Monthly Tigers Magazine – August 2015

The August edition hit the stands today. My copy arrived in the mail last night. It came with five player cards: Shintaro Fujinami, Akira Iwamoto, Mauro Gomez, Shunsukeand legendary import Randy Bass. Each of the next 3 issues will come with 5 more cards.

2015AugustCoverHere is the table of contents for this issue:

  • Opening feature: Breaking Free from the CL Pack!
  • Interview: Masayuki Kakefu – Ultra Summer Exhibit
  • Close-up Interview: Kosuke Fukudome
  • Another Side View: Fukudome
  • Pinstripe Report: Muddled CL Summer
  • Tigers’ Diary: Masayuki Kakefu (Part 2 of 2)
  • Players’ Note: Yuto Morikoshi
  • Diary Interview: Ryota Arai
  • Ex-Tigers Questionnaire #3
  • Mazda All-Star Game Report
  • Tigers Farm Report
  • Take Care of my Son: Yuya Yokoyama
  • Tigers Data Analysis
  • Short Q & A: Koki Moriya
  • Teammates Talk About: Fumiya Araki
  • Advice Column: Katsuo Hirata

As always, if any of these really interest you and you’d like an English translation (or summary), drop your request in the comments section! I can’t promise anything but I’ll do what I can!

Book Review – Throwback

throwbackcover

I have tried to focus on NPB and specifically the Hanshin Tigers as much as possible since last year. However, as someone who has mostly followed the game on paper for the better part of the last two decades, I thought I needed to get an education from someone who played the game on the field for nearly that length of time. Jason Kendall teamed up with Lee Judge to write Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played. While some of what he says is basic and known to most observant fans, he also goes into a decent amount of detail about some of the finer aspects of the game that go unnoticed by fans, especially those watching on TV whose angle is limited by what the camera shows us.

Jason Kendall was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals from 1996 to 2010. Catchers, as you may know, understand the game better than almost any other position player, thanks to their vantage point and the need for them to know many more details than the rest of the team.

Through the book, Kendall mixes anecdotes with actual practical things for fans to look for whether in attendance at a game or watching on TV. He starts with pitchers (starters and relievers alike), how they like to have the game called for them, what makes a tough pitcher, what makes it easy for catchers to work with pitchers, etc. He then goes into the catchers’ mentality, followed by the infield, outfield, hitters, base runners, managers and the rest.

Each section gives the reader some new insight into how the game is really played, and how it goes beyond one man throwing the ball, another trying to hit it hard, and everyone trying to score runs. The amount of detail and thinking that goes into baseball is beyond what many of us think about as we watch the game.

考える野球術coverI actually read this in conjunction with a Japanese book called 考える野球術 (Thinking Baseball Techniques), which talked about many similar topics but just from a much more mechanical, impersonal perspective. It was interspersed with the thoughts and ideas of other professionals – mostly Japanese players with experience in the majors – but it definitely felt a lot less intriguing than Kendall’s thoughts.

Still, reading the two books simultaneously helped solidify some of the more solid ideas. It definitely brought my baseball knowledge up a few notches. If you have a chance to pick up Kendall’s “Throwback” I recommend it. Only two things about the book prevent it from being a full five-stars: a lot of ideas/anecdotes get repeated several times, and his final point –  “if you get anything out of this book, remember to protect your kids at games because you don’t want them to get hit by a foul ball” – seemed completely unrelated to anything else he said.

Mini-Series Recap – July 28-29, 2015

With the Road Trip of Death looming and a quick series in Nagoya on tap, the Tigers needed to sneak in a couple of road wins before coming home for one last Koshien Ultra Summer series. They were facing the last place Chunichi Dragons with just one problem: a history of losing at Nagoya Dome. Could they come home 3 games over .500? Let’s look at the games one by one.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get "Hero of the Night" but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get “Hero of the Night” but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Game 1: This one started poorly for the Tigers, both at the dish and in the field. They failed to put anyone on base in the first two innings, and starter Minoru Iwata surrendered a two-run home run in the bottom of the second. However, the floodgates opened in a huge way for the visitors in the top of the third. Taiga Egoshi walked, and five hits later (RBIs by Hiroki Uemoto, Kosuke Fukudome and two by Matt Murton) he was back at the plate again, and this time he knocked in two more runs. A two run deficit became a four run lead in just an inning. However, after a few calm innings, Iwata struggled again in the fifth and sixth, giving up a run in each frame and not completing the sixth. He left with the bases loaded and two outs. Fortunately, reliever Yuya Andoh managed to strike out their batter, getting out of that inning and then holding fort in the seventh as well. For the Tigers’ bats’ part, they did not record another hit the rest of the way – but their six run explosion held up as the “winning combo” relievers – Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh – pitched clean innings to preserve the win. Final Score: Tigers 6, Dragons 4.

