Tag Archives: SoftBank Hawks

Senga strikes out

Right-hander Kodai Senga said he made no progress in persuading the SoftBank Hawks to allow him to move to the major leagues through the posting system following his dinner with the team’s president, Yoshimitsu Goto.

Senga, who is a top target of MLB scouts visiting Japan, will not be eligible for international free agency until after the 2022 season. So unless the Hawks break ranks with the other team opposed to posting, the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, Senga will have to wait until the autumn of 2022, or move as a domestic free agent after the 2020 season to a team that is willing to post him or holdout and refuse to sign a contract for 2020 until the Hawks trade him or accede to his wishes.

As unlikely as it seems, there are precedents for this in Japan. Yoshio Itoi held out for more money from the Nippon Ham Fighters after the 2012 season and the club traded him to the Orix Buffaloes. Ironically, the cover story was that the team traded him because they refused to post him. When I asked him about his desire to play in the major leagues a year later, he looked at me like I had two heads.

Following the 2002 season, the Kintetsu Buffaloes bungled the posting paperwork for reliever Akinori Otsuka and he was unable to go to the States that winter. As a result, he held out until Kintetsu assigned his contract to the Chunichi Dragons, where he pitched for one year before being posted.

That is a highly unusual example since NPB clubs treat players cast off in that fashion as if they carried highly contagious diseases. When Norihiro Nakamura left Orix after a contract dispute, 10 teams wouldn’t even give him a tryout. The same went for Daisuke Matsuzaka a year ago. Although he was a free agent, one guesses the Hawks spread some less-than complimentary stories about the right-hander, whom they wanted to re-sign at a bargain price.

The common thread in these last three examples is the Central League’s Dragons. They signed Otsuka, and were the only club to give tryouts to Nakamura and Matsuzaka.

In the early days of the current free agent system, the then-Daiei Hawks had a hardline policy against negotiating with their players who filed for free agency, but that flew out the window after the 1999 season, when their top pitcher, Kimiyasu Kudo, filed for free agency, and the Hawks got in line to try and persuade him to stay in Fukuoka.

The Hawks will change their stance, but only after a player they covet in the draft tells them to agree to post him or drop dead — although using nicer language than that.

Kimiyasu Kudo and the art of listening

Last week, Softbank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo won the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, for his work in getting his injury-hit team to the Japan Series and winning it for the third time in his four years in charge in Fukuoka.

On Saturday, the Hall of Fame pitcher commented on the seemingly difficult choices he had in switching out front-line starter Shota Takeda and sticking him in the bullpen, where they were effective. Takeda was effective in middle relief in the postseason, where Kudo’s managing has even earned plaudits from John Gibson (@JBWPodcast).

“Those weren’t hard decisions,” Kudo said at Tokyo Dome, where he attended an event of the “Meikyukai” Golden Players Club. “We have so much pitching depth that we had lots of options. And even then, the decisions were only made after lots of study and discussion among the coaches.”

Is that indicative of a high level of communication within your team?

“Within the team, perhaps, but when it comes to communication, I’m the worst of anyone,” said Kudo, slightly tongue in cheek. “They do the talking, I listen.”

CL simply inferior to PL

When the DeNA BayStars beat the Hanshin Tigers on Friday, July 3, Japan’s Central League finished the day with each of its six clubs below .500.

The historic fluke is the result of the annual bashing at the hands of the rival Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball’s interleague play combined with an unusually tight CL race. The Tigers’ loss left the Yakult Swallows in first place at one game below .500 and the next four teams within a half game.

The CL’s inability to keep up with the PL has been masked by normal distributions in the CL standings and — until 2005 — the lack of interleague play. But this year, with no CL club able to dominate league play and the PL winning this interleague by a 61-44 margin, the blinders are now off.

But this is not something the media is keen to note. Aside from a brief mention, on Friday night, the story has been spun about the historic balance in the CL. Guess it’s probably better to bury the obvious conclusion — that Japan’s most popular circuit, the one that for years has held most of the power — can’t cut the mustard in head-to-head competition against the league it — or perhaps more precisely, Yomiuri Giants kingpin Tsuneo Watanabe — enjoys disparaging.

