Tag Archives: Alex Ramirez

Upon further review

Star-crossed umpiring

Something I’ve wanted to do since umpires began taking requests from managers who felt wronged by their judgements on the field was see whether some teams were more or less likely to have the initial calls go their way.

There has long been a perception in Japan of umpiring bias toward the Giants, but without hard evidence, there’s not much one can say about it.

When Tokyo Dome first opened, Nippon Television, which owns the rights to the home games and is owned by the Giants’ parent company, frequently showed video of pitches from a camera suspended below the dome ceiling — until too many of those shots were called strikes not close to being over the plate.

Like watching from the cheap seats

One problem with the “Request System” is that the umpires have to work from whatever crappy little monitor the home team’s owner provides for them. This once led to a disastrous decision against the Orix Buffaloes, when forced to review a long foul ball in the top of the 10th inning at Kyocera Dome. On the crappy little monitor provided by Orix, the umps saw the ball disappear from the screen as it crossed the line of the foul pole. They called the ball a home run, and the Hawks won in extra innings.

After the game, they looked at the call on a better monitor and were shocked to see the ball pass on the foul side of the pole. Orix, whose fault it was the umps didn’t have better equipment to work with, was outraged that such an awful mistake could have happened to them in their home park.

Osamu Ino, the head of NPB’s umpiring technical committee, said recently that things haven’t changed much since then, that the monitors available to the umps are often substandard.

Since the Nakamura call, however, the umps have resolved to only overturn calls on the field when there is clear evidence that it was wrong. They seem to deviate from that standard from time to time, but it’s probably right to assume that if you can’t see it on the monitor, then perhaps the person on the spot was in the best position to judge.

Bad luck Alex

I noticed today that the data I’d collected this season included a record of which teams reviewed calls and whether the calls on the field were overturned or upheld, so I ran them into a database and had to wonder if some umps were among those singing for Daisuke Miura to replace Alex Ramirez as DeNA BayStars managers.

I have a record of 480 video requests during the 2020 season. There may have been more, but these are the ones I have notes on. Of those reviewed calls 63 were overturned or 32 percent. The Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles and the Central League’s BayStars ranked 1, 2 in the number of challenges by their skippers, and for good reason, those two teams led their league in calls against them that were overturned.

In last year’s CL, there really were four teams in the middle with little separating them, but one could argue the BayStars were really the second-best team in the league behind the run-away champion Giants. Finishing second might not have helped Ramirez’s chances of staying on with a team that was looking for excuses to get rid of him, but it didn’t help that he had to do extra work to correct the umps.

Of the 21 calls in BayStars’ games that were overturned upon review, 18 had originally gone against DeNA. The Eagles were second percentage-wise with 63 percent of the overturned calls having first gone their opponents’ way.

TeamOverturned against teamOverturned against oppsPct
BayStars183.86
Eagles2012.63
Carp1410.58
Fighters1914.58
Giants1110.53
Marines1515.50
Hawks911.45
Swallows912.43
Lions1520.43
Tigers1017.37
Buffaloes814.36
Dragons717.29

Hawks come up empty

I have only one year of data to work with but of the 243 requests by the batting teams, the SoftBank Hawks made just 15, the fewest in either league, and every one of those times, the umps’ call on the field was upheld.

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Fix the hall

With the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame failing to elect a former pro player for the first time since it went two straight years in 1986 and 1987, people are asking what the heck is wrong.

It’s not a shortage of good candidates. In three years, the Players’ division has managed to elect only longtime Chunichi Dragons second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, while arguably the best candidate, Tuffy Rhodes, treaded water in the middle of the ballot.

This year’s ballot was both larger, increasing from 21 candidates to 30, and better stocked with players who had huge careers.

This year’s results

Reliever Shingo Takatsu and outfielder Alex Ramirez, each got the same number of votes as they did last year, but it’s not true that everyone who voted for them a year ago did so again, because I didn’t. But Masahiro Kawai, a perplexing high flyer dropped from 218 to 210, while Rhodes crashed from 102 to 61.

This year’s poor outcome, however, might encourage some changes to the way things are done.

