Japan and the save

We tend to think of Major League Baseball and even Nippon Professional Baseball to some degree as being organized, but sometimes the state of disorganization and simple failure to check work is astounding. And so it was with NPB’s save rule.

This is a story of how teams change roles and tactics to align with changes in scoring rules. How the game is scored doesn’t actually change the game, but teams responses to the new scoring rules does impact how the game is played.

It’s also a story of how I cost a player the NPB saves record in 2007, but I’ll get to that later.

Japan and the majors have different ways of doing things, some of these differences are almost imperceptible, some are matters of custom, some are because Japan’s system for changing rules is infinitely more complicated and involves coordination and cooperation with the amateur federations.

One difference, for example, is a batted ball deflected by the pitcher to the shortstop who throws to first. Japan records the play as a 6-3 putout because that’s how Japan does it.

Pitcher wins and saves were different because Japan’s rules themselves are — or in the case of the save — were subtly different. Reading SI.com’s story on the history of the save reminded me of how the rule took an unexpected detour in NPB.

The old save rule

At some point during the 1994 or 1995 season, having self-published the first English-language sabermetric guide to Japanese pro baseball, something strange popped up in the newspaper. A pitcher was credited with a save for getting three outs in the ninth with a four-run lead.

Since one goal of the guide was to establish understanding of Japanese baseball, that save spurred a visit to the Pacific League office and the league’s delightful director of records, Isao Chiba. Mr. Chiba explained that in Japan, the qualifications for saves were different.

“Pitchers who get three outs in the final inning can get saves with a lead of three runs or less, of course, but in Japan, when a pitcher enters with no outs, one run is added to the maximum allowable lead for each runner he inherits,” Mr. Chiba explained.

So a pitcher could get a save despite coming in with a six-run lead?

“Hypothetically, yes.”

Mr. Chiba said he had no idea why it was different. I don’t know if Japanese still use the phrase “Japan and [your homeland here] are different” as an answer to the question “why” or maybe one gets numb to it after 10 years and no longer notices it.

Playing for records

The SI article accurately reflects how relief pitcher use changed to suit the new stat, and that trend eventually caught on in Japan. By the mid-1990’s every team had a designated closer who was more or less expected to enter games in the final inning when his team had a lead.

In 1997, Yokohama BayStars reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki surpassed NPB’s 10-year-old record of 37 saves (set by Kuo Yuen-chih). A year later, Sasaki saved 45. That record fell in 2005, when Hitoki Iwase of the Chunichi Dragons saved 46. Two years later, Kyuji Fujikawa of the Hanshin Tigers was on a pace to surpass Iwase.

On Sept. 4, the Tigers were three games back of the Central League-leading Yomiuri Giants, and a half-game back of the Dragons. The Tigers were home on a Tuesday, and prior to the team’s Monday day off, Fujikawa had pitched in four straight games. He had saved six straight games before coming in a tie two days earlier and getting the win.

On Tuesday, the Tigers held a four-run lead going into the ninth against the BayStars. When Kentaro Hashimoto allowed a single to open the ninth, manager Akinobu Okada called on Fujikawa to close it out.

The Tigers won the game, but that wasn’t what Okada wanted when he changed pitchers in the ninth, as he admitted after the game. What he had forgotten was that the save rule he’d grown up with as a player, had changed over the winter to match MLB’s.

“If I had known that, I would have left Hashimoto in,” Okada said.

True, it could have been a tongue-in-cheek comment since Okada was known to pull people’s legs, but one doubts it. That’s because he was pushing his closer to the point of exhaustion. Fujikawa would pitch the next day and the next and the next until he had appeared in 10-straight games. Obviously, one doesn’t do that if one’s only focus is winning.

Lost in translation

It was at that point I remembered a call I’d gotten from Mr. Chiba a few months earlier.

“You know we changed the save rule this year,” he said. “That was because we found out it had been mistranslated. After you asked me for the definition I asked around and we had it checked. It was supposed to be a direct translation but it got mistranslated. Somebody confused the conditions for getting the final out (coming in with the potential tying run on deck) with the three runs, one-inning save.”

So 10 years after asking how the rules were different, NPB had finally found out why they were different. Because nobody bothered to check the translation done in 1975. And without my discussion with Mr. Chiba 25 years ago, Kyuji Fujikawa would have set Japan’s save record in 2007.

Fujikawa’s finish

Through the end of that 10-straight stretch, Fujikawa had allowed seven runs and struck out 104 batters in 72-1/3 innings with a 5-2 record. After his September slog, he allowed eight runs in 10-2/3 innings, struck out 11 and went 0-3 with six saves to tie Iwase’s record.

The Giants won the pennant by a 1-1/2 games over the Dragons, with the Tigers finishing another 4-1/2 games back in third.

After Okada’s stunt, Hanshin split their four remaining home games against Yomiuri and Chunichi, but went 3-9 on the road and 0-1 at home against the CL’s weaklings then, the Swallows, Carp and BayStars

Blowing out his closer in September didn’t cost the Tigers the pennant, but it severely hurt their chances of finishing second and playing the first playoff stage at home at Koshien Stadium.

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