Saves in Japan

On Friday, Shingo Takatsu became the third closer to be elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, following Tsunemi Tsuda and Kazuhiro Sasaki. Takatsu was, for a time, Japan’s career saves leader, and is now second with 286 behind future Hall of Famer Hitoki Iwase’s 407.

Takatsu’s support has been slowly building over the years, unlike Sasaki, is third all-time and who shot in with relative ease. I mentioned Tsuda, but his selection was a sentimental one, owing more to his tragic death at the age of 32 than the quality of his career.

Within the next two decades, however, Takatsu’s career total might not make the top 10, largely because Japan is getting better and better at keeping closers healthy. But when Takatsu played, very few players were effective in that role for more than a year or two. Going forward, his career will not look all that spectacular, but in the context of his era, Takatsu was impressive.

The way things were

Anyway, it got me thinking about how closers have been used in Japan since the save rule was introduced in 1974. That year, three players in both leagues collected 10 saves, and two of those, Hall of Famers Hisashi Yamada and Senichi Hoshino, were their teams’ aces, and split their time between starting and relief a practice that was still seen until the 1980s.

The practice lasted longer in Japan’s majors than it did in the States’ partly because of Japan’s tradition of teams hosting home games in remote parks, where travel days meant extra days off, the large number of doubleheaders that used to be played, and the poorer quality of fields, that forced numerous postponements because grounds were unplayable from a storm the day before.

Japan’s first saves leader was the Nankai Hawks’ Michio Sato, a workhorse from his rookie year in 1970 under Katsuya Nomura, who continued the team’s tradition of having reliable specialty relievers that started under Hall of Fame skipper Kazundo Tsuruoka, who basically gets no credit for the innovation.

Yutaka Enatsu

In 1977, his final year as Hawks skipper before Nankai fired him over an off-field scandal and consigned the franchise to 20 years of futility, Nomura converted Yutaka Enatsu into a closer. Enatsu, who already had a zillion innings under his belt as an ace pitcher, became Japan’s first consistent durable closer as other managers copied Nomura’s handling of him.

Other managers took notice, and one after another, veteran starters on other teams were converted to late relief and given lesser workloads. In 1978, half of NPB teams had a pitcher with 10-plus saves for the first time.

Changing times

But while closers became more common in the 1980s, giving them frequent work was still problematic in an era when managers were often criticized for taking out starting pitchers before they gave up too many runs late in the game.

This was a huge problem because starting in the mid-1970s, offense began gradually increasing—especially in Pacific League when four of its teams began using juiced Mizuno balls starting in 1978.

The move toward employing closers coincided with the introduction of artificial surfaces and a gradual decrease in doubleheaders contributed to changes in how pitching staffs were used. There were 314 pitcher seasons in the 1960s in which a player had started 15 or more games and relieved in 15 or more. In the 1970s, there were 156; in the 1980s, 51; in the 1990s, 20; from 2000 to 2009 there were 13, in the teens, 6.

While complete game totals have steadily dropped, it wasn’t always the case that starters were expected to finish, although the old pitchers from the 1960s and 1970s will tell you it was. Sure, pitchers then completed a higher percentage of their games, but with schedules often packed, they were also needed in relief, and managers frequently pulled starters who gave up early runs so they could be used on short rest in the coming days.

So while starting pitchers began getting regular work, there was no ready-made practice for relief pitchers until around 2000. With Enatsu’s success, older veteran starters were given lighter bullpen workloads, but there was no conventional doctrine for how often they should pitch and how often they should warm up in games.

After Enatsu, a number of top starters with arm trouble moved to the bullpen. The Hiroshima Carp had great success with this in the early 1990s by using Shinji Sasaoka in relief in those seasons after his starting pitching workload wore him down. Some teams experimented with young closers but often it was a transition – until they were too good to keep out of the starting rotation, or they proved unable to maintain their effectiveness.

Kazuhiro Sasaki

Sasaki was the second watershed closer since the start of the save rule. A huge powerful pitcher who posted a 5.85 ERA as a rookie out of university in a season split between the rotation and the bullpen. He was not the first young pitcher to be handed the closer role, but he was the first pitcher to be both really good and really durable, at least until it reduced his effectiveness at the age of 30.

My game data from the 1990s has not yet been unpacked and processed yet, but this was an era when few managers had solid practices to keep their relief pitchers sharp.

Staying warm

At some point, it became common practice in Japanese bullpens for relievers to warm up two to three times a game. I first began hearing about this after I went to work for the Daily Yomiuri in 1998. Import relievers told me how things were, but when I asked some of the Japanese relievers I knew, I got vague answers, like “People do it but no one is required to” or “I only do it sometimes.”

In 2010, then-Hawks general manager Itaru Kobayashi explained how it worked with SoftBank at that time.

As part of their season evaluations, relief pitchers got points for appearing in games and doing well, but pitchers who warmed up three times during a game got a point even if they didn’t pitch, which virtually guaranteed that every Hawks reliever warmed up three times a game.

I don’t know how prevalent such a system was around Japan, but frequent warmups during games are still common although I’m guessing less rigorous than they were 20 to 30 years ago.

The past three decades have also seen a steady influx of imported relievers, which has raised the bar for domestic pitchers and forced them to be more efficient in order to keep up, while the stigma of bringing in relievers has grudgingly disappeared as managers, players and fans become more familiar with practices elsewhere in the world of baseball through MLB games on TV.

All of this makes it hard to create an unambiguous context for different relievers when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Although I didn’t vote for him this year, I wasn’t against Takatsu’s election. However, having considered how unlikely the success he did achieve in his time and place was, the more certain I am that he belongs.

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