Tag Archives: Trey Hillman

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.