Matt Murton talks hit records, distractions

The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, holder of Japan’s single-season hit record, had some words of advice on Friday for the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, who is in hot pursuit of his record.

“Obviously he (Akiyama) has had a tremendous season so far,” Murton told Kyodo News. “He just needs to focus on trying to help his team win. If he gets caught up in everything else going on around him, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed throughout the remainder of this year.”

In 2010, his debut season in Japan, Murton eclipsed Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 hits to establish the current mark of 214. Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130-game season, while Murton accomplished his over 144 games in 2010, the last year before Nippon Professional Baseball banned juiced balls. Akiyama entered play on Saturday with 133 hits, needing 82 hits over the Lions’ remaining 61 games to surpass Murton.

Akiyama extended his hitting streak to 30 games on Saturday.

Read the full story at the Japan Times: http://t.co/92lDaKOtDL

CL simply inferior to PL

When the DeNA BayStars beat the Hanshin Tigers on Friday, July 3, Japan’s Central League finished the day with each of its six clubs below .500.

The historic fluke is the result of the annual bashing at the hands of the rival Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball’s interleague play combined with an unusually tight CL race. The Tigers’ loss left the Yakult Swallows in first place at one game below .500 and the next four teams within a half game.

The CL’s inability to keep up with the PL has been masked by normal distributions in the CL standings and — until 2005 — the lack of interleague play. But this year, with no CL club able to dominate league play and the PL winning this interleague by a 61-44 margin, the blinders are now off.

But this is not something the media is keen to note. Aside from a brief mention, on Friday night, the story has been spun about the historic balance in the CL. Guess it’s probably better to bury the obvious conclusion — that Japan’s most popular circuit, the one that for years has held most of the power — can’t cut the mustard in head-to-head competition against the league it — or perhaps more precisely, Yomiuri Giants kingpin Tsuneo Watanabe — enjoys disparaging.

In 11 years of interleague play, the CL has led the competition just once and this year’s whipping left the PL holding an 865-774 edge for a winning percentage of .528. The chances of two equally balanced leagues competing, with each club having a 50 percent chance of winning any contest and league winning 53 percent of 1,639 decisions is 1.3 percent. Any assumption that the two leagues are equally strong has to contend with that. The PL has also won 7-of-10 Japan Series since 2005, with a .569 winning percentage in the 88 individual decisions.

The more popular of Japan’s two leagues since they were created by expansion after the 1949 season, the CL has long lorded it over the PL at the ticket gate, but the head-to-head competition between the leagues tells a different story. Until 2004, Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues only battled each other in the Japan Series and the summer all-star exhibitions — in which the PL has more than held its own.

For decades, the PL’s all-star success was attributed to CL squads being overloaded with players from Japan’s oldest franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, who would be overmatched against the PL’s best — leading to the phrase “Popular Ce(ntral), Powerful Pa(cific).”

Even when it came to player movement, the CL has long benefited from its clubs’ popularity. The current version of free agency was introduced in 1993 — by the Giants as a way of securing more big name talent — and until the end of the 2010 season, every star in his prime who switched leagues directly moved from the PL to the CL.

Although the Pacific League boasts more financial heavyweights among its clubs’ parent companies, Nippon Professional Baseball was thrown into crisis from the PL side in 2004, when the remaining two PL teams in the Kansai region, playing in the shadow of the better established Tigers, decided to merge. The announcement that the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes would merge due to the constant strain of red ink, and the question over what to do with a five-team league led to talk of contraction, reorganization and Japan’s first player strike.

Interleague play — something long rejected by CL owners — was introduced as a part of the labor settlement as was an agreement by owners to expedite the approval of the Sendai-based Eagles, owned by Internet market giant Rakuten. That spring, the Nippon Ham Fighters had moved out from under the Giants’ shadow in Tokyo to baseball-starved Sapporo. And in the autumn, telecommunications powerhouse Softbank take over the Hawks and add even more energy to the once lackluster PL.

Over the past five years, the Hawks and the new Orix Buffaloes have become two of the biggest free agent spenders, while the CL’s Chunichi Dragons, a powerhouse from 2002-2011, have scaled back on player acquisitions.

Race for history

The Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama is challenging the record book this season.

“I’m enjoying it while it lasts.”

That was Seibu Lions center field Shogo Akiyama’s answer when reporters asked him two months ago about being on track to break Japan’s record for hits in a season. The record of 214 was set by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers over 144 games in 2010, when he broke the 210 mark established by Ichiro Suzuki in 1994 in a 130-game season.

On July 2, Akiyama hit for the 23rd straight game, establishing a record for the storied franchise. Akiyama took another step toward putting his name in the record book with 43 hits in June, making him only the second player – after Suzuki to have back-to-back 40-hit months.

Because of the hits, Akiyama has grabbed headlines, but Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, also a left-handed hitter, has held his own in the PL batting race with the two battling neck and neck. At the end of June, Yanagita was batting .381 to Akiyama’s .382. Because Yanagita bats third instead of first and walks much more often, it will be harder for the Hawks star to break the hit record.

Akiyama turned 27 on April 16, and although he began getting regular playing time in 2011, he was held back against left-handed pitchers his first year, when he posted a .403 OPS against southpaws. It’s an area where he has shown steady improvement, but this year Akiyama has taken a huge step forward against both lefties and righties with a .922/.962 left/right split.

