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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Year of the Tiger

Bob gets us caught up on the goings-on in Japan.  Part 1 of 2.

No, not those Tigers. Not the 25-67 Detroit version, we?re talking about the 57-22-1 (that?s a .721 winning percentage) Hanshin Tigers of Japan?s Central League. And as Japan reaches its All-Star break, the Tigers are without a doubt, the story in Japanese baseball.

One of the oldest professional franchises in Japan and playing in the country?s oldest (1924) and most storied park, Koshien Stadium, the Tigers have long languished in the lower half of the Central League standings. Since 1950, the Tigers have won one Japan Series championship, in 1985. But aside from that brief ray of hope, the Tigers have usually been Japan?s loveable losers. The fans of the Tigers are loyal, loud, and forever optimistic. And it looks that 2003 may be the year that their loyalty is rewarded.

At the break, the Tigers have a 14-? game lead over its closest pursuers, the Yakult Swallows. The defending Japan Series champions and the Tigers? (and just about everyone else?s) nemesis, the Yomiuri Giants, are 18 games behind the Tigers and in fourth place. The standings in the Central League are almost symmetrical as the last place Yokohama BayStars sport a 22-58 record, 35 ? games out of first.

So, why are the Tigers playing the 1954 Indians (the last team stateside to play over .720 for a full season)? As one would expect when a team has a record this good, the Tigers are excelling in all phases of the game. The Tigers are hitting, pitching, and fielding better than everybody else.

Hanshin (named after a railway company) has scored 479 runs, 53 more than second place Yakult. They have allowed only 300 runs, 67 fewer than second place Yakult. They have committed only 35 errors, 4 fewer than Yakult. The team batting average is .303 and the team ERA is 3.45.

About the only important offensive category the Tigers don?t lead is home runs. The Tigers have hit only 83, while the Giants have pounded out 115 and the BayStars 111.

Individually, Hanshin has three of the top four hitters in the Central League in batting average: second baseman Makoto Imaoka, .366; catcher Akihiro Yano, .350; and center fielder Norihiro Akahoshi, .339. Yakult?s Alex Ramirez at .343 slipped into third place. In terms of OBP, Yano is second in the league at .410, Imaoka is fourth at .392 and Akahoshi is fifth at .391. Kosuke Fukudome of the Chunichi Dragons leads at .425.

The Tigers? principal power threat, George Arias, is second in the league in slugging at .593. Arias has hit 20 home runs, good for third in the league behind Ramirez with 25 and Tyrone Woods of Yokohama with 23. Shinjiro Hiyama hit for the cycle on July 2.

On the mound, George Steinbrenner?s second most favorite Japanese import, Hideki Irabu, leads the league in ERA at 2.52. In 107 1/3 innings pitched, Irabu has struck out 105 while walking only 21. Teammate Kei Igawa is third in ERA at 3.09. Reliever Jeff Williams, an Aussie by way of the Dodger organization has converted all 21 of his save opportunities and has an ERA of 1.31.

So, will this be the year that the Tigers bring home a Central League title and send baseball fans in Osaka in to fits of delirium? Will Hanshin manager Senichi Hoshino be nominated for prime minister, or even emperor? Well, the Tigers have had a history of late season collapses, especially in August when Hanshin goes on its annual “Road Trip of Death” in order to free up Koshien Stadium for the national high school baseball tournament. (Yes, that is more important than any pro game.) From August 5-24, the Tigers only have six “home” games; three of those will be played in Sapporo and the other three in the Osaka Dome, which in terms of atmosphere resembles Koshien as much as Tropicana Field resembles Yankee Stadium. However, 14 ? games is a sizeable lead and it takes a lot of effort to waste that lead. But let?s check what the Tigers? opponents have been doing.

Second place: Yakult Swallows, 42-37, 14 ? games out

The Swallows have been led all year by Alex Ramirez who is putting up a 343/381/657 year. He has 25 home runs, but has only drawn 19 walks. Third baseman Ken Suzuki has gone 315/396/535 with 14 home runs.

Yakult has not had much though in the way of pitching outside of two starters, lefty Masanori Ishikawa (7-5, 3.57) and Jason Beverlin (7-4, 4.26). After those two, no other Swallows starter has pitched more than 70 innings. Closer Shingo Takatsu has 18 saves.

Veteran catcher Atsuya Furuta became the fifth man in Japanese baseball to hit four home runs in a game when he pulled off the feat in Hiroshima on June 28. Outfielder Atsunori Inaba hit for the cycle on July 1 in a game against Yokohama that lasted only six innings.

Third place: Chunichi Dragons, 40-39, 17 games out

Chunichi?s star right fielder, Kosuke Fukudome, is showing that his strong 2002 season, when he hit a league leading .343, was no fluke. Fukudome is sixth in batting average in 2003 at .330 and is leading in OBP and in walks with 51. Fukudome had only 19 homers in 2002, but he has 14 at the break. Fukudome hit for the cycle on June 8.

Only one Dragons pitcher has enough innings to show up among the ERA leaders and that is venerable lefthander Masahiro Yamamoto who has a 4-4 record to go with his 3.33 ERA. Kenshin Kawakami, who went 12-6 with a 2.35 ERA in 2002, has been injured all season and his absence has been a big problem for the Dragons. Closer Eddie Gaillard has 14 saves, but an ERA of 5.08. Hard throwing lefty reliever Hitoki Iwase has a 3-1 record with 3 saves and 1.36 ERA, but seems confined to setup duty.

