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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Chunichi's Greatest Pitching Seasons: Gondo to Ono

 I have been playing around with a statistics database and decided to put together a little retrospective on the Dragons pitching staff over the years. The Dragons have been blessef with any number of excellent pitchers in their history, and it is here that I'd like to examine some of the best seasons, as calculated by wins-above-replacement (WAR). While not the definitive statistic, WAR can go a long way to help us understand how good a player was relative to his peers. 

I have capped the dates at 1960 as data before then for WAR is incomplete. I've also not included any pitcher with a score of 4.5 WAR or lower to include. Firstly, I will list each "leader" of each decade since the 1960s. Baseball has changed and I think it only fair to judge players in each era. I have also put together a more definitive list of single-season WAR leaders into a small list to show you what some of the best pitching years in Dragons baseball have been. 

First, the 1960s: 

Hiroshi Gondo entered folk-lore with the saying "Rain, Gondo, Rain, Gondo, Gondo" as the only thing that stopped him pitching was the rain. In 1961, Gondo's rookie year, he threw a painful, 429.1 innings over 44 starts which included 32 complete games, 12 of them shutouts. Gondo went on to win the Sawamura Award and the Rookie of the Year award for his mammoth efforts. The load took it's toll however as Gondo only pitched for 3 more seasons before converting to the field as his arm all but fell off.

The 1970's: 

There's a few interesting candidates here, but it's Mitsuo Inaba who claims the top spot. In 1972, Inaba started in 35 games, pitching 261.1 innings for a 2.76 ERA with 14 complete games including 8 shutouts. A 20-11 mark in decisions would prove to be a career high for the righty who would move to the Hankyu Braves in 1977 and have further success.

The 1980's: 

This one surprised me a bit, but Tatsuo Komatsu in 1985, his Sawamura Award winning year, was to be the best of this era. Over a relatively modest 25 games started, Komatsu pitched 210.1 innings for a 2.65 ER, 17-8 record and 172 strikeouts. Komatsu actually played a further 8 games as a reliever appearing in 33 games in all. Alongside Genji Kaku, the 1985 Dragons team had a pretty formidable 1-2 at the top of the rotation. Komatsu would play for a further 9 years with Chunichi having another excellent year in 1987.

The 1990's:

I knew this one as he's one of my favourites. Shinji Imanaka pitched a peach of a season in 1993 where he captured the Sawamura Award. Masa Yamamoto was his rotation mate that similarly had a career year in WAR. Imanaka dazzled his contemporaries with his slow-curve and 148 km/h fastball. Imanaka started 30 games with 14 complete games including 3 shutouts. What's perhaps the most impressive is an 8.9 SO/9 as he fanned 247 batters over 249 innings. One of the best of the best, Imanaka was an amazing pitcher to watch. Unfortunately, much like Gondo, his longevity would be affected and while he still put up a further four 10+ win seasons, he ultimately succumbed to injury at age 30. 

The 2000's: 

Again, another surprise but this one is edged out by former Major Leaguer, Wei-Yin Chen. Alongside Kazuki Yoshimi, Chen showed himself to be the MLB calibre talent he was with a remarkable 2009 season. Chen pitched in 24 games, hurling down 164.0 innings. He would show amazing control to strikeout 146 batters for a miniscule, 0.933 WHIP. While only claiming an 8-4 record, Chen would put himself in the shop window for a move to the Orioles in 2012. 

The 2010's:

Chen's partner in crime, Kazuki Yoshimi in 2011 put up the best WAR during the lull that was the 2010s for the team as a whole. Yoshimi would have an 18-3 record with a 1.65 ERA and 0.87 WHIP over 190.2 innings. If it weren't for a certain Masahiro Tanaka, Yoshimi may well have been the Sawamura Award winner in this year. A career best season for the then staff ace, it's perhaps not a surprise he's on this list. After a good 2012, injuries got the best of Yoshimi but he still pitched 100+ innings for the Dragons in 2016 and 2018 before retiring in 2020.

