Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Report: Hotaka Yamakawa deactivated from Seibu Lions roster


Prior to Wednesday night's game against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the Saitama Seibu Lions had to make a corresponding move in order to make room for Ryoma Nogami on the ichi-gun team as he was scheduled to start. The move ended up being one of two players who excelled in preseason.

Hotaka Yamakawa became the casualty on the ichi-gun roster after an ineffective first-four games to the 2016 season. Yamakawa, 24, made the team and was the starting first baseman on opening day. In 12 plate appearances he failed to get a hit and only drew a walk.

On Tuesday night, he had an RBI groundout and had a sacrifice bunt at the bottom of the order. He will not be eligible to return to the ichi-gun roster until April 9.

Despite starting well in the preseason and being nicknamed "Okawari-II" for his large size, Yamakawa's power wasn't seen in the regular season. The Lions were playing Ernesto Mejia as the designated hitter, meaning there were three players who weighed more than 100 kilograms on the roster at the same time.

With this deactivation, the Lions were able to have Tomoya Mori start as the team's designated hitter for the first time in 2016, a position he held last year. Mori, 20, didn't have a position in the field after the Lions shut down his experiment of being a catcher.

When looking at the roster, there were only two options to choose from. The Lions could've deactivated a reserve in Daichi Mizuguchi due to being the last on the depth chart or Yamakawa due to performance, where they chose the latter.

While Yamakawa has a chance to come back to the ichi-gun, it appears unlikely for the short term as he will need to impress at the ni-gun level. He was originally a second round draft pick in 2012 Fuji University and was teammates with Shuta Tonosaki as well as Shinsaburo Tawata at the college level. Yamakawa's origin out of high school is in Okinawa, where he was also teammates with Tawata.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Sayonara on Opening Day, Series taken


The Saitama Seibu Lions had an Opening Day and early series for the ages. All three games were sold out for a packed Seibu Dome with plenty of action.

On Opening Day, it was the battle of Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko against Yusei Kikuchi. Both pitchers had a decent duel, but the Buffaloes struck first after a two-run RBI hit from new import Brian Bogusevic. An error on Hotaka Yamakawa led to the rally and runs in the fourth inning.

Kikuchi would last six innings with only one earned run. On the otherhand, Kaneko was on cruise control where only Shogo Akiyama put up a fight. The Lions leadoff hitter drew multiple walks and was able to get on base. Orix rookie Masataka Yoshida would contribute as the leadoff hitter getting two key hits to setup chances.

Orix tacked on another run in the seventh after Chun-Lin Kuo struggled with his control having two walks. Shota Takekuma was able to get out of the inning, but the Lions trailed by three and only had one base hit leading up to that point.

Despite Kaneko's dominance, his control began to fade as his pitch count was past the 100 pitch mark in the bottom of the 7th. He would walk pinch hitters Takayuki Uemoto and Tomoya Mori which gave a chance for Akiyama. The reigning hits leader got his first base hit after the ball struck first base and swooped past Eiichi Koyano into right field as Uemoto scored for the first run.

Takumi Kuriyama would get a sacrifice fly and Ernesto Mejia tied the game on a two-out single. Suddenly there was life and C.C. Lee made his NPB debut with a scoreless 8th.

Tomomi Takahashi would take the 9th and had trouble drawing outs, having runners on the corners. He drew two infield fly balls, but an awkward bounce where Brent Morel hit a comebacker off Takahashi' leg would go away from any player and a runner scored from third.

Takahashi would leave the game with an injury and his conditions are unknown. Tatsushi Masuda struck out one batter to reduce the damage and it would be crucial. Akiyama drew a walk with one out off Erik Cordier and advanced to 2nd on a bad throw pickoff attempt.

Captain Kuriyama would hit a triple into the right-center field gap and tied the game. After Shotaro Tashiro came in as a pinch runner, Ernesto Mejia delivered the finishing blow with a gapper of his own and the Lions would win in Sayonara fashion.

It was a tremendous come from behind win where the Lions had no business winning. The hits wouldn't come until late and they only drew walks off Kaneko.

Seibu Lions 5 Orix Buffaloes 4

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In Game 2, Ken Togame had a poor start, allowing five runs which were all earned. He struck our four batters, but allowed base hit after base hit with each run coming in the first inning alone. The third inning featured a houdini, where he escaped a jam with two runners on and no outs.

Despite the 5-0 deficit to begin, the Lions were still getting on base as Orix started a rookie in Taisuke Kondo. They were able to score one run off of him in the third, but nothing more even though there were early chances.

In the fourth, Orix went with another rookie in relief in Ken Akama and his lack of control opened the door. With several walks and even errors on the infield, the Lions would tie the game after an error on Masahiro Nishino where he couldn't hold onto the ball at second base for what should have been a routine out.

The Lions followed up with a two out rally in the fifth as Takeya "Okawari-kun" would deliver the go-ahead single. Hideto Asamura would also add insurance with an RBI single of his own.  Kuriyama added a two-run single in the 6th inning and the team would never look back.

Kazuhisa Makita was inserted in the fourth inning as a long reliever and he finished the game for the final six innings. He had four strikeouts, two HBP and a walk, but Norio Tanabe kept confidence in him and Makita was helped with great infield defense.

With the Lions scoring nine unanswered runs, Makita would earn his first win of the season as a "bullpen ace". This is a move that both Christian and Wes have advocated for, as a submarine pitcher is a completely different change of pace in the middle of the game compared to seeing an overarm pitcher to start. We hope this trend can continue.

The Lions also benefited from Orix not playing their best pitcher for Game 2. It could have just been a "baptism of fire" to get all nerves out of the way early in the season and it didn't have the vibe of a "win now" decision. Orix's pitchers lacked control and the Lions were able to take advantage of it the entire game, having a runner on base in all eight innings they were at the plate.

Seibu Lions 9 Orix Buffaloes 5

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In Game 3, it was the battle of foreign pitchers Andy Van Hekken and Brandon Dickson with the former making his NPB debut. It was a rough start for Van Hekken, as he allowed three runs in the first two innings giving up a flurry of hits.

However, the Lions would answer back with three runs of their own in the third inning. Asamura and Okawari-kun would add some RBIs and even Ginjiro Sumitani would reach on an infield single to contribute.

Sumitani would be too aggressive on a throw trying to pickoff a runner with the bases loaded and Orix took the lead for good. Kuo would struggle again and walk runners for Shota Takekuma. Bogusevic added insurance for the Buffaloes to make it 5-3.

The Lions were on base for every inning in this game, but the situational hitting just wasn't there minus the one inning. Yamakawa had a discouraging start of going 0-9 in the series and had a double play when the bases were loaded.

In the ninth inning, there was a chance for the team as the bases were loaded for Shuta Tonosaki as Cordier was pitching. The young shortstop unfortunately struck out on a 1-2 pitch upstairs and Orix prevented a sweep.

Orix Buffaloes 5 Seibu Lions 3

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The Lions will now head on the road to Fukuoka to face the Softbank Hawks as well as Sendai for see the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Takayuki Kishi will start in Fukuoka along with Ryoma Nogami.  With a 2-1 opening record, the Lions are tied with the Chiba Lotte Marines for first place in the Pacific League.

It was an encouraging series where the Lions were not dead and trailed every game. The offense is still in feast or famine mode depending on the pitcher, but the plate discipline looked a lot smarter through three games. Middle relief is suspect, but we were happy that the Lions decided to go with Makita as a long reliever.

The other encouraging thing was Norio Tanabe not bunting often as well as stealing fewer bases. We won't know as much about them through three games, but one thing is for sure: They're competitive to the last out.

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Wes Mills also contributed to this story

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

2016 Seibu Lions need to BEAST in order to make the postseason


The 2016 season begins today. Expectations for the Saitama Seibu Lions become an interesting thing for the year ahead.

There's plenty of subplots and question marks to look at. Can the Lions bullpen hold up? Can the rotation last a full season? Will Hideto Asamura and Tomoya Mori play well for a full season? What happens to Shinsaburo Tawata? How does Kona Takahashi do in his second year?

