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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, July 18, 2003
The League No One Watches
Except for MLB Scouts, that is. Part 2 of 2.
While the Hanshin Tigers have been the feel good story of the year in Japan and brought even more attention on to the already more popular Central League, Japanese baseball?s poor relation, the Pacific League, is providing some compelling story lines of its own.
At the All Star break (July 13), the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks held a 1 ? game lead over the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and a 4 game lead over the defending champion Seibu Lions.
(Ties count only toward total games played, they do not figure into winning percentage)
So while the Tigers dominate the news, the Pacific League toils away before small crowds. Aside from Fukuoka, which draws an average crowd of over 40,000, the other five teams draw on average between 15,000 to 22,000.
Scouts from the other side of the Pacific though watch the PL carefully, as many teams have their eyes focused on and checkbooks opened up for Seibu shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who is expected to be the next Japanese star to attempt the move to North America. Will another Matsui fare well over here? To find out, you?ll have to read a bit further on.
But the season so far:
First place: Fukuoka Daiei Hawks
The Hawks, whose parent company, Daiei (a supermarket chain), is in serious financial trouble and may have to sell its team, the Fukuoka Dome, and the nearby hotel and retail center, are nevertheless stubbornly holding on to the lead in a close three-way battle in the PL.
Catcher Kenji Jojima is fourth in the league in both BA (.338) and OBP (.419) and is fifth in SLG (.598). Jojima has hit 18 homers and is tied for the lead in RBIs with 66. He also has the reputation for the strongest throwing arm among catchers in Japan. Whether or not a Japanese-speaking catcher could make it in MLB at a position where communication is essential is something to watch out for.
The Hawks have two excellent starting pitchers in rookie Tsuyoshi Wada (9-3, 2.72) and Kazumi Saito (12-2, 2.83) and lead the PL in ERA at 3.52. Brian Skrmetta has 12 saves to lead a steady bullpen for the Hawks.
Despite their good attendance, the Hawks actually play much better on the road. They are 21-19 at home and 27-13 on the road.
Second place: Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes
One look at the statistics and you can tell just what the Buffaloes? plan of attack is: Hit the ball over the fence. Tuffy Rhodes, two seasons removed from his record-tying 55 home run season, has hit 30 at the break. He has an OBP of .419 and a SLG of .640. The Buffaloes have hit 120 home runs overall. Third baseman Nori Nakamura?s home run production is a bit down from previous years, but he still has hit 16.
Hisashi Iwakuma, a 22-year old righthander, is Kintetsu?s most reliable starter, going 10-5 with a 2.78 ERA. He has completed nine of his 16 starts. But the bullpen has been shaky all season. Import Kevin Beirne was supposed to step in as the closer and he has turned in a 3-6 record with a 6.79 ERA. Beirne has thrown a shutout as a starter however.
It looks quite likely that Rhodes, who is now in his eighth season for the Buffaloes, may make another attempt to surpass the single season record of 55 home runs that he shares with Seibu?s Alex Cabrera and former Giant and current Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh, although he is slightly behind the pace needed to get to 55.
Third place: Seibu Lions
While the Lions are trying to win their second straight PL pennant, most fans in North America only seem to care how Kaz Matsui is faring. The answer is: He?s had better seasons than this one. At the break, Matsui is batting .284 with an OBP of .359 and a SLG of .508. He?s hit 17 home runs and is 5 out of 6 in stolen base attempts. Matsui did start slowly and has played much better lately and it is not hard to imagine that these numbers will improve. And the MLB scouts still show up to watch him play. A fast, power-hitting, switch-hitting shortstop does not come around too often. A more interesting question is whether or not Matsui will still be a shortstop if he comes to North America.
Lost in the hubbub over Matsui is another monster season by first baseman Alex Cabrera. "A-Cab", as he is called in Japan, has hit 28 homers in only 67 games and is slugging .720 with an OBP of .427. Scott McClain has hit 18 homers and Kazuhiro Wada has 17.
