Tag Archive > Takahiro Mahara

Spring Training Story Lines

» 03 February 2013 » In npb » 2 Comments

Spring has arrived in Okinawa, and NPB camps are underway. As with every new season, there are a number of stories developing. Here are a few to look out for:

  • How long before Nippon Ham settles on a position for Shohei Ohtani?

Part of Nippon Ham’s pitch to Ohtani was letting him pitch and hit. Ohtani has the physique and high school track record to make this a very interesting idea, but I suspect that reality will eventually settle in and he’ll wind up sticking to his best role. That said, here’s hoping he pulls it off. I’d love to see him come in from right field to close a game.

  • How will top draftee Shintaro Fujinami adapt to life as a pro?

There is no such positional debate about the other high school prize of last year’s draft, Hanshin pitcher Fujinami. The sentiment echoed throughout the Japanese media following the draft was the question of whether Hanshin has the ability to develop a pitcher with the potential of “Mount Fuji”; now we begin to find out.

  • How will Yomiuri draftee Tomoyuki Sugano perform after a year away from competition?

Sugano took a year off in 2012, after his rights were won by the Nippon Ham Fighters in the 2011 draft. Undeterred, the Giants grabbed him uncontested in the first round of the 2012 draft, and he immediately signed. If he’s some approximation of this, the Giants will be quite happy he was insistent on playing for them.

  • Which of the bari bari Major Leaguers will sink and which will swim?

Andruw Jones, Bryan LaHair, Casey McGehee, Jose Lopez, Vincente Padilla and Nyjer Morgan are among this year’s NPB imports. It’s always hard to predict who will do well in Japan, but I’m particularly pessimistic about Padilla and Morgan.

  • Who will step in to Hiroyuki Nakajima’s shoes for Seibu?

History repeats itself. 10 years ago, Nakajima stepped forward as the replacement for star shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who had departed for the Majors. Now Seibu finds itself needing a replacement for Nakajima. It looked like Hideto Asamura could emerge as a successor, but he failed to impress last season. A return to form from speedster Yasuyuki Kataoka would be welcome, and perhaps Esteban German could see time at shortstop.

  • Who is Eddy Rivera?

Billed a “mystery” player, Rivera is in camp with the Chunichi Dragons on a trial basis (“testo sei“). Rivera has Dominican Summer League experience with academy affiliates of the Cardinals and Padres, but hasn’t appeared in a game since 2010.

Rivera stepped off his flight from the Dominican and immediately impressed with his velocity. Chunichi has found Latin American bargains such as Tony Blanco and Enyelbert Soto in recent years, we’ll see if lightning strikes again.

  • Has Orix improved?

Orix recently grabbed headlines for acquiring star outfielder Yoshio Itoi in a trade with Nippon Ham, but has made a couple other interesting moves this offseason. The Buffaloes signed 2B Keiichi Hirano, picked up starter Shun Tono in a trade with Yomiuri, and snagged closer Takahiro Mahara as compensation for losing free agent starter Hayato Terahara. On the negative side of the ledger, the B’s parted ways with talented, but health-challenged starters Terahara Hiroshi Kisanuki, as well as Alfredo Figaro. Orix is still on the outside looking in at a top-3 finish, but if everything goes absolutely right for them, they could make things interesting.

  • Has Yokohama DeNA improved?

DeNA’s offseason largely consisted of poaching Tony Blanco, Jorge Sosa and Enyelbert Soto from Chunichi, getting OF Hitoshi Tamura back from Softbank, and signing Nyjer Morgan. All of these moves, with the probable exception of Morgan, improve the Baystars, but none really addresses the team’s main weaknesses of the starting rotation and middle infield. The real step forward will have to be lead by the ‘Stars young players: 3B Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, C Shuto Takajo, pitchers Yuki Kuniyoshi and Kisho Kagami, and 2012 draftees IF Hiroyuki Shirasaki and pitcher Kazuki Mishima.

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Game Notes: Nippon Series Games 3, 4, 5

» 19 November 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

So the day job kept me busy this week and I didn’t completely dissect these games or even take great notes, but I do have a few observations to share on the Nagoya leg of this year’s Nippon Series journey.

Game 3 – Softbank wins, 4-2:

  • Moving Tadashi Settsu into the rotation was probably the smartest move Softbank made this season. He is, simply put, a good pitcher. He throws strikes and always seems to make the right pitch.
  • Chunichi starter Maximo Nelson, on the other hand…. has a good arm but lacks Settsu’s polish. in Game three he seemed a little rough and let himself get into a lot of hitter’s counts.
  • Hitoki Tamura, who I ruthlessly criticized for his lackluster at bats in games one and two, went 3-4 with a home run. So did catcher Toru Hosokawa.
  • One of the fans in Softbank’s ouen-dan section kind of looked like Nagisa Arakaki.
  • Softbank manager Koji Akiyama took it easy on the bunting in game three and was rewarded with 12 hits from his lineup, nine at the expense of Nelson.
  • After taking losses in games one and two, Softbank closer Takahiro Mahara was benched in favor of Brian Falkenborg. Falkenborg spared Akiyama’s blood pressure by recording a save.

