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August 9, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

The Stretch Run

by Mike Plugh

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The season in the NPB has been very interesting so far. Each of the leagues boast compelling battles for first place, as well as for the three playoff berths. For the most part, the Central League has been led by the Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons, with several teams fighting for the final playoff spot. Yokohama has looked strong throughout the year, but never count out the Hanshin Tigers, and even the Carp and Swallows both have reason for optimism as well. If I were to choose the third team at the start of August, I would pick the Tigers, if only because their pitching has been consistently good so far this year.

The Pacific League has been more dramatic. Nippon Ham was in last place during the early part of the year, then rocketed into first past everyone thanks to a team-wide improvement in all phases of the game. What looked like a one-man show thanks to the brilliance of Yu Darvish has been transformed into a team effort that promises to give the Sapporo club a great chance at repeating as champions. SoftBank has disappointed, especially thanks to the shoulder woes of Kazumi Saito and the deteriorating hitting of the once-mighty Nobuhiko Matsunaka. With their deep roster, they still have a chance of passing the Fighters to move into first. The Chiba Lotte Marines look to be a lock for the third playoff position on the strength of a surging offense and a deep rotation of good, not great starting pitching. The Lions, Buffaloes, and Eagles are virtually out of contention, but each team's fans have something to follow as the stretch run begins.

Set against that drama, the Summer Koshien High School Baseball Championship will began on August 8th, and all of Japan is buzzing with hopes for various local teams. Everyone will be sitting in their workplaces in front of televisions; it's a scene repeated every year, and one feels as though they are transported to another era while the competition is in full swing. The underdogs will either rush the field in glee after a stunning upset, or start their weeping early as they get overwhelmed. Either way, each player will have fulfilled a dream by taking the field on the hallowed ground of Koshien, and each will return home with two important treasures--the knowledge that their name will be forever recorded in the annals of the most famous competition in Japan, and a bag full of the black dirt from the infield of Koshien Stadium.

This edition of Nippon Prospectus will cover each of the NPB teams in a lightning-quick fashion, followed by a look at a few of the key players to watch in the upcoming Koshien Tournament.

Pacific League

SoftBank Hawks (51-42-3); 415 Runs Scored, 328 Runs Allowed

The return of Kazumi Saito last month didn't pay immediate dividends. The ace pitcher struggled in his first start back from the DL, but he has pitched two stellar games since, going 13 innings without a run allowed. The stamina hasn't been there, but the results are encouraging for the stretch run. Nobuhiko Matsunaka won't count this as one of his better campaigns, but he may be the man to watch the rest of the way, as he has shown a knack for getting on base during the club's latest surge to the top spot in the Pacific.

Nippon Ham Fighters (52-42-4); 342 Runs Scored, 342 Runs Allowed

The Fighters made a furious May push to catapult them from last place into the upper echelon of the league. June saw the Fighters claim first and push out into a very comfortable lead. The post All-Star break collapse of this club has been equally dramatic, as the boys from Hokkaido simply can't score runs; the Nippon Ham offense has scored more than three runs only three times in their last 15 games. The lack of power in the lineup has finally caught up to this team, and they will struggle to back their pitchers the rest of the way.

Lotte Marines (48-40-7); 437 Runs Scored, 358 Runs Allowed

The Marines are not the most consistent team in the league. Often, Bobby Valentine's team struggles to match their good pitching with strong offense, but if this club can find a way to close the season with a run of pitching and hitting at the same time, it could leapfrog to the top and earn a first-round bye. I don't see that happening, as the Marines can't seem to avoid scoring 18 one night and zero the next. They also can't seem to put together a lengthy stretch of quality starts, as the back end of their rotation is shaky at best. Still, they are a nice team to watch for the rest of the season.

Seibu Lions (47-47-2); 399 Runs Scored, 391 Runs Allowed

Seibu's 2007 might be over, but there's reason to watch them the rest of the year. Unfortunately for Seibu fans, they are still good enough to avoid finishing in the bottom spot of the Pacific and therefore out of the Sho Nakata sweepstakes in the draft. Still, with Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi at the front of the rotation, the Lions boast what may be the best young 1-2 punch in the sport. If they can add another impact arm to that duo via the amateur draft, this team may assure themselves a lengthy run of playoff appearances over the next 10 years. Those two pitchers are the most exciting prospects to watch for the remainder of the year at the Seibu Dome.

