Tag Archives: Trey Hillman

Points of view

Was I ever wrong.

I thought the 2021 Hall of Fame votes were clearly in the rearview mirror until today’s story about Nobuhiko Matsunaka coaching the Lotte Marines in spring training.

When rushing to cast my Hall of Fame vote, I admit only glancing at the ballot’s pitchers on the ballot and may have underestimated what good arguments some of them have for inclusion. Yet, there was little doubt in my mind Matsunaka was the best choice of the bunch, a guy the Players’ Division voters should have intentionally walked into the Hall of Fame.

When I saw the story about Matsunaka, however, it reminded me that he was named on a piddly 17 percent of the ballots, and the way voting can be skewed by how “journalists” see a player. That’s because Matsunaka was complicated.

It wasn’t just his triple crown stats that made him such a strong candidate. There are players who are always alert on the field, who over and over make good decisions on tough plays. That was Matsunaka — at least the part of his game that constantly amazed me — his ability to advance on fly balls that many faster players would never have risked.

He is a big guy who was never overly fast, but I never saw a player so good at scoring from third on flies hit so shallow into the outfield. Matsunaka was, for a while at least, the team’s unofficial morale officer. When Julio Zuleta first arrived with the team, he told me Matsunaka took him under his wing to provide some of the extra support that new guys — particularly new imports — often need.

Trey Hillman said Matsunaka was one of the two players, the other was Takeshi Yamasaki, who always greeted him at the start of a series, showing him the kind of respect players often give to opposing Japanese managers.

So that was one side. Matsunaka’s other side was that he could be prickly. Once at spring training, while wandering through the Hawks’ indoor practice facility, I decided to break the ice with him with humor. My Japanese then was pretty crappy, but I don’t think it would have mattered. I asked Matsunaka, who was wearing a phiten necklace the size of an ox collar, if it was big enough for him. He said something under his breath and stalked off. That was the last time he spoke to me.

A year or so later, a colleague who’d covered the Hawks for years with their local paper, Nishinihon Sports, told me that Matsunaka was no longer the big guy, that he was overrated and all the young players saw shortstop Munenori Kawasaki as the team leader.

I don’t know if it’s related to anything, but Matsunaka signed a six-year contract with the Hawks before the 2006 WBC. When Japan advanced to the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, he told reporters that nobody on the team had better dare see it as a chance to show off for major league scouts.

Years later, when Zuleta joined the Marines, we talked about Matsunaka again, but his opinion of his former teammate had shifted. I mentioned his hustle and judgment on the bases, and Zuleta rolled his eyes and said, “You better look again.”

As injuries took their toll, Matsunaka became a bench player after the 2009 season and wasn’t productive after 2011. The team would have loved to dump him but those things involve huge PR hits, so they hung with him.

As a player, the only possible cloud on Matsunaka’s legacy was his complete inability during his best years to perform in the postseason. At the very end, he snapped out of it. But it was painful to watch the country’s best hitter do so badly when everyone was watching. It didn’t help that the Hawks during those years were managed by Sadaharu Oh. Oh is one of the people I admire most in the world, but he was a terrible manager in big games.

Oh and Matsunaka were an interesting combination. Oh told me he relied on the slugger to be the warm and friendly face of the team to newcomers because his own phobia about being too close to the players. The skipper, now the SoftBank Hawks chairman, is so well respected that I wonder if some players wanted to win big games so badly for him that they tightened up. I could certainly see that happening with Matsunaka.

My point is that if you look at what Matsunaka actually did, be the best player on a team that won three Japan Series, and led the PL in regular season wins five times, that’s plenty. I’m guessing that in addition to his ability to play baseball, he also had a talent for pissing people off, but that’s just a guess.

I wrote in this week’s newsletter that unlike America’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan’s doesn’t have huge elephant-in-the-room issues balancing players’ PED use, domestic violence and sexual assault with their career value to determine their worthiness. I mentioned Craig Calcaterra, who has had enough of the whole exercise and decided he doesn’t care anymore about what being a Hall of Famer means.

“if one does not need the Hall of Fame to assess baseball greatness, and if the Hall of Fame is hopelessly ill-equipped to assess the character of players, why should anyone care about an institution that not only tries to do both of those things, but tries to mash them together into a single assessment?! “

–Craig Calcaterra in his Dec. 31, 2020, “Cup of Coffee” newsletter.

We do things much more simply in Japan, at least for now.

It seems to me that Japan’s standard is to vote for players who were kind to you and don’t vote for those who told you to piss off.

That’s not because Japan doesn’t or didn’t have those same problems, but because Japan’s problems are not well known. That’s how things work. Abuse is a huge problem in societies, but many assume that because it rarely makes the news in Japan, it doesn’t exist. In a kind of Trumpian chauvinist bravado, use that lack of reporting as the reason to praise the Japanese for their innate moral character.