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

Game 2: Each pitcher surrendered a lead off hit in the first, but neither team scored. The Tigers opened the scoring in the third as Uemoto grounded out to second but broke up a double play, scoring Kazunari Tsuruoka from third. For his part, starter Atsushi Nohmi threw three great innings, but unraveled in the fourth. A leadoff double was followed by an infield single. With runners in the corners he induced a pop foul to third, giving hope for a scoreless fourth, but threw his next pitch wild, scoring a run. One out later (would have been an inning ending double play were it not for the WP), an RBI single gave the Dragons a 2-1 lead. Things stayed fairly calm in the middle innings, but the rookie of the week(s), Egoshi, hit a solo blast in the top of the 7th to tie the game at 2. Taiga the Tiger wasn’t done there, though. Murton drew a leadoff walk in the ninth, and two batters later, Egoshi hit a first-pitch double to left center, giving the Tigers the lead once again. Oh took the mound in the ninth for the second straight night, earning another save while allowing a two-out single. Final Score: Tigers 3, Swallows 2.

Series Notes: Mauro Gomez’s 16-game hitting streak ended on Tuesday as the slugger went 0-4. He followed it up with another hitless (0-3, HBP) night on Wednesday… Egoshi has started seven straight games now and appears to have won the center field position, at least for now. His average is still well below the Mendoza Line, but he has a lot of multi-base hits in his limited playing time so far this year. The team needs more “power hitting” so his low average can be swallowed a lot more easily because he makes his hits count… Iwata’s win on Tuesday was his first since the last game of interleague play, when he threw 140 pitches to beat the Nippon Ham Fighters… A few key moves in the seventh may have cost the Tigers a run or two. Cold-hitting Ryota Arai was left in against a right-handed pitcher instead of bringing in Ryota Imanari. A runner on for Egoshi would have meant a lead for the Tigers. Then with two outs, instead of pinch-hitting for Nohmi, they took an easy third out, leaving him in for the bottom of the inning. Perhaps Wada thought he would need his pinch hitters later in the game, but then he subbed Arai out for Imanari on defense in the seventh anyways… Tigers have Thursday off but the other Central League teams play, so standings will be updated after those games. Check here for full standings. (For now, they remain tied for first with the Swallows, three games above .500.)

The Evolution of Messenger: East-West Fusion Pitching

Original article can be found here 元の記事はこちら

Messenger has been the team's best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Messenger has been the team’s best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Hanshin pitcher Randy Messenger (33) earned his seventh win on the 26th by throwing 7 innings of 5-hit shutout ball against the DeNA Baystars at Koshien. He showed no signs of fatigue despite going on 4 days’ rest. His contributions to the team’s jump into second place, one game over .500, have not gone unnoticed, but a different sort of “evolution” in his game has also stood out.

Pitching just four short rest days after his start against the Giants (21st, Koshien), Messenger didn’t show one iota of tiredness, throwing 7 shutout innings on 97 pitches. He also held the DeNA lineup to just 5 hits and no walks, earning his seventh win of the season. Standing on the hero’s podium and asked about whether or not he felt tired, he quickly answered in Japanese, “Nai, nai, daijobu (No, no, I’m fine),” showing his toughness to the crowd. “I just want to be given the ball, and I’ll get teh job done. Just keep giving me the ball. I love summer, I’m used to the heat,” he said confidently.

Despite this, Messenger has recorded very few strikeouts these past two games. He had just two last time out, and four [yesterday]. Two seasons ago he had 183, last season 226, both of which won him the Strikeout King title, but this new and sudden “change” in the big righty’s approach has rival teams shaking in their boots. “He’s changed his game. He used to just be an overpowering pitcher, but now he learned to throw to contact and get guys out that way. It’s unbearable,” said one Central League scout.

MessengerCardBackOn the Hanshin side, one of the coaches spoke of his reliability. “Messenger came to camp prepared to work on pitching to contact. It didn’t go very well at first and caused some frustration. He went back to power pitching and got his form back, but now he’s able to use his experience from camp and it shows in the numbers. His curveball has gotten a lot better. We could call his pitching to contact (which he learned in Japan) ‘Japanese Style’ and his (original game of) power pitching ‘Western Style.’ He’s found a way to make both work well for him.”

