Rise of the Samurai Pitcher

Author and artwork: Patrick Rhodes

Masahiro Tanaka stands on the mound, rubbing the ball vigorously between his hands. It’s a crisp, cool night in the Bronx. Stepping back, he digs his right foot into the rubber, winds up and, with a seven-foot stretch, steps towards the catcher, unleashing a blistering four-seam, 95 mph fastball. Less than half a second later, it explodes into the catcher’s mitt with a loud pop. The batter can only stand and watch as it flies by. Strike one!

It’s a common scene when Tanaka takes the mound for the New York Yankees. With the focus and discipline of a Samurai warrior, their star rookie pitcher has taken Major League Baseball (MLB) by storm in 2014. His stats [1] (as of August 15, 2014) are gaudy: 2.51 ERA (Earned Run Average), 12-4 record and a 1.01 WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched). Further, the guy’s a strikeout machine, fanning 135 hitters vs only 19 walks. Tanaka is the latest Japanese ace to infiltrate MLB. Twenty years ago, you’d have to look long and hard to find a Japanese pitcher in this league (in fact, you’d find only one: Hideo Nomo, aka the “Tornado”), but today, it is an increasingly common site. What’s going on?

Baseball in Japan
Baseball has been a part of Japanese culture for nearly 150 years, having been first introduced to the sport in the early 1870s [2] by an American expat teacher named Horace Wilson. By the early 1900s, the sport had taken root in Japanese high schools and universities. Some of these university teams traveled to the United States to compete against their American counterparts to improve their skills.

The baseball rivalry between Waseda University and Keio University has lasted well over 100 years and continues to this very day [3]

Throughout these early years, the United States would occasionally send major league teams (or assembled teams of pro players) on promotional tours. They would often visit Japan which usually resulted in the Japanese being pounded by the Americans. However, the Japanese players continued to evolve, honing their skills and occasionally playing the U.S. to a close game. Frustrated by their lack of success against professional players, the Japanese formed a pro league in 1936 (the Japanese Baseball League) to spur further development. That league would eventually become the Nippon Professional League (NPB) in 1950, which is the highest level of baseball in Japan today.

Over the years, the NPB has enjoyed immense popularity in Japan [2]. Until 1993, it was the country’s only professional team sport (at which time an association football league was added). On the world stage, Japan has faired well at baseball’s equivalent to association football’s World Cup – the World Baseball Classic – winning the event in 2006 and 2009, and placing third in the most recent edition (2013). The league has continued to improve and is now widely regarded as a “AAAA” league (better than the triple-A players in the U.S., but a step below MLB players).

However, some of these “AAAA” players have become extraordinarily adept – especially their pitchers…

Japanese Players Infiltrate America
In 1964, the first Japanese pitcher debuted for MLB [5]. Masanori Murakami had been sent to the United States at the age of twenty as a baseball “exchange student”. Originally, he played for the single-A Fresno team, but was so good that he was quickly promoted to the San Francisco Giants as a relief pitcher. During his two years in the “bigs”, he posted a 5-1 record with a 3.64 ERA and 100 strikeouts. Not bad for an “exchange student”! Although the Giants didn’t want to send him back, he left to fulfill his contractual obligations in Japan where he would go on to have a long and storied career.

Thirty-one years would pass until MLB would see its next Japanese pitcher.

In 1990, Hideo Nomo was an immediate success in Japan. His unorthodox windup and delivery earned him the nickname of the “tornado”, confusing batters (and catchers) to the tune of 287 strikeouts in his first season. Obtaining immense popularity, he found himself in a contract dispute by 1994 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Realizing that he could play for any team he wished if he retired, he did just that, which allowed him to pack his bags for MLB in 1995.

Thus, the wave of Japanese pitchers had begun.

Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball use a posting system to handle player transfers between leagues..