Former Japan Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu once told his South Korean counterpart that no Koreans had been brought to Japan to serve as forced labor during or before World War II because there was no record of such a thing. This prompted a flood of 50-year-old documents from Japanese companies confirming their rosters of conscripted Korean laborers. Kaifu then committed political suicide by issuing an apology to South Korea.

Times change, and it’s hard to predict when information that had been hiding in plain sight will flood the landscape and force a reckoning or at least encourage people that a reckoning is in order.

Before long Japan will no doubt catch up in its awareness of claims of sexual assault and domestic violence — even against ballplayers. At some point — and we might already be there without my knowing it due to the lack of public dialog about the voting — voters may ask “How good does a player have to be to get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer despite credible allegations of domestic violence?”

Beat writers know a lot more about players’ lives than guys like me who poke around and talk to people on different teams when I have time. Who knows? Perhaps some players’ poor performance in the voting is due to beat writers expressing their wrath about things that aren’t public knowledge.

Before writing this, I was optimistic Japan’s voters will find a better solution to the problem than those in the States have, but four years ago I also held some naive sliver of hope that Donald Trump wouldn’t be a total dumpster fire as president.

Having thought about it again, @craigcalcaterra may be right.

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The gap: Hitters or pitchers?

There’s little doubt a gap exists between the Pacific and Central leagues in terms of quality, based on interleague results since 2005.

This is the second of three pieces I’m doing on the differences in quality between Japan’s two leagues.

Last time, I took up the issue of how the pitching in the two leagues differs now, and evaluated Alex Ramirez’s idea that the PL is a harder-throwing league and that the CL needs to do a better job of drafting and developing hard throwers.

This time I want to replicate a study I did a few years ago to evaluate how much of the PL’s advantage is on the pitching side. While I agree with Ramirez that PL hitters are better because they are used to seeing better pitching, this study suggests that the league’s competitive edge started in the batter’s box.

In the final piece, I’ll use my draft database to evaluate the quality of domestic player development by both leagues.

The study

A few years ago, when the PL’s superiority began to fill our rear-view mirrors like a tail-gating monster truck, I derived a study to figure out where the league’s advantage came from.

If we look at how well each team does against visitors from both leagues in their main stadiums, we can control for park and talent. If we limit the time frame to games prior to July — since interleague play runs from May to June — we can eliminate the noise from league games played in the year’s hottest months.

The study uses runs per nine innings and also wOBA, and takes a weighted average of performance against league and interleague opponents. If the PL pitching is superior we would expect offenses from both leagues will do more damage against visiting CL pitchers than visiting PL pitchers. If the PL hitters are superior we would expect visiting PL batters to do better than CL visitors.

The study suggests these conclusions:

  • The belief that the difference between the PL and CL is mostly related to pitching is unsupported.
  • CL pitching was probably a little better from 2005 to 2012, but is no longer as good.
  • PL pitchers used to struggle in the CL’s home-run friendly parks

The pitchers

I’m going to measure the quality of each league’s pitching by looking at the weighted league averages of: runs allowed per nine innings by visitors and home opponents’ basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home parksCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.144.23
PL4.164.23
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.310.316
PL.309.308

These figures support Trey Hillman’s 2006 after the first round of interleague play that the CL was the better-pitching, harder-throwing league. But that was then and this is now. Here are the weighted averages since 2013.

The gap actually might not be as large as the tables above indicate, as I’ll go into below. It seems that size does matter when it comes to ballparks.

2013-2019

Home leagueCL visiting pitchers’ RA9PL visiting pitchers’ RA9
CL4.294.05
PL4.524.27
Home parksHome wOBA vs CLHome wOBA vs PL
CL.311.308
PL.319.310

Since 2013, whatever advantage CL pitchers might have had over their PL counterparts has evaporated, and as Ramirez suggested, the PL pitching (and defense) is definitely better than what passes for good enough in the CL.

The hitters

We’re going to flip this around and now look at weighted league averages against CL and PL visitors in home pitchers’ RA9 and visitors basic wOBA.

2005-2012

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.784.02
PL3.404.02
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.298.308
PL.289.299

2013-2019

Home leagueHome RA9 vs CLHome RA9 vs PL
CL3.884.13
PL3.543.97
Home parksCL visitors’ wOBAPL visitors’ wOBA
CL.301.312
PL.290.305

So if the PL advantage in interleague play has been primarily on the pitching side, then somebody better tell their hitters that. I did a parallel wOBA study that removed pitchers and designated hitters from the equation, but it made little difference.

The big and small of it

The one area in the study where PL pitching was inferior when measured by both visitors’ runs allowed per nine innings and opposing home teams’ wOBA was in the CL home parks from 2005 to 2012.

Former Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama thought that the PL was better at developing pitchers because their big parks were more forgiving. Before Fukuoka’s Home run terrace and the new shorter dimensions in Sendai and Chiba’s Home run lagoon, all six PL parks were tougher home run parks than Tokyo Dome, Jingu and Yokohama — and Hiroshima Shimin until 2008.

