Tag Archives: Shogo Akiyama

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020 – Pacific League’s best outfield tools

The search for the best outfield defensive tools on the planet brings us to Japan’s Pacific League and the top three in the 2019 voting for the three outfield Golden Gloves. I thought it would be easier to select a PL winner than in the CL, but I was wrong.

  • Shogo Akiyama, Lions 秋山 翔吾
  • Takashi Ogino, Marines 荻野 貴司
  • Haruki NIshikawa, Fighters 西川 遥輝

Shogo Akiyama

Collection of Shogo Akiyama catches
Best PL throws from the outfield, starting with Akiyama at 1:07.

By default, Akiyama, whose metrics have been slipping year by year, is the PL winner of the tools challenge. Despite the ubiquity of PL TV, the league’s streaming service, I’m simply unable to find any video collections of Takashi Ogino or Haruki Nishikawa. Those who are interested more on Nishikawa can find my profile of him HERE, since he has expressed an interest in playing in the majors.

If you are interested in the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, my profile of the former Lions captain is HERE.

Conclusion and admission

My outfield tools surveys of four leagues, the National, American, Central and Pacific, has produced four finalists:

  • Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
  • Jackie Bradley, Jr, Boston Red Sox
  • Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp
  • Shogo Akiyama, Seibu Lions

My choice for the best outfield tools in the world goes to Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. If I had to pick No. 2 it would be Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rationale

I tried to evaluate every outfielder on the following criteria:

  • arm strength
  • accuracy
  • release
  • jumps
  • speed
  • judgment at the wall

I omitted “good hands” from consideration because all the candidates are exceptional at catching the ball. But having said that, Bradley is as good at that as anyone I’ve seen — and I grew up watching Willie Mays. I am hesitant to give out an 80 score, but let’s call it a 75.

Based on the video above, I’ve rated his arm strength is 75, his accuracy a 70. His footwork is as good as Kiermaier’s which is the best I’ve seen. But there’s a cherry on top, the grace and speed at which he transitions from catching to throwing is an 80. Again, he’s not AS good at scaling outfield walls as Lorenzo Cain, but nobody is. Having said that, Bradley is pretty darn close.

The other special thing about him is his jumps. He appears to be in motion before the batter swings. His raw speed gives him incredible range when he is right, and allows him to make up for guessing wrong.

An admission

I have less confidence in my Japanese choices in the outfield than I had in the infield, because while I’ve seen these guys a fair amount, I’ve been a writer, not a scout.

I’m trying to change that, of course, and my podcast colleague John E. Gibson could give a far more educated opinion about tools, because that has always been an after thought. Until now, my thinking has been, ‘Does he make the play or not? How often does he make plays? What are the context of the plays he made or didn’t make? Are they part of the story of this game or the story of that player or of Japanese baseball.

Gibson likes to talk about tools, but for the most part, they pretty much didn’t enter into my calculus. Which is kind of odd in a way, since the greater part of sports writing in Japan is obsessed with technical minutia about tools and skills. I preferred to write about how people grew and learned rather than why they decided to move their hands apart when the gripped the bat.

Anyway, I hope to remedy that indifference to specific skills going forward.

Shogo Akiyama spray charts

A recent comment about Akiyama suggested MLB’s extreme shifts could be trouble for him.


“Akiyama will have to adjust to more shifts in MLB. He’ll have to prove he can beat them.”

Burly

It’s true that shifts in NPB are pretty tame, there’s a reason for that: Japanese kids learn from an early age to go to hit the ball back up the middle or — especially fast left-handed hitters — hit it to the opposite field. It’s a huge difference between NPB and MLB.

And like most speedy left-handed hitters, Akiyama is adept at shooting the ball between third and short. You could shift on him a little and it might help, but too much and he’ll kill you.

Shogo Akiyama, career NPB hits
Shogo Akiyama, career NPB outs

The only team that tries extreme shifts here now is the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters. In one game they over-shifted to the right against left-handed hitting Tomoya Mori. In response, the slugging Lions catcher poked the ball on the ground into left, and expressed his thanks to the Fighters for giving him a freebie.

Perspectives on arrogance

On Wednesday, Shogo Akiyama dropped a little teaser about what baseball beyond the reach of MLB means for the growth of the game as a whole on Wednesday when he was introduced by the Cincinnati Reds.

“…Japanese have a different perspective (on the game) from those players with major league experience, and I too want to study and learn from that,” he said.

His words could have been interpreted in a couple of different ways but by saying “I too” he implied the learning wasn’t one-way, as many people would have you believe it should be, since, Akiyama by virtue of playing in an inferior league brings no new knowledge to the table.

That way of thinking, which used to be fairly common among former major leaguers three decades ago in Japan went hand in hand with the old notion that all Japanese — by virtue of playing in inferior league — were incapable of success in the majors.

