The Nippon Professional Baseball League has completed nearly a month of play since Opening Day in late March, and I thought it would be a good idea to check in on what has transpired in the early going. Most of the teams in the Central League have finished 20-25 games on their schedules at this point, with the Pacific League clubs just ahead of that pace at just under 30 games in the books, give or take a few. In order to best paint the picture of the April happenings in Japan, I will take a team-by-team rundown of the important notes and storylines in the news. This piece focuses on the Central League, while the Pacific should follow in just a few days. Teams are listed according to their standings as of Saturday, April 28th.

Central League

Yomiuri Giants, 15-10-0; 119 Runs Scored, 72 Runs Allowed

The Giants have turned in a surprisingly good pitching effort so far. One might give the team extra credit for this, considering that staff ace Koji Uehara hasn’t pitched a single game for the team in 2007. Hamstring problems have kept him sidelined, allowing a trio of left-handed starters to emerge, including rookie Norihito Kaneto (3-0), who has been simply lights-out excellent; the other two pitchers in that group are 32-year-old Hisanori Takahashi and 25-year-old Tetsuya Utsumi.

The offense has been fueled by a mix of faces old and new. Outfielder Yoshitomo Tani looked washed-up these last few years, but joined the Giants as a free agent and has busted out of the gate with an impressive 938 OPS over 25 games. He’s joined by 2006 Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara, who is tied for the team lead with five home runs and has a team-best 19 RBI. Both Seung Yeop Lee and veteran infielder Tomohiro Nioka are also off to fast starts. If this kind of success continues for the Giants, a long-elusive division crown might just look like a possibility in a few months.

Chunichi Dragons, 13-10-1; 115 Runs Scored, 97 Runs Allowed

The Dragons have proved themselves the team to beat in the Central in recent years, and they are now jockeying for first place with the Giants. The story so far for Chunichi has been a powerful offense led by Tyrone Woods and Kosuke Fukudome. If there’s a way to slow down Fukudome, no one in Japan has found it yet. He’s off to a blazing-hot start with seven home runs in the first 24 games, sporting a very impressive 1183 OPS; his full batting line is .361/.486/.687, impressive numbers for a man with his eyes set on a big MLB contract next year. Woods is also tearing up the Central League with eight home runs of his own. If it weren’t for Fukudome, Woods’ 995 OPS would look dominant. Three home runs in one game stands out as a major moment in his first month, with promise of a lot more to come.

With ace pitcher Kenshin Kawakami struggling so far, and a cast of starting pitchers that have had some trouble keeping runners off base, the bullpen has been terrific for Chunichi. Imported 28-year-old Dominican reliever Franklyn Gracesqui has excelled in his first year in Japan, earning the trust of his manager, Hiromitsu Ochiai. He has yet to allow a run over 11 innings, and has only surrendered three hits. The rest of his bullpen mates have been following stride and perhaps have kept the team afloat as their rotation sputtered. If Kawakami and company can right the ship a bit and get on a roll, the back and forth with the Giants in the standings should be something to follow all year long.

Yokohama Bay Stars, 12-10-0; 87 Runs Scored, 99 Runs Allowed

In my Central League preview, I noted that the Bay Stars would struggle on offense this year. To date, they haven’t proven me wrong, with four regular players posting OPSs at or below 600. The worst of the bunch is 37-year-old Takuro Ishii, who has a painfully weak 434 OPS over 76 plate appearances. Equally awful has been my player to watch, Yuki Yoshimura, who showed so much promise by hitting 26 homers in just under 400 at-bats last year. If you read my preview, you’ll remember that Yoshimura also struck out an eye-popping 116 times against 10 walks; this year he has 15 strikeouts, 2 walks, and a dismal 607 OPS after 20 games.

While 44-year-old Giants import Kimiyasu Kudo has looked every bit his age on the mound, 23-year-old Hayato Terahara has not disappointed. The former first-round pick of the SoftBank Hawks came to the Bay Stars looking for a breakout campaign and he has been great. In his first four starts, Terahara has posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and has shown very good command of his outstanding slider to go along with a fastball which has occasionally touched 99 mph. If he keeps it up all year, Yokohama will have found their ace. All they need to do now is find four more starters and six or seven position players to go with him.

