Tag Archive > Matt Murton

Who’s Gonna Win?

» 13 September 2015 » In npb » Comments Off

On September 13, 2015, the Central League achieved symmetry. Yomiuri beat DeNA 3-0, Chunichi tied Yakult 2-2, and Hanshin lost to Hiroshima 0-3. This is something of a microcosm of how the Central League pennant race has played out. For most of the second half of the season, Hanshin, Yakult and Yomiuri have taken turns holding first place, while Hiroshima hovers a few games back. Over the last two weeks, the race has tightened up even further, with four teams within 3 games of first place, and the top three locked in tie-like conditions.

(Standing as of Sept 13)

# Team W L T GB
1 Yakult 65 60 2 -
2 Hanshin 65 61 2 0.5
3 Giants 66 62 1 0
4 Hiroshima 61 62 3 2.5

So who’s gonna win?

It’s still anyone’s pennant.

Remember that in Japan, the champion is whoever loses the fewest games, so this race is maybe even a little more neck and neck than it appears. In pretty much every game, each of the four contenders a chance to add to their win column, but also bump up an opponents lose column. But in doing so they also help their other rivals.

Erm, so who’s gonna win?

Let’s also point out that the top three placed teams will qualify for the playoffs, but the league champion gets a bye in the first stage of the Climax Series playoffs, and a one-game advantage in the second stage. Given the parity of the teams this year, that’s a big prize.

Right, okay, who’s gonna win?

Yakult wins if… their starting pitching holds up through the rest of September. The Swallows have been on a bit of a run lately, going 9-3-1 over the last three weeks. Over that stretch, rainouts and off days have allowed them to rely almost entirely on four starters: Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa, Taichi Ishiyama, Masanori Ishikawa, and Shohei Tateyama. Over the second half of September, the Swallows will have 11 games over a stretch of 13 days, and will probably have to dig a little deeper in to their rotation, especially as Tateyama is returning from his third Tommy John surgery. A well-timed gutsy performance from a guy like Hirofumi Yamanaka or Orlando Roman could be the difference between a league title and a third-place finish. Key players: Yamanaka, Roman, Tateyama’s current ulnar collateral ligament.

Hanshin wins if… they can keep Hiroshima at bay, which they have so far not managed to do. Hanshin is 7-12-2 on the season against Hiroshima, but more importantly entered September with nine of their last 27 games to play against the Carp. So far five of those nine games have been played, and Hanshin is 1-3-1. Unfortunately for the Tigers, three of the remaining four games are on Hiroshima’s home ground, so their work is cut out for them, but they have to find a way to put a few losses on Hiroshima’s ledger. Aside from that, Hanshin has four more games against DeNA and Chunichi, whom they’ve enjoyed beating up on this year. The Tigers need take full advantage of their remaining opportunities to pad their record. Key players: Matt Murton and Mauro Gomez.

Yomiuri wins if… they can gain the upper hand on Yakult. The Tokyo rivals are an interesting matchup; Yakult having the league’s best offense, and Giants being the most adept at run prevention. The Swallows and Giants have perfectly split their 20 meetings so far this year, and have five left to play. Yomiuri’s pitchers have done a good job at keeping Yakult off the board, holding them to 3.1 runs per meeting, compared with their season average of 3.99. But they need to score runs to win, and in nine of their 10 losses to the Swallows, Yomiuri’s offense has put up three or fewer runs. Key player: anyone who happens to be holding a bat.

Hiroshima wins if… they can continue to beat Hanshin, and Yomiuri and Yakult trade wins with each other. After a vexing, underachieving season, the Carp have finally pulled up to the rest of the pack, though they are still on the outside looking in. The key to the remainder of Hiroshima’s season is sort of the inverse of Hanshin’s. They need to continue their success against the Tigers, and reverse their luck against the bottom-dwelling Dragons and Baystars. They Carp might be in first place if it wasn’t for their incompetence against the Central League’s worst two teams, whom they are a combined 16-26-1 against.  But if they can make that record look a little better over the seven games they have left against those two teams, they’ll obviously be in better shape. Key player: Brad Eldred. The Carp seem to win when he hits.

