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Pro Yakyu This Week: At the All Star Break

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Pro Yakyu This Week: At the All Star Break
Jim Nelson has put together a special edition of Pro Yakyu This Week to cover the various teams at the All Star break. The audio file is available here.

For those who can't listen at work, a rough transcript (there are some additional goodies in the audio) follows:

Central League

Yomiuri Giants
This is the team to beat once again in the CL. The Kyojin once again have committed themselves to a young core, supplemented by their deep wallets. Seth Greisinger, Tetsuya Utsumi, a revitalized Dicky Gonzalez, and rookie Shun Tohno lead a great starting rotation, and Daisuke Ochi is the perfect bridge to closer Marc Kroon. The offense is just as potent, with Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez providing the power numbers, and Hayato Sakamoto showing what he can do as a leadoff man.

Is there any way to stop this team? The one weakness may be the rest of the bullpen leading to Ochi and Tetsuya Yamaguchi. If the Giants' opponents can get to the starting rotation quickly and turn it into a battle of the bullpens, that could be where the Giants may yet falter. Fatigue may also be a factor, especially for Ochi, who has already logged 47.1 innings over 42 appearances.

Aside from this though, I cannot see the Giants faltering in any way before the CL Climax Series. Expect this team to run away with the Central League regular-season pennant.

Yakult Swallows
At the beginning of the 2009 NPB season, not many people expected the lovable underdogs to even be in the conversation at this point, especially with perennial contenders Chunichi, Hanshin, and newcomer Hiroshima at the table and ready to slug it out with the Giants in the suddenly-competitive Central League.

Instead, at the halfway point of 2009, Yakult is in 3rd place with Chunichi just 2 games ahead of them. If the season were to end today, the Swallows would be in the playoffs.

Looking at the team, there are no statistics that truly jump out at people. Only two regular batters are at or over .300, and that is veteran shortstop Shinya Miyamoto (.300 in 69 games), and Shinichi Takeuchi (.333 in 57 games). Yakult is getting production from its two foreigners, Aaron Guiel (.273 AVG, 13 HR, .341 OBP) and newcomer Jamie D'Antona (.268 AVG, 13 HR, .324 OBP). The pitching staff is very solid, with the bullpen being a bright spot in particular. The only starter with a complete game is Shohei Tateyama, and he has two. The rotation has no true bright spots aside from Tateyama, but the rotation does its job and does it well. The bullpen is nothing short of amazing. Lim Chang-Yong has been about as perfect as you can get this season. He has converted all but one of his save chances and has only given up one earned run. Yakult also has possibly the best setup men in the league.

This Yakult team is very interesting because one wonders if they will fall apart. This team is experienced, and one gets the feeling that they are sick of losing and being second to the Giants. However, the big question is how will this experienced--but untested--team handle pressure situations?

Chunichi Dragons
It took some time to shrug off the migration of Kenshin Kawakami to the Atlanta Braves, but the Dragons have done it. Wei-Yin Chen (3-2, 1.45) has been brilliant, and they also have two starters with 10 wins, the only team in the league to have that luxury. Yudai Kawai is one of those in the 10-win club, and he's undefeated with a 2.74 ERA. With good starting depth, the Dragons can get the job done at the beginning of the game, and with Hitoki Iwase (1-2, 1.60, 28 SV) closing, this team has the pitching to overtake the Giants, whom they trail by 2.5 games.

Maddeningly consistent is how I would describe this team. Both the pitching and hitting have been just that, and has also led to Chunichi's quiet rise through the CL ranks after having a difficult start to the season. The Dragons have a balanced hitting attack with Hirokazu Ibata (.322) and Atsushi Fujii (.296) taking care of the contact hitting, and Tony Blanco (28 HR), Masahiko Morino (13 HR), and Kazuhiro Wada (20 HR) putting up the power numbers. There really isn't much that is standing out or spectacular about this team. The players that one would expect to produce have, and those that haven't have either been hurt or are bench players, and even the bench has stepped up. Career Dragon Kazuyoshi Tatsunami has been the best performer, batting .314 in bench duty. If this team can keep its boring level of consistency, there's no reason why they can't win the CL Pennant.

Hanshin Tigers
It seems that last year's choke, straight out of 1963, is still haunting the Tigers. A potent team that lost the CL lead in Game 141 of the 2008 season to the Giants mostly returned, but one year older. An already aging team also hasn't benefited from the new management of Mayumi-kantoku, who has been heavily criticized by the armchair-managing Tigers fans.

