Experiencing a Japanese pennant race for the first time has brought Hanshin Tigers' Matt Murton face to face with numerous differences between the game here and the one he knew in the States. One twist is a schedule that permits teams to easily shift their starting pitching assignments to get better matchups.
"Being in a pennant race, we see the best pitchers. It's really interesting," Murton said Saturday at Tokyo Dome. "In the States it's five guys and they stick with that rotation."
Of course, it wasn't always like that. When Casey "The Old Professor" Stengel managed the Yankees from 1949 to 1960, he was famous for unpredictably twisting his lineups, batting orders and pitching rotations this way and that. The Hall of Fame skipper often saved his best pitchers for the Yankees' chief opponents.
Most major league managers now just give their top starters the ball as often as possible within the limitations imposed by a five-man rotation.
In Japan, with six games a week and a six-man rotation, there is much more room for strategy on the part of the manager. A lot of players with pennant contenders claim they are targeted as opponents save their best pitchers for them. Is this really happening?
Do managers use their best pitchers more often against the league's best teams? In general, they don't, but there is one big exception.
A study of usage patterns of Japan's leading hurlers this season shows that CL managers are a little more likely to adjust their rotations to target pennant contenders.
The study defined a top pitcher as one with at least a .500 record and enough innings to qualify for his league's ERA lead. Eight CL pitchers and 14 PL pitchers qualified for the study.
Because so few CL pitchers made the grade, it is hard to draw conclusions about individual CL managers, but two things are apparent. The winner of the Stengel award goes to Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai. The manager least likely to bend his rotation to target specific opponents is probably the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles' Marty Brown.
The two Dragons pitchers in the study, lefty Chen Wei-yin and righty Kazuki Yoshimi, have made 23 of their 36 league starts against either the Yomiuri Giants or the second-place Tigers.
The two Eagles pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma, have made just 15 of their 33 league starts against the PL's top three: the Saitama Seibu Lions, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Chiba Lotte Marines.
Ochiai alone may be the biggest difference between the leagues. Take his team out of the equation and the difference between the CL and PL is tiny.
That being said, there are two reasons why CL managers might be more crafty about their pitching assignments.
One is that while PL clubs are required to announce starting pitchers in advance, CL teams are not, thus allowing for some element of surprise. Another reason why a CL skipper would be more inclined to save his best pitchers for the toughest teams would be his league's lack of parity.
A loss by a CL pennant contender to the last-place BayStars won't help Yokohama crowd the playoff picture. The same is not true in the PL. A loss to the fifth-place Buffaloes or last-place Eagles could conceivably help that team push yours out of the postseason.
Managers here may have the opportunity to target top teams, but with the exception of Ochiai, they rarely seem to.
Another related question would be about the quality of pitching faced. Do the best teams face better starting pitching?
Other than three-time defending CL-champion Yomiuri, the answer is no. The average winning percentage of starting pitchers faced by the Giants this season up to Tuesday was .537, highest in the CL.
The Dragons, on the other hand, have been fortunate. Pitchers starting against them this season had an average .504 winning percentage, the lowest in Japan.
This season's champions of tough luck, however, are the Eagles. The average overall winning percentage of the starting pitchers they had faced was a Japan-high .554.
As the Old Professor was fond of saying, "You can look it up."