Author Archive

Know Your Darvish

Sooner or later, we’re going to see Yu Darvish in a Major League uniform. It might even be as soon as next season, though that decision has yet to be made.

Much has been written about the accomplishments that have led to the of hype and interest in Darvish’s eventual move to MLB, but not so much about the man himself. He’s an interesting guy, and we live in the information age, so let’s fix that.

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Another Market Inefficiency (or a Productive Bargain Bin)


Herm Schneider’s Greatest Hits

You all may know me as the Japanese baseball guy, but my interest in the sport developed as a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs as a die-hard White Sox fan. Because of my Chicago roots, my favorite part of the FanGraphs gathering in Arizona during spring training was our chat with White Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn, who mentioned something that I’ve known for years: trainer Herm Schneider is a great asset to the Sox organization.

Rick specifically mentioned Jermaine Dye as an example of the success the White Sox have had limiting injury risks, but I have many fond and bittersweet memories of rehab projects the ChiSox took on in the 1990s. Here are some of my favorites: Read the rest of this entry »


How’s Everybody Doing?

As is the case every season, a couple dozen new players made their way to Japan this year. Some guys swim, others sink. Let’s check in with a couple notable players and see how they’re doing in Japan so far.

* all stats prior to game action on May 17, 2011 JST.

We’re doing great!

Wladimir Balentien (OF, Yakult Swallows) — Unquestionably the biggest early success story, Balentien has feasted on Japanese pitching to the tune of .386/.485/.916. The first and last items of that slash line lead the Central League, while the middle one is .001 behind leader Jun Hirose. Balentien’s 13 home runs are five more than the #2 man, Alex Ramirez.

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Watching NPB: Watanabe Throws a Gem

By the time I flipped on the Seibu-Lotte game last night (Pacific Time), Marines submariner Shunsuke Watanabe had sent the first nine Lions he faced down in order. I must have been bad luck, as he only got through two more before giving up a home run to Hiroyuki Nakajima. Nakaji’s homer was an obvious Watanabe mistake, a waist-high, 105 kmph (65 mph) hanging slider over the middle half of the plate. After the homer, Watanabe quickly re-established himself, and retired the next nine batters consecutively before surrendering a single to Takeya Nakamura in the 7th. Along the way Seibu only managed two more hard-hit balls, both of which were long fly ball outs, though one did require rightfielder Saburo to make a nice play at the way. And when Nakaji finally came up again in the 7th inning, Watanabe kept everything away.

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Ask Away 2011

About a year ago, shortly after joining Fangraphs, I did a post inviting questions on my area of expertise, Japanese baseball. It’s been a year, so I’d like to do the same again today. This time I’ll add a single rule: please adhere to a limit of one question per comment. I’ll make my best effort to respond to every (serious) question that is posted.

Fire away!


New NPB Imports for 2011

Last November, I asked you who should play in Japan this upcoming season. With NPB camps opening and offseason acquisitions basically complete. let’s take a look at who went over. Here’s the breakdown, using the categories I outlined in my original post: Read the rest of this entry »


Iwakuma and the Inefficiency of the Posting System

It’s been a while, so let me refresh your memories: Hisashi Iwakuma and Oakland were unable to come to terms on a contract, and the righty will remain in Japan next season. Iwakuma earns the somewhat dubious distinction of being the first posted NPB player not to sign with the team that had won his rights.

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Thoughts on Nishioka

This was originally written on November 9th. It has moved back to the front page as a reference for Twins fans who want to read about their newest potential acquisition.

On Monday, a story that had been circulating around the Japanese press re-emerged in the US, with Tim Kurkjian reporting that Chiba Lotte Marines shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka is due to be posted this week. The Japanese media heavily covered the story when it first broke, but died down during the Nippon Series, which the Marines won. Now that hot stove season has kicked into gear there’s more to talk about.

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Japan Crowdsourcing Follow up Part Two – Your Picks

Two weeks ago, I asked you to suggest players who could do well in Japan, and you exceeded my expectations by coming up with 37 names. Here they are, with a few notes thrown in by me.

