Let’s go back to the future

For lack of a better expression, this is a call to action.

If you live in Japan and have even the slightest interest in the history of the game, I would like you to join me in a quest to digitally document Japanese baseball history. Let’s get together and figure

Of course, we’d love to have play-by-play accounts of every game since the Japanese Baseball Federation revived pro baseball in 1936, but those kind of records  don’t exist in public. But Japan has libraries and collections of old newspapers, and together we can — game-by-game, season-by-season — uncover buried treasure.

Little by little, we can encode information about games, where were they played, who pitched, who played, what was the score, how many pitches were thrown? — Japanese papers have been publishing pitch counts since the 1960s!

I’ve always wondered how someone like Keishi Suzuki could throw huge numbers of innings and complete games from the age of 18 and keep doing it year after year until he finally slowed down a little at the age of 37 and then retired. The answer just might be out there.

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve managed to compile a data base of seasonal data since 1946 for NPB’s pitchers, batters and fielders. Play-by-play data is freely available from 2006 thanks to the internet and I’ve been keeping records of various sorts since the mid-1990s. The detailed game data available to the media through BIS runs from 1970 to the present. Because we know how many runs are scored by a team in its main park(s), and how many home runs are hit in those games, we can make a good guess at park effects, but before 1970, that is going to take even more elbow grease

It’s funny how something can be in front of your face, and you never see it. After plowing through old game results and newspaper clippings from old papers for years at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library at Tokyo Dome, working on this or that project, it became obvious that charting Japan’s ocean of game history was beyond my reach. Yet, I hoped and thought that if I stuck at it, day after day, I could compile some kind of record of every pro game ever played How naive can one get?

Those days, from 1993 to 1997, I was writing my English language analytical guides to Japanese baseball and everything seemed possible. But upon becoming a full-time writer, that dream faded.

Then a funny thing happened. I decided to go to the baseball winter meetings a year ago in San Diego. Ira Stevens of Scout Dragon, my former collaborator on my guides, goes every year to market his product and asked me how come I didn’t check it out. It was a great idea and a great experience.

I filed a bunch of stories about Japanese players and teams, and met a number of people whose stuff I read. One of those, Rob Neyer, asked why I no longer had a website and why I didn’t try to start a Japanese version of Retrosheet. A website was the easy part. I came back and started this thing up. But a group, a network, organize? That’s not me…

That all changed today. I became attached to Bill James’ win shares because of the artful way it manages to handle fielding value, and having completed win shares for all the players in NPB from 1970-2015 today, I felt energized to tackle the basic park data needed to carry them back to 1936, so I put out a call for help on Twitter.

So if you are in Japan and can access a library to get the basic information from even one game, drop me a line and let’s work this out.

 

Japan’s MVPs over past 25 years

23-year-old Tetsuto Yamada’s 2015 season may have been Japan’s best over the past 25 years.

Having finally gotten around to calculating win shares in NPB from 1989 to 2015, I might as well use them to ask the question: How often are Japan’s MVP winners actually in the ballpark?

While every system, including WAR is going to catch some flak for its omissions and assumptions, Win Shares is a good match for Japan because a lot of data, particularly UZR for recent players, is not publicly available.

One win share is equivalent to a third of a win and what is really neat is that the win shares for pitchers correspond very well over a period of time with actual pitching wins. Of the 50 MVPs selected over the past 25 years, there have been 15 players selected who were, through this measure, vastly underqualified for the award. Of those 15, it should not surprise anyone who follows Japanese baseball that 12 were pitchers.

The most egregious selection since 1991 was left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, the Pacific League’s 2010 MVP, whose 13 win shares were the fewest of any winner since then. The player with the most win shares that season (34) was the first shortstop to win a batting championship and a Golden Glove in the same season, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Of the 50 actual MVPs, 31 either led their league in win shares or were within 3 win shares and have to be considered really good candidates. Since I first wrote this, I have extended my win shares calculations to 1970, and Wada’s MVP stands as NPB’s worst choice in 46 years.

If MVPs were decided by an objective estimate of contributions to wins and losses, who in the past 25 years would have won the most MVP awards? If you guessed Matsui, you would be correct. You can go with Hideki Matsui or Kazuo Matsui, both led their league in win shares five times. Hideki actually won two, while Kazuo won one.

