Tag Archive > Kazumi Saito

Oshogatsu (New Year’s)

» 05 January 2012 » In npb » 2 Comments

Today’s Japanese word of the day is Oshogatsu (お正月), which refers to New Year’s Day or the New Year.

Oshogatsu is a big deal in Japan. It’s easily the biggest holiday Japan celebrates, and the country largely shuts down for about a week while its citizens gather as families and take part in the traditional activities, such as visiting shrines and eating Osechi ryori.

Here’s an roundup how some NPB players spent Oshogatsu, all found via the very handy @npb_players Twitter feed.

 

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The Remaking of the Hawks’ Rotation

» 10 June 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

Having just completed a four game season sweep of the Yomiuri Giants, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are playing unbelievably well right now. As of this date, they sit atop the Pacific League with a 32-11-3 (.744) record. They have basically buried their PL rivals (save for the Nippon Ham Fighters, who are 3 games behind in the standings) and it’s only early June.

How have they done it? With their excellent starting pitching, for the most part.

Good starting pitching has been the hallmark of the Hawks’ success over the past decade or so. But recent years haven’t been kind to former starters like Nagisa Arakaki and Kazumi Saitoh, and the Hawks have been forced to move on. Coming into 2011, they found themselves left with only Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi as reliable names in the rotation.

Having given 19 and 20 starts last season to Kenji Otonari and Shinsuke Ogura respectively, the Hawks went in another direction this year. They moved 2009 Rookie of the Year Tadashi Settsu into the rotation full time, and it has worked splendidly. Even counting the 8 run drubbing he took over 4 1/3 innings in his first start on April 16th, he has performed to the tune of a 5-2 record with a 3.09 ERA.

D.J. Houlton has returned to his 2009 form after a rough campaign in 2010. The 5.70 ERA seems to be nothing but a memory as he is among the league leaders in ERA (1.84) and leads his team in wins (7), innings pitched (63 2/3), and shutouts (2).

20-year old Hiroki Yamada has shored up the back of the rotation nicely. He has already surpassed his innings pitched total from last year and has cut his walks in half, his runs allowed by 60% and dropped his ERA over 2.5 runs, all while maintaining his strikeout rate.

Even Sho Iwasaki has come out of nowhere to provide spot starts, so far going 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA in four starts.

All of this has added up to a stellar 2.12 team ERA. Though not to mitigate the importance of the contributions that players like Seiichi Uchikawa, Nobuhiro Matsuda, and others have made on the offensive side of the game this season, it’s been all about the pitching.

Yes, the new ball has been a factor in shaping these numbers. But the retooling of Softbank’s rotation has been nothing short of astounding. Just check their record.

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Offseason Changes: Softbank Hawks

» 23 February 2011 » In npb » 7 Comments

Coming: Seiichi Uchikawa, Alex Cabrera, Toru Hosokawa, Anthony Lerew, Soichi Fujita, Juan Deleon

Going: Kazumi Saito, Roberto Petagine, Arihito Muramatsu, JD Durbin, Beom-Ho Lee, Makoto Sato, Micheal Olmstead

Staying: Hitoshi Tamura, Brian Falkenborg, DJ Houlton, Jose Ortiz

Summary: Two years removed from a sixth-place finish, in 2010 the Softbank Hawks rode Seibu’s late-September swoon to the Pacific League crown. For an encore, they’ve added more star power than any other NPB team this offseason.

The big additions are of the offensive variety: contact-hitting outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa, slugging first baseman Alex Cabrera, and glove-first catcher Toru Hosokawa. 2010 Pacific League MPV candidate Hitoshi Tamura was also retained on a one-year deal. Uchi and Cabu should improve a lineup, that despite having some talented hitters, was only the 4th most productive in the PL last seasoan. Cabu should fill at-bats that were mostly taken up by the departed Roberto Petagine and a rapidly-aging Nobuhiko Matsunaka, while Uchi’s presence will cause guys like Satoru Morimoto and Hiroshi Shibahara will find themselves on the bench more often. Durability is a bit of a question mark, as both Cabrera and Uchikawa have injury histories, and Cabrera, Matsunaka, and Hiroki Kokubo are all on the wrong side of 35. If any of them falters, though, the steady bat of Jose Ortiz is still on the roster.