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Japan Crowdsourcing Followup Part One – My List

Last week, I asked you guys to suggest some players who fit the profile of guys who might do well in Japan. I was hoping I would get 15-20 suggestions, but you guys came up with 38 names. I’m still sorting through the suggestions, so in the meantime I thought I would share the list I started with. Read the rest of this entry »


Crowdsourcing Japan’s 2011 Foreign Players

Last year, I took a shot at predicting which players would sign contracts to play in Japan. I got five right, including Matt Murton, whose inclusion was inspired by Dave Cameron’s 2009 article espousing his virtues.

This autumn, I have again come up with list of players I think could play in Japan next year. But before I reveal it, I’d like to ask for your suggestions. Every die-hard baseball fan has a favorite hardworking minor league veteran who has nothing left to prove in 3A, but for some reason can’t seem to stick at the MLB level. Japan is a good option for these types of players, as a first-year foreign player typically makes $400k-$1m, and it’s a chance to play in a competitive league in front of large crowds. I want to hear who you think should get a shot. The only rule for suggestions is that you don’t submit your favorite over-priced, under-performing MLB players.

Every year, Japanese teams employ 65-75 foreign players. For a number of reasons, there is a lot of turnover from year to year, which means there are always at least a few opportunities available. Here’s a look at what’s on the collective NPB shopping list for this season, based on my analysis:

* 6-7 starting pitchers

* 7-8 relief pitchers

* 2-3 1B/LF/DH types

* 2 third basemen

* an outfielder or two

* a utility guy

* and possibly a 2B/3B type for Yomiuri

This is my ballpark estimate; we could see some fluctuation and we will probably see a few surprises.

And with that, I’d like to turn over the floor to you.


Darvish to Stay Home

I was originally going to write a counterweight to all the recent media speculation about a Yu Darvish posting, but the point was rendered moot on Tuesday by the man himself. In an announcement on his blog (translated here), Darvish said that he “will be wearing a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighers uniform” next year. Darvish hasn’t signed a contract for 2011, so the case isn’t totally closed, but his latest comments are consistent with what he’s been saying for years. He has consistently disavowed any interest in playing in MLB, though this season he was less adamant about it, and admitted some contact with agents like Scott Boras and Arn Tellem.

Darvish’s announcement is certainly good news for Nippon Ham. He’s key to their ability to compete, but beyond that, the current economic climate is problematic for Japanese exports to the United States. When Daisuke Matsuzaka was posted in 2006, the exchange rate was about 118 yen per dollar. Over the last week it has been hovering at about 81.4 Yen per dollar. So when Seibu posted Matsuzaka, their $51.1m fee translated to about 6bn Yen. If they had done it today and gotten the same fee from the Red Sox, it would have come out to about 4.18 bn Yen.

Moving back to the baseball field, 2010 saw Darvish post his fourth consecutive sub-2.00 ERA, at 1.78. Darvish’s ERA is FIP-endorsed, as he weighed in at a healthy 1.92 on that scale. In 202 innings pitched, Darvish set career bests with 222 strikeouts and five home runs allowed. His WHIP did inch across the 1.00 line for the first time since 2006 at 1.01, but he still lead his league in the category. Sub-par run support limited his win total to 12, a figure that will hurt his chances of taking a second Sawamura Award, but overall he was again Japan’s most dominant pitcher.

The historical greatness of Darvish’s performance often takes a backseat to the MLB rumors, so it’s worth underscoring here. Darvish is only the third pitcher in NPB’s modern era (since 1950) to post a sub-2.00 ERA in four consecutive seasons. The previous two are NPB Hall of Famers Masaichi Kaneda (1955-58) and Kazuhisa Inao (1956-59), who played their primes in a real pitcher’s era. Darvish is on a trajectory to rival the seven straight NPB batting titles Ichiro won from 1994-2000.

