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Japanese baseball performance should, in theory, be as translatable as
performance from any baseball league in the United States. The process has
had its challenges, though: the data is not as easy to find, and much of
what is available is in a language and a character set that I can’t read. (I
still don’t have complete data for 1996).

More serious a problem is the small number of players moving between Japan
and the United States. The Translations system depends on being able to set
a difficulty level for each league. To do that, I need to have a sizable
group of players who have played in both the leagues I am testing and in
leagues whose difficulty level I already know. Every player who played in
both leagues needs to be compared to the league average; if, as a group, one
set is league average, and the second set is 10% above average, you can
assume that the second league is 10% worse that the first league.

With the Japanese leagues, there really haven’t been enough comparisons to
get a firm grip on the appropriate difficulty level, especially since almost
all the comparisons were of players who went from the U.S. to Japan, and not
from Japan to the U.S..

Last year, for the first time, there were more common plate appearances from
the prior year moving from Japan to the U.S. than vice versa. (A common
plate appearance is the lesser of a player’s plate appearances in League 1
and in League 2; it is what I use to ensure that a given player is always
weighted equally.) Alex Ramirez was the only player who went to Japan
last year to log more than 100 CPA, while five players–Ichiro
Suzuki
, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Orlando Merced, Tony
Fernandez
, and Lou Merloni–came to the U.S. and reached that
standard.

Using one-year differences, here’s how the difficulty ratings for Japan
shape up:


Lge1

Lge2

CPA

EqA1

EqA2

Diffic

Most CPA

2000 Jp

2001 Mj

1252

.301

.273

.907

Ichiro Suzuki, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Orlando Merced

1999 Jp

2000 Mj

288

.286

.244

.853

Mark Smith

1998 Jp

1999 Mj

174

.253

.277

1.095

Dave Hansen

1997 Jp

1998 Mj

54

.325

.207

.637

Jim Tatum

1995 Jp

1996 Mj

1149

.294

.283

.963

Julio Franco, Pete Incaviglia, Kevin Mitchell

1994 Jp

1995 Mj

589

.268

.253

.944

Mike Pagliarulo, Dion James, Jerald Clark

2001 Jp

2000 Mj

674

.278

.255

.917

Alex Ramirez

2000 Jp

1999 Mj

1893

.281

.267

.950

Tony Fernandez, Brian Banks, Dave Nilsson, Reggie Jefferson

1999 Jp

1998 Mj

979

.282

.236

.837

Mike Blowers, Melvin Nieves, Robert Perez, Mark Smith

1998 Jp

1997 Mj

1218

.277

.261

.942

Julio Franco, Mariano Duncan, Dave Hansen

1997 Jp

1996 Mj

1254

.291

.263

.904

Mark Carreon, Leo Gomez, Bill Selby

1995 Jp

1994 Mj

2146

.295

.296

1.003

Julio Franco, Darrin Jackson, Shane Mack, Troy Neel

1994 Jp

1993 Mj

2483

.270

.266

.985

Kevin Reimer, Jerald Clark, Dan Gladden, Dion James

weighted average

14153


.946

You can do the same analysis with Triple-A players. In fact, it is better to
use Triple-A players: the Japanese leagues have generally taken players who
were stuck in the minors, guys who tend to end up in Triple-A again even if
they come back. There have been far more common PA between Japan and
Triple-A than there have been between Japan and the majors.


