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March 28, 2007

Connecting the Dots

Central League Preview

by Mike Plugh

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Jack Elliot: Japanese way, 'Shut up and Take it'!
Hiroko Uchiyama: Jack's way, 'ME, ME, ME'! Sometimes acceptance and cooperation are strengths also.
--"Mr. Baseball" (1992)

The dialogue is taken from a conversation between Tom Selleck's character, Jack Elliot, and his lovely interpreter and girlfriend Hiroko, who he later learns is his ornery manager's daughter. The film is a somewhat superficial look at the differences between East and West, but it generally avoids the worst Japanese stereotypes usually found in films of the 80's and early 90s, and is often quite successful in showing viewers two sides of the same coin. So, why "Mr. Baseball"? Why here?

It occurred to me that Jack Elliot left the Yankees in the waning days of his career to play for the Chunichi Dragons of Nagoya. His character is loosely based on the prolific Hanshin Tigers slugger, Randy Bass. The Dragons and Tigers have finished in some combination of 1-2 in the Central League three of the last four seasons. Maybe that's a stretch, but that's how my mind works. I wonder what Jack Elliot's VORP was in his final year with the Yankees when he fictitiously hit .235

The Central League, or "Se League" as it's called in Japan, was founded in 1950, and is the more famous and storied of the two Japanese organizations. The Yomiuri Giants are the primary reason for the popularity of the Central, although the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka are followed by the most rabid fan base in the sport, and play the role of the Red Sox to the Giants' Yankees. The Central does not use a DH and plays a 146-game schedule. In 2007, for the first time the league will be employing a best-of-three series to decide who will join the league champion for a chance at the Japan Series. Here's my take on the 2007 Central league, teams listed in predicted order of finish.

Chunichi Dragons
Manager: Hiromitsu Ochiai
2006 Record: 87-54-5 (.617), 1st place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 94-52 (.645)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 88-58 (.601)
Outlook: The Dragons have proved over the last several years that they know how to build an organization that succeeds. The combination of pitching and hitting that they send into the field every year combines for a solid and balanced attack. This year is no exception, as the Dragons changed very little from their 2006 lineup and rotation. Good starting pitching, middle infielders that hit for average, and two fearsome hitters in the middle of the order. It's hard to pick against the Dragons in 2007, so I won't.
Player to Watch: Kosuke Fukudome. The soon-to-be 30-year-old Fukudome is an on-base machine. Many Japanese hitters grow up playing the game with the approach that making contact and moving runners is the path to success. Of course, in some cases this is true, but Fukudome has his own idea at the plate. The past five years have seen him produce on base percentages of .406, .401, .367, .430, and .438, far above the average for Japanese players, and projectably stellar in the Major Leagues as well. In addition to his batting prowess, the Dragons' outfielder has a cannon arm, and regularly contributes double figures in assists despite opponents knowing they shouldn't run on him. The 2006 season was an MVP year for Fukudome, and he was a contributor to the WBC championship. He'll be looking for a move to MLB after the 2007 as a free agent.
Pitcher to Watch: Kenshin Kawakami. Kawakami is the ace of the Dragons, and the newly crowned "highest-paid pitcher in Japan" with a 2007 contract of about $3 million. Last season he set a personal record with 194 strikeouts, while keeping his ERA down at 2.51 for the year. Both of those numbers will be difficult to equal for Kawakami, as he is generally a guy with an ERA over 3.00. While he has the ability to strike out batters, 194 is a reach for 2007. I expect his performance to regress a bit, but it should still be good enough to find him at the top of the Central League leader boards and in the hunt for another division title.

Hanshin Tigers
Manager: Akinobu Okada
2006 Record: 84-58-4 (.592), 2nd place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 85-61 (.580)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 81-65 (.567)
Outlook: Hanshin does everything well, but nothing great. The problem with this team is the lack of power in the lineup and the void that has been left by the posting of Kei Igawa on the pitching staff. The batting order is thin these days, with top performers of years past facing a natural pattern of decline. On-base percentage is not a strength of this team, which hurts a lot when you can't hit for extra bases either. Still, the Tigers have balance, and that bodes well for a successful season in any league. The new playoff format should benefit this team, through which they will cruise to a berth in the postseason.
Player to Watch: Tomoaki Kanemoto. The offense lives and dies with Kanemoto in Osaka. The Hanshin outfielder is the Cal Ripken of Japan with a history of playing every inning of every game. He is 39 this season, and enters the year as the highest-paid regular in Japan at about $5 million for 2007. Should Kanemoto stay healthy and match his recent production, he would enter the exclusive 2000 hit club. He'll need to turn the clock back to the 2004 and 2005 seasons, when he posted an OPS over 1000, to give the club some juice out of the cleanup slot. If not, it could be a thin season on offense.
Pitcher to Watch: Kyuuji Fujikawa. I wanted to pick starter Shinobu Fukuhara as my man here. He'll be stepping into Kei Igawa's shoes, but may struggle to duplicate his 2.09 ERA of 2006. His past performance indicates that he's just not that kind of talent. One player who is "that kind" is closer Kyuuji Fujikawa. This is a terminator-like closer with a K-rate that's through the roof. If he's in the game, it's over. Last season Hanshin's "Sandman" posted a ridiculous 0.68 ERA over 79.1 innings, and fanned 122! The season before, the numbers were 1.36 ERA, 92.1 IP, and 139 Ks. If you look at the last 171.2 innings pitched by Fujikawa, you see a K-rate of 13.69 per nine.

