Tag Archives: Katsuya Nomura

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. 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.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). 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.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

An tribute to Katsuya Nomura from Joe Stanka’s grandson

The following letter was distributed to media in Japan from Josh Stanka, whose grandfather Joe won 100 games in Nippon Professional Baseball, an MVP award and a Japan Series MVP award in 1964. His longtime Nankai Hawks batterymate, Hall of Fame player and manager Katsuya Nomura, died at the age of 84 on Tuesday.

Forevermore the term “catcher” will be synonymous with the name Katsuya Nomura. Over the coming days and weeks much will be written about his prodigious stats (his 1965 Triple Crown comes to mind), his unmatched longevity and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game that he loved, lived and breathed.

But to those fortunate enough to be his teammates, his players, his friends and most importantly his family; attempting to use mere numbers to describe Nomura-san would be like trying to describe Mount Fuji simply by its height and dimensions. Because the true greatness of Nomura-san lay not just in his ability to smash home runs or manage multiple teams to championships or tutor numerous generations of pitchers and catchers in the art of yakyu.

The true greatness of Katsuya Nomura was something intangible. A work ethic and a passion for the game that few possess and that cannot be taught. A living testament to the truism that no matter how humble a persons beginnings may be, with enough desire and hard work and moxie there are no limits to how high a person may rise. In many ways his story is a microcosm of the attributes of the Japanese people themselves in the post-war years who exhibited the same irrepressible drive to succeed and rebuild a whole new society that became the economic marvel of the twentieth century.

When our family arrived in Japan for the first time in 1960 Nomura-san welcomed us warmly. 

When our family was struck by tragedy in 1965 in our family’s darkest hours Nomura-san was a kind and supportive friend. 

And in the interim he and my grandfather played games of pitch and catch in legendary stadiums just as they had played games of pitch and catch with their schoolmates when they were boys growing up 7,000 miles apart in Mineyama, Japan, and Hammon, Oklahoma.

With apologies to Hanshin Tigers fans they played a couple of truly memorable games of catch in Koshien Stadium in 1964 the likes of which may never be equaled.

Nomura-san once said of my grandfather that he was an American with the soul of a Japanese. 

My grandfather once said of Nomura-san that he never met anybody so determined to win.

Perhaps the one constant Japan and America have shared through all the years has been baseball.

Baseball has marked the time.  It has been a constant reminder of a love that our countries share.

Because when my grandfather would take the mound to throw to Katsuya Nomura, they ceased to be American or Japanese. They became partners, willing to do whatever it took to achieve victory.

So as the Stanka family with heavy hearts mourn the loss of our dear friend Katsuya Nomura we offer our condolences to the entire nation of Japan but most especially the Nomura family with whom we will always share a deep and meaningful bond.

And disregarding momentarily his trophies and records and accolades, our family offers in tribute to Nomura-san perhaps the highest compliment that can be given in this game we all love and share.

Katsuya Nomura was a baseball player.

Sayonara Nomu-san

Katsuya Nomura, one of the greatest baseball players in history, a player worth comparing to Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, died suddenly at the age of 84 of ischemic heart on Tuesday in Japan.

An elite slugging catcher, Nomura played in an era when Japan’s talent depth was quite a bit lower than it is today. And like some of his peers, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Isao Harimoto, Nomura was able to stand above the crowd like a colossus and added to his legend by becoming a superb manager and a celebrity analyst.

In a 27-year career, Nomura won nine home run titles, led the Pacific League in runs three times and RBIs seven times. He was a Triple Crown winner and a five-time MVP.

A driven, gifted athlete, Nomura was also blessed with a keen mind that he constantly exercised in his bid to stay one step ahead of his opponents — a talent that helped him become the most successful manager of his generation. The peak of his managing success came with the Yakult Swallows from 1990 to 1998. Taking over a team that had been perennial weaklings, Nomura won four Central League pennants and three Japan Series championships.

On Tuesday, the impact Nomura had on his players and rivals echoed around Japan as word of his death spread. Players recalled how he motivated them with his harsh words and how he educated them and trained them to win.