Questions will be answered as time goes on, but how much can we expect out of this team? There's expectations from us here at Graveyard Baseball.

The English speaking NPB media doesn't see a whole lot out of the Lions, which causes doubt due to their inside information. There's reason for hope and also for feeling down.

This Lions team is expected anywhere between 3rd and 5th in the Pacific League. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are the undisputed favorites to win it all again while the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters should be a solid second place.

We think the Fighters have vulnerability at pitching, but their hitting couldn't be stopped by the Lions arms. The Lions own the best front-end talent among the rest of the Pacific League teams, but the depth is a problem. The Chiba Lotte Marines owns the depth chart in comparison, but the Lions have what it takes to be the answer to Softbank.

The Orix Buffaloes have the starting pitching to compete, but there's question marks on their hitting as well as bullpen. They're also in a "lame duck" situation with Junichi Fukura as a short term manager. The Rakuten Eagles will have improvements offensively, but their pitching won't last to contend for a playoff spot.

Starting pitching and bullpen will determine how the third playoff spot will be among the Lions, Marines and Buffaloes. Each team has their share of decent starters, but all of them have bullpen uncertainty.

There's a lot of intriguing things in this Lions team due to their top-end talent, but the rotation and bullpen could be a problem if it's not respectable down the stretch. The strikeouts need to improve for the pitchers while the defense has carried the team in games.

In the first half of 2015, the Lions gave everyone a tease with a decent amount of wins. Then it took a historic losing streak of 13 consecutive losses which brought the Marines back in the race. They rode a mediocre rotation and bullpen towards the end of the year while the offense was also inconsistent.

We cannot expect another record season from Shogo Akiyama, but he should still be an effective leadoff hitter by getting on base. Takumi Kuriyama needs to rebound while Ryo Sakata has a chance to win the everyday right field job.

It will take a team effort, with better stability at right field, possibly more offense at shortstop and the hope for an upgraded rotation/bullpen with the additions of Andy Van Hekken and C.C. Lee, respectively. While no one is high on the Lions, this could bode well for them, as there weren't expectations in 2015 either.

If the Lions can get contributions from their imports, combined with growth in the rotation and bullpen among young pitchers like Chun-Lin Kuo and rookie Tawata, they would be in good shape for a playoff spot.

Politics within Seibu could also play an issue, as we view this as a lame duck season for manager Norio Tanabe. Tetsuya Shiozaki was promoted from farm manager to being the head coach (bench coach) this season waiting in the wings for next year. This could mean Tanabe takes more risks knowing his back is against the wall no matter how this team does in 2016.

Regardless, we'll be with you all through this journey and our first full season of writing and covering the Lions. We've been watching this team for a very short time at the start of 2015, but didn't begin writing until the middle of the year. Here, we hope to provide the best coverage with all things Seibu Lions exclusively in English. From podcast episodes to recapping the team each week to even some general thoughts on other things around NPB, we will be paying attention.

Enjoy your baseball everyone and Ganbarre Raionzu.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2016 Seibu Lions Opening Day Roster released

Yusei Kikuchi will start on Opening Day
The Saitama Seibu Lions Opening Day roster was released on Wednesday night. This will be the first 28-man man active roster for the season.

We explained how top rosters and farm teams work here. Here is some early analysis of each player who made the team for Opening Day.

Pitchers

Starters: 

Yusei Kikuchi: Kikuchi was announced as the Opening Day Starter for March 25 against the Orix Buffaloes. This is also a tactical decision based on the first six games of the schedule.  More on this later.

Andy Van Hekken: The Lions paid about $1.7 million for the rights to Van Hekken in purchasing his contract from the KBO's Nexen Heroes as well as his wages for the 2016 season. He should be pegged as the No. 3 or No. 4 starter in the rotation in the beginning.

Ken Togame: After having an All-Star first half of 2015, Togame slipped and gave up his share of home runs in the second half. He could be a decent back end starter, but in the short term, the Lions will need to depend on him most likely for the opening series.

Where is Takayuki Kishi you ask?  The Lions will save their rotation and players for the following series against the Softbank Hawks starting on March 29th. They can save money (and service time) by waiting to activate the starters they have in line by putting only three starters on the active roster and adding the rest on the day they're expected to start in Fukuoka.

This would mean we expect Kikuchi, Van Hekken and Togame to take the opening series against the Buffaloes from 3/25-3/27.  Ryoma Nogami will also be in the rotation and is pegged to face the Hawks on March 30. The Lions won't need a sixth starter until April 21st, as the schedule indicates three consecutive five-game weeks, not counting the opening three games.

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Bullpen: 

Chun-Lin Kuo: The Taiwanese pitcher is entering his second year playing professional baseball. He was a sixth starter last season and it looks like he could appear out of the pen in middle relief. We like this decision to put him in the bullpen as he would struggle when facing the lineup the second time through the order.

Kazuhisa Makita: Makita is taking on a new role as a reliever. His submarine arm could be handy out of the bullpen as a change of pace. He has experience with the Samurai Japan team as a relief arm.

Tatsushi Masuda: Masuda was the setup man in 2015, could he be the closer after the competition was uncertain?

Yosuke Okamoto: Okamoto was viewed as unreliable in the first half of 2015, but had a better second half of drawing the weak contact and ground balls. He could be handy in middle relief as early as the 6th or 7th innings.

Tomomi Takahashi: Takahashi hard a brutal second half where he lost his closer role last season. He is coming off a foot injury and it's uncertain if he will return to being the closer or not. At minimum, he could take the setup role for the 8th on Opening Day.

Shota Takekuma: Takekuma was decent out of the bullpen as he would mostly come in for the 7th inning. Norio Tanabe would also use him as a lefty specialist, but he's more than just a one out person.

C.C. Lee: The new foreign import from the Cleveland Indians organization, Lee could also become the closer if the Lions see him fit. He should provide better stability on the back end so that Tanabe isn't forced to used Masuda/Takekuma too often.

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Catchers: 

Ginjiro Sumitani: "Gin-Chan" should be the everyday starter at catcher for his defense. Even though he provides a hole offensively.

Masatoshi Okada: Okada can be a respectable catcher when given a chance. He's a better hitter than Gin-Chan and could see time if there is struggles from the latter.

Tatsuyuki Uemoto: Mostly a longtime reserve catcher, the veteran will be on the roster for opening day. He can hit better for catcher's standards, but not worth having behind the plate everyday.  Tanabe could use him as a pinch hit option.

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Infielders: 

Hideto Asamura: Asamura is hoping to have a full season with a strong bat. He struggled in the second half after showing what he is capable of in the first half. Asamura will be the everyday 2B.

Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura: The Pacific League's home run king is supposed to have reduced time in the field with more of a focus at DH. However, some other developments could mean the DH position will continue to rotate.

Ernesto Mejia: Mejia is back hoping for a season of redemption after having a rough 2015 for two-thirds of the year. He still had 27 home runs, but we hope he can get to 30 at minimum. It's possible he could be playing DH for more games.

Shuta Tonosaki: After playing in 43 games as a rookie last year, the Lions expect big things from him as the starting shortstop. He has speed and is improving on defense, but it's unsure how his bat can be. There's a lot of raw tools which will be a work in progress as the season goes on.

Hotaka Yamakawa: After spending two years in ni-gun, Yamakawa worked his way to the ichi-gun roster for opening day. He could get a significant number of games at 1B if they like his bat. He provides extra power and could be another "Okawari" for the Lions, meaning the team would have two towers playing the corner infield positions.

Daichi Mizuguchi: The big early surprise is Mizuguchi making the roster. He was promoted from the ikusei in the middle of 2015 after a productive season in ni-gun. If everything goes right, he will be the first ikusei player in Lions history to play in an ichi-gun game. Expect the Lions to use him as a pinch runner.

Yuji Onizaki: Onizaki is a hole offensively, but is a defensive whiz. He should be a late inning replacement for defense at the end of a game.