Rakuten Golden Eagles (42-52-2); 385 Runs Scored, 486 Runs Allowed

Thirty-eight-year-old Takeshi Yamasaki is the story of the 2007 season in my opinion. Left for dead and playing on an expansion club to close out his dwindling career, Yamasaki has produced 36 home runs and a .650 slugging percentage over 329 at-bats. The Fountain of Youth must reside in Sendai City, as Yamasaki has defied all the odds to play A-Rod for a year and delight fans of this young, struggling franchise. Despite his fireworks, the player to watch over the last few months is still Masahiro Tanaka, who leads the club in all pitching categories at the tender age of 18. Over the last month Tanaka has made great strides, and looks to be on the verge of vaulting into the top tier of pitchers in the NPB. Give him another season and you'll be talking about him among the best players in the sport.

Orix Buffaloes (42-53-4); 373 Runs Scored, 409 Runs Allowed

If Orix is smart, it'll find a way to keep losing. I know that's no way to go about your business, but the Buffaloes are doomed with a roster of aging hitters, and need a shot in the arm for the future of this franchise; to avoid plummeting into the basement of the Pacific for years to come, Orix needs to string together a few strong drafts. That begins in 2007 with the prospect of securing the top pick and Sho Nakata. Right now, the story of the season and the only reason to follow Orix the rest of the way is Tuffy Rhodes. After a year of retirement, Rhodes has come back and had a MVP-caliber season. With 35 home runs and a batting line of .313/.420/.670, the soon-to-be 39-year-old veteran has secured himself as the greatest foreign player in the history of Japan.

Central League

Yomiuri Giants> (56-42-0); 475 Runs Scored, 360 Runs Allowed

The Giants have recently stumbled a bit after initially racing out of the gate and leading the pack for months. The starting pitching has begun to regress, and the Dragons are racing up in the rear view mirror. That said, each of the teams behind the Giants has its own issues, and it appears as though the Yomiuri club has little to worry about the rest of the way. The lineup is stacked, and the rotation will finish the year with well above expected results. All that's left for the Giants is waiting to see what the playoffs bring; anything short of a spot in the Japan Series would be a disaster.

Chunichi Dragons (49-42-2); 410 Runs Scored, 378 Runs Allowed

The big news for the Dragons is the elbow injury to Kosuke Fukudome that has held him out since mid-July. Speculation about the coveted outfielder is that he will head to the US on the 8th of August to undergo elbow surgery. The surgery is expected to be season-ending, but prior to any final decision, an examination will be performed in Los Angeles by Dr. Lewis Yocum. Without Fukudome, the Dragons will be hard-pressed to catch the Giants, and will need to rely on their pitching to carry them into the playoffs. The rest of the league is weak enough that the Dragons should be able to weather the storm and make the postseason.

Hanshin Tigers (48-43-2); 330 Runs Scored, 361 Runs Allowed

The Tigers are the beneficiaries of a weak league, as they will be in playoff contention until the very last day despite allowing more runs than they've scored. The Hanshin pitching has propped up the club all season, in particular the bullpen. Closer Kyuji Fujikawa is the star of this team. He is the sandman, and MLB clubs will be looking at him as a free agent after the 2008 season. The man to watch the rest of the way is 23-year-old Keiji Uezono, who has been thrust into the rotation late in the season,and for the most part has been a spark for the run to the playoffs in Osaka.

Yokohama Bay Stars (46-43-1); 354 Runs Scored, 378 Runs Allowed

The Bay Stars look to be the only real threat to Hanshin's playoff hopes. The Yokohama franchise hasn't had much to celebrate over the years, but this season has to be considered a success in some regards, as the Bay Stars have managed to stay in the conversation about the playoffs late into the year. The only drawback to this success is the missed chance at Sho Nakata, which would have given the club their first real marquee player in years. The man now is Shuichi Murata, who is young and talented, but essentially all alone in the lineup. Hayato Terahara's strong season on the mound has been a plus, and is the main reason to follow the Bay Stars in their push for the postseason.

