Let’s get small

With apologies to Steve Martin

Sometimes even a casual label can be more appropriate than it seems. Because of its emphasis on fielding and bunting, Japan’s game is typically called small ball. Like most things, whether that is a description or a pejorative depends on one’s views of how baseball should be played.

Recently, I stumbled across the realization that the populations of Japanese left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters differ in significant ways. Essentially, a much-higher percentage of punchless Japanese batters stand in the left-handed-batter’s box than on the right-handed side.

For background, see these previous posts:

An explanation

Since publishing these studies, I spoke with someone who seemed to understand the phenomenon although he was surprised at its scope. I asked Dr. Tsutomu Jinji, who has turned his love of baseball and analysis into a place on the leading edge of Japan’s analytic revolution, if he was familiar with the phenomenon, and unlike me, he had a solid hypothesis.

“I’ve retrieved data on that,” Jinji, who examines TrackMan data in NPB games to consult with teams and individual pitchers, such as new Seattle Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi, said Wednesday.

“The exit velocity of left-handed hitters (in NPB) is lower, as is the launch angle. There is a lot of insistence that left-handed batters hit the ball obliquely, to beat out infield hits to the left side of the infield in order to get balls through the hole between third and short.”

“For that reason, Japan presents a difficult environment in which to develop left-handed power hitters. Within the baseball community, most people buy into the tenet that (left-handed) batters should use their speed to hit singles rather than trying to drive the ball. For that reason, we’ve had trouble producing left-handed sluggers.”

“A player like (DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo) Tsutsugo lacks speed, so nobody was going to try and turn him into a slap hitter. And (SoftBank Hawks star Yuki) Yanagita came out of university, so their not going to monkey with him. But if you’re a left-handed hitter coming out of high school, it seems like they try.”

The shape of small ball

For the purposes of the study, I decided to exclude foreign players and pitchers. Roughly 24 percent of the 214,608 plate appearances by left-handed hitters (and switch-hitters vs right-handed pitchers) were taken by “slap hitters.”* The percentage of slap hitters among right-handed batters (and switch hitters vs left-handed pitchers was 11 percent.

Slap hitters are more likely to hit the ball to the opposite field than same-handed batters who are classified as “not slap hitters” or who are not classified either way because they have yet to have 300 plate appearances in a season.

When I started looking at where balls were going (based not on observation but score sheets reporting who fielded each ball), I expected that if we excluded the slap hitters, then the populations of left- and right-handed Japanese hitters would look alike — as they do in MLB.

Wrong.

Not only does Japan produce more left-handed slap hitters, but the rest of the left-handed-hitting population is still slightly less likely to pull the ball, hit the ball in the air or hit for power and that compares both groups when batting with the platoon advantage.

Jinji, who was asked to consult Japan’s national softball team ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has not attracted any interest from Samurai Japan, the national baseball team. Japan’s new skipper, Atsunori Inaba, he said may be a convert to the current fly-ball revolution after originally rejecting a move away from small baseball.

“TV Asahi put Inaba and Sadaharu Oh together, and I was asked to put together some data for that,” Jinji said. “I took something like 700 of Oh’s career home runs and calculated the launch angle. He hit them with a definite uppercut.”

“Still, Inaba insisted on the primacy of small baseball, but in response to that, Oh said, ‘You play that kind of baseball and you’re not going to be able to compete internationally.’ The data was easy to understand. And Oh f that you have to drive the ball or you won’t win.”

*– Slap hitters are defined here as players who, over their career have averages of both home runs per hit and doubles per hit that are half a standard deviation below the mean.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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