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June 25, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

Pacific League Update

by Mike Plugh

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The Pacific League has been tumultuous this season, as several teams have spent time in first place, and more than one club has seen a dramatic turn in fortunes. If you like drama and excitement, the Pacific is full of fascinating story lines, characters, and winning and losing streaks that keep the highlight reels full every night.

I present you the Pacific League as of June 16th, 2007. Teams are listed in their current order in the standings with both runs scored and allowed.

Chiba Lotte Marines (36-22-4) 299 Runs Scored - 218 Runs Allowed

Yes, Bobby Valentine's boys are back on top in the Pacific after a forgettable 2006 spent as defending champions. The team has managed to put together the second-best offense in the land, behind Yomiuri, and they have the top lineup in the Pacific League. What the Lotte boys lack in power they more than make up for in batting average and on-base percentage. Where most Japanese ball clubs feature one or two guys with OBPs approaching .400, Lotte has six regulars over .370, with Benny Agbayani leading the bunch at a healthy .418.

One of the key players for the Marines has been Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who goes by the single name "TSUYOSHI," all in capital roman letters. Until this season, Nishioka has looked like a middle-infield version of Juan Pierre in many respects, with a lot of speed but serious problems getting on base regularly. His average is up over .300 this year and his OBP is .371. The stolen bases are still there and the solid defense at shortstop helps the Lotte pitching staff night in and night out. His improved batting eye, at the tender age of 23, gives him a chance at real value down the road. This season he is contributing to a first-place ballclub, but needs to continue his improvement to be considered a truly elite player. If he does, his play on the field may actually catch up to his flashy rock-star image.

With the Lotte offense in good shape, the pitching has been even better. Does anyone out there remember the third starter on Japan's WBC championship team? There was Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara, and……side-arming Shunsuke Watanabe. I don't blame you if you don't remember, but he's proven hard to forget this season, as he has a 2.07 ERA and a better than 4-to-1 K/BB ratio. Watanabe earned his WBC roster spot with a similar performance for the Japan Series championship team in 2005, but turned in a flop of a 2006 as a follow-up. 22-year old Yoshihisa Naruse shares Matsuzaka's Yokohama High School pedigree and is pitching lights out for the Marines this season, after a late entry in the 2006 rotation. To date, Naruse has a 2.13 ERA and a string of excellent performances dating back to late April.

Finally, there is Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who also sports a sub-three ERA. He is 8-1 on the year and is undefeated in two months. Kobayashi has always been a solid starter despite not having the best stuff in the world. He gets his fair share of strikeouts, but works economically, and is making it very hard on the teams behind Lotte in the standings to make up any ground. I'm not certain that the Marines can keep up this pace, although they are certainly capable, but things have gone right for them with respect to their pitching, not unlike the 2005 Chicago White Sox.

SoftBank Hawks (37-28-2) 285 Runs Scored - 224 Runs Allowed

I picked the Hawks to win the whole thing this season, and I'll stick with them for now. It hasn't been a good month for the SoftBank club, though. After opening the season strong, putting a chokehold on first place, things went south quickly. The offense found a way to go cold, and the bullpen threw away a string of games that had sour and frustrated faces in the dugout almost every night. Early in May, the Hawks put together a modest three-game winning streak, only to go 9-14-1 before taking three in a row last week. Nobuhiko Matsunaka has struggled to find his hits in the middle of the lineup, uncharacteristically sporting a .255 batting average and offering no power to speak of in recent weeks. This is a player who has MVP awards and a Triple Crown on his resume and is regularly a .320+ hitter with home run totals in the 30s and 40s. One good sign is Matsunaka's ability to find his way on base, giving hope to SoftBank fans that he'll get back on track soon. All-Japan shortstop Kenshin Kawakami recently returned to the leadoff spot after missing most of the season with leg problems. His return should help the offense get back on track.

Without ace pitcher Kazumi Saito, who has been out since late April with shoulder problems, the Hawks have looked to other players to turn in quality starts at the front of the rotation. Fortunately for manager Sadaharu Oh, Saito is the biggest name on the club, but not the only outstanding performer. Toshiya Sugiuchi has been lights out all year, and picked up the role of ace after Saito's injury. His 1.73 ERA this season has been impressive, and from May 15 through June 15 the 27-year old left-hander went 4-0 with a 0.89 ERA before losing a pitchers' duel against Yomiuri on June 16th. Fellow lefty Tsuyoshi Wada has had much worse luck over the last month with several solid performances becoming losses (2-4 record during that time), despite an outstanding 2.66 ERA over 44 innings. The horses are there for the Fukuoka club, but consistency will have to come both on offense and from the pitching staff before they are able to reach their potential. To their credit, they are still the only club in Japan with a staff ERA under three (2.99).