But the other side of the coin is that Darvish doesn’t have a lot left to prove in NPB. I think we will see him in the Majors at some point, but it could be a while. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Nippon Ham could post him the offseason before he’s due for free agency, which would be 2014. But who really knows? At this point, the thing that is looking the most certain is that the rumors will continue.


Thoughts on Iwakuma

In what is shaping up to be a busy offseason, with rumors swirling about Hiroyuki Nakajima and Yu Darvish, the one confirmed posting we have is for Rakuten ace Hisashi Iwakuma. RJ Anderson called Iwakuma “Andre 3000” during the 2009 WBC, and I said he was Japan’s second best pitching prospect in August. Now that we know he’s coming over, I’ll take a little bit of a deeper dive into what he brings to the table.

Iwakuma’s best skill has been controlling the home run ball. His best performance came in his Sawamura Award season of 2008, when he allowed a mere three homers in 201.2 innings for a 0.13 HR/9IP rate. After a more pedestrian 15 bombs in 169 innings last year, he bounced back in 2010, keeping the ball in the yard all but 11 times in 201 innings pitching, good for a 0.40 HR/9IP figure. It caught my eye that nine of his 11 homers allowed in 2010 came in his home stadium, Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, where he threw 118.2 innings. But that looks like an aberration, as I couldn’t find any real evidence of that kind of a home/road split among his teammates. Still, if Iwakuma winds up in a pitcher-friendly home stadium, that could offset the reality that he will face many more players capable of hitting home runs in MLB.

Iwakuma’s out pitch is his forkball, and his MLB success will be predicated on how well it survives the trip across the Pacific. Here’s some basic data on what he threw in 2010:


Notes about this data: groundball and flyball data includes hits, shuuto is a cousin of the two-seam fastball, we usually call “forkballs” “split-finger fastballs” in the US.

Before pulling this data, I knew Iwakuma’s forkball was good, but I didn’t realize it was that good. 37.2% of the times he threw it, he got either a swinging strike or a groundball. The groudball figure includes 28 hits, but that’s still pretty impressive.

Here’s a look at his called strikes:

Some of those fastballs and sliders that handcuffed NPB hitters are going to get hit in MLB, and some of those forkballs in the dirt aren’t going to get chased. But the data shows that Iwakuma can get all five of his pitches over the plate, including his seldom-used cutter.

Now the risk: it’s reasonable to expect a drop in effectiveness and/or command from some or all of Iwakuma’s pitches. I don’t think there is any good way to predict which of of Iwakuma’s pitches could suffer, but Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka have notably struggled with their forkballs in MLB. Iwakuma will need to buck that trend to approach the level of effectiveness he experienced in Japan.

The other, more generic question mark also applies: can he withstand the more demanding MLB schedule? He’s thrown 200 innings in two of the last three years, but he’ll have to adjust to starting every fifth day instead of once a week, pitching to better competition and a more demanding travel schedule. In 2010, Iwakuma averaged 107.61 pitches per game, so his workload on a per-game basis was not out of line with MLB norms. I think that will work in his favor.

I’ve been asked a couple times already how much I think his posting fee will be, and how much it will take to sign him. Iwakuma carries some risk, but overall I would put his upside in the mid-rotation starter range. I think there is a lot of variability in how MLB teams will evaluate him, so I’ll put the over/under for his posting fee at $10m, and his contract at four years, $20m.


Some Thoughts on Nakajima

The rumor mill out of Japan has it that Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima is looking to make an MLB jump this offseason via the posting system. I’ve covered “Nakaji” on FanGraphs before, but here’s a little more detail.

In the Field

Good glove, pretty good arm. I’ve seen some commentary speculating that he’s better suited to second base in MLB, but I don’t see why he shouldn’t get a chance to play shortstop. Nakajima has played his career on turf, in his home games at Seibu Dome and most of his road games, as all of the Pacific League teams have turf infields. The turf-grass adjustment was tough for Kazuo Matsui, but Tadahito Iguchi did fine so it can go either way. Nakajima made 11 errors in 2010, but beyond that NPB fielding metrics are not easy to come by. I’ll have to get back with more if I can collect anything more compelling. My intuition is that he can handle 3rd defensively, though he won’t have a traditional 3b bat in MLB.