The 2020's

We've really only just started this decade, but Yudai Ono's 2020 Sawamura Award winning year was pretty good. In a shortened season, Ono threw down 148.2 innings over 20 starts. His 6 shutouts and 10 complete games rang among the best conversion of a CG to SHO out of any of these pitchers. Striking out more or less a batter per inning, Ono also has one of the best SO/9 out of any of the luminaries on the below list.

The List

Here the top 15 pitchers by WAR in Dragons history based on their best season:

1Hiroshi Gondo11.6196135191.7069443212429.1310
2Minoru Kakimoto7.3196321131.70482812326083
3Kentaro Ogawa7.3196729122.515527163279.2178
4Tatsuo Komatsu7.119851782.653325141210.1172
5Shinji Imanaka6.719931772.203130143249247
6Mitsuo Inaba6.0197220112.763835148261.1140
7Wei-Yin Chen5.82009841.54242354164146
8Masa Yamamoto5.519931752.052724105188.1132
9Genji Kaku5.3198511113.483429151230.1157
10Yudai Ono5.320201161.8220 106148.2148
11Shigeki Noguchi5.119991972.65292974203.2145
12Kazuki Yoshimi5.120091672.00272554189.1147
13Senichi Hoshino4.8197718133.524230133245.1125
14Yujiro Miyako4.819821653.13432982221.1141
15Kenshin Kawakami4.820021262.35272733187.2149

You can now see why I decided to group these seasons by decade. You can definitely see that the 1960s were still dominated by pitchers that could throw a lot of innings. If you take away the top 3 however, you have a fairly decent list of pitchers that still did things in largely fairly recent times. Hiroshi Gondo's season may well be one of the highest WAR seasons by a pitcher in NPB history. Tatsuo Komatsu ranking so high surprised me while Kenshin Kawakami similarly ranking so low was also a surprise. A few new names came to my attention from this list in Minoru Kakimoto a side-armer, who looks like the ultimate ground-baller based on his statistics, and Mitsuo Inaba who was a regular contributor to the  rotation through the 1970s. 

I hope you enjoyed this little delve into the past. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Yoda-gun vs Tatsunami-gun: Who wins the WAR?

Did somebody say, off-season content?!

Something short and sweet. I previously talked about Kazyoshi Tatsunami putting together an All-Star backroom. I decided to look at the data and see how many wins this dastardly team of coaches would put together if they were in their hey-dey. To make this spicier, I decided to compare this with the outgoing coaching team of Tsuyoshi Yoda. I'm using WAR to make these comparisons.

For fairness sake, I've included the same number of position players and pitchers for both teams. I've chosen the players based on how well I could wedge them into a position and given precedence to players with higher WAR totals. Unfortunately for Atsushi Kataoka, who played exclusively in the infield corners, there isn't a space for him in our team. Both Morino and Nakamura have higher career WAR totals.  I've had to otherwise be a little creative to make this a "team". I have put WAR calculations for the peak of the coach's career and then a career total next to it. The year indicated in the 3rd column is the year they had that peak year in WAR.

3BN. Nakamura20027.046.3
RFY. Nakamura20010.2-0.3

This team has a very chunky middle of the order. Tatsunami, Nori Nakamura and Morino make for a very solid line-up. Overall, a pretty solid line-up on paper if all of these guys performed at their peak. The starting-pitching doesn't have a lot to it, but the relief makes up for it a little bit. I was a little shocked that Tatsunami ended up having higher WAR than Nori Nakamura over the course of his career, but I guess Tatsunami's longevity helped in that regard. 

So, with the baseline now set, what about Yoda's backroom? 

CT. Nakamura19912.619.6

Unlike the Tatsunami backroom, this team has it's strength morseso in it's pitching. There's a little more balance to the side. Surprisingly somewhat is that the career-year WAR is actually higher largely in thanks to Hideyuki Awano's spectacular 1989 season. Another gem  I found was Motoyuki Akahori's 5.4 WAR season in 1992 as a reliever which actually eclipses Takuya Asao's MVP season in 2011. I'm not sure how accurate the data is now! Unfortunately, with no great first-baseman to fill in, Yoda-gun has to sit a -0.6 WAR earning Hiroyuki Watanabe on first-base.