Hanshin finally got some pop in the person of Craig Brazell (.313, 7HR 24 RBI in 134 AB), who was a big part of Seibu's 2008 Japan Series run until he got hurt. Keiichi Hirano has also been a huge lift in limited duty, batting .306. However, there is no denying that the old standbys are just not producing this year. Tomoaki Kanemoto has been merely average (.269, 14HR, 57RBI) and Takahiro Arai has been awful (.216, 9HR, 38RBI). More or less the entire lineup has been average at best, with more key hitters Keisuke Kanoh, Kentaro Sekimoto, and Norihiro Akahoshi all middling in the .270's down to the .250's.

The true problem is the pitching. The Tigers have used 13 different starters, and with Minoru Iwata having been out for most of the season, that has done nothing but hurt the team. No starter has an ERA below 3.00, and the team has 5 complete games total. The bullpen has also been fairly disappointing, but Scott Atchinson has turned it around in his second season in Japan, setting up for Kyuji Fujikawa. The problem is a tough one to pinpoint and solve, but it looks like the team is suffering from listlessness and just seems to not have the same kind of desire they had last season.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp
It has been a tough season for the Carp in their beautiful new ballpark. A team that just missed the playoffs last season had most of their team and their manager return, but it just hasn't been the same. This is a team that can't seem to buy a hit at times. No regular hitter has hit over .280, with Akihiro Higashide leading that category at .279. Scott McClain and Kenta Kurihara have been providing the sparse power, with 10 and 11 home runs respectively, but both are batting in the .240's.

The pitching, which was a big reason why the Carp just missed the playoffs in 2008, has also not been there for the team. Kan Ohtake was spectacular up until June, then he hit a rough patch. Ohtake is first on the team in starter's ERA (2.47) and wins (6), and second in innings (104.2). The rest of the rotation hasn't picked up the slack behind him though. Colby Lewis came down with what seemed to be Bell's Palsy early on, but even after coming back he hasn't quite been the same. He seems to be turning it around and is 2nd on the team in ERA (3.28). The bullpen has been brilliant, with Mike Schultz and Tomohiro Umetsu both posessing ERA's under 2.00, and WBC reliever Katsuhiro Nagakawa with 22 saves and a 3.03 ERA. For Hiroshima to get back into the playoff chase, they need to start hitting.

Yokohama BayStars
High hopes at the beginning of the season turned into another lost summer by the Bay. Things looked good at the beginning of the season with the re-signing of Daisuke Miura and also the surprise free-agent signing of Ryan Glynn. The batting lineup, led by Shuichi Murata and batting champion Seiichi Uchikawa, gave Yokohama its brightest potential in a while.

But the downturn started during the World Baseball Classic. Murata injured his hamstring in a game against Korea, and the offense suffered for it. The long-standing case of ippatsu-byo is still afflicting the Yokohama pitchers. Even worse is that the offense can't get going when a starter has a good start going. The main victim has been Glynn, in what seems to be reminiscent of the previous season in Hokkaido with the Fighters.

Pacific League

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
One of the major surprises in Japan this season has been SoftBank. With most of the same core returning from the previous season, the Hawks had a small wrinkle thrown in: they also had a new manager in Koji Akiyama, one of former manager Sadaharu Oh's most trusted assistants. While there were some growing pains early in the season (and occasionally there still are), Akiyama has done a good job of keeping his team motivated and focused despite a 4-game losing streak before the break.

While the slugging duo of Matsunaka and Kokubo has gotten yet another year older, they just keep on hitting. Matsunaka has been very good at the plate, and his average is steadily climbing. As streaky as Matsunaka has been, he is the linchpin of the entire order, and the team needs him to slug home runs and extra base hits, which he has done with an .899 OPS. New team captain Kokubo has led the team admirably, getting clutch hits when needed and seems to defy Father Time at times, but age is starting to catch up to him, with only 9 home runs at the break.

The real offensive story, though, has been the perpetually-injured Hitoshi Tamura, who has hit 12 home runs in just 42 games and has proved to be a major lift to the Hawks batting order. The question is if he can stay healthy, which he rarely does. Another surprise has been Yuya Hasegawa, who also has suffered from the injury bug in his short career. So far, in 83 games he has batted .312 with an astonishing .389 OBP.