If Seibu can make it back to first, it should be because of its pitching. Two Seibu pitchers are having phenomenonal seasons. Starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, regarded as the hardest thrower in Japan, has gone 10-4 with a 2.06 ERA. He has struck out 136 in 113 2/3 innings. The only concern with Matsuzaka is that he piles up some big pitch counts (150+) and he did sit out the All Star games with elbow soreness. Closer Kiyoshi Toyoda has 23 saves and an ERA of 0.27 in 33 2/3 innings pitched. Toyoda gave up only five earned runs in 2002 and has given up only one run in 2003.
Fourth place: Nippon Ham Fighters
The Fighters made a lot of noise in the offseason by hiring an American, Trey Hillman, to manage the team. The Fighters also are playing their final season in the Tokyo Dome and in 2004 will move north to the space age Sapporo Dome ( http://www.sapporo-dome.co.jp ), which has a retractable grass field for soccer and an artificial surface for baseball.
Judging by runs scored and given up, the Fighters should be a .500 team as they have scored and given up 401 runs. The team batting average is .273, third best in the PL and the Fighters have hit only 85 home runs, despite playing in the homer friendly Tokyo Dome.
The Fighters are getting another stellar year from third baseman Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara, who leads the PL in BA at .356 and OBP at .465. "Guts" is fourth in slugging percentage as well at .599. Teammate Tomochika Tsuboi, an outfielder, is batting .355, although with less power than Ogasawara.
The pitching staff is nothing special aside from Masaru Yoshizaki, who is 8-3 with a 3.17 ERA. Carlos Mirabal has managed to go 10-6 despite an ERA of 4.77 and an OBA of .316 and surrendering 16 home runs in 109 1/3 IP.
Fifth place: Chiba Lotte Marines
The Marines play in the best pitcher?s park (or worst hitter?s park) in Japan, Chiba Marine Stadium. As the name implies, the stadium is close to the water and is Japan?s answer to Candlestick Park. The stadium has a wind gauge as part of its scoreboard. Marine leftfielder Rick Short, who came over to Chiba after leading the PCL in batting average at Salt Lake City, said it was a complete turnaround for him. All of the benefits of Salt Lake City, altitude, dry air, and a small park, were reversed in the spacious, windy, damp park at sea level.
Chiba has hit only 68 home runs this season, by far the fewest in all of Japan. The Marines have scored only 312 runs, the worst in Japan and the PL is a league with the designated hitter. No Marines regular is batting over .300 and none has an OBP over .350.
Unfortunately for Chiba, the pitching staff is not benefiting as much from the park as the hitters are being hurt. The team ERA is 4.53, fifth worst in the league. The starters after Naoyoki Shimizu (8-5, 2.53) and Nate Minchey (7-4, 3.45) are nothing special. In fact, aside from those two, no pitcher on the staff has more than three wins. Reliever Masahide Kobayashi usually can close out any game when the situation arises, saving 16. The Marines have not won a pennant since 1974 and 2003 is not going to be the year that drought ends.
Sixth place: Orix Blue Wave
In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki left Kobe, home of the Blue Wave, and headed east for greener pastures near Puget Sound. And since then, the fortunes of the Blue Wave have gone south. Despite playing in Japan?s only stadium that features a grass infield and outfield, the resemblance to Major League baseball is hard to find.
The Blue Wave can hit a little, batting .271, but have only scored 329 runs and hit 79 home runs. And the team certainly cannot pitch as Orix hurlers sport a 5.43 ERA in a pitcher friendly park. Like the Fighters, the Blue Wave have an American manager, Leon Lee, but he has far less talent to work with than Hillman does with the Fighters.
Orix?s imports, Roosevelt Brown, Scott Sheldon, and Jose Ortiz, have been a mixed bag. Brown is hitting .311 with 12 HRs and 42 RBI. Sheldon, playing mostly third base or designated hitter, is batting .253 and has struck out 65 times with only 16 walks. Ortiz, who hit for the cycle early in the season, is batting .216 and has made 16 errors at second base. Orix has committed 73 errors overall in 79 games.
Only one Blue Wave pitcher has enough innings to show up in the league totals for ERA leaders, Hisashi Ogura. In 19 games and 81 innings pitched, Ogura has gone 2-8 with a 5.56 ERA and surrendered 20 home runs.
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.
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