Nippon Ham Fighters (34-27-4) 234 Runs Scored - 227 Runs Allowed

The defending champions came out of the gate so slowly that they found themselves buried in last place behind both Rakuten and Orix after a month. Things looked bleak for the Hokkaido club with a serious lack of offensive production and a shaky rotation that looked strong up front, but was full of question marks near the back end. What a difference a month makes. The Fighters posted a 15-7 record in May, highlighted by a winning streak that closed the month at eight in a row, and extended into June for a total of 14 consecutive victories. The loss that snapped the hot streak was suffered in a game started by Yu Darvish, lost in extra innings by the bullpen. Nippon Ham's fortunes have once again worsened over the last week, as the offense has faltered, but their recent winning has put the champs right back into the mix. The lineup features almost no power, save Fernando Seguignol in the cleanup slot, but has managed to take advantage of situations with runners in scoring position in support of some strong starting pitching. Leadoff man Hichyori Morimoto has played above his head a bit during the recent streak, but has stepped up to the challenge of reviving a floundering team. Likewise, Atsunori Inaba has been a bright spot for a team desperately in search of a live bat. I don't expect the Fighters will sustain another lengthy period of success like the one they enjoyed through the end of May and early June, so it will be hard work to hang on to the third and final playoff spot in the Pacific. It's up to the pitching.

Alpha and Omega for Nippon Ham is Yu Darvish. The young ace doesn't turn 21 until later this summer, but has grown so much this year that it's not a stretch to call him the best pitcher on this side of the Pacific. His biggest problems so far have been shaky first innings that feature a real lack of control, and snowballing pitch counts. Looking back at his game log this season, it's easy to chart the failures by his performance in the first inning. If you don't get to him early, you will never get to him. Darvish is like a charging rhino when it comes to his progression from inning to inning. Providing help behind the main man has been former big leaguer Ryan Glynn, who joined the Fighters after a first year in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Since the start of May, the former Ranger, Blue Jay and Athletic has gone 4-0 with a 1.32 ERA and has solidified the rotation by keeping his team in every game he starts. There is very little margin of error for Nippon Ham, so Glynn's performance is in many ways as important as Darvish's.

Rakuten Golden Eagles (28-33-2) 259 Runs Scored - 323 Runs Allowed

Give yourself a second to let this sink in. Rub your eyes. Clean your glasses. Yes, the Golden Eagles are in fourth place. "How can this be?" you might ask. Two words: Takeshi Yamasaki. The 39-year old veteran of 21 professional seasons has been replaced by Alex Rodriguez in the middle of the Rakuten lineup, or at least that's what it would seem. With 25 home runs in 61 games played, Yamasaki is on pace for a Japanese-record 59 round-trippers. This is a man who has been hanging on to a professional career by his fingernails for the better part of five seasons. He has only shown short flashes of value during that time, and more often than not has been plain awful. This season his batting line is .291/.394/.714, numbers so far above his career highs that you have to believe he made a deal with the devil. Whatever the reason for his success, Yamasaki is far and away the best story of the 2007 NPB season.

The positive storylines on offense are few, and the same can be said for the pitching as well. None of the starters for Rakuten has been particularly terrible, but there are no standouts capable of carrying the club either. Would-be ace Hisashi Iwakuma has been out with yet another injury since mid-May. This is becoming a sad repeat story for Iwakuma, who missed three quarters of the 2006 campaign with arm troubles. Iwakuma was once one of Japan's bright young aces, with good size and excellent control of a mid-90s fastball and a killer slider. It remains to be seen if he can overcome his recurring injuries to lead the Rakuten charge into the future, but he just turned 26 and has a few years remaining in his prime to put it all together again. For the time being, all eyes have been on rookie Masahiro Tanaka of Koshien fame. The young power pitcher has good stuff, but little experience and a shakable mound presence; he occasionally gets caught brooding after runners reach safely. Like many young pitchers, Tanaka throws too many pitches. He has improved his performance as the season has worn on, but his level of efficiency still leaves a lot to be desired. He has found himself at about 120 pitches by the end of the seventh inning in almost every game recently. He is already a plus strikeout pitcher, but the walks and hit batsmen prevent him from hitting a groove. He'll get there and should be one of the few reasons to continue following Rakuten this season.

