Tag Archives: interleague

NPB games, news of June 23, 2019

If I could have put a bet down on Sunday’s game between the SoftBank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants, I would happily have plunked down 1,000 yen to have Tomoyuki Sugano the winner of the last two Sawamura Awards, beat 38-year-old Tsuyoshi Wada.

But baseball is unpredictable. Wada, who’s had fitness issues the past year and a half, and who hasn’t had any velocity to speak of since he started his big league career in 2012 with Tommy John surgery, got a big early lead and cruised.

Interleague

Hawks 5, Giants 1

At Tokyo Dome, Tsuyoshi Wada (2-1) showed batters his slider, missed bats with a nasty changeup that caused hitters to miss-hit his fastball over five artful innings.

The lefty allowed a run on three hits and two walks, while striking out six in an 81-pitch effort, and Shuhei Fukuda hit two more Giant-killing jacks to lift the Hawks to their eighth interleague championship.

Fukuda hit his second tie-breaking homer of the series, leading off the first by drilling a center cut fastball out to right center. Giants starter Tomoyuki Sugano was yanked after allowing four runs in the first and walking Wada to lead off the second. It was the shortest outing of the 29-year-old’s career.

After two walks, a pair of choppers deep in the hole to short were scored infield singles. Shortstop Hayato Sakamoto’s errant flip to third on the second one plated an extra run making it 3-0. Hawks catcher Takuya Kai, whose bases-loaded, two-out bunt single on Friday turned the table for the Hawks ahead of Fukuda’s grand slam, took the Giants by surprise yet again with another safety squeeze to make it 4-0.

Wada did a number on Sakamoto, the Giants’ most productive hitter this season, striking him out on a combination of low fastballs and changeups, but he also got away with high straight fastballs that were miss-hit. Wada started Giants cleanup hitter Kazuma Okamoto off with a mistake in the fourth and the youngster hit it off the hitter’s background in center.

Wada now 1 shy of interleague win record

Wada’s first win since September 2017 was his 25th regular season win against CL teams, one shy of the interleague record held by his former Hawks teammate Toshiya Sugiuchi.

Wada entered the day tied for second with Masanori Ishikawa of the Swallows and Hideaki Wakui of the Marines with 24.

“(Next season) there will be a chance for Nos. 26 and 27,” Wada said. “I’m an athlete so I aspire to go higher.”

Wada said that more than being overjoyed with securing the Hawks’ interleague title, he felt remorse for having been on the sidelines for so long.

“My strongest emotion runs toward feeling apologetic for having taken this long to get back,” he said. “I’m really just happy the team could win.”

BayStars 3, Eagles 0

At Yokohama Stadium, Taiga Kamichatani (4-3) did it all against Rakuten. The DeNA rookie threw six scoreless innings, and drove in two runs off tough right-hander Takayuki Kishi (2-2).

Swallows 6, Marines 2

At Jingu Stadium, Lotte’s pitchers issued 11 walks, the most in Japan this season and the most by the Marines since 2013, while Yakult rookie Keiji Takahashi (1-3) allowed two runs over six innings to earn the win.

Mike Bolsinger got no decision for the Marines after allowing two runs over five innings, one run coming on Wladimir Balentien’s 15th home run, a first-inning solo shot.

Dragons 8, Fighters 4

At Nagoya Dome, after relying heavily on his fastball in his pro debut, Nippon Ham rookie Kosei Yoshida was ambushed by Chunichi hitters sitting fastball in a three-run first inning as his record fell to 1-1.

The 18-year-old, who threw 881 pitches over the course of last year’s national summer high school finals, allowed five runs over three innings.

“That really is an excellent fastball. We were lucky to score three runs off him in the first inning,” Dragons skipper Tsuyoshi Yoda said of an inning in which his guys were “lucky” to really drive the ball as well as they did.

Even the Dragons’ outs were loud as their third run scored on a sacrifice fly that required an excellent catch on a drive to the warning track.

Dragons lefty Enny Romero (5-5) gave up three runs over six innings, while striking out seven.

Buffaloes 9, Carp 1, 10 innings

At Mazda Stadium, Orix broke up a scoreless game in a nine-run 10th inning that saw five triples, two doubles and three walks to complete a three-game sweep of three-time defending Central League champion Hiroshima.

Brandon Dickson (1-0), currently serving as Orix’s closer while Hirotoshi Masui discovers his form on the farm team, pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the win.

The Buffaloes’ four triples in an inning tied their franchise and NPB record set by the Hankyu Braves in their Aug. 16, 1947, game against the Yomiuri Giants.

Lions 7, Tigers 3

At Koshien Stadium, Wataru Matsumoto (3-1), Seibu’s top draft pick last autumn, allowed a run over five innings, while his teammates roughed up lefty Onelki Garcia (2-3) for seven runs over 5-1/3 innings.

NPB games, news of June 12, 2019

Sapporo Dome hosted a long-awaited party like few its seen before as right-hander Kosei Yoshida not only made his first-team debut but pitched well over five innings to earn the win.