On the mound, Softbank’s pitching staff was the second best at preventing runs in 2010. The Hawks’ pitching success was led by it’s bullpen. Softbank threw a league-high 16 shutouts last year, but the team’s starters only managed six complete games — seven fewer than the next lowest total, by Seibu. To that end, the re-signing of middle-relief ace Brian Falkenborg was critical. Softbank has two ace-caliber lefties at the top of its rotation in Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada, but after that the quality drops a bit. Kenj Ohtonari has a good arm and looked like a third lefty ace back in 2008, but hasn’t been as productive over the last two seasons. Yet another lefty, 30 year-old Shinsuke Ogura, battled through 102 innings last year, but did so with a 5.29 ERA. DJ Houlton is back, but he followed up an extremely hit-lucky 2009 with a rough 2010. We’ll see which way things go in 2011. If new addition Anthony Lerew can pitch with as much flair as he grows facial hair, the Hawks will have something. Former ace Kazumi Saito has finally succumbed to injuries and retired, while the the once-excellent Nagisa Arakaki is still battling his way back. And this would be a great year for Sho Iwasaki or Shota Ohba to take a step forward, given that longtime ace Wada is headed for free agency after the season. There are a lot of question marks among the rotation candidates, but the glass is definitely half-full, thanks to the Hawk’s front-rotation stability and excellent bullpen.

Overall, this team has talent up and down its roster, and despite the competitiveness of the Pacific League, it’s hard to see them finishing outside the top three this season.

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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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NPB Bullet Points: Player Personnel

» 31 August 2010 » In nichibei, npb » 7 Comments

A roundup of player acquisition notes from around the ‘net.

  • Yomiuri is extending the tryout of their mystery player by another week or two.
  • Sponichi reports that SoftBank is going to drop injured ace Kazumi Saito to ikusei status after this season. Saito hasn’t pitched in an ichi-gun game since 2007.
  • It’s no surprise that Koji Uehara wants to continue playing in MLB, but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in NPB rumors. Hanshin and Yokohama are reportedly interested.
  • Hideki Matsui has ruled out a return to Japan. A quote from Sponichi: “[it’s not an option]. Please think it through. How would I play on artificial turf with my knees? Even if I want to go back I wouldn’t be able to play. Under the circumstances, it’s impossible.”
  • It looks like Orix manager Akinobu Okada is trying to recruit retired Hanshin speedster Norihiro Akahoshi out of retirement. Post-retirement comebacks are rare in Japan, Hanshin would have to release their rights to him, and he’d have to prove that he’s medically fit to play, so there are significant hurdles here.
  • Former Carp ace Colby Lewis did an interview with Chunichi Sports. The whole thing is worth translating, but for now I’ll just do his answer to the inevitable question about Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma: “I think Darvish is a player who should come to the majors as soon as he can. No one knows what he’ll be like or in what role he’ll be used in if he waits until he’s 26 or 27. I think Japan should change the service time requirements of it’s free agency system. I think Iwakuma would also succeed in the majors. If pitchers can show velocity it’s easy to if how they make it in the majors.” (note: this is a translation of a translation)
  • And finally, one in English: Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Examiner has a report on some of the 3A Isotopes players’ brushes with Japan, including former NPB’ers Scott Dohmann and Michael Restovich, and NPB hopefully John Lindsey.

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Will 2010 See a 20-Game Winner?

» 05 July 2010 » In npb » 2 Comments

It’s not year that we see a 20 game winner in NPB. The last pitcher to pull it off was Hisashi Iwakuma, with his remarkable 21-win season in 2008. The last time prior to that was 2003, when Kei Igawa and Kazumi Saito each won 20, and shared the Sawamura Award. Bonus points will be awarded to the reader who can name the last 20-game winner prior to Igawa and Saito.

At the halfway point this season, a number of pitchers have won enough to have a shot at 20:

Pitcher Team Record Starts ERA
Shun Tohno Yomiuri 11-2 15 2.40
Tsuyoshi Wada SoftBank 11-4 15 3.24
Bobby Keppel Nippon Ham 10-1 14 3.07
Toshiya Sugichi SoftBank 10-3 15 3.82
Kenta Maeda Hiroshima 10-3 16 1.56
Hideaki Wakui Seibu 10-4 16 2.90
Takayuki Kishi Seibu 9-5 15 3.36

So will any of them do it? Assuming good health, each one of these guys should get 10-13 more starts this year, so, as always, winning 20 will require both effectiveness and luck.

