A Fifth Foreigner?

Santiago SigningSanspo and other sources are reporting that the Tigers have officially signed a fifth foreigner to a contract. Mario Santiago of Puerto Rico has agreed to a one-year, 15-million yen contract with the team. Those who watched the 2013 World Baseball Classic closely remember that Santiago was the starting pitcher on the team that defeated Japan in the semifinals. Here are some highlights:

Santiago is 188cm (6’2″) tall, weighs 95 kg (209 lb) and is 30 years old. He throws and bats right. He says he signed with the intention of playing out his baseball career in Japan. Tigers GM Nakamura says he has a variety of pitches and pretty good control.

As many of you know, NPB teams are allowed a maximum of just 4 foreigners on their active rosters, with no more than 3 pitchers or 3 hitters at any time. The Tigers already have 4 excellent foreigners, all title holders last season. Randy Messenger recorded more wins (13) and strikeouts (226) than any other Central League pitcher, Seung-hwan Oh led the league in saves (39), Matt Murton had the highest batting average (.338) and Mauro Gomez batted in more runs (109) than anyone else. So for Santiago to be called up, either one of these men would have to slump badly or get injured. Obviously no one wants that to happen.

So what are the Tigers thinking? Clearly this signing was done with 2016 and beyond in mind. Messenger is signed through the 2016 season, but none of the others are. Oh is rumored to be interested in trying out the major leagues, but I have heard nothing about the two hitters. In any case, I hope Mr. Santiago can adjust well to Japan and stay injury-free. He actually left the WBC semi-final game in the fifth inning with a sore arm and then sat out the entire season recovering. He played Korean ball in 2012 with the SK Wyverns.

Welcome to Japan and the best baseball club in the land, Mr. Santiago!

Sponichi Interview 4: Hirosawa on Murton

Part 4 of Sponichi’s series of interviews with the “BIG 4” title holders sees Katsumi Hirosawa interviewing batting title holder Matt Murton. They discuss Murton’s elite hitting techniques as well as his strong desire to contribute to the team’s first championship in 30 years.

MurtonInterview

Hirosawa: How are you doing physically these days?

Murton: Well I hurt my leg but other than that, I’m exactly where I think I should be.

Hirosawa: Well you still have a month until opening day so I hope you take your time and get back to 100%. As I look back on last season (and I was able to watch all 144 games, some after the fact), the most surprising moment was Game 2 when you hit a home run off (Giants’ reliever Scott) Mathieson in the 8th inning*. From that moment on, Mathieson really was not able to bounce back all season. I was surprised though because I have never seen you hit that kind of home run before. Were you sitting back waiting on his fastball?

Murton: He’s got the fastball but also a slider and forkball. But in that situation I thought he’d bring the heat, so I was ready for it. Still, just in case he threw something offspeed, I was ready to adjust my swing accordingly. The pitch before, I swung a little too hard and knew I needed to relax and make an adjustment just to make good contact with his fastball. He got better in the second half, but I was able to get a good hit off him before he turned things around.

Hirosawa: Since coming to Japan, you’ve set the record for hits in a season and are seen as one of the most clever batters in the game. But as I’ve been watching you all these years, the most amazing thing to me is your bat speed. Any thoughts on that?

Murton: I just want to effectively maximize the power I have, and the byproduct of that is a fast swing.

Hirosawa: I’ve seen a lot of foreign players come and go, but Japanese baseball has never seen the likes of you, Matt. What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to hitting.

Murton: Again, probably the most important thing is getting the most of the power you have. Some of it comes down to adjusting to what you’re thrown or “trying to get hits” but really just doing what you can to get the most of your abilities up there. Of course it’s not going to result in a hit every time, though.

Hirosawa: Actually, not many batters that most their back foot early get a lot of hits. You are an exception to that rule, which is pretty amazing. Looking at former greats like Sammy Sosa (Cubs), Mark McGwire (Cardinals), Barry Bonds (Giants) or Derek Jeter (Yankees), none of them moved that back foot. Only one great hitter who does that comes to mind: Ichiro (Marlins). You’re like a right-handed hitting version of Ichiro. I call that genius.

Murton: I’m not sure if it’s the best way to hit the ball, but getting your butt facing the pitcher a little, and using that built up power against the momentum of the pitch seems to work. Maybe that causes it to look as though my back foot is moving forward.

Hirosawa: From your amateur days right through to the pros, you were pretty good at hitting the inside pitch. Did you have problems with outside pitches?

Murton: Inside pitches were tough but pitches towards the outside were easier. The reason is that I made the effort to avoid opening up my stance too much by keeping my left shoulder in place. So it was hard to get to the inside pitch. To remedy that problem, I started to focus on using my butt muscles a little more, which enabled me to handle inside pitches a little better.