Naoto Watanabe: He's a utility infielder capable of being a spell defender if anyone needs a day off. He isn't the most flashy of the group, but Watanabe can provide a respectable bat if needed. Expect Watanabe to play 3B if Okawari-kun needs a day off or SS for defense.

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Outfielders: 

Takumi Kuriyama: The captain hopes to have a better 2016 as he was benched and even moved down in the order last season. He should be aiming for the .290 mark in batting average.

Shogo Akiyama: Akiyama is coming off a record 2015 season where he won't repeat it most likely, but will he show the same discipline in 2016? He showed no signs of slowing down in the preseason and should continue to be an effective leadoff hitter.

Ryo Sakata: Sakata had a promising 2013 season, but was derailed by injuries which had him sitout the entire 2014 season. After making the opening day roster in 2015, he spent majority of the year in ni-gun after being ineffective with the bat. He won the competition in right field through training camp and preseason, but can he keep it? It would go a long way to providing stability for the bats if he can continue his strong run from preseason and promise from three years ago.

Tomoya Mori: Mori was initially tried out at catcher, but Tanabe ended the experiment and the team is telling him to focus on his bat. He will only appear in right field if they feel he's needed for his hitting abilities. Mori should also see time at DH.

Masato Kumashiro: The "Bear" has mostly been a reserve outfielder, but initially gained playing time a few years ago. Last year, he was demoted to being the 5th and 6th outfielder for the team. He will be playing mostly for defense in the late innings.

Shotaro Tashiro: Tashiro has only seen a handful of games with the ichi-gun in his career. This could also be the same for 2016 unless he finds a solid role. He will mostly be a pinch runner if not defensive replacement for the end of games. If the Lions want to deactivate someone, he would most likely be the option if another outfielder emerges from ni-gun.  Right field could still be by committee and the revolving door will create players being activated/deactivated for the season.

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The Lions have multiple pinch running options at the start of the year, but expect this roster to change up and down as the season goes on. When the team has an established rotation, we should see more pitchers on the roster.

The major storyline will be how the Lions use the designated hitter position among Mori, Yamakawa, Okawari-kun and even Mejia due to plenty of offensive power. Someone has to sit on the bench at the start of the game and right now, it looks like Mori could be the odd man out.

We hope the team can BEAST through the 2016 season after last year's disappointment.  Ganbarre Raionzu.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Seibu Lions 2016 Preseason: Stock up/down

Okawari-kun isn't going anywhere, but where do the others place?
 The 2016 NPB preseason (open-sen) is officially over. While some players were already guaranteed a roster spot, others had a chance to improve themselves and bring good will the the organization.

Here, we will look at players who were affected by preseason and will most likely play a role (or not) for 2016 at the start due to how they did in practice and Open-sen.

Stock up

1B Hotaka Yamakawa: A second round draft pick from 2013, Yamakawa had an impressive spring training showing some extra pop in the lineup and was hitting above .300.  His defense to be at 1B was adequate and it's possible he could see a handful of starts there.  

SS Shuta Tonosaki: The Lions organization has been high on Tonosaki since he made his way to the ichi-gin last year as a rookie. There may be some growing pains at SS, but they're willing to play him and he earned his spot over Yuji Kaneko and Yuji Onizaki, who are more defensive specialists.  

OF Ryo Sakata: The right field position has been a revolving door. After training camp, it appears that Sakata has emerged as the Opening day starter. If he can bring stability to a position that's been in flux, it could go a long way for the 2016 season. After a promising 2013, he battled an injury that sidelined him for 2014 and some poor batting led to most of last year in ni-gun.  

SP Isamu Sato: Sato was a high school draft pick who has remained in the organization since 2012. He had a better preseason and camp, which could lead to his ichi-gun debut in 2016. It's possible they could have him as a sixth starter or spot starter if needed. 

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Stock down

OF Fumikazu Kimura: A former pitcher, Fumikazu Kimura looks like he'll only come up to the ichi-gun for a handful of matchups. He appeared in 49 games last year and with the emergence of others, he will stay down as a result.  

C/DH/OF Tomoya Mori: The Lions thought they could get Mori to his natural position at catcher, but it ended up not working as he struggled behind the plate. Runners in practice games were stealing on him and there were a share of wild pitches allowed. Norio Tanabe will have to get creative on when to play him in the lineup as a DH or a right fielder. However, he should be playing quite a bit in 2016, even though his stock as a catcher defensively went down.  

 P Makoto Aiuchi: Aiuchi was a high school draft pick of the Lions, but recently suffered an elbow injury setback in camp. He was forced to rehab in ni-gun camp after initially being in ichi-gun camp at the start. He is only 21, but it is a long journey to get back to starting with this recent injury. 

P Esmerling Vasquez: The Lions were playing quite a few games in preseason, treating it like it's simulated for the regular season.  With C.C. Lee receiving more playing time over Vasquez, it's clear the latter will begin the 2016 in ni-gun as organizational depth.  
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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Report: Kona Takahashi fractures cheek bone in ni-gun game


Saitama Seibu Lions pitcher Kona Takahashi will have to wait in order to play with the ichi-gun team.

On Sunday afternoon at a ni-gun game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Takahashi was hit in the face by a ball on a return throw from either the umpire or catcher. He remained in the game and went five innings, being credited with the win, but was diagnosed with a fractured cheek bone. Takahashi is expected to be re-evaluated on Monday, March 21.

Takahashi, 19, was the Lions' first round draft pick in 2014 out of Maebashi Ikuei high school. He made his debut in August and went 5-2 last season. Takahashi earned the Pacific League Pitching MVP for the month of August where he also earned a shutout.

He is primarily remembered for being the ace and he became a Koshien champion in 2013, carrying the team through the tournament. The Lions view him as the next ace for the long run.

With Takahashi out indefinitely, the Lions have plenty of options to fill the starting rotation. Yusei Kikuchi will be the opening day starter while Takayuki Kishi is currently the ace. Ken Togame, Kazuhisa Makita, Ryoma Nogami and Andy Van Hekken are also expected to contribute to the rotation.

Shinzaburo Tawata, the Lions' 2015 first round draft pick, is also injured as he recovers from a shoulder injury he suffered last year. Chun-Lin Kuo was a 6th starter last year while farm pitcher Isamu Sato has made his case to be in the rotation through a good spring training.

On June 24, the Lions are expected to play in Maebashi, Gunma against the Chiba Lotte Marines, which is Takahashi's hometown.

Update: Takahashi's condition is not viewed as serious, but he will be out for the Opening Week of the season. It appears that he lost his footing when receiving a ball thrown by the umpire, which struck his face.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spring Koshien 2016: Which schools are represented by Lions players?


Spring Koshien is about to kickoff. As a result, the nation begins to start watching some high school baseball.

Summer Koshien is the more premier of the two tournaments, but this event still has some importance. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles propsect Tomohio Anraku was once featured on ESPN for his performance at the Spring Koshien.

With the tournament beginning, here is a  look at which schools are connected to the Saitama Seibu Lions roster. Multiple schools are represented. Prefectures of each school are in parentheses.

Tsuruga Kehi (Fukui): P Yusuke Tamamura


Tamamura was as fourth round pick of the Lions in 2014. He mostly spent time as a reliever for ni-gun in 2015.

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Osaka Toin (Osaka): 2B Hideto Asamura, 3B Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, C Masatoshi Okada, C/OF/DH Tomoya Mori

This group of players is pretty well-documented. Asamura, Okawari-kun and Mori made the all-star game in 2015 easily while Okada is the backup catcher. In 2013, Okada and Mori were drafted in the same class, where the former was taken out of an industrial league team and the latter came straight out of high school. Osaka Toin is a powerhouse which includes Ryosuke Hirata (Chunich Dragons), Shintaro Fujinami (Hanshin Tigers) and Sho Nakata (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)

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Kaisei (Nagasaki): IF Kyohei Nagae

Nagae is mostly a reserve shortstop who is good for the late innings. He's a defensive replacement player for the ichi-gun.

