Baseball in Korea and Taiwan is in full swing — my apologies for the pun — and a third major professional league is set to join them on Friday when NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) starts up its delayed 2020 season. The novel coronavirus has shown that it has little care for the vagaries of baseball scheduling, so as with other leagues, NPB will naturally play a shortened slate.
Unlike a certain other league – it would be far too gauche of me to identify it by name – NPB is trying to fit as much baseball into the summer as it can. By virtue of being able to start in June, each team is scheduled to play 125 games, with the main change being the suspension of interleague play. (Normally, each team plays three home games against three teams in the opposite league, and three road games against the remaining cross-league competition.)
So with Japanese baseballing imminent, it’s time to run the ZiPS projections for the league, as I did last month with the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). With a league closer to MLB in quality, slightly better data, and more personal experience working with said data, I’m more confident about ZiPS’ NPB projections than the KBO ones.
Without interleague play, both leagues will have .500 records, helpful for the Central League, which has lost the interleague battle against the Pacific League 14 times in 15 seasons. Ties aren’t something ZiPS normally has to account for, but after doing research on the topic, I’ve found they’re even more random than one-run wins in MLB (as we all would have expected). On to the projections!
|Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles||69||54||2||—||.560||37.6%||25.1%||17.2%||11.7%||6.2%||2.3%|
|Fukuoka Softbank Hawks||68||55||2||1||.552||33.9%||25.7%||17.9%||12.5%||7.4%||2.6%|
|Saitama Seibu Lions||62||61||2||7||.504||12.9%||18.6%||20.8%||20.2%||17.0%||10.5%|
|Chiba Lotte Marines||56||67||2||13||.456||3.8%||9.1%||14.8%||19.5%||26.3%||26.5%|
|Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters||53||70||2||16||.432||1.4%||4.8%||9.5%||15.1%||24.1%||45.2%|
Tohoku Rakuten general manager Kazuhisa Ishii (who pitched for the Dodgers and Mets) has been aggressive since the Golden Eagles went 58-82-3 after 2018 and that approach continued this winter with the signing of Daichi Suzuki, formerly of Chiba Lotte. Suzuki has played all four infield positions regularly and ZiPS projects him to again be solid, with a .272/.351/.428 triple-slash. ZiPS projects a comeback season (3.78 ERA) for Hideaki Wakui, who saw his ERA drop to 4.55, his worst since his rookie season, but with his best strikeout rate in years. Kazuhisa Makita returns to Japan after two years in the Padres organization.
SoftBank, the winner of the Japan Series in 2019 and in five of the last six years, project to be right there with Rakuten in the standings. Like Nelson Cruz, who profiled similarly as a minor league in the United States, free agent signing Wladimir Balentien has shown few signs of decline as he enters his late 30s. ZiPS projects a dip, but not a massive one, with a .262/.364/.502 line and 27 homers. Yuki Yanagita’s 2019 was ruined by knee and elbow injuries and though it’s off his prior numbers — injuries and age are risks — his projected .320/.421/.589 line is huge for a team that lost 100 runs from 2018 to 2019. And here’s no pitcher in Japan ZiPS likes more than Kodai Senga, who ZiPS pegs as a legitimate number-two in the majors right now.
ZiPS is less excited about Seibu despite their first-place finish in 2019. Shogo Akiyama took his .864 OPS and .392 OBP to Cincinnati in the offseason, and ZiPS remains worried about Tatsuya Imai’s walk rate. Overall, ZiPS has little confidence in the starters after Zach Neal and sees a bit of regression from catcher Tomoya Mori, projected for an .834 OPS after his .959 explosion.
Orix added Adam Jones over the winter, but ZiPS sadly believes that he’s in steep decline, enough so that he’s not forecast to receive the same bonus that younger, Quadruple-A sluggers get when they go over to Japan. ZiPS is far less pessimistic about Masataka Yoshida, with a .929 OPS projection, behind only Yanagita and Seiya Suzuki. Yoshinobu Yamamoto remains one of MLB’s favorite NPB pitchers and projects for a 2.41 ERA in 2020. ZiPS sees the entire pitching staff as one of the best in the league; its concerns are more offense-related.
