Is there an MLB match for Machi?

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro “Machi” Matsuda.

@bronxfanatic asked about Nobuhiro Matsuda’s chances of signing with a major league team.

The San Diego Padres had reportedly been interested in the dynamic third baseman of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks–just as they had been reportedly looking into Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani a year ago. Fox Sports reports the two sides met earlier this week.

The chances of someone offering Matsuda guaranteed major league deal are small, given his age; he’ll be 33 in May. Another factor is that while Matsuda is a quality third baseman, all of his career has been spent on artificial surfaces.

Matsuda stands far off the plate in the right-handed batter’s box, daring pitchers to throw him outside and then shoots pitches to right field. Because those are his favorite targets, he can be enticed by outside pitches well off the plate. When he fails to make contact with those, he regains his balance by bouncing around the plate on one foot–what John E. Gibson  calls the “hot-foot dance.”

His success, and I believe he has a chance to succeed is in scrapping his preconceived notions about what works for him and start fresh. The change in velocity and pitching style will require major adjustments that are not easy for a mature player, so a large drop off is to be expected. He is athletic and smart enough to find a new approach, but it’s not a good bet to make.

On the plus side, he has won four Pacific League Golden Gloves, is a LEADER on the field, and according to the foreign players on the Hawks, the funniest guy in the club house. He could easily be a team favorite like his mentor, Munenori Kawasaki, and prove valuable after winning a job in a spring training invite.

That being said, he has said he will return to the Hawks if no deal is pending. This is essentially a similar situation to the one Toritani found himself in a year ago. Because he’s not high on the board, teams will wait to see who moves where before making Matsuda an attractive offer. Last year, Toritani put a mid-January deadline on negotiations because he felt he had to tell the Tigers if he would be available on Feb. 1 for spring training.

So while, Matsuda could win a job in the spring, he is unlikely to leave the Hawks in the lurch by going without a contract, and thus he is not likely to get the opportunity he longs for.

Premier 12 all-tournament team & 9th inning madness

 

The WBSC has named its all-tournament team for the inaugural Premier 12, which includes the Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani (starting pitcher) and Sho Nakata (first baseman), while Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto was named the tournament’s outstanding defensive player.

Three days after third-place Japan blew a three-run lead to lose its semifinal to eventual champion South Korea, the smoke has yet to clear over manager Hiroki Kokubo’s game management.

Some question his removing Otani after 85 pitches over seven innings for two-time Pacific League strikeout leader Takahiro Norimoto, who had been very sharp in relief through the tournament.

Others, including my podcast partner, John E Gibson, question Kokubo leaving Norimoto, a starter with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, who dispatched the Koreans in the eighth on eight pitches, in to work the ninth — since that is the domain of closers. After having zero luck with Norimoto’s fastball in the eighth, South Korea’s hitters began getting good swings at his secondary pitches. Good swings and good luck. The worst pitch he threw was a forkball that missed up over the plate, a pitch that leadoff hitter Jeong Keun Woo smashed just inside the third-base line for an RBI double. You can see the video here.

After the game, Kokubo said, “I wanted to bring in (lefty) Yuki Matsui with runners on second and third. But Norimoto hit the next batter. If there had been a base open, I think Matsui would have had more margin for error.”

Huh? He had a base open before Norimoto’s pitch came close enough to Lee Yong Kyu’s elbow for the umpire to award the batter first base. Kokubo wanted Matsui in with a base open, and didn’t bring him in then to face the lefty Lee, but waited for a bases-loaded to bring in a 20-year-old with a history of spotty control who is playing for the national team for the first time. Matsui walked the only batter he faced to make it a one-run game. Lee Dae Ho, who has seen Fighters closer Hirotoshi Masui pitch for four years, did well to lay off a 1-1 fastball off the outside corner before making  contact on a forkball over the outer half of the plate for a two-run single.

Norimoto’s control was horrible to start the inning, but he made two decent pitches that were hit for singles before Jeong’s double. Norimoto was part of the plan, no problem. But Kokubo wasn’t prepared for what he might need if the inning got out of control early, as it did.

Kokubo had four guys on his roster who close out games for a living, and a starter, submariner Kazuhisa Makita who has been deadly in relief, and none were ready when Kokubo could have used them the most.

August players of the month

Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks is sure to be named the PL’s player of the month — although “batting average leader of the month” would be a better title since the folks that pick them don’t seem to care whether a candidate has any defensive value or does anything besides hit for average. Since layers who lead their league in batting in a month, while hitting .400, are generally a lock for the award, this month’s CL selection should be interesting.

There are two good candidates. Soichiro Tateoka, who hit an even .400 for the Yomiuri Giants, and Tetsuto Yamada, who led the league in a few categories (runs, home runs, total bases, RBIs, stolen bases, slugging average and OPS, while batting a measly .310 for the Yakult Swallows.

For pitchers of the month, it will be a surprise if anyone but Chunichi Dragons rookie Shunta Wakamatsu (4-1, 2.12 ERA) wins, although it could go to Miles Mikolas of the Giants (3-0, 0.75 ERA in three starts) to make up for not being selected in July after winning the June award.

There are four good candidates for the PL pitcher of the month award, three starters and one reliever. Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu, Orix Buffaloes youngster Daiki Tomei and Nippon Ham lefty Mitsuo Yoshikawa each went 3-0 — which is pretty much the minimum standard for a starter. Tomei had the best ERA, 1.55, while Settsu won all three of his starts and had a complete game, while striking out 23 batters in 22 innings. The reliever is Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in 11 games, won one, saved eight and had two holds. Sarfate struck out 19 batters in 11-2/3 innings.

