have a real effect on how their teams play. Take the DeNA BayStars, for example.

The Alex Ramirez effect

When Alex Ramirez took over the DeNA BayStars in 2015, his most public policy was telling his players to “swing at the first strike.”

What happens when batters execute this tactic? Here’s what happened in 2018, comparing the results of 17,792 plate appearances started by a swing or a first-pitch ball (as the 2015 BayStars were instructed to execute), and the the 48,046 PAs in which the first pitch was taken.

OptionPAAvg.OBPSlug
Swing 1st-pitch strike, take 1st-pitch ball17,792.272.305.424
Take 1st pitch regardless48,046.251.336.392

There is overlap of course, since first-pitch balls fall into both camps. But those looking to drill the first strike hit for average and more power, but paid for it in more outs and a lower on-base percentage. This goes a little bit in explaining the career of Ramirez — a guy who hit for good average, became the first foreign-registered player with 2,000 hits, and hit for good power, but didn’t draw walks unless he had to.

Taira Uematsu and the power of dreams

Taira Uematsu, shown in Japan working for the Netherlands’ national team in 2016, has come along way thanks to his love of baseball and English.

This is a story I did from a 2017 interview with San Francisco Giants bullpen catcher Taira Uematsu. Inside is a real lesson about the power of education to inspire and to facilitate the dreams that open doors. I hope you enjoy it.

When Taira Uematsu returns home after the big league season, the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen catcher spends a lot of time teaching baseball, and the most important lesson may be, “Have fun.” Uematsu rediscovered that fun for the game in the U.S. after three years of repetitive and abusive high school practice in Japan beat his passion out of him. Read the full story HERE.

Mr. Buffalo Nashida steps down as Eagles skipper

Masataka Nashida, right, shares a laugh with Yomiuri Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi.

By Jim AllenIt wasn’t a huge surprise that Masataka Nashida announced he was stepping down as manager of the Rakuten Eagles. After winning championships with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and again with the Nippon Ham Fighters, that the Eagles’ continued poor results would eventually cause him to step aside.

When I began getting paid to write about Japanese baseball in 1998, I had to learn how to talk to players and managers and get material for stories despite my horrible Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was perhaps the first manager to welcome my silly questions with open arms, and in 2000 Nashida became another.

Nashida, a former catcher who played his whole career with the Osaka-based Kintetsu Buffaloes, had been successful as Kintetsu’s minor league manager before moving up to the big chair. Nashida was one of those managers who would meet reporters before every game. The questions were often about the comings and goings of fringe players, the prospects of the new rookie, follow-ups on incidents from the previous day’s game and so on.

Not being a beat writer, but one who would go to the park once a week to write a game story and collect material for my column in the Daily Yomiuri, most of those questions went over my head and my attention would occasionally wander. It was those times when I might be staring at the dugout ceiling, that Nashida would pounce.

“That’s the way they do it in the majors, isn’t it?” he’d ask me, always when I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.

More often than not, I’d say, “No, not always” to a question that could well have been whether or not big leaguers ate raw squirrel meat before games. I was basically a nobody, but like Oh, and Lions manager Haruki Ihara, Nashida tried his best to explain things to me. I sincerely wanted to understand how Japanese baseball was the way it was, and he offered his time and insight.

He once explained what it meant to be a coach in Japanese baseball.

“The coach’s job is of course to prepare players to win games,” he told me. “But they are also like lightning rods. When a player makes a mistake, the coach is expected to show how tough he is in dealing with mistakes and correcting them — not for the player’s sake or for the team’s sake, but so the coach himself won’t be criticized in the media.”

“If a pitcher gives up a base hit on an 0-2 count, the battery coach is asked why he didn’t order a pitch that was too far out of the zone to be hit.”

I asked, “You’re a former catcher. Do you like those meaningless 0-2 pitches?”

“Me? No. I hated them when I was a catcher, and I hate them now when I’m a manager.”

“Then why do your coaches still ask the catcher to call for them?”

“It’s their job, unfortunately. Part of their job is to not be criticized the next day in the papers. It is what it is.”