Hirosawa: Last season you were quite aggressive with your base running whenever the catcher had problems handling one-hoppers from the pitcher. How much of that was premeditated?

Murton: I was always told from a young age that getting to the next base was crucial, so I’d watch for what angle the ball would bounce away from the catcher. In America coaches will always tell you, “If you think you can make it, go!” So I was just trying to do what I’ve been taught all along.

Hirosawa: So not just “quite aggressive” but extremely aggressive! As we watch you on the base paths, we can really see how you’re trying hard to contribute to the team.

Murton: If I can get to the next base, it gives us a better chance of scoring runs. I hope to keep doing it this season, too.

Hirosawa: Let’s talk about batting order. I’m sure you’ll say “I’ll hit anywhere in the lineup” but do you think you’re going to end up hitting 5th again this year?

Murton: The manager is the one who looks at each player and decides what order will produce the best results for everyone. I can’t really say anything here. I just put on the uniform and compete. It’s the manager’s job to decide what batting order will get us the most runs. Of course the guys who are getting more hits should be closer to the top of the order so you get more baserunners and more scoring chances.

Hirosawa: What players did you look up to growing up?

Murton: I think pretty much everyone in my generation looked up to Ken Griffey Jr (Mariners)**. I’m from Florida so I liked Jeff Conine, but I also had cable so I watched a lot of Braves games and saw a lot of Chipper Jones and (former Rakuten Eagles) Andrew Jones.

Hirosawa: These days in Japanese baseball, no one measures up to you as a hitter. This coming year are you looking to do anything different, like increase your RBI or home run totals?

Murton: I just want to contribute to the team winning. If I can do that, the numbers will follow. Rather than focusing on numbers, I want to think about what I have to do each at bat in order to help the team win. I might have won the batting title last season, but there are a lot of great hitters in the Central League. I can’t win that title on my own. I just want to concentrate on that things that are within my control, focus on every game and compete hard. Maybe it’s important to look at the big picture and have goals, but I think focusing too much on those goals throws you off, too. The numbers are a result of concentrating on that one at bat, that one pitch, that one moment. If you set the goal of batting .300 but only end up with a .260 average at the end of a month of play, you missed your mark by 40 points and you start to get out of sorts. You can’t raise your average to .300 in one at bat. Whether you’re hitting .320 or .260, your job doesn’t change.

Hirosawa: If you could keep up the hot streak you had going last April*** for three months or so, you could probably set a ridiculous record in hitting, and maybe even lead the team to the pennant and Nippon Series title.

Murton: Yeah, if Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers) played at his peak for the whole season, he could easily hit 70-80 home runs, too. It’s impossible to play at that kind of pace for a whole year in baseball, though, but baseball is all about the pursuit of getting the most of your ability for as long as you can. I play with that kind of mentality, and when you’re on your game, baseball is a lot of fun. Some players are naturally gifted, but really the difference between great athletes and not-so-great athletes comes down to whether or not you can stay consistent all year. The difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter over the course of a 500 at-bat season is only around 20-25 hits. Some players put up crazy good numbers over a short period, but the greats can put them up for just a little longer.

Hirosawa: You’re exactly right. The difference between “Good job” and “Better luck next year” is 24 or 25 hits a season.

Murton: So if you calculate that out over a month, it’s 4-5 hits, which means one extra hit per week. It adds up.

Hirosawa: I only realized that after I retired (laughs). You know your stuff, Matt!

Murton: Four hits a month seems like a small number but it’s huge. If I go 0-for-4 in a game, I don’t want it to end there. I want that fifth plate appearance. That one chance is so important to me, especially if it can help contribute to the team winning. Each hit, each at-bat becomes that much more important.

Hirosawa: Hanshin made it to the Nippon Series last season but the team’s lone title came in 1985. The fans are hungry for another title, and are looking to you to lead the team to victory. What are your final comments to the fans?

Murton: I’m sure you all know just how hard we worked just to get to the Nippon Series, but still we were unable to win. I’ve put in a lot of work training this offseason, hoping to somehow finish what we started last year. Because you guys are such great, supportive fans. I’m going to do my best this year again. Playing in the Nippon Series was a lot of fun, really exciting. We’ve finished in 2nd place three of my 5 years with the team. We haven’t won the pennant, but it’s not easy because there are lots of good teams out there. Still, I want to win it all. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ichi-gun or Ni-gun, winning the championship only happens when every player is contributing. The fans and players all feel the same way about winning. I hope this team can come together as one and win it all this year.