My prediction: I didn’t write it down at the time, but my pre-season pick was Hiroshima and I’m sticking with that. I’m giving them the league, beating Yakult’s winning percentage by a fraction. Hanshin stands to lose the most if Hiroshima succeeds, so I’ll pick them for fourth, with Yomiuri defaulting to third position.

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Ichiro & Me

» 27 August 2013 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » Comments Off

Last week, Ichiro reached perhaps the capstone achievement of his career: 4000 career hits as a professional in NPB and MLB. This put me in kind of a refelective mood, as Ichiro has been an omnipresent figure in my observation of professional baseball over the last 16-17 years, and a central character in my development from someone who knew little about Japanese baseball to someone who is capable of writing competently about it. Here’s 950+ words about how it happened.

The offseason, 1996 — I saw Orix Blue Wave’s [1] Ichiro play for the first time, on TV, in the bi-annual Nichibei Yakyu All-Star Series that has since been rendered obsolete by the WBC. This particular series was notable as it featured Hideo Nomo, a Japanese player, representing the American side. I don’t remember much about that series, other than the broadcasters pointing out that Ichiro was thought of as the likely candidate to be the first position player to make the leap to MLB, which turned out to be a prescient expectation. Ichiro, with his distinctive high-kick swing and mononymous name, was implanted on my mind from then onward.

Winter, 1997 or 1998 — As an early eBay user, I was able buy a Japanese Nintendo 64 baseball game, King of Pro Yakyu[2]. I quickly learned to recognize the Orix Blue Wave logo, and the first Japanese phrase I learned to read was Ichiro. Or, more accurately, I could understand which series of characters read “Ichiro”, but I couldn’t tell you which one the “chi” was. Nonetheless, Orix was the only team I ever played with in that game and evenually I learned about So Taguchi, Koji Noda, Troy Neel and DJ.

At some point around this time, I discovered Michael Westbay’s JapaneseBaseball.com, simply by typing “japanesebaseball.com” into a browser to see if anything was there. It became an invaluable resource for me as time went on.

August 2000 — I set foot in Japan for the first time, to spend a semester as a foreign exchange student. As luck would have it, I found myself in the Kansai region, not far from Orix’s home in Kobe. As luck wouldn’t have it, Ichiro was injured, so I defaulted to mostly watching nationally televised Yomiuri games, becoming a fan of Hideki Matsui, Darrell May, Hideki Okajima and Akira Etoh[3]. Ichiro did eventually return to play in the final game of the season, which I saw on the news but not live. I had no idea that it would be Ichiro’s last game (to date) with Orix. A month or so later, Ichiro’s intent to move to MLB was announced and it was a huge news story.

By the time I returned to the States in December, Ichiro’s rights had been won by the Mariners. It kind of seemed like a predestined move, as Ichiro has spent some time with the Mariners during spring training in 1999, and the team is owned by Nintendo.

Spring 2001 — Back home, my Dad and I attended an early-season White Sox-Mariners game, during Ichiro’s first trip to Chicago. Ichiro went 3-6 and made at least one perfect throw back to home plate, but what I remember most about that game was the number of Japanese photographers stationed around Comiskey Park. We saw groups of three or so photographers in several spots around the stadium, capturing even the most mundane Ichiro moments from every possible angle.

Ichiro, of course, went on to win the MVP award and the Mariners had a historic regular season, but fell short in the playoffs. By the time they did, I had returned to Japan to begin my eikaiwa[4] job. Like everyone else in Japan I wanted to see Ichiro in the World Series, but I wasn’t disappointed by the terrific Yankees-Diamondbacks series. I figured the Mariners would get another shot, which wound up never happening.