In 11 years of interleague play, the CL has led the competition just once and this year’s whipping left the PL holding an 865-774 edge for a winning percentage of .528. The chances of two equally balanced leagues competing, with each club having a 50 percent chance of winning any contest and league winning 53 percent of 1,639 decisions is 1.3 percent. Any assumption that the two leagues are equally strong has to contend with that. The PL has also won 7-of-10 Japan Series since 2005, with a .569 winning percentage in the 88 individual decisions.

The more popular of Japan’s two leagues since they were created by expansion after the 1949 season, the CL has long lorded it over the PL at the ticket gate, but the head-to-head competition between the leagues tells a different story. Until 2004, Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues only battled each other in the Japan Series and the summer all-star exhibitions — in which the PL has more than held its own.

For decades, the PL’s all-star success was attributed to CL squads being overloaded with players from Japan’s oldest franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, who would be overmatched against the PL’s best — leading to the phrase “Popular Ce(ntral), Powerful Pa(cific).”

Even when it came to player movement, the CL has long benefited from its clubs’ popularity. The current version of free agency was introduced in 1993 — by the Giants as a way of securing more big name talent — and until the end of the 2010 season, every star in his prime who switched leagues directly moved from the PL to the CL.

Although the Pacific League boasts more financial heavyweights among its clubs’ parent companies, Nippon Professional Baseball was thrown into crisis from the PL side in 2004, when the remaining two PL teams in the Kansai region, playing in the shadow of the better established Tigers, decided to merge. The announcement that the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes would merge due to the constant strain of red ink, and the question over what to do with a five-team league led to talk of contraction, reorganization and Japan’s first player strike.

Interleague play — something long rejected by CL owners — was introduced as a part of the labor settlement as was an agreement by owners to expedite the approval of the Sendai-based Eagles, owned by Internet market giant Rakuten. That spring, the Nippon Ham Fighters had moved out from under the Giants’ shadow in Tokyo to baseball-starved Sapporo. And in the autumn, telecommunications powerhouse Softbank take over the Hawks and add even more energy to the once lackluster PL.

Over the past five years, the Hawks and the new Orix Buffaloes have become two of the biggest free agent spenders, while the CL’s Chunichi Dragons, a powerhouse from 2002-2011, have scaled back on player acquisitions.

Race for history

The Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama is challenging the record book this season.

“I’m enjoying it while it lasts.”

That was Seibu Lions center field Shogo Akiyama’s answer when reporters asked him two months ago about being on track to break Japan’s record for hits in a season. The record of 214 was set by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers over 144 games in 2010, when he broke the 210 mark established by Ichiro Suzuki in 1994 in a 130-game season.

On July 2, Akiyama hit for the 23rd straight game, establishing a record for the storied franchise. Akiyama took another step toward putting his name in the record book with 43 hits in June, making him only the second player – after Suzuki to have back-to-back 40-hit months.

Because of the hits, Akiyama has grabbed headlines, but Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, also a left-handed hitter, has held his own in the PL batting race with the two battling neck and neck. At the end of June, Yanagita was batting .381 to Akiyama’s .382. Because Yanagita bats third instead of first and walks much more often, it will be harder for the Hawks star to break the hit record.

Akiyama turned 27 on April 16, and although he began getting regular playing time in 2011, he was held back against left-handed pitchers his first year, when he posted a .403 OPS against southpaws. It’s an area where he has shown steady improvement, but this year Akiyama has taken a huge step forward against both lefties and righties with a .922/.962 left/right split.

Against the best pitchers in either league as measured by earned run average, the top 19 among pitchers with 74 or more innings pitched through July 4, Akiyama is 14-for-49 with four doubles, no homers, two walks and five strikeouts for a an OPS of .710 – impressive in that it is close to his career norm against all pitching.

However, against this same group of Japan’s best pitchers, Yanagita is 23-for-60, with six doubles, three homers and 10 walks against 12 strikeouts for an impressive OPS of 1.112 – impressive in that is as good as he is against everyone this season.

The Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita

Yanagita is six months younger than Akiyama and a rare type of hitter in Japan, a player who hits home runs, while frequently hitting the ball on the ground. If his past performance is any indication, he may be a better first-half hitter. If any of that was due to conditioning or fitness issues, then new Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s aggressive efforts in the area of fitnesss and conditioning may help that.

