Category Archives: Paid Content

Scapegoat time in Tiger Land?

“When you see a team looking around for a scapegoat, that’s a pretty good indication that one will soon be needed.”

Bill James

I’m not certain that Yangervis Solarte is being fitted for the goat horns or not, but the news today that he went 0-for-3 and made an error in his first game on the farm since being deactivated is a bad sign.

The bigger the team is in Japan, the greater the need for a fall guy when things go wrong. As a result, we see it a lot with Japan’s too oldest clubs, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants — although less with the Giants now that their fascist generalissimo, Tsuneo Watanabe, is fading into the background.

Solarte is 13-for-69 with nine walks and a .406 slugging average, and has been a ball of energy and fun, although not a superior defender at short.

A friend of mine who was spending a year covering the Tigers for the Daily Sports, perhaps the paper that has the most intense Tigers following, told me that in the summer of 2012, a number of the team’s veterans –including legend Tomoaki Kanemoto — were hitting for a low average, but the coaches refused to criticize them to reporters, who badly needed a scapegoat.

According to the reporter, the coaches began giving harsh evaluations of Matt Murton and Craig Brazell in order to satisfy the media pack. This led to streams of annoying questions for Murton who eventually burst out with a sarcastic quip that gave the press what it wanted.

I don’t think the team is looking to turn Solarte into a scapegoat, but stories by the Tigers beat writers this summer suggested that Jefry Marte was the leading candidate until Solarte’s arrival, but that his new teammate is the man whose head is being fitted for horns by reporters.

Ramichanalytics Part II

Last week I posted DeNA manager Alex Ramirez’s responses to questions about batting his pitchers eighth. Here is my analysis of how that’s working out for him.

I’ll give you a hint: The haters probably need to shut up or at least think before they tell you what’s wrong with it.

Background

The experiment began on April 14, 2017, when starting pitcher Joe Weiland batted at eighth at home against the Yakult Swallows. Weiland struck out twice, but the BayStars beat the Swallows 4-3. Three weeks later, Ramirez tried again, batting Weiland eighth on the road against the Giants. He went 0-for-3 with two more strikeouts in a 5-2 win at Tokyo Dome.

After that, every DeNA starting pitcher in the lineup batted eighth until the end of the 2018 season, when having finished out of the postseason for the first time in his four years in charge, Ramirez suggested batting his pitchers eighth was a thing of the past.

The manager’s rationale

To summarize briefly what Ramirez said, he argued that the value of having a pitcher — who must be a competent bunter — is to sacrifice runners on base so that the No. 9 hitter can drive them in with a single.

A sabermetric rationale

In their “The Book,” Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin, reason that over the course of a 162-game season, a major league team can gain about 2-1/2 runs a season by batting the pitcher eighth.

Why? Because replacing your worst hitter in the ninth spot with a half-way decent hitter gives your best hitters at the top of the order a much better chance to hit with runners on base. The logic is that outweighs the pitcher’s lessened ability to finish an offensive sequence started by the middle of the order, and giving the No. 9 hitter lessened RBI opportunities than he’d have in the No. 8 spot.

How can we evaluate the experiment?

This is kind of a tricky puzzle and I don’t pretend to have the answer, but there are a few different ways of looking at it. I’d tried looking at how many RBIs and runs were being scored in the different lineup spots, but the problem is that the BayStars had very few games in 2017 when the pitcher batted ninth. We could compare 2016 when none did, or 2018 when everyone did, but those run contexts were quite different.

We’re also faced with the reality that from 2017 to 2018, the only time BayStars pitchers batted ninth was in April when fewer runs are scored.

I settled on using run expectancies. Batting your worst hitter eighth should decrease run expectancies for the No. 9 hitter, but increase them for the No. 1 hitter — who ostensibly should be one of your better hitters.

The questions then are: How much does batting pitchers eighth…

  1. Increase the run expectancies for the No. 1 hitters?
  2. Decrease the positive results from the No. 8 spot?
  3. Decrease the run expectancies for the No. 9 hitters?
  4. Increase the positive results from the No. 9 spot?