The pitching, however, has been the true bright spot. Rookie sensation Tadashi Settsu (3-2, 1.97) made the Pacific League All-Star team, as did his towering teammate, 200cm tall Brian Falkenborg (5-0, 1.50). One of the main concerns going into the season was who would set up for closer Takahiro Mahara (3-1, 2.93, 19 SV), who recently broke the team saves' record. Falkenborg and Settsu have delivered admirably, but one wonders if the innings will catch up to the two of them in the second half. Starting pitching is a bit of a concern though, with the depth behind Sugiuchi and Houlton being the main concern. Yoshiaki Fujioka alternates between good and bad starts, and Ohba needs to cut down on the walks, although in his last 2 starts he has looked very good. In all, this team has the tools, but still has a bit of a ways to go before its ready for the big stage.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That has been the model that the Fighters have followed for the better part of 4 years now, as their Japan Series triumph in 2006 had a low staff ERA along with some great hitting. Their run to the Series next year was almost entirely on the shoulders of its stellar pitching staff, with a league-worst batting average. Last year the pitching fell off a little, but this time the bad bats caught up with the Fighters.

This season, the younger hitters have matured and the veteran hitters aside from Atsunori Inaba seem to have finally found their stride. The increased hitting finally puts less pressure on the pitching staff because, let's face it, Yu Darvish (12-3, 1.31) can't do it alone, spectacular as he has been this season. The other starters haven't picked up the slack like they did last season, especially Masaru Takeda and Kaz Tadano, although those two have come on strong of late. Shugo Fujii and Brian Sweeney have also not helped matters, but the bullpen is shrugging from the departure of Micheal Nakamura. Hisashi Takeda has 18 saves, one short of Mahara's PL-leading mark, and Miyanishi and Tateyama have been every bit as good as Falkenborg and Settsu.

The hitting has been an unexpected bright spot for the normally pitching-oriented Fighters. Inaba has been hitting at his usual .300-plus clip, and Kensuke Tanaka has also stayed around his usual average of .280, but the usually light-hitting Makoto Kaneko has really picked up the pace this season, batting .320 in 81 games, as has new regular starter Yoshio Itoi, who has batted .329 in 74 games. The only problems I can foresee with the Fighters is a lack of speed (I don't count Hichori Morimoto since he can't get on base), and a relative lack of power (Terrmel Sledge leads the team with 12 home runs). They should win the Pacific League pennant.

Saitama Seibu Lions
The defending Japan Series Champions seem to be missing something from the previous season. Sure the power from Takeya “okawari-kun” Nakamura is still there (.265, 31 HR, 81 RBI), Hiroyuki Nakajima is still the best all-around player on the team, and even GG Satoh seems to be snapping out of his lengthy post-Olympics funk. So what's different?

The biggest answer is that there's no starting depth behind ace Hideaki Wakui and Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi. Kishi (10-1, 3.32) has been nothing if not consistent, keeping his ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00's, but he is rapidly approaching his career high in innings pitched. Behind those two, it's a disaster for starting pitching, though. Kazuyuki Hoashi (4-3, 3.87) has not been the same pitcher he was last year, when he put up career numbers (11-6, 2.63). Kaz Ishii (4-6, 4.88) has been a bomb after getting a fat contract in the offseason, and as he always tires out in the 2nd half of the season, it's hard to imagine him turning it around. Fumiya Nishiguchi (3-3, 5.43) has been awful for years and seems to have nothing left.

These starting woes along with not having closer Alex Graman are sinking the Lions' hopes of repeating as Japan Series Champions. Chikara Onodera is 13-for-13 in save opportunities, but he is not getting the chances to save games thanks to a shaky bullpen. For Seibu to turn it around, it will have to start with the starting pitching, because the hitting is there.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
A team that people have been waiting to break out for years now has been nothing short of a disappointment. Despite having six batters hitting over .300, only two of them (Tsuchiya Teppei and Daisuke Kusano) have over 100 at-bats. In addition, not having batting champion Rick Short healthy has hurt the team in the worst possible way. Norihiro Nakamura has only batted .225 with 2 home runs after having two great seasons with Chunichi and signing a large deal with Rakuten in the offseason. Fernando Seguignol has also not lived up to expectations after having a small revival late last season himself.

The pitching has also not been healthy. After having a Sawamura-winning season last year and dominating the World Baseball Classic in March, Hisashi Iwakuma has been injured and is looking distinctly human. His injury-riddled season has been offset by excellent seasons so far by Masahiro “Ma-kun” Tanaka (8-3, 1.72) and Satoshi Nagai (7-4, 3.47).

