The season has really begun to take shape here in Japan. Records are often a bit skewed at the start of the regular season gets underway, but eventually things even out. The pretenders fall away, and the contenders rise to the challenge every night. We are beginning to get a sense of the league races as May turns to June and the weather turns hot. Let’s take a glimpse at the important storylines emerging in the Central League as of June 4th, 2007.

Teams are listed in their current order in the standings with both runs scored and allowed listed for your information.

Central League

Yomiuri Giants (33-21-0); 272 Runs Scored, 172 Runs Allowed

The Giants continue to impress and delight their huge fanbase with inspired pitching and an offense that is strong from top to bottom. The 1-6 positions in the “Kyojin” lineup are not easy outs, and it shows with their plating an average of five runs per game. That may look good by MLB standards, but it’s downright prolific in the NPB. The top six batters in the Giants lineup are:

Hitter                 OPS
Yoshinubu Takahashi    897
Yoshitomo Tani         878
Michihiro Ogasawara    945
Seung Yeop Lee         843
Tomohiro Nioka         764
Shinnosuke Abe         901

Even former Rays outfielder Damon Hollins is getting in on the action from the bottom third of the lineup, posting a solid 796 OPS for the club. One particular highlight stands out to me as I think back on the recent success of the Giants: a few nights ago, trailing the Pacific-leading SoftBank Hawks by three, late in the game, the Giants loaded the bases with only one out, and sent up a pinch-hitter. Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh went to the pen to match up lefty on lefty, prompting the Giants to pinch-hit for their pinch-hitter. Infrequently-used outfielder Kenji Yano boosted the Giants with a pinch-hit grand slam which has been replayed a million times on Japanese television over the last week. That’s the kind of season it’s been so far for Yomiuri.

The pitching has continued to defy all predictions thanks in large part to the solid contribution of rookie sensation Norihito Kaneto, who recently notched the first complete game victory for a rookie in the Central this season. The 23-year old lefty out of Ritsumeikan University seems unbothered by the pressure out on the mound, and currently holds a 5-1 record with a 2.85 ERA. In order to continue his success, he will need to improve on his strikeout totals–Kaneto has fanned only 33 batters in 60 innings pitched.

Eight-year veteran Hisanori Takahashi is off to the hottest start of all with a 7-1 record and a Central-leading 1.53 ERA. Takahashi’s continued success is a barometer of the Giants’ position in the standings, as his career ERA is more than double his current rate. The other pitching storyline that has emerged for Yomiuri is the transition of ace pitcher Koji Uehara to closer. Starting the season with some hamstring issues, Uehara couldn’t work out with the club until the season was in full swing. A slow recovery by Uehara allowed his rotation mates to jump out to a fast start and put the organization in the position to work their #1 starter into the mix from the bullpen, where he pitched fairly well from the beginning. In Smoltz-like fashion, Uehara has helped the Giants to address a glaring need for a closer, almost by accident. The team is now looking to keep him in that role for the foreseeable future, raising many questions about the change in value that will emerge as he enters his free agent year with an eye on the majors.

Chunichi Dragons (30-23-1); 254 Runs Scored, 218 Runs Allowed

To their credit, the defending Central champs have kept pace with the Giants. The Dragons are a model of consistency, and rely upon a couple of tremendous bats in the middle of their lineup. Cleanup hitter Tyrone Woods is as hot as anyone on the planet right now, hitting .311/.435/.678 with 20 home runs in 54 games. He’s on pace to challenge the Japanese single-season home run record of 55, held by Sadaharu Oh. Every year a foreign player starts like this, but only a few have come close in the end. Everyone wants to know about Kosuke Fukudome. His batting fell off in May, but his overall line is still impressive; he’s currently at .278/.435/.508 on the year, but you have to expect that he’ll get hot again. As it is, Fukudome is an OBP hero, with a resulting Japan-best 43 runs scored on the year.