What can be done

I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a concrete solution, like changing the way the ballots are structured or voted, but while the whole process is administered efficiently and above board, it is a closed circuit.

Baseball writers who cover players during their careers then vote on those players. The results are then announced to the media and only then relayed to the public through that media filter. The event is a press conference in the long narrow hall where the plaques are hung, and as wonderful as the surroundings are, it’s not a good venue for a press conference.

Unlike the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, Japan’s wonderful museum at Tokyo Dome is closed on the day results are announced. TV cameras are there to record the introductory speeches and the speeches of those being enshrined — or their survivors.

The only public part of the enshrinement process is when new members are presented with their plaques at Game 1 of the annual all-star series. There are fans in the crowd, but there’s no time for anything more than a wave to them.

The first thing to do is take the private process and make the fans a part of it.

Hold the induction ceremony outdoors and invite the public. Give honorees more than a day or two to prepare their remarks. Give their fans time to show up. Make it an event that for one day stops baseball time in its tracks.

Give voters a chance to go public

Look I may be wrong when I say Masahiro Kawai– whom I loved as the Yomiuri Giants infield anchor at short for years–is not really deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame. I’m wrong a lot. But if you think he is, why not tell everyone your reasoning?

Sure, full disclosure might bring abuse from the public, but it would ensure more careful deliberation by voters. How about we go halfway, and have the ballot committees give voters the chance to make their votes public. Then we can have a debate and I can learn stuff and the public can be more involved.

Of course, every writer has that option in this day and age, but I may be the only one who uses it other than a few Hall of Famers who take to the press each year to issue proclamations on who is and isn’t up to THEIR standards.

My podcast partner John E. Gibson complains about the lack of standards, but neither of thinks that’s really the problem, but I like the idea of looking at who is in and what the current candidates have in common with most of them.

If we don’t find a positive way to solve it, I’m sure the Hall of Fame can come up with a “solution” that causes more problems.

A little background

The first nine members were selected by the special committee, and that group included only one former professional player, the Yomiuri Giants’ first Japanese ace, Eiji Sawamura. The following year, his Russian teammate, Victor Starffin, became the first player to be selected by the competitors’ ballot in 1960.

The competitors’ ballot, considered anyone and everyone who played amateur or professional ball, managed, coached or umpired until it was disbanded after 2007 in favor of two competitors’ divisions, the players’ division for recent retirees and the experts’ division for those who hadn’t played in 21 years.

At least until 1965, former players still in uniform could be elected, since the manager of the Nishitetsu Lions, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi was elected in 1964. The next year, the Hall inducted the managers of the Yomiuri Giants, Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Nankai Hawks Kazuto Tsuruoka.

Perhaps someone didn’t like the idea of Hall of Famers in uniform, because from 1966 to 1996 nobody was allowed on the ballot who had been active as a player, manager or coach in the past five seasons.

Thus, Sadaharu Oh, who last played in 1980 and then coached and managed until 1988, couldn’t be considered until 1994. It created a huge logjam as guys like Oh, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao, Katsuya Nomura and Shigeo Nagashima had to leave the game for five years before they could go in the Hall of Fame.

The Players’ division can now consider guys in uniform if they haven’t played for five years, while the experts’ division can handle anyone out of uniform for six months, and can consider other contributions to the game. The special committee is now how non-players and amateurs get in. It used to be the last resort for players, and players selected by the special committee are not considered competitors, even if they did little else but play.

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The development gap

The shape of talent

One cause that was suggested for the gap was that CL teams look for players with more polished skills while PL clubs are more likely to go with players who have higher physical potential.

On Twitter, Brian Cartwright suggested it was a correctable issue if CL teams did a better job of evaluating and developing their talent. If that is the case, a study of value from the draft would reveal a talent gap leaning toward the PL, and it does.

In my story on the Hawks’ odds of winning this year’s Japan Series, I made a conservative estimate that the six PL teams would combine for a .530 winning percentage if thrown into a balanced schedule among all 12 teams.

“We don’t know how much better the Pacific League is than the Central League, but over the history of interleague play, the PL teams have a .532 winning percentage. Over the previous five seasons, the PL winning percentage was .555, and the PL’s Pythagorean winning percentage is .559.”