Since it’s silly to compare offensive numbers from March and April with offensive numbers from May to October when runs in BayStars games in 2017 were 4.5 percent more frequent, I’ve decreased the run expectancies and average production for all the hitters in the lineups with the pitchers batting eighth by 4.5 percent to level the playing field a bit.

Cleaning up in the ninth spot

According to this analysis, the BayStars made out like bandits by batting the pitchers eighth in 2017 because the No. 9 hitters were extremely productive. Here’s the breakdown to the four questions above (including the run adjustment mentioned above):

  1. BayStars leadoff hitters came to the plate with a run expectancy 0.0067 runs higher over the course of 463 plate appearances, adding about 3.11 runs to the team’s expected scoring.
  2. No. 8 hitters (pitchers and pinch-hitters) produced 0.039 runs fewer per PA over 382 plate appearances, a total decrease of about 14.8 runs over the season.
  3. No. 9 hitters came to the plate with a run expectancy of 0.36 runs less, for a decrease of about 13.3 runs over the season.
  4. No. 9 hitters (position players) produced 0.096 more runs per plate appearance than the pitchers and pinch-hitters who previously occupied the No. 9 spot for a total of about 35 runs over the course of the season.

In summary, those figures are:

  1. +3.11 runs — Setting up the leadoff hitter:
  2. -14.8 runs — Lost production from the No. 8 spot
  3. 13.3 runs — Lost run expectation ahead of No. 9 spot
  4. +35 runs — Gained production from the No. 9 spot.

The estimated total for the 2017 season was + 10.03 runs.

One of the unexpected benefits of having the pitcher bat eighth is bringing in a pinch-hitter slightly earlier. Normally, pinch-hitters add nothing to the expected run output, but replacing a pitcher with a pinch-hitter is a big plus.

Ramichanalytics Part I

When it comes to making use of analytics, DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez may not be on the cutting edge, but he does his homework. He may not know lots of percentages but he does pay rigorous attention to his splits and other parts of the game, and that’s more than a lot of managers can say.

Although I missed out on asking him about his “Put the cleanup hitter in the No. 2 hole magic trick,” he is still using his pitchers to bat eighth again, and I was curious if he was aware of one rationale for putting your worst hitter eighth.

To cut to the chase, Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin concluded that flipping a position player into the No. 9 spot and having the pitcher bat eighth can increase an average lineup’s production over a 162-game season by 2.47 runs per season. Not much, but not zero. The idea is that the No. 9 hitter does more than just create outs with runners on base ahead of him from the bottom of the order. He also gets on base for the 1-2-3 hitters, something most pitchers not named Shohei Ohtani are really, really bad at doing.

Nobody in professional baseball has used his pitchers to bat eighth as much as Ramirez. He originally started the practice in 2017 and used it throughout the 2018 season before abandoning it over the winter. On Wednesday in Yokohama, I asked Ramirez if he was familiar with the analytical advantage of batting the pitcher eighth.

He didn’t answer the question but did explain his rationale for using his pitcher’s in the No. 8 hole, and it has zero to do with the idea of using No. 9 as a “second leadoff hitter.” Instead, it has to do with what happens when the No. 8 hitter comes up with a runner on first base.

“The reason why it has been working, is when I use the pitcher as an eighth hitter and I bunt, I have a chance to score, a better chance to score in that situation (instead of having the No. 8 hitter swing away and leave the pitcher to clean up),” Ramirez said. “But that being said, you need to use somebody who is good batting with runners in scoring position as the ninth hitter. It cannot be just anybody.”

“Sometimes you have to think whether you want to go with a straight No. 8 hitter or have the pitcher in there and have him bunt for the ninth hitter. It depends on the situation.”

