NPB Central Update

The Japanese season is a little more than a month old. Below is an update on some of the players making an impact. The two favorites or traditional powers, Yomiuri Giants and the Softbank Hawks sit atop their division. Below is a review of the Japanese Central.

Yomiuri Giants (18-12)

Like the Hawks, the Giants do not post their players. Yoshihiro Maru has been a good free agent acquisition from the Hiroshima Carp. Last year he hit 39 homeruns and walked 130 times while hitting .306. He is staying on that course with the Giants with his .300 average, six homeruns and 20 walks in 30 games. They have also extracted a good bat from their rival Carp team and added it to their lineup. Hayato Sakamoto is their top player. The shortstop is the Derek Jeter of the Giants, hitting .333 with 9 homeruns. At 22 years of age, Kazuma Okamota had his breakout season last year with 33 homeruns and 100 RBIs in his first full season. He has continued to hit this year with his seven pops, though his average has dropped to .231.

On the pitching front Tomoyuki Sugano continues to be one of the top pitchers in the NPB, putting together double digit win totals in five of his six years in the NPB. He is going for double digit win total number six with his early 4-2, 3.21 ERA, though his hits to innings pitched numbers appear to show he has been a little more hittable early this season. Koji Uehara is still on the roster but he has yet to pitch this year after appearing in 36 games of relief last year. Shun Yamaguchi has been their top pitcher this year (4-0, 1.59). In his early years he was a closer for the Yokohama Bay Stars but he has been a starter for the Giants.

On the foreign front, Ryan Cook has been acting as the Giants closer in his first year in Japan. He has picked up six saves and is 0-1, 3.38 ERA. Injuries to Scott Mathieson have left him unavailable for the bullpen so far this year. Christopher Mercedes (3-1, 2.65) has been effective as a starter in his second season in Japan. On the offensive side Christian Villanueva (.240, 5, 13) has not yet been an impact player. The Giants were hoping for more than his .308 OBP and .438 slugging. Alex Guerrero would like to rebound from his poor year last year (.244, 15, 40) after wowing the fans his first year, showing unexpected power (.279, 36, 86). The early results have not been pleasant (.222, 4, 13). If those numbers do not improve Alex may be looking elsewhere for employment.

Yakult Swallows (18-13-1)

Tetsuto Yamada is their big bat. He has had three 30/30 seasons in Japan, hitting at least 30 homeruns and stealing 30 bases. He is going for his fourth with seven homeruns and 10 stolen bases. He has also driven in more than 100 runs in a season twice. His 22 RBIs in 33 games put him on course for a third season. His .318 average puts him at one of the more complete players in Japan. Munetaka Murakami is still a teenager (19) but his 8 homeruns is tied for the team lead. He is a strong candidate to win rookie of the year. Norichika Aoki left the major leagues but he continues to hit (.306, 5, 11). His 24 runs scored is second to Yamada on the team.

On the pitching front, Ryota Igarshi was signed away from the Softbank Hawks and has been playing vulture for the Swallows. In 12 relief appearances he is 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA. The closer is their veteran Taichi Ishiyama (1-1, 1.26, 7 saves). He saved 35 games for them last year. The starting pitching has been a big disappointment early in the season.

The big foreign contributor continues to be Wladimir Balentien. He broke the Japanese record for homeruns in a season back in 2013 with 60. He has always had difficulty staying healthy, but his previous three years he has played in at least 125 games and hit more than 30 homeruns in each of those seasons. This year he is hitting .284, 8, 29. Wladimir has 263 career Japanese homeruns. Pitching is where the other foreign players congregate. Dave Huff (1-0, 3.45) has been pitching in a setup role. David Buchanan (0-1, 4.75) has struggled in his third season as a starter for the Swallows. Albert Suarez (1-1, 1.38) has pitched well in two starts for the Swallows.

Hanshin Tigers (16-15-1)

The Tigers have the most passionate fan base in Japanese baseball. The 24 year old rookie Koji Chikamoto has been exciting that fan base, leading the team in stolen bases (10), runs scored (20), RBIs (17) and triples (3). He is also hitting .316. He is a big reason for surging up the Tiger fan base. Yusuke Oyama is also 24 but he is in this third year in the NPB. He leads the team in homeruns (6) and is tied with Koji for RBIs (17). Last year Oyama hit a career high 11 homeruns and he is almost half way there early in the season.

At one point Shintaro Fujinami was considered a better pitcher than Shohei Ohtani. The last few years he has had trouble finding the plate and hasn’t found the pitcher’s mound yet for the Tigers in 2019. Yuki Nishi, a free agent pickup from Orix has been eating up the innings as a starter (44) with a 2-3 record and a 2.25 ERA. That is about a run below his career 3.26 line. Koyo Aoyagi (2-2, 1.89) has been the other consistent starter.

On the foreign side, Randy Messenger (2-2, 3.66) is in his 10th year pitching for the Tigers. He has 97 career wins, three shy of the century mark. His numbers have been falling and at 37 he may be in his last season pitching in Japan. Pierce Johnson on the other hand is in his first season pitching in Japan and is doing well (2-0, 0.00) as the setup guy with seven holds. He has not given up a run in his first 14.2 innings. Myworld is positive Randy has told Pierce it will not always be this easy. Rafael Dolis (0-1, 2.38, 6 saves) is in his third season as the Tigers closer. Onelki Garcia (0-2, 19.29) has had a little hiccup in his second season in Japan. Last year he was 13-9, 2.99, but this year he has given up 23 hits in just 9.1 innings. On the offensive side Jefry Marte (.158) has struggled in his first year. Efren Navarro (.209) has also not been much of an offensive force in his second year in the NBP. He was also a disappointment in his first year. The two foreign bats have combined for just 4 RBIs on the season.

