Tag Archives: Bill James

NPB 2020 9-23 members notes

Talking the talk in Japan

One element of Japanese verbal communication is known as “tatemae.” Although it is a topic about which volumes have been written, in my experience it is noticeable when someone says something that is obviously not true that is not a lie, so to speak, but a signal. It indicates that pursuing a topic further might force one to confront awkward truths or accept responsibility in a public fashion that would be better hashed out in private or not at all.

Continue reading NPB 2020 9-23 members notes

What I meant to say about catching

I’ve been going down a rabbit hole the past week or so, trying to identify catchers with substantial careers despite being particularly weak hitters or fielders. After a podcast listener asked whether Japanese teams favored hitting or defense, I tried to identify various kinds of careers.

The question was sparked by the Chunichi Dragons’ inability to settle on an everyday catcher since Motonobu Tanishige stepped away from that role. I believe teams will give playing time more easily to good defensive catchers who can’t hit than good hitting catchers who are poor defenders.

What I found is that teams will give the everyday job to guys who have the physical tools to be good-fielding catchers who are decent hitters and who eventually develop into good fielders. Some of those guys do become better-than-average fielders and some don’t. Sometimes those guys develop reputations as good handlers of pitchers, something that is virtually impossible to quantify with the available data.

I also suspect that a lot of the variability in these careers comes from the frequent injuries that come with catching.

Catchers’ fielding

The first trouble is measuring defensive quality. Bill James’ win shares system gives teams’ catchers a chance to seize a large share of their team’s defensive wins if they are relatively better than the league in the following categories in descending order: Throwing out would-be base stealers, errors and passed balls and opponents’ sacrifice bunts, these last two combine for only 10 percent of the team score. Based on those scores and the scores of other positions, all a team’s catchers receive a share of the defensive wins, these are then split up among individuals based on their respective playing time and achievements.

It is mute on the subject of calling pitches, but if a team’s catchers are good at preventing sacrifices, commits few passed balls, and has a relatively large number of non-strikeout putouts, and assists on plays other than foiled stolen base attempts, they will rate higher. Barring other quality information, the system attempts to measure catchers’ value as fielders rather than pitch callers.

Playing time

Then we have the problem of making a rough estimate about playing time since the number of innings played in NPB has only been published for the past few seasons. If you base it strictly on defensive win shares relative to plate appearances, then good hitters will have their defensive evaluation docked by the virtue of getting more PAs.

I evaluated offense as win shares per 500 plate appearances in seasons spent primarily as a catcher.

So between the fact that we’re only looking at fielding since players’ total defensive value is beyond our grasp and that catchers are extremely vulnerable to injuries that fill their careers with potholes and can wreak havoc on careers, this is at best a tricky exercise. But with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s have a look at some careers.

Long careers despite below-average fielding metrics

Katsuhiko Kido, Hanshin Tigers. Kido was the regular catcher for Hanshin’s 1985 Japan Series championship team. That was his career year both batting and fielding — probably the only year he was above average in his career and when he won his lone Golden Glove. Chronic shoulder issues limited his ability to control the running game as time went on, but he still caught in 943 career games.

Shinichi Murata, Yomiuri Giants. A solid hitter, Murata was the Giants’ primary catcher from 1990 to 2000 despite an injury to his throwing arm as a youngster that nearly drove him out of the game. Surgery allowed him to continue playing, and the Giants won four pennants with him as their main catcher. He was highly regarded by the team’s pitchers and won a Best Nine award and was MVP of the 2000 Japan Series.

Satoshi Nakajima, Hankyu, Orix, Seibu, Yokohama, Nippon Ham. One of those guys who was athletic and could hit as a youngster who became a respectable fielder when he got older. A number of catchers, particularly good-hitting ones, develop into respectable fielders late in their careers, which reminds me of one of John Huston’s great lines:

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

John Huston’s character Noah Cross in “Chinatown.”

Perhaps we can add catchers’ fielding to that group. Late in his career with the Fighters, having earned a reputation as an exceptional handler of pitchers, he would be brought in to catch in the final inning in save situations along with the closer.

Isao Ito, Taiyo Whales, Nankai Hawks. Another good hitter, Ito was the regular catcher for the Whales between 1964 and 1976. He was a five-time all-star playing in a great hitter’s park for a club that during his tenure devolved into one of the CL’s doormats.

Shiro Mizunuma, Hiroshima Carp. Although he does not rate well in overall fielding, Mizunuma was highly regarded for working with the Carp pitchers. He earned his first regular playing time in 1975 when the club won its first pennant. Mizunuma was the regular from 1975 to 1980 before an injury suffered in a traffic accident and the rapid development of Mitsuru Tatsukawa — one of NPB’s best defensive catchers turned him into a backup.