Nomura turned pro in 1954 with the Osaka-based Nankai Hawks, then in the middle of a dynasty under the leadership of Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka.

From 1970 to 1977, Nomura served as the Hawks’ player-manager, although it was largely a collaboration between him and influential coach Don Blasingame. After winning the 1973 pennant, Nomura became the first Hawks manager to fail to win a pennant in four consecutive seasons since Tsuruoka had Hawks to their first pennant in 1946. But turmoil within the club, that Nomura blamed on a faction aligned with Tsuruoka, and Nomura’s enemies blamed on the skipper’s future wife Sachiyo — the mother of their five-year-old son — came to a head and Nomura was fired after the 1977 season.

Nomura moved to the Lotte Orions in 1978 before finishing his playing career with the Seibu Lions, which in 1979 were transplanted from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the western outskirts of Tokyo.

Although Nomura would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame required candidates to be out of uniform for five years before they could go on the ballot. Since many stars became managers and coaches, this created a huge logjam of worthy candidates and Nomura was not elected until 1989. The following year he took over as manager of the Swallows and turned them into a minor dynasty.

Just as he had been the leader with Nankai, the Swallows were built around their catcher, bespectacled big-hitting defensive wiz Atsuya Furuta, the second player Nomura took in the 1989 draft and a future Hall of Famer.

In his stints as Hawks and Swallows manager, Nomura showed a talent for working with young pitchers, getting big performances out of them and then overworking them.

He was also an incredible evaluator of talent, and a motivator. Former outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who someday should be voted into the Hall of Fame, credited Nomura with turning his career around by telling him his outfield defense was useless. Inaba responded by turning himself into a superior right fielder.

He is best known, however, for his fascination with analytics and advance scouting in formulating game plans against opponents, something he had begun as a player studying films of opposing pitchers to discover how they were tipping their pitches. The Swallows famously shut down PL MVP Ichiro Suzuki in the 1995 Japan Series.

Nomura was ahead of his time in building a club made of guys with high on-base percentage, often collecting aging castoffs like Eiji Kanamori, a slap-hitting on-base machine, thus earning the Swallows the nickname of “Nomura’s recycling factory.”

As a manager, Nomura displayed amazing verbal acuity. He loved to make up little phrases, quips and songs about players and rivals. And while he was a master storyteller, he often couldn’t resist the urge to rip into others in public. His constant jabs against the Swallows’ top rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, and their manager, Nagashima, became tiresome for the club’s executives and they cut him loose after the 1998 season — although by all accounts he was as tired of them as they were of him.

He went off to manage the Hanshin Tigers, where he figuratively put his foot down on the team’s prima donna, celebrity outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Nomura left him on the farm team at the start of the season and said he might use him to pitch, but had no use for him otherwise. As it had with Inaba, Nomura lit a fire under the Tigers poster boy, who followed by turning in three of his best seasons.

Although the Tigers finished last for three straight seasons under Nomura, the talent he nurtured there provided the foundation for the club’s 2003 and 2005 Central League championships. Nomura’s run, however, was cut short after his wife, Sachiyo, was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion in December 2001.

After a successful run as manager of corporate league side Shidax, Nomura was asked to rescue the Rakuten Eagles, who fired the club’s inaugural skipper, Yasushi Tao, after the club’s 2005 disastrous debut campaign. Nomura again was able to make big strides in the development of a young pitcher. This time, however, it was in the form of powerfully built youngster Masahiro Tanaka, who blossomed under Nomura’s tutelage.

The Eagles reached the playoffs for the first time in 2009, but that proved to be Nomura’s swan song. Once more, turmoil within the front office left people pointing fingers and Nomura was out.

My only real interactions with Nomura were during that time with Rakuten, because he was supremely approachable. While most field managers who meet the media before the game do so in sessions lasting five to 15 minutes before wandering onto the field, Nomura came out early, sat on the bench, where his cushion and bottle of green tea would be waiting for him.

