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!

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

Rumors & Ideas: Thinking Outside the Box

The events of the past few games have prompted sports writers to start dreaming up scenarios of how the Tigers can break out of their mediocrity, leaving the rest of the Central League behind them (assuming no other team snaps out of their funk). Here are the two most interesting ideas I have read, along with my opinion.

perezmug

The club should explore ways to get this guy up on the parent team.

1) After tonight’s start in Tokyo, put Randy Messenger on the 10-day DL, and call up Nelson Perez. With the All-Star Break coming soon (just 4 games between his start tonight and the break), he would be eligible to return for the second game after the break, which would also be against the hated Yomiuri Giants. The move would give the team at least a 5-game look at Perez in their lineup. He has been hitting quite well on the farm, raking at a .400 (12-for-30, 2 HRs) clip through 8 games. Surely after scoring just 4 runs in 3 games against the Dragons, no one in the organization is blind to the problem the team has scoring runs.

My Opinion: I say go for it. The team needs to take risks, and this one is about as unrisky as you can get. The plan was to plug Randy in for the second game of the Carp series right before the break, but they could also give the start to someone else. I had the idea of dropping Seung-hwan Oh to the farm in August in favor of Perez taking the 4th foreigner slot. (League regulations limit the number of imports on the active roster to 4.) Perhaps this would be a good “sneak preview” of how that might play out. Randy has been pitching extremely well lately, so there are two ways of seeing this: (1) Ride the hot hand. Let him pitch two games before the break and he’ll still be rested for the second half with 5 days off as usual; (2) Don’t overwork the workhorse of the staff! Give him 10 days off and see how well he does the rest of the year. I’m divided here, and would probably agree with the former if the team could get him enough run support to win games. However, as we’ve seen in recent weeks (years?) the team simply does not consistently reward its strong pitchers with victories. Let’s try this one out, bring up Perez and see what the kid’s got. A lineup with him and a red-hot Mauro Gomez, Matt Murton and (somewhat cooling off) Kosuke Fukudome would be a real pleasure to watch.

What's wrong with Nohmi? His performance of late has the team scratching its collective head.

What’s wrong with Nohmi? His performance of late has the team scratching its collective head.

2) Drop Atsushi Nohmi to the bullpen. Perhaps long relief is better suited to him at this stage of his career. That, or even what one blogger suggested: put Seung-hwan Oh in the set-up role and give the closer position to Nohmi. Intriguing to say the least. Nohmi has lost 9 games already this year and dropped 13 decisions last campaign, too. His ERA has risen significantly since the end of 2013, and he does not seem to have the stamina or ability to pitch long innings anymore. Further complicating things is Oh’s recent slide. The numbers look bad enough, but they could be much worse. He has gotten himself out of two bases-loaded (and fewer than 2 outs) jams in the last three weeks, so just a little bad luck and that ERA (and number of blown saves/losses) could be much more inflated than it already is. The rest of the bullpen has also been a weakness all year, and could use some reinforcement.

My opinion: As intriguing as this idea is, I’m going to have to pass on it. Nohmi has not been a reliever since 2008, and putting him in this role could destroy his confidence and make him even less effective than he already is. Instead, I propose restructuring the bullpen a little. Drop Yuya Andoh down to the farm for some rest (he is pushing 38, after all) while bringing up one of the young spot starters to do long relief work. The team would then have two guys (in addition to Hiroaki Saiuchi) who could pitch multiple innings, taking the pressure off some of the rest of the bullpen. Guys like Shoya Yamamoto, Takumi Akiyama, heck even Akira Iwamoto or Hiroya Shimamoto, deserve more of a shot on the big club. Wada loves his old grizzly veterans though, so it is unlikely he will rest Andoh or the even older (but more effective) Shinobu Fukuhara.

What do you all think of these suggestions made by sports writers? Keep in mind, none of us (and I include myself here) are former managers, so all our theories and ideas are probably rubbish to those who have played and managed the game before. Still, it’s fun to pontificate and theorize about different ideas, is it not? Comments always welcome, folks!

A Modest Proposal

Drastic Times Call for What?

Drastic Measures! Yes! Who said that?

I did. Now, I don’t know the game of baseball the way the experts do. I’ve never been a player (beyond age 13) and I’ve never been a coach (beyond assistant-coaching a girls’ team way back in the day). But I do know a few things.