On four days’ rest he threw a great “Japanese Style” game, but according to another team spokesman, “Messenger is able to go into games thinking, ‘Today I’m throwing to contact’ or ‘Today I’m power pitching,’ but at some point he’s going to be able to do it within a single game.” That i what we like to call “East-West Fusion Pitching.” Looks like our big righty import is clicking on all cylinders in the midst of a muddled up Central League.

Series Recap – July 24-26, 2015

It is completely illogical and unfathomable, and in all ways inconceivable that two .500 teams should be tied for the league lead as summer vacation started here in Japan. And yet that is exactly where the Central League found itself – the Yakult Swallows and Hanshin Tigers sat at the top, a game ahead of the Yomiuri Giants and just four games up on the last-place Chunichi Dragons. The Tigers donned “Ultra Summer” yellow jerseys for this series against the floundering Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Let’s see how they did in this series.

He won't get much recognition in the boxscore, but Imanari flashed some impressive leather in Friday night's opener.

He won’t get much recognition in the boxscore, but Imanari flashed some impressive leather in Friday night’s opener.

Game 1: I was able to take in this one from the first-base stands. Both teams started slowly, as the Tigers found themselves facing a solid starter, and in return they put their young phenom Shintaro Fujinami on the mound. Through four innings, the teams had combined for four hits. The pitching duel continued until the 7th, when it looked like Fujinami could be pulled (he had thrown 119 pitches before the jet balloon release), and Inoh could go the distance (through six innings he was still under 80 balls). However, a leadoff hit by Ryota Imanari was followed by a blast to left center by Taiga Egoshi, and the home team was on the board. Still, their starter remained in the game and survived the inning without any further damage. However, Kosuke Fukudome added an insurance run in the eighth with a sacrifice fly to the right field corner. Fujinami had now thrown 130+ pitches. Could Seung-hwan Oh be trusted with a 3-run lead? I’m not sure why, but the 21-year old came out for the ninth, kept the ‘Stars off the scoreboard and got the complete game win. He ended the game with a 152-pitch count – one I argued was far too high to be considered an excellent outing. Either way, he got the win. Final Score: Tigers 3, Baystars 0.

"So in baseball you just can't throw it there, son." Fukudome coaches Egoshi after an ugly error. -- Quote stolen from Aaron Covert.

“So in baseball you just can’t throw it there, son.” Fukudome coaches Egoshi after an ugly error. — Quote stolen from Aaron Covert.

Game 2: For the first time in over two months, the ball went to sophomore Suguru Iwazaki. He did not show enough in his first five starts of the season to get the call, and was still winless on the year. He started this one strongly, pitching four shutout innings and looking like a changed pitcher. Meanwhile, Matt Murton started the game with two doubles, the second of which brought in the game’s second run. With a little lead, how would Iwazaki do the rest of the way? He was most of the way through the fifth, when disaster struck. Ultimately hit came after hit, and he left without completing the inning. The Tigers were down a pair, due partially to a wickedly errant throw by Egoshi. Most of the rest of the way, the game was uneventful, and the Tigers bowed out weakly (just one hit after the third inning) in the middle game of the series. Final Score: Baystars 5, Tigers 2.

Taiga "Tiger" was at it again on Sunday, knocking in the third run of the game and collecting three hits.

Taiga “Tiger” was at it again on Sunday, knocking in the third run of the game and collecting three hits.

Game 3: The Tigers needed to take advantage of facing a fairly inexperienced pitcher, and in a way, they did. In each of the first three innings, they got a runner to third base, but only managed to capitalize in the second inning, when Takashi Toritani hit a 2-RBI single to right-center. Egoshi came through in the fifth with a two-out single to left, scoring another run for the home team. Starter Randy Messenger was in control in this one, throwing 7 shutout innings on 4 days’ rest. Oh bailed struggling set-up man Shinobu Fukuhara in the eighth, and finished the ‘Stars off in the ninth. Thanks to a dominant start by the fully rejuvenated American, the team won despite another night with too many runners left on base. Final Score: Tigers 3, Baystars 0.

Series Notes: Big Dominican Mauro Gomez is currently riding a 16-game hitting streak dating back to July 4. He doesn’t have a home run in 10 games, though his .287 average leads the team… Toritani picked up a modasho on Friday and again on Sunday, but went 0-4 in the middle game. He also had another error in the rubber match, though it did not result in a run… Ryota Arai got the start on Saturday but went hitless in four at-bats. He has yet to do anything to earn regular playing time this season… Akira Iwamoto took the mound for the first time in over two months in Saturday’s loss, allowing no runs in 1 ⅔ innings. He is likely to remain on the big club for the time being as a long reliever. Speaking of which, check out this table detailing Iwazaki’s six starts this year. Columns 3-5 show his good beginnings in 5 of 6 starts, and columns 6-8 show his catastrophic collapse in his last inning of work, 4 of which ended before the third out.

