Archive > January 2011

Looking back at 2010

» 13 January 2011 » In npb » 5 Comments

2010 was an eventful year for Nippon Pro Yakyu. Today we look back at some of the notable stories from the year that was.

Murton Hits

The story of individual accomplishment in 2010 easily went to Matt Murton. Murton, a 28-year-old journeyman toiling in America’s minor and major leagues, found sustained success with the Hanshin Tigers. Initially reluctant to play in Japan, he embraced Japanese baseball culture, all the while surpassing expectations and breaking a hitting record. In his first year in Japan, Murton batted .349/.395/.499 while driving in 91 runs. The powerful righty smashed 17 home runs and tattooed left-handed pitchers at a .408 clip. Most notably though, his 214 hits broke Ichiro’s NPB record for the most hits in a season. The total was only 58 fewer than he had recorded over a Major League Baseball career that spanned five seasons.

Lotte Wins

Finishing with a record of 75-67-2 (.528), the Chiba Lotte Marines just managed to edge out the Nippon Ham Fighters for third place in the Pacific League. While the Fighters missed the playoffs by ½ a game in the standings, the Marines took the postseason opportunity and ran with it.  Lotte won a pair of 1-run games against the Seibu Lions in the first stage of the Climax Series, setting them up for a showdown in Fukuoka. Against the favored Pacific League champion Hawks, Marines pitching held their opponent to 9 runs over the six game series. More surprisingly, Lotte didn’t allow a home run the entire series, while getting enough timely hitting to win four road games.

In the Japan Series, Lotte and the Chunichi Dragons traded wins and losses for the first four games, with Games 2 and 3 becoming lopsided affairs. Lotte won Game by by a 10-4 margin to take a 3 to 2 series lead. Things then got really crazy as the teams played 15 innings in the Nagoya Dome to a 2-2 Game 6 tie. Game 7 was a seesaw battle, as the Marines rallied from a 6-2 deficit and eventually took a 7-6 into the 9th inning. Chunichi sent the game to extra innings with a triple and ensuing sacrifice fly. In the 12th inning Lotte got a big triple of their own to win the game 8-7 and the Japan Series title. Toshiaki Imae batted .444 and was named the Series MVP. As a team the Marines hit .281 and won their 4th crown in team history.

Posting Hits & Misses

One year shy of international free agency, the Rakuten Eagles decided that the time was right to allow veteran starter (and 2008 Sawamura Award winner) Hisashi Iwakuma to pursue a career in MLB. While the posting system has worked well for others, Iwakuma’s case exposed the flaws in it. It was revealed that the Oakland Athletics had won the bidding, but the team and Iwakuma’s agent Don Nomura were unable to reach an agreement on a contract. Negotiations became contentious at times, and the 30 day negotiating window was allowed to expire. So the right-hander will find himself back in Sendai for the 2011. He will be free to determine his own career path without the use of the posting system after the season.

The other off-season posting went well. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, coming off a career year (.346/.423/.482) year and a championship, had his posting request granted by the Chiba Lotte Marines. The Minnesota Twins’ posting fee of around $5 million US was accepted, and Nishioka agreed to a 3-year/$9.25 million contract in December. The contract has an option for a 4th year at $4 million.

It seems as if every off-season fans on both sides of the Pacific go through a round of Yu Darvish posting speculation. This winter was no different, even though the result was the same. Though he remained unsigned into December, Darvish used social media to assure his fans that he would pitch for the Fighters in 2011. Though his marital life and divorce proceedings became fodder for the tabloids, Darvish’s career is in fine shape, as he rightfully became Japan’s highest paid player (500 million yen) for 2011.

Brown Departs

Replacing a legend is one of the hardest things to do in sports. In 2010 Marty Brown learned that lesson the hard way.

Tagged to replace aging legend and previous manager Katsuya Nomura, Brown didn’t exactly come to Sendai with stellar career numbers. His stint in Hiroshima had been unimpressive at 256-306-16 and three 5th place finishes. He was nevertheless tagged to replace an unhappy Nomura who had led Rakuten to a 2nd place finish the year before. Unfortunately for Brown and Rakuten fans, the team crashed out of the pennant race early and wound up in last place at 62-79-3. Motohiro Shima’s superb season couldn’t save Brown’s job, though, as he was dumped and replaced with Senichi Hoshino for 2011.

The Saito Generation Begins

Though the season had ended for 10 of 12 NPB teams, the 2010 draft gave fans a reason to stay in touch with baseball in late October. Yuki Saito, coined “The Handkerchief Prince” after his captivating performance during 2006 Summer Koshien, was draft eligible. He and teammate Tatsuya Ohishi had been part of a formidable pitching staff for Waseda University in the ensuing years, capping off a stellar college career with a final game championship in Tokyo Big6 play.