ZiPS forecasts a 60-point OPS drop-off for Brandon Laird, the team’s 2019 home run leader, and a 50-point decline from Leonys Martin, both of which spell trouble for Lotte. ZiPS projects Seiya Inoue, who is also on the wrong side of 30 now, as the only player on the team with an .800 OPS. The Marines were second in the Pacific League in runs scored in 2019, but ZiPS sees them falling off to fourth with many of the contributors aging. The computer sees Ayumu Ishikawa, Manbu Mima, and Atsuki Taneichi as fairly low-risk from a projection standpoint and doesn’t sweat the loss of Mike Bolsinger, now famous for his lawsuit against the Houston Astros for sign-stealing.
Every baseball fan unfamiliar with NPB can remember the moment of sadness they experienced upon discovering it’s the Nippon-Ham Fighters and not the Nippon Ham Fighters. Only three Fighters hit 10 home runs in 2019 and ZiPS is even more pessimistic about 2020, projecting Sho Nakata to lead the team in slugging at a mere .415. Among Pacific League teams, only ORIX scored fewer runs than Nippon-Ham, and ZiPS projects the Fighters to finish at the bottom in 2020. ZiPS sees the pitching as generally being better, with Naoki Miyanishi a top five reliever, but doesn’t think it’ll be enough to cancel out the offense. Now to the Central:
|YOKOHAMA DeNA BAYSTARS||64||59||2||4||.520||19.8%||21.7%||20.2%||17.4%||13.6%||7.2%|
|Hiroshima Toyo Carp||64||59||2||4||.520||19.7%||21.2%||19.5%||18.2%||14.0%||7.4%|
|Tokyo Yakult Swallows||54||69||2||14||.440||2.0%||5.7%||10.1%||15.2%||24.4%||42.6%|
ZiPS sees less of a gap between teams in the Central League than last season. The Giants project, by a narrow edge, to repeat their first-place finish in the standings. Yoshihiro Maru, a free agent signing before the 2019 season, was a big reason for the team’s success, and that’s projected to continue with a .291/.410/.510 triple-slash. One source of concern in the projections is that ZiPS really doesn’t know how to deal with Hayato Sakamoto’s COVID-19 diagnosis, so there’s definitely some downside risk in the projection.
Neftali Soto is a threat to lead the league in home runs, with ZiPS projecting 34 to come off of his bat in 2020, a worthy follow-up to his 43-homer 2019. Losing Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to the Tampa Bay Rays is a giant loss, however, and the BAYSTARS projecting for second place is due more to the general weakness of the league than anything else. Shota Imanaga’s 11-8 record and 3.41 ERA projects to lead the rotation.
The Hiroshima Carp’s world revolves around Seiya Suzuki, whose .335/.453/.565 line gave him an OPS lead of more than 150 points over the next-best hitter on the team last year. Ryuhei Matsuyama is entering his age-34 seasons, but ZIPS projects a short-term comeback and a .286/.357/.434 line. Daichi Ohsera (12-7, 3.33 ERA projection) and veteran Kris Johnson (10-6, 3.18 ERA projection) at the top of the rotation are a team strength, along with Hiroki Tokoda (7-6, 3.53 ERA projection)
Even with a 3.46 ERA in 2019, the Hanshin Tigers were unable to finish much past .500, thanks to the worst offense in the Central League. Jefry Marte doesn’t project as a fluke with an .801 projected OPS. The saving grace might be Jerry Sands, imported from the United States by way of a stint in Korea, projected at an .820 OPS which would lead the team. ZiPS projects four pitchers on the the team to strike out at least 100 batters and finish with an ERA under 3.50: Onelki Garcia, Yuta Iwasada, Takuma Akiyama, and Yuki Nishi.
The pair of Yuya Yanagi (7-6, 3.66 ERA projection) and Yudai Ohno (8-6, 3.31 ERA) return to Chunichi’s pitching staff, but the team lost arguably their best (and at least second-best) reliever to the Texas Rangers with Joely Rodríguez‘s departure. Dayan Viciedo’s .308/.369/.488 projected line comfortably leads the team and ZiPS only projects four players on the team, including Viciedo, to finish with an OPS above .700.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows project as the least-talented team in NPB for the 2020 season. Second baseman Tetsuto Yamada projects to again be a star, with a .272/.398/.512, 26 homer line, but the team lost Wladimir Balentien to SoftBank and the team’s third-best hitter in 2019, Norichika Aoki, is a 38-year-old line drive hitter. ZiPS projects both the rotation and the bullpen to be at the bottom of the league.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.