Pierce Johnson, whose power curve served him extremely well in his 2019 NPB debut season with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League, has agreed to a two-year deal with the San Diego Padres, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
A former No. 1 draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, Johnson’s curve was selected in a poll of CL players as the best in the league. According to Delta Graphs, Johnson threw his curve nearly half the time and was rated at over two wins per 100 pitches, and led all NPB pitchers in wins from his curve.
He joins the steady stream of players who come to Japan, learn some new adjustments or simply get a different perspective on things, and then find MLB teams eager to put those skills to the test.
When I saw this, I went back to Delta Graphs and saw that Johnson’s fastball was ranked 18th in effectiveness among the 120 or so pitchers with 50-plus innings in NPB last season. It was below average effectiveness in the States.
To say his curveball was effective because of the fastball is no surprise. This happened with Masahiro Tanaka in 2018. His slider and split became more effective because of his superior command of the four-seam fastball.
Again, as Bill points out, pitchers finding something in Japan is no longer news and one reason why a huge number of players are seeing Japan as a win-win situation.
Matt Murton knows a few things about role reversal, having
gone from phenom to role player for the Chicago Cubs and from record-setting
hero to villain in his six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central
‘Win or lose, they find a way to put me on the front page,’
he quipped in his final season here.
Murton debuted with Hanshin in 2010 and proved a quick study
in the ways of Japan’s game. His precise and rigorous pregame practice blew
away manager Akinobu Mayumi. And when he began challenging to break Ichiro
Suzuki’s 16-year-old single-season hit record, he seemed a worthy heir. When he
did set a new record, Murton did it in a season that was 14 games longer, but
Suzuki said that didn’t make it less of an accomplishment.
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people. And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back.”
Matt Murton to Kyodo News in 2015
But what should have been the happiest of times turned into
a depressing slog, a stellar season overshadowed by hyper expectations. When Murton
finally got hit No. 211, the weight of the world came off his shoulders. At the
end, a season begun as a way to learn lessons needed to restart his major
league career instead created an unbreakable molecular bond between player and country.
Yet, within two years, when Murton and the rest of the
Kansai region’s most popular club failed to meet expectations, everything around
him had changed. In 2013, when a reporter insinuated he hadn’t been trying hard
in the outfield, Murton sarcastically said he didn’t like pitcher Atsushi Nomi
— who was on the mound when Murton failed to throw out a runner at the plate.
Not only did the regional sports media, who report every
scrap of Tigers news, turn on him, but his words were splashed across the front
page of every sports daily in Japan.
“You can’t go back and you can’t change it,” Murton, now an
assistant in baseball operations for the Cubs, said this spring in Mesa,
“I think for me specifically, it became kind of polarizing. We are playing for a team that was very visible. Given what I was able to accomplish as an individual in unison with our team in our first year, it puts you in a place of being very visible as a foreign player, and any misstep or anything that happened along the way was magnified. I feel that some of it wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be, some of it could have been handled differently. It was probably a combination of all of the above.”
Breaking Ichiro’s hit record
In retrospect, 2010 can be seen as a lesson about one aspect
of the dynamic between Japanese groups and their individual members. Because
Japan emphasizes group success and failure, it can be a surprise that
league-leading achievements and individual awards take on so much importance.
One trick is to look at those things as credits to the group
ledger, because they raise the profile of the group as a whole. This may help
explain why teams sometimes do whatever they can to boost individuals
accomplishments even to the detriment of team wins. It used to be common to intentionally
walking opposing hitters – regardless of the game situation – if it assists a
teammate’s effort to win an individual title, provided the team had nothing to
The introduction of playoffs in the Pacific League in 2004
and the Central League in 2007 has reduced the number of meaningless games, so
there are fewer chances to witness those farces. But having a sense that
individual accomplishments are to teams is important in getting a feel for the
pressure Murton felt as he approached Suzuki’s record.
“I felt that if I didn’t get it, I would be a failure, that
I would be letting my team down,” Murton told The Daily Yomiuri that October as
the Tigers prepared to begin the playoffs.
Ironically, he said, the solution came when looking at the problem in a different light.
“What’s so funny about that is I go back to that individual moment
in 2010, when I had a chance at Jingu (Stadium) to get a base hit on a changeup
up the middle and set the single-season hit record,” he said. “I remember the
feelings I had coming into the game. There was an expectation, whether it was
the media or people talking about it, whatever it was, to accomplish something
as an individual. So I felt that there were these external pressures that I had
to carry with me.”