Lge1

Lge2

CPA

EqA1

EqA2

Diffic

Most CPA

2000 Jp

2001 AAA

2131

.265

.283

1.068

Tony Tarasco, Andy Abad, Jason Hardtke

1999 Jp

2000 AAA

1042

.293

.300

1.024

Mark Johnson, Robert Perez, Alan Zinter

1998 Jp

1999 AAA

1033

.266

.287

1.079

Jerry Brooks, Alonzo Powell, Ryan Thompson

1997 Jp

1998 AAA

826

.244

.273

1.119

Phil Hiatt, Jason Thompson, Bill Selby

1995 Jp

1996 AAA

1233

.270

.301

1.115

Lee Stevens, Kevin Reimer, Tim McIntosh

1994 Jp

1995 AAA

1529

.242

.273

1.128

Rick Schu, Brian Traxler, Rob Deer

2001 Jp

2000 AAA

3129

.278

.308

1.108

Scott McClain, Pedro Valdes, David Doster, Ozzie Timmons

2000 Jp

1999 AAA

2005

.258

.303

1.174

Tony Tarasco, Andy Abad, Jason Hardtke, Jeff Barry

1999 Jp

1998 AAA

2997

.292

.321

1.099

Roberto Petagine, Mark Johnson, Micah Franklin, Alex Diaz

1998 Jp

1997 AAA

611

.267

.324

1.213

Eric Anthony, Harvey Pulliam

1997 Jp

1996 AAA

3281

.281

.308

1.096

Nigel Wilson, Jerry Brooks, Jason Thompson, Dwayne Hosey

1995 Jp

1994 AAA

2157

.286

.312

1.091

Glenn Davis, Rob Ducey, Scott Coolbaugh, Doug Jennings

1994 Jp

1993 AAA

1135

.277

.287

1.036

Brian Traxler, Lee Stevens, Hensley Meulens

weighted average

23109


1.102

In Baseball Prospectus 2001, I wrote that the difficulty level of
Japan was "about even with the Triple-A leagues." Looking at it
more comprehensively–I was basing my assessment on a scattering of players,
rather than off a full list of Japanese player data–that was a silly thing
to say, as the Japanese leagues have clearly and consistently rated as
tougher than the American Triple-A leagues. Every case from the 1990s shows
that players do worse as a CPA-weighted-average group in Japan than they do
in Triple-A, and by a considerable margin. The Triple-A/majors multiplier is
.860; if the transitive property holds, then Japanese EqA is worth about
.948 of a major-league EqA, which conveniently enough is almost identical to
what we got from major leaguers.

You can, of course, do the same thing with pitchers. The total ERA ratios
for those come out as:


Triple-A weighted average:       17991 IP     1.154
Major league weighted average     7178 IP      .903


Remember, though, this is in runs, and runs are proportional to EqA to the
2.5 power. These ratios, in EqA terms, are the same as 1.058 and .960. The
1.058 between Triple-A and Japan is equivalent to a .910 ratio between Japan
and the majors. So we have, all in EqA and major-league terms:


Hitting Triple-A to Japan         .948
Hitting Major Leagues to Japan    .946
Pitching Triple-A to Japan        .910
Pitching Major Leagues to Japan   .960


The mean of these values is .941.

For perspective, the Federal League, compared to the AL and NL of the
mid-teens, rated as .93 and .95 in its two years of existence. It is
considered a major league. The American Association of the 1880s lasted nine
years; compared to the NL of the same era, it rated as low as .78 (in its
debut year), and eventually got as high as .94. The AA is considered a major
league. The Union Association only existed for one year, 1884, and it rated
at .71, about the same as the present Midwest League. It is considered, by
Major League Baseball, to have been a major league (a very bad decision, in
my opinion; the St. Louis team, led by Fred Dunlap, was major-league
quality, but no other team in the league was.) The Players League of 1890
actually rated as stronger than the NL, with a 1.01 rating. The American
League of 1901, when Nap Lajoie hit .426, has a rating of .93.

The Japanese leagues meet or beat all of them. By historical standards, the
present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the
"major league" label.

Japanese Ballparks

We’ve all heard about the tiny little Japanese ballparks, and the impact
they have on the home-run totals of visiting Americans. That isn’t so true
anymore. A wave of stadium building swept through Japan over the last 15
years; all six stadiums in the Pacific League, for instance, have been built
or remodeled since 1988, although the Central league still has two parks
from the 1920s. The remade stadiums are only slightly smaller than their
American counterparts.

At least, that’s true of the primary stadium for each team. Japanese teams
apparently schedule a number of games away from their nominal home stadium.
Of the 70 home games played by the champion Yakult Swallows in 2001, only 59
were played in their Jingu Stadium home. They played three games in Fukuoka
(home of the Pacific League’s Daiei Hawks; there is no interleague play in
Japan, so it’s like having the Yankees play in Shea Stadium), two in Chiba
Marine Stadium (home of the Chiba Lotte Marines), two in Sapporo, two in
Morioka, one in Nagano, and one in Sendai. I have no idea how large these
outside stadiums are.

Of course, size isn’t the only issue for how a park plays. From looking at
their dimensions, I expected the two 1920s parks–Yakult’s Jingu Stadium and
Hanshin’s Koshien Stadium–to be wildly divergent. Jingu has very small
dimensions, while Koshien is a lot more spacious. Americans playing for
Yakult have done better than expected; Americans playing for Hanshin have
done worse. I fully expected Yakult to have a Coors-like park factor, and
for Hanshin to look like the old Astrodome.

The game-by-game records for the last two years were available online, so I
compiled park factors for Japan exactly the way I do for American teams.
What I thought would show up didn’t happen at all.

The parks:


Team

2000 PF

2001 PF

Comments

Chunichi Dragons

976

888


Hanshin Tigers

959

978

Large dimensions

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

1074

1004


Yakult Swallows

1027

1009

Very small dimensions

Yokohama Bay Stars

1043

1031


Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants

952

1081


Chiba Lotte Marines

973

1044


Fukuoka Daiei Hawks

971

969


Nippon Ham (Tokyo) Fighters

1034

1107

Shares with Yomiuri

Orix Blue Wave

1009

1036


Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes

1005

943


Seibu Lions

1003

998

The opinions I read indicate that everyone thinks the Tokyo Dome, where the
Giants and Fighters play, is an extreme hitters’ park; it may be that the
Yomiuri score in 2000 was an aberration.

Later this week, we’ll look at the top players in Japan over the last few
seasons.

Clay Davenport is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.

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