Date Opponent Good Start ER ERA Bad Inning ER ERA
04/02/15 Swallows 4 0 0.00 0.1 4 108.00
04/09/15 Baystars 7 0 0.00 0.1 2 54.00
04/16/15 Dragons 3 2 6.00 0.1 2 54.00
05/06/15 Dragons 5 1 1.80 1 1 9.00
05/17/15 Dragons 3 0 0.00 1 3 81.00
07/25/15 Baystars 4 0 0.00 0.2 3 40.50
Totals 26 3 1.04 3.2 15 36.82

My proposal: Use him as a long reliever. He appears to be able to get through the opposition’s order once, maybe twice, without issue. But as I understand baseball (and trust me, there’s a lot I still don’t know!), many starters try to get through the first few innings without using their whole arsenal. Perhaps Iwazaki does not have enough of an arsenal to fool batters more than once or twice. Let him work long relief the rest of the year, have him bust his butt to learn a new pitch in the offseason and give him another ride as starter next year. His ERA through 3 innings in all starts combines to 1.50 but climbs to 11.57 the rest of the way. Ah, the naive thoughts of a man who’s never played the game!

Here are the standings at the end of play on the 26th:

15-7-26 Standings

Game Commentary – Friday, July 24, 2015

 On Friday night, the Tigers began their “Ultra Summer” (ウル虎の夏) campaign at Koshien Stadium. They gave out free yellow replica jerseys to all in attendance, and will do so for the remainder of this series, as well as the entire next series (July 31-August 2, vs. Yakult Swallows). It is a wonderful way to “color the stadium yellow” and draw crowds to the last two series before their annual August road trip starts.

Ultra Yellow!

 I was fortunate to be at last night’s game, a 3-0 Tigers victory over the visiting Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Starting pitcher Shintaro Fujinami went the distance, striking out twelve and throwing a ridiculous 152 pitches. He was named co-hero of the night, alongside Taiga Egoshi, the first rookie in 35 years (Akinobu Okada was the last) to hit home runs in consecutive games. Fujinami now has 8 wins on the year, 5 complete games, an NPB-best 132 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.43, good for 4th in the CL. This all sounds quite impressive, especially for a kid who just turned 21 in April.

I would argue that last night’s performance was less-than-ideal in some ways.

1) His pitch count is incredibly high for a game that featured just 5 hits and 2 walks. Sure, he struck out twelve, and those generally require more pitches than other kinds of outs. But let’s look at how he got those strikeouts. ONE was on three straight pitches, FOUR were on 1-2 counts, FIVE were on 2-2 counts and TWO were in full count situations. He used his fastball to get 11 of the 12 strikeouts, six of which were called and six of which were swung on and missed. (The other was on a cutter.) All this to say what? It looks as though Shintaro is laboring a little too hard to get strikeouts instead of trying to induce grounders or popups. Case in point:

2) Outside of the sacrifice bunt laid down by the Baystars pitcher, Fujinami required twelve pitches to get the guy out two more times (neither of which were strikeouts). He also needed 5 pitches to get their #8 batter out once (and five more to strike him out once). These are hitters that should go down pretty easily. Instead, of the four outs recorded by these two, Shintaro threw 22 pitches. Too many for #8 and 9 batters. Know your opponents. If they are contact hitters, find a pitch that induces weak grounders and use them. That, or go for 3 (or 4) pitch strikeouts instead of throwing ball 1 and 2 on 0-2 counts (trust me, it happened a lot last night).

3) He made a poor decision in the field on a bunt, lunging to tag the runner out (and missing), then throwing errantly to first. Fortunately it did not result in a run against, but very easily could have, as the Baystars found themselves with runners on 2nd and 3rd with just one out in the third inning because of the blunder.

In conclusion, Fujinami does not seem to have a “go-to” pitch to get outs, other than using his fastball on third strikes. He needs to find that pitch in order to keep his pitch counts down to preserve his arm for the next three months.

He has outstanding potential, and I really believe he could succeed in the majors after a few more years of dominating NPB ball. He doesn’t quite have the dreamy numbers of Shohei Ohtani or the experience of Kenta Maeda, but still, he has been (justly) compared with Yu Darvish at this point in his career. Let’s see how this one unfolds.

In other great news, third baseman Ryota Imanari played outstanding defense, saving at least three hits over the course of the game. In the second, he used his reflexes to nab a Lopez liner. Then in the fourth, he lunged back towards the third base line (despite playing closer to short) to grab a sure double, then fired a bullet to first in time to get the out. Lastly, in the eighth he leapt high to catch a Matsumoto line drive.