At once, Nomo began to dominate big league players in Major League Baseball. He became so popular that he garnered commercial endorsements while also retaining a huge fan base back in Japan, where his MLB games were televised. Other players in Japan began to wonder if they, too, could make it in MLB where the money was much better. Executives in Major League Baseball were also intrigued after witnessing Nomo’s success. With both sides favorable to the situation, some of the best Japanese players began to make their way to America [6] (Figure 1):

Figure 1

While there is an increasing trend suggested here (not plotted), there really aren’t enough data points to justify it. Suffice to say that if Japanese pitchers continue to debut in MLB in future years, nobody would be surprised. In fact, given the amount of money these players make, I’d say it’s likely. 

How Good Are They?
Clearly, MLB would not continue to pay expensive posting fees for Japanese players if they weren’t any good. The question is, how good are they in relation to the rest of the league? Looking back to 1995 when the “wave” of players began, we can see that the Japanese pitchers are rather good. In fact, when compared against their peers in MLB, they boast a better ERA as well as WHIP [7] (Figure 2). It should be noted that their yearly averages vary more than the league averages due to a small sample size (which can be seen at the bottom of the chart). That being said, there is no denying that the Japanese pitchers selected by MLB are very good, which lends credit to both the players as well as the MLB scouts.

Indeed, we are witnessing the rise of the samurai pitcher:

Figure 2 

There are more stats that can be measured to determine success as a pitcher in any league. However, I chose to work with ERA and WHIP, since those are two of most popular stats cited. Obviously, both are dependent on the defense of the team as a whole (it is a team sport, after all), but the best pitchers influence these stats to a large degree.

What isn’t shown on the graph above (Figure 2) is which players contributed most to those stats. For that, you’d have to analyze each player individually which is beyond the scope of this article. Rest assured, however, that these stats were calculated with innings pitched as the weighted measure. In other words, if a pitcher threw for 200 innings, his contribution to the overall ERA average for that year would be twice that of a pitcher who threw for only 100 innings. Thus, the stats above are accurate in determining the ERA and WHIP for both Japanese and non-Japanese pitchers in MLB.

Another interesting tidbit from the graph above (Figure 2) is the stabilizing trend of active Japanese pitchers. After the initial surge, that number hasn’t risen above 11 in any year, suggesting that we’ve reached something of a saturation point. Note that, in many years, there were more pitchers in the MLB than shown above; however, they aren’t counted due to injury or otherwise (i.e. they pitched no innings).

Predicting Future MLBers
I’ve often wondered how these same pitchers performed in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) before (and after) they arrived in the States (and Canada). In other words, how good were they over there when compared to their peers who didn’t play in MLB? As the graph below shows (Figure 3), they are indeed better – consistently better [8]. Not at any time were the “future MLBers” posting higher ERAs than their counterparts and only twice was the WHIP higher (and just barely higher at that). In fact, the chart clearly shows that future/past MLB pitchers boasted an ERA over half a run better than their peers. For those who know baseball, that’s a significant difference.

Figure 3 

You may be confused at the bottom section of the graph depicting the number of pitchers that played in MLB. If at any time there were no more than 11 pitchers in MLB, why does this chart (Figure 3) show upwards of 25? That is because many of these pitchers came back to NPB to pitch out their careers for various reasons (e.g. washed out of MLB, didn’t like it, contract issues, etc.). In fact, most of the pitchers returned to the NPB at some point after their MLB experience. Further still, many Japanese players only pitched for a season or two in the U.S., returning to Japan for the majority of their careers. Lastly, these pitchers usually pitched in NPB for a few years before heading over to the states. Thus, as the years went by, this number grew quite large.

In recent years, fewer players from Japan are being selected to play in MLB. This can be seen in all graphs. After twenty years of experimentation, MLB seems to have grown more selective of the players from Japan. This could explain why there are fewer Japanese pitchers in MLB as well as why those pitchers are so good. For proof of the latter, check the recent ERA and WHIP numbers – these ace pitchers are extraordinarily good, better than their predecessors in most cases. Let’s not forget, however, that many Japanese players don’t want to leave Japan – their salaries have risen in recent years, making the prospect of staying home more attractive [9].

The first Japanese baseball union was established in 1985, the first player agents in 2001 [10].