1) Good teams don’t have this many losing streaks. Did you know the Tigers have lost 3 or more straight games SEVEN times already this year? Fortunately they have had nearly that many winning streaks (6) as well. Still, too many skids mean that there is simply no way they can win the pennant.

2) Their road record is abominable. As of today’s action, the team is a brutal 12-25-1 on the road. Their home record is a strong 24-12-0, though, which puts them just a game under .500 on the year. But there’s something about batting first that brings this team to its knees too often.

3) They’ve lost way more blow outs than they’ve won. If we count a 4+ run win as a blowout, the team has won just 5 of those all year, while losing an amazing 19. Perhaps the mark of a good team is one that wins close games though. But in one-run games, they are just 13-12, which really is not amazing (nor is it lucky, I suppose). The bottom line: they give up way too many runs and score way too few.

Seung-hwan Oh got lit up on Friday night, allowing 4 hits and only recording an out on a sac bunt as the team lost a walk-off, 4-3. It was the 10,000th game in team history.

Seung-hwan Oh got lit up on Friday night, allowing 4 hits and only recording an out on a sac bunt as the team lost a walk-off, 4-3. It was the 10,000th game in team history.

4) They blow leads like no other team. I don’t have full numbers, but Seung-hwan Oh has blown 4 games already this year. He blew 6 all of last year. His ERA in the last 31 days is a mediocre 4.70 despite giving up runs in just 3 of 13 appearances. He is not the lone reliever who has coughed up leads and lost games, though. In the past month, Shinobu Fukuhara has done it twice and Yuya Andoh has done it once as well. The starters have had terrible outings and the rest of the middle relievers have given up their share of runs, too.

With these things in mind, I propose the following:

If things do not improve in July, send our closer down to the farm and let him learn a new pitch or two, so he can stop serving up beach balls to our opponents late in games. Call up newcomer Nelson Perez to fill the foreigner quota. And here’s some of my logic for waiting.

Let's see if this guy makes our park look small with his big bat. Bring him up!

Let’s see if this guy makes our park look small with his big bat. Bring him up!

The Tigers play 14 of their next 19 at home. Their home record is decent. Bringing Perez in to play center field at vast Koshien would be a baptism by fire… he’s not a natural center fielder anyways. So you wait until August 4, when the team plays the entire month away from Koshien. Then you either put Perez or Kosuke Fukudome in center, where our team has had awful production all year. Now the batting lineup features 3 foreigners and has no real easy outs, other than pitcher (and catcher, unless Ryutaro Umeno gets more playing time). You could also make manager Wada drool by starting an alternating left-right lineup: Toritani L – Uemoto R – Fukudome L – Gomez R – Perez L – Murton R – Imanari L – catcher R – pitcher.

The Tigers sorely lack power, and while Perez is still unproven, perhaps this month would be enough to prepare him for the bigs. (Mind you, through 5 games he is hitting .368 for the farm team.) He apparently said Koshien Stadium was a “small park” but of course talk is cheap. He does boast good power, and even if he does not live up to his own hype, his presence could give opposing pitchers one more big bat to worry about. The long August “road of death” (all games away from Koshien until the 29th) would be a little more bearable if the team started making some noise with their bats.

No matter how you look at it, this team will not win the pennant as it is now. It needs a catalyst of some sort, and in my opinion, it can only come from the batters, who need to wake out of their season-long slumber. Sacrificing Oh would take a lot of guts on the team’s part, but if they sent Randy Messenger down for his 5.88 ERA through 6 weeks… why not do the same thing to your closer? What’s the worst that could happen? Someone else comes in and blows games? For the record, Messenger has come back on fire, lowering his ERA to 3.30 in 6 starts since being recalled.

Once again I say, bump the closer down, bring up the young Dominican to “add a little spice” to the lineup.

Season Turned Around?

15-5-24 Standings

Central League Standings 5/24

The Hanshin Tigers were seven games out of first place on May 24. Their record was a dismal 21-25, and they were heading into the interleague mini-season, one which has never been kind to them. With the first-place Yomiuri Giants as defending interleague champs, their lead over the Tigers could have easily reached double digits in three weeks (18 games). Instead, the unthinkable happened.