At the Plate

Nakajima is a good contact hitter who uses the whole field. I see him as a line drive/gap hitter; in Japan he’s been around 20 hr and .500 slg for the last four years or so. He’s also gotten better at drawing walks over the last few years, but he’s still not great by American standards. Generally speaking, though, there are fewer walks and strikeouts in NPB. Like many Japanese NPB hitters, he has a complex swing, with a long stride and a lot of leg movement. I think he will shorten up his stride and cut down on his lower body movement in MLB, which will likely cost him some power.

Posting

I didn’t think Nakajima would get posted this offseason, and it’s still possible that he won’t — Seibu management has commented that “players that can be posted are valuable and as a team we don’t want to let them go” while adding “we want to consider our players ambitions and dreams to the greatest extent possible.” Negotiations between Nakajima and Seibu are reportedly set to begin on October 20th, so we’ll see what happens after that.


NLDS Game Three Review: San Francisco

Another Giants-Braves matchup, another one-run game. Unlike Friday’s splash hit special though, the drama ultimately went in San Francisco’s direction this time.

Through the seventh inning, I expected I’d mostly be writing about Jonathan Sanchez‘s terrific performance. Sanchez’s first seven innings were reminiscent of Tim Lincecum‘s outstanding series opener: he was a little shaky with his command in the first inning, but then settled into a groove and dominated. After a first inning walk to Derek Lee, he didn’t allow a hard-hit ball until Matt Diaz‘s flyout to right in the fifth, and didn’t allow a hit until Tim Hudson‘s soft line drive single in the sixth. Along the way, Sanchez struck out 11 and had retired 14 consecutive batters at one point.

Meanwhile, back on offense, the Giants couldn’t manage much more than an assortment of walks and groundballs against Hudson. The lone run they provided in support of Sanchez came courtesy of two shadow-assisted dropped flyballs; one by the soon-to-be infamous Brooks Conrad, whom we’ll get to in a moment.

Then came the second thing I thought I’d be writing about, the Braves comeback in the bottom of the eight. With a runner on and 105 pitches on his arm, Bruce Bochy pulled Sanchez for Sergio Romo. Here are my notes from the inning:

bot 8
2nd hit for ATL, sharp liner by Gonzales
Conrad with a chance to be a hero flubs a bunt
Glaus hitting for Ankiel
Romo in for Jonathan; gutsy move by Boch
Hinske in for Glaus
Hinske HR
Braves lead 2-1

I heard someone on the radio this morning quote Bochy as saying he was going to play the matchups from the sixth inning onward today, and in this case it obviously backfired as Bobby Cox had an extra bat. I usually try not to second guess managers, but for me it was a questionable call at the time, as the Braves hadn’t done anything with Sanchez and Romo had a rough outing on Friday.

Bochy stuck with his guys in the ninth inning, and didn’t use a pinch hitter other than Travis Ishikawa in the pitcher’s spot, while Cox worked his way through three pitchers. The Giants managed to keep runners on base long enough for Buster Posey to find Conrad with a hard groundball. In what seemed like an act of destiny, Conrad let the ball sail through the five-hole, giving Freddy Sanchez plenty of time to score the eventual winning run from second.

Which brings us to the third thing I thought I’d be writing about: Conrad’s defense. I was fully prepared to stick up for Conrad a bit here, particularly over the dropped flyball, but that last error was really inexcusable for a major league player in the post-season. The ball was hit right to him and the game was on the line; if he had even kept the ball in the infield it would have likely been a different game.

All in all though, it was the the third great game of the series.


How it Turned Out: Pacific League

Last month, I previewed the pennant races in Japan. The Central League is still winding down, but the Pacific League’s season is in the books, so let’s take a look at how things shook out.