Scoring 1 run for your starter

One thing I love about Orix Buffaloes manager Norifumi Nishimura is his willingness to speak his mind. Of course, as one of Japan’s principle advocates of the sacrifice bunt, that means ascribing all kinds of benefits to the tactic.

Nishimura attributed Orix’s 9-2 loss to the SoftBank Hawks on Sunday to:

  • His starting pitcher repeatedly throwing pitches that were easy to hit
  • His No. 2 hitter failing to sacrifice after his leadoff man reached in the 1st inning.

Mind you, his starting pitcher, rookie Daichi Takeyasu had been fairly sharp in his four previous starts. But still, Nishimura is asserting that getting the runner to scoring position with one out could have prevented the ass-whipping that was to follow.

Is it reasonable to assume that a visiting pitcher would do better if he entered the bottom of the first with the one-run lead Nishimura lives to play for?

Here’s a quick study from the available data including recent starting pitchers, and how they performed on the road in those games when they went to the mound in the first inning of games that were either scoreless or 1-0. Included only those in which I have a record of them with a minimum of 50 innings as a starter in games that were 1-0 after the top of the first.

NameIP 1-0 startsERA 1-0 startsERA 0-0 startsWin Pct 0-0 startsWin Pct 1-0 startsERA Diff .
Randy Messenger664.093.200.5000.3750.89
Kenshin Kawakami54 1/34.143.700.5600.7500.44
Takayuki Kishi107 1/32.932.540.5830.6150.39
Kazuhisa Ishii93 2/34.043.660.3670.4440.38
Hideaki Wakui142 1/34.053.770.4950.4740.28
Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi89 1/34.844.570.4040.3330.27
Atsushi Nomi1504.143.870.4780.4500.27
Tetsuya Utsumi151 1/33.513.540.4420.450-0.03
Kan Otake124 2/33.543.610.3860.625-0.07
Koji Uehara122 2/33.083.190.5160.600-0.11
Masanori Ishikawa152 2/33.483.680.3880.619-0.20
Shunsuke Watanabe99 2/33.794.040.4260.500-0.25
Kenichi Nakata104 2/33.614.030.3730.692-0.42
Yoshihisa Naruse118 1/33.423.910.3750.571-0.49
Toshiya Sugiuchi196 2/32.613.200.4940.684-0.59
Kenta Maeda1452.112.710.4460.688-0.60
Hisashi Iwakuma742.433.070.5920.625-0.64
Fumiya Nishiguchi1053.604.300.4260.769-0.70
Daisuke Miura1842.843.540.3410.647-0.70
Masahiro Yamamoto1243.824.670.4070.667-0.85
Hiroki Kuroda1202.333.330.4760.786-1.00
Yasutomo Kubo952.564.130.4510.857-1.57
Tsuyoshi Wada188 1/31.963.680.5140.941-1.72
Naoyuki Shimizu86 2/33.225.110.4030.818-1.89
Pitchers performances in starts as visitors in games started with 1-0 lead or 0-0 lead.

It seems from this data that it might be a good idea to get your pitcher a 1-0 lead in the first inning if you can. Having said that, I think I can see why Randy Messenger‘s teammates have infamously scored so few runs for him: He has done better when they don’t.

So Nishimura’s assertion that one run could have changed everything is probably not as ridiculous as it first sounds. And if your starting pitcher was Tsuyoshi Wada — at least back in the day before he had Tommy John surgery, why the heck wouldn’t you sacrifice in the top of the first if you had a chance?

Points of order

A little more than three months after Alex Ramirez told that he would not bat his pitchers eighth this year, as BayStars, he slipped lefty Haruhiro Hamaguchi into the No. 8 hole on Wednesday against Hiroshima’s Kris Johnson.

Ramirez told reporters before the game that the timing was right. Before the season, several journalists wrote that Ramirez’s policy of pitchers’ batting eighth had been severely criticized by Japan’s legion of former-player talking heads. Ironically, the move came in the wake of a move that still has the old farts reeling, moving Japan cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo into the No. 2 slot, a spot traditionally reserved in Japan for batters who could bunt and punch at the ball and rarely hit home runs.