Said Imanari, “Usually when Fujinami is on the mound, the righties don’t pull a lot of balls. I didn’t know what the coaches would say if I missed the few that came my way.”

He also contributed on the offense, with a leadoff single in the seventh. He scored on Egoshi’s blast to left center (see video below).

 It was a great night to be at the park. The crowd was enthusiastic as always, the food was good as always, and the breeze from the seaside was nice, too! Sometimes being up in row 60 isn’t so bad! Here’s to hoping the Tigers can keep this momentum (3 straight wins now) going!

Series Recap – July 20-22, 2015

For the Central League, the All-Star Break may as well have been the offseason, and the remaining games a full season. The gap between all the teams was a mere 5 games (including 4 teams within a single game of first). To make things even more spring-like, no team was above .500! With fewer than 60 games left on tap, the importance of each matchup has become that much greater. The Tigers spend 9 of their first 11 games at Koshien Stadium before taking their annual “Road Trip of Death” in August while the high school national tournament is played on their home turf. The first series was against their longtime rivals, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt... at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt… at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Game 1: Facing Miles Mikolas for the second time this month, the team hoped to have more success than last time, when they fell 4-2. This time the ball was in the hands of Minoru Iwata, and he kept the game close for six innings, allowing just one run. That came after a booted grounder by third baseman Ryota Imanari (no error was charged to him on the play) in the first. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Giants’ American import brought his A game and the team once again failed to give their pitcher any run support. In the ninth on a pop foul to first, Mauro Gomez dropped the ball (this one was called an error) and the Giants batter took full advantage of the second chance given to him, driving a Kazuya Takamiya slider over the right center wall. Final Score: Giants 2, Tigers 0.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

Game 2: As the victim of poor run support in three straight July starts, Randy Messenger did what he needed to do to make sure he didn’t need much in this one. The rejuvenated righty hung in for 8 innings, avoiding a dangerous situation in the opening frame and shutting the Giants down completely on 129 pitches. As for the bats, they took their time warming up. It wasn’t until the sixth inning with two outs that the 25-inning scoreless drought ended. Matt Murton high a towering shot to left that was not far from either clearing the fence or landing in the fielder’s outstretched glove. It did neither, but cashed in two runners instead. The game got a little dramatic when Seung-hwan Oh came in to close things down. He surrendered a hit, allowed a stolen base, then gave up another hit, and a run scored. With one out to go, the winning run came to the plate. Fortunately, it was not the Giants’ day, and Messenger was able to pick up his first win since the game after Interleague play ended. Final Score: Tigers 2, Giants 1.

It wasn't the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

It wasn’t the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

Game 3: Atsushi Nohmi looked great right out of the gates in this one, needing just 23 pitches to get the first 8 outs. Then a “hit” (should have been an error to Takashi Toritani) caused him to labor the next three innings, but he managed to hold the Giants to just a single run in his six innings of work. For their part, the Tigers got on the board in the first, thanks to a Ryota Arai bases-clearing double. Rookie outfielder Taiga Egoshi extended the lead back to three runs in the sixth with a solo home run, his second on the year. Reliever Yuya Andoh allowed a solo home run in the seventh to bring the lead back down to two. Oh closed the game off with a rare clean inning. Final Score: Tigers 4, Giants 2.

Series Notes: Egoshi got recalled and started the last two games of the series, going 0-3 with 2 strikeouts Tuesday and 2-4 Wednesday. He is still hitting just .122 (6-49) on the year in his limited action. However, of his six hits, two have been home runs and one was a triple that was just centimeters from being another homer… Toritani continues to struggle in the field, collecting his 7th error of the year on Tuesday, failing to catch a first inning infield pop-up. He had just 5 errors all of last season… This was the second series of the year that the Tigers took from the Giants. The other came just before interleague play began, and was also played at Koshien. On the year, they are still just 7-10 against their nemeses. Here are the standings as of the end of play on Wednesday:

15-7-22 Standings

Great Day to Be Me!

I got to Koshien Stadium around 11am, despite not having a ticket to tonight’s game or even the intention of attending. And I didn’t. But I did get to take in the Koshien Stadium Museum for the first time ever, and followed it up with a tour of the stadium that included a chance to watch some of the team’s pre-game practice. I got to meet up with one of my Tiger buddies who was in town from Tokyo, spent the day with my awesome wife… and then the Tigers won their game tonight! Not a bad day overall! Here are some pics/explanations of what I got to see today.

 

Nothing really special here, just a big Tigers logo in the middle of the museum.