Jim’s Series odds

A note about using win shares

I’m going to measure individual player output using Bill James’ Win Shares. This system gives each team 3 win shares for a win. These are then divided between the offense, fielding and pitching. Those are assigned to individual teammates based on individual performance.

This method has pros and cons, but since a league’s win share total can’t exceed 3 times its total wins, one league outperforming another doesn’t show up in win shares except in interleague. The two leagues each played 120 games in 2020 with no interleague, and had the same number of wins (counting ties as two halves of a win), so even though the PL is evidently stronger, win shares won’t reveal it. What it does reveal is the relative shape of the talent in the two leagues.

And from a glance at the careers of players signed since NPB adopted its draft, it’s clear that the PL teams are now Japan’s draft kings.

Drafting and development

The draft began in 1965, and including undrafted amateur free agents, the career value of domestic players signed by CL teams was more than that of players signed by PL teams over the first 28 years. Over the last 28 years, that trend has reversed.

So while the two leagues have essentially equal access to domestic talent, domestic talent has become become a larger share of the PL’s overall talent base.

Draft yearsCL valuePL valuePL / CL
1965 – 197814,04013,1520.94
1979 – 199215,62914,2570.91
1993 – 200614,06715,5391.10
2007 – 20184,2224,9971.18
Value expressed in career value as calculated using Bill James’ Win Shares, and includes MLB WS

I did not know this trend existed at all. Did you? It should have been obvious, I suppose. From 1966 to 1979, the CL went 12-4 in the Japan Series. From 1980 to 2007, the two leagues split the Series 14-14. Since then the PL has lead 11-2.

Do CL clubs appease Giants in draft?

Another issue people in the game for a long time mentioned is the custom of CL teams sometimes shying away from competing with the Giants for amateur talent.

This latter assumption, if true, doesn’t appear to be a big deal now, although that may have more to do with teams not being able to sign top corporate and college players before the draft — something that had been in play from 1993 to 2006.

Although the Giants have the most value in Japan from their No. 1 picks since 2000, and the most total value from their picks 1-5 than any other CL team, this latter edge is not huge. The Tigers, BayStars and Swallows have all done nearly as well.

But looking at the overall amount of domestic talent taken from the draft, the PL has compiled a huge advantage. Using Bill James’ Win Shares, players signed out of the draft from 2000 to 2018 by PL teams have produced 9,046 win shares, or 3,015 wins — some of those are with other teams including some in MLB. Players signed by CL teams out of the draft during the same period, have produced 8,315 WS, or 2,770 wins.

Skeletons in the closet

NPB entered the 2007 season under a cloud when the guy assigned by the Seibu Lions’ parent company to take over the team decided to be of service to baseball by having a look into the team’s player acquisition closet and sweeping out the skeletons.

The boss assigned a third-party investigation to the task and found a long history of abuses of the system by Seibu and other clubs. Instead of being celebrated for creating an atmosphere of transparency, Seibu was punished for bringing the game’s disrepute into the light.

However, that also ended the systems where pro teams could agree to sign up to two corporate or college stars before the draft at the cost of reducing their access to high school talent, making the draft more of a crapshoot.

The Seibu Lions’ crusade for transparency cost them in 2007, when they were barred from the first two rounds of the high school draft. But embarrassing NPB and forcing it to eliminate the old draft system has done nothing to slow the PL’s dramatic improvement in drafting and developing domestic talent.

Free agency

Free agency started in Japan after the 1993 season, but until 2005, it was essentially one-way traffic. Atsunori Inaba changed that.

He left the Yakult Swallows ostensibly for MLB, but signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006 after failing to get a guaranteed contract overseas. Prior to Inaba, the total value from CL players moving to the PL was 12 win shares. Going the other way, players produced 190 for CL teams after leaving the PL via free agency.

Inaba had an MVP-caliber season for the Fighters in 2006, and after that year, the free agent scoreboard stood at 196-35 in favor of the CL. Things really began changing in 2011, when Seiichi Uchikawa, left the BayStars for the SoftBank Hawks.