Hanshin Tigers, 12-11-1; 88 Runs Scored, 94 Runs Allowed

Hanshin starters haven’t accounted very well for themselves so far; like Chunichi, the Tigers are being floated by a good bullpen. Closer Kyuji Fujikawa has been exactly as advertised, with a current tally of 17 strikeouts against four hits and two walks over 9.2 IP. If you’re keeping count (and I know you are), that means Fukikawa’s K/9 is now at 15.8.

As always, the offense is relying on ageless ironman Tomoaki Kanemoto, who has been a one-man wrecking crew. His batting line stands at .337/.402/.629 with seven homers and 56 total bases in 24 games. He’s the only regular player in the Hanshin lineup with a slugging mark over .400, so you know there’s a serious lack of power in Osaka these days. Unless the Tigers can straighten out their offense, the mediocre pitching will keep them out of the playoffs.

Yakult Swallows, 8-13-0; 74 Runs Scored, 110 Runs Allowed

The lone bright spot so far for the Swallows in 2007 is center fielder Norichika Aoki–there is no better player in professional baseball on this side of the Pacific. In the past, I have been highly skeptical of comparisons to Ichiro Suzuki the last two years, as Aoki has yet to show any extra-base power in his young career. It was my belief that until he showed that he could hit for extra bases that he would project as little more than a poor man’s Ichiro if he ever came to the Major Leagues. That was then–to date, the Yakult centerfielder is hitting .410/.526/.679 over 21 games with six home runs, his K:BB ratio has continued to improve from 3:1 in 2005 to 1:1 in 2006, and this season he has 18 walks to go against only 11 strikeouts. Now, MLB scouts will now can be expected to go into overdrive to force a posting, and Scott Boras can no doubt have visions of giant yen signs dancing in his head. The rest of the offense turns Yakult’s yogurt products sour.

The pitching for the Swallows has been a sorry state of affairs as well. Former MLB export Kaz Ishii returned to his former club a few years ago, but has never recovered from his unimpressive stint in the States. After five starts, Ishii’s ERA stands at 6.23, and while he still strikes out more than a batter an inning, he also allows a ton of baserunners. An exception for the Swallows is righty Seth Greisinger, the former Detroit Tigers first-round draft pick. Greisinger most recently pitched for the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization, where he was trying to pick up the pieces from a career derailed by Tommy John surgery in 1999. Two successful years in Korea led him to Yakult, where he has come out of the gates on fire–Greisinger has started five games so far, shutting down opponents with a 2.31 ERA and only two walks against 27 strikeouts over 35 innings pitched. The opposing batting line against the righty is .091/.167/.091.

Hiroshima Carp, 9-15-0; 73 Runs Scored, 84 Runs Allowed

Thank God for Kenta Kurihara. The 25-year old first baseman has finally become an everyday player for the Carp after several seasons of buildup. Before I give you his batting line, I’d like to list the OBPs of his fellow regulars: .307, .326, .373, .276, .314, .273, .240, and .313. Owner Hajime Matsuda couldn’t have possibly invested his money in a worse offensive lineup, despite power in the middle of the order. There are no players in this lineup guilty of “clogging up the bases”, so perhaps Dusty Baker would make for a better manager than Marty Brown, who must be pulling his hair out trying to figure out why he ever took this job. At least Kurihara is currently raking .284/.385/.568 with six doubles, a triple, and five home runs.

Where the hitting has been a disaster, the pitching has been a pleasant surprise. Ace Hiroki Kuroda was almost unhittable in 2006, posting a 1.85 ERA, and he’s carried his success over to the 2007 campaign by starting the year with a 1.90 ERA over 38 innings pitched. I’ve watched him on several occasions this year, and he’s been a rock. Since 2001, Kuroda has been a guy who pitches in the low threes in ERA, but he seems to have figured something out after turning 30. He’s placed himself among the first rank of pitchers in Japan, and would have been lined up for an absolutely huge payday had he not already re-upped with the Carp for four years in the last offseason.

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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