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Friday, October 30, 2020

End of Year Cleanout & Draftees: Let none of them be missed, I've got them on the list.

"Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
All people who have crappy ERAs and irritating hats —
All catchers who are paid too much, and break your salary floor like that —
All pitchers who in throwing strikes, throw strikes like a blind cat —
And all aging veterans who on spoiling winning games insist —
They'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed!"

I am still working on my draft report. As it's a lot of research it may take another week, but I'm doing my best. For the time being before we discuss what needs to change, here's a brief summary of who we got in the draft to help inform what I'm saying in this post:

PickNamePositionAlma Mater
1Hiroto TakahashiRHPChukyo University HS
2Hiroto MoriRHPNihon Sports Science Uni
3Ryūku TsuchidaIFŌmi HS
4Shōta FukushimaLHPKurashiki Commercial HS
5Tsubasa KatōRHPRikkyo Uni Kani HS
6Hironori MiyoshiOFJFE West Japan
 Development Draft  
1Ren KondōLHPSapporo Gakuin Uni
2Kōtarō UedaLHPKyōei HS
3Yūki MatsukiharaRHPSeika HS

The Dragons went pitcher heavy as they almost always do. The outfield hasn't been addressed again but perhaps they're happy with their in house options. Yuki Okabayashi appears to be heir apparent in centre-field, while there are a few options that are being tested in right field.  The jewels of the take are the two right handers at the top. Takahashi probably has the tallest ceiling while Mori will most likely have the highest floor of this group. Both could make contributions next year. 6/9 players come straight out of high school which is consistent with what the Dragons have done in recent drafts. It will be interesting to see how everyone develops but it looks like another good class. I'll get into each player in more detail later on in my annual report post.

With that, it's time to address the herd of elephants in the room. The Dragons have a lot of dead weight on the books and it's time to move some of the drift wood onto the fire. There's a lot of money tied up in veterans that aren't producing anything tangible. Here, I put forward some names that I think are going to leave or at least perhaps should. If you're earning over $100k, are older than 26 and haven't done anything for the last 2 years, you're making the list:

Player NameAgePositionReason2020 Wage
Daisuke Yamai42RHPOlder, hasn't pitched in 1-gun$440k
Kazuki Yoshimi36RHPOlder, hasn't pitched well in 1-gun$860k
Luis Gonzalez28LHPNot as good as hoped$480k
Junki Ito29RHPHasn't progressed$105k
Ryosuke Oguma30RHPHasn't progressed; getting older$100k
Enny Romero29LHPInjured$550k
Akito Okura26RHPDeadline to be signed passed$29k
Tomohiro Hamada28LHPDeadline to be signed passed$53k
Sandy Brito24RHPHasn't progressed$49k
Shota Ono33COlder, hasn't been in 1-gun picture$960k
Atsushi Fujii39OFOlder, unlikely to get more opportunities$400k

Firstly, the nice way to go, retiring. Whilst Daisuke Yamai has indicated a willingness to keep playing, surely it is time to say goodbye? The value of a veteran presence I think cannot be understated. Yamai has won multiple pennants, pitched a no-hitter, lead the league in wins and pitched the series deciding joint perfect game in the 2007 Japan Series. That all being said, I don't want him taking innings away from young pitchers anymore. The same can be said for Kazuki Yoshimi, who you could probably argue has an even better pedigree. Yoshimi had an okay bounce back year from surgery in 2016, but hasn't been on his game since then. If I had to make a choice, I'd prefer to keep Yoshimi around as he truly was an ace caliber pitcher in his day that could pass on some great technical knowledge to younger players. Yamai's peak in comparison wasn't quite as dominant.

Atsushi Fujii and Shota Ono are the next likely candidates for retirement. Ono may well still have the legs to be a 3-4th catcher in an NPB organisation, but I think he's done with the Dragons. Another that has Japan Series and pennant winning experience, he's a hard one to turf, but given Kota Ishibashi and Yuya Gunji need as many reps as can be given, I think Ono needs to move on. His salary is going to be a stumbling block too. He's finishing his 3-year deal in 2020, but with a maximum 25% slash allowed, he's still probably going to command close to $700,000 next year. Fujii had his roles over the years and while an excellent servant, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that he has retired at the season's end. Given the Dragons are well in the hunt for 2nd place at the moment, it's likely any retirement announcements have been delayed until the end if the year.