The Tigers went 10-8, which was the best record by a CL team, as the rest of the league got humiliated by the PL to the tune of a 34-53-3 record. The Giants won only 7, and the second place Baystars managed just 3 wins and a tie. Just one game after league play resumed, no CL team had a record above .500, and the Tigers were tied for first. They are still undefeated (5-0-1) since the break, and hold a 2-game lead atop the standings.

15-6-28 Standings

CL Standings 6/28

The greatest factor in the team’s turnaround has been its bats. While still in the cellar for team BA (.236) they are closer to the pack than they were a few weeks ago (.225). They are also finally not the weakest team in the CL, as their 39 team HRs are two ahead of Chunichi and just two fewer than the Giants. We already paid tribute to Kosuke Fukudome a few days ago, and he proceeded to hit his 12th jack the next day. Mauro Gomez followed that up with his 9th, making the pair the first in 28 years of Tigers ball to hit back-to-back bombs in back-to-back games. (Mayumi and Bass did it in 1987.)

Murton's first HR of the year came on Saturday, June 20 in the bottom of the 2nd inning.

Murton’s first HR of the year came on Saturday, June 20 in the bottom of the 2nd inning.

Today we want to focus on the turnaround of another key player: Matt Murton. We have followed his story closely here as well (see here and here). He got benched at the end of interleague play and received plenty of bad press as he was batting .243 with no home runs through 55 games. Since league play resumed on June 20, he has gone 11-for-23 (.478) with two home runs in six games. His average now (.264) is still well below his career average in Japan (.317 heading into this season) but is steadily climbing up, thanks to 3 straight multi-hit games. This six-game stretch is the best we have seen out of Murton all year and shows promise of the return of the redheaded hitting machine we all know and love.

Just a few days later, on Thursday, June 24, he hit his second bomb. The man is on a roll!

Just a few days later, on Wednesday, June 24, he hit his second bomb. The man is on a roll!

What has helped him turn his season around? Here are some of the possible explanations:

perezmug1) His benching and the team’s acquisition of Nelson Perez. It may or may not be coincidence that Murton’s turn around started right around when the team finally found another foreign left fielder. Incidentally, Perez made an error in his first game, going hitless in four at bats. Since then he has settled in a little better, going 8-for-20 in five games. (No home runs yet, but 3 doubles despite a boatload of strikeouts.) Could Matt have felt some pressure that his job was at stake? Did that light a fire under him? Doubtful. He is a professional, and has always been known as one who strives for excellence at all times. It seems unlikely that a guy from independent ball would scare a seasoned veteran into hitting the ball more.

2) His 100-minute talk with Wada and the coaches on a rainy day before league play resumed. It sounds like he was really passionate while talking to them, reminding the staff that he just loves baseball so much. He did most of the talking while the coaches mostly listened, reports say. The rest of the team had long since left the facilities but he kept on going, perhaps releasing some much built up steam. This is definitely a factor worth considering. Coaches and management agreed that he was overthinking things. This could be true, as analysts compiled data showing that he was swinging at just 60% of the strikes he was seeing, as compared with a 69% mark last season. Maybe now he’s getting a better look at the ball and swinging more aggressively at the right pitches.

murtonhotzone2014

How he did in 2014

3) More aggressive hitting. Last season, he batted .394 (54-137) when putting the first pitch of the at-bat in play. He has done so much less this year (.154), and has gone 1 for 4 (.250) on first-pitch-in-play situations during his 6-game hitting streak. His homers this year have come in hitters’ counts (3 balls, 1 strike vs. Swallows, 1 ball, no strikes vs. Carp), which indicates to me that he is zoned in a lot more during those situations. (On the season, he is 5 for 8 when the count is 3-1 and 8 for 20 when the count is 1-0). Let’s hope he can bring back the aggressiveness that led to his league-best .338 average from a year ago!

4) He met an English Tigers blogger in the days leading up to his hitting streak. Yes, that must be it. Couldn’t be coincidence, could it. By the way, the team is 6-0-1 since that day.

Here’s a GIF of Matt making an excellent play in left. Move over, Yamato!

The Tigers go on the road to face the Swallows for three, then head to Yokohama for three more before playing a “home” game (in Okayama) next Tuesday and finally return to Koshien on July 8th to finish that series against the Dragons. It will be interesting to see what the standings look like at that point, as the next series on their plates after that is a road set against their eternal rivals, the Giants. Let’s keep things going, Tigers! We always believed in you, Matt! See you at the ‘Bucks again sometime!