Ace Kenshin Kawakami has recently gotten past his early struggles and delivered a series of very nice performances; his 4.09 ERA is mainly the product of a pair of awful outings in which he was knocked out early. Kawakami boasts a 51-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 55 innings pitched, so you know that good things are yet to come for the Dragons this season. The rest of his rotation mates have been perfectly mediocre, and did little to distinguish themselves in May. No one has been particularly bad, but the offense has carried the club on many a night that the pitching has performed at less than peak level. Looking ahead to the rest of this season, it’s hard for me to imagine the Dragons falling below second place in the Central, but the lack of quality pitching also makes it hard for me to imagine them overtaking the Giants.

Hiroshima Carp (24-27-1); 188 Runs Scored, 212 Runs Allowed

The Carp have made significant progress on offense since a poor March and April, when they averaged just over three runs per game. Over the last month, the Carp have boosted that figure by more than a run per contest, and have leapfrogged several teams to escape last place. It was easy to envision this scenario by observing the run differentials of all the clubs in the Central. One of the main problems in Hiroshima has been the lack of baserunners. Fortunately for Carp fans, a few regulars have hit their stride, increasing the number of scoring opportunities has increased as a result. This is still a club with major offensive deficiencies, but three runs per game is almost unimaginably bad. The top three hitters so far are Kenta Kurihara (911 OPS), Takahiro Arai (857), and Tomonori Maeda (756). It gets ugly from there, but one player to watch going forward is 28-year-old Goh Kida, who has received his first real playing time as a professional over the last two weeks. His initial numbers are .296/.345/.519, which look monstrous amidst a lineup leavened with a few too many stiffs.

Although the Carp offense has come to life a bit, the pitching has suffered. With a spike in scoring, there has been a corresponding spike in runs allowed that has prevented the Carp from going on a real run of any kind. The rise in the standings has much more to do with other teams’ regression to the mean than it reflects any Carp excellence. Staff ace Hiroki Kuroda has earned a special place in Hiroshima’s heart by forgoing a free agent payday elsewhere to remain with the Carp, and has further rewarded his fans with another strong performance this season. The last month has seen him go 3-0 with a no decision and a 2.51 ERA. His last start was a complete game shutout of the Rakuten Golden Eagles in interleague action. Expect nothing less the rest of the way. Where Kuroda continued to pitch well, young right-hander Kan Ohtake fell apart. Ohtake was lights-out to start the season, but went 1-3 in May with a 4.82 ERA. Considering his ERA still stands at 3.13, you can understand how good he was in the beginning. Still, don’t expect to see the Carp hold this position in the standings too long.

Hanshin Tigers (22-29-1); 167 Runs Scored, 223 Runs Allowed

The Hanshin Tigers are so terrible right now that they defy description. For the last month, they have scored less than three runs per game, while allowing more than 4.5. Considering that disparity, it’s almost a relief that the team is 10-18 over its last 28 games. The team’s combined batting line is a painful .260/.325/.371; those kinds of numbers would rank the Tigers near the very bottom in any league. There is virtually no power in the Hanshin lineup to speak of, unless you look at aging superstar Tomoaki Kanemoto, who continues to produce an 857 OPS in his waning days. The emergence of 28-year old Taiwanese outfielder Wei-tzu Lin has also helped to provide some much-needed punch. As his playing time has increased this season, the results have gotten better for the Tigers–to date, Lin is batting .351/.398/.568 with eight home runs. Taiwan continues to be a positive source of talent for the NPB, and we should look for more players like Lin to claim roster spots in Japan based on the ever-closing gap between the various Asian leagues.

If you think the offense has been bad, the pitching hasn’t helped the cause much either. The combined ERA of the Tigers’ main starters is an eye-popping 5.37 on the season. The best among this group is import Ryan Vogelsong, who has a 3.51 ERA to date. Vogelsong went 1-3 over the last month, mainly due to a lack of run support, but he hasn’t really been very good. Another familiar name is Esteban Yan, who has contributed a 6.44 ERA in 43+ innings. The saving grace in Osaka is the Hanshin bullpen; where the starters have spit the bit, the relievers take the reins. The star has been closer Kyuji Fujikawa, posting a 0.89 ERA with 15 saves and a 38-3 strikeout to walk ratio. That’s 38 strikeouts in 20.1 innings pitched, or almost two per inning!

