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.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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