When it came to draft day, both pitchers were highly sought after, with four teams submitting Saito’s name in the draft lottery. Somewhat surprisingly, Nippon Ham came away the winner, setting off ‘Saito-mania’ in Hokkaido.

In Memoriam

Sadly, 2010 didn’t pass without tragedy. In early February, 24-year old outfielder Hiroyuki Oze was found dead outside his Miyakojima spring training hotel. The cause of death was ruled a suicide. Various tributes to the young Orix player were held early in the season in his memory.

Equally shocking came the sudden death of Giants coach Takuya Kimura in April. Kimura-coach was hitting ground balls to his team in Hiroshima when he suddenly collapsed from what was later diagnosed as a brain hemmorage. On April 7th, five days after the initial incident, the 37-year old Kimura passed away.

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Winter Ball

» 12 January 2011 » In international baseball, npb » 7 Comments

A topic that’s come up in the media a couple times this offseason is NPB’s role in winter ball. Japanese participation in the various international winter leagues is nothing new, but there seems to be somewhat of a renewed interest in it.

Before I get going, let me acknowledge that this is not a particularly thoroughly-researched post. If you see something that should be added, don’t hesitate to point it out.

On with the show.

I’ve picked up on two distinct threads in the current wave of winter ball interest. The first, and to me most interesting, is Softbank director of player development Itaru Kobayashi’s idea of hosting a winter league in Okinawa. In the Sponichi article I linked to, Kobayashi was quoted as saying, “I’ve told NPB and the players’ association, but (the reaction) was at a ‘that’s interesting’ level. I’ve also spoken with the major of Naha (Okinawa’s capital city). I definitely want to move towards realizing this next year.” Kobayashi’s vision calls for a four-team league that would focus on younger players, including prospects from Taiwan, Korea and Latin America.

The second, and more conventional idea is Yomiuri team representative Hidetoshi Kiyotake’s, which would have NPB sending more players to established winter leagues overseas. This isn’t a new idea, NPB clubs had players in winter leagues in Australia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican this year. The newness of Kiyotake’s idea is that he “wants all 12 teams involved” and goes as far as putting the idea of entering an all-Japanese team in a winter league on the table for discussion.

I say, why not do both? It’s certainly possible to have a league of younger prospects in Okinawa, and send a group of more advanced players to the Caribbean. Japanese teams and players tend to train pretty thoroughly throughout the offseason, in autumn team camps and players’ self-directed jishu training that typically takes place in January. Getting more players involved in competitive games against a more diverse group of opponents certainly couldn’t hurt.

Fittingly, the two teams leading these discussions were the two that sent the largest contingents of players to winter leagues this season. Softbank sent pitchers Sho Iwasaki and Shota Ohba and coach Shinji Kurano to Puerto Rico; and group of four players and one coach to Australia. Yomiuri dispatched six players, headlined by IF/OF Yoshiyuki Kamei, to Australia this winter to play for the Melbourne Aces. Both teams got some positive news back. Iwasaki won the Puerto Rican league’s MVP award top pitcher award, and his team badly wanted to keep him for the playoffs. Kamei tore apart the lower-level Australian Baseball League, and put in some infield work in preparation for the 2011 season. And taking a card out of Chunichi’s deck, the Giants also signed their players’ Melbourne teammate, lefty Adam Bright, to an ikusei contract.

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Hiroyuki Kobayashi Decision Coming Soon

» 12 January 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » Comments Off

Hiroyuki Kobayashi has made it known that he won’t take a minor league contract, but so far that’s all he’s gotten. Agent Alan Nero told Daily Sports that he has minor league offers from six teams, including some split contracts, which pay different salaries depending if the player is in the minors on on the Major League team. Sports Hochi says Kobayashi has minor league offers from 11 teams.

Meanwhile, Hanshin had been ready to pounce if MLB negotiations weren’t going well, and have done just that. The Tigers have made Kobayashi an offer that would have him setting up for Kyuji Fujikawa. Sports Hochi reports that Hanshin’s offer to Kobayashi is for two years with an option for a third, and will pay him a maximum of JPY 700m. Unless a lot of that salary is tied up in the option year, that would be a raise from the JPY 170m Lotte paid him last year, and certainly more than he’ll command from MLB teams. Hanshin club president Nobuo Minami said on Wednesday, “we’re waiting for a response from the agent. We’re on standby.”

