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
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
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
Games results without the DH
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.