  

Towards the end of the museum, you can head outside and stand right in the middle of the center field stands. what a view! Great weather, too!

  

The Tigers drafted me as their official English tweeter! Ha, I wish!

  

Love the 80th Anniversary banners. The 4th one here is #4, Gene Bacque.

  

At the start of the tour, we got a view of the visitors’ indoor training facility. It felt like we were at the zoo, looking at a bunch of rabbits through a glass window. Do not feed the animals. Do not tap the glass.

  

Gomez and Murton take theoir cuts during an early afternoon batting practice.

 

ASB – Report Card Time! Part 2

Yesterday we took a look at how the Hanshin Tigers did in the field and at the plate. Today we look back at how the hurlers have performed to date. I will look at the steady starters one by one, then the spot starters as a whole, the relievers as a whole with special focus on the back end of the bullpen. Here… we… go!

"Sunday Shin-chan" has come to the rescue many times this year.

“Sunday Shin-chan” has come to the rescue many times this year.

Shintaro Fujinami: I don’t think any pitcher in baseball has as many unearned runs as our young phenom. That can mean a few things: 1) the spin on his pitches make hit balls bounce funny, resulting in errors; 2) the team plays a little more nervously behind him; 3) the score keepers are generous with him, charging more errors to the fielders than usual; 4) he has problems putting errors behind him and getting the final outs of innings. I tend to believe the latter two to be true. Still, this guy is something else to watch pitch. His rough April (1 win, 3.66 ERA) was quickly forgotten as he got really hot in May (0.88 ERA) and played quite well in June (2.70) as well. The kid also won MVP honors at Game 1 of the All-Star matches, and has been named to nearly every national team in the past year. The present is quite bright, but the future could be even brighter. Overall Grade: A-

Minoru Iwata: Long known as the pitcher who can’t buy run support, Iwata’s adventures continued this year. He has been quite consistent so far, keeping his ERA in the low 3’s much of the season. While he only had one outing that could be called “dominant” he also has not thrown any absolute stinkers, either. He flirted with a perfect game in April but it all unraveled in the 7th and he didn’t even earn the victory. Still, he has a decent shot at his first double-digit win season since 2008. Let’s hope the team can show this steady #3 pitcher some love the rest of the way. Overall Grade: B-

Messenger has been the team's best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Messenger has been the team’s best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Randy Messenger: The season could not have started much worse for the big workhorse from Nevada. By May 10, his ERA was 5.88 – worst in the Central League – and he got suddenly demoted to the farm for most of the rest of the month. Upon his return, though, he has been lights out: a June ERA of 0.87 and his July ERA sits at 2.25 so far. Talk about regaining ace status! Look for more of the same from the big man the rest of the way. He seems to have found his groove. The team will need his best if it hopes to contend. They could stand to give him a little more run support, too, mind you. Overall Grade: B-

Atsushi Nohmi: Many worried about our ace of years past after a shaky 2014. He came to camp and worked harder than anyone, throwing more bullpens than the team expected. It looked as though it would pay off, as he started the new season very strongly. Through April 30, his ERA was an ace-like 2.08. But since then it has steadily risen (4.19 in May, 4.50 in June and an unsightly 5.40 so far in July). It might be fatigue, or it might be age. Either way, the team needs to use him a little more strategically the rest of the way. Perhaps more rest, perhaps shorter starts. But they cannot expect him to do what he has done in the past. Overall Grade: C-

The Spot Starters: Includes Akira Iwamoto, Suguru Iwazaki, Mario Santiago, Yuya Yokoyama, Yuta Iwasada, Shoya Yamamoto, Takumi Akiyama. Many of these guys put together great first starts, but either fizzled out or never got a second look. None really looks ready to take the 5th (or 6th) spot in the rotation just yet, but someone’s got to fill in the rest of the way. Who will it be? I personally hope Iwazaki can find his touch again, and perhaps Iwasada or Yamamoto could round it out. Without consistency from the back end of the rotation, though, it’s going to be a rough second half. Overall Grade: C

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want "Oh Yeah" the rest of the way!

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want “Oh Yeah” the rest of the way!

