Tag Archive > Nobuhiko Matsunaka

Game Notes: Nippon Series Games 6 & 7

» 21 November 2011 » In mlb prospects, npb » 2 Comments

And so, my 12th season as an NPB fan has come to a close. Here’s how it happened:

Game 6 – Chunichi wins, 2-1:

  • Both starters, Kazuki Yoshimi and Tsuyoshi Wada, look tired. It’s been a long haul for them: like everyone else, they started camp in early February and experienced the delayed start to the season; but both also logged over 180 innings over the course of the year, plus three postseason starts each.
  • The guest commentator for game six? Yu Darvish. He didn’t really say anything interesting, at least not that I noticed.
  • Softbank started a better offensive lineup, with Hiroki Kokubo playing first base and Nobuhiko Matsunaka DHing. In the first two games at Yahoo Dome, Kokubo DHed while Shuhei Fukuda played first, with Matsunaka on the bench.
  • There was a great Softbank Hawks commercial with the Hawks players hitting line drives to each other.
  • Toru Hosokawa’s flyout in the third inning seemed like it would have been a home run with the old ball.
  • Chunichi got all of their offense out of the way in the first inning, courtesy of a two-run Kazuhiro Wada triple. After that, they never mounted much of a threat.
  • Softbank’s bats were equally lifeless, more so than in any game since their listless effort against Wei-Yin Chen in game one.
  • Four of the seven games resulted in a final score of 2-1.
  • I must admit… my notes are a little lacking from this one… so I must again turn to Michael Westbay’s write-up. Plus, he has a YouTube video of that commercial I mentioned.
Game 7 — read until the end:
  • Chunichi started Daisuke Yamai, the righty who pitched eight perfect innings in the decisive game five of the 2007 Nippon Series, only let closer Hitoki Iwase finish it off. Yamai only managed a third of a perfect inning this time, giving up a single to Yuichi Honda with one out in the first.
  • Softbank entrusted game seven to ace Toshiya Sugiuchi. Coincidentally, in September Sugiuchi took a no-hitter through six innings against Orix, but volunteered to leave the mound.
  • Like the game six starters, neither Yamai nor Sugiuchi scared anyone with their fastballs.
  • Critical point number one: bottom of the third. Softbank loaded the bases with Hitoshi Tamara singling, Yuya Hasegawa doubling on what was very nearly a great catch by Chunichi center fielder Yohei Oshima, and Katsuki Yamazaki walking on four straight bunt attempts. Hiromitsu Ochiai immediately went to his bullpen to play the matchup, bringing in lefty Masato Kobayashi to face Munenori Kawasaki and Honda, the Maximo Nelson to face righties Uchikawa and Kokubo. Kobayashi walked in a run, but got Honda, and Nelson induced a couple of lazy flyouts, so the strategy worked out pretty well. Hasegawa could have scored on Uchi’s flyout, but Softbank played it safe. Score: 1-0 Softbank.
  • Critical point number two: bottom of the fourth. Matsunaka drew a walk and Akiyama immediately took the bat out of one of his best hitter’s hands by having Matsuda bunt. After a Tamura line out, Chunichi pitched around Hasegawa for Yamazaki, and he made ‘em pay with a sharp single to right, scoring Matsunaka. Then Kawasaki ended the rally with a very good at bat that resulted in a line out to left field. Score: 2-0 Softbank.
  • Ryosuke Hirata had an atrocious stolen base attempt in the fourth, after reaching base on a chopper in Sugiuchi’s direction that took a bad bounce.
  • Critical point number three: top of the seventh. With one out, Tony Blanco bounced a grounder back up the middle for a single. Kazuhiro Wada struck out without much resistance, but Hirata drew a walk to give the Dragons a runner in scoring position for the first time in the game. Then Sugiuchi struck out Atsushi Fujii to end the threat. It would be Chunichi’s last of the year. Score: 2-0 Softbank.
  • Like the rest of the series, Chunichi’s lineup went down without a fight. They scattered four singles (one of which was a swinging bunt) and a couple walks. And the seventh was the only inning when two runners on at the same time, which was the only time they got as far as 2nd base. In general they had bad at bats and didn’t force Softbank’s defense to make tough plays.
  • One of Chunichi’s coaches seemed to be using an iPad or something similar during the game.
  • Cabrera again struck out in a pinch hitting appearance, off Takuya Asao. His only good swing was on a first pitch fastball. He fouled it off, and he knew he missed his pitch.
  • Critical point number four: bottom of the seventh. Cabrera struck out, Kawasaki walked, Honda bunted him over (great play by Asao), and Uchikawa singled him in. I think this was the only time in the series that Akiyama got his desired result with a bunt. Score: 3-0 Softbank.
  • Softbank did threaten again with two outs in the eighth, but nothing came of it.
  • Brian Falkenborg took a line drive off his wrist in the top of the ninth, but was okay. In his place, a relay of Masahiko Morifuku and Tadashi Settsu closed out the win.
  • Softbank owner Masayoshi Son handed what looked like money to the guy standing next to him. Akiyama shed tears, and was tossed seven times in a ceremonial douage.
  • And so it was that the Hawks took game seven 3-0, and thus the Nippon Series, their first Nippon-ichi in eight years and first under Softbank’s ownership.