Of the others, Akito Okura and Tomohiro Hamada are in a precarious position where they have both been on development contract deals for 3 years now. Unless either are offered a fully rostered deal by the 30th of October, both will automatically become free agents. The players are then able to talk to other teams or simply re-sign with the Dragons under the same conditions. It's not unheard of for the symphony to continue with the record currently being 8 years as a development player held by a pitcher with the Giants. Personally, I think it would be a shame to lose either, but it's very possible the Dragons know that they're happy to sign-up to a new development deal at the end of their contract.

Fully rostered players that are perhaps most threatened by the draft selections (apart from the retirees) are likely to be Ryosuke Oguma and Junki Ito. Oguma and Ito had their time as starter-relievers around 2015-2018 but neither has been really seen or heard from in the last 12 to 18 months.  Hiroto Takahashi, Hiroto Mori and Tsubasa Kato's additions mean that space is going to need to be cleared and I think Ito and Oguma are probably the most likely to be shown the door.

The only other area is the international signings. Both are taking up a bit of dosh, but would the Dragons ditch either of them given the state of the minor leagues in the US and the limited Dominican Winter League? It may be safe to bring back Luis Gonzalez on a similar deal and try to get Enny Romero back on a slightly reduced deal. We'll have to wait and see. It's possible the addition of Shota Fukushima might have eliminated the need to bring back Gonzalez. Still, there may well be some guys out there the Dragons can coax into coming over. 
Fuku-bae come back!

Lastly, I'd just like to float some ideas for a signing. Not all clubs have done their senryokugai notices obviously, but I'd love to see a homecoming deal for Kosuke Fukudome who has reportedly been put on the chopping block by the Tigers. While the last thing we probably need is a 43 year old outfielder, I'd really like to have his leadership in the clubhouse. Not only that, I'd give him 1-year deal with a pathway to becoming the team's farm manager or hitting coach in 2022. If that's a pathway Fukudome is interested in, I'd gladly bring him in. He was more or less a 5-tool player in his heyday, and I'd love to have that kind of player around to influence the younger guys in this group. This kind of deal would not be unprecedented. Michihiro Ogasawara originally came to the club as a back-up corner infielder and went on to become farm manager. I say, if Fukudome is interested, you bring him in. He'd also add a left-handed veteran that could help with coaching as the organisation currently lacks a left-handed batting coach. The only minor problem might be, given his age and stature, an upset of hierarchy among senior players.

Well, what do you all think? Hopefully the team will see added renewal this year. Yoda has been confirmed to be serving out his 3-year contract, so he'll be able to further build on his legacy. We're still about a month away from really seeing the shape of the team for 2021. The Dragons are still in the hunt for an A-Class finish, so fingers crossed they can build on that next year.

EDIT (3/11/2020): Kazuki Yoshimi has now confirmed he will be retiring at the season's end. Furthermore, it has been announced that Junki Ito, Ryosuke Oguma, Takuma Achira, Shun Ishikawa, Shota Suzuki, Tomohiro Hamada and Akito Okura have received senryokugai notices meaning they won't be staying with the club in 2020. Shota Ono, Daisuke Yamai and Atsushi Fujii look like they'll survive another year.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

2020 NPB Draft Primer: Takahisa Hayakawa, Teruaki Sato and Hiroto Takahashi head the COVID-19 class


The NPB draft is just around the corner, Monday the 26th to be exact. We've only a little while to wait to see who the latest players into the fold will be. It will however be a different kind of draft this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on in Japan. The grandiose draft meeting will be a little more subdued with each team having a private room to minimize contact, while perhaps the biggest story is that, without the Koshien and other amateur tournaments going ahead this year, there's a lot larger element of luck with picking your guys. 

There isn't a Takaya Ishikawa or Akira Neo that dazzled for their high school teams on the biggest amateur stage in Japan. There isn't a Kyota Fujiwara, Shinnosuke Ogasawara or Taiga Hirasawa that lead their team deep into these tournaments which makes the pickings at the top all the harder to plan for and also provides fewer bolters for the first round of picks. 

Whatever the case may be, this may be a bit of a crapshoot of a draft beyond the first couple of rounds. I think we'll see even more high school amateurs take the college route as well to avoid being missed entirely by pro teams. That in itself will make the 2024 Draft quite intriguing for the COVID-19 generation of high school kids. 

So, with all this going on in the background, who are the top talents available? I'm going to give you a taster of who is being talked about for the top few rounds and with a basic idea of who wants them and what kind of player they are. I will just run through 6 highly talented players (in no particular order) just to give an idea of who’s out there. 

