Archive for the 'Japan' Category

NPB to Eliminate Tazawa Rule

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

Junichi Tazawa skipped the NPB draft so he could sign a major league contract with the Boston Red Sox back in 2008. To discourage other players from going directly to major league baseball they established a rule, called the Tazawa Rule” that required a Japanese player who chooses not to enter the NPB draft in order to play in another foreign league had to wait two or three seasons before they could be drafted by an NPB team, the years dependent on the rout the player chose to play in the foreign league.

Tazawa signed with the Red Sox in 2008 after playing in a corporate league in Japan. While he did not have a stellar career in major league baseball, he did pitch for the Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2013. He played long enough in the majors to finish with a 21-26 record with a 4.12 ERA while pitching in 388 games.

This year Tazawa had signed a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds. When the minor leagues was cancelled Tazawa had to find some place to play so he signed a contract with the Saitama Musashi Bears in one of the Japanese Independent Leagues. With the elimination of the Tazawa rule Junichi can now be eligible for the NPB draft next year.

Note that it is interesting that even at 34 years old he will have to be drafted in order to play. No team can sign him as a free agent. It will be interesting to see if any NPB teams draft him. The reason for the change was the increase in pay for players in the NPB. The minimum salary for players under contract in the NPB according to the Japan Times is about $40,000. The minimum salary for minor league players is around $20,000, although that may change with the recent negotiation between major league baseball and the minor leagues over a new bargaining agreement.

Ohno on a Streak for Dragons

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Even in Japan the complete game is becoming more of a rarity. That is why the streak from Yudai Ohno has been so spectacular. With his latest outing, a 5-0 shutout of the Hiroshima Carp, it now gives him five complete games in a row. His last two outings have been shutouts, lowering his ERA to 2.34.

Only Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants has a lower ERA (1.57). Sugano also has three shutouts and three complete games. No other pitcher has crooked numbers. Considering how slow Ohno started the season, going 0-3 in his first seven starts the streak from Ohno is remarkable.

While he has been a solid pitcher in his 10 year career with the Chunichi Dragons, he has never been considered one of the better pitchers in the NPB. His most complete games was in 2015 when he had six, with three of them shutouts. His high for wins in a season has been 11. With the Dragons he is 63-64 with a 3.24 ERA. Those Dragon teams have usually been awful, with a poor offense, so winning games was a challenge.

During the five game complete game streak Ohno has gone 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA. He has struck out 48 in those 45 innings. Normally, as a pitcher the whiff to innings pitch ratio for Ohno has been less than a strikeout per inning pitched. This year he has struck out 84 in 80.2 innings.

The Dragons continue to suffer trying to get over .500. This year they are still closer to the basement than near the top of the league, but they are only three games under .500, a big improvement over the last couple seasons. With a stable group of starting pitchers in Koji Fukutani and Takahiro Matsuba the Dragons could start making some noise in the Central Division

Hawks on a Streak

Monday, August 31st, 2020

The Softbank Hawks have been the top team in the NPB, winning five of the last six Japan series. In the last six years it was only 2016 they failed to win it all. This season it appeared the Hawks would be in a three team battle with the Rakuten Golden Eagles and the Chibba Lotte Marines in the Pacific League. An eight game winning streak has changed that narrative and stretched the Hawks lead to three games.

Hawks superstar Yuki Yanagita has led the charge during the streak. He is currently second in the Pacific League in hitting (.352), leading in homeruns (20), runs scored (60) and walks (51) and is fourth in RBIs (50). He has slugged four homeruns and driven in ten during the streak. He could start in any outfield in the major leagues, but don’t expect the Hawks to post their most valuable player. At 31 his major league window is closing.

The return of Cuban stars Alfredo Despaigne and Yurisbel Gracial has fueled the offense, though at this time only Gracial has been hitting. In 12 games Gracial is batting .341 with two homeruns and 5 RBIs. Despaigne has only appeared in three games since his return and has yet to have an extra base hit, batting just .250.

Catcher Ryoya Kurihara is having a breakout season in his first opportunity to start. He is hitting .261, with 11 homeruns and 45 RBIs. Those 45 RBIs put him second on the team. Last year he only played in 32 games. He would be the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award in the Pacific League if he is still eligible.

