Since Japanese baseball sites lack in depth statistical data and analysis, and because I don’t have much time, this is more or less just a poorly written cursory glance at the upcoming 2008 Pacific League season in NPB.
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
2007 Record: 79 – 60 – 5 (.568)
2007 RS – RA: 526 – 489
Coming: Shugo Fujii, Hajime Miki, Terrmel Sledge
Going: Satoru Kanemura, Yoshitaka Hashimoto, Takehiko Oshimoto, Keizoh Kawashima
Unlike last year when the team faced the great unknown with the departure of their best hitter (Michihiro “Guts” Ogasawara to the Giants) and their wacky team leader Shinjo (retirement), the Fighters go into 2008 defending their second consecutive PL crown without losing any significant pieces from their roster. In fact, the team has added a major league calibre bat in the terrifically named Terrmel Sledge. But it looks like he has a thing for pitchers parks, as he has gone from Washington’s JFK to San Diego’s Petco to now the Fighters’ cavernous Sapporo Dome. He has hit significantly better on the road than at his pitchers park homes in each of his past 3 seasons (a difference of at least .180 in OPS), but his move to the pitcher friendly PL instead of the hitter friendly CL may do him in. It will be interesting to see.
The Fighters can still finish in 1st without significant contribution from Sledge, as long as he’s not dragging the team down, as shown in last year’s championship run thanks to its superior pitching (and probably defence), despite being the lowest scoring team in the league. The value of airtight pitching and defence surely increases in the postseason, though at the same time it can be easy to see difficulties for the Fighters if the offence remains last in the league, even though pitching and defence can repeat its success of allowing the fewest runs in the league two seasons running. The team outperformed its Pythagorean expectation of .536 (77-67) but that is not a surprise with its strong tactical, pitching, and defensive games in a pitchers park. This is a team that won the league while scoring the fewest runs, after all.
Chiba Lotte Marines
2007 Record: 76 – 61 – 7 (.555)
2007 RS – RA: 629 – 525
Coming: Brian Sikorski, Winston Abreu
Going: Yasuhiko Yabuta, Masahide Kobayashi, Soichi Fujita
2 seasons removed from the glorious 2005 Japan Series championship under the guidance of Bobby Valentine, the Marines have dismantled their famed YFK relief corps of Yabuta, Fujita, and Kobayashi with the first man going to the Kansas City Royals via free agency and the second going to the Yomiuri Giants via untendered contract and the last man going to the Cleveland Indians also via FA. Out of the 3, Yabuta may be missed the most as Kobayashi had become known for creating unnecessary drama in the 9th and his ERA climbed to 3.61 after 2 seasons of about 2.5, and Fujita completely lost it last season with a 12.64 ERA over 31 appearances (logging only 15.2 IP) and reports out of Giants camp this season indicates that he still hasn’t found it.
The two newcomers of significance are Brian Sikorski and Winston Abreu. The former is a known commodity in Japan and is expected to be productive providing about a 3.00 ERA in relief, and Winston Abreu figures to be similarly effective if he can successfully translate his recent AAA game that gave him 2.48 and 1.20 ERA in the last two seasons (and not the his 6.81 ERA in limited major league service).
Solid pitching is led by Yoshihisa Naruse (an amazing 16-1 and 1.82 ERA) and Hiroyuki Kobayashi (2 consecutive seasons of 10+ wins and ~2.7 ERA). The offense is forced to rely on Julio Zuleta, Jose Ortiz, and Benny Agbayani for power. Ortiz came was signed in June last season to cover for Zuleta’s injury and it will be beneficial to the team to have them both in the lineup, even if all 3 players are only good for about .800 OPS.
The Pythagorean expectation of the 2007 club was .589 (85-59) so the team underperformed their expectations slightly and is fully capable of making a repeat visit to the playoffs, the question is, are they capable of winning the pennant?