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My Team Japan

» 08 May 2011 » In npb » 27 Comments

Last week, I got a pretty good question Twitter — who would my Japanese national team be today?

It’s a good question, and a nice change of pace from the Darvish questions I frequently get, so I decided to write up a post about it. Coincidentally back when I was teaching English at the now-defuct NOVA, I used to do a lesson like this with my baseball fan students, and it was always a fun one.

I’m picking my team as if they would have to compete at the highest level, so as cool as I think the World Port Tournament is, I’m following the WBC roster rules. In summary, I get a maximum of 28 players, with a minimum of two catchers and 13 pitchers.

Outfield

No reason to deviate from the 2009 WBC starting outfield of Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome, and Norichika Aoki. For my fourth outfielder I’ll go with the gap power, strike zone judgement, and defensive prowess of Nippon Ham CF Yoshio Itoi.

Infield

There’s one easy call for me in the infield: Hiroyuki Nakajima at shortstop. At second base, I’ll start Tsuyoshi Nishioka, without regard to his current injury.

The corners are a little trickier. At third base, I like Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura’s bat and Eiichi Koyano’s glove, with Takahiro Arai striking a balance between the two. Choices are a bit limited on other side of the diamond, and Sho Nakata might be the best choice by the end of the year, but for now I prefer the contact bat of Seiichi Uchikawa.

This group of four gives me some flexibility. I can play the stronger defensive group with Koyano at third, Arai at first, and Okawari-kun DH’ing, or I can for the better offensive lineup and have Arai at third, Okawari-kun at first, and one of my other candidates batting DH. The presence of Uchikawa gives me the option of playing the hot hand as well.

On the bench, I’ll stash Yasuyuki Kataoka and Munenori Kawasaki, both of whom can pinch run, steal bases, get bunts down and play good defense all over the infield.

Designated Hitters

Nakamura would DH for my team when he’s not playing in the field. Hideki Matsui never participates in these things, but dammit,this is my dream team, so he’s in.

Catchers

Catcher is an easy call. Kenji Johjima starts, Shinnosuke Abe backs up.

Starting Pitchers

The first three starters are easy choices: Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda. The next three are pretty easy too: Masahiro Tanaka, Hideaki Wakui, Kenta Maeda. Hang on, no lefties in there, so I’ll call on Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and Masaru Takeda.

That’s nine starters, so some of these guys are are going to relieve. In particular, I like Tanaka as a power arm out of the bullpen, and Takeda as a lefty specialist.

Relief Pitchers

I’m rounding out my 13-man pitching staff with four full-time relievers for my squad: Kyuji Fujikawa, Takuya Asao, Hitoki Iwase and Tetsuya Yamaguchi.

Those last two are kind of risky picks, given Iwase’s struggles in the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that Yamaguchi got lit up for 10 home runs last year. But Iwase is a good pitcher, and I like Yamaguchi’s ability to get lefthanded batters out.

Notable absences

The last name I deleted off my list of candidates was Chihiro Kaneko (ignoring the fact that he’s been out injured all season). It was either him or Koyano, and I went with Koyano for his third base defense and gap bat. Kaneko’s righty starter skillset is already well-represented.

I would love to have another power bat on this team, but the only other guy I really thought about was Shuichi Murata. A few years ago, his inclusion would have been a no-brainer, but I prioritized defense, and his down numbers last season concern me. Nobuhiko Matsunaka would have been a great inclusion, but he is a shadow of his former self.

I gave some consideration to Koji Uehara and Takashi Saito, but they are too injury-prone to displace either Fujikawa or Asao, and too righthanded to bump Iwase or Yamaguchi.