* On March 29 with the Tigers down 3-2 in the 8th, Murton took the second pitch of his 4th at bat, a 146 km/h high inside fastball for a ride to the left field stands, tying the score. The Tigers got 2 more off of Mathieson in the 9th, coming from behind to win 5-3. Mathieson finished 2014, his 3rd season, with a personal worst 3.58 ERA, a 6-6 record and 30 saves.

** Griffey was chosen first overall by the Mariners in the 1987 draft. He was a 5-tool player who finished his career in 2010 with 2,781 career hits and 630 home runs. He is also known in Japan as the player Ichiro idolized.

*** Murton finished March and April 2014 with a .365 average, 6 home runs and 32 RBIs. The monthly MVP award, though, was given to Eldred (Hiroshima) who hit .373 and had 8 home runs. Though Murton is entering his sixth season in Japan, he has surprisingly still never won the Player of the Month Award.

Sponichi Interview 3: Kataoka on Gomez

Yano-Messenger Interview     Yano-Oh Interview

On April 15, 2014, Kataoka sat down to talk with Mauro Gomez. He was hitting 20-for-58 (.345) at the time and had reached base safely in 15 straight games from Opening Day. He pointed out that Gomez was hitting the ball to the opposite field quite well. When Kataoka told him that “as you go, so the team will go,” Gomez replied confidently that he believed he would put up numbers that the fans would be pleased with. He also talked about how he spent his days off talking with his mother and wife in the Dominican Republic via the Internet, how he doesn’t like rain, about his father who was in the military, about his first encounter with baseball at age 13, about his hobby (motorcycles), and other aspects of his private life.


Kataoka: Here’s to another great year! Hey, why are you growing out your beard like that?

Gomez: I’m planning on getting it shaved off at a local barber when I get home.

Kataoka: What was it like experiencing Japanese baseball, culture and life in that first year?

Gomez: I love this country and its culture. As for baseball, I felt like the level of play here was really high and that there are a lot of great pitchers and players in this league. I’m enjoying competing in this kind of environment. It was a really fulfilling first year.

Kataoka: A lot happened early last season. You weren’t able to play in the exhibition games and a lot of people were worried about you.

Gomez: I believed I would be able to come over here to Japan and contribute well, but you can’t predict things like injuries. I wasn’t able to prepare as I had hoped to, but when the season started, my condition got better and I was able to contribute early on. Getting hurt was kind of stressful but I just kept believing in myself and I was able to get the job done.

Kataoka: I was able to interview you at this time last year as well, and I remember your first game at Tokyo Dome when you dropped that fly ball at first base. But you came right back with an RBI later in the game. I was relieved! You’re a good guy after all! After the dropped pop-up I was thinking, “He’s dropping fly balls in Tokyo Dome where there’s no wind… is this Gomez guy going to be alright?”

Gomez: Hahahaha.

Kataoka: Do you think that RBI propelled your great start?

Gomez: To tell you the truth, I was pretty nervous that first game. When I was in America, I didn’t play in domes that much. I think I had problems adjusting to the lighting. But when I got that first RBI, I feel like I got on a roll. On the other hand if I hadn’t gotten that hit, things would have been a lot harder. I think getting that first RBI helped me relax.

Kataoka: Talking to some of the Japanese pitchers you faced while in America and other people you knew, they all say, “Gomez has changed!” I heard you were purely a pull hitter back then, and you swung at a lot of bad pitches. Were you aware of that tendency and did you purposely make a change to your batting approach?

Gomez: Well in America, I think a lot more pitchers rely heavily on their fastball, so I kind of waited on that pitch and swung hard at them. Coming to Japan, I noticed that a lot of pitchers threw a variety of different pitches, regardless of the count. Of course I still pay close attention to the fastball, but I am also trying to be ready for any offspeed pitch they will throw. I also got good advice from Matt (Murton). I knew I had to relax more at the plate and be a little more flexible. I guess in that respect, I have changed.

Kataoka: From what I observed last year, you never really had a bad slump. There were times you didn’t get many hits, but you never lost that hitting form you had all year, and I think that contributed to you winning the RBI title. Looking back on your numbers, are you satisfied?

Gomez: As far as the numbers go, I’m satisfied with them in some ways, but I feel like I could have done more in other ways. I wish I could have hit a few more home runs. The RBIs came because the guys in front of me got on base a lot, so in a way there is luck involved in that one.

Kataoka: Is there anything you are thinking about changing for the upcoming season?

Gomez: I was able to put up decent numbers last season so I don’t want to make any major changes. I hope to keep the same form I had last season as far as batting goes. But I really want to contribute to the team’s success in all areas: batting, defence, even base running.