Yoshida, an iconic name after pitching his unheralded Kanaashi Kogyo High School to the national summer finals last year, relied heavily on a 145-kilometer- (90 mile-) per-hour fastball that ran and rose and was hard to hit. Most remarkable was his willingness to challenge hitters in the zone.

Interleague

Fighters 2, Carp 1

At Sapporo Dome, Yoshida (1-0) loaded the bases with one out in the first but pitched himself out of trouble. He gave up a run on four hits and two walks while striking out four.

“We decided to challenge batters with the fastball, and if they hit it, well tough,” Yoshida said. “We thought that since they’d never seen me before, the fastball would be effective. It was as good as ever. I was able to stay loose and not overthrow it.”

Taishi Ota homered in the bottom of the first off Daichi Osera (6-3), and after Hisayoshi Chono’s RBI double in the top of the second, four Fighters singled in the bottom of the inning to break the tie.

Yoshida, who threw 881 pitches at last summer’s national finals, threw 31 pitches in the first inning but should have had it much easier. After Chono’s leadoff single went under his second baseman’s glove, the ump denied Yoshida a called third strike on an 0-2 pitch to Ryosuke Kikuchi, who walked on 10 pitches after right fielder Ota hesitated and failed to catch a foul fly.

With one out, he worked carefully to cleanup hitter Seiya Suzuki and walked him, but struck out Ryoma Nishikawa, holder of this season’s longest hitting streak (27 games) on three pitches. The 18-year-old attacked reserve catcher Yoshitaka Isomura and got an easy groundout.

After Chono’s RBI double, Yoshida retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced, wrapping up his debut after 84 pitches. Three relievers, the last former Padres farmhand Bryan Rodriguez, each pitched an easy scoreless inning. Naoya Ishikawa, in his second game as the closer understudy, used his splitter to good effect to pitch out of a two-out, two-on jam and earn his second save.

Eagles 7, Swallows 4

At Rakuten Seimei Park, injury-plagued side-armer Shohei Tateyama (0-1) allowed three runs, two earned, in three innings in his first game of the season, and Yakult never caught up against Rakuten.

The Eagles used seven pitchers, the last, closer Yuki Matsui, who saved his 21st game. Kento Kumabara, DeNA’s second draft pick in 2015, pitching for the first time since 2017, started and allowed two runs in 3-1/3 innings.

Noboru Shimizu, the Swallows’ top draft pick last autumn, allowed three runs, one earned, in 2-1/3 innings, all three runs, three hits, and two walks came in the sixth inning when the game got away from the CL club.

Swallows rookie Munetaka Murakami became the fourth player to hit 17-plus home runs before his age-20 season, and the first who didn’t play for the Lions. The others are Hall of Famer Yasumitsu Toyoda (Nishitetsu), Kazuhiro Kiyohara (Seibu) and currentl Lions catcher Tomoya Mori.

Giants 9, Lions 4

At MetLife Dome, Ginjiro Sumitani singled home two runs to pull his new team, Yomiuri, from a run down against Seibu, the club he left over the winter as a free agent. The Giants bullpen worked 5-1/3 scoreless innings — three perfect frames from lefty Kyosuke Takagi — to seal the win.

Hotaka Yamakawa doubled in three runs in the third to put Seibu up 3-2, but Giants veteran Yoshiyuki Kamei, who opened the game with a home run off Ken Togame (3-2), doubled in three runs in the Giants’ four-run eighth.

Dragons 6, Buffaloes 2

At Kyocera Dome, Yota Kyoda snapped a 2-2, eighth-inning tie with an RBI single and Masataka Iryo, who went 4-for-5 with two doubles, cleared the bases with a three-run triple as Chunichi beat Orix for the second-straight night.

Yudai Ono (4-4) struck out five and gave up two runs over seven innings to get the win.

Tigers 8, Hawks 2

At Yafuoku Dome, Hanshin catcher Ryutaro Umeno homered and singled and drove in four runs, while side-armer Koyo Aoyagi (5-4) allowed two runs, one earned, over seven innings, while striking out five to beat SoftBank.

Tsuyoshi Wada (0-1), making his second start for the Hawks since his coming back from shoulder trouble that has sidelined him since 2017, allowed four runs in 5-2/3 innings to take the loss.

BayStars 6, Marines 5

At Zozo Marine Stadium, Yamato Maeda broke an eighth-inning tie with a two-run single through the legs of second baseman Shogo Nakamura, and DeNA survived a mini-meltdown from closer Yasuaki Yamasaki. The right-hander gave up a walk and three hits in the ninth, but allowed just two runs to record his 12th save.

Brandon Laird homered for the Marines, while last year’s CL home run champ, Neftali Soto, went deep for DeNA.

Lefty Brandon Mann, pitching against the team that cut him loose seven years ago, Mann worked a scoreless seventh for Lotte. He’s struck out 12 over 8-2/3 innings of relief since returning to the team following his disastrous start on April 3.

Why the Pacific League is stronger

Swallows players celebrate capturing NPB’s interleague “championship.”

