Balentien’s Hot Start

» 21 May 2011 » In nichibei, npb »

The best NPB newcomer this season has been, without a doubt. Yakult’s Wladimir Balentien. Through 117 plate appearances, he’s got a slash line of .367/.462/.827 and leads Japan with 13 home runs. It’s not unusual for foreign players to start strong in Japan, but Balentien’s status as a former top prospect, his relatively young age (27 in July) and his massive power numbers make him an interesting case to study.

First I grabbed the opponent and pitch data for the 13 home runs he’s hit so far:

game Pitcher Pitch Type Velocity (kmph)
20110416 Takayuki Makka curve 0
20110421 Yudai Kawai fastball 131
20110423 Dennis Sarfate slider 133
20110427 Kentaro Nishimura shuuto 145
20110427 Tetsuya Utsumi fastball 142
20110428 Hirokazu Sawamura curve 122
20110501 Jason Standridge fastball 0
20110501 Shinobu Fukuhara fastball 138
20110503 Souma Yamauchi fastball 135
20110513 Shintaro Ejiri fastball 145
20110513 Kota Suda slider 129
20110513 Kota Suda curve 105
20110514 Kentaro Takasaki slider 130

Nothing too surprising here — a lot of unimpressive fastballs, and some sliders and curves which I’ll assume were of the hanging variety. Home runs off Yokohama pitchers account for a big chunk of his power production. What I don’t see in this list is a lot of Japan’s top caliber pitchers, with the possible exception of Sawamura. The power is real, but it’s reasonable to expect it to even out as Balentien faces more of Japan’s top competition.

Balentien entered 2011 with a bit of a reputation for struggling against breaking pitches. That hasn’t really been the case so far:

Pitch Result count
changeup strike looking 1
curve strike looking 6
fastball strike looking 39
forkball strike looking 2
shuuto strike looking 2
slider strike looking 10
changeup strike swinging 3
curve strike swinging 1
cut fastball strike swinging 1
fastball strike swinging 19
forkball strike swinging 7
shuuto strike swinging 4
sinker strike swinging 1
slider strike swinging 29

To put this into context, Balentien has seen 471 pitches so far. It does appear that he does have a little bit of issue with sliders. I dug a little further into the data and found that he seems to struggle with Shun Tohno, one of the better slider guys in the Central League.

Lastly, the guys at Tsubamegun made this observation:

Balentien has monster numbers, but he needs to watch [Josh] Whitesell work a count, take notes, and stop getting sucked into first-pitches in the strike zone. The results are bad more often than not.

The Tsubamegun guys have seen far more of Balentien than I ever have, so I’d thought I’d check their assertion against the data. Here’s what Balentien has done on the first pitch of each of his 117 plate appearances, aggregated by result:

result count
ball 51
flyout 6
foul 11
groundout 1
home run 6
linedrive single 3
strike looking 22
strike swinging 17

73 takes; 44 swings, 27 resulting in contact. The six home runs jump out — if you took away his other seven homers and he just had these six, he would still be tied for second in the Central League in bombs. The three line drive hits aren’t too shabby either, so we have a total of nine hits and seven outs.

Balentien is averaging a solid four pitches per plate appearance, so he’s not being unduly aggressive. To the extent that Balentien can identify hittable breaking pitches and weak first-pitch fastballs, I say keep on hacking.

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