The question I’ve been trying to answer since I first became familiar with Japanese baseball in 1984 is how this game became the way it is. It’s an enormous puzzle, and this is one part: How did Japanese baseball become militarized and regimented?
I long suspected that Japan’s first post-feudal leaders, keen to curb democracy and annoyed by the site of college students, the nation’s future elites taking part in drunken riots over baseball might have spurred it to co-opt the sport the way it had other movements whose interested conflicted with the government. But the answer has proved more elusive than that.
Once more, I am indebted to Kochi University Professor of sports history Tetsuya Nakamura for confirming and shaping my understanding of trends in Japanese baseball.
Any mistakes here or over-generalizations here are mine alone.
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Tatsumi was safe on the tag play, and former Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki, in the broadcast booth, said, “I understand the urge, but he’s got to go for the sure out.”
Had the tag been applied, Hechavarria would have been praised for quick thinking and for not taking the sure out, while Tatsumi would be condemned for a bone-head base-running play – even though it is objectively provable to be a high percentage effort.
The thing about these criticisms is that, with the exception of former BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo, one never hears criticism of the poor-percentage plays demanded by Japan’s small-ball ethos: bringing the infield and outfield in with runners on second and third, and increasing the chances every ground ball will be a hit and every routine fly will become a two-run double or triple.
Orthodoxy is praised regardless of the outcome, and when good results occur, the routine, predictable orthodox tactic is praised as the secret weapon that was the key, and the reason “why Japanese baseball really is better, because we care about the finer details and we’re not just about power and speed.”
Unorthodox tactics, on the other hand, are praised only when they succeed, regardless of whether they are optimal tactical choices or not, and ridiculed mercilessly when they fail.
On Pro Yakyu News, Kenichi Yazawa took the orthodox position — that regardless of the outcome the runner on second must not try for third, and so a wrong choice paid off, so in this case, even when the unorthodox — but smart move — paid off, the head’s up play was declared a mistake.
The objective evidence
I’ve written in the newsletter about the percentages involved in the runner on second taking third on a grounder to short, but I’ve never spelled them out explicitly, so this seems like a good time.
Based on run expectations gleaned from NPB’s seasons from 2017 to 2019, the situation in question consists of three likely states, a runner on 1st and 3rd with no additional out, a runner on second with one additional out, and a runner on third with one additional out.
R1,3 + 0 outs
R3 + 1 out
R2 + 1 out
R1 + 1 out
Run expectancy in four situations in NPB from 2017-2019
The key is to know the break-even point at which point it’s a smart try. Since I didn’t discuss the fielder’s choices in the newsletter, I’ll start there.
The shortstop’s break-even point
If we assume the shortstop can get the out at first base 99 percent of the time, then how often does he need to throw the runner out at third in order to make throwing to third a good percentage play?
With no outs, the answer is, as best I can figure it, 68 percent of the time.
If we start with 10 plays and assume a 99 percent success rate throwing to first, then the offensive team can be expected to score 9.09 runs if the SS goes for the easy out.
The break-even point is then when the offenses’ expected runs including successes and failures equal that. In this case, the shortstop needs to throw out the runner 6.8 times in 10 plays. (3.2 failures * 1.69 = 5.41 and 6.8 successes * 0.54 = 3.67. Add those together and you get 9.08)
With one out, the break-even point for the shortstop is 87 percent, so if he’s not absolutely sure, then he’s better off going to first.
Martin’s throw, from behind a fast runner with no outs, was from my standpoint, a 50-70 percent chance and so a little iffy.
The runner’s choice
The base runner can’t select the shortstop’s choice. His options are to remain at second, with an assumed 99 percent chance that the shortstop can throw the batter out at first, then with no outs, the runner at second should take off if he thinks he can make it 13.4 percent of the time. With one out, the break-even point for the runner is about 11 percent.
So the rule is not, “the runner should NEVER go,” but the runner should go if he thinks he has any chance at all of making it.