If I were to place a bet on one of these pitchers winning 20, I think I’d reluctantly go with Tohno. The Giants will keep winning and he’s been very effective, but Tohno doesn’t go deep into games and will rely on his bullpen to lock down wins for him. The fact that Maeda, the only other Central Leaguer on this list, plays for the also-ran Hiroshima seems to work against him, but remember that Iwak

I could see one of the Pacific League pitchers making a run too, but the Pa-League is so balanced this year it’s hard to guess which one.

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Injury Updates: Saito, Otsuka, Ishii, Williams

» 31 January 2010 » In npb » 3 Comments

A few updates on the guys who have been rehabbing for years, plus Williams.

  • Kazumi Saito is headed for the operating table yet again, this time to have his rotator cuff repaired. Saito last saw game action in 2007, and we can probably rule him out for this season too. In Saito’s three healthy seasons, he is a combined 54-9.
  • Like Saito, Akinori Otsuka hasn’t pitched since 2007, but he isn’t hanging up his cleats either. Otsuka had his third elbow surgery on January 20th, with the intent of  returning as an active pitcher. Like Saito, if he’s just had surgery, he’s probably looking at a 2011 return at best, at which time he’ll be 39.
  • Hirotoshi Ishii has been on the shelf since 2006, following a shoulder injury suffered during the ’06 WBC. Unlike Saito an Otsuka, Ishii actually pitched in games in 2008 and 2009, though for Yakult’s farm team. Ishii was one of the hardest throwing lefthanders ever in Japan, and he and former teammate Ryota Igarashi were known as the “Rocket Boys”. Ishii said early in the winter that he didn’t want to “lose to Igarashi”.
  • I don’t have much news on Jeff Williams, but according to Sanspo, Hanshin’s management is considering the situation a “blank page” and willing to give him a look when he’s ready. Jeff is not under contract with Hanshin, but has made it known that he wants to return to the team.

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A Global World Series

» 30 January 2010 » In nichibei » 11 Comments

File this one under shameless self-promotion — I contributed a couple of thoughts to Jon Paul Morosi’s recent article on the idea of a MLB vs NPB World Series. One of the questions Jon asked me was if any of the recent NPB champs would have had a chance against their counterpart World Series winner. I went with the 2003 Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, who had four MLB-caliber starters in Kazumi Saito, Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Nagisa Arakaki, as well as future MLB’ers Kenji Johjima and Tadahito Iguchi.

I think that MLB would have the upper hand on NPB nearly every year, but looking at the last ten years, I think there are a couple of matchups where the NPB team would hold there own.

2009 — Yankees vs Yomiuri: I have a hard time seeing this year’s Giants team putting up much of a fight against the Yankees, but it would have been a great event. Dicky Gonzales had a great year, but I can’t see him shutting down the Yankees the way Cliff Lee did.

2008 — Phillies vs Seibu: I’d score this one a little closer. Seibu featured a couple of strong pitchers in Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi, a good infield defense, and a well-balanced lineup. Cole Hamels strikes me as a guy that NPB players would be able to hit, but he was really on his game in the 2008 post-season.

2007 — Red Sox vs Chunichi: The Dragons had almost everything you want to see in a short series: a strong defense, a good bullpen, some on-base skills, and three-run homer power. What they didn’t have was a lot of standout starting pitching beyond Kenshin Kawakami, though Kenta Asakura has always been good when healthy, and Daisuke Yamai-Hitoki Iwase combined with for a perfect game to close the Japan Series. Of course, Boston pummeled Colorado in the ’07 World Series, and would have had an edge over Chunichi.

2006 — Cardinals vs Nippon Ham: Yu Darvish was on the winning 2006 Fighters, but hadn’t yet broken out as Japan’s best pitcher. Tomoya Yagi Nippon Ham’s staff ace, and the Fighters got it done with strong, balanced offense. I actually had tickets to the World Series in 2006, had it been in Oakland, but alas the A’s got stomped in the ALCS by the shockingly good Tigers. I fully expected the Tigers to stomp the Cardinals too, but the Cardinals just played better. So I think the Fighters would have had a chance against the Cards.