Which player in Japan was most poorly represented in MVP awards? That title might go to Hirokazu Ibata during his heyday as the defensive leader of the Chunichi Dragons. Ibata led the Central League in win shares in 2004, ’07 and ’09, although he did so with fairly modest totals of 24, 24 and 26, respectively.

Who has had most valuable season over the past 25 years? One wouldn’t have to look far for that one. After a year in which he led the CL in seven offensive categories, including being the second player in NBP history to surpass the runner-up in runs scored by 30 or more (and the one not named Sadaharu Oh) , Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada raked in 47 win shares in a 143-game season. Although the schedule has increased over this period from 130 games to as many as 146, Yamada’s 2015 season can arguably called the best in Japan in the last 25 years, narrowly beating out Ichiro Suzuki’s 1995 MVP season for the Orix BlueWave.

The other three in win shares per game top five are: No. 3 Yuki Yanagita 2015; No. 4 Ichiro Suzuki 1996 and No. 5 Tom O’Malley 1993. But O’Malley’s Hanshin Tigers finished fourth that season, and Atsuya Furuta, the catcher for the CL pennant-winning Swallows, was a fairly deserving winner with 32 win shares to O’Malley’s 34.

Here are the WS MVPs and actual MVPs in each league for the past five seasons with the win share totals of league leaders bolded and actual MVPs italicized:

[supsystic-tables id=”15″]

 

The Boys of Winter

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Terry Collins had a lot to smile about at the winter meetings.

While there are plenty of news junkies this week in Nashville at the baseball winter meetings, the absolute best part is running into people you’ve known for a long time or have wanted to meet for a long time. On Tuesday, I spoke briefly with former Orix manager Terry Collins, who is now riding high and aiming higher with the NL champion New York Mets.

My story for Kyodo News is here.

Later that day, burdened by the jet lag albatross, I ran into former Triple Crown-winner Boomer Wells and former Seibu Lion Terry Whitfield. Boomer’s the greatest and as usual had several stories to make my day. Terry is someone I’d wanted to talk to ever since fate steered me toward Japan. I had been a fan of his with the San Francisco Giants, and I remember him coming back to the Dodgers after he left Seibu.

I also ran into Charlie Manuel, who told me that what he got out of Japan was the lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around Charlie Manuel — which we now know is true, because science has proved it revolves around Boomer Wells.

Boomer Wells

Nippon Ham Fighters scout Matt Winters, whose quest for beer nirvana is awe-inspiring, said he’s “trying to catch up with Boomer,” which seemed an impossible chase, given Boomer’s inspired start. But Boomer, the former New York Jets lineman and Japanese baseball legend, is being a sport and has slimmed down considerably, looking much fitter than he has in a long time. Man that was good to see.

Winter meetings warming up

The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.
The Baseball Winter Meetings are an attraction by themselves, but this year they compete with boat rides at Opryland.

The good thing about Opryland is that you don’t have to ride the boats to get from one end of the facility to the other, but the sight of the Baseball Winter Meetings a HUGE facility.  One element of the meetings is the continual stream of front-office people mingling in lobbies and corridors. At Opryland, the miracle mile, is a bridge near the lobby.

Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.
Bridging the communication gap between big league teams at the Baseball Winter Meetings.

After a slow start on Sunday, in which the main piece of news was a “reported” signing of Hisashi Iwakuma by the Los Angeles Dodgers, things picked up a little bit on Monday as the managers press conferences began and more and more team officials and agents arrived. Monday, however, brought no clarity to Iwakuma’s status, as agent Adam Katz, who also represents Carp ace Kenta Maeda, refusing to comment on a deal that has not been completed.

Maeda is currently in posting limbo as his paperwork is cleared by MLB, so Katz said he was as free with his words as he’ll ever get regarding the two-time Sawamura Award winner.

“I expect that once the process starts, I’m not going to be providing updates, unfortunately. It’s not something I’ve done in all my years of representing ballplayers. So this will probably be it,” Katz said.

 

 

Does Japan’s game slow down in 2nd half?

Unlike most NPB teams, the Yakult Swallows were at full speed in the second half this year. Shingo Kawabaa slides into third with a September triple against DeNA BayStars third baseman Aarom Baldiris.

Many years ago, while exploring ways Japanese ball varied from the major league variety, I noticed that in Nippon Professional Baseball, triples declined in the second half of the season, while in the majors they increase slightly. Despite fewer games played over a longer season with a less arduous travel schedule, a lot of Japanese players look gassed in the second half.

