The shape of talent
One cause that was suggested for the apparent gap that has opened up between Japan’s Pacific League and Central League, was that CL teams look for players with more polished skills while PL clubs are more likely to go with players with higher physical potential.
On Twitter, Brian Cartwright suggested it was a correctable issue if CL teams did a better job of evaluating and developing their talent. If that is the case, a study of value from the draft would reveal a talent gap leaning toward the PL, and it does.
In my story on the Hawks’ odds of winning this year’s Japan Series, I made a conservative estimate that the six PL teams would combine for a .530 winning percentage if thrown into a balanced schedule among all 12 teams.
“We don’t know how much better the Pacific League is than the Central League, but over the history of interleague play, the PL teams have a .532 winning percentage. Over the previous five seasons, the PL winning percentage was .555, and the PL’s Pythagorean winning percentage is .559.”—Jim’s Series odds
A note about using win shares
I’m going to measure individual player output using Bill James’ Win Shares. This system gives each team 3 win shares for a win. These are then divided between the offense, fielding and pitching. Those are assigned to individual teammates based on individual performance.
This method has pros and cons, but since a league’s win share total can’t exceed 3 times its total wins, one league outperforming another doesn’t show up in win shares except in interleague. The two leagues each played 120 games in 2020 with no interleague, and had the same number of wins (counting ties as two halves of a win), so even though the PL is evidently stronger, win shares won’t reveal it. What it does reveal is the relative shape of the talent in the two leagues.
And from a glance at the careers of players signed since NPB adopted its draft, it’s clear that the PL teams are now Japan’s draft kings.
Drafting and development
The draft began in 1965, and including undrafted amateur free agents, the career value of domestic players signed by CL teams was more than that of players signed by PL teams over the first 28 years. Over the last 28 years, that trend has reversed.
So while the two leagues have essentially equal access to domestic talent, domestic talent has become become a larger share of the PL’s overall talent base.
|Draft years||CL value||PL value||PL / CL|
|1965 – 1978||14,040||13,152||0.94|
|1979 – 1992||15,629||14,257||0.91|
|1993 – 2006||14,067||15,539||1.10|
|2007 – 2018||4,222||4,997||1.18|
I did not know this trend existed at all. Did you? It should have been obvious, I suppose. From 1966 to 1979, the CL went 12-4 in the Japan Series. From 1980 to 2007, the two leagues split the Series 14-14. Since then the PL has lead 11-2.
Do CL clubs appease Giants in draft?
Another issue people in the game for a long time mentioned is the custom of CL teams sometimes shying away from competing with the Giants for amateur talent.
This latter assumption, if true, doesn’t appear to be a big deal now, although that may have more to do with teams not being able to sign top corporate and college players before the draft — something that had been in play from 1993 to 2006.
Although the Giants have the most value in Japan from their No. 1 picks since 2000, and the most total value from their picks 1-5 than any other CL team, this latter edge is not huge. The Tigers, BayStars and Swallows have all done nearly as well.
But looking at the overall amount of domestic talent taken from the draft, the PL has compiled a huge advantage. Using Bill James’ Win Shares, players signed out of the draft from 2000 to 2018 by PL teams have produced 9,046 win shares, or 3,015 wins — some of those are with other teams including some in MLB. Players signed by CL teams out of the draft during the same period, have produced 8,315 WS, or 2,770 wins.
Skeletons in the closet
NPB entered the 2007 season under a cloud when the guy assigned by the Seibu Lions’ parent company to take over the team decided to be of service to baseball by having a look into the team’s player acquisition closet and sweeping out the skeletons.
The boss assigned a third-party investigation to the task and found a long history of abuses of the system by Seibu and other clubs. Instead of being celebrated for creating an atmosphere of transparency, Seibu was punished for bringing the game’s disrepute into the light.
However, that also ended the systems where pro teams could agree to sign up to two corporate or college stars before the draft at the cost of reducing their access to high school talent, making the draft more of a crapshoot.
The Seibu Lions’ crusade for transparency cost them in 2007, when they were barred from the first two rounds of the high school draft. But embarrassing NPB and forcing it to eliminate the old draft system has done nothing to slow the PL’s dramatic improvement in drafting and developing domestic talent.
Free agency started in Japan after the 1993 season, but until 2005, it was essentially one-way traffic. Atsunori Inaba changed that.
He left the Yakult Swallows ostensibly for MLB, but signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006 after failing to get a guaranteed contract overseas. Prior to Inaba, the total value from CL players moving to the PL was 12 win shares. Going the other way, players produced 190 for CL teams after leaving the PL via free agency.
Inaba had an MVP-caliber season for the Fighters in 2006, and after that year, the free agent scoreboard stood at 196-35 in favor of the CL. Things really began changing in 2011, when Seiichi Uchikawa, left the BayStars for the SoftBank Hawks.
Since 2006 the score is 477-436, but that’s even counting two players in the PL column who high-tailed it back to the PL after spending a brief time with the Giants, Hiroki Kokubo and Saburo Omura.
Import export business
Leaving on a jet plane
After the 1994 season, Hideo Nomo dropped the PL’s Kintetsu Buffaloes like a bad habit. His move began to put another dent in the PL’s growing talent surplus.
Players who left PL teams to play in the majors have produced 1,112 major league win shares from 1995 to 2019. The CL graduates produced 791 win shares in the big leagues during that time. The top of the list is Ichiro Suzuki at 324, followed by Hideki Matsui (150) and Nomo (123).
Three former CL players are next in line — Hiroki Kuroda (81), Norichika Aoki (78) and Koji Uehara (76) but it hasn’t been updated for 2020, when Yu Darvish pulled even with Kuroda. Masahiro Tanaka (69) will pass those three former CL guys if he has three more productive seasons.
Because of the nature of win shares, the value of a league’s important talent is essentially the flip side of domestic talent within that league. Thus, if the win shares attributed to domestic players increases in a league, the number of win shares that go to imports must decrease. That give us table below.
The same would be true if a bunch of extremely talented left-handed hitters suddenly peaked at the same time in a league. The right-handed hitters wouldn’t get worse, but as a group, they would create a smaller share of the league’s wins.
I suspect that the imported talent base in the PL is actually quite stable, and that the gap is not nearly as large now as it looks.
|Years||CL value||PL value|
|1966 – 1979||1,498||1,761|
|1980 – 1993||3,959||4,243|
|1994 – 2007||3,049||2,445|
|2008 – 2019||2,854||2,219|
Move it on over
A parallel to the movement of free agent talent is the value of imported players in the league other than the one they first signed in. Since 2008, the Pacific League, long a supplier of imported talent to the Central League, has had a cumulative trade surplus since 2008.
|Years||CL WS value from PL||PL WS value from CL|
|1966 – 1979||109||89|
|1980 – 1993||149||40|
|1994 – 2007||219||131|
|2008 – 2019||201||252|
The big difference between the two leagues right now is, as my Twitter follower suggested, simply a matter of talent evaluation and development, that has seen PL teams do a better job of drafting and developing domestic amateurs than the CL.
This appears to have been going on for some time, but for a long time was counterbalanced by what used to be a large drain of free agent talent from the PL to the CL, and by the PL’s losing more talent to the major leagues.
The PL for as long as I remember has been the more innovative league, and is has long been aware of the need to replace the talent lost to the CL and MLB. As mentioned in the previous article, the PL has taken more strides toward making baseball pay in Japan. And as the PL teams get better at both managing their businesses and organizing their talent, then it is going to be a tough slog for the CL to catch up.