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
2007 Record: 73 – 66 – 5 (.525)
2007 RS – RA: 575 – 508
Coming: Shota Ohba, Tetsuya Matoyama, Jeremy Powell, Dennis Houlton, Michael Restovich
This is another team that underperformed their Pythagorean expectation in 2007 (.562, 81-63) and is fully capable of winning it all this year. The Hawks have a slew of arms and Ohba, the coveted first round draft pick won out of 6 teams, and Powell, somehow being punished for the continued incompetence of the Orix front office by being banned until June, will only add to their depth. Houlton (3.83 minor league ERA) and Restovich (.862 minor league OPS) are rather uninspiring, but the team is capable of advancing far in the postseason without them.
The parade of arms continues with ace materials Nagisa Aragaki (7-10 and 3.60 ERA after a 13-5 and 3.01 ERA in 2006 from this 2003 second round pick), Tsuyoshi Wada (12+ wins each in the past 3 seasons, along with sub-3.00 ERAs in the last 2 seasons, 1st round pick in 2003), Kazumi Saitoh (fantastic 2006 with 18-5 and 1.75 ERA, battled injuries but still posted 2.74 ERA in 72.1 IP last season, had off season shoulder surgery) and Toshiya Sugiuchi (recently had 2 sub-2.5 ERA 15+ win seasons sandwiched by a 7-5 and 3.53 ERA season). Though, Saitoh and Wada are coming off surgeries so whether they’ll return to form and when that’ll be are some questions.
The offense has some definite question marks. The fragile Hitoshi Tamura lost his power stroke somewhere along the way from Yokohama to Fukuoka. But this should not come as a surprise when a player moves from one of the most extreme hitters parks to one of the most pitcher friendly stadiums. Nobuhiko Matsunaka saw a huge drop off in his power numbers (his OPS since 2004 are 1.179, 1.075, .981, .798) he’ll need a rebound to be a useful useful on firstbase. But having registered his lowest BA/OBP/SLG since his rookie season, pitchers may have figured out that they can now challenge him without paying too high a price. Hiroki Kokubo had a revival season hitting .277/.338/.494 in 2007 after returning home to the Hawks from the Giants where he hit .256/.325/.458 in his last season in hitter friendly Tokyo Dome and CL. But his numbers still can’t hide the decline that comes with his age, 36.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
2007 Record: 67 – 75 – 2 (.472)
2007 RS – RA: 575 – 676
Going: Kazuo Fukumori
The Eagles have been making steady improvements ever since joining the league in 2005, being forced to construct their roster out of the Kintetsu-Orix merger scrapheap (winning percentage over the last 3 seasons are .281, .356, and .472 and the team finished out of the cellar in respectable 4th place in only its 3rd season). The team should get better as sophomores Masahiro Tanaka (11-7, 3.82ERA, 9.47 K/9, and 3.28 BB/9 in 186.1 IP) and Satoshi Nagai (7-7, 3.61ERA, 6.94 K/9, and 3.61 BB/9 in 127 IP) both had solid rookie seasons in 2007. If former aces Hisashi Iwakuma (5-5, 3.40ERA, 8.4 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9 in 90 IP) and Yasuhiro Ichiba (5.37 ERA in 2007 in 58.2 IP after 4.37 ERA in 193.2 IP the year before) can regain their health, along with the growth of former Kintetsu 1st round high school pick Hideaki Asai (8-8, 3.12 ERA, 6.67 K/9, and 2.49 BB/9 in 144.1 IP, his first 100+ IP season), the Eagles should have a solid rotation.
Closer Fukumori was signed away by the Texas Rangers, but the 31 year old struggled to a 4.75 ERA 17 save season in 2007, so he may not be missed. It will be interesting to see how much the 39 year old Takeshi Yamasaki will see a drop off in his numbers after his best season in 11 years with .261/.359/.577 and 43 HR 108 RBI in 2007 (his best year since 1996 performance of 39 HR 107 RBI and .322/.382/.625), a realistic expectation might be something north of .800 OPS as he has fluctuated .784, .690, .867, .764, and .936 over the last 5 seasons in the PL (last 3 with the Eagles).