For the entire Eagles practice, he would chat with reporters, covering the usual team news, but also telling stories. It seemed like the responsibility of the beat writers to keep him engaged so he would continue to tell his tales. It was magical stuff we may never see the likes of again.

Once more, however, some of the groundwork he laid in Sendai contributed to a later pennant. After a failed 2010 season under Marty Brown, the Eagles hired Senichi Hoshino as their fourth manager. Hoshino, who had succeeded Nomura with Hanshin and won the 2003 CL pennant, steered the Eagles in 2013 to their first Japan Series championship.

In between managing gigs, Nomura was at his critical best as a sharp-tongued TV analyst, harshly laying into managers and players who failed to meet his high standards on the field. It wasn’t simple bitterness, but rather a powerful mix of his love for the game, a dislike for half-measures and his talent with words.

In 2012, one of his former Swallows players, Hideki Kuriyama, took over as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters and led them to the Japan Series title in his first season. Asked about the form journeyman outfielder turned analyst and university lecturer, Nomura said, “The Pacific League has certainly gotten pretty weak if that guy can win a pennant.”

As teams lowered their flags to half-mast on Tuesday at their spring camps and held moments of silence in Nomura’s memory, Kuriyama said, “I never heard a single word of praise from him. I’ve been giving it all I’ve got up to now so that I might once hear him say, ‘You’ve done a good job, I see.’ I so much wanted him to see me take that next step forward.”

Cheating, Japanese style

Now that two MLB managers and one GM have lost their jobs over a sign-stealing scheme, I thought I’d relay this conversation I had with former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa.

A few winters ago, he brought up the topic of the late Morimichi Takagi, who died suddenly on Friday. The taciturn Hall of Fame second baseman had a knack to spot opponents tipping their pitches. From there, the conversation moved to sign stealing, and the elaborate ways Japanese teams went to transmit that information to the guy in the batter’s box.

“Takagi loved finding out how guys tipped their pitches. He’d spot something like where the pitcher’s palm was. He’d tell me what to look for. But when I was at the plate, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see it,” Yazawa said.

“When he was on the bench, he’d never say anything. He spent every instant concentrating on the pitcher. You could do that with (Yomiuri Giants star Suguru) Egawa. He’d hold the glove in front of his face in his windup, and you could tell by the size of the gap between the top of his glove and the bill of his cap whether it would be a fastball or not.”

“But for me, even if I could figure it out, I didn’t want to know because the whole process messed up my timing if I was thinking about that.”

“A former Taiyo Whales catcher, (Hisaaki) Fukushima. In the late innings once, when the score would be 6-0 or 7-0, he’d say, ‘Yazawa, what kind of pitch do you want next?’ I’d think, what would be good, so I’d say, ‘OK. How about a curve?’ I asked him if I’d really get one, and he said it would be a curve. And it was. So he’d ask if I wanted another one, and it here it came.”

“I liked to think along with the pitcher, try to guess based on the kind of pitcher he was. This type we’ll probably throw this, while another type of pitcher would throw that.”

“At old Nagoya Stadium, the Dragons used to station a scout inside the scoreboard. They weren’t like the electronic ones now. They had numbers and letters on boards. If we were playing the Giants, there would be a “G” and below it a “D.” If a curve or a breaking ball was coming, the scout would wiggle the “D,” so you’re there looking at, it’s in your line of sight to the pitcher. If it didn’t move, it meant the next pitch was a fastball.”

“That stuff all started with (Hall of Fame catcher Katsuya) Nomura with the Nankai Hawks. Blazer, Don Blasingame, was involved in that. He was really good at it. Another of the coaches they had at Nankai was Takeshi Koba.”

“Koba liked to do that when he was the manager in Hiroshima. At old Hiroshima Shimin, they had a member of the team staff in the scoreboard and there was a light in the scoreboard that would flash once for fastball and twice for a curve. Actually, I was the one who discovered that. After that they quit. Later they used a radio signal to trigger a buzzer that Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa and players like that would have concealed in their sliding pants.”