Yokohama Bay Stars (21-28-0); 183 Runs Scored, 225 Runs Allowed

The Bay Stars have been wearing nicer uniforms recently. Is there anything else I can say about this team that sounds positive? Third baseman Shuichi Murata has played like an All-Star, with a team-leading 914 OPS. He’s managed to post a .383 OBP by walking 20 times against only 39 strikeouts. Considering that Murata has struck out 3.4 times for every walk to this point in his career, you have to give him his due, but his numbers exceed his career norms so dramatically that you have to wonder if it’ll stick. Murata is four for his last 23 with four strikeouts against only one walk; is the correction coming in June? At any rate, he’s almost the lone bright spot for Yokohama on offense. You can also consider 37-year old Takahiro Saeki‘s early campaign a success. Saeki looked to be on the verge of retirement after a sub-par 2006 season, but has come back to life with a .339/.382/.536 start to 2007. Saeki had this kind of season in 2004 at the age of 35; it proved to be a career year. It’s hard to imagine that a player would save his best seasons for the end, but it appears as though this is the case with him. Unlike Murata, Saeki has been hot lately–seven for his last 23 with two home runs and six RBI.

Hayato Terahara has continued his excellent pitching for the most part, but was slowed a bit over the last month after a fast start. A pair of five-run outings hurt his ERA a bit, but he gave up no more than two runs in the other four starts during that span, generating a 3.22 ERA overall. With an outstanding slider to go along with a fastball which has occasionally touched 98 mph, he is the lone bright spot in the Yokohama rotation.

The pen is another story. I have written quite a bit about Bay Stars closer Marc Kroon, who continued to dominate hitters in the month of May. His ERA is now at 0.73, and he sports a 17-4 strikeout to walk ratio in 12.1 innings pitched. The new face I observed recently is former minor league catcher turned relief pitcher, Joselo Diaz. Early in the year Diaz was outstanding, but in May, Diaz got into trouble with more walks and fewer strikeouts, and subsequently has been less effective. In the States, Diaz was unable to provide much effective pitching for his various clubs. I expect him to do fairly well as a middle man in the NPB with a fastball that approaches 100 according to the Japanese radar guns. Control may remain a problem, but Diaz and Kroon could be an excellent 1-2 punch if the Bay Stars can hand them a lead more often.

Yakult Swallows (18-32-0); 174 Runs Scored, 226 Runs Allowed

When talking about Norichika Aoki, two things are important to watch. He is always going to hit for average, prompting many an Ichiro comparison. Power and patience were less certain, but Aoki has displayed both this season, building on his hot start over the last month with multi-hit game after multi-hit game. The variety of ways he can put a ball in play is truly impressive, making his current line of .359/.446/.531 all the more dominant. Aoki has 16 extra-base hits so far this year, eight of which have left the yard. His previous season high was 13 (set last season), so you have to think that he will shatter that mark. His uncanny patience is in evidence from the .446 OBP mark and his superb 29-30 strikeout to walk ratio. The fact that the young center fielder has improved his plate discipline to this point shows that he is ready to take on any level of pitching in front of him. One other interesting note from the last month is the emergence of Aaron Guiel as a quality offensive weapon for Yakult. Through April, Guiel had not hit effectively in Japan, although he managed to retain some value by walking frequently. His hitting has improved slightly since, and now the former Royal and Yankee has a batting line of .249/.398/.435 with 10 home runs. Guiel’s 833 OPS is good for third among Swallows’ regulars, behind only Aoki and Alex Ramirez.

Swallows pitching begins and ends with Seth Greisinger. The former Tiger, Twin, and Brave went 2-0 in May with three no-decisions. His ERA stands at 2.06 today, mainly thanks to a tremendous 51-6 strikeout to walk ratio over 70 innings pitched. If that doesn’t get a few Major League scouts looking at him, I don’t know what will. Over 35 innings in May, Greisinger posted a 1.80 ERA and walked four against 24 strikeouts. The next-best arm in the rotation is former major leaguer Kaz Ishii, who dramtically improved his pitching over the last month by posting a 3.46 ERA over 39 innings of work. His 66-18 strikeout to walk ratio is a positive contribution for a player often remembered for his lack of control in the United States. It remains to be seen if Ishii can continue to pitch this well, but the Swallows’ only hope of avoiding the basement this season may depend on just that.

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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