NPB news: June 12, 2023

Japan had no baseball on Monday, but there was news. Sponichi Annex reported this morning that Nippon Professional Baseball is looking into implementing a pitch timer as early as next season, something it dismissed adding last summer.

On Sunday, I presented the research to support my assertion that the Yomiuri Giants’ astonishing success at getting 1-0 called strikes was absolutely not a result of that team’s talent, but this morning I discovered an interesting trend in how Japanese umpires’ balls-and-strike calls changed after pitch tracking data began to be used to evaluate umps in 2018.

These two things may seem quite divergent, but they do converge around the idea of how Japanese baseball deals with subjective judgement calls. So let’s get to it.

Japan looks to speed up

A year ago, Japan’s rules committee opted to hold off on implementing MLB’s pitch timer and its associated rules to see how it flies overseas. Yet, the news is that having watched MLB’s nine-inning game lengths shrink by 30 minutes, NPB wants the rules committee to look into it, using the excuse that the 2026 World Baseball Classic is certain to have a pitch timer and it would behoove Japan-based players to get used to it before that.

Because NPB and MLB games beat to different drummers, literally, this news was met with some criticism from fans who feel their cheer songs and chants will be a victim of the need for speed. I’m no longer a part of that scene the way I was 30 years ago, but I shudder to think how my favorite oenka, like the theme from “Otoko wa Tsurai” being played on a trumpet when Nippon Ham’s Tetsuro Hirose would come to bat at Tokyo Dome, would be shredded. It was electric.

It took a while for Japan to follow MLB’s example and think it needed a new rule, Japan’s “collision rule” in order to enforce the 120-year-old rule against obstructing the basepath without the ball, and the rule committee threw out the idea of a three-batter minimum as “unsuitable for Japan.”

Blue shift

In the process of researching the question “How likely is that a team that has the best pitchers in its league almost every year gets 1-0 called strikes as often as the Yomiuri Giants?” led me to some interesting insights, which I am now looking into.

The original research was to see if the Yomiuri Giants’ 1-0 called-strike supremacy from 2009 to 2017 could have resulted from talent alone, but it also to four other interesting findings.

  1. The Hanshin Tigers during that time were inordinately successful in getting called strikes on 0-1 pitches.
  2. Both the Giants’ and Tigers’ advantages in those counts were largely at home.
  3. Both of those evaporated in the two seasons after the 2018 implementation of pitch tracking data to “educate” umpires.
  4. It sure looks like umps were being warned about their egregious calls in Giants and Tigers home games, because, all of a sudden in 2018, both the Giants, in 1-0 counts, and Tigers, in 0-1 counts, found it much, much easier to get called strikes in those counts on the road than at home.
  5. That edge has more or less disappeared since 2020, suggesting that for one reason or another, enforcing called strike accuracy for Giants and Tigers pitchers in their home games stopped being a thing.

It’s all very odd, but shouldn’t be surprising, since whenever leeway is given to enforce rules based on subjective criteria, those rules stop getting enforced in Japan.

Take the collision rule. The rule prevents fielders from being in the base path on the third-base line at all – whether they have the ball or not. In the first months of its implementation there were a few instances of umps calling it on the field of play, but now they tend to call it the way they did before, look for the tag and check whether it comes before the runner touches home plate.

The few times the collision rule has been enforced in the past four years have all occurred upon review.

I’m long overdue for a chat with former ump Osamu Ino, who was not only NPB’s technical director for umpiring but until moving on to other work this year, was also one of NPB’s representatives on the Japanese Baseball Rules Committee.

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