On Tuesday night, former slugger Yoshiaki Kanemura, speaking on Fuji TV’s Pro Yakyu News, said, “Frankly, I think moving the Japan national team cleanup hitter into the No. 2 spot is a slap in the face.”

On Thursday, pitcher Shota Imanaga was in the eighth spot as DeNA began the day in second place, playing the third-place Chunichi Dragons.

From April 14, 2017 to Oct. 10, 2018, Ramirez had his starting pitcher bat eighth 252 times, starting with Joe Wieland, who had been a good-hitting infielder who chose pitching as a pro because he felt it would get him to the majors faster. After 15 more games with his pitchers batting ninth, Ramirez switched to the No. 8 spot until the end of the 2018 season.

Some speculate that finishing out of the playoffs for the first time since he took over the club in 2016 forced him to give up a very defensible choice. The choice is whether a position player can do more damage finishing off the heart of the order in the No. 8 spot or setting the table for the top of the order in the No. 9 spot.

Although Ramirez has been far and away the biggest recent user of pitchers in the eighth spot, he is far from a precedent setter. I have 29,811 digitized box scores in my data base in which the starting pitcher was in the batting order. Of those, roughly 95 percent batted ninth.

Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s most famous hitting pitcher, batted in the starting lineup 15 times, and never batted ninth. He is the only pitcher in my spotty records to bat first, cleanup or fifth — where he started five times. Ironically, the only spot, where I haven’t found a pitcher in the starting lineup is second.

Even with Ramirez’s eighth-place renaissance, neither 2017 nor 2018 stands as the season with the most starting pitchers batting out of the No. 9 spot. That honor goes to the first year I have records for. In 1958, NPB managers started their pitcher out of the No. 9 spot 248 times. The next year, that figure was down to 45. There were also 145 games started by a pitcher batting higher than ninth in 1970. I’ll know more if I ever get around to sorting through the digital records of the other eight or nine seasons I have floating around.

And just when it seemed that people would get tired of talking about Tsutsugo batting second, former BayStar Hitoshi Tamura discussed the issue during Thursday’s broadcast, saying that while it was OK for a DH league like the AL, putting a big hitter in the No. 2 spot when the pitcher is in the lineup is counter productive. Mind you, he didn’t mention that Ramirez is now using Maeda as a second leadoff man at the bottom of the BayStars lineup.

Area coach holds efficient practice

This is not from the Onion or the Rising Wassabi. However, when the manager of a Japanese high school team limits his practices to 2-1/2 hours, it has a chance to be a national news item with a headline worthy of those satirical news sites.

Here’s the Sports Nippon Annex story HERE.

On Tuesday, 33-year-old Christopher Robert Kawamoto Boothe — known as Robert Kawamoto in Japan — won his first official game as manager of Hachioji Jissenchugakko High School, beating Meiji Gakuin Higashi Murayama High 11-7 in the first round of Western Tokyo’s summer tournament.

The Japanese story’s headline reads: “1st game for ‘Robert-san’ shows improvement from revolutionary 2-1/2 hour efficient practices”

Boothe, who grew up in Japan as the son of a Japanese mother and American ballplayer, signed with the Dodgers after he was not selected out of Asia University in NPB’s 2007 amateur draft. He appears to have played three seasons in the low minors. Since 2012 he has played mostly in Japan’s independent minors with a brief stopover in Taiwan with the Lamigo Monkeys.

He was hired this spring, and Boothe has asked his players to call him “Robert-san” instead of “Manager Kawamoto” as is customary.

The team captain said, “We are close to Robert-san. He patiently works out our mechanical issues, and reminds us that rest time is for getting rest.”

According to the story, the manager has also revolutionized the players’ workloads, reducing practices to 2-1/2 hours.