Kataoka: I heard a rumor that you’re changing your bat.

Gomez: Yeah, I’m gonna use my favorite bat from when I was in America.

Kataoka: So you ARE changing things from last year then!!! (laughs)

Gomez: Hahahaha. Yeah, I’m making a change or two (laughs). I guess I want to hit a few more home runs this season.

Kataoka: When you came last season you had heard that the Tigers fans were pretty passionate. Did they live up to their reputation last year?

Gomez: They were amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. They cheer right until the last out, no matter what the score is, even if we’re losing badly. The fans here are amazing, like none other anywhere.

Kataoka: Got any favorite foods?

Gomez: Yakiniku (grilled beef).

Kataoka: Yakiniku! How about sushi? Got any sushi stories?

Gomez: I love yakiniku but a few times we went out for sushi, too.

Kataoka: What’d you eat?

Gomez: I don’t remember exactly, but I did have sushi a few times… (laughs)

Kataoka: How about yakitori (BBQ chicken skewers) or Chinese? You like them too?

Gomez: Yeah, I like yakitori, teppanyaki…

Kataoka: You down with Kobe beef?

Gomez: Of course!

Kataoka: Hope you can please the fans again this season with your resilience and power at the plate!

Gomez: Thank you! I’ll do my best!

The Battle for 2B: Why Other Teams Want Uemoto

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

It seems other teams want Uemoto to get more playing time over Nishioka at 2B. Why?

It seems other teams want Uemoto to get more playing time over Nishioka at 2B. Why?

Spies from other clubs are pulling for Hiroki Uemoto to win the battle for second base – the biggest position battle in the Tigers camp – over Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The Tigers handily beat the Chunichi Dragons 6-1 in their exhibition match on the 22nd (in Chatan). Said manager Wada, who recorded his first win in the club’s sixth intersquad game of the year, “We face them in our opening season series, so we put a little more emphasis on winning this one,” with a relieved look on his face.

The talk behind the backstop overheard from other clubs’ “scorers” (scouts/data analysts) was all about the battle for second base between Uemoto and Nishioka. So why are the majority of them not cheering for the thus far unspectacular Nishioka, and instead rooting for the man who stole his position last season, Uemoto? One scorer had this to say: “Of course we don’t like Uemoto. He’s got greater range at 2nd than Nishioka does. But if Uemoto gets second base, then there’s a good chance Nishioka will be moved to third. We’ll be happy if that happens because it means (Ryota) Imanari gets forced to sit on the bench. So we want Uemoto to win the battle.”

On this day, Nishioka was also in the starting lineup at DH, posting two walks and hitting a sacrifice fly, earning him an RBI. At second base, Uemoto went one-for-four with an RBI himself, making today’s match a “draw.” So why the precaution about the popular impersonator (and secret weapon) that is Imanari?

Another spy had this to say: “He’s their mood maker and is a great fielder. Plus most of the Tigers hitters gamble on what pitch is coming their way, but not Imanari. He is able to adjust to what is thrown at him. Even when there’s one hitter in the lineup like that, the pitcher’s got to go out of his way to pitch carefully to him. He’s more of a threat than his numbers indicate, and we’d rather he stay on the bench against us.” And just as the man pointed out, Imanari, who played third on this day, went 3-for-5 and proved to be a hard out.

If Uemoto can stay on at second, the team may follow last year’s strategy and use Nishioka at third quite often. In doing so, the pesky Imanari would sit on the bench, a gold mine unharvested. One can’t help but wonder if other teams aren’t taking Nishioka too lightly…

Sponichi Interview 2: Yano on Oh

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

OhYanoInterview

Former Tigers catcher and current sports analyst Akihiro Yano caught up with Korean closer Seung-hwan Oh, winner of last year’s Most Saves title.


Yano: So this is your second year in Japan. Is camp going well for you?

Oh: Compared with last year, much better. I’m in better shape and I’m able to approach practice in a better frame of mind.

Yano: You’ve fit in well with your teammates, too, it seems?

Oh: Yeah, my teammates are really looking out for me.

Yano: That’s because you’re such a good guy! And on the field you met everyone’s expectations with that title (most saves, with 39). Speaking of which, your first year seemed to go extremely well, but what did you think of your performance?

Oh: To me, the title means very little. I’m looking to reduce the number of saves I blow this year*. I wasted too many chances last year.

Yano: We can see how serious you are about that in your workouts. What are you doing differently this year?

Oh: Compared to last year I’m doing a lot more weight lifting. I want to put on more muscle. I lost too much last year.