“I’ll never forget that moment because on that day, it was bases loaded, and all of a sudden it came over me, ‘This isn’t about me getting a hit. It’s about knocking my teammates in.’ My thinking transferred from individual result to team success. When I was able to transfer my thinking to more of a group mentality, and living in the moment and competing as a team, the individual success came.”
“If we make it all about self, we oftentimes can find ourselves living at the address of thinking about factors we don’t need to be thinking about. When we keep it simple about the competition in the moment and how to help our team, the individual numbers take care of themselves.”
That was 2010, the last year of loosely regulated baseballs
in Japan. That year, offensive numbers did more than take care of themselves. They
took care of fellow Tiger Craig Brazell. The Tigers first baseman hit 47 homers
that season, despite playing at Koshien Stadium, where the vast power alleys
make it one of Japan’s toughest home run parks.
That power output secured Brazell a hefty three-year extension good times seemed just around the corner for Hanshin.
“I don’t like Nomi”
Like nearly every hitter in Japan, 2011 was a letdown for
Murton. After more than a decade of barely regulated balls, Nippon Professional
Baseball for the first time introduced a uniform baseball. The new ball was
intended to as dead as possible, and it was.
In addition to the deader ball, that season saw umpires from
Japan’s two top-flight circuits, the Central and Pacific leagues merged for the
first time. Games in Eastern Japan were also played with reduced lighting for
much of the season after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in
nuclear meltdowns and created a power shortage.
Across NPB, batting averages dropped by 8 percent and there
were 41 percent fewer homers. Murton’s offense took a hit, but he still went on
to win his second straight Central League Best Nine Award in the outfield. That
earned him a contract extension, but after finishing in fourth place, the
Tigers replaced manager Mayumi with Yutaka Wada.
Under Wada, the club did not flounder, but try as they
might, the Tigers couldn’t climb above .500. It didn’t help that older Tigers
players were not batting as well as expected and Brazell’s power evaporated after
2010. Nor did it help that Murton was guilty of a couple of careless plays in
Suddenly, the news among the sports papers feeding the
Tigers’ massive fan base began find fault with the team’s foreign players. Part
of Hanshin’s dynamic is the extreme degree the club worries about its press
“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot
of people who are not baseball people,” Murton told Kyodo News in 2015. “And
then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be
very cognizant of their back. In my experience, they (the team) allow that to
infiltrate the organization.”
One of the Hanshin beat writers in 2012 has suggested that Wada and his coaches had caved in to media pressure for a scapegoat and the Tigers threw the foreign players to the wolves.
Murton found himself running a daily gauntlet of
insinuations masquerading as post-game questions. And on June 9, after the
Tigers lost their interleague game against the PL’s Orix Buffaloes 6-1, he’d
Murton went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting
average to .231 for the season, but the question was about his defense. With
the Tigers losing 1-0 in the fourth, Murton’s throw home on a two-out single to
right was unable to nail the runner at the plate or prevent the batter from
advancing to second.
Asked if he had tried to throw the runner out at the plate,
Murton, who had spent much of his professional career trying to reign in his
temper, didn’t get overtly angry, but that hardly mattered.
His “I don’t like Nomi,” offered as a joke, transformed the
Tigers irritating media into a personal pestilence.
The sports dailies called for Murton’s head, and parent
company stockholders called for Murton’s dismissal. The fans who went to the
ballpark, those who actually witnessed his attitude and effort, stuck with him,
but the media had a circus to report on and wasn’t going to give it up easily.
“It was frustration, and the question that was asked and I didn’t understand,” Murton said. “I think the question was questioning integrity or how hard you were trying to do or whatever, so it was tough. But that probably wasn’t the right way to respond. But it was certainly in jest, a joke. Therein lies a cultural lesson that our jokes don’t always translate.”
Cultural collisions at home and abroad
Having learned sarcasm doesn’t travel, Murton crossed
another cultural divide in 2013, when he twice slammed into Yakult Swallows
catchers. Japanese catchers had been trained to block the plate without the
ball, and then duck and cover in case runners tried to bowl them over. Umpires
did not require tags on such plays, demanding catchers only hold on to the ball.
Most, but not all, collisions on Japanese base paths have
involved foreign base runners, who had been taught since childhood that
separating catchers from the ball was the base runner’s duty to his team.