For his part, Kobayashi commented in Daily Sports, “Somehow the flow is toward Hanshin… is how it’s feeling, but my utmost hope is the Majors.” A decision is expected as soon as the 15th.

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NPB Bullet Points: Ouen-dan, Wakui, Darvish, Orix Uniforms

» 08 January 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb, npb draft, NPB Tracker » 10 Comments

Before I get caught up on my more analytical pieces, here’s about a week’s worth of news items:

  • The Yomiuri Giants have broken up the Tokyo Yomiuri Kyojin-gun Ouen-dan (Tokyo Yomiuri Giants Cheering Club) over “improper re-sale of game tickets”.
  • Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui is having a hard time reaching an agreement with the Lions on his 2011 salary. It’s reportedly possible that he won’t have a contract signed by the time camp opens, and thus have to pay his way there.
  • Chiba Marine Stadium has been rechristened QVC Marine Field. Yes, that’s QVC, the television shopping network.
  • Sponichi points out that, in addition to being the son of former Chunichi Dragon Mark Ryal, Rusty Ryal was also the guy that hit a line drive off Hiroki Kuroda’s head back in 2009.
  • The Yukan Fuji paper published an article about Bill James projections found at my other haunt, Fangraphs.com. The headline was James’ projection that Koji Uehara would save 31 games with a 2.81 ERA for the Orioles this upcoming season.
  • According to Sankei News, the Chiba Lotte Marines took in 8bn yen in revenue in 2010, the highest figure in team history. While the club finished 2bn yen in the red, they lost 1.3bn yen less than the previous year, and the 8bn yen represents a quadrupling in revenue since 2004. Winning the Nippon Series and posting Tsuyoshi Nishioka helped boost Lotte’s income.
  • Despite being in great shape, former Yokohama and Orix player Katsuaki Furuki got his face bashed in his fighting debut.
  • Yu Darvish’s New Year’s Resolutions are to read two books per month, and watch movies that he doesn’t typically like. His intent is to “refine his sensitivity” (“感性を磨けるかなって理由です(^^)”).
  • Darvish’s Nippon Ham teammate, incoming rookie Yuki Saito, wants to play until he’s 50.
  • Here’s a great pic of Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda working out with a medicine ball.
  • Lotte managed to sign their 6th-round draft pick, USC right Shuhei Fujiya. Fujiya gets Johnny Kuroki’s number 54.
  • Orix has unveiled their new uniforms. I’m a little disappointed, I thought they would change them more. I think they should have brought back the old Kintetsu Buffaloes logo, at least on an arm patch or something.
  • And finally, one in English: speaking to ESPN, Matt Murton called going to Japan “100 percent the best decision I made.”

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Darvish Signs for 2011

» 06 January 2011 » In mlb prospects, npb » 16 Comments

For the third year in a row, I get to write that Yu Darvish has renewed his contract for another season with Nippon Ham. This year though, I get to write that he’s taken his rightful place as Japan’s highest-paid player. Darvish’s salary for 2011 will be 500m yen ($6m at January 6th’s rate), a 170m yen raise over what he made last season.

When asked about the possibility of using the posting system to move to the Majors next offseason or later, Darvish issued a “no comment“.

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Career Retrospective: Kazumi Saito

» 04 January 2011 » In npb » 7 Comments

After three years on the sidelines, the Softbank Hawks offered former ace Kazumi Saito a choice this offseason: an entry-level ikusei contract, or a coaching position with the team. Saito chose to continue his comeback as a coach, fittingly one responsible for injury rehabilitation. Today we take a look back at Saito’s career, who between injuries has had some dazzling performances.

Saito’s baseball journey began on the southern side of Kyoto, the city where he was born.  It was at Minami Kyoto High School where he became a pitcher and first caught the eye of baseball scouts. Despite being unable to lead his teams to an appearance at Koshien (the school has never been), he was tagged as a top professional prospect. The then-Fukuoka Daiei Hawks selected the young right-hander in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft.

Just shy of his 20th birthday, Saito was already pitching at the ichi-gun level. He made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut on October 5, 1997. Though he would appear in only one game at the level (a feat he also repeated during the 1998 and 1999 seasons), he had ascended staggeringly quickly through the pro ranks.  However it was also at this time that Saito began to experience shoulder problems, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. Surgery was performed on his troublesome right shoulder for the first time in 1998, and coaches toyed with the idea of converting Saito to a position player.  Saito, however, was keen on remaining a pitcher.