Take Kosuke Fukudome. Back in his heyday with the Chunichi Dragons, running on the right fielder’s arm in April was a risky proposition. But three months into the season, runners would go from first to third with impunity on balls hit to right field. Considering the long practice schedule on off days and the two or more hours of practice before each game, it’s no wonder.

With the magic of the internet comes better access to potential sources of answers, and you know what? While the batting average on balls in play increases in the second half of the season — regardless which side of the Pacific you are on, the frequency of batters reaching third on those hits still decreases in the second half.

Splitting the season between June 30 and July 1, NPB teams since 2006 have hit triples on 1.73 percent of first-half hits, and 1.6 percent of second-half hits. In the majors, using the All-Star break from mlb.com as a convenient break point, MLB teams since 2006 increased from 2 percent in the first half to 2.1 percent in the second half.

I did a story for Kyodo News last month about the conditioning programs of the SoftBank Hawks and Yakult Swallows, the two teams that met in the Japan Series after beating up their leagues in the second half. It’s a small sample size, but the Hawks and Swallows were both below average in triples in the first half but well ahead of their leagues in the second.

Hawks players did intense training from the spring, flipping and hammering truck tires, and it appeared to pay off. Conditioning coach Atsushi Toriida, left, looks on.

Remembering Fukudome, I wondered if outfield assists followed a similar pattern. For NPB as a whole, outfield assists decreased in the second half this year, the first year I have kept regular fielding totals during the season. Hawks outfielders threw out eight runners in the first half, 10 in the second half, while the Swallows declined from 16 to 10.

A second look at a first base mystery

Giants veteran Shinnosuke Abe was a novice at first base this season, and is at the heart of a fielding whodunnit.

While figuring out my ballot for Golden Glove winners, I often resort to Bill James’ Win Shares as a not-so-quick-and-dirty guide to fielding value. What? No Ultimate Zone Ratings? Nippon Professional Baseball HAS UZR info, but it’s not made public.

One of the things the Win Shares numbers pointed out was the absurd number of putouts by Yomiuri Giants first basemen, headlined by their longtime catcher, Shinnosuke Abe.  Because estimated unassisted putouts by first baseman carry a lot of weight in the system, the Giants’ 1,375 put outs at first on a total of just 1,309 ground ball outs to the other five positions around the infield, made Abe look like a glove wiz.

But to be honest, Abe often looked uncomfortable at first, making poor decisions about where to throw the ball and reacting poorly to ground balls. The play-by-play numbers, the number of ground ball outs he fielded and the number of flies he caught indicate a player who didn’t deserve a Golden Glove vote.

Adjusting for the Giants’ pitching staff’s composition of lefties and its ground-fly tendencies, Yomiuri first basemen fielded 13 ground ball outs less than expected and one fly less than expected, while starting two double plays, two fewer than expected — with Abe starting zero, despite being the most frequent contributor at first. Abe has yet to start one at first. Perhaps he’d do better if they let him wear his catchers mitt.

So what caused that egregious number of putouts? From the looks of it, the key to the mystery is at second base, where Giants’ fielders made just 189 non-fly putouts. It seems that force plays at second were a rare event at Tokyo Dome this year due to having so few runners on first base, nearly a hundred fewer than any other team in NPB. Fewer runners on first base meant fewer force opportunities at other bases — meaning many of the putouts that would have gone to other bases, instead went to first, skewing the Giants’ numbers.

And after slandering the vote for tubby RBI leader Kazuhiro Hatakeyama of the Yakult Swallows, I have to admit his raw numbers were good. Like the rest of the Yakult infield, Hatake read first-year skipper Mitsuru Manaka’s memo over the winter about the importance of defense. In the previous two seasons combined, Yakult first baseman had fielded 17 balls fewer than expected and been minus five in starting double plays. This year they were plus 32 and plus one.

I demand a new ballot!

Japan’s award weirdness

All-everything Tetsuto Yamada in full swing.

One hears a lot of teeth gnashing and groaning during Japan’s award season, and for good reason.

The MVP awards are, more often than not, an exercise in trying to pick the best player on the pennant-winning team. How this started, no one seems to know, but reporters I’ve quizzed about it say voters will never be criticized for selecting a player on a pennant-winning team or a player from another team, provided he has an outlier season — such as Wladimir Balentien shattering Japan’s single-season home run record despite playing for a last-place team. It seems progress is being made on this front.