Over the course of a season, Yoda-gun has Tatsunami-gun beat, but the latter will win the WAR with some glittering, long-lasting careers.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

2021 Salary Negotiations

The time has come for players to meet with their destiny. The yearly contract renewal. We've already heard word that Dayan Viciedo and Raidel Martinez have signed big deals to stay on. New additions will be forthcoming shortly as well with new Cubans, Guillermo Garcia and Frank Abel Alvarez signed up for 2022. The team are still looking for a foreign power bat with Akinori Otsuka in the Dominican Republic looking at players now. 

Four players are still yet to declare whether they'll test the waters in free agency with Katsuki Matayoshi, Daisuke Sobue, Nobumasa Fukuda and Shinji Tajima all looking for new deals. Ryosuke Hirata also finds himself off-contract after two of the worst years of his career. It is customary to cut salary no more than 25% with a player, but with Hirata's 5-year, $1.8M AAV deal coming to a close and he no longer being a key contributor, the team may be looking to slash that salary considerably with some fears the player might be forced our like Hirokazu Ibata was back in 2014. The team had a massive downturn financially last year and have traditionally struggled to find money to throw at the team in the past few years. On a lesser note, catcher, Shota Ono will finally finish up his contract that brought him to the club as a free agent from the Fighters in 2018. He also may be in for a larger decrease than perhaps hoped. 

The team are seemingly spending more than they have in the past 5 years or so however with Martinez, Ono, Oshima and Viciedo all taking home considerable money which at least suggests the club are willing to spend when required on their own players. I will keep updating the information as it comes in, but feel free to look over the data I've collated below. Once it's all wrapped up, I'll draw up some totals and see where we're at financially for 2022.

You should be able to arrange the elements of the spreadsheet to show who's lost the most, who had the best ERA and so-on. Please note that there are two tabs. P (pitcher) and B (batters).

Something to keep in mind as I've added percentages, generally speaking the team can only decrease a player's salary by a maximum of 25% while it can be increased by as much as they want to give. There are however cases where this maximum downturn can actually be lower, but as a general rule, it is usually 25%. So far, Toshiya Okada and Yu Sato are the only players to receive offers lower than the usual 25% decrease.

  • Bold - Refers to farm statistics as that player has no appearances in 1-gun this year.
  • Italics - Refers to statistics of a player that has moved mid-season.
  • Currency is 100 yen per $1 for ease of understanding and calculation.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Under New Management: Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is the Dragons new manager; backroom announced


1-Gun & 2-Gun Staff and Numbers Decided

It's official. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is the new Dragons manager. There's a lot of media to wade through as a result, but first one of the more important announcements, the staff. There's been large turnover with only six staff members surviving from the Yoda regime and only Masahiro Araki with 1-gun.

The new backroom staff was announced on the 4th of November. Nothing to surprise with either 1-gun or 2-gun as all those that were linked in the media were given jobs with the team. Shinya Miyamoto and Hirokazu Ibata were the only two linked that didn't end up inking a contract with the team. What Tatsunami has done however is create a literal All-Star backroom with only 3 staff members without a title or an All-Star appearance through their career. 

With no Ibata or Miyamoto, Eiji Ochiai has taken over duties as head coach alongside his pitching coach duties. Tatsunami has said he will more or less entrust anything regarding pitching to him. Ochiai has a good pedigree as a coach and it's perhaps surprising he hasn't linked up with the Dragons as a coach before not. He has apparently made comment now that he promised Tatsunami he would serve in his backroom around the time he retired in 2006. This loyalty to Tatsunami is apparently the reason why he hasn't come back since. 