Wladimir Balentien, who holds the NPB record for most homeruns in a season has been a big disappointment (.196, 9, 22). He was a big free agent signing for the Hawks this year and could lose playing time with the arrivals of Despaigne and Gracial. His contributions have been minimal.

Kodai Senga is normally the ace of the staff, but he has had a disappointing season by his standards (5-2, 3.67). The Hawks have been relying on Shuta Ishikawa (6-0, 2.36). Last year Shuta only appeared in two games after showing great promise his first two years. The season is still early, but he appears to be having a breakout season as well.

The bullpen is where the Hawks reign supreme, even without their ace closer Dennis Sarfarte the last three years. Yuito Mori has taken over the closers role with 37 and 35 saves the last two years. This year he has 17 saves with a 1.82 ERA. The top setup man in the NPB could be Cuban Livan Moinelo, who at one point had interest in playing in the major leagues. He has 24 holds and carries a 1.45 ERA. Last year and this year he has virtually been unhittable, striking out almost two batters per inning. His first two years in the NPB his results could be described as vanilla.

The Giants used to reign supreme in the NPB. Since the Hawks have won five of the last six NPB titles that reign appears to be over.

Japan to Broadcast Games in the United States

Friday, August 21st, 2020

The Pacific League is hoping to expose Japanese baseball to United States audiences. They have signed a contract with United States sports channel For the Fans, an alternate name for Eleven Sports Network in the United States, to televise 200 games for the remainder of the Nippon Professional Baseball season. Japan had hoped to get a contract with ESPN but the start of major league baseball season and the broadcast of KBO games filled the time slots for baseball.

The Japanese baseball market has not expanded globally, mainly because of the conservative nature of the Central League, which has the team favorites Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers. Without interleague play this year those television broadcasts will not include any games involving Central League teams, meaning their exposure to United States audiences will be absent.

The television exposure will hopefully make the Pacific League teams more popular with the global markets leading to increased opportunities for merchandise sales in the United States. The Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers would continue to lead the Japanese teams in selling merchandise to the Japanese market, but the Pacific League teams could surpass them in merchandise sales worldwide if they create a strong United States market to supplement their merchandise sales in the Japanese market.

Next on the agenda for the Pacific League would be a television market for Latin America.

Giants Shutout Tigers; Hawks Look to Cuban Reinforcements

Friday, August 21st, 2020

The Yomiuri Giants shut out the Hanshin Tigers in a three game series. It started with a 1-0 victory in the first game. Giant ace Tomoyuki Sugano improved his record to 8-0 with a complete game victory. It was his third shutout of the 2020 season. Giant slugger Kazuma Okamoto provided the only offense with a solo shot in the fourth inning, his 17th homer of the season.

The next day the Giants matched the record of Sugano with an 8-0 win over the Tigers. This time it was a bullpen by committee picking up the win, with Christopher Mercedes going just two innings followed by five different relievers to complete the shutout. Just like the first game the Tigers could only collect four hits against the six pitchers. Okamoto went deep again and Yoshihiro Maru clubbed his 11th homerun, a 3-run shot in the seventh to pace the offense.

The third game of the series saw Shosei Togo pitch 6.2 innings of shutout ball in the Giants 2-0 win over the Tigers. Three relievers followed to again limit the Tigers to four hits. Togo improved his record to 6-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.11. Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto drove in both runs to lead the Giants to victory.

The sweep by the Giants gives them a 4.5 game lead in the Central League. There .638 winning percentage is the best in the NPB.

Another league leader the Softbank Hawks may see the return of a couple Cuban reinforcements. The Hawks find themselves in a tie with the Chibba Lotte Marines for first place in the Pacific League with the Rakuten Golden Eagles just a half a game behind. The Hawks already have a pretty potent offense with Yuki Yanagita and Wladimir Balentien leading the charge. They may get an additional surge with the returns of Cubans Yurisbel Gracial and Alfredo Despaigne.

