Tag Archives: Mizuno

Best 10 of the 2010s

I know one’s supposed to do these things before 2020, but Ione of the things about New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is that the trains run all night, and I was on the train, so it seemed like an optimal time. So here are my top 10 Japanese baseball stories of the past 10 years in chronological order.

2013: It’s the ball stupid

Six weeks into the 2013 season and everyone noticed it. Home runs were jumping and the players union, worrying about pitchers failing to collect on their incentives, asked what was going on. Commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “Nothing. The ball is the same uniform ball we introduced in 2011.”

His disloyal lieutenant, Atsushi Ihara, stood there and let his boss tell that knowing full well that he had conspired with the Mizuno Corporation to introduce a livelier ball without the commissioner’s consent or knowledge. Ihara, one of four people involved, came from the Yomiuri Shimbun — owner of Japan’s most influential team and the leading opponent of the commissioner — whose new ball cut home runs and who had introduced a third-party panel to adjudicate player arbitration cases.

So Ihara let his boss hang himself in public. And then later came clean that he and his immediate superior, who was not a Yomiuri guy, had switched out the balls. Ihara’s boss was fired, the commissioner was ousted and Ihara, the fox, was put in charge of the henhouse.

2013: Masahiro Tanaka, Senichi Hoshino and the Eagles

Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and didn’t lose all year until Game 6 of the Japan Series. After that complete game, he earned the save in Game 7 as the city of Sendai — struck by a killer earthquake and tsunami two years earlier — won its first Japan Series.

Manager Senichi Hoshino, who had lost his three previous Japan Series as manager of the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he lost interest after winning the Central League pennant because his mission in life had been to beat the league-rival Giants. But in 2013, as Pacific League champions with NPB’s newest franchise, he faced the Giants and beat them in seven.

2014-2016: Tetsuto Yamada

From July 2014 through July 2016, the Yakult Swallows second baseman may have been the best player on the planet. He wasn’t a very good fielder in 2014 but took steps forward the next year when he was the CL MVP and led the consistently bad Swallows to the pennant.

His 2015 season was the 10th best in NPB history as measured by win shares and adjusted for era. His run came to a screeching halt in August 2016, when he was on his way to an even better season, but was hit in the back by a pitch that threw him off his game for nearly two seasons. Because of his stellar 2016 start, he became the first player in NPB history to record multiple seasons with a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals — even though he was an offensive zero the last two months of the season.

2015-2016: Giants stung by gambling scandal

Toward the end of the 2015 season, three Yomiuri Giants minor league pitchers were found guilty of betting on baseball — including games by their own team, although not in games they played in. The following March, a fourth pitcher, Kyosuke Takagi, revealed he, too, had been betting on games.

The first three players were all given indefinite suspensions and fired. In March 2016, Kyosuke Takagi also admitted to gambling. The only pitcher of the four of any quality, Takagi was let back into the game after a one-year suspension, following a recent pattern in which athletes who break the rules in Japan receive punishment inversely proportionate to how successful they are as competitors.

2016: Shohei Ohtani

If Yamada was the best for a 25-month span, 2016 cemented Ohtani’s place as the most intriguing player in the world. Ohtani had his first “Babe Ruth season” in 2014 with 10-plus wins and 10-plus home runs, but 2016, when he often batted as the pitcher in games when his manager could have used the DH was magical.

That summer, the Tokyo Sports Kisha Club, which organizes the voting for Japan’s postseason awards, made a rule change that allowed writers to cast Best Nine votes for the same player at multiple positions — provided one was a pitcher. The Ohtani rule allowed him to be win two Best Nine Awards, as the Pacific League’s best pitcher and best designated hitter.

His signature game came against the SoftBank Hawks — the team his Fighters came from behind to beat in the pennant race. Ohtani threw eight scoreless innings, opened the game with a leadoff homer and scored Nippon Ham’s other run in a 2-0 victory. Although he rolled his ankle running the bases in the Japan Series, he capped his year batting for Japan by hitting a ball into the ceiling panels at Tokyo Dome in November’s international series.

2016: Hiroshima Carp end their drought

In 2015, Hiroki Kuroda returned from the major leagues and even without Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, the Carp’s young talented core snapped a 24-year drought, winning their first CL title since 1991.

The Carp went on to win three-straight CL championships, the longest streak in club history. When the club failed to win its fourth straight pennant and finished out of the postseason in 2019, manager Koichi Ogata resigned.