Yano: For baseball? Not to punch anyone out, right?

Oh: Hahaha, last year was my first in Japan, and I think nerves and worrying about everyone around me caused me to drop too much weight.

Yano: OK, we know about Seung-hwan the pitcher – his game, his pitching style, and so on. How about off the field… have you seen anything moving on TV, in movies or anything?

Oh: I’ve kind of gotten hooked on Korean dramas recently. I download them and watch them. It’s a story of a businessman working for a regular company. All I’ve done is play baseball so for me it’s interesting to watch stories about the lives of “regular business people.”

Yano: It’s a hard life! It’s what I do now. By the way, it seems like you’re starting to understand more and more Japanese.

Oh: (Last year) I didn’t study at all but this year I would like to. When I have time I think I’ll hire a private (Japanese language) tutor and get lessons.

Yano: A girlfriend?

Oh: Hahaha, no.

Yano: Not that you have many, but what do you do when you get a day off?

Oh: I love going out and finding good restaurants to eat at.

Yano: Japanese restaurants?

Oh: I like Japanese food, like sushi. There’s nothing I won’t eat.

Yano: By the way, what is your favorite Korean food?

Oh: That would be my mom’s home cooking.

Yano: Not your girlfriend’s?

Oh: Hahaha.

Yano: (Relievers) Fukuhara and Andoh are getting up there in age, so the team will be depending on you even more! Have a great year!

Oh: We’re all part of the same team.

Yano: Fukuhara is already saying his back hurts…

Oh: I believe it (laughs).

* Seung-hwan Oh had six blown saves last season. Including three walk-off losses he had 4 defeats on the season, and twice left the mound after giving up the tying run.

Spring Camp Shuffle, Other News

News out of Okinawa is that 2014 round 4 pick Koki Moriya has joined the parent club for the remainder of their time down south. Also going along is Ryota Arai, who seems to have recovered from his injury late last season. Both put up great numbers in the ni-gun exhibition games, and deserve to be in Okinawa.

Two players went up and three went down. Naomasa Yohkawa (injured left shoulder) will make the trip north to Aki and start rehab soon. Yohkawa hopes to play on the big squad come April, giving the team a much needed power boost. Infielder Naoto Nishida and pitcher Hiroaki Saiuchi will also continue their training up north.

In other news. manager Yutaka Wada took two days’ rest and even went to the hospital. It is believed to be stress-related. He returned to the team today.

GomezBPSpring2015

Mauro Gomez and Matt Murton took outdoor batting practice for the first time this spring, with Gomez launching 5 balls over the outfield fence in 43 swings, and Murton clearing the wall twice in 39 pitches. Says Gomez: “I felt good out there, but I want to be able to do even better tomorrow. Murton showed his desire to catch up on the time he’s missed with a tweaked right thigh: “I’m still not able to do all that the team is doing out there, and am working hard to get where I should be.”

MurtonBPspring2015

2015 Season Preview, Part 4: Relief Pitchers

Our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season concludes today with a look at the relievers as a whole. Click here for infield analysis, here for the outfield and here for the starting pitchers. The relief squad is a complicated group, as it includes men who might get the occasional spot start, but also sees the most shuffling (between the farm and the top team) during the year. I will list several players and their tendencies and attributes, but this is by no means a thorough look at every hurler on the team. As spring training goes on, more players will stand out while others might fade off. OK, let’s get to it. We start with a look at our closer!

Seung-hwan Oh

ohdeliveryThe Korean veteran closer made his presence felt in Japan. Last season his fastball induced a swinging strike rate of 15.2% while yielding a batting average of .147. Right. Players swung and missed more frequently than they recorded hits off his fastball. That’s almost unheard of! When he did get hit, as is the case with closers, it often cost the team a win, but his saves rate (39 of 46) is still quite high and the team is hoping he will add a sinker or forkball to the repertoire this spring. Having this weapon in his arsenal will only make him stronger and more intimidating to opposing hitters in 2015. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Oh has expressed an interest in testing his skills in the majors in 2016 (and is already being scouted), so this will likely be his final year with the club.

Shinobu Fukuhara

The elder statesman of the club, Fukuhara also pushes his fastball (around 70% of his pitches) more than any other. It is not nearly as effective as Oh’s, but still he managed to hold down the fort most of the time. At 38 years old, the senior should definitely be used more selectively to conserve his energy and keep his numbers down. As can be imagined, he fared much worse when pitching on consecutive days than when given at least a day’s rest. He’s made 50+ appearances in four straight seasons, but that streak will have to come to an end soon, preferably in 2015.

fukuharaandoh

Yuya Andoh

Another longtime veteran, Andoh saw his numbers spike in 2014 much like Fukuhara’s did. His fastball got tagged pretty badly, and he really did not have any one pitch that could get him out of trouble. His strength comes in his control, and he led the league with the lowest “errant pitch” rate (2.5%). Andoh has also thrown in 50+ games several seasons in a row, and at 37, could stand to be used more sparingly as well. Perhaps giving him and Fukuhara alternating turns down in Naruohama would help conserve them both for the postseason.