When Bobby Valentine first arrived in Japan to manage the 1995 Lotte Marines, many of those familiar with the major league style of play had high hopes for the team’s success. That belief was founded on the notion that Japan’s fondness for the sacrifice bunt was costing teams a large number of wins each season. By eschewing the less defensible uses of the bunt, Valentine would AUTOMATICALLY make the Marines five to ten wins better.

The Marines finished a surprising second that year, because Valentine was able to replace a couple of well-below-average performers with guys who were better than average, and the team responded positively to his new ways of doing things.

But the thought that major league methods were automatically superior to those practiced in Japan was just ignorant and arrogant. We have a better understanding of the costs and advantages of sacrifices than we did 25 years ago, and now know it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

I’ve been there.

When you’re used to things being done a particular way, encountering a completely different method — especially one that inconveniences you simply by being hard to comprehend and get used to — it’s really easy to believe you are encountering an obsolete, inefficient practice. Sometimes, that perception is correct, and the unfamiliar methods really are less efficient. But often, there is more to the story than first meets the eye.

Because Japanese hitters and pitchers are trained differently, because they come from an alternative baseball universe, they offer alternative solutions that people rooted in their own way of doing things don’t see very easily. Change demands people who don’t believe the status quo is necessarily correct or for whom the status quo offers no future.

Babe Ruth changed baseball by proving one could hit enough home runs to make up for the additional fly outs and strikeouts that had led people to brand the home run as a failed tactic. When people try techniques that have been discarded only because they violate the status quo, that opens the door for evolution.

If Japanese ball had nothing to offer, players who failed to earn jobs in the major leagues would almost never find major league success after spending two or three years in Nippon Professional Baseball. But it happens.

One advantage of extended families in child rearing is a larger pool of adult role models for children, more chances an adult can bond with a youngster over shared dreams and inspire them. That’s the way I see baseball outside the reach of the majors. It’s not like every player is going to benefit from going abroad, but exposing players to different demands and ideas can teach or trigger adjustments they failed to make back home.

Three and a half years ago, Bill James wrote about the arrogance of people thinking major league teams had all the answers. Asked in September 2016 whether he thought big league clubs would allow Shohei Ohtani to both hit and pitch, he answered “Why wouldn’t they?

“You should be TOTALLY willing to say ‘We are going to accommodate this guy’s skills’ rather than ‘That’s not how we do things in the majors,'” he wrote on Sept. 9, 2016 in Bill James Online.

“When the Red Sox had Byung Hyun Kim, more than ten years ago, he had his own ways of doing things. He wanted to throw, and throw hard, every day, and he loved to do training…in Ft. Myers you would see him out running hard on the streets all hours of the day.”

“Our staff…kept trying to force him to do things the way we do them in the U.S.–and it didn’t work, at all. And then, when we had Daisuke Matsuzaka, we made exactly the same mistake: We kept trying to force him to do things OUR way, and it just didn’t work for him. KNOCK IT OFF. This is his way. Get used to it. None of us are that smart, that we have all of the answers.”

Ok, so Bill has since joined the Ohtani doubters, and there are lots of reasons to suppose being a two-way player might be counterproductive. But believing that also supposes you know more about what’s best for Shohei Ohtani than he does.

The final shoe drops: Akiyama signs with Cincinnati Reds

Shogo Akiyama signed a three-year $21-million contract with the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, making him the first Japanese player to grace the club’s 40-man roster.

Akiyama was one of four NPB regulars hoping to move to the majors and the last one to lock up a deal with an MLB club. Left fielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, while right-handed pitcher Shun Yamaguchi this past week hooked up with the Toronto Blue Jays. Second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi returned to the Hiroshima Carp on a four-year extension after failing to get a guaranteed contract in the States.

The 31-year-old Seibu Lions captain, leadoff man and center fielder becomes the 16th pure position player to attempt to transition to the major leagues — not counting two-way star Shohei Ohtani.

His deal is tied for the second richest by an NPB position player. Outfielder Hideki Matsui and shortstop Kazuo Matsui each signed for the same length and amount in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

Akiyama, who set Japan’s single-season hit record in 2013, has moderate power to all fields, excellent plate coverage and above-average speed. With the exception of Ohtani, he and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo are the first Japanese position players to sign with a major league club since middle infielders Hiroyuki Nakajima and Kensuke Tanaka joined the A’s and Giants, respectively, in 2013.

Position players moving from NPB to majors

The table below lists all the pure position players who have signed with MLB teams after playing in NPB. The positions given are for where they played in Japan.