September 2004 — Early in 2004, I relocated from Japan to San Francisco. Ichiro appeared to be somewhat in decline, as batting had tailed off a bit in 2003 and he had gotten off to a slow start in 2004. Then in May something clicked and Ichiro was locked in the rest of the season, particularly in July and August. By September it seemed clear that he was going to set the MLB record for most hits in a season, and it looked like he might do it during a four game series in Oakland during the last week of the season. Being semi-employed at the time, I had the free time to attend all four games that week, but Ichiro cooled off and wound up setting the record after the Mariners returned to Seattle.

10 years earlier Ichiro set the NPB record for most hits in a season with 210, so he held the single season hits record in both leagues, until Matt Murton broke his NPB record with 214 hits in 2010.

2008-2009 — For the next couple years, nothing much happened. Ichiro continued to rack up 200+ hits per year, but the Mariners were never really in contention for a playoff spot. I continued living in the Bay Area and reading Shukan Baseball[4], until 2008, when I started this blog, which both of you are reading right now. Two of my earliest attention-grabbing posts where Ichiro-related, or more specifically, Ichiro pitching related: Ichiro pitching in the 1996 NPB All-Star game, and again in preparation for the 2009 WBC. Certainly, I owe some portion of the audience I managed to build to the fascination with Ichiro.

[1] The Blue Wave name is now defuct. In 2004, the Orix Blue Wave merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and became the Orix Buffaloes.
[2] Atlus software’s clone of Konami’s Powerful Pro Yakyu. Here’s a clip.
[3] All but Etoh evetually played in the Major Leagues.
[4] Eikaiwa is a contraction of “Eigo kaiwa”, meaning “English Conversation”. It’s a job were a native English speaker teaches conversational skills a group of one to four students.

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Changes for 2012: Hanshin Tigers

» 04 February 2012 » In npb » 3 Comments

Coming: Hayata Itoh (1st round draft pick), Shingo Matsuzaki, manager Yutaka Wada

Going: Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, Kodai Sakurai, Ikuro Katsuragi, Keiji Uezono, manager Akinobu Mayumi

Staying: Matt Murton, Craig Brazell, Randy Messenger, Jason Standridge, Takashi Toritani, Kyuji Fujikawa

Hanshin’s biggest change this season is in the dugout, where Yutaka Wada replaces Akinobu Mayumi, who failed to lead the Tigers to a Central League crown or a Japan Series appearance in three years at the helm. Wada is a Hanshin lifer, having spent his entire 16 year playing career with the team, followed by another 10 years in various coaching roles in the Tigers organizatoin. Wada also occupies a special place in Hanshin lore, as the last active player from Hanshin’s legendary 1985 championship team at the time of his retirement in 2001.

Wada inherits a roster that is largely unchanged from 2011, a team finished fourth in the Central League despite outscoring its opponents by 39 runs. In a small league though, run differentials are deceiving, and a big chunk of those 39 runs came from blowing out Yokohama a few times. Rookie outfielder Hayata Itoh figures to get a serious look during spring training, as center field is a hole, and left fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto is on his last legs after a venerable career. Retaining Matt Murton was a big win for Hanshin, as they can count on his steady bat in right.

Hanshin made no significant changes to its pitching staff this offseason. Hiroyuki Kobayashi is working on a move to the rotation after a so-so season in middle relief; I wonder if lefty Daiki Enokida could make a few starts as well. Depth is always a plus, and while Hanshin had four starters pitch 150+ innings with 3.00 or lower ERAs, lefties Minoru Iwata and Atsushi Nohmi both struggled with injuries prior to 2011. On the farm, Taiwanese prospects Ikketsu Sho and Kai-Wen Cheng both put up good numbers at ni-gun last year, and righty Takumi Akiyama has shown promise as well.

Hanshin is beginning to age at some positions, but overall still has a talented veteran roster. That coupled with regression from of last year’s top three should see the Tigers back in playoff position this year.