Saitama Seibu Lions
2007 Record: 66 – 76 – 2 (.465)
2007 RS – RA: 564 – 585
Coming: Kazuhisa Ishii, Shinya Okamoto, Hitoshi Taneda, Mattew Kinney, Craig Brazell, Hiram Bocachica
Going: Kazuki Fukuchi, Alex Cabrera, Kazuhiro Wada
The club has added the prefectural name of Saitama to their name starting this season, along with other local activities, in an effort to lay better roots down in the local community.
Lions lost the big bats of Cabrera and Wada, even though they’re power numbers have been declining as the greybeards aged in their late 30s, their bats were most productive ones in the lineup and their .370+ OBP and near .500 SLG will be missed. The team has attempted to plug these holes with the signings of Brazell and Bocachica. The former is absolutely crushed AAA pitching to the tune of .307/.337/.605 but he lacks plate discipline and will get into deep funks during the PL seasons while adjusting to Japanese pitching. Bocachica OPSed at over 1.000 in his last 2 AAA seasons, and knows how to get on base, so he carries more hope of becoming the next Cabrera. But of course, this depends on if they manage to adjust to Japanese baseball, and that remains to be seen.
Seibu also added a serviceable league average arm and veteran presence in Ishii who will dependably eat up innings. And depending on the performance of the imports, a breakout season by Takeya “Okawari” Nakamura (22 HR and .603 SLG in 2005, .359 OBP in 2006) will be required if the team wants to contend for a playoff spot.
2007 Record: 62 – 77 – 5 (.446)
2007 RS – RA: 536 – 585
Coming: Osamu Hamanaka, Katsuaki Furuki, Alex Cabrera, Eric Junge
Going: Tetsuya Matoyama, Hiroaki Ohnishi
The Buffaloes remain the sole truly corporate team in the league, not embracing the local hometown spirits displayed by the remaining PL teams. However, this befits the owner Miyauchi, who is responsible, along with reviled Giants owner Watanabe, for trying to contract NPB down to 10 teams in an effort of cost cutting without putting in significant efforts to better market the product first to increase revenue, a small minded man.
The aging squad added oft-injured Hamanaka (collapsed to .598 OPS after .845 in 2006) and Cabrera (steady decline in OPS over the last three seasons with 1.013, .968, .889, but he should still be useful). The club signed Junge, who is totally uninspiring with a career minor league line of 4.11 ERA, 6.86 K/9, and 3.24 BB/9, but he is a true band-aid late signing after the team had botched the Powell contract and lost him to the Hawks.
Mamoru Kishida, Yoshihisa Hirano, Chihiro Kaneko, and Tom Davey provide a pretty solid pitching core, and the cleanup of Greg LaRocca (29 doubles, 27 HR, and .891 OPS last season), Dusty Rhodes (42 HR and 1.006 OPS after being out of NPB for a year), and Cabrera will instil fear into any pitcher. Come to think of it, this team can improve this season.
With no significant additions or subtractions to their lineups, we’ll probably see the same 3 teams in the playoffs again in 2008. That’ll be the Fighters, Hawks, and Marines, though the order in which they finish will probably depend a lot more on injuries, breakout performances, and the number of players over- or underperforming their expectations, than the strength of these teams on paper. The growth of the Eagles is intriguing, but now that they have a good arsenal of arms, they’ll need to start acquiring quality bats to compete with the big boys. The Lions and Buffaloes are relying on stop gap veterans, both domestic and imports, to bolster their teams, not very encouraging, but it looks like the Buffaloes improved more and might battle the Eagles for 4th. In retrospect, since this is a pitchers league, using ERA+ probably would’ve been a better indicator than being caught up with all the ERAs around or below 3.00, oh well, too late now, I don’t have time to re-research and rewrite :P