Yoshihisa Hirano and Deceptiveness in Action

Baseball is often simultaneously a kind and cruel sport. In 2018, nothing could’ve been kinder to us as fans than the Shohei Ohtani experience. We marveled at his ability on the mound and at the plate as we watched a level of complete player unseen since the early days of the sport. But Ohtani was also placed on the disabled list with a UCL sprain, an injury that could rob the game of his gifts for an extended period. And now, because of that, we’re forced to search elsewhere for what the kind side of baseball has given us.

Well, how about looking no further than one of Ohtani’s most experienced opponents? One who has seen Ohtani step into the batter’s box 15 times over their respective careers and has dominated the Angels’ superstar, to the tune of seven strikeouts and only one measly infield single allowed?

You might be able to guess — given the number of plate appearances against this pitcher — that this would likely have to be another former NPB player. However, rather than a big name such as Masahiro Tanaka or Kenta Maeda, this Ohtani kryptonite is Yoshihisa Hirano, a name that probably isn’t too well known in America outside of Phoenix. With Archie Bradley looking slightly more human and Brad Boxberger having had trouble with the homer, the 34-year-old Hirano has been a key component for a D-backs team that, despite a merely average relief corps, leads the NL West.

While the most obsessive of baseball fans probably have known about Hirano since his debut in 2006, the 2017 World Baseball Classic was his first appearance on the international baseball stage. Before that, he had become a star in Japan, recognized first as the Pacific League’s top setup man in 2011 while later earning the title of top closer in 2014. In the seven seasons prior to the WBC (2010-16), Hirano threw 459 innings, compiled 127 saves and 131 holds, and put up a 2.25 ERA while striking out 28.3% of hitters and walking only 5.9%.

Hirano left his stamp on the 2017 edition of the WBC, as well, appearing six times (5.1 innings pitched), striking out seven and walking only one. More importantly, it proved to Hirano that he could effectively throw his pitches with the slightly different MLB ball. Combine that with the knowledge that several scouts held him in high regard and Hirano found himself receiving interest from several MLB teams. He settled on a two-year, $6 million offer from the Diamondbacks, where he declared himself ready to “win a spot on the team.”

Hirano has definitely earned his place this season. In fact, he has arguably been the Diamondbacks’ best reliever. In 31 innings — just shy of halfway to his stated goal of 70 on the season — he has stranded over 92% of his runners and struck out just over a quarter of batters (25.8%). While he has yet to get a save — he blew his only chance on May 5th — he still has 15 holds and a 2.15 WPA (ninth among qualified relievers).

How is Hirano so effective? In an age when velocity is rising and relievers regularly top 100 mph, his average fastball sits at 92.2. He isn’t blowing batters away, in other words — and yet they are still only batting .208 with a .094 ISO against it. He apparently also has a slider that he threw around 7% of the time last year in Japan, but it hasn’t appeared in the majors yet.

Hirano’s main weapon is his “drop pitch,” reported in various outlets as a splitter or a forkball. The photographic evidence seems to suggest forkball. Whatever you call it, though, it’s effective. Batters whiff 35.5% of the time they swing at it. When they do make contact with it, the ball is going on the ground over 60% of the time.

That’s it for Hirano. Two pitches. A little over half fastballs, a little less than half forkballs. It gives Hirano one of the heaviest offspeed-leaning arsenals in the PITCHf/x era. The majority of these pitchers didn’t have great years — Hector Neris in 2016 is one exception — and none of them feature fastballs of positive value. Unsurprisingly, Hirano’s forkball puts up positive value per 100 (1.45 runs) but so does his fastball (2.21 runs).

The key is the interaction between the fastball and forkball. Coming out of the hand, the pitches originate at nearly the same point — on average less than two inches apart. Of course, this similarity is going to make it tougher for opponents to distinguish one from the other. On the horizontal plane, the pitches move (on average) nearly the same amount. The fastball runs on average an inch more to Hirano’s armside, ostensibly due to the fastball’s higher velocity and spin rate. Again, this similar horizontal movement makes the two pitches less distinguishable.

Where the difference comes in is of course the vertical movement. Hirano’s average fastball and average forkball have a difference in vertical movement of just over nine inches (9.64 in. for the fastball and 0.61 for the forkball). That represents one of the lowest vertical movements on a forkball or splitter in the PITCHf/x era and also one of the largest differences between fastball and splitter vertical movements. When a batter sees a pitch coming out of Hirano’s hand, there’s a very good chance that, even if he just slightly misreads the pitch, he will be swinging clean through a splitter.

An example of Hirano’s use of the fastball and forkball in tandem occurred less than a week ago. In the top of the seventh on June 14th, Jose Bautista stepped in against Hirano. The first three pitches were all outside, and Bautista swung under a high fastball to make the count 3-1. The next pitch may have been a bit low, but Bautista failed to check his swing to make the count full.

Two more fastballs followed, one knee-high and one at the letters. Bautista fouled off both. After the second, the Arizona play-by-play man said that he was surprised to have not seen the splitter, as all seven pitches to that point had been fastballs.

Well…

Bautista swung cleanly through the forkball, looking for another knee-high fastball. If we overlay the 3-1 checked swing and the strikeout pitch, we can see why this pair of pitches is so difficult.

Knee-high catcher setup, nearly identical release points, markedly different ending locations. When two pitches are set up and executed so well, it’s nearly impossible for a hitter to do any damage.

In one of the first interviews he conducted after signing with the Diamondbacks, Hirano said, “I don’t think that what you’re able to do in Japan is just going to work in America.” Presumably, Hirano merely intended to recognize the adjustments he’d make for a different baseball, a new league, and a new role with a new team. While there is no doubt that he has likely had to tinker slightly with his pitches, the almost amusing inaccuracy of that statement has only increased as the season reaches the halfway point.

The Hirano of Japan has translated over to America quite well without the need for any dramatic changes. He has continued to lean on a devastating fastball-forkball combination that is as effective in Phoenix as it was in Kobe and Osaka. Players on both sides of the Pacific continue to swing through the pitches or pound them into the ground with minimal effectiveness. If the Diamondbacks have any hope of holding on to their playoff spot, they will have to continue putting their trust in Hirano.





Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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Garyth
4 years ago

That overlay gif is soooo mesmerizing. Reminds me of those motion trading cards you twist side-to-side.