Dr. Gail Hopkins, who played two years for the Carp when Koba was their manager and finished his Japan career with the Hawks under Nomura and “Blazer” — as Blasingame was known — has confirmed Yazawa’s account.

Another argument for Rhodes

Rhodes won one MVP award, hit 464 home runs, drove in 1,269, scored 1,000, stole 87 bases. He led his league in home runs four times, in runs twice and in RBIs three times. He won seven Best Nine Awards but no Gold Gloves.

In a recent post, I used career value to compare Rhodes to other candidates and players. This time I’m going to look at career accomplishments, his honors, career totals and individual titles.

How do his accomplishments match up against the all-time greats?

Pretty well.

Rhodes is 13th in NPB career home runs. How many of the 20 players with 400-plus home runs are in the Hall of Fame?

One is active, one is not yet eligible, four (Rhodes, Hiroki Kokubo, Takeshi Yamasaki and Norihiro Nakamura) are currently on the players ballot, one (Koichi Tabuchi) is on the experts ballot. One (Kazuhiro Kiyohara) is not on the ballot because of his drug conviction, while Masahiro Doi somehow slipped through the cracks. The other 11 are all in.

Rhodes is 21st all-time in RBIs. How many of the 24 with 1,200-plus are in the Hall?

Thirteen are currently in the Hall, while four others have gotten past the players division without being elected — one of whom is now on the experts ballot. Two are not yet eligible, while five are currently on the players ballot: Rhodes, Nakamura, Kokubo, Yamasaki and Alex Ramirez.

Rhodes is 24th in runs scored. Of the 23 players with more runs, how many are in the Hall?

One, Michihiro Ogasawara, is not yet eligible, while three have been passed over. Rhodes and Takuro Ishii are on the players ballot, while Isao Shibata is on the experts ballot. Sixteen of the 24 are in.

Rhodes is a four-time home run champ. How many three-time winners are in?

Five of the 11 three-time champs are in, while two of the remaining six are on the experts ballot. Koji Yamamoto is the other four-time champ and he is in. Ever eligible player with five or more home run titles is in the Hall.

Nine players who have been eligible for Hall of Fame induction have led their league in RBIs exactly three times like Rhodes.

In addition to Rhodes, two are on the experts ballot, while one has been passed over. Five are currently in the Hall of Fame.

Tuffy was the Pacific League’s 2001 MVP. How many on the players division ballot had more?

Three. In addition to Rhodes, Kenji Jojima won one, and Alex Ramirez won two. The only former two-time MVP who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Yutaka Enatsu, who was busted for drugs. That’s a good sign for Ramirez as well as future candidates Yu Darvish, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Michihiro Ogasawara. One MVP award is just another accomplishment.

Rhodes won seven Best Nine Awards.

Six of the 13 seven-time winners are in the Hall. Two are on the experts ballot. Four have been passed over.

Rhodes led his league in an offensive category 18 times. How many of the 19 players who have led in 16 or more categories are in the Hall?

So far, 19 players have done this. Two, Nobuhiko Matsunaka (17) and Ichiro Suzuki (1.5 gazillion), are not yet eligible. Rhodes is the only player who has ever been eligible for the Hall of Fame who has yet to be elected.

Adjusting for career length

Because Rhodes played only 14 seasons, it might be worth some time comparing him to what each of Japan’s best players produced in the 14-season span in which he had the most plate appearances. Rhodes had 7,340 career plate appearances. The most of any player in any 14-year stretch was Tomoaki Kanemoto’s 8,470 so we’re talking about a reasonably level playing field.

After Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was elected to the Hall a year ago, the next two position players ranked in order of the percentage of ballots they were on, were shortstops Masahiro Kawai and Shinya Miyamoto. During their best 14 seasons, the pair’s combined win shares for those 28 seasons: 290.8. Rhodes’ total for his Japan career was 298.

Both Kawai and Miyamoto were good players, and Miyamoto was a good player for a long, long time. But anyone who thinks they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, while Tuffy Rhodes doesn’t, needs to account for his or her lack of judgement.

