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Key Players in NPB

June 26, 2020
We’re extremely happy that MLB announced its schedule for the 2020 season, and we’ll be providing analysis on the many things you can hopefully look forward to when the league returns next month.

But today, we’re focusing on a league that just started its season – Nippon Professional Baseball.

Baseball in Japan got underway last week, with the season schedule shortened to 120 games and no fans allowed in stadiums for now. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are the three-time defending Japan Series champs and will be trying for a sixth championship in a seven-season span. They’ll be without two top players, Yurisbel Gracial and Alfredo Despaigne, who returned to Cuba for the WBC qualifying round and have not yet returned to Japan due to travel restrictions.

There are plenty of players to keep an eye on this season. Among them:

Japan’s leader in hard-hit rate in 2019 was 5-foot-8 Orix Buffaloes outfielder Masataka Yoshida, who recorded a hard-hit ball in 28.5% of his at-bats. Yoshida also demonstrated a knack for having a disciplined eye at the plate. He was the only player who ranked in the top 11 in that stat who also had more walks (79) than strikeouts (64).

The 2019 NPB leader in Runs Created was Hiroshima Carp outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who finished with 123 in 140 games (comparable to how top MLB players would do in 162 games). Like Yoshida, the 25-year-old Suzuki had good plate discipline, walking 103 times and posting an NPB-best .453 on-base percentage.

Suzuki edged out Central League MVP Hayato Sakamoto, a shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants, who totaled 119 Runs Created. The Pacific League’s MVP, Seibu Lions catcher Tomoya Mori, ranked sixth in NPB in Runs Created with 106.

Three starting pitchers virtually tied for the league lead in allowing hard contact the least often in 2019: Kris Johnson of Hiroshima, Koyo Aoyagi of the Hanshin Tigers and Kodai Senga of Softbank. Each allowed hard-hit contact in approximately 13% of the at-bats against them.

Senga will be highly regarded as a potential MLB prospect when he becomes eligible for international free agency after the 2022 season. The pitcher who ranked fourth in this stat in 2019, Shun Yamaguchi, signed with the Blue Jays this past offseason.

Japanese Baseball has historically placed a significant emphasis on defensive performance and there are a few highly-regarded defenders to watch. Seibu Lions shortstop Sosuke Genda has led shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved in each of the two years we’ve tracked the stat.

Also in the middle infield, Hiroshima’s Ryosuke Kikuchi has a strong pedigree. He is a five-time Golden Glove winner and has the most Runs Saved at second base since 2018. Kikuchi was posted this past offseason with the hope of signing with an MLB team, but no market developed for him.

A number of ex-MLB players have found new homes in Japan this season. Outfielders Adam Jones (Orix) and Gerardo Parra (Yomiuri Giants), along with first baseman Justin Bour (Hanshin) all face high expectations.

Jones had a long track record of success during a 14-year career almost entirely with the Orioles. After posting an above-average OPS in nine of 10 seasons from 2009 to 2018, Jones’ numbers stayed level in 2019 when most players experienced power increases.

Parra has brought his walk-up song, "Baby Shark," with him to NPB. He was one of MLB's top defensive outfielders from 2010 to 2013, peaking with 33 Runs Saved in 2013, but those numbers have since come down a bit. His offense needs a boost too. He hit .234 with a .684 OPS for the Nationals and Giants in 2019.

Bour has already drawn comparisons to Japanese legend Randy Bass from his team's owner for his prodigious power to center field and left field. Bour has hit as many as 25 home runs in a season, but he'll have to overcome the issues he had in 2019, when he went 5-for-64 in at-bats ending with a curveball, slider or changeup, a sharp contrast from the .297 he hit against them two seasons earlier.

The NPB season is just underway. We'll be following along and watching as we wait for MLB play to resume.

For more on the NPB season check out our podcast with Japanese Baseball historian and statistician Jim Allen at this link.


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