Against the best pitchers in either league as measured by earned run average, the top 19 among pitchers with 74 or more innings pitched through July 4, Akiyama is 14-for-49 with four doubles, no homers, two walks and five strikeouts for a an OPS of .710 – impressive in that it is close to his career norm against all pitching.

However, against this same group of Japan’s best pitchers, Yanagita is 23-for-60, with six doubles, three homers and 10 walks against 12 strikeouts for an impressive OPS of 1.112 – impressive in that is as good as he is against everyone this season.

The Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita

Yanagita is six months younger than Akiyama and a rare type of hitter in Japan, a player who hits home runs, while frequently hitting the ball on the ground. If his past performance is any indication, he may be a better first-half hitter. If any of that was due to conditioning or fitness issues, then new Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s aggressive efforts in the area of fitnesss and conditioning may help that.

Akiyama has so far tended to get a little better as the season goes on, yet he is so far ahead of his past performance that it is hard to see him having a second half that is even as good. But even so, as of Sunday, July 5, Akiyama was 84 hits shy of Murton’s 214, and he had been collecting hits at an average of 1.65 per game. He can break the record even if that rate falls off by nearly 20 percent to 1.33 hits per game and he plays every game, so his fitness is going to be a huge issue.

Yanagita would have to improve his hit rate by 20 percent, which doesn’t seem likely. But if he were to hold steady – which seems possible, Yanagita would have a shot of breaking the single-season batting-average record of .389, set by Randy Bass in 1986.

Bunts and pitchers’ fielding

Beware of trying to bunt on Kenta Maeda.

There was a nice blog post the other day on Baseball Labo about fielding bunts and the huge difference in the record between last year’s Golden Glove Winners, Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Carp and Chihiro Kaneko of the Orix Buffaloes. While it didn’t go on to question Kaneko’s award — which it could have, it pointed out that the Buffaloes ace never defeats a sacrifice bunt by getting the lead runner.

In 51 sacrifice situations between 2010 and 2014, Maeda fielded 51 bunts and got one of the lead runners 11 times, for a Japan-best 21.6 percent. Kaneko, on the other hand had fielded 48 such bunts and never prevented the runner on first from reaching second.

Before last year’s Golden Glove voting, I had few tools with which to appraise pitchers — something that was annoying ever since voters handed the Central League’s Golden Glove in 2011 to setup man Takuya Asao, a strikeout pitcher who fielded a grand total of 16 balls that season. But since the sites I scrape to get my play-by-play data have noted bunt attempts since 2012, we can have perhaps a better sense of who the best fielding pitchers in NPB are.

The data set does not have base-out situations, so we are limited to total number of bunts fielded, the number of bunts in which no out is recorded and the number of sacrifices credited.

Since 2010, opponents have been credited with sacrifices on 81 percent of the bunts against Maeda which is among the best. But his teammate, right-hander Yusuke Nomura has allowed a sacrifice rate of 70 percent, the best in NPB. Considering both pitchers have allowed runners to reach safely on bunts (about 5 percent),  one might be tempted to think Nomura and his .985 fielding percentage would give him the edge over Maeda and his .939 fielding percentage.

Hiroshima’s Yusuke Nomura is not known for his fielding, yet.

Yusuke Kikuchi of the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions is also a candidate for NPB’s top fielder, with a no errors over the past four seasons, one bunter reaching safely in 44 attempts and a sacrifice rate of .84.

When is a slider not a slider?

The Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Takagi

When is a slider not a slider? When it’s thrown by Hayato Takagi.

Watching the Yomiuri Giants-DeNA BayStars game tonight with Giants rookie Hayato Takagi on the mound, viewers were treated to this exchange between the announcer and the analyst, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo.

Announcer: “There’s Takagi’s cutball (cut fastball). It’s really breaking for him and troubling the hitters.”

Kokubo: “Of course, when you see it, you know it’s not actually a cut fastball, but that’s what he calls it. Anybody using English would call it a slider, because that’s what it is.”

Announcer: “Yes. Of course.

Announcer: “And there’s the cut fastball again. Simply amazing.”

Opposing starting pitcher difficulty

All opponents are not created equal. The Giants’ Aaron Poreda is 5-1 in nine starts, three against Yakult and Hanshin, two against DeNA and 1 against Chunichi.  In calculating how tough a pitcher is against a given team, one should only count his record against OTHER teams. Thus while Poreda is 5-1,  he is 1-0 against Yakult and thus  his quality as concerns Yakult is 4-1.  Poreda is 3-0 against Hanshin, thus his record for calculating his difficulty against the Tigers is 2-1.

In the Yakult Swallows’ first 48 games, the opposing starting pitchers they have faced have a cumulative record against other teams of 102 wins and 69 losses or a .596 winning percentage. Of course, that is not entirely an accurate picture because the Swallows are below .500 in the Central League and haven’t had to face their own starting pitching, which combined for 93-153 record’s worth of difficulty on opponents. If we factor in 1/5 of the Swallows starters cumulative .378 win pct to adjust for the fact that the Swallows don’t play against themselves. That still leaves the difficulty of opposing pitchers vs Yakult at .561, the highest in Japan.

Yakult .561, Yomiuri Giants .558, Seibu Lions .553, DeNA BayStars .535,

Nippon Ham Fighters .523, Rakuten Eagles .510, Lotte Marines .509, Hiroshima Carp .507,

Orix Buffaloes .505, Chunichi Dragons .501, Softbank Hawks .498, Hanshin Tigers .493.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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