Projecting performance is one of the things Baseball Prospectus does best, and in the development of projections, context is everything. For example, when comparing prospects, we must consider whether the player in question played in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, or the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
The same goes with baseball in Japan. With the doors to the Japanese talent pool swinging wider than ever today, many organizations and inquisitive fans want to know how performance in the Far East will translate to their own clubs. We know a great deal about the numerical translations at this point thanks to Clay Davenport‘s fine work (major parts of which can be found here and here), and thus we can sketch out some expected results from the players moving from East to West.
What we haven’t taken into account are some of the important factors inside the game of Japanese yakyu that make it difficult to be completely accurate. What don’t we understand about Japanese baseball that will help us to put the numbers in perspective?
The Sacrifice Bunt
Whether or not the sacrifice bunt is related to the Japanese cultural tendency towards collective behavior, I cannot say. In the context of baseball, this facet of Japanese cultural identity may shape the strategy that calls for players to “play it safe” and avoid risk. Taking the small victory by minimizing risk is always seen to be preferable to coming up empty in an effort to strike gold.
Those who have sat frustrated in front of their television watching a Japanese baseball game know that the Japanese play “small ball.” In a recent game against the Orix Buffaloes, the Nippon Ham Fighters sent 20-year-old ace Yu Darvish to the mound. Darvish has cemented himself as one of the top talents in Japan, but in the recent past, he’d struggled in the first inning of ballgames. Only two starts earlier, the Chiba Lotte Marines had managed four runs against a wild Darvish in the first. One start after Darvish beat Orix 3-1 on a three-hitter, he was removed by manager Trey Hillman after throwing 83 pitches in three-plus innings. Sure enough, Darvish hit the first batter of the ballgame. Without hesitation, the second hitter bunted him over to second. Orix will never know what could have come from their leadoff gift, because they sacrificed it for an out.
This scene is repeated ad nauseum in Japan, as leadoff success inevitably leads to the sacrifice. It’s not a strategy as much as it is a ritual. Clearly no one has pulled out a run expectancy chart for a Japanese manager and tried to explain that the sacrifice actually decreases the opportunity for runs. All over Japan, traditionalists trumpet the WBC championship as a victory for this selfless brand of baseball over the homer-happy Western brand of baseball. Those who celebrated the superiority of Japanese small ball failed to notice that the Japanese club won the WBC while delivering a .311 team batting average, 7.5 runs scored per game, and thwacking 10 home runs. All of those numbers were WBC bests.
The Effect of Playing Backwards
If the Japanese love to sacrifice, and this style of play holds true across all teams, then we have to adjust our thinking about pitcher ERAs, as well as RBI, run totals, and perhaps every other hitting metric available to us. From the pitcher’s perspective, it’s probably comforting to know that you will only need to get two outs from the stretch, rather than three. This is exactly the adjustment that Daisuke Matsuzaka is learning about in the Major Leagues right now. Most observers have noted that Matsuzaka is a different pitcher out of the stretch. More often than not, pitching out of the stretch in Japan meant fielding a bunted ball and throwing to first; now Matsuzaka faces a batter looking to take a few pitches, and either draw a walk or drive the ball into the stands.
When we look at the transition from Japan to the Major Leagues for pitchers like Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa, and their fellow Japanese starters, the focus is generally on travel and language adjustments, as well as the different ball and the bigger ballparks. It’s easy for human beings to adjust to their physical surroundings–what’s really more important is the mental adjustment on the mound. Think about how different a pitcher projection looks if we remove every sacrifice bunt found in these situations. Replacing the sacrifices with results more in line with the production of the average Major League #2 hitter would inflate ERAs, WHIPs, and the accompanying advanced metrics.
Likewise, a #3 batter in Japan will more often find himself in the position of batting with one out and a runner on second than his American counterpart. He’ll naturally be a lot less likely to hit into a double play; his American counterpart will be faced with a more varied set of possibilities.
Earl Weaver once famously stated, “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.” While that sounds defeatist to an American ear, it sounds more optimistic to the Japanese, as if they’re interpreting Weaver’s remark as, “If you play for one run, that is what you’ll get.” It’s but one of the differences that exist between Japan and the United States, but this short examination may help to demonstrate why translating performance from the NPB to MLB is not a simple matter of metrics alone. When it comes to translated performance in the Major Leagues, the projections for Japanese players, and especially pitchers, should include allowances for the style of play.