By the way, I don’t want to jinx anyone but so far Murton is 13-for-19 (.684) against tonight’s Swallows starter in his career! Hope to see more fireworks!

Here’s to you, #8!

fukudomecard

It is fitting that the star of the Tigers’ eighth straight home win is number eight, Kosuke Fukudome. The 38-year old had a game for the ages on Saturday, not only reaching base every time up, but scoring on every occasion as well. The Tigers won 5-3, and we could spend some time looking at the other guys who contributed to the win (Randy Messenger‘s gutsy performance despite a costly error, questionable calls and weak hits that somehow turned into runs; Mauro Gomez‘s 2 RBIs including a late home run that piggybacked on Fukudome’s; Yamato‘s amazing catch in center that was reminiscent of his Nippon Series work last season). You can see GIFs of much of the action here. But let’s focus on what the veteran ex-Dragon, ex-Cub, ex-Indian did to essentially win the game on his own.

After two quick and easy outs to start the first, Fukudome battled his way on base, earning a walk. This gave resurgent cleanup hitter Gomez a chance to bring him home on a deep ball to right-center (video here). The crucial first run of the game went to the Tigers thanks to #8’s keen eye and strong base running.

In the fourth, Baystars pitcher blooped a ball to right, which “the Dome” charged, threw hard to second and induced the ever-so-rare “fielder’s choice to right.” It didn’t prevent a run from scoring on the play, but it helped Messenger get out of a tough inning.

He then led off the bottom of the inning with a stand-up triple (his third of the year after recording none in his first two years with the club). The two imports both grounded out to pitcher, and fans feared another leadoff triple by the PL-graduate would be wasted, until Hiroki Uemoto (a.k.a. Lethal Uepon) punched a ball through the infield (video here). The deficit was cut in half, and the Tigers needed just one more run to even things up.

fukudomehomerun

Who else should be the one to provide the bat but Dome-san? His 10th home run of the year in the sixth was a solo shot, and sent the crowd into a frenzy. (GIF here)

But not as much as his next one, which went to an even deeper part of the stadium, and put the team up a run. (GIF here) It was his first multi-home run game in 8 years, and gave him a final line of: 3 AB, 3 H, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 4 R. Plus one outfield assist. You want clutch? Listen to this: of his 11 bombs on the year, 2 have been the first run scored in the game, 3 have tied the game, 1 broke a tie, 1 reversed the lead, and 1 was a walkoff. Since moving into third in the hitting order, he is 13-for-27 (.481) with 3 HR and 6 RBI.

fukudomehero150627

Here is a translation of the hero interview. Did I mention that I love his curtness and frankness? Curt and Frank would be proud. (video here)

ーTell us how you’re feeling right now.
“Quite frankly I’m happy. Yeah.”

ーFirst, your game-tying home run. You were the leadoff hitter that inning. Can you take us back to what you were thinking at the time?
“What was happening then? I dunno, I think I just went in hoping to get on base.”

ーAnd how did the connection feel?
“It felt great, but the ball in my previous at bat was held in the park by the head winds, so I didn’t think this one had a chance, either.”

ーHow would you rate your condition these days?
“Well, better than usual, I reckon.”

ーHow did you prepare for your at-bat when you hit the go-ahead home run?
“We already had two outs on us that inning, and I might be overstating things but I went in thinking home run.”

ーHow did that one feel?
“Better than the first one.”

ーIt’s your first double-digit home run season since joining the Tigers, and your first in a long time. How does that sound to you?
“Yeah, it took me awhile to get back there.”

ーYou’ve been on a real roll since batting third in the order. How do you like that slot?
“It’s good.”

ーYou scored four runs today, meaning you ran a lot as well.
“I’m ready for a good leg massage tonight.”

ーOn defense you made a great play on (DeNA pitcher) Inoh’s hit, showing great focus in right as well.
“One of the team’s defining characteristics is creating momentum with sound fielding. It all starts there.”

ーThe team is now undefeated in six. How do you feel about the momentum the team has built?
“I think we’ve got some good flow going.”

ーThe team sits atop the standings. How does it feel to play good ball while on top?
“It’s fun!”

