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May 6, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

Pacific League Update

by Mike Plugh

I recently recapped the first month of action in Japan's Central League. While the two best hitters in Japan--Kosuke Fukudome and Norichika Aoki play in the Central, some of the game's best pitchers play for Pacific League teams. Yu Darvish, Hideaki Wakui, Kazumi Saito, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Masahiro Tanaka are just a few of the big-name pitchers who work in this circuit. Without further ado, I bring you month one of the Pacific League, with teams listed according to their standings as of Friday, May 4th:

Pacific League

SoftBank Hawks, 21-12-1; 167 Runs Scored, 115 Runs Allowed

SoftBank struggled early in the season, lagging behind the Seibu Lions in the Pacific. As of May 4, the Hawks passed the Lions to move into first place; they've been my pick to win the Japan Series in 2007 since the season's start. You can see by the disparity in runs scored and allowed that they may stay in first for most of the season. There is no better offense in either league. Even without Japan's top shortstop Munenori Kawasaki (out with a fractured middle finger), the lineup keeps coming at pitchers. Former MVP and Triple Crown winner Nobuhiko Matsunaka has produced a 939 OPS from the cleanup spot, with former Giant Hiroki Kokubo off to a fast start with nine home runs.

The pitching has been outstanding for the most part, although SoftBank fans must be a bit disappointed in their ace, Kazumi Saito. Saito will be highly sought-after in the posting process after the season, but he has regressed a bit in the early going in 2007. Saito is now 1-1 with a 3.56 ERA in 30.1 innings pitched. His K-rate is still around 10 per nine, but his WHIP is a generous 1.55 so far. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, as his career numbers are closer to what he's doing now than the career season he had in 2006. At this point, Saito looks like the fourth starter in a rotation with three starting pitchers posting eye-popping ERAs of 1.96, 2.63, and 2.65 to date. (Those pitchers are Nagisa Arakaki, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Toshiya Sugiuchi, respectively. If Saito improves a bit, and the others hold their current value, I expect them to run away with the Pacific by mid-summer.

Seibu Lions, 19-12-2; 149 Runs Scored, 132 Runs Allowed

The start of the 2007 season saw two strikes against the Lions in their quest for the Pacific League crown. The first strike, of course, was the loss of Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Major Leagues. The second was the revelation that the club had been paying amateur ballplayers under the table in an effort to sway the youngsters to exercise their limited influence over their draft destinations--unlike the process in the States, in Japan amateurs have some say in who drafts them. Of course the investigation into this issue touches all the teams in the NPB, and raises the possibility of reform, but Seibu has had the spotlight shone on them over the issue every day since before the season started, mainly because owner Hidekazu Ota initially tried to tap dance his way out of it.

The performance on the field has helped the team deflect that attention, as the Lions have surprisingly posted one of the best records in the sport. Five regular members of the lineup are hitting over .300, led by former Philadelphia Phillies farmhand G.G. Sato. Slugger Alex Cabrera continues to push for a place in the argument for greatest foreign player in NPB history, jumping out to a hot start with a .309/.372/.509 batting line. The pitching has been better than expected, with second-year man Hideaki Wakui posting a 5-1 record on the strength of a stellar 2.25 ERA. The 20-year old Wakui faced the MLB All-Stars in their exhibition series in November, pitching two innings of relief and allowing one hit, while fanning four. His 23-year old rookie rotation mate Takayuki Kishi has also had an early impact with a devastating slider and confident mound presence.

Lotte Marines, 15-13-3; 119 Runs Scored, 118 Runs Allowed

The Marines have been perfectly mediocre to date. The margin between their runs scored and allowed stands at one, but the team has currently lost five of its last seven games. Looking more closely at the roster, I have a hard time seeing any way for this team to hold off the Nippon Ham Fighters for the third and final playoff spot in 2007. Yes, it's way too early to begin forecasting playoff teams, especially in the see-saw Pacific, but there are some hints of things to come in the numbers.

Lotte was smart to snatch up Julio Zuleta from the SoftBank Hawks in the offseason. His bat provides a power source in the middle of an otherwise powerless lineup--he leads the team with eight home runs. His performance is overshadowed by 24-year old Takeshi Aono, who is playing every day for the first time in his career; Aono leads the team with 12 extra-base hits in 94 plate appearances, and is giving Lotte fans something to be excited about for the future. Toshiaki Imae is proving to everyone that his MVP in the 2005 Japan Series was more fluke than ability. Imae finished 2006 with a .293 OBP and has continued where he left off by reaching base at a .298 pace in 2007. The face of the franchise, infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, has a batting line of .270/.328/.313, which isn't that far from his career .271/.333/.394, and has proved once again that the only skill he brings to the table is speed. Despite his being a player with limited value, TSUYOSHI--yes, first-name only, and all capitals--walks the walk of a rock star.