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Remaining Free Agents

» 17 January 2012 » In mlb, nichibei, npb » 13 Comments

With spring training a mere two weeks away, NPB teams are largely done making offseason roster moves. But Buster Olney’s observation that there are a number of established MLB players that are still available on the free agent market got me wondering if any would be fits in Japan. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Kosuke Fukudome – There has been surprisingly little discussion of a Fukudome return in the Japanese media, the only rumor of note being that Hanshin was considering him as a replacement for Matt Murton, who they successfully re-signed.
  • Kenshin Kawakami — Kawakami’s name has been similarly absent in the Japanese media this offseason. The only news I’ve seen on him is from his personal blog, saying he’s begun working out and hasn’t decided on a team for 2012 yet. It’s reasonable to assume that most NPB rotations would benefit from having him around.
  • Dan Johnson — Johnson played for Yokohama in 2009, and was solid aside from a .215 batting average. Since then, he’s returned to US with the Rays organization, where he’s played well in Durham but been overmatched in Tampa Bay, and developed a penchant for clutch home runs. He does enough things well to be of value to an NPB team.
  • Derrek Lee – Had they not already signed Josh Whitesell, Lee might have been a first base match for Lotte, an organization that once employed his father and uncle (Leon Lee and Leron Lee). Derrek spent part of his youth in Japan.
  • Marcus Thames — Thames has appeared on NPB team’s foreign player candidate lists in the past, but surprising he’s only gotten one previous mention on this site. Power was the rarest skill in Japan last year, and Thames has shown plenty at both the 3A and MLB level.
  • Bill Hall — Hall is something of a personal favorite; I thought he would have a better MLB career than he’s had. He still has at least two solid strengths – a power bat and a strong throwing arm – that match up with teams in need of third base help (Yokohama?).

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Hot Stove Preview, Part One: 2012 Free Agent Class

» 17 July 2011 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » Comments Off

It’s time once again for my mid-season look at the crop of NPB players who will be available on the MLB hot stove market this upcoming offseason. I do these in the middle of the season so we have a list of guys to keep an eye on for the remainder of the season.

Part One will cover the top free agents in this year’s class. All these guys are scheduled to have met the service time requirements for international free agency by the end of the season.

Hisashi Iwakuma (SP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) — After last offseason’s well-documented posting misfire, Iwakuma will give it another go this year, this time as a free agent. The bad news is that Iwakuma is currently (July 18) rehabbing a shoulder problem that has kept him sidelined since May. We’ll see how he does when he comes back, but I fully expect him to command an MLB deal. (tag archive)

Wei-Yin Chen (SP, Chunichi Dragons) — Chunichi’s Taiwanese lefty ace negotiated a free agency clause into his agreement last offseason, and intends to move to the Bigs for 2012. I’ve only watched Chen once this year, and it looked like he traded some velocity for pitchability. It’s unusual to have an established lefty with a good arm freely available on the market at age 26, so it’ll be interesting to see where he winds up. Expect more on Chen in a later post. (tag archive)

Matt Murton (Outfielder, Hanshin Tigers) — Spare a thought for Hansin and their fans here for a moment: after years of importing duds like Shane Spencer and Kevin Mench to man rightfield, Hanshin scores a hit with Murton and almost immediately has to worry about losing him to MLB. Hanshin’s brass would love to keep him around, but the assumption is that he’d like to make an MLB comeback. Japan’s single-season hits record holder is again among the Central League’s batting average leaders, but like most of NPB’s batters his power and patience numbers have seen a decline in this offense-starved season. (tag archive)

Munenori Kawasaki (SS/2B, Softbank Hawks) — Profiling Kawasaki has been on my now-basically-defuct to-do list since I started the site back in 2008. I’ve long thought of Mune-rin as an MLB prospect, and though I’ve tempered my expectations for him I still think he could provide value to an MLB club in the right role. Kawasaki trains with Ichiro in the offseason, and the Japanese media would love to him wind up with Seattle. Mariners scout Yasushi Yamamoto had nice things to say about him in June: “I’m grading him higher than (Tsuyoshi) Nishioka and (Hiroyuki) Nakajima in baserunning and defense. If he can hit .250 in the Majors that will be enough (to play regularly).” Softbank will try to keep him. (tag archive)