Here are the final standings:

The first thing you’ll notice is that the League Champion, the Softbank Hawks, won fewer games than the second-place Seibu Lions. Softbank won the title by virtue of out-tying Seibu, thus losing fewer games and having a higher win percentage. In this case, “win percentage” is defined as “percentage of games not resulting in a tie won” rather than “percentage of games played won”. I must say, I don’t mind the presence of ties but I’m not crazy about the team with the most wins finishing second.

The pennant race was somewhat of a battle of attrition, with neither Seibu nor Softbank really putting the other way until the end. Seibu maintained a comfortable lead until mid-September, when they were swept in a three-game series by Softbank as part of a larger five-game losing streak. Softbank continued winning, and took the league lead on September 25, with Toshiya Sugiuchi out-dueled Yu Darvish with a masterful 1-0 shutout. That game not only put Softbank into first, but bumped Nippon Ham out of the third and final playoff spot. Lotte won its last few games against Orix, hanging on to the third spot and relegating the Buffaloes to a just sub-.500 record. Despite finishing outside of the top three for the first time in five years, Nippon Ham picked up the most ground in September, finishing a half game behind Lotte after being five back at the time of my earlier post.

The also-rans were interesting this year. Orix finished fifth, but put up a real fight in a rebuilding year, that included the unfortunate suicide of outfielder Hiroyuki Oze during spring training. And Rakuten took a big step back after a second-place finish last season, a result that cost first-manager Marty Brown his job. Rakuten boasted a respectable rotation, led by MLB-bound Hisashi Iwakuma, but a shallow bullpen, an anemic offense, and, ultimately, Brown took the fall for it. Despite that, Rakuten could have a strong draft and find a couple of import sluggers and get back into reasonable contention next season.

The Pacific League plays begin on October 9, with Seibu and Lotte playing a three-game set. A three-game series can obviously go either way and the teams are pretty evenly matched, but I’m giving Seibu a little bit of an edge. I think their top three starters are a little better than Lotte’s.


A “World” Series

About two weeks ago, this Sankei News headline caught my eye:

“(Pro Yakyu) Exploratory Committee Holds First Brainstorming Session Toward a Japan-US Title Match”[1]

Reports indicate four representatives took part in the meeting: MLB VP of Asia Operations Jim Small, and three NPB representatives led by NPB International Committee Chairman Toshimasa Shimada. The agenda included whether to hold the series in spring or autumn, and whether to play in Japan, the (continental) US, or a midway point such as Hawaii. Shimada was quoted as saying “we have a number of hurdles we have to clear, but we want to advance the discussion”, while Small commented “it was a positive exchange of ideas.”

As a fan of both Major League and Nippon Professional Baseball, I heartily in endorse this idea. Moreover, I’m glad that this seems to be a priority for NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato. NPB commissioners tend to be in a lame-duck position, taking a backseat to ownership, particularly the reviled Yomiuri chairman Tsuneo Watanabe. The dynamic is rather difficult to summarize in this type of post, so I’ll point you to a July article from veteran Japan baseball writer Jim Allen.

NPB has tried to reach a little more globally in the past. A well-intentioned attempt was made at a four-country (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China) Asia Series, but it failed to capture the attention of the public, and Japan’s representative won each year. It fell apart last year, when the title sponsor, Konami, backed out. In it’s place, a single-game Japan-Korea Club Championship was played before a crowd of about 12,000 at a minor league stadium in rural Nagasaki. As much as I would like to see the Asian leagues strengthen through collaboration, I think an MLB-NPB series will be more compelling baseball, and certainly better business.

When this series comes to fruition (and I believe it will), the NPB representative will perpetually be an underdog. It reminds me of the bi-annual US-Japan All-Star series that helped pique my interest in Japanese baseball in the 90’s. But despite that, NPB has far more to gain than to lose from this. More games against better competition should help eventually raise the level of play in NPB. More optimistically, the NPB brass may learn a few things from MLB’s marketing machine. It’s no silver bullet, but it will help.