Take 2014 for instance.

The 2014 Pacific League winner was Buffaloes pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, whose team lost the pennant by a matter of winning-percentage points. The runner-up was this year’s MVP, Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, and third place went to slugging Fighters ace Shohei Otani, who was the league’s second best pitcher and its second most valuable designated hitter and thus a better candidate than Kaneko…

A year ago, the Central League award went to Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose team won the pennant by seven games. But second place went to Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who like Yanagita had his breakthrough season in 2014 before running away with the 2015 vote. Third place in the CL last year went to Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger.

The Swallows dominated this year’s MVP voting despite winning the league by 1-1/2 games over the Giants. One has to wonder how the vote would have been different had the Giants won two more games. Would right-hander Miles Mikolas, the top Giants player in the poll, have been MVP after throwing 145 innings with a nifty 1.92 earned run average and a 13-3 record? Mikolas finished seventh in the voting because the Giants fell short. Certainly, a Giants pennant would have wiped out support for Swallows ace Masanori Ishikawa (13-9, 3.31 ERA), who finished fifth in the voting. But the way the Japan media votes, he could easily have been voted the best player in the league if his team had been just a little luckier.

Well maybe not.

It would have been hard to knock off Yamada, whose 119 runs were 32 more than teammate Shingo Kawabata’s total. That 32-run gap between the league leader and the runner-up is the second largest in history. Only Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh did him two better, leading the league by 34 runs in 1969. Though when people in Japan speak of titles, little things like that are typically overlooked.

Playing in a hitters’ park, Yamada led both of Nippon Professional Baseball’s leagues in doubles and home runs, and trailed in RBIs by five after spending part of the season in the leadoff spot. He tied for the Japan lead in stolen bases, was third in walks, was runner-up in batting average, while leading in OBP and slugging average.

It was no real surprise that he won in a landslide. The surprise came the day before when the two leagues’ Best IX Award winners were named, and three voters, the same ones who vote for the MVPs — the ballot is on the same sheet of paper along with the Rookie of the Year — thought Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Carp was a more valuable second baseman than Yamada. Kikuchi is a heck of a fielder, and a productive hitter, but let’s get real.

If you think Kikuchi is better, it’s not the end of the world. We all have dumb ideas or fixations now and then. But if those three thought Kikuchi was better, how come he didn’t get any MVP votes? This is puzzling because Yamada was named on every single ballot cast for CL players with 262 first-place votes, seven seconds, and one third. Kikuchi went 0-for-3, so one has to wonder what happened to those three voters.

Yanagita was not a dominant force like Yamada, but the PL is a tougher league than the CL is. Although Yanagita hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals like Yamada and even won a batting title, he spent a lot of the season in the shadow of Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who rewrote the single-season hit record in dramatic fashion over the final two games of the season.

There was really no contest for MVP as Yanagita was the dominant player on a historically dominant team, but Akiyama got 11 first-place votes to finish runner-up. In the Best IX vote, Akiyama was named on every ballot, while Yanagita was left off three (perhaps they were Seibu beat writers).

It’s hard to argue the singles-hitting Akiyama is a better player, but if you think so, that’s OK and he was a decent choice for No. 2, but demoting Yanagita off the Best IX ballot? Too weird.

Is there an MLB match for Machi?

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro “Machi” Matsuda.

@bronxfanatic asked about Nobuhiro Matsuda’s chances of signing with a major league team.

The San Diego Padres had reportedly been interested in the dynamic third baseman of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks–just as they had been reportedly looking into Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani a year ago. Fox Sports reports the two sides met earlier this week.

The chances of someone offering Matsuda guaranteed major league deal are small, given his age; he’ll be 33 in May. Another factor is that while Matsuda is a quality third baseman, all of his career has been spent on artificial surfaces.

Matsuda stands far off the plate in the right-handed batter’s box, daring pitchers to throw him outside and then shoots pitches to right field. Because those are his favorite targets, he can be enticed by outside pitches well off the plate. When he fails to make contact with those, he regains his balance by bouncing around the plate on one foot–what John E. Gibson  calls the “hot-foot dance.”

