hawks 2019

The gap

On Nov. 25, 2020, the Yomiuri Giants failed to win a Japan Series for the eighth straight season, surpassing the franchise’s longest drought without a Japan championship. The Pacific League’s eight straight wins are now one short of the record, set by the Giants from 1965 to 1973.

Prior to last week’s win, the CL had won three series between 2003 and 2019. Now it has gone from three over 17 years to three over 18, barely a significant difference, but it took this PL victory to set alarm bells ringing in Japan’s media for the first time.

It’s not like it wasn’t obvious from 15 years of interleague play. So why now? The answer probably is two straight sweeps by the Hawks of the Giants. No team had ever swept in consecutive years, and the Giants are branded as Japanese pro baseball’s flagship franchise.

From 2005 to 2019, the PL’s record in interleague play was 1,098-966 with 60, a .532 winning percentage. But four more series wins and the stories suddenly flow about a dire state of affairs. It’s like no one saw what was in front of them, or did see but didn’t want to admit it.

What’s the difference

Alex Ramirez, who managed the CL’s DeNA BayStars from 2016 to 2020, said on his new Youtube channel that two factors create a synergy that lifts the PL above the CL, better velocity on the fastball and better base stealing ability.

Ramirez said as much when asked a couple of years ago, so this is not a new argument. According to Delta Graphs, the average CL four-seamer is slightly faster than in the PL, but Ramirez’s argument that more starting pitchers have better velocity in the PL is accurate.

Velocity

In 2020, 28 CL pitchers threw 70-plus innings. One, Shintaro Fujinami, had an average fastball velocity of 150 kph or more. Ten, or 36 percent, averaged 145 kph or more. The median average was 143.45 kph.

Three of the 25 PL pitchers with 70-plus innings threw 150-plus, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Drew VerHagen and Kodai Senga. Ten of those, 40 percent, averaged 145-plus, while the median was 144.4 kph.

This year was a good one for fastballs in Japan. I don’t recall seeing so many batters swing under heaters by so much, so it’s not just speed but better backspin. Ramirez argues that because CL hitters don’t face as many good fastballs in their own league, they have more trouble adjusting to the PL’s pitchers.

Former Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama is the first person I heard say, “The PL is just better.” My analysis had for years been based on the belief that the quality of the two leagues was essentially balanced and most of us were sort of trying to figure out how one league could consistently outperform another that was essentially its equal.

Tateyama said the designated hitter, which eliminates the need for pitchers to be pulled for pinch-hitters, combined with the PL’s huge pitcher-friendly parks — before the invasion of shortened distances in Sendai, Fukuoka, and Chiba — made it easier to develop pitchers in the other league.

So the first question that sprung to mind was: Is it the pitchers or is it the hitters, and how could one tell? What if one took each team’s pitching results and compared how it did in its home parks against CL and PL hitters? If the CL and PL hitters are the same, the visiting league shouldn’t matter.

The data

Interleague play is difficult to compare to league play in any way other than wins and losses because the contexts and numbers of games in each venue vary from year to year, and interleague play takes place from the middle of May to the middle of June and not in the peak offensive season from the mid July to mid September.

But if you average each team’s home performance against the other 11 NPB teams in their main stadiums up until say June 30, you can then get an average for how all 12 teams’ offense and defense perform in the same parks — their main stadiums — against the two leagues, and are thus comparing apples with apples.

If the PL advantage is all in the pitching, we would expect each league’s pitchers to be equally successful in their home parks against visiting hitters, regardless of their league, while the CL hitters at home do better against their own league’s pitchers than those from the PL.

So how did it work out? I used to repeat this study every year or so, but to be honest, I don’t remember when I did it last, but the numbers are basically from 2005 to 2016 or so. Here’s how four different groups compared in OPS.

  • PL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .707, vs CL pitchers: .714
  • CL offenses at home: vs PL pitchers: .728, vs CL pitchers: .713
  • PL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .697, vs CL hitters: .656
  • CL defenses at home: vs PL hitters: .711, vs CL hitters: .681

The lone category where the CL outperformed the PL was in producing against visiting PL pitchers in the CL parks. Until about four years ago, all the PL parks were bigger than all the CL parks except for Nagoya Dome and Koshien Stadium. It’s only speculation but I wouldn’t be surprised if the PL pitchers were less comfortable pitching at the three super home run-friendly CL parks: Jingu Stadium, Yokohama Stadium and Tokyo Dome. I need to replicate and update the study, and I’ll get around to it.

Either way, it isn’t JUST the pitchers, but rather the overall quality of competition in the PL.