Hiroto Takahashi (高橋宏斗)will be one of the top targets at the draft. The right-handed pitcher has a fireball 153km/h velocity at 18 years old. Born in Owariasahi to Nagoya's northeast, Takahashi has been turning heads. Up to 7 clubs have expressed interest in the Chukyo hurler, and it has been murmured that his backyard club, the Chunichi Dragons are the most interested of the lot. This would be another "backyard" pick for the Dragons, whose last 3 top picks have been local or at least within team catchment talent. According to SportsNavi!, Takahashi is the highest rated talent at the draft this year. Nikkan Sports, seems to think the Dragons may even have a clear run at him.

Teruaki Sato (佐藤輝明)
, who I will now deem "Teriyaki" Sato for posterity, is the biggest bat on the draft card in 2020. A left handed third baseman who is a big boy, bring power to the plate. Sato won the MVP in the Kansai University fall league in 2018 where he hit with a .354 average and a .998 OPS. He was listed in the Best 9 at third base in spring of 2019 where he hit .333 with an even more impressive 1.107 OPS. Initially struggling to get on base, Sato showed steady progression with his plate discipline to turn into a very dangerous hitter. The jump from the Kansai University league to the NPB is a bit harder than a jump from the Big6 League in Tokyo, but Sato is not without his fair share of suitors. The Tigers, Giants, Hawks, Lions and Buffaloes are all reportedly set to select the slugger in the first round. I'd like to see him land at the Lions, Buffaloes or even Hawks. At the Lions and Hawks there are veteran sluggers at third that need replacing eventually and Sato would be well placed to make the step up gradually. At the Buffaloes however, he'd probably start from the outset with the team struggling to find a consistent successor to Eiichi Koyano who retired two years ago.

The top lefty pitcher on the card this year, Takahisa Hayakawa (早川隆久) already has a number of suitors with hometown team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, already declaring their interest in signing the man who went to high school in Kisarazu. The top velocity of 155km paired with his left-handedness alone make him a tasty looking prospect. With a 10.49 K/9 for his university career, Hayakawa stands out as one of the best prospects available. At present, the Carp, Baystars, Swallows, Marines, Eagles and Fighters look to be in the hunt for his signature in the first round. Possibly the most well polished of the prospects, it's no surprise that Hayakawa is a headliner for this year's draft.

A couple of years ago when Ryoji Kuribayashi (栗林良使) was at Meijo University, I highlighted him as a possible first or second round pick for the Dragons in 2018. The right hander however took a blow to his stocks and skipped the draft to pitch at Toyota which appears to have worked for him. Murmurs are that he'll almost certainly go in the first round this year particularly with the lack of barnstorming high schoolers rocketing to recognition in 2020. Traditionally reliant on the fastball, Kuribayashi could be another that better projects as a reliever rather than as a durable starter. Control was an issue that dogged him in college and it appears that this may still be a concern. Depending on where you look, he either tops out at 151 or 153km/h and has international experience with the Japanese collegiate team and the shakaijin amateur international squad that won the Asian Winter League in Taiwan last year. The Dragons, Carp and Baystars are said to be the most serious suitors for him at this stage but most likely as a fall back first pick.

The next most impressive talent off at the draft this year is college righty, Hiromi Ito (伊藤大海). A member of the collegiate Samurai Japan team, serving as the team's closer, Ito already has been tipped for big things. A strong fastball with a solid arrangement of breaking balls, Ito is perhaps the best "ready to go" pitcher available. A solid choice for any role, but one might think he projects for a bullpen role. Another likely "local" choice, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have already declared their intention to select Ito in the first round.

Possibly the talent with the most potential upside, Shunpeita Yamashita (山下舜平大) has been making waves this year. For any team, Yamashita would be a project to work on with. This year in what games have been held, he threw with a BB/9 of 4 and a SO/9 of 8.39. He did however have an extremely impressive outing against Higashi Fukuoka High School where he fanned 13 batters in 7 innings. An ace for his team since his second year of school, Yamashita may well have been one of those Koshien stories if not for COVID-19 ravaging the world this year.  Among his best breaking balls is a sharply dipping curve which is probably his best delivery, but has also a decent slider and change-up in his armory. Probably another back-up pick or at worst a second-round pick. He could be one for the future however.

As you can probably tell, the majority of the "top" talents this year come out of college which isn't surprising given the lack of high school baseball this year. 

