The So Taguchi hypothesis

Shortly before he began doing what he vowed never to do, be a pro baseball coach in Japan, So Taguchi said a big problem with his old club, the Orix Buffaloes, was complacency. He said that once players earned their spot on the team, they failed to progress.

In addition to the team’s front office civil war, Taguchi’s explanation became my other lazy go-to explanation for what was wrong with the Buffaloes.

Well that was three years ago, and Taguchi has since been the Buffaloes’ minor league manager and this year will be a coach with the first team. It’s high time I evaluate the hypothesis that new Orix regulars fail to get better.

Since we are interested in the current crop of Buffaloes, let’s start this study in 2008, when Terry Collins quit over the organization’s lack of commitment to development and head coach Daijiro Oishi led them to a second-place finish.

Measures and scope

I chose to measure how players produced in the three seasons after they reached the 100innings-pitched or 400-plate appearance plateaus, therefore the study cuts off with players reaching those playing-time milestones during the 2015 season. It also excludes every player who failed to generate a minimum of one win share by the time they had reached 100 innings or 400 plate appearances.

I used Bill James’ Win Shares to measure the value of each individual’s contributions during the period of the study.

Over 143 games, teams average 214.5 win shares a season, earning three for each team win, and 1.5 for each tie. The system then does its best to adjust for context to divy those shares up between team pitching, fielding and hitting, then goes further to divide those between individuals.

This gives us a framework for estimating the number of wins teams get out of players, from the time they arrive on the scene until they are finished.

For those of you who want to see the players included in the study, here are the links to the pdf files for five of the teams mentioned. As you read on, you will see why these five are included.

First, some observations

  • None of the players who reached 400 PAs or 100 IP over the age of 29, made any significant contributions over the next three years.
  • The Pacific League was better at producing and developing domestic talent during the period of the study, with the Nippon Ham Fighters by far the most successful.
  • The Fighters had 20 players included in the study, the fewest of the 12 teams, but in the subsequent three seasons, they accounted for 557.2 win shares (186 wins). The SoftBank Hawks were second with 465.1 WS, the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp third with 463.3. If the study were extended to 2016, Carp outfielder Seiya Suzuki would push the Carp well past the Hawks.
  • The second tier of clubs were the Lotte Marines (383.3), Yakult Swallows (373.6), Yomiuri Giants (370.7), Seibu Lions (361.5) and Rakuten Eagles (360.5). The third tier during the study period was made up of the DeNA BayStars (337), the Buffaloes (306.4) and Chunichi Dragons (304.2).
  • Bringing up the rear by a huge margin were the Hanshin Tigers (217.5).
  • Orix’s “newcomers” averaged an NPB-high 25.9 years of age.

The outstanding prospect of the 328 players in the study was a 19-year-old who had amassed 27.3 win shares by his second season, Shohei Ohtani. The two players with higher career totals by the time they were included were Rakten’s 24-year-old Takero Okajima of Rakuten (28.5), and Hiroshima’s 25-year-old Kosuke Tanaka (28.0).

Are the Buffaloes players failing to develop?

That is not an unfair assessment. Historically, their player development curves seem ordinary, but they are competing in a context in which a few teams are becoming really, really good at development, and those three teams are the Fighters, Hawks and Carp.

Their best “prospect” in terms of value, surprisingly, was reliever Tatsuya Sato. After He entered the study as a 27-year-old in 2014, when he completed his second 40-plus-hold season. He entered that season with 99 innings, and by the time that year was over, his career was in a tailspin.

Sato was followed by most people’s first guess, Takahiro Okada, with 17.9 win shares by the time he was 22 in 2008. In the subsequent three seasons, he produced a respectable but less than overwhelming 36 win shares.

Okada’s starting point of 17.9 win shares was also the highest among the 22-year-olds in the study, while four players outproduced him over the subsequent three seasons, Yoshihiro Maru (60.1), Sho Nakata (56.9), Shingo Kawabata (56.9) and Takahiro Norimoto (40).

The Buffaloes player who took the biggest strides after establishing himself as a regular was Tomotaka Sakaguchi, who is now a first-baseman/center fielder for the Yakult Swallows.

Orix’s most consistent contributor as a young regular, however, was current Swallows first baseman Tomotaka Sakaguchi – who quickly took over Orix’s center field job. Sakaguchi generated 10.2 win shares in 2008 as a 24-year-old and produced 58.2 over the next three years – although he suffered through some injuries after that only had two useful seasons as  a regular for Orix. He was released after the 2015 season, and has averaged 13-plus win shares playing everyday over three seasons with the Swallows.

Orix has not been shockingly bad, but the image of two players from their big 2014 near-miss season haunts the team’s image. Center fielder Shunta Goto, had 8 win shares in half a season as a 21-year-old in 2014, and 12 in the four years since. Hikaru Ito, the PL’s Best Nine catcher in 2014 after two solid seasons, suddenly was being shifted to first or third, where he hit like a catcher and was packed off to the DeNA BayStars last summer in a trade.

…and then there are the Tigers

I’m not that tied into the Hanshin Tigers loop, but the Tigers may be the last NPB team clinging to the old-school indifference toward minor league performance. For decades, young Tigers minor league hitters were brought up to the first team, given some pinch-hitting appearances and sent back if they failed. Players only got regular playing time if someone was hurt or they could prove themselves as pinch hitters – meaning a lot of talent was left in the minors.

During the period of this study, the best Tigers newcomer was Kodai Sakurai. Sakurai was the last member of Hanshin’s Western League cohort that began with Osamu Hamanaka and included Go Kida, Masato Akamatsu, Lin Wei-chu and Keisuke “Miracle” Kano.

Sakurai and his sweet swing earned semi-regular playing time as a 25-year-old in 2009 and then dropped off the radar. After him in quality comes Ryota Arai in 2012, a 28-year-old Chunichi Dragons castoff – which is not a black mark since a number of Dragons castoffs have gone on to win Best Nine awards with other teams over the past decade. After Arai comes Miracle Kano – so called for the miracle pinch hits that became his red badge of courage and ticket to first-team playing time.

The Tigers have gotten the most production out of second baseman Hiroki Uemoto (39.4 win shares in three seasons after he entered the study in 2013 as a 26-year-old), Shintaro Fujinami (30.6), and Ryutaro Umeno (24.5).

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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