His first full season came in 2000, when he reached a milestone of recording his first win at the major league level.  He used his unusual height (192cm) to his advantage, as well as the ability to throw a hard fastball in the 150’s (KPH), a sharp forkball, mixed with an excellent slider and curveball.  He finished 2000 with 5 wins against 2 losses and a 4.13 ERA.

His breakthrough season was delayed, however, when it came to light in 2001 that he would need additional surgery on his troublesome right shoulder. He was able to come back by the end of the 2002 season and regain some form of dominance that had led the Hawks to be so high on him.

2003 was the season when it all came together for Saito.  The numbers alone don’t do his season justice. After being called upon by then-manager Sadaharu Oh to become the team’s staff ace, the newly minted Opening Day starter responded with a 20-3 (.870), 2.83 ERA season. Saito didn’t lose a game until his 17th decision, becoming the first 20-game winner in the Pacific League in 18 years. He shared the Sawamura Award with Kei Igawa and helped his team to a Japan Series title, defeating Igawa’s Hanshin Tigers in an exciting seven games, though he was winless on the big stage.

As fruitful as 2003 was, what followed must have felt akin to running on ice for #66. After being so good, Saito posted an inexplicable 6.26 and even spent time at ni-gun in 2004 before shoulder pains popped back up in 2005. However, after being sidelined for the first month of the season, Saito rared back to his winning form, ripping off another furious streak of consecutive wins. This time it was 15 straight, exhibiting a penchant for control pitching (2.35 BB/9IP) and a healthy strikeout rate (7.39 K/9IP). He went 16-1 with a 2.92 ERA when it was all said and done, but maintained his reputation for underperforming in the postseason with a poor showing in the playoffs.

2006 was a pitching masterstroke for the ace. After skipping the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Saito tinkered with his windup (NPB placed new guidelines on pitchers prior to the start of the season) and was dominant. Once again making an Opening Day start, he beat the Chiba Lotte Marines and never looked back. The season featured a memorable near no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants, too. On June 8th Saito faced the minimum 27 batters, allowing only an infield single to Ryota Wakiya and subsequently picking him off base. The dominance continued all summer long, as Saito’s 18-5, 1.75 record reflects. He walked only 46 men over 201 innings, striking out 205. He picked up almost every major postseason honor, save the MVP award, which went to Micihiro Ogasawara. This time Saito was brilliant in the playoffs, but it ended in heartbreak, as the Nippon Ham Fighters crushed his dreams of returning to the Japan Series in a fantastic 1-0 game to decide the pennant.

2007 was the last we have seen of Saito, sadly. Though he appeared in 12 games and the Climax Series, arm trouble persisted and rehabilitation was prescribed. In 2008 he had rotator cuff surgery hoping to be ready for 2009. It didn’t happen, though, and in early 2010 more surgery was performed. As of 2011, he remains with the team as a rehab coach, though not officially retired from pitching and still hoping to regain his form.

With a career 72-23 record, there is no question that he should be counted among the elite Pacific League pitchers of the 2000s.  But his career has been a roller coaster ride.  As evidence of this, he has only accrued 6 and a half years of service time in NPB, in a professional career that now has spanned 15 seasons.  It will be interesting to see if Saito can make it back to ichi-gun as a pitcher; at age 33 and with his injury history, the odds are certainly stacked against him. Does he have one more surprise left for his fans?

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Chunichi in Pursuit of “Chen The Second”

» 04 January 2011 » In international baseball, npb » 13 Comments

Alright, let me start with a admission: I stole that headline almost directly from the Sports Hochi article that I’m getting the content from.

Anyway, Chunichi has found another Chen to go after: 20 year-old Kuan-Yu Chen. Like current Chunichi star Wei-Yin Chen, Kuan-Yu is lefthanded and a product of Taiwan’s National College of Physical Education. Kuan-Yu had previously worked out for the BayStars, and multiple NPB teams are reportedly interested in him.  Chunichi team president Junnosuke Nishikawa commented “it’s true that we’re moving [on him]. If we acquire him, I think it will be under the ikusei framework.”

In an unrelated note, I found this (English language) article about Genji Kaku’s son Sou Kaku while researching Kuan-Yu on the Taiwan Baseball blog. The younger Kaku is a player on Meji University’s rugby team.

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Pitcher Signings: MacLane, Barnette, Houlton

» 01 January 2011 » In nichibei, npb » 5 Comments

First post of the new year is about… more pitchers signing with NPB teams.

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2011!

» 01 January 2011 » In NPB Tracker » Comments Off

Happy New Year!

Not much more to say than that. I hope everyone reading this had a safe and happy New Year’s Eve, and follows it up with a great 2011.

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