In that group, Rhodes ranks 18th in win shares, third in home runs with 406 behind Sadaharu Oh’s 653 and Katsuya Nomura’s 466, eighth in RBIs with 1,275, 10th in runs scored, ninth in walks.

Rhodes never won a Golden Glove, but he did play center field for most of his career in Japan and few of the players who rank ahead of him had a ton of defensive value with the exception of Nomura.

Problems with punch-outs

The other day HERE I tried to answer the question whether foreign hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball have larger strike zones or not by looking at the percentage of strikeouts that are decided by a called third strike.

Having done that, I realized that individual variation makes such an analysis really, really murky. Some players hack, some are more disciplined. Pitchers that lack a good swing-and-miss pitch should conceivably have a higher CST (Called Third Strike) percentage.

Still, the study did lead to an interesting observation about the nature of Japan’s two leagues. As some of you know, either the Pacific League is the stronger of Japan’s two leagues or it’s just really, really good at hiding that fact, considering how poorly Central League teams do in interleague play and in the Japan Series.

The umpire merger

From 2003 until 2010, Pacific League position players were taking called third strikes in 20.53 percent of their strikeouts. In the Central League, the percentage was 22.84. The PL was dominated at the time by huge ballparks, where home runs were less frequent.

Since the umpires of the two leagues merged from the start of thew 2011 season, the PL called-third-strike percentage rose to 21.57, while the CL’s dropped slightly to 22.73.

The managers

In the previous article, I suggested that managers might be affecting how often called third strikes went their teams’ ways. But that was probably incorrect, for the same reason that judging individual hitters is fraught with danger. Unless you have the photographic evidence of the pitches in question, you can’t really tell.

Managers WILL effect the number of third strikes called against their team because of their batting and pitching policies. A look at how each manager’s team did relative to its league, shows that from 2003 to 2018 shows some interesting stuff, but it’s just that: interesting stuff.

Consider curmudgeonly “kantoku” Katsuya Nomura. His Rakuten Eagles struck out 3,369 times over his four seasons in charge, and his players went down on called third strikes 6.03 percent more often than the league, his Eagles were taken out of at-bats by umpires 203 extra times.

Anyway, the manager whose teams have ostensibly benefited the most from the umpires’ calls were Hisanobu Watanabe (Seibu Lions) with 92 fewer called third strikes on his hitters and 106 extra called strikes for his pitchers. No. 2 on this list (2003-2018) is Trey Hillman overall +194, and Koichi Ogata (+186). At the other end are: Nomura (-242), Hideki Kuriyama (-239), Akinobu Okada (-137) and Bobby Valentine (-136).

That’s interesting, but if you look at those Eagles hitters, what do you see? Tons of walks, few strikeouts. That was a team led on offense by Takeshi Yamasaki, a power hitter who frustrated managers and teammates by taking tons of called third strikes. He rarely swung at a two-strike pitch if he thought it might be outside of his zone, often putting his fate in the umps’ hands.

Again, I don’t think there is anything the least bit instructive about those. I just thought they were fun. But as mentioned above, managers can have a real effect on how their teams play. Take the DeNA BayStars, for example.

The Alex Ramirez effect

When Alex Ramirez took over the DeNA BayStars in 2015, his most public policy was telling his players to “swing at the first strike.”

What happens when batters execute this tactic? Here’s what happened in 2018, comparing the results of 17,792 plate appearances started by a swing or a first-pitch ball (as the 2015 BayStars were instructed to execute), and the the 48,046 PAs in which the first pitch was taken.

OptionPAAvg.OBPSlug
Swing 1st-pitch strike, take 1st-pitch ball17,792.272.305.424
Take 1st pitch regardless48,046.251.336.392

There is overlap of course, since first-pitch balls fall into both camps. But those looking to drill the first strike hit for average and more power, but paid for it in more outs and a lower on-base percentage. This goes a little bit in explaining the career of Ramirez — a guy who hit for good average, became the first foreign-registered player with 2,000 hits, and hit for good power, but didn’t draw walks unless he had to.