Tsuyoshi Wada (SP, Softbank Hawks) — Lefty Wada stepped into the Hawks’ rotation straight out of Waseda University back in 2003, and has been pretty consistently effective even since, culminating with an MVP Award last season (over an arguably more-deserving Tsuyoshi Nishioka). Wada isn’t going to blow anyone away with his fastball, but he mixes a slider and a changeup and has solid command. My concern about Wada is whether he’ll be able to handle a full complement of innings in an MLB rotation. Japanese starters have had a tendency to regress on innings pitched after migrating to MLB; Wada has topped 180 innings only three times, the most recent being 2007 (though he’s on pace for about 185 this year). (tag archive)

Coming up in volume 2: posting candidates.

The Japanese site My Favorite Giants maintains a page on free agency status, which was a huge help in pulling this content together.

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Game Report: Ogasawara Reaches 2,000 Hits

» 05 May 2011 » In npb » 3 Comments

Summary: Hanshin defeated Yomiuri 2-1, but Michihiro Ogasawara reached his milestone.

This game had quite a few juicy storylines coming in. The Giants’ rookie Hirokazu Sawamura made his Tokyo Dome debut, and “Guts” Ogasawara was one hit away from 2,000 for his career. 45,313 people were on hand at Tokyo Dome to perhaps witness history.

Sawamura, selected out of Chuo University last autumn, seemed to get off to a rocky start. The first two batters he faced made solid contact. Matt Murton lined a ball to third base for an out, and Keiichi Hirano ripped a single into right field.

According to the broadcast I was watching, in the first inning Sawamura basically threw fastballs and what was described a forkball. If their graphic was right, he didn’t throw another one until several innings later. Nevertheless, he hit 150 kmph at least twice that I saw but was wild, especially to third hitter Takashi Toritani. He did manage to reign in his control and strike out Takahiro Arai and Craig Brazell to escape the jam.

If the crowd was hoping to see hit number 2,000 from Ogasawara in the first inning, they were disappointed. He popped up on the infield for the third out.

Sawamura had an easy second frame and it looked like Yomiuri might open the scoring in their half of the inning. Alex Ramirez had the Giants’ first hit of the day, followed by a seeing eye single up the middle from Hisayoshi Chono. But two outs and an intentional pass later Iwata was left facing his counterpart whom he easily struck out.

In the third inning, Hirano collected his second hit of what would become a very good game for him. Nothing came of it for Hanshin, just as nothing came of Ogasawara’s second chance at history in the bottom half. He K’ed on a check swing called strike three.

Yomiuri broke the stalemate on the scoreboard in the 4th when Ramirez absolutely destroyed a pitch from Iwata into the left field stands. The ball was a no-doubter, landing close to the top of the bleachers filled with Tigers fans and very near the aisle that surrounds the seats. It was a solo shot and Rami’s 6th of the season.

Of note, Hanshin again chose to semi-intentionally walk (after 3 balls) the eighth hitter Ken Kato to face Sawamura.

The 5th inning was Sawamura’s hardest working frame of the day. Shunsuke Fujikawa led off with a double, but Iwata was unable to move him over with a failed bunt attempt. When Murton was retired it looked as if Sawamura would escape unscathed, but the pesky Hirano drove in Shunsuke with his 3rd hit of the day. The game was tied at 1-1, with the Tigers threatening for more.

Perhaps he was rattled, after a botched pickoff attempt allowed Shunsuke to move up to second base. Toritani and Arai walked, but Sawamura regained his composure and retired Brazell to end the inning.

The thing that most impressed me about Sawamura in that spot was his fearless approach that he took with the large American, choosing to go right after him. That speaks well for Sawamura’s future.

Ogasawara was stuck on 1,999 hits as he hit into a double play for try number three. Lefties have really baffled him all series long.