Since 2006 the score is 477-436, but that’s even counting two players in the PL column who high-tailed it back to the PL after spending a brief time with the Giants, Hiroki Kokubo and Saburo Omura.

Import export business

Leaving on a jet plane

After the 1994 season, Hideo Nomo dropped the PL’s Kintetsu Buffaloes like a bad habit. His move began to put another dent in the PL’s growing talent surplus.

Players who left PL teams to play in the majors have produced 1,112 major league win shares from 1995 to 2019. The CL graduates produced 791 win shares in the big leagues during that time. The top of the list is Ichiro Suzuki at 324, followed by Hideki Matsui (150) and Nomo (123).

Three former CL players are next in line — Hiroki Kuroda (81), Norichika Aoki (78) and Koji Uehara (76) but it hasn’t been updated for 2020, when Yu Darvish pulled even with Kuroda. Masahiro Tanaka (69) will pass those three former CL guys if he has three more productive seasons.

Foreign trade

Because of the nature of win shares, the value of a league’s important talent is essentially the flip side of domestic talent within that league. Thus, if the win shares attributed to domestic players increases in a league, the number of win shares that go to imports must decrease. That give us table below.

The same would be true if a bunch of extremely talented left-handed hitters suddenly peaked at the same time in a league. The right-handed hitters wouldn’t get worse, but as a group, they would create a smaller share of the league’s wins.

I suspect that the imported talent base in the PL is actually quite stable, and that the gap is not nearly as large now as it looks.

YearsCL valuePL value
1966 – 19791,4981,761
1980 – 19933,9594,243
1994 – 20073,0492,445
2008 – 20192,8542,219
WS values from imported players

Move it on over

A parallel to the movement of free agent talent is the value of imported players in the league other than the one they first signed in. Since 2008, the Pacific League, long a supplier of imported talent to the Central League, has had a cumulative trade surplus since 2008.

Years CL WS value from PLPL WS value from CL
1966 – 197910989
1980 – 199314940
1994 – 2007219131
2008 – 2019201252
WS values from imported players

Conclusion

The big difference between the two leagues right now is, as my Twitter follower suggested, simply a matter of talent evaluation and development, that has seen PL teams do a better job of drafting and developing domestic amateurs than the CL.

This appears to have been going on for some time, but for a long time was counterbalanced by what used to be a large drain of free agent talent from the PL to the CL, and by the PL’s losing more talent to the major leagues.

The PL for as long as I remember has been the more innovative league, and is has long been aware of the need to replace the talent lost to the CL and MLB. As mentioned in the previous article, the PL has taken more strides toward making baseball pay in Japan. And as the PL teams get better at both managing their businesses and organizing their talent, then it is going to be a tough slog for the CL to catch up.

The gap: Hitters or pitchers?

There’s little doubt a gap exists between the Pacific and Central leagues in terms of quality, based on interleague results since 2005.

This is the second of three pieces I’m doing on the differences in quality between Japan’s two leagues.

Last time, I took up the issue of how the pitching in the two leagues differs now, and evaluated Alex Ramirez’s idea that the PL is a harder-throwing league and that the CL needs to do a better job of drafting and developing hard throwers.

This time I want to replicate a study I did a few years ago to evaluate how much of the PL’s advantage is on the pitching side. While I agree with Ramirez that PL hitters are better because they are used to seeing better pitching, this study suggests that the league’s competitive edge started in the batter’s box.

In the final piece, I’ll use my draft database to evaluate the quality of domestic player development by both leagues.

The study

A few years ago, when the PL’s superiority began to fill our rear-view mirrors like a tail-gating monster truck, I derived a study to figure out where the league’s advantage came from.

If we look at how well each team does against visitors from both leagues in their main stadiums, we can control for park and talent. If we limit the time frame to games prior to July — since interleague play runs from May to June — we can eliminate the noise from league games played in the year’s hottest months.

The study uses runs per nine innings and also wOBA, and takes a weighted average of performance against league and interleague opponents. If the PL pitching is superior we would expect offenses from both leagues will do more damage against visiting CL pitchers than visiting PL pitchers. If the PL hitters are superior we would expect visiting PL batters to do better than CL visitors.