Kazuya Takamiya

Mostly used as a situational reliever in 2014, but showed his worth by getting the team out of countless jams, especially against lefty hitters. Takamiya made Giants’ cleanup hitter Shinnosuke Abe look plain foolish in the postseason, but also posted a perfect ERA against the Dragons and Carp in the regular season. A good spring will get him more innings and put him in a more prominent role in 2015.

Naoto Tsuru

Tsuru made a few starts last season and was brought in as a reliever as well. It is difficult to know what his role will be in the future, but he needs a strong spring to make himself a more important part of the puzzle.

Ryoma Matsuda

Could Ryoma Matsuda be the closer of the future?

Could Ryoma Matsuda be the closer of the future?

After two injury-plagued seasons, the youngster has vowed to remain healthy in 2015 and bring his A-game. He’s got an overpowering fastball and is not afraid to use it, and he could pick up the bulk of the work that opens up as Fukuhara and Andoh wind down their careers. With a little more experience and success, he could be a candidate to close for the team in 2016.

The Others

Longing for the JFK days...

Longing for the JFK days…

There are a bunch of other names that shall remain just names on this list for the time being. Some played a little last year (Kazuya Tsutsui, Tatsuya Kojima, Kosuke Katoh, Yutaka Tamaki) while others are just trying to make their big league debut (Kojiro Tanabo, Kazuya Itoh, Hiroya Shimamoto, etc.).

Overall Prognosis

I wish I could say the relief is set and that the team’s leads will all be safe, but reality is that this group is quite unstable. We hope Oh will continue to provide rock-solid ninth inning performances and that the old guys have one last good season in them. We hope Matsuda stays healthy and develops into a lights-out set up man or even closer. We hope Takamiya takes on a bigger role and excels as the best lefty reliever on the team. We hope some of the others step up and blossom into great professionals. Unfortunately, all of these things have to work together for the season to be a success. If last season is any indication, fans will be white-knuckled all season long. Here’s to hoping this group develops into a strength.

2015 Season Preview, Part 3: Starting Pitchers

Up next in our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season is the pitching staff. Click here to see the infield analysis and here for the outfield. The series will wrap up with a look at the intriguing puzzle pieced together with the relievers. OK here we go! The first four starters are set in stone, but who’s got the inside track on the other two slots?

Atsushi Nohmi

"Just have to practice."

“Just have to practice.”

We start by looking at the most experienced member of the starting corps. Last year was largely a forgettable one for the former “staff ace.” At age 35, his best years might be behind him, but his second half numbers from last year (3.07 ERA after June) show that perhaps he’s still got something left in the tank. Last year broke a string of 5 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 2.70, and he barely finished below 4 because of a shaky first half. Entering the first year of a new 3-year contract, Nohmi will look to keep his status as an upper-tier starter for the 2015 Tigers, despite the three pitchers “behind” him having had more success last year.

Randy Messenger

Messenger does an interview with Mr. Kawafuji, whose English is awful. Looks like they had fun, though!

Messenger does an interview with Mr. Kawato, whose English is awful. Looks like they had fun, though!

Since joining the club in 2010, the man has found his groove, getting better with each season. Despite major league offers in the 2013 offseason, Messenger elected to return to the Tigers for three more years. The first year of that contract proved to be his best in Japan, as he racked up a league-high 13 wins and 226 strikeouts while logging 208 ⅓ innings, a team high. While he had a few slip-ups here and there, he came through when needed the most, even going as high as 149 pitches in one outing. In what turned out to be the final game of the season, Big Mess kept the team in the game until his final pitch, his 134th of the game, yielded the lone run. Despite worries of offseason weight gain, this is one workhorse the team can count on for 200+ IP, 200+ K and over a dozen wins. Who knows, he could become the second foreigner ever to win the Eiji Sawamura Award. The other? Tigers legend Gene Bacque (1964).

Minoru Iwata

Minoru Iwata is well known for his charity work in the Kansai area.

Minoru Iwata is well known for his charity work in the Kansai area.

