Today we continue our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season. After checking in on the infield last time, we look at the outfield and general offense today. The second half of the series will look at starting pitchers and the relief squad. Alright, let’s finish up the fielders and bats!
This job belongs to none other than Matt Murton. The man just signed a new one-year contract worth a reported ¥450M (~US$3.8M). He has also been the team’s most consistent hitter for years, winning the batting title in 2014 with a .338 average. He has decent plate discipline, middling power and minimal speed. His work in the field is adequate but not spectacular. He is occasionally subbed out for either a defensive or base running replacement late in close games, a strategy that I have yet to see pay dividends. On one occasion, in fact, he was replaced by one of the scrawny speedsters and was unavailable when his last turn in the order came up (in a crucial situation, of course).
Last year, save for a spell when he was injured, Yamato took hold of this position. It was actually just the first year he was a registered outfielder, though he has spent nearly every active inning on the big team out there. Let’s start with the positive. The man won a Gold Glove for his incredible fielding work. He was consistent all year, but really drew attention to his prowess in the playoffs, making countless diving catches and gunning down a runner to save a run as well. Now unfortunately for Yamato, his bat did not follow his glove in excellence. His BUNT did, as he led the league with 50 sacrifice bunts. More on this figure/strategy later. In the meantime, Yamato finished the year hitting a mediocre .264, which was actually a much leaner .235 until a September surge (28-for-71). According to an interview in the February Monthly Tigers magazine, Yamato recognizes that he needs to wield a more productive stick. He vows to get on base more, steal more bases and drop down more sacrifice bunts. How he’ll have time to do all that is beyond me, but of course I wish him all the best.
Things could get a little interesting here. Aging veteran Kosuke Fukudome holds the post for the time being, and while his numbers show little to justify him getting it back automatically in 2015, he provided plenty of clutch moments down the stretch (particularly against the Carp) and has a keen eye. He also has history on his side. The Tigers love their aging stars who once saw more glorious days. Can Fukudome turn back the hands of time one last time and produce for one more year? His fielding is still quite solid for someone of his age, and there is little chance he will be replaced late in games, unless he is feeling fatigued.
The Tigers have plenty of players who are eager to get more playing time in the outfield. Right out of the gates at this year’s spring training, 2014 3rd pick Taiga Egoshi has impressed fans and coaches alike with his combination of power, speed and work ethic. Could he get some playing time in center this early in his time with the team? The jury is still out, and the preseason is still less than half over. Hayata Itoh has been with the team for a few years and shows some promise to be a starter someday. However, he also has poor discipline at the plate and gives the Koshien faithful headaches with his play in the field. Unless he steps things up this spring (and I have heard no such word myself), he does not appear to be a threat this year. Shunsuke was the main replacement for Yamato last year when the latter injured his obliques. He is, in my opinion, a poor man’s Yamato. Decent fielder, decent speed, no power. None. He does everything Yamato does but just not as well. Veteran Keisuke Kanoh may be used primarily as a pinch hitter, though he could fill in for one of the corner outfielders should the need arise. Shintaro Yokota is another name that is getting some buzz at the camps. He fits more of the power hitter mold, though we have yet to really see if this power translates against the NPB’s best pitchers. Finally, guys like Ryosuke Ogata, Kohei Shibata, Ken’ichi Tagami are still trying to find their niche with the team.
My gut feeling tells me the Tigers are going to roll the same three guys out as last year. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Yamato and Fukudome need to step up their production. Even if they do, though, the outfield lacks a true slugger that can change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat. Murton looks to be in great shape and I hope to see him hit at least 20 HRs, but this group as a whole does not inspire too much fear in opposing pitchers.
Last season the Tigers got shut out a whopping 14 times (including twice in the playoffs). They also ranked second-to-last in team home runs with 94. The team batting average was .264, good for 3rd out of six Central League teams. They stole 55 bases as a team (dead last), and got caught 37 times. Even the team’s sacrifice bunt total (121) ranked third and its success rate (.801) a disappointing last in the CL. Perhaps the lone bright spot is that our hitters showed better discipline than any other, walking 483 times (1st) and striking out 1,009 times (4th). Only the Dragons and Swallows had better walk-to-strikeout ratios.
Still, the huge underlying problem is run production. Putting up that many bagels is unhealthy for any team’s fate, and even more alarming is the whopping 27 times they managed just a single run in a game (playoffs included). Their record in these games: 3-37-1. Where is the power game? Take Mauro Gomez’s 26 out of the picture and there’s only one other Tiger in double digits (Murton’s 14). Where’s the speed game? Take away Hiroki Uemoto’s 20 and you’ve got fewer than CL leader Takayuki Kajitani (DeNA) stole as an individual (39).
For all the talk of the psychological importance of that first run in a game, the Uemoto lead-off hit/walk followed by the Yamato sacrifice bunt grew really predictable and boring, really quick. Why not let him try to steal second more? (Granted, his success rate was a mere 66.7%.) While reading an interesting book by Masayuki Kakefu (Tigers’ legendary slugger) and Suguru Egawa (Giants’ legendary pitcher), I found something interesting. Egawa said that the sacrifice bunt often gave the pitcher a psychological edge. “Whew, they’re giving me a free out here. I think I can get out of this.” Now, not every pitcher will get out of every jam, but is there statistical proof that a runner on second with one out gives you better odds to score than a runner on first with no outs? I say use the strategy strategically, not mechanically! More hit-and-runs, more stolen base attempts, more attempts to hit the long ball! (Legend Kanemoto was quoted today as telling Egoshi, Yohkawa and Yokota to forget trying to hit .300 and instead try to hit 30 HRs. Amen to that!)
The batting order could also use some shuffling, in my amateur opinion. Matt Murton broke Ichiro’s record for hits in a season in 2010 with 214. He didn’t even lead the league in batting average that year, though it was higher (.349) than this year’s .338. The reason he could do it? He was the leadoff hitter! He got a ton more at bats! If you’re not going to let your leadoff hitter steal second, then you have to get your BEST hitter in there! More hits, more times on base, more chances at runs! Are you telling me Murton can’t reach second on a Yamato sacrifice bunt? Or that he won’t score from second on a Toritani single? I am not suggesting Murton bad lead all year, or that it will solve all their hitting problems. Creativity is the key. Get these players’ skill levels up, and let them play exciting baseball! I look forward to seeing a rejuvenated Tigers lineup this season! Without it, the team cannot possibly hope to replicate the magic of 2003 and 2005, let alone 1985.