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Nichinan Gakuen (Miyazaki): P Yuta Nakazaki

Nakazaki was formerly a first round pick of the Lions in 2008 straight out of high school. Unfortunately he has not contributed much with the ichi-gun. The other notable player to come from Nichinan Gakuen is Softbank pitcher Hayato Terahara.

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Hanasaki Tokuharu (Saitama): OF Aito Otaki

Otaki is the Lions' fourth round draft pick from last fall out of high school. He played in the 2015 Summer Koshien tournament with a majority of this team heading into Spring Koshien.

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The first games begin on March 20, which will be in the evening on March 19th for those in North America. Be sure to contact @Eigokokoyakyu for any insight and a legal stream to watch it all.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

NPB 2016 Season Outlook: Pacific League


The Pacific League came off a season where it dominated the Central League head to head. Talent is not a problem,

In our Lions OenDEN podcast episode, we discussed the league in audio format, but here is our breakdown of everyone including the Saitama Seibu Lions.

Overview: 

Most people are going to say it's all about one team and the rest of the league is playing for the losing rights to them. Understandably, the talent in one area has a larger gap than the rest.  The last playoff spot is up for grabs, but the consensus is that there is one great team, one good team, and the rest are fighting for positioning.

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Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

The defending Japan Series champions are looking for a three-peat. They lost Lee Dae-Ho, but have plenty of talent to make up for this.

Strengths: Rotation, bullpen, power hitting, defense, depth

An argument can be made that they're well-rounded everywhere on the roster. Softbank is also one of two teams to have a third-team at the ikusei level where they develop guys. The rotation was already rich prior to 2015, but Rick Van Den Hurk gave them another jolt for the second half. They can afford to play an eight or even 10 man rotation if they want to.

Offense has the reigning MVP in Yuki Yanagita while 3B Nobuhiro Matsuda returned after considering a jump to MLB. While the power production could go down with Lee in MLB, there shouldn't be a problem getting on base and hitting for average with the load of talent they have.

Weaknesses: Hangover? Stranding runners

If we want to be picky, the catcher position is a hole offensively with Toru Hosokawa and Hiroaki Takaya. There are close games they have lost due to stranding runners on base, but this also means they are still a threat no matter how bad they play.

Signings: P Tsuyoshi Wada (returning from the Cubs), P Robert Suarez

Expectations: Some people are already booking their tickets to Fukuoka in October. The level of talent compared to the rest of the Pacific League is unmatched and they have what it takes to win again. The rotation doesn't have many ace quality starters, but the depth of No. 2 pitchers is fine. It's also helpful to inflate some power numbers with a fence that's moved in, making it easier to hit home runs.  It should be unanimous among prognosticators that the Hawks finish in first place.

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Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters

After having a decent 2014 season where they won a playoff series, some thought 2015 would be where they fall back to earth. Instead, they took a leap and established themselves as the second best team in the Pacific League.

Strengths: Hitting, speed, defense

The Fighters have plenty of guys who can get on base from Daikan Yoh, Takuya Nakashima, Haruki Nishikawa and a very young Daiki Asama. They even have power hitting with Sho Nakata and Brandon Laird, who both had at least 30 HRs last year.

They make teams pay when they're on base, stealing at will with the speed they have on the roster. There's plenty of youth combined with great defense in the field, meaning they can never be written off. Kensuke Kondo is also one of the better kept secrets in Japan, where he would also hit for average and do well among catchers.

Weaknesses: Rotation and bullpen depth

Shohei Otani gets all the attention for being the most talented pitcher in Japan, but do they have quality depth behind him? Luis Mendoza is respectable, Mitsuo Yoshikawa is a one-season wonder, Kohei Arihara is the reigning Pacific League rookie of the year by default and their new signing Anthony Bass is an uncertainty. There's some good middle rotation pitchers, but can there be a quality No. 2 behind Otani?

As for the bullpen, they will need better depth to take over before Hirotoshi Masui comes in to close. It's a sketchy middle relief unit and they'll need to hope some of their younger players improve for 2016.

Foreign signings: P Chris Martin, P Anthony Bass

Expectations: The Fighters are a good team who can display a great use of fundamentals on the field. Can they be a great team to challenge the Hawks? That question will remain for the season as their rotation and bullpen need to get better in order to compete at a championship caliber level. Hideki Kuriyama is a very smart coach and knows how to get the most out of his players.

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Chiba Lotte Marines

The Marines were projected as a bottom tier team last year, but shocked many by finishing in third place and winning a playoff series against the Fighters. Was last year a fluke or do they build upon the decent year they had given their expectations?

Strengths: Roster balance, Outfield

The Marines are a team with depth where there are no significant holes in the lineup. Their outfield had a great season from Ikuhiro Kiyota and a consistent year from Katsuya Kakunaka. There's plenty of players to use in the outfield, but only three can play at once.  Their rotation also has balance with a solid year from Ayumu Ishikawa and a rebound season from Hideaki Wakui. Jason Standridge also provides stability in the middle while the back end isn't too shabby either.

Weaknesses: Lack of great players

This isn't taking away from what they did in 2015, because they have above average players on the roster. The question is, do they have championship level players on their roster? They're going to be rebuilding on the infield by getting younger with guys like Taiga Hirasawa and Shogo Nakamura taking over. Chiba let Luis Cruz and Toshiaki Imae walk in order for the rebuild (or possible reload) process to begin. Yamaico Navarro should also contribute to the power numbers when he gets back from his suspension, but the defense could take a hit with the raw players on the infield. Ishikawa could be established as an ace, but their rotation has mostly No. 3 or No. 4 pitchers at best and it's uncertain if Wakui can repeat the season he had in 2015.

Signings: IF Yamaico Navarro, P Jason Standridge

Expectations: Chiba should be in contention for the third playoff spot, but it's doubtful they can overtake the Fighters or Hawks in the regular season. There's enough talent to not be in the cellar, but is it good enough to be in the upper echelon of NPB teams?  They can finish anywhere from third to fifth. One thing is for sure: No one would want to see them in a best 2 out of 3 series.

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Saitama Seibu Lions

The Lions had a great start to the first half of 2015, but a record-breaking losing streak of 13 losses combined with mediocrity did them in.

Strengths: Power hitting, Defense

The Lions have plenty of pop with Takeya "Okawari-kun", Ernesto Mejia, Tomoya Mori and Hideto Asamura all capable of hitting a least 20 home runs for a season. It's possible that new 1B Hotaka Yamakawa can be another power threat in the lineup. Can Shogo Akiyama have a similar year for 2016 after a record-seeing single-season hits record established?

Outfield arm strength shouldn't be a problem, but range could be a small issue for the right fielder. Infield defense is mostly good, but shortstop could be raw with Shuta Tonosaki taking over at SS.

Weaknesses: Rotation depth, bullpen uncertainty

The back end of the rotation overachieved statistically without Takayuki Kishi for two months. However, talent and opposing teams adjusting caught up to them in the second half. Tomomi Takahashi did terrible in the closer role and lost his job by the time the season ended. When the back end of the bullpen was a strength to start, everything fell apart when there was no closer and middle relief was already a problem.

An argument can be made where the defense won games and the pitcher's job was to put the ball in play. They were dead last in striking out opposing batters last season.

Signings: RP C.C. Lee, SP Andy Van Hekken, IF Shogo Kimura

Expectations: The Lions have the offensive power to do damage against anyone, but the pitching staff is too much of a concern to many. If they can pitch like they did in the first half of 2015, there's a chance they can make noise in 2016. It will be up to the bullpen as a factor to make or break them this season. This also has the making of a lame duck type of season for manager Norio Tanabe, where they have Tetsuya Shiozaki lined up to take his spot.

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Orix Buffaloes

The Buffaloes had a load of expectations in 2015, but it all crumbled with a high number of close losses, resulting in their manager being forced to resign in the middle of the year. They promoted Junichi Fukura, who was their head coach (bench coach equivalent) as he takes over for the 2016 season. Expectations could be lowered for 2016 after they signed a lot of free agents the previous year.

