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Friday, July 18, 2003

The League No One Watches

Except for MLB Scouts, that is.  Part 2 of 2.

The League No One Watches Except MLB Scouts

 

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.

 

          W   L   T   PCT   GB
Fukuoka     48   32   1   .600   —
Kintetsu   47   34   0   .580   1?
Seibu     44   36   1   .550   4
Nippon Ham   37   43   2   .462   11
Chiba Lotte 33   43   1   .434   13
Orix       26   47   3   .356   18?

(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.

Bob Timmermann Posted: July 18, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 8 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. CFiJ Posted: July 18, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612217)
Grrrr.... Damn Wayne Graczyk, bringing that tired "first initial-partial last name" nickname style to Japan! Well, FWIW, in the Japanese language papers they just refer to him as "Kabu", short for "Kaburera".

Ogasawara is one of my favorite players. I'd love to see him come over to the majors. He's slick with the leather (four time Gold Glove winner), and after spending most of his career at first seems to have made a successful transition to third, in full defiance of the defensive spectrum. He hits for average, power, and is an on-base machine (currently leads the league). For the past few years he's been one of the top 3 first basemen in the league. With the move to third he is now, in my opinion, well ahead of Nakamura as the best third baseman in Japan. He's a pleasure to watch on those rare times when a Fighters game is actually broadcast. (Not that it matters anyway, with me in the States.)

Say, Bob, let's you and me, the guys over at JapaneseBaseball.com, the BaseballGuru.com boys, and any interested Primates try to organize some kind of mini-campaign to get ESPN to purchase some overseas broadcasting rights to some Japanese ballgames. I mean, jeez, it'd be more interesting late-night fare than almost any of the crap they show from 12:00 am to 10:00 am on ESPN2 (ESPN being almost entirely Sportscenters at this time...)
   2. GGC don't think it can get longer than a novella Posted: July 18, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612220)
Yawn, pay my way, and I'll take the trip :). I don't speak Spanish, but I'll get by.

CFiJ, I'm with you. I'd love to see some Japanese games on TV. Barring that, it would be great to have bi-weekly reviews here like we do for MLB.

GGC
   3. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 18, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612222)
Ogasawara isn't exactly going to make anyone forget Brooks Robinson at third base, but he's better than Butch Hobson.

Two games during the 2000 Japan Series were broadcast in L.A. on a local UHF channel that shows international programming, but that was the end of that. The station just sold time to whoever wanted to buy it.

The people at YES have talked about showing games from Japan, but I have a feeling that they won't be too interested in showing any games that don't involve the Giants.

And Steinbrenner won't be wanting to see the Tigers and Irabu play on YES.
   4. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 18, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612230)
Alex Ochoa, or if you want to call him by the name he goes by in Japan, Alex, is at 277/356/428 for the Chunichi Dragons in the CL. He has 10 HRs and 2 SB.

He has been playing CF. He lead off for a while, but got moved down in the lineup toward the end of May.
   5. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 19, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612235)
Prospectus does MLEs for Japan.

There may be more sophisticated stats for Japan, but I certainly can't read them.

Cabrera's walk totals are down this year. He only has 39 BBs to go with his 66 Ks. He had 100 walks in 2002 and 84 in 2001.

His Ks are dropping. He had 150 in 2001 and 117 in 2002.

As for his attitude, he is very well-liked by Seibu fans. After all, they erected a statue in his image and you can pray to it outside the Seibu Dome.

I talked to Scott McClain (Seibu's third baseman) before a game at the Seibu Dome and he seemed to think that Cabrera was happy playing in Japan. Cabrera did not get a lot of playing time in Arizona and that made him unhappy. In Japan, he seems quite happy and easygoing.

As for power or finesse pitchers giving Cabrera more trouble, the overwhelming majority of pitchers in Japan are finesse pitchers. The hardest throwing pitchers in the Pacific League are on Seibu.

Cabrera will turn 32 on Christmas Eve.
   6. Boileryard Posted: July 19, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612237)
It is strange that the PCL gets no love... I live in Kyoto, and EVERYONE here and in Osaka and Kobe) loves Hanshin (which, by the way, uses the kanji for Osaka and Kobe, so the railroad name is similar to the old B&O, like the warehouse in Camden Yards, Baltimore being the city I happened to grow up in, weehee!) but The Buffaloes get no love, even when they were briefly in first at the start of the season.
I went to see a game at Seibu Dome (which, by the way, is a pretty cool place as far as domes go) which had the Lions and the Buffalo going head to head with second place on the line (and I think they were each only 2 or 3 games back of first) and there were, maybe, 10,000 fans there, if that. And it was a Friday night game!
Another strange thing in Japan - people choose their allegiances for very odd reasons. At that Seibu-Kintetsu game I sat in the visitor's bleacher section, where all the chants and songs are sung. I talked to around 20 or 30 fans of Kintetsu, and not one of them lived anywhere near Osaka, and never had. They all were from places which had their own teams, but for whatever reason, they loved Kintetsu. Maybe they hated their dad or something. Very strange tho - like going to watch the Cubs play the Mets in NYC, and finding out that all the folk who came to watch the Cubbies were from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, New Jersey...

By the way, I think it's rather amusing that the Japanese all-star game ended in a tie this year and (of course) no one cared.
   7. Bud Selig Posted: July 19, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612242)
Japanese baseball has ties, in the regular season? What a great idea! Now that's competitive balance!
   8. Bob Timmermann Posted: July 19, 2003 at 02:28 AM (#612243)
The PL (I assume the PCL was an understandable typo) suffers pretty much for one reason: the Giants don't play in that league.

The most popular team in Japan by an enormous margin is the Giants. The Tigers are second and closing fast this year.

But few of the teams in the PL have ever built up the fanatical loyalty that any of the CL teams have. The Hawks draw well because they are the only team on Kysuhu and they have regional appeal. But in the past, teams weren't as successful down there. The Seibu Lions started out in Fukuoka, before moving to Tokorazawa (northern suburb of Tokyo) in order to attract more fans.

The PL tries really hard to market itself. They finally hit upon the idea of staggering their schedule. It used to be that both leagues would take Monday off for travel and rest. But now, the PL plays on Monday and gets a day on TV all for itself and takes Thursdays off. I don't know if this makes much difference.

Next year, the PL is going to add a round of playoffs before the Japan Series. Presently, the Japan Series format is simple: CL champ vs. PL champ. It's got a very pre-1969 feel to it.
But the PL will add a round of playoffs before the Japan Series and it will feature the #2 and #3 teams playing (I think) a best of three or best of five and then facing the #1 team in another series.

If that format were in use right now, there would be about zero interest in the PL as the top 3 teams are pretty much set.

If you were visiting Japan and you wanted to go to a baseball game on the spur of the moment, aim for a PL game because you will most definitely get a ticket.

For reasons, I'm not sure about only the PL teams regularly play the Japanese national anthem before games. The CL teams don't unless it's a special occasion. But the Japanese are far more low key about their national anthem than Americans. A sizeable portion of the crowd doesn't stand for it and those that do don't seem to care.

Personally, I like the melody.
http://www.yu.emb-japan.go.jp/English/JapanInfo-Politics&Economy;.htm

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