Archive > October 2011

NPB Bullet Points: Iwakuma Confirms Plans

» 30 October 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 19 Comments

A few notes on the meja chosen (メジャー挑戦, “challenging the majors”) situations for some of NPB’s top players.

  • Hisashi Iwakuma has confirmed his widely-anticipated plans to move to the Majors. He was quoted in Sponichi as saying, “For several years, I’ve been thinking that I want to play in the Majors. In order to realize that dream, I’m going to exercise international free agency after the conclusion of the Japan Series.” Iwakuma will spend two weeks in November training in Arizona.
  • Norichika Aoki’s name as re-emerged in the posting rumor mill, courtesy of Nikkan Sports. I had kind of written him off as an MLB prospect, partly because Yakult has seemed so unwilling to post him, but mostly because his numbers fell off so badly this year (.292/.358/.360 this year, after .358/.435/.509 last season). Aoki refused to comment on the situation for Sponichi, saying “the season isn’t over year, I’m only focusing on the games.” Yakult team president Tsuyoshi Kinugasa, on the other hand, has been chatty about: “If he asks for some time, we’ll give him time, but we haven’t had that talk yet. The general idea is to support talented players who what to challenge the world, but as the president my first mission is a Yakult championship. I can’t support the general perception.”
  • Yu Darvish’s season ended with Nippon Ham’s first round playoff loss, but that hasn’t changed anything. Darvish reiterated his position on the Majors in the Sankei Shimbun: “I wrote this on my blog, but I haven’t decided on a direction so I don’t have any comment.” Read my notes on Darvish’s last appearance of 2011 here.


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Games Notes: PL Climax Series First Stage Game 1

» 29 October 2011 » In npb » 2 Comments

Preamble: These observations are a companion to Kaz Nagatsuka’s Japan Times writeup.

Well, add this one to my list of failed predictions. After suggesting that Yu Darvish’s presence alone was enough for a Nippon Ham game one win, the Seibu Lions took a cue from the World Series champions with a come-from-behind extra inning win.

My pick was looking pretty good into the fifth inning, as Darvish retired the first 13 Lions he faced. He was clearly amped up, working off a barrage of fastballs early in the game and topping out at 154-155 kmph (96 mph). But despite that, this was an oddly unfulfilling Darvish game to watch. He didn’t really settle into a groove with any of his breaking pitches, and his command seemed to deteriorate a little after Jose Fernandez broke up the no-hitter in the fifth. He also lost a few kmph off his fastball as the game wore on, from 154 to a still-excellent 149-150 kmph (93 mph). These are trite criticisms; Darvish struck out seven, walked none, allowed only one run, and left the game with the lead. He just didn’t quite perform at his amazingly high peak, and I find myself hoping that this won’t be his last start this season.

In the bottom halves of the innings, Seibu starter Hideaki Wakui kept his Lions in the game, but was unimpressive overall. Nippon Ham only managed a two runs and a couple of strings of singles; I put that down to the Fighters’ slap-hitting lineup and the limited-flight ball more than anything Wakui did. He featured his fastball and slider and generally worked low in the zone, but allowed frequent contact and left his bullpen with a jam in the sixth inning. That he was lifted with no outs in the fifth, after throwing 85 pitches, is indicative of how Wakui has fallen from acedom. A few years ago, Wakui was an bullpen-saving workhorse, frequently working into the late innings and occasionally throwing 150 pitches or more. He’s a good pitcher and it doesn’t look like anything’s physically wrong with him, he’s just looked uninspired this season. This was another one of those games.

Screwball managerial move of the game: Nippon Ham’s Masataka Nashida pulling star centerfielder Yoshio Itoi in the seventh inning for young Kenshi Sugiya. That was a head-scratcher.

And one final observation from this game is that I significantly overlooked Seibu’s lineup. They clearly have many more threats than Nippon Ham. I particularly enjoyed Fernandez’s approach against Darvish, which resulted in two opposite-field singles (along with two more later against Nippon Ham’s relievers).