The study suggests these conclusions:

  • The belief that the difference between the PL and CL is mostly related to pitching is unsupported.
  • CL pitching was probably a little better from 2005 to 2012, but is no longer as good.
  • PL pitchers used to struggle in the CL’s home-run friendly parks

The pitchers

I’m going to measure the quality of each league’s pitching by looking at the weighted league averages of: runs allowed per nine innings by visitors and home opponents’ basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home parksCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.144.23
PL4.164.23
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.310.316
PL.309.308

These figures support Trey Hillman’s 2006 after the first round of interleague play that the CL was the better-pitching, harder-throwing league. But that was then and this is now. Here are the weighted averages since 2013.

The gap actually might not be as large as the tables above indicate, as I’ll go into below. It seems that size does matter when it comes to ballparks.

2013-2019

Home leagueCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.294.05
PL4.524.27
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.311.308
PL.319.310

Since 2013, whatever advantage CL pitchers might have had over their PL counterparts has evaporated, and as Ramirez suggested, the PL pitching (and defense) is definitely better than what passes for good enough in the CL.

The hitters

We’re going to flip this around and now look at weighted league averages against CL and PL visitors in home pitchers’ RA9 and visitors basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.784.02
PL3.404.02
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.298.308
PL.289.299

2013-2019

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.884.13
PL3.543.97
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.301.312
PL.290.305

So if the PL advantage in interleague play has been primarily on the pitching side, then somebody better tell their hitters that. I did a parallel wOBA study that removed pitchers and designated hitters from the equation, but it made little difference.

The big and small of it

The one area in the study where PL pitching was inferior when measured by both visitors’ runs allowed per nine innings and opposing home teams’ wOBA was in the CL home parks from 2005 to 2012.

Former Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama thought that the PL was better at developing pitchers because their big parks were more forgiving. Before Fukuoka’s Home run terrace and the new shorter dimensions in Sendai and Chiba’s Home run lagoon, all six PL parks were tougher home run parks than Tokyo Dome, Jingu and Yokohama — and Hiroshima Shimin until 2008.

I broke them down into these four small parks, and three large parks, Koshien Stadium, Nagoya Dome and Mazda Stadium — more neutral than large, really. Here are the weighted averages of RA9 by visitors from each league since 2005 in the months prior to July.

2005-2008 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
4 smaller CL parks4.444.94
2 larger CL parks4.244.26
2009-2012 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks3.433.80
3 larger CL parks3.613.42
2013-2019 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks4.484.57
3 larger CL parks4.193.51

That’s not a lot of information but it’s about what I expected. The steady proliferation of with three downsized PL parks would make a further breakdown since 2013 difficult and there are times when I’m adverse to work.

Conclusion

So that’s the footprint of the PL’s current advantage. No matter which league you play in, both leagues’ batters and pitchers playing in their home park put up better numbers when the visitors are from the CL than when they are PL teams in interleague.

When I ask people why the PL is better, the standard answer is pitching, perhaps because it’s easier to see how it could be better. But from here it simply looks like the PL pitching and hitting developed in tandem — starting with the hitting.

Next time, I’ll get into the makeup of the talent in the two leagues, and how talent has flowed into them and between them.

The gap

On Nov. 25, 2020, the Yomiuri Giants failed to win a Japan Series for the eighth straight season, surpassing the franchise’s longest drought without a Japan championship. The Pacific League’s eight straight wins are now one short of the record, set by the Giants from 1965 to 1973.

Prior to last week’s win, the CL had won three series between 2003 and 2019. Now it has gone from three over 17 years to three over 18, barely a significant difference, but it took this PL victory to set alarm bells ringing in Japan’s media for the first time.

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious from 15 years of interleague play. So why now? The answer probably is two straight sweeps by the Hawks of the Giants. No team had ever swept in consecutive years, and the Giants are branded as Japanese pro baseball’s flagship franchise.

From 2005 to 2019, the PL’s record in interleague play was 1,098-966 with 60, a .532 winning percentage. But four more series wins and the stories suddenly flow about a dire state of affairs. It’s like no one saw what was in front of them, or did see but didn’t want to admit it.