The rest of the backroom is certainly a wait and see. Otsuka, Morino and Araki all have experience coaching with the Dragons while Onishi and Nishiyama have both cut their teeth in the Giants organisation. Everyone in this backroom has a connection to the Dragons except for Nishiyama who really is an out of left-field appointment. There have been rumors that Takeshi Nakamura may have been preferred but his recent illness meant he wanted to take a break from coaching. Nishiyama was hired apparently on the basis of providing "uncomfortable (for batters) game-calling" as a player. Expectations will be biggest for Nakamura and Morino however as they have the unenviable task of trying to turn a poor hitting staff into a half-decent one. Nakamura has already been given the job of helping develop Akira Neo and Takaya Ishikawa with the latter already claiming Nakamura's approach to be "a breath of fresh air" in their first session together on the 4th of November. Tatsunami has commented that he believe Nakamura has a great ability to teach. Here's hoping.

Tatsunami has also already made clear that Masahiro Araki will reprise his role as first-base coach while Onishi will be in charge of sending runners at third base. Both were adept base-runners in their playing days. Tatsunami's reasoning for Araki at first was his base-stealing expertise while Onishi previously has experience standing at third-base with the Giants.

Onto the farm, and it took a while for the coaching team to be announced. The first-team coaching set-up was more or less set in stone a week ago while it seems the farm coaching team has taken a little while longer to confirm. Tatsunami's buddy from high school, Atsushi Kataoka will manage the team. He has previous coaching experience with the Hanshin Tigers. Daisuke Yamai is also a new addition to the coaching staff having just retired this season. A seasoned veteran, Yamai's journey as a player should be a good experience to pass on to others as he worked hard to get to where he is now. Not many players of his pedigree can say they've pitched a no-no and an almost perfect (albeit shared) game. Former fan favourite, Kohei Oda comes in as battery coach to replace Shingo Takeyama. Yutaka Nakamura looks like an appointment made by Kataoka himself as they both journeyed from the Fighters to the Tigers during their coaching careers. Hidenori however has fallen on his feet as his demotion from the top team means he picks up a role that was previously held by Mitsuo Tateishi. One problem still remains however; Toshio Haru is the only batting coach. It will be hoped I guess that Kataoka can do some hitting classes as well, but given the team's issues with hitting, it's a surprise no one has been brought in. This also brings up an issue as well. One of the criticisms made by Tatsunami of players on the Dragons team is their compact approach to hitting rather than the more open attacking approach that bring more homeruns. Haru's hitting philosophy is one of being very compact so it is rather confusing as to why he's still in the organisation, let alone as the only hitting coach on the farm. 

Of the coaches that were replaced in both teams, no one has been retained in any capacity in the front office. Tsuyoshi Yoda, Hideyuki Awano, Motoyuki Akahori, Alonzo Powell, Kenta Kurihara, Tsutomu Ito and Takeshi Nakamura have all left the organisation. This is the same for Toru Nimura, Takahito Kudo, Shingo Takeyama and Mitsuo Tateishi. It is interesting that the farm team has not been shaken up as much as the top. Many of the key contributors from last year have stayed on. 

On paper at least, this coaching team seems an upgrade on Yoda's backroom. The lack of an exclusive head coach and the inexperience of the hitting coaches raises questions. Whether or not Haru is the guy to develop the next generation of Dragons hitters on the farm is another question if the hitting philosophy is to change. Nori Nakamura's addition has already made some positive news, as his instruction of Takaya Ishikawa to use his hand more when hitting has already seen some improvement in hitting the ball a bit further.

Of all the staff, it is only Atsushi Kataoka, Yutaka Nakamura and Shuji Nishiyama that have no obvious ties to the Dragons. Kataoka is of course a pal of Tatsunami's from PL Gakuen while it certainly looks like Nakamura was added at Kataoka's request. Nishiyama is really the odd one out. Otherwise, Tatsunami's career has overlapped with every other coach that spent time at the Dragons. Another interesting thing to note is that 9 out of the 17 backroom coaches hail from the Kansai region of Japan, including Tatsunami himself (this is also about the only common thread I can find between Nishiyama and Tatsunami). Otherwise, Kanto is next best represented with five followed by Chubu (two) and Kyushu (one). Perhaps a bit of a Kansai boys club being created by the new manager.

Big Changes for Dragons

So, that's the staff. Now I'd like to take some time to address what Tatsunami has said in the media about his management style and what he want to see from players. To say it's been a bit of a shock would be an understatement as he has been drawing up some very Draconian rules summed up in the below from Bernard Black of BBC's "Black Books". 