Seung-hwan Oh: Fans of the team are familiar with the drama that this Korean brings to the mound in close games. His season actually started quite poorly. Despite giving up just one run, he allowed more base runners than usual, causing fans to tighten their grips on remote controls and smartphones. He settled in quite nicely through May, and had one major meltdown in early June. July, though, has been a very ugly month. Through six outings, his ERA on the month is 8.53, and he has given up three home runs in that span. His job appears secure, if only because there is not one else on the squad who could take his place. However, I expect more consistency from someone who is a closer. His good times are great, but his bad times have been occurring too frequently. Overall Grade: C

Shinobu Fukuhara: Used almost exclusively as a set-up man (8th inning before handing the reins to Oh), the 38-year old has been incredible this season. Until recently his ERA was under one, but has now risen to 1.67 after a rough July. I personally believe he needs more rest, and perhaps overuse (36 appearances already) will render him less effective the rest of the way. Still, there’s a reason he was named co-MVP of the first half by manager Wada. Overall Grade: A

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

The Rest of the ‘Pen: Includes Yuya Andoh (3.72), Ryoma Matsuda (5.52), Kazuya Takamiya (3.38), Hiroya Shimamoto (9.35), Kazuyuki Kaneda (5.19), Daiki Enokida (10.38), Kentaro Kuwahara (8.53), Tsuyoshi Ishizaki (11.05), Hiroaki Saiuchi (2.89), Tatsuya Kojima (7.00), Kazuya Tsutsui (0.00), Naoto Tsuru (3.38), more. Awful. Inconsistent. They make close games blowouts, and are the cause of many a changed channel in this home and probably many more across the nation. As bad as the bats have been this year, the bullpen might be even worse. The ERAs of these guys would give the best Indian mathematicians headaches. Only Takamiya, Saiuchi and Tsutsui have been somewhat decent; the latter two have only played in the past month or so. Overall Grade: F

Aggregate Arms: The bats are pretty lean, but the pitchers aren’t really doing their part, either. Team ERA (3.89) is second worst in NPB (only better than the Chiba Lotte Marines), and the number of huge blowout losses is disheartening. Some hurlers are doing their part to keep the team in games, but it seems like whenever Randy or Iwata or another pitcher holds the other team to 2 or fewer runs, we still end up on the losing end more often than not. In that area, we cannot fault the pitchers. However, the number of times I have seen pitchers say “I wasn’t able to give my team a chance to win. I’m sorry” is uncountable. Overall Grade: D

ASB – Report Card Time!

Yes, I’m a teacher, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the grading system, I do believe in evaluation. As we have a few days off here, I figure it’s time to look at how the team has performed up to this point. I’ll start with the position players today, then look at the starters and relievers tomorrow. Also, I’ll give the team a final grade and a few recommendations on how they can make that final push to the top. And away we go!

Fujii has had more playing time than the other C's. Does he deserve it?

Fujii has had more playing time than the other C’s. Does he deserve it?

Catchers: Sophomore Ryutaro Umeno (.232, 3 HR, .277 OBP) started most of the games at the start of the year, and while his bat improved from last season, his game-calling showed no improvement. He fell out of the circle of trust of some of the pitchers as well as coaches, and has found himself on the bench (or on the farm) the last two months. In his stead, Kazunari Tsuruoka (.197, 1 HR, .276 OBP) has come in and called games alright, and even had a couple of good games at the plate, but is still a liability with the stick. Akihito Fujii is the clear favorite for a few of the pitchers, but he is not as strong defensively as Tsuruoka, and his bat also leaves much to be desired (.192, 0 HR, .315 OBP). None of the three men are good enough to be the clear-cut head catcher, and there is no one on the farm ready to take the reins, either. We can only hope Umeno learns to call a game and can lead the team through the last two months of the year. Overall Grade: C-

Mauro has been adequate but not great so far...

Mauro has been adequate but not great so far…

Mauro Gomez: He has been quite inconsistent this year, having prolonged slumps but also lengthy streaks of great hitting. On the whole, his numbers are slightly below last year’s (26 HR, 109 RBI) pace: if he keeps up this season’s 12-45 pace, he’ll end up with around 20 home runs and 77 RBIs. His average (.282) is roughly the same as it was last year (.283), and his strikeout rate has remained the same (that is, awful – he’s got the second most in the CL). His play on defense has been unspectacular, though not worse than expected, and not overly detrimental to game outcomes. Let’s hope he can heat up a little more and at least match last year’s home run numbers, while knocking in roughly 90 runs. Overall Grade: B-

"Lethal Uepon" needs consistency and a bigger glove.

“Lethal Uepon” needs consistency and a bigger glove.