What’s the difference

Alex Ramirez, who managed the CL’s DeNA BayStars from 2016 to 2020, said on his new Youtube channel that two factors create a synergy that lifts the PL above the CL, better velocity on the fastball and better base stealing ability.

Ramirez said as much when asked a couple of years ago, so this is not a new argument. According to Delta Graphs, the average CL four-seamer is slightly faster than in the PL, but Ramirez’s argument that more starting pitchers have better velocity in the PL is accurate.

Velocity

In 2020, 28 CL pitchers threw 70-plus innings. One, Shintaro Fujinami, had an average fastball velocity of 150 kph or more. Ten, or 36 percent, averaged 145 kph or more. The median average was 143.45 kph.

Three of the 25 PL pitchers with 70-plus innings threw 150-plus, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Drew VerHagen and Kodai Senga. Ten of those, 40 percent, averaged 145-plus, while the median was 144.4 kph.

This year was a good one for fastballs in Japan. I don’t recall seeing so many batters swing under heaters by so much, so it’s not just speed but better backspin. Ramirez argues that because CL hitters don’t face as many good fastballs in their own league, they have more trouble adjusting to the PL’s pitchers.

Former Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama is the first person I heard say, “The PL is just better.” My analysis had for years been based on the belief that the quality of the two leagues was essentially balanced and most of us were sort of trying to figure out how one league could consistently outperform another that was essentially its equal.

Tateyama said the designated hitter, which eliminates the need for pitchers to be pulled for pinch-hitters, combined with the PL’s huge pitcher-friendly parks — before the invasion of shortened distances in Sendai, Fukuoka, and Chiba — made it easier to develop pitchers in the other league.

So the first question that sprung to mind was: Is it the pitchers or is it the hitters, and how could one tell? What if one took each team’s pitching results and compared how it did in its home parks against CL and PL hitters? If the CL and PL hitters are the same, the visiting league shouldn’t matter.

The data

Interleague play is difficult to compare to league play in any way other than wins and losses because the contexts and numbers of games in each venue vary from year to year, and interleague play takes place from the middle of May to the middle of June and not in the peak offensive season from the mid July to mid September.

But if you average each team’s home performance against the other 11 NPB teams in their main stadiums up until say June 30, you can then get an average for how all 12 teams’ offense and defense perform in the same parks — their main stadiums — against the two leagues, and are thus comparing apples with apples.

If the PL advantage is all in the pitching, we would expect each league’s pitchers to be equally successful in their home parks against visiting hitters, regardless of their league, while the CL hitters at home do better against their own league’s pitchers than those from the PL.

So how did it work out? I used to repeat this study every year or so, but to be honest, I don’t remember when I did it last, but the numbers are basically from 2005 to 2016 or so. Here’s how four different groups compared in OPS.

  • PL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .707, vs CL pitchers: .714
  • CL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .728, vs CL pitchers: .713
  • PL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .697, vs CL hitters: .656
  • CL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .711, vs CL hitters: .681

The lone category where the CL outperformed the PL was in producing against visiting PL pitchers in the CL parks. Until about four years ago, all the PL parks were bigger than all the CL parks except for Nagoya Dome and Koshien Stadium. It’s only speculation but I wouldn’t be surprised if the PL pitchers were less comfortable pitching at the three super home run-friendly CL parks: Jingu Stadium, Yokohama Stadium and Tokyo Dome. I need to replicate and update the study, and I’ll get around to it.

Either way, it isn’t JUST the pitchers, but rather the overall quality of competition in the PL.

Base stealing and other issues

Because the PL is a better base-stealing league, Ramirez argues that in playing PL teams, CL pitchers are more likely to throw fastballs in order to give their catchers a better chance to control the running game, which plays into the hands of hitters who are a little better at hitting fastballs.

Although I think that is a very small thing, it probably does contribute to the PL’s advantage, but there are other differences, particularly in how the pitchers attack hitters.

The differences are slight, but for the past three seasons, PL teams have gradually thrown more and more pitches in the zone relative to CL teams. In 2019, four of the six teams with the highest percentage of pitches in the zone were in the PL, This year it was six of six. The Dragons and Tigers each threw a CL-high 44.5 percent in the zone, The Buffaloes were low in the PL with 44.8. All six CL pitching staffs produced higher swing rates out of the zone than the six PL clubs.