Of the “Big 4” Iwata received the least run support from his mates, and by a long shot. Despite the best ERA among starters (2.54), he also only received an average of 2.89 runs support (per 9 innings), as evidenced by his 9-8 record in 22 starts. (By comparison, Messenger and Nohmi got over 4 runs support and Fujinami got nearly 6!) Still, 2014 was a breakout season for the 31-year old, and his confidence appears to have carried over to this season. His lower body is stronger than before and surely he also wants to prove that he can keep up with the best on this staff. Look for another solid (and perhaps under-appreciated) season from the occasionally bearded one.

Shintaro Fujinami

"It's a player's free choice. If I ever become that good, we can talk about it." -- Fujinami on playing in the majors

“It’s a player’s free choice. If I ever become that good, we can talk about it.”
— Fujinami on playing in the majors

Much coveted out of high school and still just 20 years old, the young phenom has lived up to all the hype but still has room for growth. He became just the second pitcher in team history (after legend Yutaka Enatsu, 1968) to record double digits in wins in his first two years out of high school. He has also drawn favorable comparisons to Texas Ranger ace Yu Darvish, and the numbers after two seasons are quite similar. Furthermore, those same Texas Rangers are said to be scouting Fujinami despite his being 7 years away from free agent eligibility. What makes him great? He’s got a strong fastball (average 151.2 km/h – 94 mph) and six other pitches in his arsenal to back it up. That will leave any batter guessing what is coming. Fujinami did, however, show a disturbing trend in 2014 of allowing too many runs too early (43 in 75 IP in the first three innings of his starts). Whatever the issue, he needs to get his head in the game right from the start. If he does, the sky is the limit for this young man.

The Rest

As many of us know, the Tigers (and much of NPB) tend to use a six-man pitching rotation, occasionally skipping the last man and giving their aces extra starts in key games. The first four spots will almost definitely go to the men mentioned above, but who deserves spots 5 & 6? Let’s look at some of the candidates. If they are not mentioned here, it likely means they will be in the next report on the relievers.

Suguru Iwazaki

The rookie lefty made several starts with the big team last year between stints in Naruohama. He impressed many by recording five wins despite being a sixth-round pick.

Kazuyuki Kaneda

Another very young pitcher who had moments of greatness and other moments of ineptness. He has come on strong so far this spring, but it will take more than that to cement his place in the rotation.

Yuta Iwasada

Last year’s (2013) first round pick started a few games and pitched some relief, but never really found success in either role. His spring is also off to a rocky start, as he gave up 3 ER in 3 IP against the Korean Samsung squad. Scouts also say he needs a lot of work.

Hiroaki Saiuchi

Saiuchi is perhaps better suited to the long relief role, but did start a few games last year. Consistency is a big problem so far in his short career.

Yuya Yokoyama

The team’s #1 pick this year (2014) has started the year slowly, injuring his clavicle joint before training even started, but there is still hope he can contribute at some point. If anything, he may get called up later in the year, and April seems doubtful at this point.

Overall Prognosis

The failed attempt to land free agent Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko leaves a gap in the rotation. The front four should all record double digit win totals, but the rotation after that looks shaky at best. The Tigers really have to hope for some pleasant surprises out of a few young developing players. Who knows, a fifth solid starter could blossom this year! (Other prospects include Takumi Akiyama, Hiroya Shimamoto, Shoya Yamamoto, Daiki Enokida etc.) If not, though, we could see the rotation shortened to five, especially if the race for the pennant is tight.

2015 Season Preview, Part 2: Outfield

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!

Left Field

mattmurtonThis 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).

Center Field

yamatobuntLast 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.

Right Field

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 Up-and-Comers

#3 Draft Pick Taiga Egoshi

#3 Draft Pick Taiga Egoshi

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.

Overall Prognosis

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.

Hitting Skills

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.

2015 Season Preview, Part 1: Infield

Today I’d like to start a four-part series about the Tigers and their upcoming season. This section will look at the infield. The next will look at the outfield and general offense. The second half of the series will look at starting pitchers and the relief squad. Without further ado, let’s dive right in to what is probably the most intriguing story at this spring’s camps.

Catchers

umenotsuruokaRookie Ryutaro Umeno carried the bulk of the load last season, playing in 92 games while starting nearly half the team’s games (60). He impressed fans with his strong defense (no passed balls allowed) and potential to hit the long ball (7 HR, including back-to-back jacks in July). However, his averaged was low all year and ended south of the Mendoza line (.197). He also played in very few games after August, giving the bulk of the playing time up to the veterans. Fatigue, loss of strength and inexperience did him in last year, but he has said that it is his goal to be a power-hitting catcher who can endure the rigors of an entire season, and he needs to do just that. The Japanese say “優勝チームに名捕手あり” (Championship teams have well known catchers.) If Umeno can be that for the Tigers, this team could win the championship this season and for years to come.