2005 — White Sox vs Lotte: I grew up a White Sox fan, and followed Hanshin in Japan, so I’ll have to try extra hard to be objective with this one. 2005 was a case of both champions getting hot at the right time. The White Sox steamrolled everyone in their path in the 2005 postseason, and Marines destroyed Hanshin in the Japan Series. Baseball Prospectus simulated a hypothetical series between the two teams, and the White Sox won, 4-1, but the Marines were competitive.

2004 — Red Sox vs Seibu: This would have been interesting — Daisuke Matsuzaka vs his future team. The Lions also had a still-effective Fumiya Nishiguchi and a once-promising Chang Chih-Chia. They would have had to go up against a Red Sox team that came back from 3-0 against the Yankees, and then swept the Cardinals. So destiny would have worked against the Lions in this one.

2003 — Marlins vs Daiei: As I said earlier, I think this would have been a good series. Daiei’s biggest weakness was their bullpen, but they could have gone with a three-man rotation and stuck a starter (maybe Arakaki) in the bullpen. The more I think about this matchup, the more I think Daiei really would have had the edge in this one.

2002 — Angels vs Yomiuri: I think this would have been another good series. The 2002 Giants featured Hideki Matsui and Koji Uehara, who were both really in their primes (2002 was Matsui’s near-Triple Crown season); as well as Masumi Kuwata, Kimiyasu Kudoh, and Hideki Okajima. I think they would have given the Angels a good series.

2001 — Diamondbacks vs Yakult: The 2001 World Series is one of my all-time favorites (along with 1991 and 2005), so I’m a little biased here. Yakult had a balanced lineup with a good defense, and four future MLB’ers: Kazuhisa Ishii, Shingo Takatsu, Akinori Iwamura, and Ryota Igarashi. So maybe they could have taken a game or two, but it’s hard to pick against Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in a short series.

2000 — Yankees vs Yomiuri: The 2000 Japan Series was the first I was actually present in Japan for, so again I have fond memories of this one too (my three favorite players in Japan, for a time, where Okajima, Akira Etoh and Darrell May). Anyway, this Giants team would have gone up against the last World Series winner from the Yank’s late-90’s dynasty.

Alright, you’ve sat through 700+ words from me, if you’re still here, what are your thoughts?

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Prediction: Pacific League

» 29 March 2009 » In npb » 3 Comments

It’s much harder to predict the standings for the Pacific League as the teams are so evenly matched. But I’ll give it a shot.

1. Seibu Lions: I think we’ll see a little regression from Okawari Nakamura and Kazuyuki Hoashi, but a better performance from Hideaki Wakui. Overall it looks like the Lions have enough to repeat.
Key Players: Wakui, Hoashi, whoever gets the most at-bats at 1st base

2. Nippon Ham Fighters: Nippon Ham was actually outscored by their opponents last year. I’m putting them here because I believe that they have the pitching and defense to win close games, and that Sho Nakata will turn up at some point during the season and provide a little offense.The new additions to the bullpen have the task of replacing Michael Nakamura as well.
Key Players: Nakata, Ryan Wing, Masanori Hayashi

3. Chiba Lotte Marines: I didn’t think I’d have the Marines making the playoffs, but I’m putting them in third because they have a solid front four in their rotation, and no real holes in their lineup. Hopefully Bobby V can find a way to keep Tadahito Iguchi and Shunichi Nemoto both in the lineup, as Nemoto broke out last year with a .296/.369/.430 line.
Key Players: Bobby V, Yoshihisa Naruse, Yuuki Karakawa

4. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles: The Eagles have two WBC heroes at the top of their rotation (Hisashi Iwakuma, Masahiro Tanaka), a couple of solid mid-rotation guys (Darrell Rasner, Hideaki Asai), and some power in the middle of their lineup (Norihiro Nakamura, Fernando Seguignol, Takeshi Yamasaki). But on the other hand they have some holes in their lineup and bullpen.
Key Players: the bullpen

5. Orix Buffaloes: Manager Daijiro Ohishi took over in May of last year and lead the Buffaloes to a seemingly improbable playoff run. Looking back, the Buffaloes pitched better than I realized, with a 3.93 team era and four starters with sub-4:00 eras and at least 10 wins. If the pitching staff can repeat that performance, and the aging lineup of foreign sluggers holds up, they’ll be competitive. If not, look for a B-class finish.
Key Players: Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Jose Fernandez, Greg LaRocca

6. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks: It’s hard to pick the Hawks to finish this low with the amazing rotation depth they have — Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, Nagisa Arakaki, Shota Ohba, Kenji Ohtonari, Kameron Loe, Kazumi Saito (if he can come back from his injuries) and rookie Shingo Tatsumi. But on the flipside, their lineup just isn’t what it used to be. The Hawks hit just 99 home runs last year and haven’t added any significant bats. They’re hoping for a return to form from aging sluggers Hiroki Kokubo and Hitoshi Tamura, who have been shells of their former selves in recent years.
Key Players: Kokubo, Tamura

It was tough to pick any of these teams to finish last, because the league is so balanced and all the teams have strengths. It seems likely that Seibu will finish in the top 3 and SoftBank will finish in the bottom 3, but everything else is up for grabs. What are your thoughts?

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The Life and Times of Hisashi Iwakuma

» 24 March 2009 » In npb » 2 Comments

More than anyone else on the Japan team, it was Hisashi Iwakuma that made a name for himself in this year’s WBC. Iwakuma put in an outstanding performance in the round two elimination game against Cuba, and again in the final when he left the game with a lead over Korea. He isn’t a new face to NPB fans, but he’s not a phenom like Yu Darvish and hasn’t gotten much exposure abroad. 

It’s been somewhat of a winding road to this point for Iwakuma. Let’s take a look at how he got here.

2002
I was living near Osaka in 2002, when Iwakuma arrived on the scene for the local Kintetsu Buffaloes. The Buffaloes were coming off a Japan Series appearance, but had a pretty weak rotation, and he put up respectable numbers in his first full year. More than anything, I recall his funky two-stage delivery, and that people were talking about his as someone to watch in coming years.

2003
Iwakuma broke out with a 15-10 record and 3.45 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, and along with Jeremy Powell gave the Buffaloes a solid front-end rotation.  Kintetsu’s power lineup was aging at that point though, and they weren’t able to compete with the strong Fukuoka Daiei Hawks for the Pacific League title.

2004
Iwakuma started the season with a 12-game winning streak and was the top vote-getting pitcher in the Pacific League for the All-Star game.  Iwakuma plays in the Olympics later in the summer and finished with a 15-2 record.

More signficantly, the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave agreed to merge their baseball operations in the summer of ’04, leading to the establishment of team currently known as the Orix Buffaloes. The merger spurred talks of contraction, which eventually led to a fan-supported players’ strike and the creation of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles franchise. The merge was a sad event for me, as it meant the end of the Blue Wave name, which I really liked.

2004-5 Offseason
Iwakuma refused to play for the merged Buffaloes team, and was traded to the Rakuten expansion team. Rakuten seemed to have a decent foundation to its rotation with Iwakuma and college ace Yasuhiro Ichiba
. Ichiba never panned out, and was just recently traded.

2005-7
Wilderness years. Two-stage delivery’s were banned in NPB, forcing Iwakuma to re-work his mechanics. This video gives you a sense of the changes he had to make; you can see his Kintetsu-era windup from about 1:00-1:20*. He also struggled through injuries and had a doormat of an expansion team behind him until 2007.

 *note about the video: click the large button that says 再生 to play the video. There is also an annoying comment feature that can be disabled if you click the button in the lower right of the video player, the one that kind of looks like a chick with a cartoon talk-bubble

2008
A big return to form. Iwakuma stayed healthy and apparently mastered his mechanics. The video I linked to above shows a change he made to his arm slot, which resulted in him getting more groundball outs, and dramatically reduced his home run rate. Despite his excellent season, Iwakuma was snubbed from the Olympic team, which in part allowed him to win a league-leading 21 games. He was the first 20-game winner in NPB since Kei Igawa
 and Kazumi Saito both won 20 in 2003, and the first 21-game winner since Yoshinori Sato in 1985. 

For his efforts, he was awarded the Sawamura Award as NPB’s best pitcher, and the Pacific League MVP despite playing for a 5th-place team.

The Future
Iwakuma signed a 3-year, 1.1bn yen ($11m) deal with Rakuten after the 2008 season. It’s uncommon for NPB players to sign multi-year deals prior to reaching free agency, so his contract is evidence that Rakuten really thinks highly of him.  Since I was getting asked this during the NPB chats, as far as I can tell he has about five years of NPB service time, which means he has another four to go before reaching international free agency. Rakuten seems to be commited to building a competitive team around him.

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