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Playoff Picks

» 28 October 2011 » In npb » 8 Comments

While the MLB postseason is ready to come to what will certainly be a dramatic end, the NPB playoffs are just about to begin. The Climax Series opens for both leagues on Saturday, October 29 (JST), with the third place and second place finishers squaring off in the opening round. As a refresher, here is the format of the NPB postseason:

  • Climax Series, First Stage: best of three series between the second place and third place finishers.
  • Climax Series, Second Stage: best of seven series between the league champion (first place finisher) and the First Stage winner. The league champion is automatically credited with a one-win advantage.
  • Japan Series: best of seven series between the Central League Climax Series winner and Pacific League Climax Series winner.
And on to my picks…

Pacific League First Stage: Seibu vs Nippon Ham

I’m going to credit Nippon Ham with with an immediate win because of the presence of Yu Darvish, and then a second one because of their superior pitching and defense. Pick: Nippon Ham, 2-0. Key player: Yu Darvish.

Central League First Stage: Yomiuri vs Yakult

Though the Swallows and Giants finished a game apart in the standings, they went in opposite directions this season. Yakult got off to a hot start and faded down the stretch, while Yomiuri had to claw their way into contention after a sub-par start. Yakult won the season series 12-8-4, but Yomiuri has stronger pitching and most offensive threats overall. Pick Yomiuri, 2-1. Key player: Hisayoshi Chono.

Pacific League Second Stage: Nippon Ham vs Softbank

Softbank has every edge here: a deeper rotation, a better lineup, a 16-7-1 regular season record against Nippon Ham, more rest, and a one-game advantage for finishing first. Softbank has also been on their game recently against Nippon Ham, with an 8-1-1 record against the Fighters in September and October. Pick: Softbank 4-1. Key player: Seiichi Uchikawa.

Central League Second Stage: Yomiuri vs Chunichi

This is a close call. Yomiuri has a narrow regular season 12-10-2 edge over Chunichi, and both teams prevented runs this season at about the same pace. Chunichi lineup is weak, the worst in the CL this year, but they have been bullpen options than Yomiuri. So a series of close games probably favors Chunichi, and of course they have the rest and automatic wins advantages, plus the Ochiai destiny. My gut is saying Chunichi, but my brain is saying Yomiuri. Pick Chunichi 4-3. Key player: Takuya Asao.

Japan Series: Chunichi vs Softbank

Maybe it’s bland to predict a Japan Series between the two league champions, but that’s what I see. It’s probably equally bland to pick the more statistically dominant team to win as well… but it’s hard to pick against Softbank. They allowed 59 fewer runs than anyone else in Japan, with a 2.30 team ERA. Offensively they finished second overall to Seibu’s Okawari-kun-fueled lineup, but their 550 runs was 66 better than third place Yakult. Chunichi has enough pitching to keep the games close, but ultimately suffers with a big disadvantage at the plate.

Pick: Softbank 4-2. Key player: Tsuyoshi Wada (with wins in games two and six).

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Hold Your Horses

» 21 October 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb » 7 Comments

A couple of days ago, a major news agency published a report stating that Yu Darvish has decided to pursue an MLB career via the posting system this offseason. The news was widely repeated and set off a wave of speculation.

Unfortunately it was a little premature. On the 19th, Darvish shot down the report on his personal blog. I’ve translated the entirety of his blog post below (hope he doesn’t mind):

Articles saying “Confirmed: Darvish to the Majors!” have been appearing since yesterday.

As I mentioned on Twitter

Nothing is decided!!

I haven’t decided anything for myself so nothing can be confirmed.(^_^;)

It was an article from the Kyodo News, but what did they base their writing on?

You can say this is freedom of press, but with freedom comes responsibility.

I want a press that takes responsibility.

Every year, when I haven’t decided anything, they write “Majors this, Majors that”, but then when I don’t go they just make up excuses.

How did they write lies and escape responsibility?

Well, after the entire schedule is over, I will carefully think it over!