2019: Ichiro Suzuki retires in Japan

The only better script would have been for Suzuki to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for another MVP and a World Series championship.

2010-2019: The CL status as a 2nd-class league is confirmed

The PL won nine Japan Series in the decade, the only time either league had ever done that. It equaled the best 10-year stretch by either league—when the Yomiuri Giants won nine straight from 1965 to 1973 bookended by PL titles.

2010-2019: The SoftBank Hawks

Never mind that the Hawks opened the decade by losing the playoffs’ final stage for the 4th time in 7 years to the third-place Lotte Marines. Softbank’s six Japan Series titles from 2011 t0 2019 under two different managers made them the team of the decade.

2019: The Giants discover the posting system

In November 2019, Shun Yamaguchi was posted by the Yomiuri Giants, who along with the Hawks have been the most critical of NPB’s posting agreement with MLB. When approached for comment about the impending news, the Giants’ official response was “that’s a rumor” and “speculation.”

Eight days later it was a done deal. Then followed the fun stuff as first one executive said it was a “one-off deal” and that the team had not changed its policy, having been obligated by contract to post Yamaguchi, which is pretty dumb, since the Giants agreed to that contract in the first place when they took him on as a free agent three years before.

The move makes it virtually impossible that the club will be able to keep ace and two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano much longer and not post him.

Time for the CL rerun season

The Central League may not be the strongest of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two top leagues, but it is the most dependable. Take any Pacific League innovation, and the CL will criticize it as a slap in the face of Japanese baseball tradition. Yet at some point, the CL will want to co-opt it.

This happened when the PL adopted Mizuno’s rabbit balls in 1978 and eventually four of the six CL clubs opted for it. It happened when the PL pushed to send pros to the 2000 Olympics and Yomiuri eventually took that push over and became an Olympic sponsor. It happened in 2004 with the PL’s expanded postseason, which the CL took over and called the Climax Series from 2007, and now it is beginning to happen with the designated hitter.

The DH advantage

After the Yomiuri Giants, who were easily the class of the CL this season, were swept in the Japan Series, manager Tatsunori Hara said the DH gives PL teams an advantage and said it’s time for the CL to break with tradition and adopt the designated hitter rule.

As these things do, it’s taken a while for CL teams to realize that while they may still draw more fans to their larger ballparks, they are now, if not a second-class league, weaker than the league they historically have loved to belittle.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, my co-host John E. Gibson argued that the Giants were hindered in the series by having to put their best pinch-hitter, Shinnosuke Abe, in the lineup as a DH, rather than keep him on the bench for use in an emergency. I found this a weak argument since players produce better results when not pinch-hitting.

The irony is that the big-budget Giants are one of those CL teams that have long stockpiled older sluggers acquired as free agents who were ideal DH’s.

In Abe’s case, using him as a DH instead of having him at first and regular first baseman Kazuma Okamoto at third, allowed the Giants to shore up their defense. The flip side of the coin was that in order to keep their DH in the lineup at Tokyo Dome in the Giants’ home games, the SoftBank Hawks had to use Alfredo Despaigne in left field.

Despaigne contributed on offense and did hurt the Hawks’ defense but with Tokyo Dome having no power allies to speak of, he is more suited to playing there than say Koshien or Nagoya Dome.

Does the DH really help the PL?

Central League teams have been able to use designated hitters in the Japan Series since 1985 and in interleague play, which kicked off in 2005. The following tables show how each league’s DHs have performed against each other in those games through 2019, and they present a stereotypical picture of one league relying on slow sluggers who draw walks, and the other on more rounded players with less pop in the DH slot.

DH batting results 1985-2013

LeaguePARHRRBIBBOPS
CL4,954458124496419.639
PL5,238603192638561.676
LeaguePA2B3BSBCSGDP
CL4,954224133719108
PL5,23820383124123

Below are the basic results of non-designated hitters in all games played between the two leagues since the 1985 Japan Series. The gap between DH production and other hitters is not nearly as striking. Without the DH, PL teams are much faster, hit for more power and draw more walks. The PL non-DH hitters homer about 3 percent more often than CL hitters, while their doubles increase by 5 percent and triples by 26 percent.

Non-DH batting in all games

LeaguePARuns2B 3B HRBBOPS
CL82,2858,2163,1502971,7446,033.642
PL83,1798,9423,3583781,8116,238.664

Perhaps someone pointed this out to Hara, but the PL’s success at in DH games, all at home except for the 2014 regular season stunt, when the DH was only used in CL parks in interleague, has been resounding.