Fourth place: Yomiuri Giants, 40-41-1, 18 games out

It would be easy to say that the Giants are suffering from the fact that Hideki Matsui is playing in Yankee Stadium instead of the Tokyo Dome, but the Giants have suffered through many more problems than that.

Matsui?s replacement, Roberto Petagine, has been injured much of the year and only played 48 games. Petagine has hit 15 home runs but has been switched from his normal first base to the outfield and reports from Japan imply that Petagine is turning into the Glenallen Hill of Japan. The man who forced Petagine to the outfield, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, has limped through 64 games at first base. Shortstop Tomohiro Nioka has been one of the few reliable offensive performers for the Giants, playing in all 82 games and banging out 19 homers.

The Giants starting pitching has been fairly strong, although not as spectacular as last year?s squad. Rookie Hiroshi Kisanuki has gone 5-3 with a 2.79 ERA and 113 Ks. Koji Uehara, who went 17-5 with a 2.64 ERA in 2002, is only 6-3 with a 3.78 ERA in 2003. But the big problems for the Giants are in the bullpen, whose problems can be summed up in the pitching line this season for closer Junichi Kawahara: 21 IP, 36 H, 4 HRs, 7 BB, 22 K, 0 wins, 3 losses, 7 saves, and an ERA of 9.86.

The Giants played their last two games before the break against the Tigers at Koshien. They lost 14-1 and 14-3 and gave up 18 hits in each game. The Giants are 3-14-1 against the Tigers this year.

Fifth place: Hiroshima Carp, 34-39, 20 games out.

The Carp, as has been their pattern in recent years, are hanging out in the bottom half of the standings. Hiroshima has received decent production from its double play combo of shortstop Andy Sheets (.315, 11 HR, 39 RBI) and Takuya Kimura (.330, but only 6 HR and 14 RBI). Third baseman/first baseman Takahiro Arai hit 28 home runs in 2002, but has only 6 in 2003. Pitcher Ken Takahashi is 8-2 with a 3.38 ERA, but after that Carp fans have to hope for a lot of rain. Fortunately, there is a lot of that in Hiroshima.

Sixth place: Yokohama BayStars, 22-58, 35 ? games out

In 2002 the BayStars played .363 ball and fired their manager. The new manager, Daisuke Yamashita, has fared even worse as Yokohama has plunged deep into the cellar. Yamashita-san meet Trammell-san; Trammell-san, Yamashita-san. A team ERA of 5.10 hasn?t helped, but at least Yokohama entertains the fans as the BayStars have hit 111 home runs.

Tyrone Woods has hit 23 home runs, some of which have reportedly gone completely out of cozy Yokohama Stadium (it has normal dimensions, but the bleachers are small). Woods has also piled up 79 strikeouts in 79 games. Teammate Shoichi Murata has struck out 81 times in 74 games with only 12 home runs to show for his efforts.

As for Yokohama?s pitchers, the “ace” is Chris Holt, who is 4-10 with a 4.42 ERA. The chances of Yokohama getting much better in the second half aren?t great.

Note: The sources for most of these statistics are from http://yahoo.sports.co.jp (which is entirely in Japanese) and the excellent English language site on Japanese baseball produced by Michael Westbay at http://www.japanesebaseball.com There may be slight differences between the stats at the two sites, but nothing significant.

Bob Timmermann is Vice-President of the the Allan Roth Chapter of SABR and a contributor to The Baseball Index, a volunteer project which has now catalogued close to 200,000 items of baseball literature.  Bob recently toured Japan and took in baseball games at each Pacific and Central League park.

Bob Timmermann Posted: July 16, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 7 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Yardape Posted: July 16, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612185)
I don't really have anything to add, but I wanted to say that this was well done and I enjoyed it. Keep 'em coming! :)
   2. CFiJ Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612186)
Great article, Bob! I'm looking forward to the next part.

Doing the leaderboards for BaseballGuru.com, I was pretty surprised to note that Nioka was the Giants primary offensive player. Nioka's a fine player, but it tells a lot about the Giants when he's the best hitter on the team...
   3. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612190)
Thanks for the comments, especially CFiJ's. I don't profess to be the foremost authority on this subject, but I thought it would be fun to write this.

I think a good example of the Giants' problem came in a game I saw them play against Yokohama where they used four third basemen because of injuries.
   4. Super Creepy Derek Lowe (GGC) Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612200)
Interesting article. I remember reading a book on Japanese baseball and they had a chapter on that high school tournament. From what I recall, that is THE major sporting event in the country. I'm looking forward to part two.

GGC
   5. Marc Stone Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612201)
I saw the Tigers play the Swallows in Tokyo (in Yakult's tiny run-down charmless ballpark) in April when the two teams both had about .500 records. There were easily twice as many screaming Hanshin fans in the stands as there were lukewarm Yakult "supporters". The Hanshin Tigers may be the Cubs of Japanese baseball and the Yomiuri Giants the Yankees, but the Yakult Swallows are the Expos -- a quality team that's abysmally promoted.
   6. Dudefella Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:27 AM (#612202)
"Tyrone Woods has hit 23 home runs..."

At first glance, I thought that said Tiger Woods. Which would have been damn impressive.
   7. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 17, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612207)
Yakult will likely be playing a lot more of its games next year in the Tokyo Dome after the Fighters leave.

Meiji Jingu actually seats around 50,000. And it's a prewar stadium, but doesn't look it because it has artificial turf. And not very nice artificial turf at that.

There are more Swallows fans in Tokyo than Fighters fans certainly.

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