The pitchers, part I

This is the start of a series trying to estimate Nippon Professional Baseball’s best  players at each position over the past decades, starting with the current 2010-2015. For the players from 1970 to 2015, I’ll be using Bill James original Win Shares — I still haven’t figured out some of the details of his new system. Without any estimates of park effects prior to 1970, I’ll look at other stuff. To avoid too much detail, one win share equals one third of a team win and the two balance out — every team’s individual win share total equals three times its wins. (You may see halves in my figures sometimes — and that’s because I’ll count each team tie as half a win and there are a lot of ties in NPB.)

2010-2015

Although Kenta Maeda has not been Japan’s best pitcher in recent years, his body of work — and the absence of Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, opened the door for him to shoot to the top of the rankings for the current decade. It will take a couple of years for the Orix Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko to pass Maeda — even if the Carp ace moves to the majors this winter.

To be realistic, other than Maeda and perhaps Dennis Sarfate, nobody on the top-10 list can expect to be really better than he is now — although Kaneko will likely rise from the tar pit that sucked the life out of his game in 2015. Giants closer Hirokazu Sawamura and Seibu Lions submarine starter Kazuhisa Makita are a good bet to move into the top 10 next year, while slugging Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani is still two good seasons away.

The table shows each player’s total win shares, the number of times he led his league in win shares, and the number of times he was league MVP.

[supsystic-tables id=”17″]

The No. 4 pitcher on the list, Toshiya Sugiuchi, is 35 and was hurt for most of 2015. After which, he asked to be given the biggest pay cut in NPB history, a 450 million yen drop that saw him go from earning 500 million yen ($4.1 million) to 50 million yen. The lefty, however, has been remarkably consistent. From the age of 27 he had three-straight 17-win share seasons. For the five seasons after that, his season totals ranged from 10 to 12.5, so he was due a bad season I suppose.

Takayuki Kishi is something of a mystery. After his 2008 Japan Series MVP performance, his fitness has been spotty. But when he’s healthy, he’s about as good as they come. But because he misses a few games every year, it is surprising to see him rate consistently so well. Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in relief behind him with the Seibu Lions in 2013, said Kishi is burdened by the sand pile that passes for a mound at Seibu Dome.

Sarfate said the Lions keep it soft for Makita, and said I should take a look at Kishi’s ERA on the league’s hardest mound, at Sapporo Dome. OK, but it’s not just Sapporo Dome, Kishi’s career ERA is 2.63 away from the Seibu Tomb, and 3.72 at home. In the context of the Pacific League, Seibu Dome slightly favors hitters, with a median run adjustment of 1.035 over Kishi’s career, but nothing that should account for being a run better on the road.

Sarfate, by the way, makes this decade’s list as the only reliever, having arguably the best 2015 season of any PL pitcher out of the SoftBank Hawks bullpen. The other day, former Hanshin Tiger Matt Murton mentioned Sarfate as a player who had really benefitted from mastering Japan’s emphasis on secondary-pitch command.

There may be some truth to that. Sarfate was very good in his first season with Hiroshima in 2011, but has surpassed that after joining the Hawks at the age of 33 in 2014. Part of that may be getting away from the Seibu mound and another part may be a better working environment with the Hawks, who have become Japan’s model organization. Of course, Sarfate was able to be the best because 2015 was not a good year for PL starters.

After Sarfate on the list is another Yomiuri Giants lefty, Tetsuya Utsumi, who is two years younger than Sugiuchi, but whose career trajectory and value has been very similar to his teammates. Like Sugiuchi’s 2015 season, Utsumi’s was also a wash due to injuries.

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.

 

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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