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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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NPB in English: Goodbye to 2010

» 29 December 2010 » In nichibei, npb » Comments Off

As 2010 draws to a close, here’s a look at what the blogs and newspapers are saying about NPB:

  • Our own Patrick Newman joins Gen Sueyoshi from Yaku Baka in offering some thoughts on where the league is headed. The interview comes courtesy of Tokyoswallows.com.
  • Gen also has news from the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, including Nobuhiko Matsunaka’s pay cut, the largest ever in Japanese baseball.
  • Amazin’ Avenue has a look back at Benny Agbayani’s career and finds out what he’s doing these days. Benny was one of my favorite players on both sides of the Pacific.
  • Jason Coskrey takes a look at Japan’s aging crop of closers and who may be in line to replace them.
  • Jim Allen, in his Daily Yomiuri column, gets Jim Small’s thoughts on the NPB/MLB relationship moving forward.
  • Lastly, Wayne Graczyk looks back at a 2010 season filled with moments to remember.

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NPB Bullet Points: Petagine Lands, New Jobs for Scouts

» 28 May 2010 » In nichibei, npb » 3 Comments

It’s been all too long since I’ve done a bullet points round up… but here we go with another edition.

Only Japanese links today…

  • Roberto Petagine has made his NPB return, and looks set to get his first ichi-gun start with SoftBank on May 29, DHing and batting 6th. Petagine’s spot on the roster comes at the expense of Beom-Ho Lee, who was demoted the other day after hitting .218 in 34 games. Incumbent DH Nobuhiko Matsunaka has been even worse than Lee, struggling with a .197/.267/.318 slash line.
  • In other SoftBank news, Munenori Kawasaki has racked up enough service time for domestic NPB free agency. I can’t see him leaving unless it’s to go to MLB though.
  • The Yakult Swallows seemed to really want Kazuo Matsui.
  • Here I go rattling the cage again: the Yankees had two scouts watch Yu Darvish’s last start. This is the second time they’ve seen him this year.
  • Keiichi Yabu wants to play again, and is looking into playing in a US independent league. The idea of a return to the Hanshin Tigers came up, but Yabu seems to prefer the Indy leagues.
  • The Carp promoted Dominican lefty Dioni Soriano to ichi-gun, and he promptly pitched a scoreless inning of relief in his debut. Soriano took the long way to NPB — playing at the Carp’s Dominican Academy, moving to Japan as a renshusei (practice player), spending time in the Shikoku Island League, re-joining Hiroshima as an ikusei player, and finally signing a regular contract this season. If Soriano pans out, he gives the Carp a much-needed bullpen lefty.
  • Scouting news: SoftBank has hired Kent Blasingame as its US-based scout, and former Hanshin scout Tom O’Malley is working with the Wasserman Media Group with the intent of helping NPB players move to MLB. Blasingame’s father, Don, played in Japan and managed the old Nankai Hawks and later the Hanshin Tigers.

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2009 Foreign Player Rundown

» 11 November 2009 » In npb » 7 Comments

By my count, there were 78 foreign players (including ikusei players) under contract to NPB teams in 2009. Some of them will be back for 2010, others will not. So far, I’ve counted 18 players that will remain with their teams for next year, 36 that are leaving, and 24 that we’re still waiting to hear on.

Despite my best efforts, there is a reasonable probability that I left someone out or have an out-of-date detail. If you spot something of that nature, please leave a comment. On with the show…

Yomiuri

  • Staying: Dicky Gonzales, Wirfin Obispo, Levi Romero, Alex Ramirez, Seung-Yeop Lee, Marc Kroon
  • Gone: Adrian Burnside, Edgardo Alfonzo
  • Unknown: Seth Greisinger, Yi-Hao Lin, Yi-Fan Lee

Ramirez no longer counts against the foreign player limit, which gives the Giants a little extra flexibility. He’s already re-signed on a two-year deal. You have to figure that Obispo and Gonzales will be back, which would only leave two ichi-gun rosters spots available. I would guess that Kroon is more likely to return than Greisinger, and Lee is on his way out. Kroon will have his option picked up, while Lee’s contract doesn’t expire until next season. Greisinger didn’t appear in the Japan Series and it’s possible that he won’t be back. The Giants don’t need much this off season, though we’ll probably see them go after some depth guys.