Strengths: Rotation

Chihiro Kaneko, Yuki Nishi and Brandon Dickson are an impressive Big 3 for a rotation. Even Daiki Tomei should be a respectable middle rotation starter. With three pitchers who are capable of being aces, they will remain in games and stay competitive.

Weaknesses: Bullpen, inconsistent offense, defense

The bullpen blew several games in the first half and the team was playing meaningless baseball by the time it was June. A minor issue is attention to detail, where it's one error or one at bat as the team comes up short in a game. There's talent on this team to do damage, but Yoshio Itoi and Takahio Okada had down years. If Masahiro Nishino and Tony Blanco are healthy, it will bolster their offense.

Foreign signings: IF Brent Morel, OF Brian Bogusevic, P Pat Misch, P Erik Cordier

Expectations: Orix has a new wave of foreigners on the roster, but not all of them will be playing with Dickson and Blanco expected to be two of the four spots allowed. This team should compete for the postseason, but can they get it together on offense let alone defense? The rotation carried them in 2015, which is why they can't be written off in 2016.

The reason they can't be trusted is Fukura as a manager. Like the Lions, putting the pieces together has this as a lame duck year with Fukura as a short term solution. So Taguchi is currently the farm manager and it's possible that this is a "caretaker" type of season as a transition so he could be the next in line.

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Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

The Eagles are entering a new era with Masataka Nashida as their new skipper. Some may view this as an unattractive hiring, but he is capable of turning things around. Previously, they had a younger manager in Hiromoto "Dave" Okubo, who cost them games by trying to steal bases with the wrong personnel. Since winning the 2013 Japan Series, the Eagles haven' recovered after losing several players from that team.

Strengths: Back end bullpen

Kam Mickolio will be healthy for them and Yuki Matsui will remain the closer for 2016. If the Eagles have a lead entering the 8th and 9th innings, they should secure a win on paper.

Weaknesses: Offense, rotation depth

Rakuten had the worst offense last season among Pacific League teams. The level of talent was an obvious issue, but there could be improvements if Nashida's approach works. Rotation depth is flawed outside of Takahiro Norimoto and there isn't much supporting cast.

Signings: IF Toshiaki Imae, IF Japhet Amador, OF Jonny Gomes, P Radhames Liz, P Jake Brigham

Expectations: Imae should help them offensively and there is plenty of foreign options to choose from. But like Orix, they won't be able to play them all with Kenny Ray in their rotation, Mickolio in the bullpen and Zealous Wheeler being part of the infield. They need to hope Ginji Akaminai is healthy while their first round draft pick Louis Okoye should be intriguing.

Nashida is a smart manager who can improve the team offensively as his track record shows with the Fighters. However, 2016 will be a year to focus on individual performances as they won't have the personnel to compete in the short term.

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Here's our breakdown featured on the Lions OenDEN podcast episode.

Central League breakdown

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Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

English NPB media predicts the Seibu Lions for 2016


Japan Baseball Weekly released their Podcast episode previewing the Pacific League for the 2016 season on Sunday (in USA time). You can listen to the full episode here.

John E. Gibson of the Japan News, One World Sports and Yomiuri Shimbun, Jim Allen of Kyodo News, Claudio Rodriguez of Béisbol Japonés and Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times discussed everything regarding the Pacific League with projections in the standings.

Where did they have the Lions?  We'll show you where they have them finishing in the Pacific League with a few notes of what they said. (Full prediction articles from Gibson and Coskrey will come soon.)

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John E. Gibson (@JBWPodcast): 5th

-Solid rotation, but not high on Yusei Kikuchi

-Drafting 8 pitchers tells him that they don't have good pitchers in the system

-Strengths: Power hitting and Shogo Akiyama

-Weaknesses: Poor defense, strikes out too much, lack of speed, low quality outfield arms

-Team has a bunch of designated hitters leading to bad defense

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Jim Allen (@JballAllen): 4th

-Lions should have Tomoya Mori play in the outfield just so his bat is in the lineup.

-Likes the hiring of Hideki Hashigami as a tactics/strategy coach.

-Confirms our theory that Tetsuya Shiozaki is in line to be the next manager after Norio Tanabe in 2017. Shiozaki was promoted from ni-gun manager to being the head coach (MLB equivalent of bench coach in Japan).

-Lions farm team is a "pitcher's graveyard".

-Very close to being in third place. (He has the Marines finishing in 3rd)

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Jason Coskrey (@JCoskrey): 3rd

"If the Lions can hit as far as hitting home runs / extra base hits, they're gonna be fine. In games where the balls [aren't] finding holes or over the fence, they're not going to be able to manufacture runs because they're slow. They might have a tough time in that area, but I think their offense is going to be fine."

"Their pitching staff is a worry a little bit for me, [Takayuki] Kishi is solid. I have always liked Kikuchi. I think he really started to show a little bit more last year."

-Reports say Kikuchi is adding a changeup to his arsenal this year.

-Kona Takahashi is going to get a "trial by fire" for 2016. It will be a be a test to see how he does with a full workload.

-Has issues with Ken Togame, due to not having two consecutive seasons of being productive. (Togame has been up and down and not pitched two seasons of 100+ innings).

-Nogami is not particularly great, flawed back end rotation, bullpen is not impressive. Thinks they'll lose a lot of close games.

-Has the Lions finishing 3rd because he believes the rest of the Pacific League is weaker.

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Claudio Rodriguez (@BeisbolJapones): 5th

-Unsure about the new foreign pitchers in C.C. Lee and Andy Van Hekken

-Likes the Lions' offense

-Not convinced with the team's rotation

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Other Predictions: 

Michael Westbay (Data / behind the scenes for JBW Podcast, Founder of Japanese Baseball): 6th

Wayne Graczyk (Japan Times Columnist): 3rd

Patrick Newman (@npbtracker): 3rd

@NPB_Reddit: 6th

Kenichi Yazawa (Former Chunichi Dragons player, TV analyst): 2nd

Norihiro Akahoshi (Former Hanshin Tigers player, TV analyst): 4th

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Tanabe Ends Mori's Catching Experiment

The Lions' hitting prodigy will no longer be spending time behind the plate. 
After lots of experimentation, the Lions ended all the dreams of those who watched the 2013 Summer Koshien for the 2016 season. It was in that tournament that a teenage Tomoya Mori inserted himself into the national spotlight as Osaka Toin's catcher. Catching teenage superstar, Shintaro Fujinami, many remembered the two-way potential of Mori and expected him to make the leap to more time behind the plate in his age 20 season.

Instead, Lions manager Norio Tanabe prioritized the experience and stellar defensive reputation of Ginjiro "Gin-chan" Sumitani over the opportunity to mold Mori into the full-time catcher. There's no doubt that the Lions are a team that has the personnel that should look to win now and this move is one that speaks to that line of thought.

Mori has already proven that his power is something that needs to be in the lineup every day. Especially, after posting 17 home runs in his age 19 season, but moving him to a role behind the plate could take a toll on his offensive numbers while at the same time being forced to deal with a downgrade in defensive value.

Moving Mori away from the backstop is the right move for the reasons stated above. Power is at a premium and when it comes to the development of a young hitter, there's no need to over-complicate things by giving Mori a massive amount of workload when it's his bat that makes him so special as a player.

This story isn't much of a groundbreaker as it means more for the rest of the squad now that Mori fits with only a few positions. With the earlier reports that the Lions were looking to move Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura to DH to keep him healthy, the questions remain. How many games will Okawari-kun play at DH and 3B? In addition to, how many games will Mori play at DH, RF, and even 1B?

Regarding body type, Mori could profile as an RF, especially with his strong arm not to mention that he's not like other former catchers who are big and bulky. His rather compact profile of 5'6", 176 pounds (170 cm, 80 kg) allows for one to imagine him developing a good deal of range. It's clear that Okawari-kun needs to play a lot more games at DH, but flexibility is never a bad thing and allowing Mori to DH and Nakamura to play third here and there makes Tanabe's job a bit more interesting.