This is perhaps the key point that has gotten the most attention. Tatsunami has outlawed facial hair, hair dying and otherwise unkempt hair from the team. In a Yankees-esque approach, it would appear that he wants his players to focus on the important things while impinging on their individual expression at the same time. The response from the players has been quick however, as Hiroto Fuku has shaved his head, Yota Kyoda has dyed his hair black while Toshiki Abe and Daisuke Sobue have shave off their trademark scruff. Tatsunami is said to be influenced by the managers he had, particularly Senichi Hoshino and Hiromitsu Ochiai, whom valued a clean looking player.

There have been a number of media appearances by Tatsunami that have given the media weeks worth of 1-topic articles to talk about. Here's a list of some of the major things he's brought up and I'll dissect and muse about them after:
  • Captaincy will be abolished
  • Starting pitchers should pitch 7 innings, pitch count doesn't matter
  • Isao "Hardass" Harimoto has been invited to be a guest coach in Spring
  • Hirokazu Ibata was invited to become part of the staff but couldn't accept because "reasons"
  • There will be no limit on how long players want to train (on a related note, Hiroto Fuku now has a stress fracture in his throwing arm)
  • Thoughts regarding baseball haven't changed since retirement, but says he understands modern players; i.e. he knows he can't smack his players like Hoshino did.
  • Catcher should play 130 games a season
  • Ōshima and Viciedo are the only regulars 
  • Solidifying the centre line is a priority 
I'll have to review some of the media appearances again to get some more ideas, but I think there's enough here to discuss. Firstly, pitch count. There's a reason that pitchers are pulled around the 100 pitch mark and that has to do with tiredness and stress. While there is still plenty of debate over the usefulness or helpfulness of a pitch count even in MLB, it's safe to say that the more a muscle is used, the more it tires and the more susceptible it becomes to injury. Oddly enough pitching to the 7th, is something that NPB saves leader, Hitoki Iwase agrees with.

No limits on training is an interesting one. Japanese players are notorious for pushing themselves too far. I wasn't aware of a limit imposed by Yoda, but it would be understandable to place limits on senseless training to ensure players are fresh and uninjured. Removing this gives players the ability to push themselves a bit harder, but it may also lead to more injuries. 

I'd like to touch now on the catcher. Tatsunami was lucky enough to have the everlasting Takeshi Nakamura and Motonobu Tanishige as the primary catchers during his playing career. The fact of the matter however is, catching is tiring. 130 games is equal to 89% of all games in the NPB season. In the 2021 MLB season, the highest percentage of games played by a catcher was 80% set by the Red Sox, Christian Vasquez.  The next, Salvador Perez of the Royals played in 75% of all games. It is just plain silly to suggest a player needs to play 130 games, particularly in a position where stress on knees becomes a major issue. In the NPB, only Ryūtarō Umeno (130) and Takuya Kai (143) hit this mark in 2021. It’s worth mentioning neither of their teams won the pennant this year, but anyway. There’s also the absurdity of catching talent the Dragons have which makes it a perfect situation to rotate them. Ariel Martinez, Kōta Ishibashi and Yuya Gunji are all very competent backstops. Takuya Kinoshita not playing every game is just not an issue. On doing alittle research, even Tanishige and Nakamura didn't play 130 games in a season too many times. Nakmura did it once in 2001 while Tanishige hit the mark in 7/13 years with the Dragons. It's worth noting that Nakamura helped produce two Sawamura Award winning pitchers (Shinji Imanaka & Masa Yamamoto) and one MVP (Shigeki Noguchi). Tanishige on the other hand only has Kenshin Kawakami's joint MVP & Sawamura season. Perhaps Tatsunami really saw the value behind Tanishige starting most of the time vs Nakamura's comparatively more sporadic appearances but there is a reason that the former holds the NPB appearance record. He was very special.