[1] Sankei News


Down the Stretch in Japan

We’re a couple days into September,and about a month left in the season, nine of the 12 NPB have a chance at making the playoffs.

Before we delve into the standings, here’s how the playoff system works.

Nippon Professional Baseball has two leagues, the Central and the Pacific, each of which consist of six teams. Each year, the top three finishers from each league advance to the playoffs, known as the Climax Series. The Climax Series is split up into two stages, which break down like this:

1st Stage: 3rd vs 2nd, in a best-of-three series. Winner advances to the 2nd stage.

2nd Stage: winner of 1st stage vs the league champion, in a best-of-seven series with a twist*. Winner advances to the Nippon Series.

* The the 2nd stage is formatted like a best-of-seven series, but the league champion is automatically credited with a one-game advantage at the start of the series. So a maximum of only six games is played, and the league champion only has to win three games to advance to the Nippon Series, but the challenger would have to win four. Since this format was introduced in 2008, there have been no upsets in the 2nd Stage. Prior to 2008, the 2nd Stage was a standard best-of-five series.

In both stages, the team ranked higher in the standings gets home field advantage. The first place finisher is considered the league champion, even if they fail to reach the Nippon Series.

Make sense? If not, let me know in the comments.

After the jump, you’ll find the current (as of September 3) NPB standings, borrowed from NPB’s official site.

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Still More NPB Prospect You Should Know

The third of the series. Parts one and two of the trilogy are available on vhs.

Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, 29) – I consider Iwakuma, by some measures, to be the second best MLB pitching prospect currently active in NPB. Tall and stringy at 6’3, 170 lbs, Iwakuma is a fairly standard fastball/slider/forkball righty. He can reach 95-95 mph with his fastball, but mostly works around 90-91. None of his three main pitches strike me as outstanding, but he commands them all well and can be dominant when he’s keeping the ball down in the zone. The fun fact about Iwakuma is that early in his career, he used a “two stage” delivery, in which he brought his front leg up, then back down without touching the dirt, the up again before finishing his delivery. You can check it out in this 2002 clip of Iwakuma facing Ichiro in an MLB-NPB All-Star game. Two stage deliveries were banned in NPB a couple years ago, so he and others, notably Ken Takahashi and Daisuke Miura, had to rework their mechanics. This and other factors caused Iwakuma to spend a few years in the wilderness, which I chronicled at my main haunt after last year’s WBC. Iwakuma is signed through next season, and assuming his remains in good health, will be eligible to move cross-Pacific after next season.

Tsuyoshi Wada (LHP, SoftBank Hawks, 29) – Wada is another guy who could come over after the 2011 season. Wada reminds me of Dallas Braden (or rather, Braden reminds me of Wada), with his arsenal of a 86-87 mph fastball, a good circle change, and a solid slider. To use a cliche, Wada knows how to pitch. He’s had a strikeout rate in the 7-8 for most of his career despite a fastball that’s average even in NPB. I found game footage of Wada’s August 25th start against Orix. He didn’t have his best stuff, but it’s enough to give you an idea of what he throws.

Chihiro Kaneko (RHP, Orix Buffaloes, 27) – Wada’s opponent on the 25th was Chihiro Kaneko, who I think is the most underrated pitcher in Japan. Kaneko thoroughly outclassed Wada on the 25th, striking out 12 and walking none while allowing two earned runs over an 8-inning, 97 pitch performance. He did surrender a triple to Munenori Kawasaki, whom we discussed earlier. Kaneko has excellent command of a good fastball that sits around 91-93 mph. He augments the fastball with a battery of breaking pitches, most notably a slider and a changeup, witch both sit in the low 80’s, and a sub-70 mph curveball which I would like to see him throw more often. Kaneko is in his fourth full season so he’s a ways away from free agency, but he’s definitely one to watch.

That’s it for me on prospect mini-profiles for a little while. If you have any more guys you want to see, let me know and I’ll pick ’em up in the next round.