Hiroki Uemoto: Last season he started the year batting well over .300 and finished  .276 on the year. This year he has not gotten over .250 and has really looked lost at the plate on many occasions. However, he has stolen 14 bases (second in CL) and is facing a high number of pitches (sixteen pitches in one at bat – it ended in a walk). Also, he is leading the team by hitting .302 with runners in scoring position – earning himself the nickname “Lethal Uepon“. Another downside for Uemoto – his 10 errors are worst on the team. He has made some great plays in the field but also some blunders on harmless-looking plays. Overall Grade: C

Takashi Toritani: The captain returned to the team with one goal – to win the Central League pennant. His numbers do not reflect the hunger that burns in him, as he is hitting just .267 (4 HR, 24 RBI, 5 SB), which is considerably lower than last season’s numbers (.313, 8 HR, 73 RBI, 10 SB). He has been playing hurt and that has affected him at the dish and on the field, but he has his consecutive games streak at stake and refuses to rest. He already has six errors this year after having only 5 all of last season. I’ll be the first to admit I’m extra hard on the captain for putting individual accolades over what’s best for the team, so I’ll give him a little break here. He’s 34 and his range at SS will only get narrower, so perhaps a move to 3B in the offseason is in order. Overall Grade: B-

Third basemen: We’ve had two main guys at second – Tsuyoshi Nishioka had the job before going down with strained elbow ligaments. He started the year red hot but was cooling off in the weeks before his injury. Despite mediocre (I’m being nice again) play in the field, his dugout presence and aggressiveness at the plate are needed on this team, and we welcome him back when he’s ready! Ryota Imanari has taken the bulk of the playing time since returning from oblique injuries. He also started really strongly, then slumped for 10 days or so, hit well for another week and has since disappeared. Though his bat has not provided much help, his rock-solid play in the field is appreciated. He is also a good mood-maker, so he has replaced Nishioka in more ways than one. Overall Grade: C+

Murton's heating up! The team needs him more than ever...

Murton’s heating up! The team needs him more than ever…

Matt Murton: Where to begin? Ah, yes. The start. He got the game-winning RBI in the first game of the year, despite hitting 1-for-4, and he kept that .250 average through the first month of the year. His May was slightly worse (.242) and the media was having field days. The front office looked into better hired help, choosing a left fielder from the Baseball Challenge League, but right around the end of Interleague play, the “human hitting machine” heated up. He ended June with a .328 average on the month, and is hitting .320 so far in July. Not quite the .338 bar he set for himself last year, but coming along nicely. He is currently 12th in the league in batting average, and has started to hit the long ball as well (4 HR in the past 20 games), and his play in the field has also picked up some, although he has never really been considered an asset with his glove or arm. Overall Grade: C+

Now that his bunting has "gone foul" Yamato's lone sales point is his glove.

Now that his bunting has “gone foul” Yamato’s lone sales point is his glove.

Center Field: At first glance, this group is a disaster. Yamato plays incredible defense but has been awful at the dish (.195). Shunsuke is slightly worse in the field but slightly better with a bat in his hands (.217). Neither has a home run to his name yet, and only 2 SBs between the two of them. Hayata Itoh (.270, 2 HR) was doing alright until he went down with a thumb injury in early June. Taiga Egoshi (.095, 1 HR) has not shown consistency at the plate or in the field, despite the promise he showed in spring training. Kohei Shibata and Masahiro Nakatani have not gotten much playing time either, but there is probably a reason for it. (Wait… with our manager, “reason” takes on a whole new meaning.) Because of our manager’s strategy attempts, the center field of the day has often batted second and been expected to bunt. They have done this well at times, but several failed attempts have also resulted in free outs (sometimes two). I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I can’t imagine things getting worse if we let Egoshi or Nakatani learn the job on the fly. If not for this year’s sake, it will certainly make 2016 a better year. Overall Grade: D-

Only Dome-san has played better this season than last.

Only Dome-san has played better this season than last.

Kosuke Fukudome: At last, we get a high grade! Since returning from the majors in 2013, he has shown flashes of his old (that is, young) self, but never really putting together a full season. This year, his .275 average is 3rd on the team (and 14th in the league), his 15 HRs is his best since coming back, and is tied for 3rd in the league, and his 45 RBIs is tied for 4th in the CL. His defensive play has been exceptional for a man of his age, and his clutch play has saved the team from last place, literally. Overall Grade: A

Team Bats: The Tigers rank 11th of 12 teams in batting average (.240), 10th in home runs (50), last in stolen bases (30), last in average with runners in scoring position (.230) and 11th in runs scored (269 – the Eagles have 3 fewer runs in 2 fewer games). Hard to give this team a passing grade, and in fact, I have to lay it down right at the end. We’re awful. Forget park factors – the team has a great record at home, and is even hitting better at home (.242) than on the road (.238). Something’s got to give. There may be just half a game between them and the league leaders, but the numbers indicate that this team does not deserve to be in contention right now. Hopefully a strong end to July will give them the confidence they need to endure the “Road of Death” in August and then they can avoid their typical “September Slide”. Overall Grade: F