Lindbergh: Yusuke Okada, the Bill James of Japanese baseball

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer on July 25, 2017:

If you study the box scores from the 2016 Japan Series, the season-ending showdown between the last surviving teams from Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific and Central leagues, you’ll spot two patterns that look like anomalies to American eyes.

First, there are the repeated appearances of Nippon Ham Fighters star Shohei Otani, who filled a triple role in the series as a starting pitcher, pinch hitter, and DH. But Otani is a singular sensation, as unique in Japan as he would (or will) be in the states. Another tidbit from those box scores is more representative of the broader differences between the MLB and NPB brands of baseball: In the six games it took to decide the series, the Fighters and the Hiroshima Carp combined for 16 sacrifice bunts. One was credited to Yoshihiro Maru, the Carp’s no. 3 hitter, who recorded a team-best .322/.408/.547 slash line during the regular season but bunted in the sixth inning of Game 2, with a runner on second, no outs, and a 2–1 lead.

By contrast, there were only three sacrifice bunts in last year’s World Series, which went seven games. That rate of 0.21 bunts per team game was a perfect match for the MLB-wide regular-season rate. In the majors, the sacrifice bunt is an endangered play; teams are bunting only half as often as they did as recently as 1994, and they’re setting new all-time lows with almost every passing year. This season, MLB players have bunted only 0.19 times per team game. NPB players, meanwhile, have bunted about 0.80 times per team game, 4.2 times the MLB rate. MLB teams haven’t bunted that frequently since 1939.

There are cultural causes of Japan’s continued embrace of the bunt. As Robert Whiting, author of the acclaimed book about Japanese baseball and culture, You Gotta Have Wa, told me for a previous article about Japan’s most extravagant bunter, Japanese baseball “has always been a team sport” that places a high “value on harmony, everybody contributing.” In that environment, bunting is encouraged; in Whiting’s words, “the more the better.”

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Originally published: July 25, 2017. Last Updated: July 25, 2017.