Chunichi

  • Staying: Wei-Yin Chen, Tony Blanco, Nelson Payano, Maximo Nelson
  • Gone: Tomas de la Rosa, Byung-Gyu Lee
  • Unknown:

Chunichi got outstanding production out Chen and Blanco, and Blanco has already received a new two-year deal. Lee will likely head back to Korea, while de la Rosa will remain with the team in a scouting/advisory capacitiy. Chunichi has been scouting the Dominican and will probably sign some interesting Latin American prospects this winter.

Yakult

  • Staying: Chang Yong Lim
  • Gone: Ricky Barrett
  • Unknown: Hei Chun Lee, Jaime D’Antona, Aaron Guiel

Hanshin

  • Staying: Kai-Wang Cheng
  • Gone: Scott Atchison, Jeff Williams, Kevin Mench, Chris Resop, Aarom Baldiris
  • Unknown: Craig Brazell

Out of this group, only Brazell really contributed anything, and he wants to come back. Hanshin’s search for pitching has already been well-documented, with the Tigers looking to import a starter and two relievers. Hanshin may also try to bring a power-hitting rightfielder to Kansai as well, even if Brazell sticks around.

Hiroshima

  • Staying: Dioni Soriano
  • Gone: Scott Dohmann, Ben Kozlowski, Scott Seabol
  • Unknown: Scott McClain, Colby Lewis, Mike Schultz, Andy Phillips

Hiroshima would like to keep Lewis and Schultz around, but may not be able to, and if the Carp don’t keep Phillips they will have to find a bat to replace him. Hiroshima desperately needs lefthanded pitching, as well. I’m assuming Soriano, who is an ikusei player from the Carp’s Dominican Academy, will get a full year to prove himself.

Yokohama

  • Staying: Stephen Randolph
  • Gone: Tom Mastny, Les Walrond, Dan Johnson, Ryan Glynn
  • Unknown: Wei Chen, Jin Chao Wang

Yokohama is again going to need pitching help, though Randolph’s late-season performance was encouraging. The ‘Stars wave goodbye the rest of this group, though Johnson actually had a decent year aside from a poor batting average, and Walrond looked like he had good enough stuff to last in Japan to me.

Nippon Ham

  • Staying:
  • Gone: Ryan Wing, Luis Jimenez, Jason Botts, Brian Sweeney, Termel Sledge
  • Unknown:

This year’s Pacific League champion didn’t get much production from its foreign lineup outside of Sledge, so it’s no surprise to see this group go. Nippon Ham apparently wanted to keep Sledge, but were too far apart in negotations. They’ll have to find a way to replace his bat in the lineup, and I would expect them to look for pitching depth as well.

Rakuten

  • Staying:
  • Gone: Matt Childers
  • Unknown: Darrell Rasner, Marcus Gwyn, Fernando Seguignol, Todd Linden, Rick Short, On-Yu Lin

Rasner is already under contract for next year, so he’ll be on the payroll but possibly not the roster. Childers is gone after just three appearances with Rakuten’s top team. The rest of the foreign staff had performance issues — Gwyn’s era was pedestrian, Shorts average fell off after years of solid performance, Seguignol looked more like the Orix Seguignol than the Nippon Ham Seguignol, and Linden struck out about one out of every three times to the plate(!). So I could see new manager Marty Brown turning over this whole group. Rakuten could use bullpen help and a big bat to play an infield or outfield corner.

SoftBank

  • Staying: Jose Ortiz, DJ Houlton, Brian Falkenborg, Justin Germano
  • Gone: Kameron Loe, Chris Aguila
  • Unknown: Andrew Touisant

SoftBank got strong contributions from Ortiz, Houlton and Falkenborg, and can reasonably expect more of the same next season. Sadaharu Oh is said to be looking for one more power hitter, to complement Ortiz and supplant aging sluggers Hiroki Kokubo and Nobuhiko Matsunaka. I would expect them to grab a couple of ptichers for depth as well.

Seibu

  • Staying: Min-Che Hsu
  • Gone: Jonah Bayliss, John Wasdin, Hiram Bocachica
  • Unknown: Alex Graman

I’m just taking for granted that Hsu will hang around. He should be shedding his foreign player status one of these years anyway. Graman is probably gone, though he was lights-out in the bullpen when healthy, and I could see him getting another shot. Bayliss was okay for Seibu, so I was a little surprised to see him let go. Seibu will be looking for bullpen help and perhaps a first baseman this offseason. Pete LaForest had been in Seibu’s autumn camp but went home with an injury.