The other main options, Kazunari Tsuruoka and Akihito Fuji, were both brought in as free agents and are towards the end of their careers. They need to step aside and give Umeno the spotlight as well as any wisdom they may have to impart to the future starting catcher. Others playing catcher at camp include Takashi Shimizu and Shinya Azuhata.

First Basemen

The only one here, in reality, is 2014 RBI champion Mauro Gomez. He had a completely impressive first season, batting .283 and hitting 26 home runs and driving in 109 runs. He also played in all but one game, which he sat out because of heat stroke. However, the Tigers need to be ready for a potential drop off in production. He struck out 166 times (three away from being league worst) and definitely has some weaknesses that veteran pitchers will pick up on pretty quickly. Of course we hope he can be Randy Bass II, but the Tigers need to bring someone else up to step in, should the worst case scenario come true.

Others at camp playing first include Naoto Nishida (Okinawa) and Shinta Hifumi (Aki). Neither has much hype surrounding him, and there is always a possibility that Ryota Arai step in at first temporarily if the need arises.

Second Basemen

nishiokauemotoThis is where things heat up. Last season in April, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kosuke Fukudome collided in shallow right field, resulting in a long rehabilitation process for the starting second bagger. In his stead, young Hiroki Uemoto stepped his game up, hitting well over .300 through the first two months of the season, showing a mix of pop (7 HR) and speed (20 SB) while getting on base at a decent clip right through to the end of the season. Even when Nishioka was ready to come back, he could not displace Uemoto from second, and instead played third base (and not too  well, either). Heading into spring, Nishioka has made clear that he wants to play in the middle of the infield, not the hot corner. Since shortstop is set in stone, that leaves only second. Uemoto does not have the arm strength to play third (as seen towards the end of 2013), leaving the two men to fight for one spot. Nishioka has had an up-and-down career, both stats-wise and health-wise. He sounds like he is pushing himself to his max to regain the starting position, and I can honestly see him taking it this season and having a good one. However, parking Uemoto on the bench or using him sporadically or at a position that doesn’t suit him is also a bad idea. He has proven himself valuable to the team as well, and will not give up the starting job without a fight. Both men provide roughly the same numbers on the average, but I like Nishioka better because of his mood-making ability and aggressiveness. Let’s forget his bad years with the Marines, his “lost” years with the Twins and his injury-marred 2014. This year, Nishioka must be the leadoff hitter and spark the team’s offense.

Shortstop

This position has been settled since January 9, when the team announced that Takashi Toritani was giving up his MLB dreams to rejoin the team in 2015 and beyond. The iron man has played every inning the last 432 games (and appeared in 1466 straight) and looks to continue that streak. On one hand, it is great to have the captain back. He provides consistency at the plate and in the field almost like no other player in NPB. However, there is a slight catch-22 that comes with his ironman play. No one has played the position for years, and the young players hoping to eventually replace him will come in as 25-year old men with no game experience. I strongly believe this season, Toritani’s streak must come to an end. Whether he gives up later innings or whole games, he must give occasion to youngster Fumiya Hojoh to get on the field and make mistakes and grow stronger.

Third Basemen

ryotaaraiimanariAnother position battle takes place here, though perhaps not as dramatic as the one at second. With older brother gone, Ryota Arai looks to get the starting job at the hot corner. However, there’s another Ryota (Imanari) who is equally anxious to play every game. Both men have shown flashes of brilliance at times, but also have major weaknesses that stop them from being standout everyday players. Arai has a little more power than Imanari, but Imanari has a little more speed and perhaps a better glove. He has been known to make poor decisions at times, though, and needs to make wiser decisions on the field and base paths. I do not foresee either of these men getting the job outright. Since Arai is a righty and Imanari a lefty, they could alternate depending on the pitching matchups.

There is also grizzly veteran Kentaro Sekimoto, who came through in the clutch several times with timely pinch hits. He will likely not get more than a dozen or two starts, but will see time towards the end of close games, no doubt. Also waiting for a chance is Naomasa Yohkawa, who appears to have more power than any of the others ahead of him. Perhaps before season’s end, he will be in the mix as well.

Overall prognosis

The team has plenty of talent in the infield. There is also a decent mix of experience and youth, unproven as the young guys might be. In order for the team to be successful beyond 2015, it needs to find a balance between leaning heavily on the veterans and giving the youngsters a chance to prove themselves. The infield dirt at Koshien will see plenty of excitement this year. Stay tuned for the outfield report coming at a later date.