Best case scenario is that Mori holds his own in RF and nails down a position that has been a revolving door for the Lions. What might be the wildcard in all of this is the fact that Shogo Akiyama's range in CF is above average, which would help make Mori's task in RF a lot less daunting.

Worst case scenario is that Mori struggles to make the routine plays in RF, creating a crisis in confidence for the 20-year-old. In addition to poor fielding, Mori's bat may continue to struggle to the pitchers finding more ways to get him out. These issues would force Tanabe to use Nakamura at third a lot more than previously planned and that may turn out just fine, but with Okawari-kun's history of injuries, the worst could be a death blow to this Lions squad in 2016. 

The question of where Mori should play is a situation that we will be looking at quite closely when the season rolls around. Overall, I applaud Tanabe's decision to put more value in Mori's power, while also valuing the fielding prowess of Gin-chan.

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Other note: 

-Mori was diagnosed with a bruise after being hit by a pitch in an exhibition game on March 12.  

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

2016 NPB Season Outlook: Central League


With the 2016 NPB regular season upon us, it's the time of the year where people make predictions as well as write every thought they have regarding the new season. For us, this is no different as we spoke about the Central League at the end of our Lions OenDEN podcast episode.

Here is our breakdown of how we see the Central League as a whole with strengths and weaknesses for each team:

Overview: 

Last year, the Central League was mediocre from top to bottom after Interleague play, as every team had a losing record at one point in the second half. Some can make the argument for balance, but in reality, each team had too many flaws to pull away until September. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows were the best of the bunch as they won the pennant (regular season title in Japan's terms).  

Hitting was down, meaning pitching stats were rather inflated by Central League standards. Majority of parks in this league are hitter friendly, but the pitching ruled last year. Expect changes for the upcoming season.  

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Tokyo Yakult Swallows:  

As earlier mentioned, the Swallows pulled away from being the "best of the worst" in the second half thanks to a great bullpen and offense. They had plenty of talent in 2014, but were in dead last due to a handful of injuries and bad luck. They made the turnaround of being worst to first in the Central League.  

Strengths: Bullpen, Offense

Yakult has the reigning Central League MVP in Tetsuto Yamada, who is coming off a season with "triple 3's" consisting of 30+ HRs, 30+ stolen bases and batting over .300 for the year. There's plenty of other talent including Shingo Kawabata, Yuhei Takai, a solid catcher in Yuhei Nakamura  Coming back from an injured season is Wladimir Balentien, who hopes to get redemption in 2016. 

For the bullpen, they lose Tony Barnette as he joined the Texas Rangers, but they have plenty of options for Mitsuru Manaka to choose from. Logan Ondrusek worked out well as a new import, Ryo Akiyoshi and Kentaro Kyoko could be candidates to close it out. There are also guys downstairs who can contribute.  

Weaknesses: Back end rotation depth

The Swallows front line starters were solid in Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa and Masanori Ishikawa, but the back side is questionable. Of course this is to be expected when the Swallows play in a hitter friendly ballpark. Veteran Shohei Tateyama returned from his third Tommy John surgery last year and was respectable when coming back. They also had a decent pickup in Hirofumi Yamanaka, who was a side arm pitcher that was hurt.  

Foreign signings: P Luis Perez, P Josh Lueke, P Kyle Davies

Expectations: The Swallows have the talent and depth to repeat again in the Central League. If there are no significant injuries, they should be a lock for the postseason. It's even a bonus if their foreign pickups can help their bullpen or rotation. 

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Yomiuri Giants

The Giants no longer have Tatsunori Hara as their manager, as he stepped down after the team was eliminated in the Climax series. Longtime player Yoshinobu Takahashi has retired from playing and became the manager going forward. 

Strengths: Front line rotation and depth

The Giants hit a home run with their import signings last year in Miles Mikolas and Aaron Poreda immediately contributing to the rotation. The latter was a respectable No. 3 while Mikolas had an ace-like season to carry them. Tomoyuki Sugano still remains an ace. For hitters, there are plenty of options for Takahashi to choose from. The Giants high payroll allows them to stash talent, but who comes in? Luis Cruz was one of their big pickups as the Chiba Lotte Marines let him walk.  

Weaknesses: Middle relief, inconsistent hitting, manager uncertainty

The Giants had a down year offensively when there was plenty of talent on the roster. Things are bound to come up. Meanwhile, the middle relief was shaky before their closer Hirokazu Sawamura could come in. For Takahashi, he will have to learn on the fly even though he was a part time coach/player last season. As someone who played under Hara for his career, he should have some good tips on managing games.

Foreign signings: OF Garrett Jones

Expectations: Ryota Wakiya and Cruz were their big signings for the infield. If they can string offense together and rebound from a down 2015 season, they have what it takes to win the Central League. By name recognition alone, they are expected to make the postseason and have the rotation to do it.  

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Hanshin Tigers

The Tigers are also entering a new era, with a change in the front office after the passing of Katsuhiro Nakamura in the middle of last season. They let their manager Yutaka Wada walk, hiring Tomoaki Kanemoto, who was doing color commentary in the broadcast booth after retiring as a player. This was an expected hiring from my spectators and sounds good on paper, but we will need to wait and see before we make any judgements. 

Strengths: Front Line rotation

Shintaro Fujinami and Randy Messenger are a great 1-2 punch. This could be the season where Fujinami establishes himself as possibly the best pitcher in Japan. Minoru Iwata and Atsushi Nomi were also serviceable in the middle.  

Weaknesses: Bullpen and manager uncertainty, offense

The Tigers rode a hot streak to get to the 2014 Japan Series, making the front office have the vibe that they were a contending team. In reality, they had a lot of close wins where everything went their way. Last season, this caught up to them as they had a season of mediocrity offensively. Kosuke Fukudome (yes, he's still playing) was the bright spot.  

They let longtime OF Matt Murton walk, leading to some new blood in the outfield. It's possible that first round draft pick Shun Takayama could make an instant impact for them. Hanshin will also need a better season from third-year import Mauro Gomez.  

The bullpen's back end was a strength with Seung-hwan Oh as the closer, but now it becomes up to their foreign signings to take the load. Oh signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in free agency and it was clear he wouldn't return after breaking a Korean law of gambling outside the country. Legal issues aside, it's possible that Oh had peaked in 2014 and the team needed a change for closing. 

This unit contributed to their poor run differential where they'd be blown out or winning close games. Like Takahashi, Kanemoto will need to learn on the fly and even he is expected some growing pains.  

Foreign signings: P Marcos Mateo, P Rafael Dolis, IF Matt Hague

Expectations: This is one of many teams with complete uncertainty everywhere from the bullpen, offense and manager. Given the competition and the strength of the Tigers pitching, they will compete, but where do they finish? Based on talent alone, they can finish as high as second and as low as fifth. If Dolis or Mateo make instant impact in the bullpen combined with what could be an improved offense, they would be in good shape for 2016. 


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Hiroshima Toyo Carp 

The Carp came off a disappointing 2015 season where they were expected to contend for a championship. They arguably had the best rotation in Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda for a Big 3 trio. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see this in the postseason, as they were eliminated on the last day of the regular season by the Chunichi Dragons. Maeda was posted and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Strengths: Front line rotation, overall talent

 Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda will still make their rotation fine. Daichi Osera is expected to emerge, after he was a top draft pick in 2013. On paper, this could be a Big 3 if Osera develops and takes the reins. The position players have talent all over the field, with Ryosuke Kikuchi, Yoshihiro Maru, Brad Eldred and even new signing Hector Luna. For a veteran, Takahiro Arai also had a respectable season.  

Weaknesses: Bullpen, inconsistent offense

Last year, the offense would score in bunches, but could get shutout at times. They would give their fans a tease with some dominant games, but couldn't go on a run to make the postseason as they stayed in mediocrity. After a great 2014 season, several players like Maru didn't hit well in 2015. 