Yakult Swallows (37-54-0); 383 Runs Scored, 402 Runs Allowed

The Swallows have basically tanked their season after going 3-15 since mid-July. Whatever slim chance the Tokyo-based club had for the playoffs is gone, but the prospect that Yakult could enter the Nakata sweepstakes is a very positive spin on a bad season. Adding the coveted Osaka Toin High School slugger to a roster that already boasts Norichika Aoki would be the best-case scenario for the Swallows, but a lot has to happen between now and then. Pitching is a big issue. Every Yakult game is entertaining, and the fans are extremely passionate and loyal, so the season is still going to proceed with enthusiasm despite the gloom of the team's record.

Hiroshima Carp (36-56-1); 337 Runs Scored, 447 Runs Allowed

This team is so bad that it's hard to know where to begin. The pitching outside of Hiroki Kuroda is abysmal, and the lineup is shamefully inept. There isn't any one thing that will salvage this franchise from the depths of the Central League basement, and I think it would be wise for them to break this roster up and start all over. It will take years for Hiroshima to recover from the poor roster construction it has engaged in, and one has to wonder when we will see a competitive Carp club again. The only reason to tune in to the Carp is watch Kuroda, and perhaps to watch them flounder their way to drafting Nakata.

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It's important to think of Koshien in the same way that we think about March Madness, the NCAA Tournament. It's always a bit perilous to compare different sports by way of analogy, but I think there's something appropriate in this case. It's often said that the Final Four is the domain of the point guard. The ball-handlers in the NCAA can carry their teams with a hot few weeks of play. Koshien is similar in that pitching can make the difference for virtually any team which can field a single ace-caliber youngster. Even a small school can upset the perennial contenders if the local district produces a star pitcher. Since the winning team generally has such a player, he will throw upwards of 800, 900, or 1000 pitches in the span of less than two weeks.

Last season's two-day, 23-inning championship marathon between two-time champion Komadai Tomakomai (featuring Masahiro Tanaka) and Waseda Jitsugyo (relying on Yuki Saito) will be almost impossible to top, but then anything short of the greatest game in Koshien history will pale in comparison to the contest which closed the tournament in 2006. Nevertheless, there are some very intriguing players to keep an eye on in 2007. I'm guessing that at least one of them will have the goods necessary to lead his team to the title.

Sho Nakata will not participate in Koshien this season, as his Osaka Toin Club was bounced from the regional finals a few weeks ago. Nakata is now the all-time home run slugger in Japanese high school history, but his career there has come to a disappointing end. The draft and a pro contract are next for him, but the chance at glory that has eluded him this year will surely haunt the young superstar.

Atori Ota of Teikyo High School is a 6'1", 200-pound righty, and a force of nature. He has size, excellent mound presence, and a ridiculously good array of pitches. Ota can use the fastball anywhere in the zone, and hit the black at will. When he uses his forkball or changeup it is truly, truly unfair. In the Spring edition of Koshien, Ota struck out 20 in one start, then had to leave his next start early after being hit by a pitch. This is the best young pitcher in Japan outside Darvish, Tanaka, and Saito.

Narita High School's Yuki Karakawa is a 5'11", 172-pound right-hander with tremendous upside. He, not Ota, is the favorite of the Japanese scouting community. Karakawa was a hard-luck loser in the opening round of the Spring Koshien, and I expect him to looking for redemption. If he can live up to the hype this August, he could position himself for a big payday in the draft. He has a live fastball and some very nice secondary pitches, but I think he needs to improve his consistency in the zone. Watch him.

Sendai Ikuei High School's Yoshinori Sato is also a right-handed pitcher, standing 5'10" and weighing in at 157 pounds. He lacks the size of the previous two starters, but has proved himself a hard thrower with excellent command of several pitches, including a very good slider.

Those are three pitchers and schools to watch this year, but the storylines are overwhelming in their number and capacity for intrigue. It is impossible to pick the eventual champion with the drama and frequent upsets that are the hallmark of Koshien, but I will go out on a limb right now and pick Teikyo and Atori Ota as the eventual champ.

[Ed. note: Yuki Karakawa and Narita High School were actually upset in the final of the Chiba Prefecture regional tournament, leaving them out of Koshien. Kurakawa struck out 14, but Narita lost in 14 innings.]

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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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