As soon as I decide I will let everyone know(^^)v

(as always, if the Nihongo speakers in the audience see any issues with my translation, please feel free to let me know.)

So there we have it.

My best guess is that whatever information the original reporting was based on came from the Nippon Ham side. Team owner Hiroji Okoso has been quite chatty about Darvish lately, most recently commenting “for an ace of his stature, if he’s willing to stay we’d have to think about JPY 700m, no, JPY 1bn.” That’s quite a statement, as it would shatter the record for highest-paid NPB player.

There’s obviously huge interest in what will happen with Darvish, so the speculation won’t stop. But the only guy with real credibility on the topic is Darvish himself.

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Messenger to Return to Hanshin

» 20 October 2011 » In nichibei, npb » Comments Off on Messenger to Return to Hanshin

I heard from a source earlier in the evening that Randy Messenger has agreed to a contract to return to Hanshin for 2012. I spoke with Messenger’s agent Matt Sosnick, who confirmed that it’s a one-year deal with an option for 2013.

Messenger had a strong second-year effort for the Tigers, posting a 12-7 record with a 2.88 ERA and 120 strikeouts over 25 starts and 150 innings pitched. Messenger with 12th among Central League pitchers in ERA, 11th in strikeouts, and 15th in innings pitched.

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Pennant Races Conclude

» 20 October 2011 » In npb » 4 Comments

Yesterday, NPB crowned two winners: Chunichi clinched the Central League title, and Seibu took the third and final playoff spot in the Pacific League.

My hat is way off to Chunichi, and manager Hiromitsu Ochiai for a well-deserved douage. I predicted before the season that this would be the year we’d see the Dragons finally stumble back into the B-class, but they proved me wrong, securing the first renpa (consecutive titles) in team history. Ochiai won with arguably less talent than any of his previous winners. The Dragons again sported a rather punchless lineup, but like the rest of the teams, the life was choked out of their standout bats by the new home run-limiting ball. Chunichi dominated on the mound though, and while the Dragons feature some outstanding pitchers, the supporting cast played an important role. Six Dragons pitchers who appeared in 30 games or more have a higher number of games than innings pitched, suggesting that Ochiai played matchups aggressively. It’s a fitting, if unfortunate, conclusion to a remarkable eight-year run for Ochiai-kantoku.

The race for the third playoff spot in the Pacific League was the more compelling storyline for me, as it was the only thing that really amounted to a race down the stretch. Both Orix and Seibu played well enough in September to make things interesting, then cooled off a bit in October. Longer time readers of this site might not be surprised to find out that I was disappointed to see Orix lose the battle of attrition, choking away their hard-earned lead with a 3-9-1 October record. Seibu’s 7-5-2 mark was solid enough to overtake Orix on the final day of the season. Looking back, the real pivotal point of the race was October 6, Seibu’s 2-1 walk-off win over Orix. Had the Buffaloes managed to take that one, they’d be looking ahead to the playoffs rather than the offseason. Of course, there wouldn’t have been a race at all had Seibu not played so horribly early in the year, and they have a much better roster and match up better with all of their prospective of playoff opponents.

The playoffs start on October 29. Bring ’em on.

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Scouting Wada

» 14 October 2011 » In mlb, mlb prospects, npb » 2 Comments

On September 28, ESPN reported that Los Angeles Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White was in Japan to scout Softbank’s lefty starter, Tsuyoshi Wada. This makes the Dodgers the latest to have checked in on the impending free agent, a list that reportedly includes the Yankees, Cubs, Rays and Mariners. Wada’s free agent status should only help his market prospects; since he won’t have to go through the posting process, there won’t be the contract fiasco we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka, or that we expect to see with Yu Darvish. Wada’s track record in NPB, the WBC, and the Olympics affords him a solid negotiating position.

