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Rebuilding Yakult: Part 0

» 14 September 2017 » In npb » Comments Off on Rebuilding Yakult: Part 0

Nine years ago, in June 2008, I started this blog with a post about long-time Yakult Swallows closer Shingo Takatsu. Un-relatedly, I found out a few weeks later that I had my first child on the way, a son who would be born the following spring. Six years later, in 2014, I took my son to see his first Japanese baseball game, a Swallows home game at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. The visiting team was my favorite, the Hanshin Tigers, and my intent had been to begin indoctrinating him into Hanshin fandom. Sometimes, however, the dots have their own way of connecting. The Hanshin side of the ballpark was mostly sold out, so we wound up on Yakult side, surrounded by Swallows fans. Mid-way through the game, I granted his wish for a pair of Swallows ouen bats, and when Yakult won he high-fived his new umbrella-toting friends, and a Yakult fan was born. We’ve been back to Jingu, as well the visitor section of Tokyo Dome, several times, and nearly every morning my son awakens with the question “did Yakult win?”

Unfortunately, the answer to his question has been “no” a horrifying 67% of the time this year.

Yakult being uncompetitive isn’t a surprise. My preseason predictions had them edging Chunichi for fifth place in the Central League; I knew their pitching would be suspect, but thought that they’d score enough runs to stay out of the cellar. I missed the mark on that one, as the Swallows’ futility has been all-encompassing this year. Yakult ranks as the worst in the league in pitching, hitting, and defense. These realities are thoroughly reflected in their winning percentage, which is the worst in Japan.

Prior to my son’s Yakult fandom, it’s likely that I would have taken minimal notice of the Swallows misery, and eventually forgotten about it as I have many other last place teams. But having a relatively newfound emotional connection to this team has gotten me thinking, what would I do to fix the Swallows? And that question has given me a vehicle to (modestly) re-launch activity on NPB Tracker.

Over the next couple months, I’ll write a handful of posts outlining what my prospective approach would be if it was my job to establish Yakult as a competitive force. Along the way, I’ll take a look at the moves they make and offer my point of view. The rough framework for how I’ll look at this is something like this:

0 Surveying the Landscape, Picking a Strategy (this post)
1 Finding a Manager
2 Heading into the Draft
3 Offseason Reinforcements
4 Internal Prospects
5 Foreign Imports
6 Spring Training

Surveying the Landscape

Japan’s Central League has six teams, which are currently ranked the way I expect them to finish the season:

1. Hiroshima Carp
2. Hanshin Tigers
3. Yokohama DeNA Baystars
4. Yomiuri Giants
5. Chunichi Dragons
6. Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Taking a more general view…

Hiroshima — looks poised to stay at the top for the time being
Hanshin — blend of unproven young talent and aging veterans who, so far, are holding up
DeNA — solid lineup, three key starters acquired in the last two years have kept them in the mix this year
Yomiuri — strong frontline pitching, aging lineup, always a threat to spend in free agency
Chunichi — strong track record in acquiring foreign talent, star players from 2003-2012 golden era have retired and not been replaced
Yakult — no pitching depth, injuries and non-performance have taken toll on offense

It’s looking like this is Hiroshima’s era; I don’t think they will necessarily rattle off a long string of championships, but they’ll be in the conversation for at least the next couple of years. The other four teams are all better than the Swallows at the moment, though they all have weaknesses. Even so, Yakult is a couple of years and a couple of good drafts away from making things interesting in Yoyogi again.

So the immediate goal is to simply be less of a doormat, and give the Jingu fans reason to raise their umbrellas a few more times in 2018. Longer term the goal is to build a team that can contend for an extended period of time. How? My take is that in building a team, one can either raise the ceiling, or raise the floor. I think the approach I prefer with Yakult is to raise the floor, to try to replace the team’s worst performers with average ones. Time will tell if I can identify a reasonable strategy to accomplish that.

First things first though. Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka has stepped down, and we’ll need to find a replacement. We’ll cover that in the next installment.

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