On the same day Yakult Swallows catcher Masahiko Tanaka
returned to duty months after an earlier collision with Murton, the Tigers
outfielder slammed into Swallows veteran Ryoji Aikawa at Jingu. Aikawa himself had
been sidelined early in the season in a collision with a different runner, and
was not in a forgiving mood. Shoving and F-bombs ensued at home plate, Murton
was ejected, and his transformation from famous to infamous was complete.
The following spring, instead of pulling out the “This is
how baseball is played” excuse, Murton said he would be fine with rules that
prohibited catchers without the ball from blocking the plate and prevented
runners from trying to dislodge the ball rather than reach home.
“If that’s the rule, then the catcher doesn’t get hurt and I
as the runner don’t get hurt,” he said.
“I’m very passionate and driven. We can sit here and make excuses all day long, but excuses are a hindrance to growth. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to be raw. We’ve got to be vulnerable and realize we do have some shortcomings and that there are plenty of ways to learn from previous experiences.”
Needless to say, Japan provided Murton with lots of grist
for that mill. And though he first came here to acquire skills with which he
could relaunch his major league career, he got more than he bargained for.
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there, the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled
with the enthusiasm and the support of the people. This is very unique. Chicago,
I think (is one of) a few markets that present similar type feeling from a
player’s perspective. But on a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the
opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is
very unique and a lot can be learned and it’s a place that as an American or a
foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool
experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never
want to shut the door on that.”
Murton said that was true even when things went awry in ways
he couldn’t fathom at the time. Three-plus years later, having finally retired and
moved on to a team-building career, Murton has gained more perspective.
“It’s always easier once you are removed from an environment
to be able to look at it more objectively. The same is true in regards to
competition. What competition does in terms in the sense of the heightened
sense of our emotions and our responses, those are all a factor,” he said.
“Culturally, you would feel things or sense things that
really weren’t there. I look back on things and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have
been so taken back by whatever it was, A, B, C or D.’ I think there were times
when the feelings were warranted and made sense, but the responses you always
wish were different.”
While there’s no going back to the way things were, Murton
said his family thinks of Japan a lot. He lives in the Nashville area and is
involved with the Japanese community there, and his wife longs for the
simplicity of life on Kobe’s Rokko Island, where everything they needed was no
more than a short walk away.
“I came back this past September and I was only there for
four days,” Murton said. “My two older ones asked on that trip if they could
go, and they’ve more recently verbalized that they want to go back. It’s
something that will happen, when we make sense of when that time is right for
the younger kids and for us as a family.”
“You walk away from experiences and you want to do it in a
way that you’re wanting more,” he said. “It’s a part of you. It’s a season in
your life. It’s a chapter. It doesn’t change your identity or future, but that
will always be a part of you and that will never change, so there’s gratitude
for the experience and the relationships.”
“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing
there (in Japan), the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out
basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people.”
While Japanese baseball is not major league baseball, it
represents some things that are hard to find in the majors, and he wasn’t
talking about 3-1 sliders, 2-0 curveballs or 100-pitch bullpens but engagement.
“I think there are a few (major league) markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective,” Murton said, noting that playing in Chicago has a similar vibe. “On a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”
“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned. And it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”
Words for the wise
For those wishing to share that, and who are lucky enough to
be in the right place at the right time when a Japanese club has its eyes on then,
Murton has some advice.
“The first thing would be to be prepared for a challenge
physically. If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t quite understand the
level of competition,” he said. “No. 1 is you have to prepare your body and
your mind. Never forget who you are, but take that America mindset or whatever
it is from whatever country you are from and check it at the door.”
“Kind of embrace the culture on the field and off the field. Right off the bat, there are going to be things done differently that maybe doesn’t make sense to you. That’s OK, because the feelings that you have are probably not any different from other guys that have played before you. Be aware that some of those situations are going to create feelings that are going to make it hard for you to understand.”
“But just live at the address of showing up every day,
caring for people and love the game. If you can do those things, embrace the
culture and the unique opportunity you have. You’re one of a very select few,
so just try and make the most of that.”
But that is the hindsight of six seasons of seeing foreign
players come and go. One early surprise in 2010 was seeing coaches’ brows
furrow when he’d spend an entire batting practice working on fundamentals.
Murton wasn’t yet used to Japanese baseball’s love of material results, where a
fluke single on a bad swing can be declared a good sign, while good swings and
hard-hit outs can be a cause for concern.