In the top of the 6th, Sawamura made a glaring mistake to Kenji Johjima, hanging a breaking pitch right over the plate. Johjima taught the youngster a lesson by promptly slamming it into the seats in left to give Hanshin a 2-1 lead. It was Johjima’s 2nd homer of the year.

Of little consolation, Sawamura retired Hirano for the first time of the day later that inning. Hirano finished with a 4 for 5 day at the plate.

When Toritani singled in the Hanshin 7th, it signaled the end of Sawamura’s day. Sawamura’s final line was 6.1 IP, 111 pitches, 8 H, 5 K, 4 BB, 2 ER. It’s hard to call it a good outing considering the hit and walks number, including a few glaring mistakes (the pickoff throw and Johjima’s HR), but I’d call it a solid game. Especially for someone with such little NPB experience under his belt.

Only a close play at the plate (and perhaps and ill-advised coaching decision at third base) prevented the score from becoming 3-1. Brazell knocked a double into right field off of new pitcher Yasunari Takagi, but Arai missed home plate on a tumbling slide and was tagged out.

At Lucky 7 time, it was still 2-1 Tigers.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 8th, when the moment most of the crowd had been waiting for finally happened. With one out and right-hander Hiroyuki Kobabyashi in the game, Guts smashed a 1-2 pitch past the reliever’s head and into center for hit number 2,000. Flowers, of course, were presented and the game continued on with little delay.

A Chono walk later in the inning provided the Giants with a two out threat, but Rusty Ryal was retired on strikes to end the frame.

There little delay in securing the win for the visitors on this day, as Kyuji Fujikawa slammed the door on the Giants in the 9th with two quick outs, a hit batsman, and a Sakamoto fly out to right caught by a sliding Murton.

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90 Minutes of Baseball on Opening Day

» 12 April 2011 » In npb » 4 Comments

The NPB season is finally upon us. On Monday evening (Pacific Time) I found about 90 minutes to spend watching two games, and talking baseball on Twitter. Here are my notes from what I saw of the games.

Chunichi vs Yokohama

  • The ‘Stars drew a pretty nice crowd.
  • Chunichi starter Maximo Nelson looked a little rough around the edges early on.
  • Yokohama starter Shogo Yamamoto can get a bunt down.
  • Forkballs and low fastballs still to work against Brett Harper.
  • Hirokazu Ibata has cool glasses.
  • Yamamoto left a mistake out over the plate for Joel Guzman, who tagged it for the first NPB home run of 2011. Yokohama manager Takao Obana wisely brought in righty Shintaro Ejiri before Guzman’s next at bat, and he made quick work of both Guzman and Tony Blanco.
  • Right after Guzman’s home run, yet another earthquake struck, shaking the lighting towers at Yokohama Stadium.

Yokohama eventually won 5-4, on a Yuta Naito walk-off hit off Takuya Asao.

Rakuten vs Lotte

  • There were quite a few fans holding signs encouraging the Tohoku region at QVC Marine Field. Lotte has great fans.
  • I thought the “Ganbarou Tohoku” patch on the Rakuten uniforms was a little small. Lotte wore black stripes on their shoulders.
  • Lotte starter Yoshihisa Naruse was locked in early on, and had six or seven strikeouts in the first four innings. I thought he was getting some low strikes called in his favor.
  • Takashi Ogino’s showed of his speed in the fourth inning: after singling, he stole second, and advanced to third on a hard fly out to left field. He then scored on a ground out to third base, though he probably would have been out if Motohiro Shima had been able to hang on to the ball. Ogino looked like he got into Hisashi Iwakuma’s head a little bit, as he seemed distracted when he was on first base.
  • Kim Tae Kyun looks fatter than last year.
  • Iwakuma got himself into a couple of minor jams in the fourth and fifth, but came away unscathed. His fastball velocity wasn’t great though.
  • I wasn’t impressed with Rakuten’s 1B/DH duo: Takeshi Yamasaki started at first, but hisfielding days should rightfully be behind him, and Randy Ruiz looked bad in his first two at bats against Naruse.
  • Just as I was signing off, Shima took Naruse deep for a three-run homer, giving Rakuten a lead they would extend and never relinquish. As great as Naruse is, his control has to be spot on, because he throws so softly that his mistakes can be very costly. Last year he struck out 192, but gave up 29 home runs.

