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THE HOT CORNER: Nippon Ham knows good leather work

by Jim Allen (Nov 27, 2008)

How much is good fielding worth? It's an important question if you are the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and leather work is your stock in trade.

There is no question the Fighters are the best fielding team in the country--they may be the best in the world. The team's ability to catch and throw the ball has been the cornerstone of its success since 2006.

"Pitching and defense make this club go," manager Masataka Nashida told The Hot Corner last month before the Pacific League's Climax Series' second stage.

Just how valuable is the Fighters' D? How many more games would they lose with ordinary fielding?

While the interaction between pitching and team defense makes analysis tough, there are a few things we can make good guesses about.

Take outfield defense, for example.

What would happen to the team's win total if one were to replace Nippon Ham's stellar outfield with a Brand-X, PL-average group?

The simple answer is that with average outfielding, the Fighters would have allowed 37 more runs this past year and finished fourth with four or five more losses.

Over the past two years, the Fighters allowed 1,255 hits and committed two errors on 3,099 balls hit into the outfield on the fly. On the same number of balls, an average PL outfield would have allowed 1,333 hits and made four errors.

An average-outfielding Fighters team would have allowed 78 more hits and two more runners on through errors but the kicker is not getting outs on those 80 plays. Since the team still needs to record those outs to get through its games, a Fighters club with an average-quality outfield would end up facing 114 more batters. Some of those batters would reach base, hit home runs and so on.

The most surprising result in studying how a weaker outfield defense would hurt Nippon Ham is the total of doubles allowed. The poorer-fielding Fighters would allow 97 more singles and 19 more triples, but 15 fewer doubles. Although this appears counterintuitive at first, it makes perfect sense.

The Fighters are the fastest team in Japan. Many balls that would go for triples against other clubs only get you two bases against the Hamsters. The Fighters' outfield allows more doubles because it is good.

By the time the average-outfielding Fighters recorded the same number of outs as the real McCoys did over the past two seasons, they would also allow three more home runs, an extra stolen base, an additional runner thrown out stealing, two more sacrifice hits, 13 more sacrifice flies, eight more walks, one more hit batsman, 19 more strikeouts, 11 more groundball double plays, six more errors in the outfield that advance runners, nine fewer base runner kills from the outfield and a partridge in a pear tree.

Because one can estimate how many runs score as a result of these different events, one can say the cost of replacing the Fighters' fine outfielders with Brand X would be 74 runs over two seasons.

There is a predictable relationship between runs and wins. For the Fighters, who play in a pitchers' park, it takes 8.2 runs over the course of the season (either prevented or scored) to turn a loss into a win. Thus 74 runs over two years equals nine wins--or 4-1/2 a year.

When Nashida took over, he wanted more runs, but because fielding is Nippon Ham's core business, adding offense to the product line has proven tricky.

"It's very hard for us to add a big foreign player, because our [defensive] requirements are very high," said Hiroshi Yoshimura, the Fighters' vice director of baseball operations. "We expect a lot."

Terrmel Sledge, who hit .289 with 44 walks and some power, joined the club with a reputation as a glove man.

"We talked to major league GMs and we asked them, 'Can Terrmel Sledge play in the outfield?'" Yoshimura said. "They say, 'He can play center field!' But for us, he is a step down in left."

The dilemma of adding runs without tampering with the defense may explain their recent four-player trade with the Yomiuri Giants.

Although the Fighters gave up closer Micheal Nakamura, slugger Tomohiro Nioka is both a major offensive upgrade over incumbent third baseman Eiichi Koyano and a quality fielder to boot.


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