Both had to undergo a 14 day quarantine and then a minor league rehab assignment when they returned from Cuba. Because of the corona virus Cuba did not allow anyone to visit or leave Cuba in their fight against this virus. Gracial and Despaigne are now in Japan. Gracial is back with the Hawks after three games in the minor leagues. He has just two hits in his first 11 at bats. Despaigne is still in the minor leagues where he is hitting .267 with no extra base hits in six games.

Balentien has been struggling with the Hawks after leaving the Swallows as a free agent. He is hitting just .196, but has shown some power with his 9 homeruns. The Hawks were hoping for more. Japanese rules only allow four foreigners to each team’s roster. They have starter Rick Vandenhurk, who they can move up and down between starts. They also have Cuban reliever Livan Moinelo, who they can not move up and down from the roster so easily. So that means one of those offensive sluggers needs to be sent down when Vandenhurk is on the roster ready to pitch.

They also have the Braves first round pick Carter Stewart, who they signed as a free agent after the Braves could not sign him. He is 1-2 with a 2.91 ERA down on the farm. His 11 walks in just 21.2 innings shows he has some more work to do to find the plate.

Of course, have a surplus of talent is a nice luxury to have. Keeping them all happy will be the biggest challenge.

Sugano Back for Giants

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

One of the best pitchers in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is Tomoyuki Sugano. Based on his performance from last year you would not have thought that. Most pitchers would have been happy with a 11-6, 3.89 season. Not Sugano, who has a career 2.32 ERA and won two Sawamura awards with 15 and 17 win seasons prior to the poor 2019 season.

This year the two time Sawamura award winner is back on his game. He is 8-0 with a 1.31 ERA. It is still early in the season but that is equivalent to the year Masahiro Tanaka had his last year in Japan before leaving for the Yankees in 2014 when he went 24-0, 1.49. Like Tanaka, Sugano is in another league, toying with the NPB hitters as if they were Little Leaguers. Major league hitters might provide more of a challenge.

At 30 years of age it would be surprising to see Sugano bolt for the major leagues. The Giants do not normally post players to the major leagues, especially those players who will help them win a Japan Series. Last year they posted Shun Yamaguchi, but he had a career year with the Giants and they did not anticipate he could replicate his 2019 season. Sugano still has a couple ace like seasons left in him.

Ogawa Throws First No Hitter of the NPB Season

Sunday, August 16th, 2020

Yasuhiro Ogawa of the Yakult Swallows threw the first no hitter for the NPB 2020 season, blanking the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars 9-0. It was the 93rd no hitter in Japanese baseball history. In the NPB a no hitter is only awarded when a pitcher tosses a shutout. Ogawa struck out 10, including the last hitter, while throwing 129 pitches. Three hitters reached base on walks and two on errors.

The 31 year old Ogawa had a rough year last year when he finished 5-12 with a 4.57 ERA. Statistically it was his worst season in the NPB, with his most career losses and worst ERA. This year he has started out better (5-2, 3.43), already equaling his 2019 win total. He has yet to match his first season in 2013 when he went 16-4, 2.93 to win the Rookie of the year award.

He is a short 5′7″, but uses a high leg kick, fashioning his pitching style after Nolan Ryan. His fastball sits in the high 80s, but touches the low 90s. To make up for his lack of height and overpowering fastball he throws a number of different breaking pitches (cutters, sliders and forkballs).

The Swallows hope to be rewarded by his success. Last year they were mired far in last place in the Central Division. This year they are battling a pack of five for the two wild card spots.

Leonys Martin has Gone Homer Happy

Friday, August 14th, 2020

When he played in the major leagues Cuban star Leonys Martin was not known for his power. Speed and defense were his game. His career high in the major leagues in homeruns was in 2016 when he hit 15. In his five years playing in Cuba 15 homeruns was also his highest mark during his last year in Cuba before defecting.

He has turned on the juice in his first year in Japan. He got off to a tepid start but the balls are starting to fly. In his last ten games he has parked six balls over the fence and five of his last six games have resulted in a homerun. That gives him 14 homeruns in just 47 games. That 15 mark is just around the corner.