Base stealing and other issues

Because the PL is a better base-stealing league, Ramirez argues that in playing PL teams, CL pitchers are more likely to throw fastballs in order to give their catchers a better chance to control the running game, which plays into the hands of hitters who are a little better at hitting fastballs.

Although I think that is a very small thing, it probably does contribute to the PL’s advantage, but there are other differences, particularly in how the pitchers attack hitters.

The differences are slight, but for the past three seasons, PL teams have gradually thrown more and more pitches in the zone relative to CL teams. In 2019, four of the six teams with the highest percentage of pitches in the zone were in the PL, This year it was six of six. The Dragons and Tigers each threw a CL-high 44.5 percent in the zone, The Buffaloes were low in the PL with 44.8. All six CL pitching staffs produced higher swing rates out of the zone than the six PL clubs.

What’s it mean? Not a lot by itself. But the PL is trending toward a league that challenges hitters a little more in the zone, and the CL is trending more toward being the “try to get guys to chase” league. The PL is also trending more toward being a flyball pitcher league.

Talent base

The PL’s edge has continued despite that league losing more of its better players to MLB in recent years. That should not seem sustainable, but somehow it has been. However, the Nippon Ham Fighters are certainly feeling those losses in the standings and that talent drain is going to be felt more acutely next year without ace Kohei Arihara and leadoff man Haruki Nishikawa.

One reason why the PL has been able to maintain its edge may be finances.

Three CL clubs, The Giants, Swallows, and Dragons, are renters. Their home parks are expensive deadweights rather than cash cows. On the other side, every PL team but the Fighters either owns or has an operating license for its park, allowing those five clubs to keep every extra penny spent there. When the Fighters open their new park in 2023, watch out.

The Dragons are also on a tighter budget than before. Big buyers in the free-agent market from 2002 to 2009, the Dragons are now bargain shoppers. They’re awfully good at it, but sometimes money makes a difference. It used to be that virtually every star that switched leagues went to the CL from the PL. That’s no longer the case.

The Hiroshima Carp have taken up some of that slack with the help of their Mazda Stadium-driven riches. They are not spending on free agents but they have been investing in development and locking up their talented players. Since the current free-agent era started in 1994, the Carp’s lot was to introduce top talent to NPB and then pass it on to other teams with deeper pockets. But those days are gone.

The draft

Ramirez said the draft is the way to fix the imbalance. He suggested the CL adopt more of a major league-style draft strategy of prioritizing amateur pitchers who throw hardest above those who have the best command and secondary pitches.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. One former CL player was appalled at the large number of smaller guys his team drafted, ostensibly because of their baseball smarts and mature skills.

A former CL executive, from back in the day when the leagues were separate entities rather than just separate desks in the commissioner’s office, said recently CL teams sometimes shy away from drafting players the Giants want, supposedly to stay on Yomiuri’s good side.

The landscape

I don’t know how true it is now, but currying favor with Yomiuri used to be a key part of the business plan for the Swallows, Carp, BayStars and Dragons. One doesn’t really see that in the PL. The SoftBank Hawks may be the top of the class now, but none of the other teams in the league are going to hand them the keys to the car and let them drive the way Yomiuri does in the CL.

The Seibu Lions have begun investing heavily in development infrastructure, and the Fighters have a great minor league facility that can step up even further once the money starts pouring in from their new ballpark in Hokkaido. The Rakuten Eagles have not been shy about investing in either veteran talent or their stadium. There is no need for PL teams to wave white flags as they gradually find more ways to profit from their ballparks.

There is no mistaking, however, that SoftBank does things differently. The Hawks are probably the most MLB-like team in Japan, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

They probably manipulated the service time of their best player last summer, keeping Yuki Yanagita on the farm two weeks longer than necessary after an injury to keep him from becoming an international free agent this year. And SoftBank refuses to be swayed by the kind of Japanese cultural norms that see other teams posting players to the majors “out of consideration for their contributions.”

The Hawks may not be driving the PL car, but it may only be a matter of time before other clubs decide that to compete with them, they, too, have to start being more ruthless in their pursuit of victory. The PL has for most of its history been the underdog league and has consistently toyed with new innovations, much to the amusement of the CL teams. The CL clubs have followed the Giants lead in asserting that THEY knew how to run baseball businesses.

The CL has consistently been picking up lessons from its PL rivals, the biggest being the playoffs. The CL laughed while PL teams raked in better attendance late in the season until in 2007, the CL came on board. This year, the CL followed the PL and found its first league sponsor. But when the coronavirus gave the CL a chance to ditch its playoffs, which the Giants have been firmly against from the start, it did so at the drop of a hat, suggesting the Giants’ wishes still matter.