Yomiuri Giants
Manager: Tatsunori Hara
2006 Record: 65-79-2 (.391), 4th place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 70-76 (.465)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 72-74 (.493)
Outlook: The Giants are a proud and storied franchise, but recent years have seen the club plummet into the second division of the Central League. Detractors of the Yomiuri club attribute this to bad karma from always trying to buy the championship; Yankee haters may be able to relate. The problem is not so much bad karma as it is trying to buy the championship by bringing in the wrong guys. The Giants have sported a lot of famous names recently, who've delivered not so many famous games. However, the last two seasons have seen the club point itself in the right direction. Scoring Seung-Yeop Lee from the Marines as a free agent last season and re-upping him again this year was smart. Stealing Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara from Nippon Ham was also a stroke of genius. The problem is pitching. Beyond Koji Uehara the rotation is thin, and the Giants will be hard-pressed to make up for their lack of investment in pitching.
Player to Watch: Seung-Yeop Lee. You could really pick Ogasawara here, and you'd be quite justified. His MVP credentials and unshakable demeanor could mean a lot to the middle of the "Kyojin" order, but Lee is the man. The former Korean league MVP and the single-season Asian home run king (56 in 2003 with Samsung) will break out again in 2007. He was on a record-setting home run pace last season before nagging injuries robbed him of his vaunted power late in the year. If he's healthy this year, an MVP award in Japan is not out of the question.
Pitcher to Watch: Koji Uehara. Uehara is Japan's go-to guy. Yes, Daisuke Matsuzaka is the ace, and the guy you'd want in a Game Seven situation, but Uehara has been the guy at the front of the Japanese international rotation for a decade, and he's poised to make a run at a Sawamura award in his final season before entering free agency and probably the Major Leagues. Uehara sports a devilish career K/BB mark of 6.66, and has every reason to lay it all out on the line before saying sayonara to his home country and the Giants.

Yakult Swallows
Manager: Atsuya Furuta
2006 Record: 70-73-3 (.490), 3rd place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 76-70 (.521)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 70-76 (.476)
Outlook: The loss of Akinori Iwamura to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays is going to hurt Yakult. The club's loyal fan base always finds a reason to cheer, but this season an aging pitching staff and a shaky batting order of platoon players is sure to tiptoe around .500 for the season. The Swallows' 42-year old player/manager Atsuya Furuta will play the role of Mr. Personality from behind the plate as a kind of bespectacled uncle to the fans. Alex Ramirez and Aaron Guiel will man the corners in the outfield, and should provide a little pop to help keep the team afloat. The real star of the Swallows is 25-year-old centerfielder Norichika Aoki, who will do his best Ichiro impression to wow MLB scouts. The rotation is a bit of a shambles, with former Dodger Kazuhisa Ishii fronting the arms. It might be a long year for the yogurt-sponsored Swallows.
Player to Watch: Norichika Aoki. People liken Aoki to a young Ichiro Suzuki. I'm a bit wary of that comparison, as Ichiro started throwing up 950 OPS seasons from the minute he stepped into the league, and continued until he left for the Mariners. Aoki may have that kind of potential, but he's only flashed a glimmer of extra-base power after two full seasons. Last year he made big strides in his strikeout-to-walk ratio, cutting it from 3:1 all the way down to nearly 1:1 in his sophomore campaign. This season may be a breakout campaign for Aoki, and you can bet that the stands will be full of Major League scouts watching for it from day one.
Pitcher to Watch: Ryo Kawajima. Kawajima was the 2004 Rookie of the Year for the Swallows, posting an impressive 8.27 K/9 and 3.05 K/BB ratio to go with his 3.17 ERA over 139.1 innings. In 2005, the young starting pitcher lowered his ERA to 2.81, but mysteriously his strikeouts also tumbled to a lowly 78 over 128.1 IP. The 2006 season was even more difficult for Kawajima, as he struggled with his health and consistency. Will 2007 bring a return to form for the 25-year-old, or will he continue to deteriorate? The answer to that question may well spell the difference between the playoffs and a head start on golfing for the Yakult Swallows.