What’s it mean? Not a lot by itself. But the PL is trending toward a league that challenges hitters a little more in the zone, and the CL is trending more toward being the “try to get guys to chase” league. The PL is also trending more toward being a flyball pitcher league.

Talent base

The PL’s edge has continued despite that league losing more of its better players to MLB in recent years. That should not seem sustainable, but somehow it has been. However, the Nippon Ham Fighters are certainly feeling those losses in the standings and that talent drain is going to be felt more acutely next year without ace Kohei Arihara and leadoff man Haruki Nishikawa.

One reason why the PL has been able to maintain its edge may be finances.

Three CL clubs, The Giants, Swallows, and Dragons, are renters. Their home parks are expensive deadweights rather than cash cows. On the other side, every PL team but the Fighters either owns or has an operating license for its park, allowing those five clubs to keep every extra penny spent there. When the Fighters open their new park in 2023, watch out.

The Dragons are also on a tighter budget than before. Big buyers in the free-agent market from 2002 to 2009, the Dragons are now bargain shoppers. They’re awfully good at it, but sometimes money makes a difference. It used to be that virtually every star that switched leagues went to the CL from the PL. That’s no longer the case.

The Hiroshima Carp have taken up some of that slack with the help of their Mazda Stadium-driven riches. They are not spending on free agents but they have been investing in development and locking up their talented players. Since the current free-agent era started in 1994, the Carp’s lot was to introduce top talent to NPB and then pass it on to other teams with deeper pockets. But those days are gone.

The draft

Ramirez said the draft is the way to fix the imbalance. He suggested the CL adopt more of a major league-style draft strategy of prioritizing amateur pitchers who throw hardest above those who have the best command and secondary pitches.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. One former CL player was appalled at the large number of smaller guys his team drafted, ostensibly because of their baseball smarts and mature skills.

A former CL executive, from back in the day when the leagues were separate entities rather than just separate desks in the commissioner’s office, said recently CL teams sometimes shy away from drafting players the Giants want, supposedly to stay on Yomiuri’s good side.

The landscape

I don’t know how true it is now, but currying favor with Yomiuri used to be a key part of the business plan for the Swallows, Carp, BayStars and Dragons. One doesn’t really see that in the PL. The SoftBank Hawks may be the top of the class now, but none of the other teams in the league are going to hand them the keys to the car and let them drive the way Yomiuri does in the CL.

The Seibu Lions have begun investing heavily in development infrastructure, and the Fighters have a great minor league facility that can step up even further once the money starts pouring in from their new ballpark in Hokkaido. The Rakuten Eagles have not been shy about investing in either veteran talent or their stadium. There is no need for PL teams to wave white flags as they gradually find more ways to profit from their ballparks.

There is no mistaking, however, that SoftBank does things differently. The Hawks are probably the most MLB-like team in Japan, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

They probably manipulated the service time of their best player last summer, keeping Yuki Yanagita on the farm two weeks longer than necessary after an injury to keep him from becoming an international free agent this year. And SoftBank refuses to be swayed by the kind of Japanese cultural norms that see other teams posting players to the majors “out of consideration for their contributions.”

The Hawks may not be driving the PL car, but it may only be a matter of time before other clubs decide that to compete with them, they, too, have to start being more ruthless in their pursuit of victory. The PL has for most of its history been the underdog league and has consistently toyed with new innovations, much to the amusement of the CL teams. The CL clubs have followed the Giants lead in asserting that THEY knew how to run baseball businesses.

The CL has consistently been picking up lessons from its PL rivals, the biggest being the playoffs. The CL laughed while PL teams raked in better attendance late in the season until in 2007, the CL came on board. This year, the CL followed the PL and found its first league sponsor. But when the coronavirus gave the CL a chance to ditch its playoffs, which the Giants have been firmly against from the start, it did so at the drop of a hat, suggesting the Giants’ wishes still matter.

