Learning from the Japanese game

There in the Giants clubhouse, behind the stars you’ve heard everything about, are two rare players. They’ve made a circuit that very few players have made before. After surviving the gauntlet, they took some time to pass on what they learned during their travels East.

New Giants’ third baseman Casey McGehee was pretty sure his Major League Baseball career was over when he packed his bags for Sendai in Japan. "Going over there, that was one of the toughest parts, I knew the chances of coming back weren’t great," McGehee said before FanFest last week.

But both McGehee and right-hander Ryan Vogelsong made it back, and to the same team no less. Of the 167 foreigners who have played in Nippon Professional Baseball since 1998, Brian Cartwright found that only 11 position players have managed more than 100 plate appearances back in America. And only Julio Franco and McGehee managed as much as 300 in one season. Only nine pitchers pitched for more than one season in the majors after returning from Japan.

Or: Nobody since 1998 has come back from Japan and become a full-time starter like McGehee, and only Eric Stults, Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong have returned and managed more than 100 innings twice in the big leagues. 

Though the game itself isn’t very different in Japan — they bunt a little more, swing a little more, and play for one run more often — it could be that the trip over has that sense of finality to it that you hear from McGehee. You don’t usually come back and become an important part of a good team.

The two Giants attributed a good deal of their current success to what they learned in Japan, and it’s possible that a harsher strike zone for foreigners played a part. Because much of what they learned in Japan was related to the strike zone.

"I knew I was always pitching to a smaller strike zone, so I knew I had to be on the plate," Vogelsong said of his time in Japan. When it comes to walks, the effect is obvious — before Japan, Vogelsong walked 4.4 batters per nine, and since, he’s walked three per nine.

His pitching coach, Dave Righetti, had him before and after Japan, and agrees that the command took a lurch forward — "his delivery and his ability to locate the baseball changed dramatically" — but there’s a little more nuance than just that. When Righetti says that his pitcher "fanatically" wants to throw strikes and is "intent on throwing the ball where he wants to," he sheds a little more light on what Vogelsong is doing.

When most pitchers head to their secondary pitches in order to get a whiff when the count hits two strikes, Vogelsong turned to his fastball more often than almost anyone in baseball in 2014. Take a look at the regularly-thrown four-seam fastballs below — only one pitcher uses his four-seamer almost 10 percent more often than usual in two-strike counts.

Pitcher Four-Seam% Two Strike Four-Seam% Difference
Felix Hernandez 14.80% 27.96% 13.16%
Ryan Vogelsong 38.80% 47.97% 9.17%
Lance Lynn 57.20% 65.13% 7.93%
Julio Teheran 38.40% 45.73% 7.33%
Wade Miley 31.50% 38.80% 7.30%
Hisashi Iwakuma 27.10% 31.58% 4.48%
Dan Haren 27.90% 32.37% 4.47%
Wei-Yin Chen 46.40% 50.72% 4.32%
Bartolo Colon 29.30% 33.41% 4.11%
Brandon McCarthy 6.00% 10.06% 4.06%
Mike Leake 14.40% 18.30% 3.90%
Madison Bumgarner 27.20% 31.01% 3.81%
Jeremy Guthrie 36.20% 38.83% 2.63%
Johnny Cueto 29.90% 32.46% 2.56%
Jered Weaver 21.60% 24.09% 2.49%

"If you’ve got the hitter down already, why give yourself a higher chance of making a mistake and giving up a hit," said Vogelsong. "When I’m ahead in the count, I think I know I can throw this fastball right there and make the pitch I want to make with my fastball, so why mess around with something else that I might not throw exactly where I want to?"

What’s amazing is that he learned this not only in a place where the strike zone might have been smaller for him, but also in a league where the other pitchers threw more off-speed stuff than we see here in America. Fifty-eight percent of the pitches seen by MLB hitters are fastballs — according to Patrick Newman of NPBTracker; 48% of the pitches in NPB were fastballs in 2012.

That was definitely something McGehee noticed. "Definitely more junk," he laughed. But he also learned from it. "It gave me a lot of confidence in hitting with two strikes — not necessarily feeling like I had to pick off fastballs all the time — and made me more comfortable hitting a lot of pitches in a lot of different counts that you normally wouldn’t see."

The year before McGehee left for Japan, he swung and missed at a career-worst 8% of the pitches he saw. Last year in Miami, the third baseman cut that to a career-best 6.5%.

The strike zone helped the batter as much as the pitcher. McGehee agreed that it’s no accident that some of his better plate discipline stats came last year, after dealing with the strike zone he saw in Japan.

But careers are part of a long arc, and there was something that McGehee learned over the course of the past three seasons that crystallized in Japan. "My approach got back to what I wanted it to be — take what was there," he said. McGehee went to center field more last year than he ever had before:

Pull% Center%
2009 39.0% 34.2%
2010 36.8% 33.5%
2011 39.6% 32.7%
2012 40.2% 28.3%
2014 29.6% 40.9%

But he didn’t learn all of that in Japan. It took some time. He had a great year in 2010 in Milwaukee, hitting 23 home runs and announcing himself as a big leaguer generally. "I’ve never considered myself a power hitter, and I think that’s what got me in trouble," McGehee said of 2010 and 2011. "Next thing you know, maybe I can hit 30-something."

In 2010 and 2011, McGehee had the highest swing, reach, and flyball rates of his career. That fits with his self-professed "œswinging for the fences" problem. Last year, McGehee hit the most groundballs of his career and had the second-best reach rate of his career.

Some of that might change again this year. "The ballpark being so darn big in Miami, it didn’t make sense to put the ball in the air and try to drive it out of that ballpark. There really was only one guy hitting the ball out of that ballpark and I’m obviously not him," joked McGehee. But after Japan, he knows who he is — an all-fields hitter with decent patience and contact ability who lets the power come second.

Considering how rarely the return ticket from Japan’s NPB is booked, it’s notable when two veterans of that trip end up on the same team. Even better, they learned to be themselves while in Japan, and perhaps thanks to the strike zone they saw while there — the pitcher learned to command his fastball, and the batter learned to control the zone and hit to get on base.

They might not have picked up much of the language ("choto" said McGehee), but these two players benefitted greatly from the travel.