The Giants see themselves as ruthless winners, but they are also wedded to making sure the system they rode to the top of the CL and have rewritten to stay there, never ever changes, lest someone else replaces them.

I’ve written this many times before, but the Yomiuri Giants are in some ways similar to Japan’s last feudal rulers, the Tokugawa shogunate, hell-bent on maintaining an obsolete system, whose principal function is keeping them in power, while the world marches on outside.

Is change on the way?

A colleague at work asked whether the latest Japan Series setback was enough to spark change. It might be since it at least has people talking about the difference between the leagues as being one of quality rather than some kind of mirage caused by the weird interleague format.

A case of baseballs

It sort of reminds me of what happened in 2004. OK, a lot happened in 2004, but one of the things that happened that tumultuous strife-torn summer had to do with the baseballs. For years, Mizuno had been getting a bigger and bigger market share by producing more and more lively baseballs, even ones that often exceeded the COR specs.

In the late 1990s a few teams were still using balls by more than one manufacturer, and before balls became an issue in 2004, you could call up each team and they would tell you which company’s balls were used in which games. From that, it became clear that Mizuno’s balls were largely responsible for a steady increase in home runs.

In the summer of 2004, the Dragons, playing in cavernous Nagoya Dome and possessing a lineup with virtually no power, decided to switch from Mizuno, thus breaking the first rule of the Mizuno Home Run Club, which is don’t talk about the Mizuno Home Run Club.

Suddenly, every paper in Japan began researching balls, home run distances, and rates. They concluded that Mizuno’s balls were indeed juiced. This did not sit well with fans who were already fed up with owners’ handling of that summer’s restructuring and labor strife.

The first solution to this PR problem was to talk about it but not really do anything.

Mizuno introduced “less-lively balls” and home run rates kind of stalled, but resumed their climb within a few years. Japan got in 2011 a single uniform ball that was less lively. That’s a whole nother story, but it took nearly 10 years from the time the public became aware of the issue and a palace coup that overthrew the commissioner before Japan got a reliably uniform ball.

If it takes the CL that long to get its act together and make the structural changes needed to catch up, the league probably won’t win more than one or two Japan Series over the next 10 years.

An interleague shortcut to change

I’ve never been an advocate of getting rid of the leagues and merging them into one 12-team competition but the easiest way to get the CL to improve might be to throw those teams into the deep end of the pool where the PL’s sharks are swimming.

Let’s say we keep the two six-team leagues and kept the team who wins the most games in each league as the champion. We then expand interleague play to say 36 games again and then at the end of the season take the teams with the four best records in NPB and have them playoff to see who gets into the Japan Series.

In that format, we might have five years in which no CL teams even make it to the Japan Series. That would definitely light a fire under some butts, as the Giants win pennant after pennant only to watch the Japan Series on TV.

The other easy way to change will be when the Giants realize that winning an easy league is no longer reward enough when they get pounded every year in the Japan Series. At some point, Yomiuri will stop talking about the value of their old-school business model — that helped it secure a chokehold on the league — and start talking about how change is necessary for the good of the game.

2 thoughts on “The gap”

  1. Do you think the PL’s tendency to get the ringers in drafts has had any impact, or is it quite minimal?

    Example: If I remember correctly, all the teams that chased Roki Sasaki were PL. The Hawks won a few big drafts (though they have not panned out – Jumpei Takahashi and Seiga Tanaka are still not top squad regulars). The Fighters have won Darvish, Ohtani (I know, this one is a special case), Kiyomiya (again, hasn’t panned out yet). The Marines have won Fujiwara and Yasuda. The Eagles won Hayakawa this year. It just seems like the PL targets the top talent a lot more, while teams like the Carp and Baystars tend to find guys that will not end up being lotto picks.

    Am I trying too hard to find yet another factor? Probably.

  2. It’s an interesting take. I haven’t made a list of who lost out on who. But that’s one of my favorites along with free agent comp players who turn out to be big additions. The Giants took Hayato Sakamoto because they missed out on Naomichi Donoe. The Swallows won Tetsuto Yamada in a lottery because they lost lottery picks for Yuki Saito and Takahiro Shiomi. The Shiomi, Yamada line is interesting because Orix got Shunta Goto after losing Yamada, and he’s a pretty good player.

    A Twitter friend’s take was that the PL does a better job of talent evaluation, and that may be true. The Giants and Tigers might even be overly swayed by their powerful OB lobbies inot taking more players that appeal to old-school sensibilities.

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