Chiba Lotte

  • Staying
  • Gone: Benny Agbayani, Chase Lambin, Gary Burnham
  • Unknown: Brian Sikorski, Juan Muniz

Agbayani departs after six years in Japan, and I would guess that he’ll retire to a life of scouting. I’ve read that Lotte might offer Sikorski a big pay cut, and thus risk losing him. I don’t expect Lambin or Burnham to be back, though I haven’t seen anything official. Lambin and Burnham won’t be back. Lotte will need a corner infield and outfield bats, and a pitcher or two to round things out.

Orix

  • Staying: Tuffy Rhodes
  • Gone:
  • Unknown: Jon Leicester, Alex Cabrera, Jose Fernandez, Greg LaRocca, Ryan Vogelsong

Rhodes and Cabrera both qualify as native players, so Orix could potentially carry up to six ‘foreign’ players on its active roster. Rhodes will be back, and the Buffaloes are supposedly adding a coaching title to his resume. I think Cabrera will make it back as well. There was speculation on Fernandez when he got hurt was that Orix probably wouldn’t bring him back, but that remains to be seen. I’m guessing Leicester and Vogelsong will be out as well. SoftBank has indicated an interest in LaRocca should he not get another year with Orix.

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2009 NPB Team Payroll Ranking

» 25 April 2009 » In international baseball, npb, sports business » 9 Comments

This ranking is based on calculating information from Daily Sports Online, and converting into US dollars at the April 24 dollar-yen exchange rate from Google Finance. The numbers are based on the start of the 2009 season. I hope this will be interesting and insightful for new NPB fans to learn how much Japanese teams pay their players.

Rank Team Payroll Players Under Contract Highest Paid Player
1 Yomiuri Giants $45.30M 78 Seung-Youp Lee, $6.2M
2 Hanshin Tigers $40.49M 74 Tomoaki Kanemoto, $5.6M
3 Softbank Hawks $34.11M 74 Nobuhiko Matsunaka, $5.1M
4 Chunichi Dragons $30.02M 70 Hitoki Iwase, $4.4M
5 Chiba Lotte Marines $27.67M 78 Naoyuki Shimizu, $2.4M
6 Seibu Lions $26.75M 68 Kazuhisa Ishii, $2.8M
7 Orix Buffaloes $26.04M 69 Tuffy Rhodes, $3.3M
8 Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters $24.97M 66 Atsunori Inaba, $3M
9  Tokyo Yakult Swallows $23.77M 71 Norichika Aoki,$ 2.6M
10 Yokohama Baystars $23.03M 68 Shuichi Murata, $2.6M
11 Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles $20.74M 67 Hisashi Iwakuma, $3M
12 Hiroshima Toyo Carp $17.71M 70 Katsuhiro Nagakawa, $1.6M
  • One note is that teams with more than 70 players on contract are from the existence of ikusei (training) players.

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Player Profile: Norichika Aoki

» 30 January 2009 » In npb » 4 Comments

From 1994-2000, Ichiro was the undisputed best hitter in Japan. After he left for Seattle, Hideki Matsui took over as Japan’s consensus batting king. After Matsui’s reign, you’d have to go with Nobuhiko Matsunaka, until 2005 when Norichika Aoki emerged. It’s hard to argue who was better in ’05, but in 2006 Aoki took over the title and has held it ever since.

I mainly focus on pitching with this site, just because I think pitching is the more interesting part of the game (baseball is the only game where the defense controls the ball). So this will be my first of comparatively few articles devoted to hitting, and why not start at the top?

Looking Back
Not too long ago, I was thumbing through Shukan Baseball’s 2003 draft guide, and I happened across Aoki’s profile toward the back of the section for college players. Shukan Baseball graded him an ‘A’ overall, noting that he had hit .400 in two consecutive seasons, but compared him to Tatsuya Ozeki
, a servicable contact-hitting outfielder with zero power. Aoki’s Waseda University teammate Takashi Toritani really viewed as the prize of the draft, and got a cover spot on that issue. Back then, the top college and industrial league players could choose which team to sign with, and Toritani chose to sign with Hanshin, while Aoki was selected in the fourth round of the draft by Yakult. By the end of 2005, it was obvious which team had the better draft. I didn’t see Aoki in college so I can’t explain why he was so underrated, but it does speak to the difficulty of drafing top amateurs. Perhaps teams were scared off by his small frame (5’8 or so).