Seibu Lions (27-34-2) 255 Runs Scored - 266 Runs Allowed

Where'd you go Daisuke Matsuzaka? Seibu needs you more than you could know. After winning three straight to open May, the Lions proceeded to go 5-15 the rest of the month. What's worse is the 10 consecutive games lost including the last two games of May and the first eight of June. A precipitous drop in the standings helped Nippon Ham to generate added value from their 14-game winning streak and buried the Seibu club in fifth place behind Rakuten. What happened? Seibu was outscored on a nightly basis by an average of five runs to three, scoring 85 runs while allowing 137. It seems everything went wrong. The middle of the lineup remains strong, anchored by Alex Cabrera and Kazuhiro Wada, and featuring former Phillies farmhand Takahiko "G.G." Sato, who has produced a career year in 2007. The rest of the group is pretty forgettable, and needs a serious infusion of talent to halt the losing before it becomes a long-term situation. It shouldn't be all that difficult with the Red Sox' money in their coffers, right?

Entering the year, the hopes of the rotation rested with the young and talented Hideaki Wakui, in his second year as a professional, and the rookie sensation Takayuki Kishi with his magic slider. Early on both pitchers put up strong numbers and had Seibu asking, "Daisuke who?" With rotation mates Fumiya Nishiguchi, Chris Gissell, and Alex Graman following just behind, it looked to be a tough team to face every week. Nothing has been further from the truth, as Wakui has lost his ability to strike out batters, Kishi's control has been off and his slider flat, and the rest of the gang has been generally ineffective. Both foreign imports have been especially troubled during the dark days of May and June, as Chris Gissell has now lost seven in a row with an ERA close to six, and Alex Graman has averaged about four innings per outing since early May. Wakui will rebound. Kishi is bound to take his lumps as a rookie, but he is also quite talented and has a bright future ahead of him. When it comes to the rest of the rotation... it may be back to the drawing board for the Lions. If they can tank enough games the rest of the season, however, they might just be able to score the prize of this year's high-school draft, prolific slugger Sho Nakata.

Orix B's (26-36-3) 243 Runs Scored - 278 Runs Allowed

With Seibu's struggles it's hard to believe that Orix hasn't been able to overtake them in the standings. The heart of a better-than-advertised Buffaloes' offense features two outstanding foreign imports. Greg LaRocca is playing with his third team in four NPB seasons. In his rookie campaign he hit 40 home runs for the Hiroshima Carp, but followed with two seasons of 18 home runs apiece. LaRocca is back to mashing this season with a batting line of .318/.386/.630 and 18 home runs in 59 games. If that looks good to you, you haven't seen Tuffy Rhodes' numbers. Rhodes returned from retirement poised to enter the record books in a number of cumulative batting categories, alone as a foreign-born player amidst the elite Japanese stars of all time. It seems that week by week his season has gained momentum and he now stands at .281/.393/.625 with 22 home runs in 65 games. Remember, this comes at the age of 39, after a year of inactivity. The ability of the B's to score runs in bunches may be the difference between last place and overtaking Seibu.

There is hope for the Orix pitching staff as well. One of my personal favorites on the newcomer scene is 23-year old, second-year man Yoshihisa Hirano, who is coming into his own this season as a frontline man. Until his most recent start, when he was drubbed by the Giants, he pitched a string of gems in which he went 3-0 with one no decision and a 0.59 ERA. His K/BB ratio this season stands at around 4-1 and his confidence is soaring. Tom Davey falls in line just behind Hirano in the rotation, and has been fair. Early in the season, Davey looked to be having his finest campaign in Japan, but slipped just a bit since in May before rebounding in his most recent two starts in June. On a few occasions Davey has been very hittable, and has demonstrated an inability to strike anyone out. That's Tom Davey in a nutshell, but he's a serviceable starter in the Pacific and should give Orix fans a reason to feel positive about the current season. If only there was someone else in the rotation to give them a quality start...

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