Only a couple more sleeps to go. Watch this space for me annual Dragons draftee report. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Race for the Sawamura Award: Yudai Ono well in the hunt


With about 20+ games left in the season, the post-season awards are starting to come into focus. The Eiji Sawamura Award in particular looks to be an interesting case for a battle between 3 Central League starters; Tomoyuki Sugano of the Giants, Yudai Ono of the Dragons and Yuki Nishi of the Tigers. Mention could also be made for Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Buffaloes and Hideaki Wakui of the Eagles in the Pacific League who too is having an excellent season.

First of all, we should run through what it is the selection committee looks for. It is always important to understand that the Eiji Sawamura Award differs from the MLB's Cy Young in a number of ways. Firstly, the Sawamura award is only given to one pitcher in the entirety of NPB. The MLB awards a Cy Young for the American League and the National League. Also, the Sawamura is judged against a very specific criteria that is said to embody the spirit of Eiji Sawamura. The Cy Young is generally just awarded to the statistically "best" pitcher. Finally, a Sawamura Award committee comprised of former winners of the award decide who receives it; not the media and not the players' peers. 

So, what are the categories that the committee scrutinize the most?

>25>10>15>60%>200+>150under 2.5
* As of 2018 players are also judged on QS%

Generally, a player must fulfill 4 of these categories in order to be considered for the award. In recent years, complete games have been the most difficult thing to assess with only 2 players in the last 10 years reaching 10 CG (Masahiro Tanaka 2011, Tomoyuki Sugano 2018). I haven't seen a number for QS%, but I'm going to assume it's about 75%. 

The other thing we must consider in 2020 is that the season has been shortened by 23 games. The Award committee may well need to be a little more flexible in their assessment of appearances, wins and innings pitched in particular as most starters will likely pitch in 4-5 fewer games than they have in the past. 

Rather than dally too much on those facts, I want to have a look at how each starter currently looks and make some broad assumptions about where they might end up at the season's end. I don't have much in the way of projection equations, so we'll just be taking educated guesses.

Let's line up the players stat lines and see where each player is at currently:
Tomoyuki Sugano173130.929120.11132.0288.24
Yudai Ono17990.643126.21281.9276.47
Yuki Nishi17390.6921241012.1888.24
Yoshinobu Yamamoto17180.667119.21392.1876.47
Hideaki Wakui171110.786113992.9582.35

All but Hideaki Wakui have already passed 3 of the categories; W%, ERA and QS%. Whether or not QS% counts as one of the 4 categories, I'm not sure. Otherwise everyone is travelling well. However, what would these stat lines look like if we extrapolated for a 25 appearance season where most Sawamura award contenders in the past have been judged? I'm keeping ERA, QS% and W% as constants to ease of averaging everything out:

Tomoyuki Sugano254190.9291761662.0288.24
Yudai Ono2513130.6431851881.9276.47
Yuki Nishi254130.6921821482.1888.24
Yoshinobu Yamamoto251110.6671742042.1876.47
Hideaki Wakui251160.7861661342.9582.35

This makes things really interesting. Yudai Ono and Tomoyuki Sugano now fulfill 6 of the 8 categories. In this case it's a battle between Ono, who pitched more innings, strikeouts and complete games vs Sugano who has 19 wins and otherwise relatively comparable numbers. This then comes down to how you value wins vs complete games. In Ono's case, he's really carried his team to what could be their first A-Class finish in 8 years. Sugano on the other hand has just about been the best player in the Central League this year and is a good candidate for MVP as well as the Sawamura the only thing there is that the Giants are a much better team overall. It is however worth saying that wins mean something to the committee. Only one pitcher has taken the award without 15 or more wins and that was Yutaka Ono of the Hiroshima Carp in 1988 where he had 13 wins over 33 games.

The other thing we must take into account, is that if Sugano wins the Sawamura, it will be his third. That will put him in a very elite club with 4 other pitchers that have won the award three times. The the committee may well not consider him worthy of the company. 

Finally, if Sugano were to win the MVP, then perhaps the committee might be more willing to give the award to Yudai Ono so that the awards are shared around a bit more. In NPB history, there have been 14 MVP-Sawamura dual award winners. The Central League haven't been fond of doing this as much as the Pacific League in recent years with Kenshin Kawakami in 2004 being the last such pitcher awarded both prestigious titles. Since Kawakami, 5 Pacific League pitchers have been dual holders of the awards. 

I think it will really come down to the intangible factors, the things that pitchers by themselves really can't control. Sugano has had a monstrous 2020, but Ono has been similarly excellent on a much poorer team. It may come down to a very subjective decision but if the Dragons finish second in the league, Ono might just sway the decision his way.