NameYearPosAgeYearsMillions
Ichiro Suzuki2001RF27314
Tsuyoshi Shinjo2001CF2910.5
So Taguchi2002LF3333
Hideki Matsui2003CF29321
Kazuo Matsui2004SS28321
Norihiro Nakamura20053B311minor
Kenji Jojima2006C30316.5
Tadahito Iguchi20062B3024.95
Akinori Iwamura20073B2837.7
Kosuke Fukudome2008RF30448
Tsuyoshi Nishioka2011SS2639
Norichika Aoki2012CF3022.25
Munenori Kawasaki2012SS310minor
Hiroyuki Nakajima2013SS3026.5
Kensuke Tanaka20132B320minor
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo2020LF28212
Shogo Akiyama2020CF31321

Akiyama going to Reds

The Nikkan Sports has reported early Tuesday morning in Japan that outfielder Shogo Akiyama has reached an agreement on a three-year contract worth in excess of $15 million, citing a source.

The 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man is easily the most balanced all-around hitter in Japan see my profile of him HERE. He is expected to take a physical with the Reds in the coming days. In addition to the Reds, the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs were all reportedly interested in NPB’s single-season hit record holder.

Akiyama home run collection.

The Reds are the only major league club that has never had a Japanese player on its active roster.

A collection of Akiyama’s defensive highlights.

Straight talk about NPB hitters

In Japanese, a fastball is called a “straight”, a running fastball a “shoot” and with the exception of a cutter or a two-seam fastball, which are oddly enough called cutters and two-seamers, all other pitches are labeled breaking balls.

Way to Tsutsugo

Of course, pitchers call their deliveries what they will, whether or not the pitches actually behave like others with the same name. When researching Yoshitomo Tsutsugo after he declared his desire to play in the big leagues, it was pointed out to me that he had trouble with fastballs.

There is anecdotal evidence of scouts, who report what they see in limited samples, and now there is pitch tracking data, although that is proprietary and only available to the clubs. Delta Graphs, following in the footsteps of Fan Graphs, has pitch value ratings for hitters effectiveness versus different pitch types.

I’ve combed through the Delta Graph data for players with 300-plus plate appearances since 2014, and compared each of those batters to how much better or worse they are against fastballs, curves and sliders than the average of these regulars.

Frankly, Tsutsugo had a relatively poor 2019 against fastballs, 1.12 runs above the NPB average per 100 fastballs. This ranked him 33rd among the 89 hitters with 300 PAs in NPB in 2019.

The average of regulars relative to the NPB norm since 2014 has been 0.63 runs per 100 fastballs, and Tsutsugo’s 1.12 runs in 2019 was 0.37 standard deviations above that mean. For him it was a terrible year. Since 2014, he’s averaged being 0.90 standard deviations above the mean for NPB regulars. That ranks him 10th in NPB among current players with three years of regular service during that stretch.

Without further adieu, here are the best (according to Delta Graphs) fastball hitters in Japanese baseball based on the unweighted average of how many standard deviations they are above the mean in each 300-PA season since 2018. The one hitter who is head and shoulders above the rest will never make it to MLB following Yuki Yanagita‘s announcement this past week that he will forgo free agency in lieu of a seven-year contract with the SoftBank Hawks.

Japan’s best fastball hitters (3-plus seasons as regulars)

NameTeamFastball Score (SDs above avg)
Yuki YanagitaHawks2.42
Yoshihiro MaruGiants1.38
Tomoya MoriLions1.36
Alfredo DespaigneHawks1.30
Dayan ViciedoDragons1.30
Tetsuto YamadaSwallows1.24
Seiya SuzukiCarp1.20
Wladimir BalentienHawks1.06
Takeya NakamuraLions1.01
Yoshitomo TsutsugoRays0.94
Hideto AsamuraEagles0.90
Ryuhei MatsuyamaCarp0.89
Takahiro OkadaBuffaloes0.86
Alex GuerreroFighters0.73
Hayato SakamotoGiants0.69
Jose LopezBayStars0.59
Shogo AkiyamaLions -> ?0.55

Honorable mentions

If we only include players with two years as regulars, Neftali Soto of the BayStars would rank second (1.78) and Masataka Yoshida of the Buffaloes would be third (1.56).

Of course, there are two big differences between NPB and MLB in terms of the quality of fastballs. These are:

  1. While the tackier NPB ball is easier to spin, it doesn’t appear to run as much — giving less horizontal movement on fastballs, two-seamers, splitters and straight changes.
  2. The average velocity one sees in NPB is a few ticks lower than in MLB for several reasons. Japan imports virtually no international amateur talent, weight training is only beginning to take hold, and the year-round throwing practice and the necessities of pitching game after game in tournament play wipe out many of the nation’s best pitchers before they finish junior high school.

Because of those differences, one expects players — especially those in their prime or past it, to face serious adjustment issues in MLB.