I broke them down into these four small parks, and three large parks, Koshien Stadium, Nagoya Dome and Mazda Stadium — more neutral than large, really. Here are the weighted averages of RA9 by visitors from each league since 2005 in the months prior to July.

2005-2008 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
4 smaller CL parks4.444.94
2 larger CL parks4.244.26
2009-2012 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks3.433.80
3 larger CL parks3.613.42
2013-2019 CL visitors’ RA9PL visitors’ RA9
3 smaller CL parks4.484.57
3 larger CL parks4.193.51

That’s not a lot of information but it’s about what I expected. The steady proliferation of with three downsized PL parks would make a further breakdown since 2013 difficult and there are times when I’m adverse to work.

Conclusion

So that’s the footprint of the PL’s current advantage. No matter which league you play in, both leagues’ batters and pitchers playing in their home park put up better numbers when the visitors are from the CL than when they are PL teams in interleague.

When I ask people why the PL is better, the standard answer is pitching, perhaps because it’s easier to see how it could be better. But from here it simply looks like the PL pitching and hitting developed in tandem — starting with the hitting.

Next time, I’ll get into the makeup of the talent in the two leagues, and how talent has flowed into them and between them.

Mets, Lions, and NPB tie-ups

On Saturday, the Seibu Lions and New York Mets announced a partnership running through the 2021 season, that the defending Pacific League champions see as a way to boost themselves into the 21st century.

What the Japanese get

Of Nippon Professional Baseball’s two leagues, the Central and Pacific, the PL is considered the more innovative, the Lions have a reputation for being more hidebound.

“Their parent company’s main business is railroad. And the most important thing for a railroad is that it is predictable and reliable,” former NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato said once. “For that reason, railroad-owned teams tend to be conservative, and the Lions are more often than not siding with the older established CL clubs.

These deals, which are pretty common, allow for sharing information and technology, that the Lions hope will improve their scouting, medical and business capabilities

The Lions said the deal will open the door for their coaches to take part in spring training and instructional league games in the States.

Some of these partnerships have had a huge impact. Twenty years ago, the tie-up between the San Diego Padres and the PL’s Lotte Marines sparked the introduction of the posting system, when the Marines assigned Hideki Irabu to the Padres in exchange for pitcher Shane Dennis and outfielder Jason Thompson.

Sixteen years ago, the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters were transformed as a result of their long term partnership with the New York Yankees. For years, Fighters players and coaches had attended minicamps in the States. And when Nippon Ham announced its team would move to Sapporo, they signed longtime Columbus Clippers manager Trey Hillman to run the club.

The organization was transformed under the leadership of Toshimasa Shimada, who created Japan’s first major league-style front office, but HIllman was a valued contributor in that process, and his finger prints are all over the way the team goes about its business 12 years after he left.

In a traditional Japanese team, the manager signs off on all changes in scouting, medical and fitness policy. This was revolutionary. Teams typically innovate by hiring managers who want to implement changes in those areas. When the SoftBank Hawks hired Kimiyasu Kudo, who studies sports science, much more was demanded of the team’s medical and training staff.

That’s the norm. In a baseball culture where players are told what to do, and managers rarely innovate, pro ballplayers need instruction in strength training and conditioning, but while all clubs have excellent facilities, few place any demands on the players to actually employ them in a productive manner. Japan’s amateur baseball culture generally glosses over nutrition, rest and strength education, and few pro teams do any better.

In 2015, when Kudo took over the Hawks, and the CL’s Yakult Swallows hired SoftBank’s minor league training coach, the two clubs met in the Japan Series and I began asking other clubs about their training innovation.

“I’ve been here five years, and we haven’t changed a single thing,” a Lions conditioning coach told me in 2016.

What the MLB teams get

What’s in it for the Mets is a bigger question.

There are a lot of skills Japanese baseball can teach individuals, and having good coaches in camp and in the instructional league could potentially be valuable.

Unfortunately, those skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but rather taught here and practiced in the context of Japanese competition. You can help someone locate their secondary pitches better and play better defense off the mound, but people here learn that because they are prerequisites.

The best outcome might be to have Kazuo Matsui go and coach in the Mets’ minor league system on loan, in the same way that former Ranger and Padre Akinori Otsuka is now on loan to San Diego from the CL’s Chunichi Dragons.

Very often the MLB partners talk about “scouting information” but that is likely going to be very limited to players who are bound for the States and foreign players in Japan who might return to the majors.

There is no chance the Mets could leverage this deal to improve their chances of signing Japanese amateurs, although I can definitely hear some bright person in the Mets front office selling this deal because of the importance of signing 100-mph high school pitcher Roki Sasaki.

If the Mets act like a major league club that knows everything, then they will be putting themselves in the same place as a player who comes to Japan “knowing” that because he’s played in the majors, he can just profit from what he’s already accomplished without learning anything new.

In that case, the Mets will also be leaving at the first opportunity.

But on the other hand, if the Mets approach this like they were players coming here to restart careers and ask “what can we learn that will make us better,” then the Lions deal could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.