While we’re here, other notables available in the 2003 draft included SoftBank closer Takahiro Mahara,  former-almost Red Sox farmhand Hayato Doue, Yomiuri starter Tetsuya Utsumi, Dodgers farmhand Robert Boothe, and Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse. Aoki’s “comparable” Ozeki is currently out of NPB work and looking to catch on with a US minor league team

Hitting
The lefty-hitting, center-fielding Aoki is the closest thing Japan has to another Ichiro
, and WBC viewers will probably get to hear the compared quite a bit. The comparisons aren’t really off-base, as the two have pretty similar games. Comparing Aoki to a Japan-era Ichiro, both players have a long stride in their swings, but Aoki gets into more of a crouch and appears to have a more stable lower body. But judge for yourself with some obligatory YouTube footage: here’s a clip chronicling the evolution of Aoki’s swing from 2005-2007, and a homerun Ichiro hit off of a rookie Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999. Both clips are in Japanese, but the video should speak for itself.

Aoki is a bit of a free-swinger, but he’s reduced his strikeouts and increased his slugging percentage in each year of his career. He’s also improved on his batting eye, walking about as much as he strikes out (his walk total actually surpassed his strikeouts in 2007). Another telling stat is that in 2008, 31.2% of his hits went for extra bases, up from 16.4% in his historic rookie year. Note also this improvement came while Yakult moved the fences back in their home, Jingu Stadium.

Let’s take a look at how he got his job done in 2008, courtesy of some analysis borrowed from the outstanding Data League site:

PA GB / FB Ratio GB Rate FB Rate Line Drive Rate GB BA FB BA Line Drive BA Hits to Left Hits to Center Hits to Right Hits on GB %
500 1.4 52.40% 37.50% 10.10% 0.288 0.423 0.775 28.50% 35.40% 36.10% 13.60%

So it’s pretty clear that Aoki uses the whole field, and does well when he gets the ball into the air. I’d suggest that he can improve further as his batting eye continues to develop and he can get pitches to drive. 

And More…
Aoki was a bright spot for Japan’s disappointing 2008 Olympic team, and will take to the international stage again in this year’s WBC, where he’ll start in center alongside Ichiro. Along with Yu Darvish, he’ll probably attract the most attention of any non-MLB player on Japan’s team.

Aoki just signed for 2009 with Yakult for 260m yen ($2.86m) after four rounds of negotiations. There had been some rumblings of Yakult wanting to sign him to a 10-year deal, but so far nothing’s come of it. I wish they’d make more than a nominal attempt to do it. Aoki asked to be posted a couple years ago, and Yakult of course said “no way”, so it would be nice to see them back that up with a little commitment. Yakult basically knows they have a guy that they’ll eventually lose to MLB, but they have a nine-year headstart on his services. Let’s see how creative they can be in retaining him and building a competitive team around him.

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10 Years for Aoki?

» 04 December 2008 » In npb » 1 Comment

When I first read this in Sanspo, I dismissed it as speculation. Then I saw it in Nikkan Sports and gave it a little more thought. 

The Yakult Swallows are apparently willing to consider a long term contract for star centerfielder Norichika Aoki — perhaps as much as ten years. Said team administrator Katsutoshi Oki: “If he says it himself we’ll consider it (a long term contract). Even 10 years.” When asked to respond, Aoki commented, “I’m happy to be a player they’ll say that about. I’ll think it over carefully from now”. 

I doubt anything will come of this, but in a sense it’s good that Yakult is willing to offer a long-term deal. Aoki is almost certainly the best hitter in Japan right now, and Yakult refused to post him a few years ago. Though obviously the Swallows won’t pay anything near what he would command in MLB, at least they are outwardly willing to commit to their star players. Signing a deal that runs at least until Aoki qualifies for free agency would make sense for both sides.

Korean righthander Sung-Min Cho holds the record for longest NPB contract, with his eight-year deal with Yomiuri that ran from 1996-2003.  Nobuhiko Matsunaka holds the record for Japanese players with his seven-year contract with SoftBank, signed after the 2006 season. The Giants offered Hideki Matsui an eight-year, ¥6bn ($60m) contract after the 2000 season, but he turned it down citing a desire to play in the bigs.

And just for fun, here’s a clip of Aoki’s entrance video, some defensive highlights, and every home run he hit in 2006.

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