The 14 homeruns also put him second to Sho Nakata, who has 15 for most homeruns in the Pacific League. There are a number of other players sitting at 14 including sluggers Yuki Yanagita, Stefan Romero, Hideto Asamura and Hotaka Yamakawa. In the Central League the big bopper is Kazuma Okamoto with 16, but no other player has more than 11.

The hot hitting has helped the Lotte Marines keep up with the class of the Pacific League, the Softbank Hawks and Rakuten Golden Eagles. Those two are tied for first while the Marines sit just two games back. At the heels of the Marines are the Nippon Ham Fighters who are 3.5 games from the lead.

Parra is Nats Loss and the Giants Gain

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

Nowadays baseball is an analytics game. Teams hire employees to look at the numbers to identify what statistical variances brings about wins. Lost in those numbers is the heart of a player that has an ability to improve those numbers that can also capture wins. That is a product that is difficult to measure. A subjective measurement that can not be quantified.

The Nationals are putting up some good numbers. Analytics can tell you that. Juan Soto has returned and slammed four homeruns. The pitching has been rough and the team has started off 6-8. Last year they started off 19-30 but still were able to come back and win the World Series. What changes were made to produce that result? Some credit the acquisition of Gerardo Parra.

He is not the kind of player who will put up good numbers that statistical gurus would recognize as a player that is a must to acquire. The Nationals picked him up last year after he hit .198 for the Giants. He did put up some decent numbers with the Nationals, hitting .250 with 8 homeruns and a .447 slugging percentage. But it was not his statistical numbers that brought out the curly “W”s. It was the enthusiasm that he brought to the Nationals dugout that turned the season around.

The Nationals were rudderless in the early stages of the 2019 season. The acquisition of Parra gave them direction. He started the conga line that required each player to dance through the dugout after each homerun. Even the conservative Ryan Zimmerman had to perform a dance. It brought some life into the Nationals locker room and that life produced wins. There was magic in the Nationals dugout once Parra was acquired.

Now that magic is gone and the Nationals are struggling to strign together victories. They have had brief periods where they were missing key players such as Juan Soto because of COVID-19 and Stephen Strasburg with a wrist injury. But the ship appears rudderless again as the Nationals struggle to find the curly “W”s.

The Yomiuri Giants now have Parra. They signed him as a free agent before the 2020 season. He’s having a solid season, hitting .298 with four homeruns for a .447 slugging percentage. Those are similar numbers that he put up with the Nationals. The Giants are also winning, with the best winning percentage in the NPB (.625).

The Giants are used to winning. They are the New York Yankees of the major leagues, with more pennants and Japan Series wins than any team in Japan. Those Japan Series wins though have been running a bit scarce.

The acquisition of Parra was an interesting free agent signing. He was not a former star player or a young potential slugger that Japanese teams normally sign. He has always been an average player with good defensive skills, who is now older with those defensive skills now lacking. But the Giants recognized his locker room presence and they signed him because of that.

So while the Nationals struggle the Giants continue on with their victories. Last year they lost to the Softbank Hawks in the Japan Series. They have not won a Japan Series since 2012. The Hawks have won five of the last six Japan Series. The Giants hope the acquisition of Parra can change that narrative.

A Different Game in Japan

Monday, August 10th, 2020

Japan believes a lot in tradition. So they tend to do their best not to embarrass the game of baseball by using untraditional strategies. In the major leagues it is quite common to see a position player come in to pitch in a blow out game. In Japan that has not happened since 2000.

The Yomiuri Giants were losing to the Hansin Tigers 4-0 when they decided to bring in their mopup pitcher to close out the game. He had trouble getting hitters out, allowing seven runners to cross the plate to increase the score to 11-0. The Giants manager Tatsunori Hara decided to call on infielder Daiki Masuda to pitch.

There must have been a gasp in the partially filled seats as Masuda came in to pitch. Not that a lot of people know who Masuda is since he is an under utilized utility player who normally comes into games in blow outs to play the infield. This time he was running to the mound. He did well walking one and retiring two batters to keep his ERA at 0.00.

The success may trigger more managers to save arms and use position players to come in to pitch. Or they could see this as an aberration and continue to keep with tradition.