By Jim Allen

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.

Pitching

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.

Batting

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.

Fielding

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.

Strikeouts

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.



A brief history of Japan’s interleague

Players on strike sign autographs for fans outside Yokohama Stadium, where they practiced but did not play. The strike led to expansion and interleague play.

Prologue

For years prior to its introduction, NPB’s six Pacific League teams lobbied for some form of interleague play against the six teams of the then-more popular Central League. These pleas were scoffed at by the charismatic but blowhard generalissimo who ran the Yomiuri Shimbun and held huge sway over NPB policy, Tsuneo Watanabe.

“You only want to make money off games with the Giants. Who’d pay to see Lotte play Chunichi? It’s a joke,” he said in various ways every time the issue was brought up. At that time, sale of terrestrial TV rights for each CL team’s 13 home games against the Giants provided the bulk of each CL team’s annual operating expenses, and none of them were in a hurry to replace a few of those games for home contests against unfashionable PL teams — until the mid-1990s that meant all PL teams with the exception of the Seibu Lions, whose golden age petered out in 1995.

NPB’s summer of discontent

What forced interleague to become a reality was the chaos caused in 2004, when NPB authorized a merger between two PL teams, the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The merger would leave a five-team PL and a huge scheduling mess, so all that summer, while owners plotted how they were going to move into the future with 11 or even 10 teams forming a single league, Japan’s docile players union located its spine and took action. When players took exception with the owners’ plans to contract NPB, Watanabe in his typical fashion, said, “Who cares what they think? They are only athletes.”

The players, needless to say, took umbrage with that remark, and Hall of Fame Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, then the head of the Nippon Pro Baseball Players Association, began negotiating to stop the contraction. The then commissioner, Yasuchika Negoro, urged owners to ignore the players, convincing them the players had no right to protest. In essence the former bureaucrat said, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. I personally wrote those labor laws.”

Unfortunately, the labor courts disagreed, slammed NPB for dealing in bad faith, Japan’s only baseball strike occurred, and NPB eventually caved in. But that was after the players walked out on two consecutive weekends during the summer.

That summer owners and players held official negotiations on a weekly basis wherever the Swallows happened to be playing to accommodate Furuta’s schedule. At whatever park the Swallows were playing, the home fans gave the bespectacled catcher a standing ovation when he came to the plate.

The strike

At the time of the strike, I was working at the Yomiuri Shimbun’s English language paper, the Daily Yomiuri. On the first day of the strike, I went to Yokohama Stadium where fans were lined up to get refunds for their tickets. The players from both the hometown BayStars and the visiting Hiroshima Carp both practiced — without coaches, and afterward came out to the ticket plaza to meet fans.

BayStars players rep ace pitcher Daisuke Miura and the assistant players rep, outfielder Takanori Suzuki, got huge ovations from the fans. When I got back to the office in Tokyo to file my story about how the strike was being received, I saw the first morning edition of our Japanese language paper. The editorial blasted the players and said Japanese fans would never forgive them for ruining the game. That was the last gasp of the owners vitriol.

As it became clear that the fans stood with the players, the owners gave in. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave became the Orix Buffaloes, but NPB agreed to expedite a process for an expansion team that would keep the PL at six teams. Owners had argued this was impossible to do between the summer of 2004 and the autumn, when a new club would have to take part in NPB’s amateur draft.

Interleague

Another provision of the settlement was the introduction of interleague play — in order to help the PL teams survive. At first it consisted of 12, three-game series, two each against each team in the opposing league.

Interleague play in NPB is a little oasis between the start of the season and the all-star break, and all the interleague games are completed before league play resumes through the end of the regular season.

“We would have been happy with 18,” former Nippon Ham executive Toshimasa Shimada said. “But they offered 36 and we took it.”

Two years later, the CL pushed for a change to 24 games, and 12, two-game series, calling the original 36-game format they came up with “intolerable.” The CL’s next brilliant idea, a 24-game setup proved even worse, because it meant teams were sometimes off on Friday, a prime day for baseball, and a more hectic travel schedule. So in 2013, the CL once more said, “This 24-game interleague format is ridiculous,” mindful not to mention that it was their idea in the first place.

The real problem of interleague has been the perception that the CL clubs just simply aren’t as competitive as the PL teams. This has been fairly obvious in the Japan Series as well, which the CL has won just 3 times since 2003. So far, only one CL team, the Giants has led the interleague standings, and entering play on Friday, heading into the final few games in PL parks, the interleague-leading Yakult Swallows were the only CL team without a losing record against the PL.

Despite the CL’s mediocre showing and predictions of gloom and doom, average interleague attendance has increased every year but one since it’s inception in 2005. That year was 2011, when Japan was reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster. Through the games of June 14, attendance had increased this season by an average of 1,349, although that will decline a little next week when the rain-out makeups are figured into the equation.

This year, both leagues have drawn more for their interleague games than they have for games against league rivals prior to the start of interleague in June: 33,208 to 33,112 for the CL, 27,841 to 26,024 for the PL.

CL simply inferior to PL

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.