Yokohama Bay Stars Manager: Akihiko Oya
2006 Record: 58-84-4 (.408), 6th place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 63-83 (.430)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 63-83 (.430)
Outlook: At first glance you'd think that losing a star player like Hitoshi Tamura to the SoftBank Hawks would cripple a last-place team. The problem with that thinking is that the Bay Stars struggled most with their pitching in 2006, surrendering a Japan-worst 662 runs-and that includes expansion franchise Rakuten. Tamura's loss will undoubtedly detract from a mediocre offense that often struggled to keep up with the opposition's prolific output against their own rotation. Gone from the 2006 rotation are Jason Beverlin and Ken Kadokura, and in come 44-year-old Kimiyasu Kudo of the Giants and 23-year old Hayato Terahara (a former first-round pick of the SoftBank Hawks). An odd couple of sorts to be sure, as Kudo is way past his prime and may not give the Bay Stars much, while Terahara has yet to find his zone in the pros. The difference between these pitchers is that one has succeeded in the past, and the other has a very high upside. I look for a modest improvement in the rotation to go with one of the best bullpens in the sport.
Player to Watch: Yuki Yoshimura. The #5 hole in the Yokohama lineup belongs to Yoshimura, but he could well move up in the order as the season goes on. He'll turn 23 years old shortly, and the first baseman broke out last season by hitting 26 home runs in only 396 at-bats. His .311 batting average in 111 games is only a glimpse of things to come, but he has almost zero plate discipline: He struck out 116 times in those 396 at-bats, but managed only 10 walks. Let me repeat that: 116, and 10. If he can get more comfortable as he matures, the batting average and raw slugging potential may be supported with something better than the modest .336 OBP he posted in 2006.
Pitcher to Watch: Marc Kroon. The 34-year-old former major leaguer throws heat, and the Japanese media loves to highlight his 100 mph fastball at every opportunity. Kroon spent a number of years in the rare air of the Pacific Coast League, pitching in Las Vegas, Salt Lake, and Colorado Springs, and then in the majors for the Rockies. He could always strike men out, but couldn't stick. In Japan he's hit his stride, posting a 10.29 K/9 in 2005, and an even more eye-popping 13.13 K/9 last year. At Colorado Springs in 2004, he had similar strikeout success, but he couldn't keep his walks down. In Yokohama he compliments his otherworldly K-rate with a newfound appreciation for control-last year he had 70 Ks against only eight walks. Look for more fireworks from Kroon as he closes out games for the Bay Stars in 2007.

Hiroshima Carp
Manager: Marty Brown
2006 Record: 62-79-5 (.440), 5th place
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 61-85 (.418)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 57-89 (.390)
Outlook: How will the Carp stay competitive in the Central in 2007? This team scored the fewest runs in the Central last season, and they haven't done all that much to upgrade the offense for the coming season. The Hiroshima club was also dead last in walks drawn in either league. It's no wonder that the team floundered near the bottom of the division, especially when you combine the poor hitting with a rotation filled with question marks. You can count on ace pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, but the #2 pitcher is Sean Douglass of International League fame, and 40-year-old Shinji Sasaoka is #3, and neither of them are going to stop the opposition from scoring.
Player to Watch: Tomonori Maeda. Maeda turns 36 this summer, but is still a model of consistency. Given that, he's going to hit around .305/.365/.540 and play a very nice left field for the Carp. He'll tally around 25 doubles and 20-25 home runs, and hold down the #3 spot in the order. Despite the inconsistency of cleanup man Takahiro Arai, Maeda should do his fair share to keep the team competitive. The veteran of 17 seasons in Hiroshima is only 94 hits shy of 2000, and is looking forward to reaching that goal before his loyal fans.
Pitcher to Watch: Hiroki Kuroda. The Hiroshima ace has quietly turned into one of the better pitchers in the Central League. Early in his career, Kuroda was batted around quite a bit, and had to reinvent himself on the mound. He is now a 32-year-old veteran of 10 professional seasons, and recorded his finest campaign in 2006. Last season Kuroda posted a stunning 1.85 ERA in 189.1 innings, and fanned 144 against only 28 walks. He is a sure bet to regress to his career averages this season, which is still very good, but the additional runs on his ERA may translate to a few additional losses for Hiroshima. That hurts a lot when you realize that the Carp gave up an average of 4.44 runs per game, while scoring only 3.76 runs.

Don't miss Mike's introduction to this series.

--

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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