Monday, November 21, 2011

Beware those Gaudy Japanese Pitching Stats

The Japanese baseball season ended yesterday with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks taking game 7 of the Japan Series, 3-0 over the Chunichi Dragons. This was the fifth game in the series with just 3 runs; four games finished 2-1, while the other two were 4-2 and 5-0. That's a total of just 26 runs over seven games, a ridiculously low amount. By comparison there were 68 runs scored in the seven games of the World Series, including 23 in game 3 alone.

So is pitching in the NPB that much better relative to hitting than it is in the MLB? Probably not. It turns out that the NPB changed the baseballs they use for this season, going with one ball rather than four different balls as they used to. The new ball is much less springy and has larger seams among other modifications. The result was a massive drop in offense and very happy pitchers.

Here are some numbers from 2010 and 2011 and the percentage change.

Stat 2010 2011 %Chg
Average .269 .247 - 8.1
Runs 7582 5663 -25.3
Hits 15746 13891 -11.8
HR 1605 939 -41.5
Slugging .407 .344 -15.5

ERA 4.03 3.00 -25.5
BB 5108 4264 -16.5
K 11904 11518 - 3.2
SV 381 441 +15.7
SHO 126 196 +55.6
Wow, a 41% drop in dingers and a 56% rise in team shutouts. If you like runs, you will not enjoy the NPB very much. I generally prefer pitchers duels to offensive explosions, but when low-scoring games are so common, they lose their impact.

There are a few other points I want to make here. First, be careful stating any statistics from the 2011 NPB season without noting the overall lack of offense. Six pitchers finished with ERAs under 2, while only nine batters were above .300. This winter will see Yu Darvish's named bandied about as he considers moving to the majors. His line this year was amazing (18-6, 1.44, 36/276 K/BB ratio) and I suspect that you will see it often. Don't get me wrong, Darvish is a great hurler, but be aware that his stats this year were definitely affected by the new baseballs. You'll need the more advanced sabermetrics such as ERA+ to really understand how good he was. (As an aside, Masahiro Tanaka had an even better year.)

The low-scoring games also contributed to the increase in ties this season. It's simply easier to tie a game 2-2 than 8-8, and so we saw far more draws this year (56 compared to just 16 in 2010), much to my chagrin. There were even three 0-0 tilts in what can only be described as an abomination of the natural laws of baseball.

Amazingly, despite the reduction in offense, game times hardly changed. Regular readers will know that the main reason I stopped going to NPB games was that they were often interminable, taking well over 3 hours for a rather mundane result, such as 6-2. Last season the average 9-inning game was 3:13, this year 3:06, a mere 3.6% reduction. If you take the total runs scored this year and divide by the total minutes played, you get an average of 2.09 runs per hour, soccer-like numbers. Sorry, but that's just not entertaining baseball.

When I moved here, the NPB was interesting and compelling, with a single championship series. The addition of the Climax Series made the season meaningless, and these latest modifications to the baseball make the games dull and plodding affairs. Most fans don't notice this because baseball isn't covered in the same manner as it is in the States; it seems that there are few writers that cover the big picture here. So I believe the average fan is not able to appreciate the changes that the sport has undergone.

The NPB will investigate the results of this new baseball during the offseason, but it is not clear if changes will be made. For the sake of fans who enjoy a balance between offense and defense, I hope they do something.



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