Akiyama has so far tended to get a little better as the season goes on, yet he is so far ahead of his past performance that it is hard to see him having a second half that is even as good. But even so, as of Sunday, July 5, Akiyama was 84 hits shy of Murton’s 214, and he had been collecting hits at an average of 1.65 per game. He can break the record even if that rate falls off by nearly 20 percent to 1.33 hits per game and he plays every game, so his fitness is going to be a huge issue.

Yanagita would have to improve his hit rate by 20 percent, which doesn’t seem likely. But if he were to hold steady – which seems possible, Yanagita would have a shot of breaking the single-season batting-average record of .389, set by Randy Bass in 1986.

Hawks, home runs and the balance of power

Japanese baseball is full of paradoxes.  A nation schooled in the righteousness of the sacrifice bunt lusts after the long ball, while the less popular Pacific League has clearly become the best of Japan’s two major leagues.

What prompted that thought was the news this week that the Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are turning their spacious dome with its imposing outfield ramparts into a home run park. Yafuoku Dome is being transformed with inner fences that will give the stadium similar dimensions to Tokyo Dome, whose power allies are the shallowest in Japan.

The Japanese story is here: http://www.daily.co.jp/baseball/2014/12/24/0007607586.shtml

Essentially, the isssue is that the Hawks hit just 95 home runs over their 144 regular season games, the ninth fewest in Japan. Some must be longing for the days before the 2011 introduction of a standard ball, when teams could just choose livelier balls for their home games. But with everyone forced to use the same ball, the club is bringing in the fences, creating what the Japanese call “lucky zones,” where cheap home runs can drop in. It remains to be seen how the change will impact Softbank’s performance, but it’s kind of sad when a good PL club feels it has to take a page out of the Central League playbook.

It has long been a given that Japan’s two leagues are equal. Although that view remains the accepted norm in Japan, it is hard to support when one looks at the records since interleague play was introduced in 2005. In 1,592 games between the leagues, including the Japan Series and excluding ties, PL teams have a .526 winning percentage — that is much lower than expected (.545)  given the number of runs scored and allowed.

http://jballallen.com/files/League results.pdf

Some of the talent gap might be explained if the CL clubs were losing their biggest stars to the majors and to the PL — instead of it being the other way around. Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka all came out of the PL. The bulk of quality players going to the States have been from the PL, while until very recently no stars in their prime left the CL as free agents to sign with PL clubs.

Given the just mentioned cast of former PL characters, the common explanation for the PL’s interleague dominance is better pitching, and that appears to be part of the reason but not the main one.  Although offensive levels vary quite a bit from month to month, NPB’s interleague action conveniently starts in the middle of May and wraps up before the end of June. A look at how well teams hit and defend depending on whether their visiting opponents are in the PL or CL in May and June is instructive.

The biggest difference between the two leagues appears to be CL clubs not having big-hitting designated hitters when they play in PL parks.  Since 2006, when detailed game data became available, PL designated hitters have posted a .747 OPS in interleague, while their CL rivals have managed only .681. While the CL’s pitchers make up some of that slack, their edge over their PL counterparts has been just .269 to .246. Indeed, the average visiting OPS in the main PL parks in May and June drops from .713 to .655 when the opponents are from the CL.

http://jballallen.com/files/League to league differences.pdf

But that’s not the end. PL teams also outperform CL teams when visiting CL parks (.713 to .700) without the DH. As for the PL’s famous pitching, that shows up in their home parks, when the home offenses pick up against visiting CL pitchers, seeing an average increase in OPS from .704 to .718.

These data cannot explain the whole story, but they do indicate the designated hitter gives the PL a real advantage. The exception is the CL’s best interleague team, the Yomiuri Giants. They happen to have NPB’s deepest pockets and usually a few guys on the bench who could cut it as front-line DHs. Over the past nine seasons, the Giants’ interleague DHs have a .744 OPS, just a hair shy of the PL average.

The Hawks and the rest of the PL have had a pretty good thing going on, playing in huge, pitcher-friendly parks in a league that uses the DH. The PL game is a little faster with more emphasis on fielding and base running, but there is something about the home run that many cannot resist and that seems like a step backward.

Each main park’s individual OPS averages for league and interleague play from 2006 to 2014 can be found here: Interleague park data.pdf