His success, and I believe he has a chance to succeed is in scrapping his preconceived notions about what works for him and start fresh. The change in velocity and pitching style will require major adjustments that are not easy for a mature player, so a large drop off is to be expected. He is athletic and smart enough to find a new approach, but it’s not a good bet to make.

On the plus side, he has won four Pacific League Golden Gloves, is a LEADER on the field, and according to the foreign players on the Hawks, the funniest guy in the club house. He could easily be a team favorite like his mentor, Munenori Kawasaki, and prove valuable after winning a job in a spring training invite.

That being said, he has said he will return to the Hawks if no deal is pending. This is essentially a similar situation to the one Toritani found himself in a year ago. Because he’s not high on the board, teams will wait to see who moves where before making Matsuda an attractive offer. Last year, Toritani put a mid-January deadline on negotiations because he felt he had to tell the Tigers if he would be available on Feb. 1 for spring training.

So while, Matsuda could win a job in the spring, he is unlikely to leave the Hawks in the lurch by going without a contract, and thus he is not likely to get the opportunity he longs for.

Will Kenta Maeda be posted?

Kenta Maeda while pitching for Japan.

On Tuesday, Kenta Maeda told the Hiroshima Carp for the third straight year that he wants to be posted. But unlike the past two autumns, Carp GM Kiyoaki Suzuki has kept the door open.

Suzuki has in the past said, “when it’s the best time for him, the team and the fans,” and “when he performs like an ace,” adding that Maeda’s case is much stronger now then it was two years ago.

The best time for Maeda is now.

But for the team, which thrives on underpaying its stars while merchandising the heck out of them, it is obviously not the best time. The penurious Carp would lose a year from Japan’s best pitcher (at the moment) at a cost of around $3 million as well as licensing revenue from shirt sales and other trinkets in exchange for $20 million it  can still collect a year from now.

As for the fans, as much as they’d live watching Maeda on TV pitching in the majors, having him in red with the promise of pennant contention would be better.

The Carp began play in 1950 and went 25 years without a pennant. After a stretch 17 seasons as a CL powerhouse, 2015 was the club’s 24th straight season without a league title.

Premier 12 all-tournament team & 9th inning madness

 

The WBSC has named its all-tournament team for the inaugural Premier 12, which includes the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani (starting pitcher) and Sho Nakata (first baseman), while Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto was named the tournament’s outstanding defensive player.

Three days after third-place Japan blew a three-run lead to lose its semifinal to eventual champion South Korea, the smoke has yet to clear over manager Hiroki Kokubo’s game management.

Some question his removing Otani after 85 pitches over seven innings for two-time Pacific League strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who had been very sharp in relief through the tournament.

Others, including my podcast partner, John E Gibson, question Kokubo leaving Norimoto, a starter with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, who dispatched the Koreans in the eighth on eight pitches, in to work the ninth — since that is the domain of closers. After having zero luck with Norimoto’s fastball in the eighth, South Korea’s hitters began getting good swings at his secondary pitches. Good swings and good luck. The worst pitch he threw was a forkball that missed up over the plate, a pitch that leadoff hitter Jeong Keun Woo smashed just inside the third-base line for an RBI double. You can see the video here.

After the game, Kokubo said, “I wanted to bring in (lefty) Yuki Matsui with runners on second and third. But Norimoto hit the next batter. If there had been a base open, I think Matsui would have had more margin for error.”

Huh? He had a base open before Norimoto’s pitch came close enough to Lee Yong Kyu’s elbow for the umpire to award the batter first base. Kokubo wanted Matsui in with a base open, and didn’t bring him in then to face the lefty Lee, but waited for a bases-loaded to bring in a 20-year-old with a history of spotty control who is playing for the national team for the first time. Matsui walked the only batter he faced to make it a one-run game. Lee Dae Ho, who has seen Fighters closer Hirotoshi Masui pitch for four years, did well to lay off a 1-1 fastball off the outside corner before making  contact on a forkball over the outer half of the plate for a two-run single.

Norimoto’s control was horrible to start the inning, but he made two decent pitches that were hit for singles before Jeong’s double. Norimoto was part of the plan, no problem. But Kokubo wasn’t prepared for what he might need if the inning got out of control early, as it did.

Kokubo had four guys on his roster who close out games for a living, and a starter, submariner Kazuhisa Makita who has been deadly in relief, and none were ready when Kokubo could have used them the most.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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