So, can we predict which pitchers will likely play in MLB? Well, there are too many human variables at play here. For example, even if the pitcher was “lights out”, he still might not want to leave Japan, or a player could be under a long term contract, etc.. That being said, using just the two variables above (ERA and WHIP), we could probably narrow down the list of potential players. If a pitcher’s ERA was above 3.2 for a couple of years, that might be a red flag. If their WHIP was too high, we might rule them out as well. At best, we could only use the data as a tool to weed out players that clearly aren’t ready for MLB. For those that are “on the fence” or those that have outstanding numbers, well, that’s what the scouts are for. They go to games and observe, taking copious amounts of notes. If those scouts are impressed and a plethora of other pieces fall into place, that player could end up playing for the Yankees.

Baseball – A Growing Global Sport
Japan is not the only country to enjoy professional baseball and certainly not the only country producing MLB-caliber players. Baseball is extremely popular in places such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia. While those leagues as a whole are not competing at the level of MLB, the world is slowly catching up. To be sure, those countries are producing some of the world’s finest players. In fact, countries other than the U.S. dominate international baseball competitions such as the World Baseball Classic (WBC). As mentioned earlier, Japan won that competition in 2006 and 2009 while the Dominican Republic took the trophy in 2013.

This brings up an interesting side note: while Major League Baseball is certainly the premier professional baseball league of the world, that doesn’t mean that the United States (or Canada) produces the best national team. It mirrors the situation I wrote about concerning England and the World Cup: while England boasts the best professional association football league (the English Premier League), their national team isn’t usually among the best teams at the World Cup. With regards to the United States and the WBC, they’ve only managed 4th place (in 2009) out of the three competitions played thus far.

Japan has shown the world that they are serious contenders in the sport of baseball. While this article focused on their pitchers, they have also produced some amazing hitters as well (e.g. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui (aka “Godzilla”) et al.). The fact is, before 1995, few spectators outside of Japan were aware of Nippon Professional Baseball and their players. Fast-forward to 2014 and some of those players are now household names, worldwide. This article has shown that their pitchers, in particular, are becoming sought-after commodities due to their outstanding performances both in Japan and the United States. What does the future hold? More of the same, I suspect. While the variables are too numerous to consider (and sample size too small) in a light statistical treatment such as this, it seems logical – perhaps even likely – that we will continue to see Japanese pitchers migrate to Major League Baseball. If the story presented here holds true, expect them to slice up the competition like their Samurai forefathers.

1. Pro-Baseball-Reference.com, Masahiro Tanaka (last accessed Aug 15, 2014); available from http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tanakma01.shtml?redir

2. Pro-Baseball-Reference.com, History of baseball in Japan (last accessed August 15, 2014); available from http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/History_of_baseball_in_Japan

3. Levinson, David and Christensen, Karen. (1999). Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to Present. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

4. APG Sports, Japanese Professional Baseball’s Twenty Year Long Slump (last accessed August 23, 2014); available from http://apgsports.com/2014/03/27/japanese-professionalbaseballs-twenty-year-long-slump/

5. Major League Baseball, 49 years ago today, Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese Major Leaguer (accessed August 16, 2014); available from http://wapc.mlb.com/cutfour/2013/09/01/59242586/49-years-ago-today-the-first-japanese-mlb-player-made-his-debut

6. Pro-Baseball-Reference.com (2014). Japanese and Nippon Pro Baseball [Data File]; available from http://www.baseball-reference.com/japan/

7. Pro-Baseball-Reference.com (2014). League Year-By-Year Pitching—Averages [Data File]; available from http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/pitch.shtml

8. Pro-Baseball-Reference.com (2014). Japanese and Nippon Pro Baseball [Data File]; available from http://www.baseball-reference.com/japan/

9. Snyder, David L. (2009). Automatic Outs: Salary Arbitration in Nippon Professional Baseball. Marquette Sports Law Review, (Vol. 20, Issue 1, Fall); available from https://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/sportslaw/vol20/iss1/4 

10. Ibid