A dramatic August in the NPB has come and gone. As I write this, I am settling back into life in New York City as a graduate student. Things are continuing without me in Japan, but I have my eyes and ears open to the daily happenings in Japanese professional and amateur baseball for your reading pleasure.
September will be the month that playoffs berths are decided in both leagues of the NPB, but the races for positioning in the postseason are much more interesting at this point now that the three spots in both the Central and Pacific Leagues more or less decided. Also of interest will be the players and pitchers jockeying for the top awards in both leagues. Yu Darvish of Nippon Ham and Toshiya Sugiuchi of SoftBank are engaged in a very interesting struggle for the Sawamura, while a handful of players in both leagues are battling it out for the MVP. This edition of Nippon Prospectus follows with a look at the last month or so in the Pacific League. A look at the Central will follow very soon.
Nippon Ham Fighters, 68-53-4 (438 Runs Scored, 426 Runs Allowed)
The Fighters continue to press the pace for the rest of the Pacific with a strong showing from its starting rotation and some very sharp defense. Yu Darvish is the story of the stretch run for the ballclub. His ERA is now down to an almost ridiculous 1.91, and a Sawamura Award-the NPB’s Cy Young Award-seems certain to be on his horizon. Darvish has had plenty of distractions, with both a semi-nude magazine spread for the ladies and an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent fast engagement all happening away from the diamond during the last month. None of that seems to have hurt the 21-year-old, as he’s spearheaded his club with wins in his last six starts, allowing only six runs over 48 innings while striking out 50 against only seven walks.
SoftBank Hawks, 65-54-4 (515 Runs Scored, 420 Runs Allowed)
Kazumi Saito might have played the role of savior upon his return from the DL a couple of months ago, but his arm troubles have kept the Hawks conservative with their use of him, so we’ve only seen the big righty toe the rubber only once every two weeks or so. His innings are being limited, and obviously his starts are staggered quite dramatically. It seems as though the Fukuoka club is trying to keep Saito sharp for the postseason while protecting him as much as possible. Speaking of the postseason, you might want to note that the Hawks are +95 in the run differential department, compared to Nippon Ham’s +12. Even Lotte’s +89 mark would make you believe that the standings are not done shuffling in the last few weeks of the season. As I like to remind readers, I picked the Hawks to walk away with the Japan Series crown this season, and I’m sticking to that.
Lotte Marines, 62-53-7 (541 Runs Scored, 452 Runs Allowed)
With little home run power, the Marines have done a remarkable job scoring runs this season. Julio Zuleta leads the club with only 12 round trippers, although that’s despite missing a good deal of time this year; trailing the hefty Panamanian for the team lead is a trio of Marines with 10 apiece. Bobby Valentine‘s offense isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you examine it more closely. The Lotte bats have run hot and cold, and we’ve seen the team bang out scores in double figures several times one week, and then go quiet the next. I expect the Marines to hold down third place the rest of the way, as their schedule features a heavy dose of Nippon Ham and SoftBank through the end of the regular season.
Seibu Lions, 57-65-2 (483 Runs Scored, 509 Runs Allowed)
We’ve talked about the outstanding duo of Wakui and Kishi in this column in the past. Most recently, I noted that the two pitchers might be the only reason to follow the Lions the rest of the way, so we might take a quick look at the performances of the young hurlers this past month. Wakui has mostly been very good, although the run support hasn’t been there for him. His cutter has improved, helping him win a NPB-best 16 games. We’ll still need to see improved strikeout numbers for the 21-year-old next season to be able to count him among the elite pitchers in Japan. Kishi has shown a lot in his rookie campaign, but inconsistency has plagued him from time to time. The latest setback for Kishi in an otherwise promising season was an abdominal strain suffered at the end of August that will keep him sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Rakuten Golden Eagles, 57-65-2 (503 Runs Scored, 594 Runs Allowed)
Seemingly ageless 38-year old slugger Takeshi Yamasaki has produced 41 home runs and a .613 slugging percentage over 429 at-bats for Rakuten. His amazing story is just one of the reasons why predictive metrics can’t paint a perfect picture of the future; even deadly-accurate PECOTA would have to bow its head to Yamasaki if its genius were ever extended to forecast the NPB. The interesting battle for the two teams in the Pacific cellar will be between Yamasaki and and Orix’s Tuffy Rhodes as they race for the home run crown; Rhodes’ resurrection has him tallying 40 long balls on the year so far. Still only 18 years old, Masahiro Tanaka is rounding out a dominating rookie season with the Golden Eagles. While the results aren’t always consistent and the mound presence isn’t there yet, the talent is obvious, as Tanaka has managed 159 strikeouts in just over 153 innings pitched. He is capable of making anyone in the NPB look foolish at the plate, but he’s also easily rattled, and will need to work on both his control and his maturity in the offseason. He will certainly be one of the 10 faces to watch for the 2008 season.
Orix Buffaloes, 55-66-5 (463 Runs Scored, 505 Runs Allowed)
With a batting line of .289/.401/.610 and 40 home runs, Tuffy Rhodes almost has to be the MVP of the Pacific League. Yamasaki has contributed to the expansion Eagles’ rise from the basement of the Pacific, but Rhodes was retired in 2006, only to produce this well in his comeback. There’s absolutely nothing else of redeeming value about the Buffaloes. With their luck, Yakult in the Central League will hold Orix off for the top pick in the amateur draft and select Sho Nakata, compounding misery with tragedy. In the meantime, Rhodes’ triumphant return may be the only thing floating this dying franchise, but can he do it again next year?