Filling up with the ‘Gasoline Tank’

Testuya Yoneda, one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s pitching marvels from back in the day, spoke in an interview with the Nikkan Sports. The 81-year-old, who won 350 games in a career mostly spent with the Pacific League’s Hankyu Braves — before they became a dynasty in the middle of the 1960s — is second on Japan’s all-time wins list.

His nickname during his playing days was the “Gasoline Tank,” which Yoneda said Hall of Famer Noboru Aota stuck him with because of how much the pitcher could drink.

The interview is HERE, but here are some snippet translations from this wonderful interview. But first an anecdote…

Oh those foreigners…

I hadn’t thought about Yoneda since Jeremy Powell was roasted in the Japanese media for ostensibly signing contracts with both the Orix Buffaloes and the SoftBank Hawks in 2008. The drift of much of the commentary at the time was that only a foreigner would be so underhanded as to do such a thing.

In fact, Powell had reached an initial agreement with Orix, which then wanted to modify it due to concerns over an MRI of his right arm. He refused to accept those changes and instead signed with SoftBank.

What people neglected to mention at that time was that prior to NPB’s draft, a lot of player signed contracts to play with more than one team, and Yoneda, a Hall of Famer, is the best example. He signed out of high school with the Hanshin Tigers and then had a change of heart and signed with the Braves.

Another famous double contract problem was that of Masanori Murakami, who was obliged to sign with the San Francisco Giants, and who was conned into signing with the Nankai Hawks, who refused to accept that they had forfeited their rights to the young lefty.

The point of those comments is that times change, conditions change, and what’s normal for one player may be alien to another 20 years later.

Back in the day…

The interview is a snapshot of “back in the day” reminiscence that one used to get an earful every October at the Sawamura Award announcements.

Here goes:

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: But it is said that if you pitch a lot, shoulder and elbow troubles will follow…

Yoneda: “It is true that the ball is heavy and if you keep throwing it will put you under a lot of stress. But the answer to that is to build bodies that can bear that stress. If we don’t create pitchers who are able to throw, then the current low level will persist.”

Q: You are dissatisfied?

Yoneda: “Just look it. Everyone stands up straight and basically only uses their upper body to throw.”

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: Are you opposed to those who say marathon bullpen sessions are unneccessary?

Yoneda: “If pitchers don’t throw, they’ll never master their control. A pitcher’s livelihood is being able to pitch low and also inside.”

Q: So pitchers shouldn’t pitch up in the zone?

Yoneda: “No that’s not the point. The balls pitchers today throw high in the zone are all mistakes. It’s no good doing that unless it is part of your plan.”

Q: So control is essential?

Yoneda: “If you throw 300 pitches in camp, you’ll be able to throw 150 in a game. In my day I threw between 2,500 and 3,000 pitches in camp.”

For the record

Just out of curiosity, I looked up Yoneda’s career pitching logs. He did in fact throw 150-pitch games, 22 to be exact, and another nine of 145-149 during his 22-year career.

As I’ve written before, it is extremely hard to compare pitchers then with those of more recent vintage, because the usage is different. Before the pitch count fever hit Japan about 15 years ago, 150-pitch starts were vastly more common than in Yoneda’s day.

Take Hideo Nomo, for example. Nomo pitched only five NPB seasons and threw 23 150-pitch games, and also had nine more of 145-149 pitches. And we know what happened to his arm after four years, he couldn’t play without pain.

Or take another recent Hall of Famer, Masaki Saito. Perhaps from Yoneda’s view, Saito’s 180 career wins with the best Central League team of his generation must have been disappointing. The big right-hander pitched 18 seasons, although injuries kept him from getting to 200 wins. He threw 21 150-pitch games in his career, and another five from 145-149.

Dayan Viciedo and the zone

My buddy John Gibson interviewed Dayan Viciedo of the Chunichi Dragons last week, which you can hear on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast.

In the interview, Viciedo, last year’s CL batting champion, said the difference between this season and last has been more balls out of the zone, demanding better plate discipline from him.