Hiroshima Carp (15-16-1)

The Carp have won the Central crown the last three seasons, but the Japan Series championship has proved elusive. It was 1984 when they last won a championship. Seiya Suzuki (.348, 9, 22) is the class of this offense. The last three years he has driven in more than 90 runs. At 24 years of age any major league team would love to have him for their outfield. Ryosuke Kikuchi (.280, 3, 13) has expressed interest in playing in the major leagues, but he may not generate enough offense to be an impact second baseman. Hisayoshi Chono was enticed away from the Giants have nine seasons but has gotten a slow start out of the gate (.224, 2, 4). With the Giants he was always in double digits with his homeruns and never hit below .251.

The big strength for the Carp is in their starting pitching with Daichi Osera (2-2, 1.64) and Hiroki Tokoda (4-1, 1.55) leading a solid rotation. For Hiroki this is his first big season in the NPB, especially as a starter. Shota Nakazaki is their closer with 29 or more saves in three of his four seasons. This year he has picked up four saves, but 12 runs in just 12.2 innings of work, but eight of those runs are unearned.

Kris Johnson has usually been a strength to this rotation, but this year has been a struggle (1-3, 5.54). He has a career 2.65 ERA in his fifth season in the NPB with win totals in double digits in all seasons but his worst. Kyle Regnault has been a pleasant surprise in the bullpen. He has yet to give up a run in 16.2 innings, though his walk rate is a little high. If he keeps throwing goose eggs he may replace current setup foreign guy Geronimo Franzua (4-1, 4.20), whose ERA is almost three runs higher than last season. Johnny Hellwig and Casey Lawrence have seen little to no activity with the big club. Xavier Bautista is their only foreign offensive player, second to Suzuki in homeruns and RBIs (.242, 6, 19).

Chunichi Dragons (14-17)

The Dragons have been out of the pennant races the last few years. Toshiki Abe has been a surprise bat (.343, 2, 16). This is his fourth season but he has always struggled to keep his average above .200. The 16 RBIs and two homeruns are already career highs. Dragon veteran Ryosuke Hirata has been raking (.310, 4, 14) in his 14th NPB season. He is good at getting on base (.425 career OBA) but not at stealing bases (38 stolen bases in 63 attempts).

Veteran Dragon starter Yudai Ono has been their most consistent starter (2-1, 2.34). This is his first year in nine seasons when his strikeout numbers are far ahead of his innings pitched (39 whiffs in 34.2 innings). This is the second season for Hiroshi Suzuki but they trust him enough to be their closer (10 saves). His 3.46 ERA could be better. Throwing strikes has been an issue for the 22 year old youngster.

Joely Rodriguez (0-1, 2.31, 12 holds) and Raidel Martinez (0-1, 1.04, 5 holds) have been effective setup guys. Enny Romero throws hard. The Dragons chose to use that heat in the starting rotation (2-1, 3.00). No matter what continent he is on he still has trouble finding the strike zone. Dayan Viciedo handles the offensive fire power for the Dragons (.302, 6, 21). Last year he was one shy of 100 RBIs. Zoilo Almonte (.260, 2, 5) has been a little too vanilla with his offensive numbers. At some point the Dragons may want to see what Steven Moya has. This is his second year in the NPB but all six of his homeruns have been in the minor leagues.

Yokohama DeNA Baystars (12-20)

Back to the basement for the Baystars. Next year they may lose their best hitter Yoshitomo Tsutugo to the major leagues (.301, 9, 22). Finishing last will provide extra motivation to post him to the major leagues. Last year he hit 38 homeruns and in 2016 he hit 44. They play in a band box in Yokohama so the homeruns come easy. The 24 year old third year player Keita Sano is putting up interesting numbers (.357, 2, 12) which could put him in the starting lineup more often.

Shota Iamnaga (3-1, 0.98) has been virtually unhittable in the rotation. He has give up just 28 hits in 46 innings. This is his fourth year in the Bay Stars rotation and could be his best year. Haruhiro Hamaguchi has pitched one shutout in this three starts and has spun together a 1.71 ERA in his third NPB season. Yasuaki Yamasaki is in his fifth season as closer for the Bay Stars. He has only picked up 4 saves but his 0.79 ERA is proof that he has had very few opportunities to pick up saves. He has already give up five unearned runs, a number he never gave up in his previous four years.

The foreign contingent consists of one of the biggest bats in Japan now, Neftali Soto. Last year he hit 41 homeruns. This year he already has 11 with 22 RBIs and a .246 average. Last year he was more consistent (.310). The career of Jose Lopez is winding down. This is his seventh NPB season. His batting average (.238) and slugging percentage (.393) are at career lows. Edwin Escobar (0-1, 3.63) is in his fourth season of set-up work with the Bay Stars. Edison Barrios (6.75) and Spencer Patton (9.72) are struggling with their roles. In the last two years Spencer has combined for 60 saves.

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