Lotte mounted a comeback against Iwakuma in the ninth, but Justin Speier relieved him and stopped the Marines for his first NPB save. The final score was 6-4.

Other items of note from games I didn’t watch:

  • Matt Murton hit a home run in his first at bat of the season
  • Yu Darvish got lit up for seven earned runs in seven innings, in the worst opening day performance of his career.

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NPB Bullet Points: Spring Training in Pictures

» 04 February 2011 » In npb » 2 Comments

NPB spring camps have opened throughout southern Japan, and here are six pictures from around the league, pre-approved to be interesting by me.

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Offseason Changes: Hanshin Tigers

» 29 January 2011 » In npb » 8 Comments

Coming: Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Akihito Fujii, Ryota Arai, Robert Zarate, Marcos Vechionacci

Going: Casey Fossum, Akihiro Yano, Satoru Kanemura, Daiyu Kanemura, Keisuke Mizuta

Staying: Matt Murton, Craig Brazell, Jason Standridge, Randy Messenger

Summary: Hanshin’s offseason starts with the successful retention of the team’s foreign core — Murton, Brazell, Standridge. Messenger also received a contract for 2011, despite his disappointing results last season. The fact that Hanshin’s foreign roster isn’t overcrowded may mean that incumbent Kai Wen Jeng gets a few innings at the ichi-gun level, or that the Tigers will seek reinforcements if Standridge or Messenger stumble. Beyond that, Hanshin’s only significant acquisitions were scooping up Kobayashi after he failed to land an MLB contract, acquiring catcher depth in Fujii, and trading for Takahiro Arai’s brother Ryota. Reports of a Jeff Williams comeback have unfortunately not yet come to fruition.

With the return of Murton and Brazell, Hanshin will again field a strong offense, though it is a good bet they will see some regression. The Tigers lineup was spectacular in2010, with five regulars who batted .300 or higher (and Brazell right behind at .297) powering the team to a league-top 740 runs. Hanshin’s lineup will be good in 2011, but Keiichi Hirano is not going to hit .350 again, and Kenji Johjima is on the shelf recovering from knee surgery until sometime after the season starts. And as good as Murton and Brazell are, it would be unrealistic to expect them to match their superb 2010 results. That said though, Hanshin still has an offense rivaled only by Yomiuri in the Central League.

Hanshin’s rotation has a lot more question marks than its lineup. Yasutomo Kubo has been a godsend, last year becoming the first Hanshin pitcher to throw 200 innings since Kei Igawa back in 2006. Standridge was something of a godsend in 2010 as well, finished second on the team with 126.1 innings. Then 42 year-old lefty Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi contributed his brand of six-inning appearances, but only 19 times. The laws of the universe dictate that he’ll have to stop someday, but who knows when that will be? Beyond those three guys, Hanshin’s rotation is filled with a bunch of question marks. Minoru Iwata, Atsushi Nohmi, and Yuya Ando have all had success in the past but are coming off injuries. Touted 2009 draftee Kazuhito Futagami didn’t throw a pitch last year; Takumi Akiyama threw many with considerable success, but he’s still only 20. Naoto Tsuru finished last season well and could be poised for a breakout. Hanshin’s bullpen also remains a strength, anchored by ace closer Kyuji Fujikawa.

Overall I see Hanshin as a team with a lot of talent, but one that is kind of on the edge. Despite their thin rotation, the Tigers finished one game out of first last season. If their stable pitchers hold steady and a couple of the question marks pan out, they could be dominant. If they falter and the injury guys don’t come back, Hanshin’s bullpen will be overworked and we’ll see a lot of high scoring games.

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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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