Nashida had the look of a man who sincerely loved his players, and under him, a lot of Kintetsu and Nippon Ham players blossomed. As one of the Pacific League’s two Osaka-area clubs at the time, the Buffaloes took on a lot of journeymen rejects from the Hanshin Tigers. Having escaped from the Koshien pressure cooker, Nashida trusted them, taught them and let them find themselves, and many contributed to the Buffaloes’ 2001 pennant.

more to come…

Back in the day with Gondo

Hiroshi Gondo

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, former pitcher and manager Hiroshi Gondo was elected into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame. This is from a chat I had with him last year and includes his game logs from historic 1961 season.Hiroshi Gondo is famous in Japan for a number of things, including being one of only two men to manage NPB’s Taiyo-Yokohama-DeNA franchise to a pennant. But most of all, he’s famous for his historic 1961 season, when the 22-year-old Chunichi Dragons rookie led Japan’s Central League in wins and strikeouts and won the Sawamura Award, as the CL’s most impressive pitcher, and the Rookie of the Year Award.

Considering that season, one who is used to today’s game where NPB starters typically throw two bullpens during their six days between starts, how often Gondo went to the pen to freshen up.

“Never,” he said Wednesday at Tokyo Dome. “I pitched every day!”



OK. That’s not exactly true, as you can see here: Gondo 1961 game log This is a look at what a 429-1/3 inning season looks like. Sorry for the Japanese characters in the team names.  The column “G order” indicates his appearance order for his team’s pitchers in that game.

“If I was in the bullpen and my fastball had great life, I don’t want to waste it there. I wanted that for a game.”

He was pitching in an era when managers didn’t hesitate to summon a reliever to the mound without having him go to the bullpen to warmup.

“That happened sometimes. The skipper would say, ‘Gon-chan, get in the game.’ And I’d throw my seven pitches on the mound and that was that. I had been an infielder until my second year in high school and it didn’t take me that long to get warm. Even if I was in the bullpen for a game, I’d throw five or six pitches, then seven on the mound and let’s go. But bullpens between starts? No. What was the point?”

He led the CL with 30 wins the following season, but his career was largely done after 1962. When did he know there was a problem?

“My mistake was in resting and not moving my arm after that (1962) season. After a month or so, I tried to throw and my shoulder was frozen. Lifting it was painful. It hurt all the time.



NPB’s all-time fielding team: second and third basemen

This is the second part of my look at the top fielders at each position in NPB history. Today, I’ll go through the second and third basemen.

Second base

This list is surprisingly dominated by active players, although there’s no mistaking how much better Shigeru “Buffalo” Chiba was compared to his contemporaries. Chiba’s 1949 season, when he turned a record 128 double plays with just 18 errors for the league champions, ranks as the most valuable fielding year ever for a  second baseman in Japan. Chiba has two of the top-10 seasons and had golden gloves been awarded before he retired, he would have won it every year from 1946 to 1952.

On top of that, when he went to manage Kintetsu, they named the team after him, and he is credited with being the origin behind the popular dish “katsu curry,” which combines what he said were his two favorite foods, Japanese-style curry on rice with pork cutlets (katsu) on top.

As before, the numbers given are: career fielding win shares, and fielding WS per 27 outs & number of “win share golden gloves”:

  1. Shigeru Chiba, Giants, 1938-1956: 63-.500, 7
  2. Yuichi Honda, Hawks, 2006-present: 58-.469, 6
  3. Kazunori Shinozuka, Giants, 1977-1994: 66-.426, 5
  4. Shozo Doi, Giants, 1965-1978: 57-.383, 4
  5. Kensuke Tanaka, Fighters, 2000-present: 46-.377, 1
  6. Minoru Kamada, Tigers, 1957-1972: 50-.369, 3
  7. Chico Barbon, Braves, 1955-1965: 52-.369, 4
  8. Yasuyuki Kataoka, Lions-Giants, 2005-present: 49-.366, 0
  9. Hatsuhiko Tsuji, Lions, 1984-1999, 49-.366, 5
  10. Hiroyasu Tanaka, Swallows: 2005-present: 44-.387, 3

There are some surprises here. Shinozuka was less known for his fielding than his outstanding offense, while Hiroyasu Tanaka has always seemed more solid and workmanlike than outstanding… Yasuyuki Kataoka could easily rank higher because the fielding win shares per 27 outs hurts a player like Kataoka — who makes lots of outs, and helps players like Kensuke Tanaka and Chico Barbon — although Kamada was a good-field, no-hit type…

Third base

When one hears so much about how great a particular player is, it is easy to believe that some of it must be hyperbola, and no one generated more hyperbola than Shigeo Nagashima. But that’s what happens if a charismatic player achieves his peak early and plays consistently well for a fair amount of time. Defensively, he was easily the best regular at third base.