“Normally, I come to camp thinking, ‘I’m going to work the
backside of the field, and I’m going to get my swings in,’ because that was the
mentality you had coming from America,” Murton said. “If you’re a hitter (in
Japan), the first day go ahead and try to hit some home runs, try to let them
know you can do it. Then everyone will relax and you can go back to doing what
you’ve got to do. So yes, that is the one other piece of advice I’d probably
That and perhaps, save the sarcasm for home.
“I had a chance to see him (Nomi) for dinner this past
September, and I gave him a nice hug,” Murton said.
“That was always going to be a thing,” Murton said. “I still
can’t believe to this day that it took on this life of its own. And part of
that is my own fault.”
At the conclusion of this year’s interleague play on Thursday, the Pacific League’s cumulative record against the Central League 1,040 to 920 since interleague was created in 2005 as a part of the settlement of Japan’s only players strike so far.
For a long time, most of us simply assumed the leagues were relatively even in terms of quality. But the lack of CL championships in the Japan Series and the typically one-sided interleague results suggests that in some way that the PL simply has more talent. I was pretty slow to accept this until Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama answered my question about why the PL did so well by saying, “Don’t you think it’s because they’re just better than we are?”
Looking at NPB interleague games from 2009 to 2017 played in NPB’S 12 main parks, Tateyama’s observation appears to be correct. The first thing everyone seems to point to is the pitching.
In February 2006, then-Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman said it was tough for the PL teams because few PL pitchers threw really hard. Other than Australian Brad Thomas, Hillman said, his hardest thrower at the time was a pitcher who probably would be in Double-A in the U.S. (Yu Darvish), and that his hitters were not used to the velocity of the hard-throwing CL pitchers.
A year ago, Alex Ramirez said the opposite, that the PL pitchers–particularly the relievers–throw harder, and that makes it harder for the CL hitters to adjust. This appears to be the case at the moment. According to analysis site Delta Graphs PL fastballs are 0.6 KPH faster on average than the CL heaters, although the site doesn’t permit comparisons of starters and relievers.
The big problem with comparing the leagues is context. It doesn’t help just to look at raw numbers, because the two leagues’ parks, and the DH, affect run scoring differently. The biggest issue is perhaps the ballpark contexts. Until recently, the PL was dominated by huge parks with vast outfields and high walls, where home runs were scarce and speed was at more of a premium. That has changed in recent years with the switch in the CL from small Hiroshima Citizens’ Stadium to more spacious Mazda Stadium, and by the Hawks and Eagles both decreasing the home-run distances by adding field seats inside the outfield wall.
If one looks only at the same main stadiums, and how each home team fares against visitors in league and interleague play in the same part of the season, then perhaps one can get a clearer picture. NPB’s interleague used to run from the middle of May to the middle of June, and now occupies the first 2-1/2 weeks of June in its new 18-game format.
Most speculation has been that PL pitching is superior. If that is the sole cause, one would expect the CL pitchers to do as well against visiting PL hitters in interleague as they do against visiting CL batters in May and June. To study this, a data set was constructed of all non-pitcher plate appearances in the 12 main parks in May and June from 2009 — when Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium opened — to 2017.
The data does not prove PL pitching staffs and defenses are superior but suggests that may be the case, but it also indicates that PL teams are better at hitting, playing defense and have superior speed in the outfield.
PL home teams scored 3 percent more runs per 27 outs against visiting CL defenses in May and June than against PL visitors. In contrast, the CL teams score 9 percent fewer runs in their home parks against PL visitors than they do against their regular CL rivals. These findings are consistent with the idea that PL pitching is superior.
The data suggests PL offenses are also better than those in the CL. CL home teams allow 4 percent more runs per 27 outs when the visitor is from the PL, while PL pitching staffs have far less trouble with visiting CL teams than PL visitors in May and June, allowing 14 percent fewer runs per 27 outs.
In terms of getting hits on balls in play, home offenses in both leagues do better against interleague opponents who rarely visit their parks. The PL home batters had an edge in this area, a 3 percent increase in interleague batting average on balls in play, while CL home offenses’ BABIPs improved by 1 percent against PL visitors.
There is, however, a huge difference in what goes on when the visiting team is at bat in interleague play.
Visiting PL teams in interleague batted .310 on balls in play against CL home defenses that held their own CL league opponents to a .296 average. PL home defenses, on the other hand, surrendered a .306 BABIP to PL teams, a .290 BABIP to visiting CL teams.