The pitching is a mixed bag as well, with submariner Shunsuke Watanabe and Hiroyuki Kobayashi off to good starts and Naoyuki Shimizu struggling with five straight losses and a 6.75 ERA. With little prospect for a better offense, the hope of the Marines is to be found in their starting rotation in 2007. Combining the six-man rotation's numbers to date, it's noteworthy that the group walks less than two batters per nine innings. If the starters can continue to work efficiently, they may be able to hold of Nippon Ham, if only by a hair.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, 14-17-3; 122 Runs Scored, 133 Runs Allowed

In my season preview for Nippon Ham, I noted that imported Diamondback Andy Green would have to duplicate most of his production in the minor leagues to replace MVP Michihiro Ogasawara, who bolted to Yomiuri. Instead, Green is off to such a bad start that he's now been relegated to part-time duty for the Fighters. How bad a start is Green off to, you ask? In 67 plate appearances, the former Snake has produced a .197/.269/.279 batting line; so much for that experiment. Panamanian veteran Fernando Seguignol continues to be the only source of power in the Fighters' lineup, with eight home runs. The problem is that aside from those homers, the first baseman has no extra base hits. Recently, the team's bats have started to wake up just a bit--after starting off at 7-13 with a six-game losing streak mixed in, the Fighters have won six of their last seven games. A big key to that surge has been leadoff man and Shinjo replacement Hichiyori Morimoto--the left fielder is hitting .452 during the current streak.

Alpha and omega for the Nippon Ham pitching staff is Yu Darvish. The 20-year-old ace has pitched six complete games in a row after rain shortened his Opening Day start for the Fighters. Darvish was working on 26 innings of shutout baseball when Orix second baseman Greg LaRocca connected for a ninth-inning solo shot off of the right hander to end the scoreless streak. He is now 4-1 with a 1.95 ERA this season, and looks positively unhittable. One of the problems that Nippon Ham will have to solve before the season is over is the number of baserunners that the rotation is allowing; Fighter hurlers seem to be in trouble in every inning. Add problems with the long ball to the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster. I'm guessing that the staff will get straightened out, and leapfrog the club past Lotte into third place in. They aren't the defending champs without having a few tricks up their sleeves.

Rakuten Golden Eagles, 13-19-1; 131 Runs Scored, 176 Runs Allowed

38-year old Takeshi Yamasaki doesn't hit for average and he doesn't get on base much, but he sure can mash. The Eagles' first baseman has 12 home runs so far this season, tied for tops in Japan. Before having a little resurgence for Rakuten last season, Yamasaki had just one passable season since 2001. By all rights, he probably should have been out of baseball. His current home run pace would have him finishing the season in the neighborhood of 50 round-trippers, which is more than a little unlikely. The 21-year pro has never been more than a 25-home run man, at best, so you know there are a lot of fly outs in his bat. Veteran outfielder Koichi Isobe is also off to a sizzling start with a batting line of .351/.402/.487 thus far; Isobe, too, is playing way over his head.

While the offense has looked stronger than expected, the pitching has provided a more bumpy ride for Eagles fans. One-time ace Hisashi Iwakuma has only made a handful of starts this season after missing all but the end of the 2006 season. His latest start was a win for the Golden Eagles, but quality starts have not been seen often in Tohoku. Rookie Masahiro Tanaka, a Koshien legend, has shown the maturity to adjust and occasionally dominate at the big league level, but he's also been knocked around like the 18-year old he is on other occasions. Still, there's reason for hope when you consider that his two wins this year have been dominating performances against SoftBank in which he struck out 20 over 16 innings. To date, Tanaka has struck out almost 10.5 batters per nine. A strong month or two of Tanaka and Iwakuma may help the Golden Eagles to stay out of the basement this season.

Orix Buffaloes, 11-20-2; 129 Runs Scored, 143 Runs Allowed

The Orix offense has been the 1-2 punch of LaRocca and Tuffy Rhodes so far this year. LaRocca is about the hottest hitter in Japan at this point with a .383/.439/.722 line and 12 home runs. The Orix third baseman hit 40 homers for Yakult in his 2004 rookie campaign, but only managed 18 in each of the last two years. It looks like he's found his stride again, but LaRocca have to get better at ducking if he hopes to survive the whole year--he's already been hit by nine pitches this season. Rhodes was left for dead after retiring following the 2005 season, then hitting in the low .200s this spring in his comeback bid. Since Opening Day, all he's done is post a 991 OPS with 10 home runs. Should he keep this up, he'll reinforce his case in Japanese baseball history as the best foreign player to ever take the field. To give you an idea about how much teams fear Tuffy Rhodes, he's drawn 26 walks this year, the most in the NPB. Orix won't have any problem getting runs with these two in the middle of the lineup and two or three decent players around them.

Pitching is the adventure for the Buffaloes. Tom Davey has been one of the best pitchers in Japan over the last three or four seasons, and has started well in 2007. The 6'7" right-hander never found a place in the majors after bouncing around the Blue Jays, Phillies, Mariners, Padres, and Red Sox organizations. Former major leaguer Masato Yoshii has also come out of the gates strong this year. Yoshii hasn't posted anything resembling a decent season since returning home from MLB, but a good first month of pitching has disguised some more ominous signs in his stat line--while Yoshii has a 2.78 ERA in 2007, he's only strucke out 11 in six starts while walking 10. Fooling so few batters, his ERA is bound to balloon sooner or later. The rest of the rotation is sporting ERAs in the high 4's with similar control problems, save 23-year old Yoshihisa Hirano, who has struck out 33 against only seven walks over 37.1 innings pitched. Where Yoshii stands to fall, Hirano will likely rise. The battle between Rakuten and Orix to stay out of the cellar actually might have its moments in 2007.

--

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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