The bullpen was the nightmare spot for the Carp, with several blown leads and losses late in the game. Manager Koichi Ogata was forced to put Osera in the bullpen to strengthen the unit as a result. 

Foreign signings: OF Jason Pridie, P Jay Jackson, P Bradin Hagens

Expectations: The loss of Maeda obviously takes a hit to the rotation, but the Carp could be a better team overall if they get consistent offense and Luna provides stability at 3B. If their bullpen becomes much improved with the help of Jackson and Hagens, we could see them looking at a playoff spot. The talent is there to still contend, but it needs to come together. This also has the makings of a hot seat season for Ogata, who has gotten some blame for last year's shortcomings.

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Chunichi Dragons

For a team who was expected to finish in dead last and be the worst among all teams with an aging roster, the Dragons had a better season finishing 5th with respectable offensive numbers. Manager Motonobu Tanishige has retired as a player and now has full time managing duties in the dugout. The team also got younger after a transition year with several veterans retiring.

Strengths: Front end rotation, outfield

Yudao Ono and Shunta Wakamatsu made a great 1-2 punch last year and the former is one of the best pitchers in the game today. Ricardo Nanita (when healthy), Yohei Oshima and Ryosuke Hirata are also consistent assets in the outfield. Don't let their numbers fool you, they hit well for Nagoya Dome standards, which is one of the ultimate pitcher's parks in NPB.

Weaknesses: Rotation depth, bullpen

The offense wasn't the problem for a pitcher's park, but rather the rotation being half empty/half full last season. Daisuke Yamai is a respectable mid rotation guy, but there is a lack of depth where the drop off is large in comparison to their front and back ends.

Their bullpen was another weakness after Koji Fukutani couldn't make the transition from setup man to closer. Fukutani and Katsuki Matayoshi should be good for the middle relief, but who is the closer?  Shinji Tajima did a respectable job to close out the year and Tanishige will have his work cut out for him on decisions to make.

Foreign signings: P Jordan Norberto, P Juan Jaime, P Drew Naylor (midseason signing in 2015), OF Dayan Viciedo

Expectations: They lost Hector Luna and had a middle of the road offense, but they were competitive enough last season to be a .500 team. The more impressive part is how they had a winning record against the Carp (15-9-1) which knocked them out of the postseason.

Their offense could be average, but if the bullpen improves like it did in the second half of last year combined with a better rotation, they could finish in third place at best. Tanishige did a good job learning on the fly the last two seasons and given the talent he had, they weren't as terrible as their 2015 record was. It might be a stretch to say the playoffs are coming in Nagoya for 2016, but they won't be a cupcake and could provide competitive baseball.

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Yokohama DeNA Baystars

The Baystars had a hot first half where everything went right, then they fell back to earth after losing 12 consecutive games at one point last season. This is a new era, where Alex "Rami-chan" Ramirez takes over a squad looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998. With the Toronto Blue Jays making the postseason, this is the longest playoff drought among teams in NPB and MLB.

Strengths: Offense, Closer

The offense usually isn't a problem in what's a hitter-friendly ballpark. Jose Lopez proved to be a great signing to provide extra pop and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo had a quality season. Takayuki Kajitani is also one of the best outfielders out there. One bright spot from 2015 was rookie closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, who was thrust into the role with others injured. Coming off a rookie of the year award, he is hoping to repeat his success from last year.

Weaknesses: Rotation, Manager uncertainty

This team has some mid rotation starters at best with Yasutomo Kubo, Daisuke Miura and a decent Shoichi Ino. They're going to need to improve their pitching if they want to compete and not be dead by midseason.  Their first half was a smokescreen of everything going right, but it won't last based on talent. Ramirez brings new life to the team, but how does he manage on the field? We will have no idea until the games begin.

Foreign signings: P Zach Petrick, IF James Romak,

Expectations: There isn't a lot to like about this team besides some individual efforts and a handful of talented players. Offensively, they have a nice core, but it won't take them far as you can't hit your way into a playoff spot. This team has a chance to get out of the cellar, but the pitching will need to improve in order to do so.

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For our actual predictions on 1-6, here's the link to our Lions OenDEN podcast episode (listen to the last 15 minutes or so).  Our Pacific League preview can be found here.

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Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall

Monday, March 7, 2016

NPB 101: Differences between baseball in Japan and MLB

Bunting has been a typical frequency in Japan, but there's more than just this.
Major League Baseball is the king league of its sport. However, Japan has put their own spin and brand of baseball in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league where we see a different identity.

There are plenty of differences where Japan has its footprints on America's past time. To get you prepared for the 2016 season, here are some differences between baseball in North America and NPB.

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Bunting: Japan likes to bunt more than MLB

Just to get this out of the way, Japan indeed will bunt more often than the average MLB team. Why do this and giveaway outs? Their theory is that you need to score one run in order to get two, so the manager will often be satisfied to play for one run in an inning. Some managers will have a weaker hitter bat second so that if the leadoff man gets on, they can sacrifice and move him 90 feet.

This is also done as a move to save face, because criticism will be drawn if a double play happens. If no bunting occurred in Japan, we'd see more scrutiny from the media, which is something no one wants to deal with. Even from the picture above, the batter will often show bunt if he is sacrificing.

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Outfielders in Japan have better range and arm than their MLB counterparts

Japan puts a strong emphasis on conditioning and arm strength. This would mean 3B coaches are more cautious about sending runners home and being on second does not guarantee "Scoring position" on a ball that goes past the infield. They're also very good at getting to the ball quickly.

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MLB has more power hitters

Power hitting exists in Japan, but not to the extent that it does in MLB. There's only a handful of players meant for pop, even though some ballparks can inflate stats due to shorter fences. Sure, there are some domestic players like Sho Nakata, Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, Yuki Yanagita and others who can mash, but it's nothing compared to the level of MLB.

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Every run counts in Japan

This isn't saying runs don't count in MLB, but coaches in Japan emphasize each run, making defensive shifts to prevent it at all costs. If a runner is on third base with less than two outs, there's a good chance the infield will play in to try and hold the runner from scoring on a ground ball.

It's also common for the outfield to play in so there is a chance an outfield can throw someone out at the plate on a casual line drive single. Basically, you can beat the pitcher with contact, and the outfielders have no chance. Players are also taught to attack the lead runner if possible on a ball in play.

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There are no "fastball counts" in Japan

Whenever there is a 2-0 count, sometimes an MLB pitcher will throw one down the middle just to make sure it's not 3-0. In Japan, pitchers will go with what they are most comfortable with no matter what the count is, so hitters who come over cannot expect a fastball to come. Japanese pitchers have fixated on breaking balls, whether it's a curve or a slider. It is possible that this can happen when a foreign pitcher is on the mound.

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The "Shuuto" is a screwball with a twist

A shuuto is a heavy breaking ball meant to go inside when a right handed pitcher is facing a right handed batter and lefty vs. lefty. It's common for a hitter to whiff or even break the bat on a shuuto pitch.

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Defense has some priorities in Japan

While earlier mentioning how much emphasis defense is in the field, Japan will take a hole in the lineup if he has great defense at the catcher and shortstop positions. It's very important to protect any fast runners and have the ability to throw them out. The shortstop will also be there for defense, but become a hole in the lineup if needed.

There can be players in the lineup at other positions for their hitting, but shortstop and catcher need to have great defense in order to survive in NPB.

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Managers will put their closer and setup man in the 8th and 9th when they're ahead and in tie game situations

Sometimes the manager will save their closer until it's an opportunity for a save situation in MLB. Japan has more aggressive managers where the setup man and closer would take the 8th and 9th innings, respectively when the game is tied or the team is ahead. The obvious trade off is how the pitching quality becomes weaker if it goes to the 10th inning and beyond.