According to Delta Graphs, Viciedo has, so far this season, seen a slightly higher percentage of pitches in the zone than he did last season. He’s swinging at fewer of them, and swinging at a few more outside the zone.

His percentage of pitches in the zone this season so far is 41.9 percent, up from 40.6 last year, which was then a career high for him in Japan. This year, he’s swung at 32.6 percent of the pitches out of the zone, and 68.1% in the zone. Last year, those figures were 30.2% and 73.5%, respectively.

The real difference has been what happens when he puts the ball in play. We don’t have exit velocities and Delta Graphs categories the speed of balls of the bat as soft, medium and hard. But those percentages have barely moved this season for Viciedo.

The difference seems to simply that he’s being hurt by more balls in play being turned into outs than he did last season. Last season, his BABIP was .354, this year it’s .335.

I’m guessing that that is partly luck and — because his percent of home runs per fly ball is way down so far this year (to 13 percent after being over 16.8 percent in each of his first three seasons. This could easily be a function of the colder early season weather.

There’s no reason to think that those things he does in the batters box to hit pitches are any less effective than they were a year ago.

Stewart checks Japanese mounds

For the first time since he completed his signing with the SoftBank Hawks, Carter Stewart threw from a bullpen mound. And though every Japanese media report called it a bullpen session, the catcher was not behind the plate at regulation distance, so it was more like catch from the bullpen mound.

Stewart said he threw at about 65 to 70 percent of full strength, trying out all his pitches at the Hawks’ minor league facility in Chikugo, Fukuoka Prefecture.

From what Stewart said, the mound there sounds like the prototypical Japanese type with a softer landing area and a gentler slope than in the States. Despite that, he said he liked it that way, showing that perhaps he has been receiving lessons in how not to say anything meaningful to reporters.

He is slated for another throwing session this weekend, and said he is eager to pitch to actual hitters, although he added that it would only happen after discussion the matter thoroughly with coaches.

Rookies progress

Here are a couple of quick tables so you can stay up to date on the progress of this season’s rookie of the year candidates.

Rookie pitchers.xlsx

TeamPlayerIPWinsLossesSavesHoldsERAWHIPK9
HawksRei Takahashi6571002.631.184.15
BuffaloesTsubasa Sakakibara64.233002.371.276.54
CarpHiroki Tokoda7054003.601.367.07
MarinesDaiki Iwashita55.121002.931.377.48
BayStarsTaiga Kamichatani60.133003.881.335.67
GiantsYuki Takahashi44.133003.251.337.11
BuffaloesKohei Suzuki39.113002.971.507.78
EaglesRyota Ishibashi45.133003.771.265.96
BayStarsShinichi Onuki46.233003.861.486.75
TigersKoki Moriya2620042.770.966.58
HawksHiroshi Kaino22.2110132.381.2811.51
HawksKeisuke Izumi1620032.251.257.31
CarpSho Yamaguchi1911002.841.168.05
HawksArata Shiino16.111013.311.4113.22
LionsRyosuke Moriwaki16.120024.411.966.06
LionsKeisuke Honda3522005.141.436.17
DragonsTatsuya Shimizu22.121005.241.886.45
FightersYuki Yoshida1800006.001.728.50
LionsWataru Matsumoto20.111006.101.653.92
DragonsAkiyoshi Katsuno16.112006.061.534.96
SwallowsKeiji Takahashi31.102007.111.748.53
Rookie pitchers with 15-plus innings through June 15, 2019
TeamPlayerPAGRABH_2B_3BHRRBISBCSBBKAvg.OBPSlugOPS
TigersKoji Chikamoto289653926174855221691949.284.337.410.747
SwallowsMunetaka Murakami2656633227531301750323477.233.336.515.851
TigersSeiya Kinami18156131653981216101538.236.300.333.633
EaglesRyosuke Tatsumi17347201483981214721951.264.347.372.719
HawksGo Kamamoto15156161393421411801044.245.295.360.655
BuffaloesHayato Nishiura1504916136263011263934.191.240.235.475