Like visiting defenses, hitters also seem to have trouble in the unfamiliar parks of their interleague opponents striking out more and walking less.
It’s at home where the difference is obvious. At home in interleague, CL hitters’ strikeouts rose by 13 percent against visiting PL pitchers, while PL hitters’ Ks were 2 percent less frequent when a CL club was in town.
Built for speed
One comment often heard about the PL teams is that they’re faster — especially in the outfield, a necessity in a league with lots of large turf outfields. PL home teams allow 8 percent fewer doubles and 8 percent fewer triples against CL visitors than against PL visitors. Central League home teams surrender triples 8 percent more often against PL teams than against CL opponents.
When PL teams host interleague games, their batters’ triples and doubles increase. When CL teams host, their doubles and triples decrease.
Although PL teams appear to have a speed edge in interleague, the one area where CL teams actually do better is in preventing stolen bases. Stolen bases percentages go down for visitors in interleague, with the PL being hit slightly harder. At home, CL teams actually improved their stolen base success rate, while PL interleague hosts were less successful stealing bases than they were in league play.
When the DeNA BayStars beat the Hanshin Tigers on Friday, July 3, Japan’s Central League finished the day with each of its six clubs below .500.
The historic fluke is the result of the annual bashing at the hands of the rival Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball’s interleague play combined with an unusually tight CL race. The Tigers’ loss left the Yakult Swallows in first place at one game below .500 and the next four teams within a half game.
The CL’s inability to keep up with the PL has been masked by normal distributions in the CL standings and — until 2005 — the lack of interleague play. But this year, with no CL club able to dominate league play and the PL winning this interleague by a 61-44 margin, the blinders are now off.
But this is not something the media is keen to note. Aside from a brief mention, on Friday night, the story has been spun about the historic balance in the CL. Guess it’s probably better to bury the obvious conclusion — that Japan’s most popular circuit, the one that for years has held most of the power — can’t cut the mustard in head-to-head competition against the league it — or perhaps more precisely, Yomiuri Giants kingpin Tsuneo Watanabe — enjoys disparaging.
In 11 years of interleague play, the CL has led the competition just once and this year’s whipping left the PL holding an 865-774 edge for a winning percentage of .528. The chances of two equally balanced leagues competing, with each club having a 50 percent chance of winning any contest and league winning 53 percent of 1,639 decisions is 1.3 percent. Any assumption that the two leagues are equally strong has to contend with that. The PL has also won 7-of-10 Japan Series since 2005, with a .569 winning percentage in the 88 individual decisions.
The more popular of Japan’s two leagues since they were created by expansion after the 1949 season, the CL has long lorded it over the PL at the ticket gate, but the head-to-head competition between the leagues tells a different story. Until 2004, Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues only battled each other in the Japan Series and the summer all-star exhibitions — in which the PL has more than held its own.
For decades, the PL’s all-star success was attributed to CL squads being overloaded with players from Japan’s oldest franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, who would be overmatched against the PL’s best — leading to the phrase “Popular Ce(ntral), Powerful Pa(cific).”
Even when it came to player movement, the CL has long benefited from its clubs’ popularity. The current version of free agency was introduced in 1993 — by the Giants as a way of securing more big name talent — and until the end of the 2010 season, every star in his prime who switched leagues directly moved from the PL to the CL.
Although the Pacific League boasts more financial heavyweights among its clubs’ parent companies, Nippon Professional Baseball was thrown into crisis from the PL side in 2004, when the remaining two PL teams in the Kansai region, playing in the shadow of the better established Tigers, decided to merge. The announcement that the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes would merge due to the constant strain of red ink, and the question over what to do with a five-team league led to talk of contraction, reorganization and Japan’s first player strike.
Interleague play — something long rejected by CL owners — was introduced as a part of the labor settlement as was an agreement by owners to expedite the approval of the Sendai-based Eagles, owned by Internet market giant Rakuten. That spring, the Nippon Ham Fighters had moved out from under the Giants’ shadow in Tokyo to baseball-starved Sapporo. And in the autumn, telecommunications powerhouse Softbank take over the Hawks and add even more energy to the once lackluster PL.
Over the past five years, the Hawks and the new Orix Buffaloes have become two of the biggest free agent spenders, while the CL’s Chunichi Dragons, a powerhouse from 2002-2011, have scaled back on player acquisitions.