Game 4 – Softbank wins, 2-1:

  • I’ll have to admit that while I watched this game, I didn’t play particularly close attention to it. Michael Westbay has a much better recap.
  • Softbank got all the scoring they needed in the first. After allowing Softbank to string together a couple of singles and score a run, Chunichi starter Yudai Kawai induced a double play ball, but shortstop Masahiro Araki held on to his throw for too long and it skipped wide of first baseman Tony Blanco. This allowed Softbank’s second run to score and that was all they would need.
  • The hero for Softbank was corkscrewing lefty reliever Masahiko Morifuku, who bailed starter DJ Houlton out of a no-out, bases loaded jam in the 6th. Morifuku is a lot of fun to watch.
  • Falky recorded a six-out save in this one.

Game 5 – Softbank wins, 5-0:

  • Wei Yin Chen showed better velocity in Game 5 than he did in the series opener, but overall wasn’t nearly as good. He wasn’t particularly sharp with his breaking stuff and didn’t even throw it much, and worked up in the zone with his fastball. Overall he was a lot more hittable. He got singled to death in the 7th and 8th innings, but he was throwing pitches that Softbank’s hitters could make contact with.
  • Possibly the head-scratching-est move of the Series was made by Ochicai in the 8th. With the bases loaded and none out, Ochiai pulled Chen in favor of reliever Junichi Kawahara. Removing Chen was the right move, why bring in retread Kawahara instead of bullpen ace Takuya Asao? Chunichi was down 2-0 at that point, but still. Kawahara was on the mound for Softbank’s next three runs, all charged to Chen.
  • Motonobu Tanishige finished the game 0-4 and has still gotten hit safely in the Nippon Series.
  • Masaaki Koike left the game in the top of the fourth, after making a great, wall-crashing catch on a long fly ball off the bat of Nobuhiro Matsuda.
  • Softbank starter Hiroki Yamada comes close to violating NPB’s ban on two-stage deliveries with his double clutch windup. I don’t think I had previously seen him pitch this year. He wasn’t totally consistent with the double-clutch, but he did manage to keep Chunichi’s lineup quiet through six innings of work.
  • The one bullet Yamada dodged was in 6th, when he surrendered a double to Araki and Kazuhiro Ibata pulled a hard line drive just foul down the third base line before bouncing out to Kawasaki at shortstop.
  • Alex Cabrera looked awful yet again as a pinch hitter in the 7th.
  • Settsu pitched an inning of relief in the 8th, after having started game three, and with a  5-0 lead Akiyama let Mahara mop up the 9th.

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Game Notes: Nippon Series Games 1 & 2

» 14 November 2011 » In npb » 9 Comments

Lots of text today, so no intro here, just a few observations I’ve made about the Nippon Series so far. The ordering might be a little out of whack but so be it.

Game 1 — Chunichi wins 2-1 in ten innings:

  • Tsuyoshi Wada took a no-hitter into 7th, when he surrendered a home run to Kazuhiro Wada. Wada nibbled a bit and Chunichi had better at-bats the third time through the lineup, but he had his command and only gave up one hard hit ball aside from Kazuhiro’s home run.
  • Wei Yin Chen looked different than every other time I’ve seen him, including the two games I watched this year. The Chen that I’m used to throws a fastball in the 145-150 kmph range, a slider, a two-seam/shuuto with some late horizontal movement, and a forkball with inconsistent command, and works up and down the inside and outside parts of the zone. The Chen I saw on Saturday gave up a lot of fastball velocity, maxing out at 145 kmph but frequently working below 140 kmph, but with better command than usual. Yahoo’s data called Chen’s primary breaking pitch a slider, but it moved more like a changeup and worked extremely well.
  • Wada’s line: 8 IP, 29 BF, 119 pitches, 2 hits, 1 HR, 8 K, 2 BB, 1 R, 1 ER.
  • Chen’s line: 8 IP, 29 BF, 124 pitches, 4 hits, 0 HR, 11 K, 2 BB, 1 R, 1 ER.
  • Softbank’s lineup was disappointing. I thought they would start to recognize Chen’s good breaking stuff and wait for his average fastballs as the game progressed, but they actually got worse after their first time through the lineup. Hitoshi Tamura and Munenori Kawasaki were particularly bad in the later innings.
  • Yahoo Dome’s artificial turf looked like a pretty bad playing surface. Kawasaki took an error on a hard line drive that seemed to take an odd bounce, and then made a nice play on a softer hit up the middle that took an unpredictable bounce.
  • Chunichi won this game with home runs: the aforementioned Wada’s no-hitter breaker-upper, and Masaaki Koike’s winning shot in the 10th off an errant Takahiro Mahara forkball. Koike’s home run immediately followed some stats on the television broadcast about the lack of homers in NPB this season.
  • Mini-rant: Kawasaki led off the bottom of the first with a single, and what’s manager Koji Akiyama do? Immediately bunt him over, with a good on-base guy. I get that these are tight games, but why take the bat of your guy’s hands in the first?
Game 2 — Chunichi again wins 2-1 in ten innings:

  • Started by two of my favorite pitchers to watch: Toshiya Sugiuchi and Kazuki Yoshimi.
  • Sugiuchi didn’t quite have his best swing-and-miss stuff, like the last couple of times I’ve seen him. He had his pop-out stuff.
  • Sugiuchi’s one big mistake pitch was a positively fat 136 kmph fastball up in the zone in the 7th inning, which Ryosuke Hirata smacked off the left field fence for a double. Another meter or so and that ball would have been gone and the Dragons wouldn’t have needed Mahara to choke again.
  • Yoshimi wasn’t really at his best, but he generated a ton of groundballs and quieted each of Softbank’s threats until leaving with the bases loaded in the 7th. Takuya Asao mostly bailed him out, allowing only one run on a Kawasaki single, but the damage might have been worse if Softbank’s third base coach had sent Tamura instead of holding him at third. It looked like he had a chance to score.
  • Softbank again played a conservative game — lots of sacrifice bunting, holding Tamura.
  • Chunichi Motonobu Tanishige still has a good arm at age 40.
  • Hiromitsu Ochiai had the umpires check the tape on Seiichi Uchikawa’s bat in the third inning. Uchi changed bats, then lined to center on Yoshimi’s first pitch.
  • Softbank’s lineup isn’t executing. In game two they had runners in on base in each of the first five innings, including runners in scoring position in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, and failed to score each time.
  • Mahara wasn’t that bad in game 2. He lost, but his only really poor at-bat was when he walked Kazuhiro Ibata without really challenging him.
  • Highlights from 1999 Daiei-Chunichi Nippon Series — Akiyama was awesome as a player. Rodney Pedraza showed up in the highlights too.
  • For some reason I kept expecting to see Norihiro Nakamura emerge from Chunichi’s bench during game 2.
  • Another mini-rant: After Hiroki Kokubo lead off the 2nd with a double, Akiyama had Yuya Hasegawa, another good contact hitter, bunt him to third. Kokubo was stranded there after another listless strikeout by Tamura and ground out from Shuhei Fukuda. Akiyama bunted Kokubo over after his leadoff single in the 4th as well, with equivalent futility. Ironically the bunt attempt I agreed with was with Tamura in the 7th, but he couldn’t get it down and wound up singling with two strikes.
Overall, I’d say that Ochiai is out-managing Akiyama so far. The Dragons are clearly making better adjustments at the plate throughout the game, and though Akiyama can’t really be faulted for Mahara choking, Ochiai has created better matchups with his bullpen.

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Softbank Agrees With Two Righties

» 29 July 2011 » In nichibei, npb » 1 Comment

Sports Hochi reports that the Softbank Hawks have reached basic agreements with two righthanders: veteran Yhency Brazoban and prospect Edison Barrios.

Brazoban’s addition was apparently triggered by the shoulder-pain induced absence of closer Takahiro Mahara. Softbank player development director Itaru Kobayashi is quoted as saying: “we have great expectations for him as closer. If possible we’d like him to come to Japan this month.” It feels like Brazoban has been around forever but he’s only 30.

Barrios is by far the more interesting signing. At age 22 he has three years of experience in the Pirates’ organization, but never made it out of the Venezuelan Summer League. This year he’s been a teammate of Jackson Melian’s and Mac Suzuki’s with the independent Kobe Suns, where he’s posted a 1.66 ERA in 48.2 innings pitched. Softbank saw enough to give him a shihaika (70-man roster) contract, and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops.

 

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WBC Roster Set

» 22 February 2009 » In international baseball, mlb, npb » 5 Comments

Japan manager Tatsunori Hara has settled on a WBC roster. Here it is:

Pitchers
Yu Darvish
Takahiro Mahara
Masahiro Tanaka
Hideaki Wakui
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Minoru Iwata
Hisashi Iwakuma
Kyuji Fujikawa
Tetsuya Utsumi
Satoshi Komatsu
Shunsuke Watanabe
Tetsuya Yamaguchi
Toshiya Sugiuchi

Catchers
Kenji Johjima
Shinnosuke Abe
Yoshiyuki Ishihara

Infielders
Hiroyuki Nakajima
Yasuyuki Kataoka
Akinori Iwamura
Michiro Ogasawara
Shuichi Murata
Munenori Kawasaki

Outfielders
Kosuke Fukudome
Norichika Aoki
Seiichi Uchikawa
Yoshiyuki Kamei
Atsunori Inaba
Ichiro

(SI has the AP article as well)

Notable departures are Nobuhiko Matsunaka (achilles problem), Kenta Kurihara (affected by elbow surgery last year), Toru Hosokawa (right shoulder pain), Tsuyoshi Wada, and Takayuki Kishi. Health reasons were not cited for Wada and Kishi.

Overall, the roster looks pretty good to me, though it’s somewhat short on power.The inclusion of Yoshiyuki Kamei makes no obvious sense to me, but I could see him as a defensive replacement/pinch runner. The only other questionable pick I see is Shunsuke Watanabe. He’s been hit or miss in NPB, and as I recall he wasn’t that great in the 2006 WBC.

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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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