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Rotations involve six players on a normal basis instead of five

Starting pitchers will usually pitch once a week on average. Typically there are six games a week with one day off, making it convenient for the manager to have six pitchers ready for starting. This is one of many adjustments that some NPB pitchers need to make if they come to MLB as part of a five man rotation. It also means that managers don't care as much about pitch count since the pitcher will have plenty of time to rest.

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Managers will irrationally leave their starter to take the 9th inning if he can get a complete game or shutout

The manager will often go for the accomplishment besides the win in Japan. Obviously if a no-hitter or perfect game is happening, it could be like this in MLB, but the shutout and complete game is not a priority for the team. With pitch count not being a huge factor in these decisions (due to playing once a week), managers want their pitcher to go for the individual glory and sometimes they even force it. In a 2-0 type of game, if the starter is on a roll, the manager will leave him in sometimes even if there is a reliable closer available in the bullpen.

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Coaching staffs are larger in Japan

The first-team has many staff members as coaches besides the manager himself. From head coach (equivalent of bench coach in MLB terms) to third base to infield defense to battery, there's a coach for almost everything in NPB.  This includes another coach that works on strategy. In MLB, only seven coaches are allowed to be with the manager in a single game. Some teams can have a staff member work with them before and after the game, but not while it's ongoing.

This being said, there is only one farm team in Japan, meaning there are more MLB coaches as a whole to accommodate several levels of minor league baseball combined with the top team.

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Game planning is an important preparation in Japan

Every game is taken seriously where teams will have pregame meetings with everyone like it's a war briefing. Players will be told about the opposition and what to expect heading into the day or night. Usually the catcher "calling a good game" doesn't mean anything in MLB, but it can be a difference maker in Japan.

Coaching staff members will do their research on tendencies from the opponents besides showing film and looking at sabremetrics.

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No managing (or coaching) experience is required to be a manager in Japan

Several people hired for a manager job will be people who've understood the game of baseball for a long time as a player. Managers are usually just thrown into the fire and the upstairs front office will just see what he does and the man can learn on the fly.

An example is how Kimiyasu Kudo, a great player and now Hall of Famer was hired after he was a television analyst for multiple years post-retirement. Kudo's connections presumably brought in a staff which has made large contributions to the team's success. Tomoaki Kanemoto of the Hanshin Tigers is another manager who has no coaching experience, but was hired after being a radio color commentator. He was a great player during his time and has plenty of connections, but no one will know what he will be like until he's on the field.

There are also teams who will go with someone foreign like how the Nippon-Ham Fighters hired Trey Hillman and Bobby Valentine is remembered for his time with the Chiba Lotte Marines. Recently, a great former player in Alex Ramirez was hired by the Yokohama DeNA Baystars after he had minimal coaching experience in Japan.

Majority of American sports teams and universities will hire someone with experience as an assistant or former head coach. It will be very rare to hire someone without past coaching on their resume.

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Bat flips happen all the time and no one gets angry about it


Bat flips don't always happen because a home run is imminent, but sometimes it's an art of letting go of the bat. Pitchers won't get angry over this as it isn't viewed as a taunt.

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Instant replay in Japan has been expanded to home runs and plays at the bases, but no challenges

This is a new thing about instant replay being expanded, where previously only home runs were reviewed. The one cool aspect about this, is how the umpire will just go on a stadium microphone and formally address the crowd what the ruling is. A video of this can be seen below.


UPDATE: Replay has been expanded to a challenge system and plays on base or at the plate. Still, the umpire will formally explain the ruling on a microphone like it's football.

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Double headers are extremely rare

Games will be rained out in Japan due to the inconsistent weather all year around. However, it would be too informal to play a double header the next day as it would interfere with schedules for others. Japan is so polite, where if a train is delayed by even one minute behind schedule, they will have an apology letter for any salarymen aboard.

Makeup games will happen on blank dates and when interleague play concludes, there is nearly a full week of no games leaving a window open to play the ones rained out. Most make up games will happen at the end of the year while others can happen during the season on a blank day.

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Tie games exist in Japan


In contrary to this movie clip, regular season games will end in a tie after 12 innings if both teams have the same number of runs. It becomes 15 innings as a limit once it's the Japan Series. If somehow the Japan Series is tied 3-3-1, there would be a rare Game 8, where there would be no inning limit to end the season.  So the home team can "Celebrate" at least a tie in the event they get through the top of the 12th inning unscathed.

Like MLB, games become official after five innings and can be called if it's raining. If the score is tied after five innings and the weather is not good enough for a game, it will be decided by the umpires.

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The First pitch in Japan is marketed where everyone including players will watch


The entire crowd will watch the first pitch and mascots will often accommodate the person who throws it. Even the leadoff hitter (usually for the opposing team) will swing and miss on purpose no matter how good or bad the first pitch is from the plate.  A full collection of first pitches can be seen here.  

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Crowds in Japan have a cheering section, cheerleaders as well as a visitor's section

The Oendan (cheer section) is at every game for each team. The etiquette is that cheer songs will be played when your team is batting, while the opposing team will get their chance when your team is on defense. There are also "Chance songs" when there are runners in scoring position and fans want more runs.  In MLB, you can only get consistent drums from more than one person in the Oakland A's bleachers

It's similar to college sports, where a visitor's section is in the opposite bleacher section. So even on the road, songs will be played for opposing teams while the home crowd is silent.

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The 7th inning stretch has balloons and a cheer song instead of "Take me out to the ballgame"




Every team will sing their "cheer song" during the middle of the 7th inning. Most stadiums will have balloons for people to hold and release which is a tradition. Others will have towels or umbrellas, but 3/4ths of NPB will have balloons. Some fans will also save the balloons (I know, the appearance is a little different) for the end as a symbol of victory.  This segment is also known as "Lucky 7".

For visiting fans, they will play the road team's song at the end of the sixth inning for towels/balloons to occur.

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Select regular season games in Japan are played in rural or suburban areas

This type of thing is fan service as people from all over the country like baseball. It's a nice convenience so that fans don't have to make a long trip by car, train or plane to see their favorite team. Teams like the Rakuten Golden Eagles and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters cover a large region of their area, meaning they play several different stadiums away from their traditional home.

In the Hanshin Tigers case, they must play some home games at the Orix Buffaloes home in nearby Osaka as two Koshien tournaments have priority in their traditional stadium. It's all but guaranteed that a fraction of road or home games will not be at the their usual home stadium. 

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The pitcher is allowed to play catch in front of his dugout when his team is batting

If a pitcher is coming back for another inning out of the dugout (most of the time the starter), he can play catch and warm up a few tosses in preparation for returning to the mound. In MLB, this is rare and usually the pitchers will need to go to the bullpen or wait until the frame is over for this to happen. This is also a way of telling the crowd of who is expected to pitch the next inning.

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Umpires get excited to call a Backwards K (Called strike 3)


Some umpires throw an uppercut or a big cross when calling a strikeout.  Best yet is when there's a fast punch.

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Majority of bullpens are underground or indoors and require cameras for the dugout to see

Some bullpens are outdoors and visible along foul territory, however, many of them are inside or underground in the outfield area. Managers (or another coach) will eyeball the monitor they're given in the dugout to see how their pitcher looks. Sometimes the bullpen is so far away where it requires a car to get the pitcher to the mound out of the pen.

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Half of NPB will play their traditional home games indoors

Despite nature and sun being a great aspect of baseball, domes have their purposes in Japan due to the inconsistent weather. Six of the 12 teams have a domed stadium with one of them being a retractable roof. However, that retractable roof stadium only plays a handful of games outdoors when it's prescheduled, as they won't open it without notice.  

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Players who retire will go through a special ceremony at the end of the season



If a player spent significant time on a first team in NPB and it will be his last season, he is given a special retirement moment of glory in his last game. Usually the season is mathematically over and players will get one last hurrah whether it's one at bat for a position player or one final batter to face if he's a pitcher. The video above shows former Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Takashi Saito given his final batter as a player. He got a final toss after the game.

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There you have it.  Hopefully this will draw some guidelines and what to expect for NPB when you start watching for the first time.

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