However, Nomura-kantoku has complained regularly about his bullpen, and why not? There are lots of setup men, but no true closers, leaving Rakuten to forage with a closer-by-committee approach. Nobody in the bullpen has more than 5 saves, and Tanaka even has one! One would expect the de facto closer to be Marcus Gwynn, but he hasn't stepped up quite as expected, with only 3 saves and a 3.50 ERA. The holds leader on the team is Kanehisa Arime with 12, but he only has 2 saves. Prodigal son Kazuo Fukumori may help matters, but not much is expected out of him, joining the team mid-season after the Texas Rangers granted Fukumori his release. Eleven games out of first place at the break and 5 behind the Lions for the last playoff spot, unless the Eagles turn their bullpen around, it will be their fatal flaw that will keep them from missing the playoffs.

Chiba Lotte Marines
In what will be Bobby Valentine's last season, his team has not been up to snuff each of the last two seasons, this season proving to be an ignominious one for his departure. Lotte is going with a closer-by committee approach of their own, although Tadahiro Ogino does lead the team with 8 saves and veteran Brian Sikorski has 4. However, the starters have been a disaster. Seven total have been used, and Yuki Karakawa has the low ERA at 3.65, and no starter has over 100 innings yet. Shingo Ono leads the team in wins with 6, but the most embarrassing part is that Sikorski has 5 wins, more than 6 of the seven starters!

The hitting has also been nothing short of a disappointment, but it could be expected given the age of the Lotte hitters. Former Hawk shortstop Tadahito Iguchi (.289, 12HR, 44RBI) has hit well in his return to Japan, and Benny Agbayani has also put together a good season (.294/5/20), but behind them, there isn't much. Many of the team's perennial hitters have been stuck in neutral, with Toshiaki Imae and Shoitsu Ohmatsu batting below .260, Tsuyoshi Nishioka batting .251, and Kazuya Fukuura and Tomoya Satozaki both batting below .240. This is a team that just can't buy a hit at times, and as proof, they were almost no-hit by Kaz Tadano a couple weeks ago.

Orix Buffaloes
Orix was the surprise team of the PL a year ago, as nobody expected them to put together the run they had. A second-place finish led to high expectations this season. The problem so far this season has been injuries. This is a team that has the talent but needs to believe in themselves. As of right now, they don't.

The hitting has not been the problem, but injuries to Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes have been problematic for the team's lineup, which can be seen as old and overloaded with past-their-prime foreigners. Three batters are hitting over .300, including Rhodes (.327/11/23) and Cabrera (.327/4/15), and the other being off-season acquisition Naoyuki Ohmura (.317/0/21). Tomotaka Sakaguchi has also been very good, but his and Ohmura's speed clash with a team loaded with foreign mashers. Greg LaRocca and Jose Fernandez have seen limited time, but have mashed out their home runs so far. Keiji Ohbiki has had a nice renaissance this season, and Hirotoshi Kitagawa has also put together a nice season in limited plate appearances.

The problem isn't the hitting, but the pitching, as it is with most underachieving teams. There have been flashes of brilliance, especially from Mamoru Kishida (4-1, 2.40), who has been on the disabled list multiple times this season. Aside from Kishida, Chihiro Kaneko (8-6, 2.99) has been the best starter on the team. The two biggest disappointments have been Kazuki Kondoh (4-6, 6.00) and Satoshi Komatsu (1-6, 7.91). Komatsu has been hurt most of the season, but when he has been in, it's been nothing short of ugly. Kondoh hasn't been hurt like most of the Orix starters, but he has just been awful.

Because of all the injuries, Ohishi-kantoku's rotation is in tatters. Ten different players have started for the Buffaloes, and all with varying levels of success. With the Buffaloes wallowing in last place yet again, it looks like a lost summer in Osaka.
Re: Pro Yakyu This Week: At the All Star Break
[ Author: Christopher | Posted: Jul 28, 2009 9:03 PM | HAN Fan ]

One has to give more emphasis to the management's role in the Tigers failure to perform better. The coaching and Mayumi have all been terrible, so much so that the Tigers management have talked to other potential candidates for the role of kantoku. When former managers criticize the new kantoku you know things must be bad.

This is a site about Pro Yakyu (Japanese Baseball), not about who the next player to go over to MLB is. It's a community of Pro Yakyu fans who have come together to share their knowledge and opinions with the world. It's a place to follow teams and individuals playing baseball in Japan (and Asia), and to learn about Japanese (and Asian) culture through baseball.

It is my sincere hope that once you learn a bit about what we're about here that you will join the community of contributors.

Michael Westbay
(aka westbaystars)

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