Games results with the DH

LeagueWinsLossesRSRA
CL44663039134597
PL63044645973913

Games results without the DH

LeagueWinsLossesRSRA
CL56751143554457
PL51156744574355

The CL appears to have a normal home advantage without the DH, but is lost when they go on the road and have to use the designated hitter.

Another part of the issue has been that the PL’s larger parks — combined with their ability to have big hitters as designated hitters, has encouraged the use of faster more athletic outfielders. But with the the fences having been pulled in in Sendai, Fukuoka and Chiba, it will be less advantageous to trade power for outfield speed than in the past.

NPB on the juice again?

A Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast listener (@DarkMatter89) who spends time tracking the distances of home runs hit in Nippon Professional Baseball, suggested that last year’s home run increase (12.1 percent over 2017) has continued into 2019.

Let’s compare the data each year through April 29.

YearPAHRHR rateChange
2010135712920.022
201162271120.0180.818
2012102481000.010.556
2013121512150.0181.8
2014120552580.0211.167
2015117801600.0140.667
2016125052190.0181.286
2017107231860.0170.944
2018107272280.0211.235
2019118733200.0271.286

As many of you know, until 2011, NPB had no standard ball, but allowed clubs to use balls from up to three different approved sporting goods makers during the season, provided they used each ball in at least a third of their home games.

In 2011, a uniform NPB ball was put in play with the target coefficient of restitution set near the absolute minimum allowed by the rules. As a result the ball was very dead. The 2011 season was a terrible year for home runs, with the frequency per PA dropping nearly 40 percent.

That wasn’t readily apparent at the start of the season, for reasons related to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Two Pacific League stadiums were unready for Opening Day. The Rakuten Eagles’ home park and its facilities were earthquake damaged, while the Lotte Marines’ park suffered from a lack of running water because water mains in the reclaimed areas along Chiba Prefecture’s Tokyo bayside had ruptured.

As a result of that, the season started two weeks late, missing some of the season’s coldest early weather. Because of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, ballparks in the eastern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu were prohibited from playing night games in April. As a result, there were day games or home games played in smaller regional parks in western Japan. Until the second half of the season, parks in the areas affected by the electric power shortage were also required to use reduced lighting.

Because of those influences, the dead ball apocalypse was slow in revealing itself. Because the season started late, it also ended late with league play going until Oct. 25, making the overall home run figures worse than had the season gone from March to early October.

In 2013, a coup d’tat overthrew commissioner Ryozo Kato, who had introduced NPB’s first standard ball. It was started by a senior official, who is now in charge of NPB’s bureaucracy, in a conspiracy with ball manufacturer Mizuno, which had long catered to the wishes of the teams to produce baseballs that were exceedingly lively.

But the overall growth in home run figures are not exclusively related to the ball. After the 2014 season, the owner of the SoftBank Hawks recalled the club’s lively-ball power-rich past and ordered the fences brought in to facilitate that. Since then, the Eagles and Marines have both followed suit.

Lumping together two-year periods to lessen the effect of weather, home runs in the CL in 2018-2019 increased by 18.5 percent over 2016-2017. The PL during the same period is 27.7 percent.

So let’s turn to 2019 and look for park-by-park increases over 2018.

Main Park HRs through 4/27/2018

TeamPAHRHR PA
Giants690200.029
Tigers68160.009
Dragons81370.009
BayStars869150.017
Carp615160.026
Swallows623200.032
Buffaloes46850.011
Hawks805280.035
Fighters676140.021
Marines69680.011
Lions673160.024
Eagles1043180.017
TeamPAHRHR PAIncrease
Giants543260.0481.652
Tigers687180.0262.974
Dragons797140.0182.04
BayStars881220.0251.447
Carp1160240.0210.795
Swallows966380.0391.225
Buffaloes701150.0212.003
Hawks779290.0371.07
Fighters782130.0170.803
Marines986310.0312.735
Lions791210.0271.117
Eagles907230.0251.469

As I may have mentioned on the podcast, the Tigers had an absurdly low number of home runs at home last season, and this looks partly like a regression. Throw out Chiba, which changed this year, and you still get nine out of the 11 clubs seeing more home runs in their main parks.

Last year about this time, I reported that home runs were increasing much more than the increase in balls hit in the air, which showed a slight growth in 2018. So far this year, however, fly balls appear to be down, while strikeouts are following America’s model and still on the rise.