The Giants see themselves as ruthless winners, but they are also wedded to making sure the system they rode to the top of the CL and have rewritten to stay there, never ever changes, lest someone else replaces them.

I’ve written this many times before, but the Yomiuri Giants are in some ways similar to Japan’s last feudal rulers, the Tokugawa shogunate, hell-bent on maintaining an obsolete system, whose principal function is keeping them in power, while the world marches on outside.

Is change on the way?

A colleague at work asked whether the latest Japan Series setback was enough to spark change. It might be since it at least has people talking about the difference between the leagues as being one of quality rather than some kind of mirage caused by the weird interleague format.

A case of baseballs

It sort of reminds me of what happened in 2004. OK, a lot happened in 2004, but one of the things that happened that tumultuous strife-torn summer had to do with the baseballs. For years, Mizuno had been getting a bigger and bigger market share by producing more and more lively baseballs, even ones that often exceeded the COR specs.

In the late 1990s a few teams were still using balls by more than one manufacturer, and before balls became an issue in 2004, you could call up each team and they would tell you which company’s balls were used in which games. From that, it became clear that Mizuno’s balls were largely responsible for a steady increase in home runs.

In the summer of 2004, the Dragons, playing in cavernous Nagoya Dome and possessing a lineup with virtually no power, decided to switch from Mizuno, thus breaking the first rule of the Mizuno Home Run Club, which is don’t talk about the Mizuno Home Run Club.

Suddenly, every paper in Japan began researching balls, home run distances, and rates. They concluded that Mizuno’s balls were indeed juiced. This did not sit well with fans who were already fed up with owners’ handling of that summer’s restructuring and labor strife.

The first solution to this PR problem was to talk about it but not really do anything.

Mizuno introduced “less-lively balls” and home run rates kind of stalled, but resumed their climb within a few years. Japan got in 2011 a single uniform ball that was less lively. That’s a whole nother story, but it took nearly 10 years from the time the public became aware of the issue and a palace coup that overthrew the commissioner before Japan got a reliably uniform ball.

If it takes the CL that long to get its act together and make the structural changes needed to catch up, the league probably won’t win more than one or two Japan Series over the next 10 years.

An interleague shortcut to change

I’ve never been an advocate of getting rid of the leagues and merging them into one 12-team competition but the easiest way to get the CL to improve might be to throw those teams into the deep end of the pool where the PL’s sharks are swimming.

Let’s say we keep the two six-team leagues and kept the team who wins the most games in each league as the champion. We then expand interleague play to say 36 games again and then at the end of the season take the teams with the four best records in NPB and have them playoff to see who gets into the Japan Series.

In that format, we might have five years in which no CL teams even make it to the Japan Series. That would definitely light a fire under some butts, as the Giants win pennant after pennant only to watch the Japan Series on TV.

The other easy way to change will be when the Giants realize that winning an easy league is no longer reward enough when they get pounded every year in the Japan Series. At some point, Yomiuri will stop talking about the value of their old-school business model — that helped it secure a chokehold on the league — and start talking about how change is necessary for the good of the game.

Ramirez’s Way

Alex Ramirez, whose five-year tenure with the DeNA BayStars was the second-longest in NPB among foreign-born managers next to Bobby Valentines’ seven with the Lotte Marines, will not remain with the Central League club in 2021, the club’s chief executive, Kazuaki Mihara told the Sankei Sports.

Despite a sometimes subtle media campaign run by people around the team to paint Ramirez’s managing in an unfavorable light, the club said it recognized the Venezuelan-born skipper’s gifts and said they wanted to retain his services after he quit the dugout job.

“We talked different times, but he said that for the time being he would like to spend valuable time with his family. We respect his stance and won’t offer him a contract,” Mihara said.

The franchise’s .443 winning percentage since its inception in 1950 to 2015, the year before Ramirez took over, is the worst of any franchise in existence since NPB went to 12 teams in 1958. Ramirez’s 692 games are third-most in franchise history. His .499 winning percentage is second-best among managers who managed more than one season to Hiroshi Gondo’s .541.

Gondo and the two who managed longer, Osamu Mihara and Kaoru Betto are all Hall of Famers and Ramirez will likely join them within a few years.

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