|All Central League teams had a losing record for the second time this year and in NPB history|
After games concluded on July 21, all six Central League teams had a losing record for the second time this year. Last month, it was an NPB first when they all were under .500. The chaotic part about this is that any team can win the pennant and make the playoffs with no one written off.
Before the year started, the Chunichi Dragons were believed to be the worst team in NPB, but even they're not dead as they trail by 3.5 games. The only team we can stick a fork in is the Orix Buffaloes, who've had a poor start which is most likely too tough to overcome.
We'll try and examine why no team has pulled away in the Central League as best as possible. At this point, mediocrity trumps the idea that the there is parity in this half of NPB.
The Interleague Play brought them down
This is the most obvious point, knowing that the Pacific League won against the Central League head to head with a 61-44-3 record which included all Central teams losing on the last day when each of the 12 teams faced each other. While the Central swept the All-Star series, there was clear superiority from the Pacific League head to head.
It's understandable to have this mediocre record through the first week of playing Central League teams again, but this is ridiculous. There hasn't been interleague play for five weeks yet we are back to every team being under .500 with a losing record.
Most teams don't have a reliable bullpen
The Baystars and Swallows have a great back end of the rotation with Yasuaki Yamasaki and Tony Barnette respectively, but everyone else as a whole doesn't have the fire power. Chunichi recently demoted Koji Fukutani for a brief week and Katsuki Matayoshi has had an increased role. They have remained unreliable.
Meanwhile, the Hiroshima Carp have gone to a closer by committee situation and even moved a starter to the bullpen. They were the consensus favorites to win the Central League pennant, but are right now nowhere close. Currently Shota Nakazaki is the closer but even he hasn't been the most reliable. Putting first round draft pick Daichi Osera in the bullpen has been a desperate move and it hasn't been a good one as he is built to be a starter.
The Hanshin Tigers have a good closer in Seung-Hwan Oh and Shinobu Fukuhara, but the rest of their pen is hard to watch. They've been notorious to blow a lead or give up runs if the starting pitcher does not go seven innings. Lastly, the Yomiuri Giants have no closer issues, but the setup role between Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Scott Mathieson has been shaky.
Teams who have disastrous bullpens can't be trusted, but with four out of six teams having a brutal unit, there's no question it's all evened out.
Hitting has been lacking among the Tigers and Giants
Both the Giants and Tigers are heavily dependent on their starting rotation which has been solid. However, slow starts from Matt Murton and Hiroki Uemoto held them down. The Giants have plenty of bodies who can hit, but they haven't brought the average up on a consistent basis.
They've been dependent on great outings from Tomoyuki Sugano and Miles Mikolas within their rotation. The Kyojin don't have an everyday player who is hitting above .280.
The Carp and Giants have underachieved
This is our biggest explanation for the mediocrity in the Central. Both teams have had expectations and neither has pulled away due to hitting or bullpen problems. The Giants have had trouble hitting while the setup role has been questionable.
Meanwhile, the Carp score in bunches but have several days without hitting. They're an inconsistent team who can have eight runs on one day, but zero the next. Hiroshima's rotation is what has carried the team as the bats are up and down. If the bullpen can get fixed, they have the potential to make a run but it's doubtful due to how unreliable they are.
Central League Standings Prediction:
1. Yomiuri Giants
2. Yokohama DeNA Baystars
3. Hanshin Tigers
4. Hiroshima Carp
5. Yakult Swallows
6. Chunichi Dragons
I expect the Giants and their hitting to be more improved as the season closes out. By default, I don't trust teams with a questionable starting rotation so I have to throw out the Swallows. The Dragons and Carp have the worst bullpens of the bunch, even though the Tigers are making a case for this, so I have Hanshin barely in front of both of them.
My bold pick is having the Baystars in second, as they've won a lot of close games, but they're playing well pitching with Yasutomo Kubo and Shoichi Ino while in a hitter's park. I think they're very capable of having their first playoff berth since 1998, which would excite the crowd. It was very tough picking between the Tigers and Carp, but I feel Hiroshima's bullpen will take them down and disappoint others.
Either way, this will be an entertaining finish with the Central League up for grabs. No one can be eliminated yet as even the Dragons can go on a run.
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