  1. Shigeo Nagashima, Giants, 1958-1974: 76-.342, 9
  2. Hiromi Matsunaga, Braves, 1981-1987: 59-.337, 4
  3. Kinji Shimatani, Dragons-Braves, 1969-1982: 55-.341, 5
  4. Norifumi Kido, Swallows-Lions, 1957-1974: 46-.373, 4
  5. Michiyo Arito, Orions, 1969-1986: 55-.279, 3
  6. Norihiro Nakamura, Buffaloes-Dragons, etc., 1992-2014: 58-.265, 5
  7. Tatsunori Hara, Giants, 1981-1995: 46-.351, 5
  8. Koichi Hada, Buffaloes, 1973-1989: 50-.298, 2
  9. Hideo Furuya, Fighters, 1978-1992: 47-.312, 3
  10. Masayuki Kakefu, Tigers, 1974-1988: 46-.301, 3

Nobuhiro Matsuda, who TALKED about going to the majors this winter, but opted to stay put in Japan will now have the opportunity to crack this list in the next three years.

On a side note

Toru Hamaura during his time in the States.

One of the cool things I noticed when doing the post on preseason complete games was who was throwing all those pitches. Toru Hamaura was the first player who caught my attention. A guy I’d never heard of until a peek at Wikipedia hit home. There’s a nice little piece here about Hamaura by Mr. Bob Lemke.

Starting at the age of 19, Hamamura was among the California League’s better strikeout pitchers in his two seasons in Fresno. He returned to Japan to pitch for the Fukuoka-based Taiheiyo Club Lions but never won more than four games in a season. The control that was his calling card in Single-A, didn’t translate to NPB, where he walked almost as many batters as he struck out.

Frank Johnson, the original Mr. Baseball

Although I was unfamiliar with Hamaura, we are connected in a way. As a freshman and sophomore at Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto, California, one of the teaching assistants at the school was a former San Francisco Giants player named Frank Johnson. Frank helped coach the baseball team and wore a neon-blue Lotte Orions warm-up jacket. On one of my first days at school, when we were getting to know each other he commented that my classmate’s first name “sounded Japanese.” It didn’t mean much to me at the time until I learned a year later that he had played in Japan.

 I haven’t seen Frank since I was 21 or so and he was working security at a K-Mart not far from my part-time job at a 7-11 when I was in college.

He was a big friendly guy, always ready with a kind word and a smile, so it was a huge pleasure to find that Frank was — in a sense — the original Mr. Baseball: an American that the Giants traded to Lotte for Hamaura.

The other name that caught my attention was Osamu Shimano, who unlike Hamaura, is actually fairly well known — but more for being what Paul Harvey would have called, “the rest of the story.” Shimano was the Yomiuri Giants’ first draft pick in 1968. In March 1975, Shimano gave himself a lifeline with a complete-game victory over the Atlanta Braves in spring training, but within a year, he was with the Hankyu Braves, having pitched in just 24 Central League games for the Giants.

He never pitched for the Braves at the top level, but became famous when after his retirement Shimano was asked to put on a bird costume and become Hankyu’s mascot “Bravey.” Shimano, who also created Orix’s mascot “Neppie” after the leasing company purchased the Braves from the Hankyu Railroad, is also famous for NOT being iconic fire-eating right-hander Senichi Hoshino.

Hoshino’s professional persona was largely shaped by his antipathy for the Giants — the team he longed to play for as a pro and expected to be drafted in the first round by in 1968. Instead, Hoshino was drafted by the Chunichi Dragons. As a manager, Hoshino beat the Giants in several CL pennant races, the Japan Series remained out of reach for him. That was until 2013, in a season marked by the heroics of Masahiro Tanaka, Hoshino’s Rakuten Eagles brought the disaster-ravaged Tohoku region its first Japan championship and a win over the Giants to boot.

Slipping through the cracks

As Dragons fans were reminded tonight, Nobumasa Fukuda is a pretty decent hitter. The 26-year-old right-handed-hitting first baseman hit his fourth homer of the season for Chunichi tonight and the question is not when he became good? but rather, at what point did we forget that he was good?

Fukuda’s been playing regularly in the Western League since 2009, and he MUST have appeared somewhere in annual scans of minor league hitters with outstanding results, but somehow he fell off the radar — his results have been consistently good although his OBP had been pedestrian until last year when he drew 34 walks in 334 plate appearances. He had a bad year in 2013 and that might have made it easier to overlook him. He’s not really young any more and he’s a first baseman.

But that being said, the Western League is a tough league to post gaudy batting numbers in and he’s been overshadowed by a barrel full of young Hawks guys who can hammer it, but Fukuda can play.

An injury to Masahiko Morino, one of Chunichi’s better players, and the Dragons are an improved team. Funny how things turn out.