The last two points I’d like to combine as I feel they’re related. It’s hard to argue that Viciedo isn’t at least the mid-term option at first base particularly after his future has been sewn up for the next 3 years. Ōshima however is an interesting one. He’s 35 now and slumped a little in 2021 given his very high standards. Defensively he’s been on the decline since 2019. To say he’s a guaranteed starter next year makes sense but it’s also at odds with this solidifying of the centre line going into the future. The centre-line, for those unfamiliar, is catcher, short-stop, second base and centre-field. The current options aren't terrible in this regards with Kinoshita, Kyoda and Oshima all playing big roles over the past two years and being relatively successful while doing it. Kyoda's production could be better but his glove is very valuable. Oshima and Kinoshita however both performed above average offensively and defensively last year. Toshiki Abe's injuries made second-base a bit of a merry-go-round with no clear suitor. I think the Dragons missed a beat not drafting an infielder like Hibiki Yamashiro to provide competition at second. At the moment, Naomichi Donoue, Abe, Hayato Mizowaki and Wataru Takamatsu are the clear options but all have their weak points (mainly they either can't hit or are below average defenders) Anyone else would have to be retrained to play there. Masami Ishigaki is one such candidate, while Yuki Okabayashi is already taking knocks at second in fall camp. Tatsunami has said that Kyoda is no certain thing to start next year and has challenged Akira Neo to compete for a spot at his preferred position. The new manager has said that he'll find a place for Neo in the line-up as long as he starts hitting. 

Overall, all these comments and more have me uneasy. At the same time as Tatsunami coming into the Dragons, former rival, SHINJO has been making waves after being appointed as the new Nippon Ham Fighters manager. The messages are very contrasting from each club. Tatsunami represents a return to the old, the "successful" period of the Dragons that was highlighted by grit, anger, more grit and grim faces. SHINJO's return to the Fighters, whilst not one necessarily made for on-field success, is a fun, unconventional appointment that will really excite fans. While Tatsunami is probably more likely to have on-field success, his comments about the team are just frustrating to hear as the Dragons continue to advance significantly in the way they play baseball. It's perhaps too early to make too many calls, but Tatsunami's tenure has started with him spelling out that he's an old-school hard-ass. Is that really what this club needs? We'll see. Despite the success that may or may not come, the attitude that inspires it is despairing.

Three more years for Viciedo and R-Mart

For something a little different, here's the non-Tatsunami related news.

  • Raidel Martinez and Dayan Viciedo have been renewed with both being locked up for the next 3 seasons. The team splurged on keeping the Cuban duo awarding Viciedo with ¥1.1 billion ($9.6M USD) and Martinez with ¥600 million ($5.3M USD) over the course of their 3-years. This comes as a huge relief for many as Viciedo has been reportedly under the magnifying glass for the Softbank Hawks. Martinez similarly had been linked with a possible move away, but in the end it seemed unlikely either would leave in a hurry. 
  • Ayatsugu Yamashita has been isolated at home for 10 days as he broke government mandated COVID-19 restrictions while playing in the Phoenix League. Yamashita apparently went out for a meal when he wasn't allowed to. 
  • The Phoenix League has wrapped up and the team finished with a 7-7-1 record. Outgoing farm manager, Toru Nimura claimed that a manager with a "focus on winning would have won this league." 
  • Post-season awards for the Central League have now been decided, and Yuya Yanagi has topped the league in ERA (2.20) and strikeouts (168 in 172 IP). It's the third year in a row a Dragons pitcher as topped the ERA standings with Yudai Ono taking those honours in 2019 and 2020. Yanagi also performed well in other categories with a joint top 20 quality starts, 172 IP (1st), 8.79 SO/9 (1st), and .215 average against (1st) among qualified starters. 
  • It is the first time in 10 years that three Dragons starters  passed the innings total to qualify for post-season awards. Yanagi and Ono passed their totals earlier on, and a last day effort from Shinnosuke Ogasawara pushed them over the line. Say what you might about Yoda's tenure, but the pitching has been chef's kiss
  • The Dragons FanFesta "Ryujinsai" event will be held online on the club YouTube for free with limited fans in the stands of Nagoya Stadium. The event will take place on December 4th between 1pm and 3pm JST.