ーAbout tomorrow’s game…
“We had some great support from all you fans today, and we’ll do our best to keep things going in tomorrow’s game.”

Book Review – Hanshin Tigers: Actually Strong

torigoebookThe original title of this book is 本当は強い 阪神タイガース (Honto wa Tsuyoi Hanshin Tigers) and its author is Norio Torigoe. It was published in April 2013, so its contents reflect the team up to the end of the 2012 season. What interested me in this book before I even started reading it was its analysis of the team based on sabermetrics. I wish I had known more about these “new age stats” before I picked up this book, although the author does a good job of explaining most of them in layman’s terms. In fact, he not only explains what they measure, but also why they are important in judging a player’s talent, and how they are calculated as well. The mathematician in me loved that aspect of the book.

Torigoe uses all sorts of data to determine the greatest manager in team history, as well as its best hitter, pitcher and pinch hitter. He then looks at whether or not the team has been successful at training its players. This section includes analyses of drafting strategies and picks, trades, and free agent signings (particular foreigners). The third section examines how the Tigers can become a winning franchise again, It focuses primarily on ideal hitting order (based largely on OBP), defensive placement (using UZR – Ultimate Zone Rating), using Koshien Stadium’s uniqueness to the team’s advantage, and how to win in a stadium where the Tigers have always struggled – Nagoya Dome. The book concludes with a lengthy interview between the author and former Tigers owner Katsuyoshi Nozaki, who is credited with bringing the team out of its “Dark Ages”. While this section dragged on at times, it also was a good eye-opener. Nozaki reveals how teams rate players and determine their salaries, as well as many aspects of the Tigers management and front office that have hindered the team from being successful.

The book was a fairly quick read, despite its meaty content. One thing the author does well is to boldface the main point of each subsection, allowing the reader to focus exactly on what he wants to get across. I enjoyed learning more about sabermetrics and how they are calculated, although I am not sure I will ever calculate these stats on my own. Still, Mr. Torigoe showed empirically that the Hanshin Tigers are not as weak as people have made them out to be, and gives great suggestions on how the team can prosper in the future to truly become strong.

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Book Review – Slugging it Out in Japan

sluggingTo purchase and read this book, I had to put away my dislike of the Yomiuri Giants. After all, the subject and co-author starred for them during the most interesting years of my Hanshin Tigers’ history. He was a perfect foil to then-star Tiger Randy Bass, who enamored the fanatics at Koshien from the time he arrived in Japan.

Contrary to Ba-su sama, Warren Cromartie spent many turbulent, inconsistent years with the club before he finally accepted his fate and position within the team, thriving at last only when he started to genuinely like Japan. While other Robert Whiting (co-author) books are chalk full of anecdotes about the lives of several players, this one focuses exclusively on the man they called ‘Cro. This allows for a much deeper, personal and gripping read than the others Whiting penned, which technically could be enjoyed a chapter at a time, and put away for weeks or months without fear of breaking the flow of the story.

Cromartie was born and raised in Miami Beach, Florida. His rough childhood seems to have shaped his stoic, rebellious demeanor right through to this day. He played several years in the Montreal Expos organization before taking up the Yomiuri Giants on their generous offer, but only after the Expos shafted him and the American (SF) Giants reneged on an offer they had informally made him.

This book takes us through Cromartie’s dislike of camp, struggles with living arrangements, disgust with Korakuen Stadium locker rooms, beefs with coaches and teammates (he particularly mocks then-pretty boy Tatsunori Hara), and his love and respect for Sadaharu Oh, who actually gave him private hitting lessons when he was struggling early on. It also opens many readers’ eyes to the racism he faced as a black man in Tokyo as well as on a team whose ownership and upper management refused to acknowledge his contributions to championship teams.

It also pointed out to me that Cro was (is?) a skilled musician who had a band in Japan, appeared on TV, and even practiced drums and recorded an album while sitting out an injury late in his Japanese baseball career.

Most of all, reading this book endeared me to this fireball of a man, who holds back no punches (literally), criticizing even himself at times. It gave me a clearer look into what American baseball players in Japan experienced and thought back in the 80s. I recommend this book to everyone, even my fellow Tigers fans. Trust me, there’s lots of good in this book, and Randy Bass makes a few appearances as well.

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