Yoshiharu Wakana, Lions, Tigers, Whales, Fighters. A journeyman who played from 1972 to 1991, Wakana was known for the large number of incidents he was involved in, particularly with foreign hitters. He was an above-average hitter, with below-average fielding numbers. Wakana was the No. 1 catcher for at least one season with three of his clubs. Like Nakajima, he finished with Nippon Ham, developed a reputation as a good defender and had decent numbers to back that up.

He holds the NPB record for passed balls in a season with 17 – the same season he controversially won his only Golden Glove.

As Hawks battery coach, he was credited with turning Kenji Jojima into a solid defensive catcher, but his coaching career ended after the 2001 season. That year Tuffy Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record when Oh was the Hawks’ skipper. Wakana was not asked to return for 2002 after saying it would have been “distasteful for a foreign hitter to break Oh’s record.”

Of these six, two, only Kido and Ito, appear to have never developed good reputations for their handling of pitchers.

Long catching careers despite below-average offense

Here are the guys who were terrible hitters even compared to his catching peers but still had long careers:

Takeo Yoshizawa, Chunichi Dragons, Kintetsu Buffaloes. Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.

Despite his lack of offense, Yoshizawa played in 1,355 and had 3,876 plate appearances.

Ginjiro Sumitani, Seibu Lions, Yomiuri Giants. This guy is at the crux of the offense vs defense debate behind the plate as he lost his job to a guy who could mash but was still raw as a pro catcher, Tomoya Mori.

Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves and played for the national team.

Takashi Tanaka, Nankai Hawks, Hiroshima Carp. Tanaka had both the rep for being a quality handler of pitchers and solid fielding metrics. He only had three seasons in which he amassed 300 plate appearances but he was the Carp’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1966 and had 3,347 career plate appearances. By my estimation the worst hitting catcher to have more than 1,200 career plate appearances.

The boring stuff

Since expansion in 1950, 48 catchers have had at least 2,500 plate appearances from seasons in which they caught in 80 percent or more of their games, each of those had at least two seasons in which they were primarily catchers with 300-plus plate appearances, a status I’ll label as “everyday.” These are the players I looked at.

The average career defensive value for these players is 1.25 fielding win shares per 100 PA. I estimated that 33 of the catchers fall within one standard deviation of the mean for their careers. Hall of Famer Atsuya Furuta was two standard deviations above the mean. Five were 1 SD above, while two were 2 SDs below average and seven were 1 SD below average.

The catchers whose fielding rated at least one standard deviation above the mean averaged 12.2 seasons as everyday catchers and 6,330 career plate appearances from their seasons when primarily catching. Those who were 1 SD or more below the fielding mean averaged 4.3 seasons as an everyday catcher and 3,239 plate appearances.

Two catchers with substantial careers are more than 1 SD below average offensively, 2 were 1 SD above the mean, while three were 2 SDs above the mean offensively.

The catchers with the longest careers are, not surprisingly, those who are better-than-average fielders and better-than-average hitters. We don’t see any long careers by guys who are really poor hitters, or really poor fielders.

The best hitting catcher in NPB history — at least until the Seibu Lions’ Tomoya Mori gets a few more years under his belt — is Koichi Tabuchi, who did not quite collect 3,000 plate appearances in seasons when he caught in 80 percent of his games because he often played at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. As a fielder, Tabuchi was probably around average.

Below are some of the lists the study produced:

Weakest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1983木戸 克彦Katsuhiko Kido0.674.792538
1984村田 真一Shinichi Murata0.706.933089
1987中嶋 聡Satoshi Nakajima0.883.793870
1961伊藤 勲Isao Ito0.905.663846
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1974若菜 嘉晴Yoshiharu Wakana1.035.124210
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291

Strongest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1978達川 光男Mitsuo Tatsukawa1.633.984181
1982伊東 勤Tsutomu Ito1.616.228155
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1970大矢 明彦Akihiko Oya1.504.624933
1981田村 藤夫Fujio Tamura1.446.815126
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336
1972梨田 昌崇Masataka Nashida1.376.023058

Weakest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1954吉沢 岳男Takeo Yoshizawa1.121.003867
2006炭谷 銀仁朗Ginjiro Sumitani1.331.223593
1954安藤 順三Junzo Ando1.101.572518
2002細川 亨Toru Hosokawa1.111.593906
1978袴田 英利Hidetoshi Hakamada1.241.672538
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
2003鶴岡 慎也Shinya Tsuruoka1.192.113007
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387

Strongest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1954野村 克也Katsuya Nomura1.2919.4811747
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1964木俣 達彦Tatsuhiko Kimata1.2513.467131
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1981中尾 孝義Takayoshi Nakao1.2310.052622
1999里崎 智也Tomoya Satozaki1.139.843617
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336