Background & Pitching

Wada was an ace and strikeout machine through his career at the esteemed Waseda University. He signed as a pre-draft pick with the (then Daiei) Hawks, earned a spot in the starting rotation his rookie year, and hasn’t looked back. His strikeout abilities have translated to the professional level, and he’s consistently been a top-end starter throughout his NPB career. Wada depends mostly on his fastball and slider, but will also drop in a change up at times. While most strike out pitchers are flame throwers, Wada tends to work in the mid to high ‘80’s. He can reach back and get to the low ‘90’s when he needs to, but location, movement, and changing speeds are where he makes his money. Wada is also known as a diligent student of the game by tracking scouting reports on all of the teams and players he faces. To his detriment, Wada has built a reputation for the occasional mistake pitch that gets launched into the outfield bleachers. However, his home run totals have dropped every year from 26 in his rookie year of 2003, to 11 in 2010.

Get a look at Wada’s mechanics here.

Wada has strong statistical track record to recommend him. He’s shown to be a durable starter over the last 9 seasons who averages a little under one strike out and one hit per inning. In addition to that, despite his high strike out rate and 32 complete games through 2010, his pitch counts have remained relatively low for a frontline starter in Japan. He has also done a pretty good job staying healthy, only missing time twice in his career to this point. Most recently, his 2009 season was cut short to injury, but in 2010, he bounced back well enough to earn the Pacific League MVP award, and to help lead the Hawks to the best record in NPB in 2011.

On the negative side, there are reasonable concerns with are his velocity, reputation for giving up big hits and ability endurance. Although his home run total has dropped steadily, his ERA has tended to stay above 3.00 and has not dropped with his annual home run total. So although he’s keeping the ball in the yard, the runs are still coming in. With his fastball velocity living the 87-88 range, Wada will not have the margin for error that a pure power pitcher might. If he has trouble locating any of his pitches, he will not be able to blow anyone away with his heater. As a starter, he could find it difficult to get through tougher MLB lineups two or three times. Furthermore, as with any pitcher making the leap from NPB to MLB, the heavier workload will be a question mark. If he’s a starter in The States, can he handle pitching every 5th day instead of only once a week? Also, Wada has hovered around 160 innings per season with his highest total set during his rookie year at 189 innings. Having never approached a 200 inning season, can Wada increase his annual innings total and still remain effective?

The Future

Wada projects to be a solid 4th or 5th starter or (worst case) middle reliever in MLB, should he decide to make the jump. His studious tendencies should put him in position for a good transition, and his successful track record at every level he’s played suggests he’s got a shot at further success. It will ultimately be up to the team that signs him to figure out how to use him correctly. Given the success the Dodgers have had with Japanese pitchers, they just might be the right MLB home for him.

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A Brief Commercial Announcement

» 08 October 2011 » In NPB Tracker » 2 Comments

It is my very great pleasure to announce that Eno Sarris and I have gotten a story published in ESPN the Magazine. It’s available online now (Insider subscription required) and in the October 17 edition of the print magazine. You’ll have to click the link to find out what it’s about.

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The Theoretical Grade A+ Prospect

» 08 October 2011 » In mlb, mlb prospects » 3 Comments

I’ve learned a lot about prospects from reading John Sickels over the years. John gives prospects letter grades the same way American schools do, and he’s a pretty tough grader. He’s never given an A+, but recently described what one would theoretically look like.

A Grade A+ pitching prospect would have four plus-plus pitches, exceptional command and control, a great body, perfect mechanics, no injury history, outstanding makeup, and a brilliant performance record. Again, I’ve never seen anyone like that. There is always some flaw somewhere, no matter how minor.

I think I’ve seen someone who comes pretty close to that: Yu Darvish. Yes, it’s probably unfair to throw Darvish in with younger minor league and amateur prospects, but he’s young enough at 25, and still yet to throw a Major League pitch.

Against John’s criteria, the only question marks for me are whether Darvish’s best four pitches grade as plus-plus, or merely plus, and how “perfect” mechanics are defined (Darvish has tinkered with his delivery over the years). Aside from that, everything else is there — the physique, makeup, health record and performance record.

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