Note:

Dave Okubo’s disappearing runner trick

Rakuten skipper Dave Okubo’s aggressive base running has led to some head scratching in Sendai.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, host John E. Gibson interviewed Julio Franco, the player-manager of the Ishikawa Million Stars in Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League. One topic they discussed was being aggressive on the bases. Japanese teams tend toward playing station-to-station ball,  but Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, the new manager of the Rakuten Eagles, likes players to take more risks on the bases.

John and I both appreciate the idea behind taking everything you can get on the bases, but the Eagles’ reckless abandon has come at a cost, something John has begun to comment on.

Through Sunday, Aug. 24, the Eagles have been caught stealing an NPB-high 54 times, a huge factor in the team’s losing the highest percentage of runners on base this season (not counting runners out on ground ball double plays): 6.7 percent. That, and the club’s lack of power — their 67 home runs are last in the Pacific League and 11th fewest in NPB, while they are last in Japan in doubles and triples — contribute to the Eagles scoring just a Japan-low 22.9 percent of their runners on base. The Eagles have the third lowest de facto on-base percentage (the percentage of runners who reach safely by any means): .318.

So the Eagles have the fewest runners on base in the first place, they lose more of those guys running the bases, and their 84 sacrifice hits are third in the PL, so they should be staying out of double plays. But the Eagles’ 73 GDPs are third in NPB, behind the Hawks and Swallows, the league leaaders in OBP.

Tony Barnette and July’s Monthly MVPS

Tony Barnette won his first monthly MVP award, photo courtesy of Deanna Rubin

Here is my latest original work in the Japan Times, although I have been assured that including bylines is company policy, that policy appears to be flexible depending on who is on the desk. The original is here, and here is the link to the Japan Times material:

By Jim Allen

TOKYO, Kyodo – Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette was one of three first-time winners on Friday, when Nippon Professional Baseball announced its players and pitchers of the month for July.

Barnette, who saved all eight games he appeared in, was named to the Central League honor roll along with Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who won his second player of the month award. The Pacific League honors went to a pair of first-timers, five-time home run king Takeya Nakamura of the Seibu Lions, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Rick van den Hurk.

Barnette allowed one run in 7-1/3 innings without issuing a walk to earn the nod over Yomiuri Giants starter Miles Mikolas. The June pitcher of the month went 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in four games and struck out 15, but was overlooked this time.

Although Barnette gets the saves, it has hardly been a one-man show in the Swallows bullpen, with Orlando Roman and first-year setup man Logan Ondrusek in to keep games tight before the ninth.

“Those two guys have been just as good or better than anyone in the league,” Barnette told Kyodo News by email on Friday. “Roman is a guy that you can put into any situation and he’s going to dig deep and fight his way through it.”

“Logan has made the adjustment to Japan as well as anyone could ask for. There are growing pains that come with the move to Japan but he has excelled on and off the field. That being said, when I have guys like them protecting leads in front of me, it takes a bit of weight off my shoulders and gives me a freedom to just be myself and do the job I’ve been asked to do.”

“You add (Ryo) Akiyoshi into that mix and a revived (Kenichi) Matsuoka, we are in a good place as far as bullpen health and stability is concerned.”

The biggest surprise of the day was not that Nakamura deserved to win the award, but that he had never won it before. The monthly honors are typically handed out to players with stratospheric batting averages — something a career .257 hitter such as Nakamura rarely qualifies for. Nakamura, who has also won five PL Best IX awards, hit just .289, but reached base at a .400 clip, and led the league in home runs (eight) and slugging average (.711), while leading the nation with 26 RBIs.

Last month, Nakamura hit his 300th career home run and his 15th grand slam, the last figure tying him for the most in NPB history.

“It was an OK month,” he said. “I’m glad to win.”

Van den Hurk, who spent much of the first half on the Hawks farm team after suffering an injury in the spring, has finally landed a regular spot in the club’s starting rotation. The Dutch international went 3-0 in July with a 2.53 ERA and 41 strikeouts in a PL-high 32 innings.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/08/07/baseball/japanese-baseball/swallows-closer-barnette-among-three-first-time-monthly-mvp-award-winners/#.VcU9GEKUnto

 

Matt Murton talks hit records, distractions

Japan’s single-season hit record-holder Matt Murton has some words of advice for Seibu Lions leadoff man Shogo Akiyama

By Jim Allen

The Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, holder of Japan’s single-season hit record, had some words of advice on Friday for the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, who is in hot pursuit of his record.

“Obviously he (Akiyama) has had a tremendous season so far,” Murton told Kyodo News. “He just needs to focus on trying to help his team win. If he gets caught up in everything else going on around him, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed throughout the remainder of this year.”

In 2010, his debut season in Japan, Murton eclipsed Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 hits to establish the current mark of 214. Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130-game season, while Murton accomplished his over 144 games in 2010, the last year before Nippon Professional Baseball banned juiced balls. Akiyama entered play on Saturday with 133 hits, needing 82 hits over the Lions’ remaining 61 games to surpass Murton.

Akiyama extended his hitting streak to 30 games on Saturday.

Read the full story at the Japan Times: http://t.co/92lDaKOtDL

Race for history

The Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama is challenging the record book this season.

“I’m enjoying it while it lasts.”

That was Seibu Lions center field Shogo Akiyama’s answer when reporters asked him two months ago about being on track to break Japan’s record for hits in a season. The record of 214 was set by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers over 144 games in 2010, when he broke the 210 mark established by Ichiro Suzuki in 1994 in a 130-game season.

On July 2, Akiyama hit for the 23rd straight game, establishing a record for the storied franchise. Akiyama took another step toward putting his name in the record book with 43 hits in June, making him only the second player – after Suzuki to have back-to-back 40-hit months.

Because of the hits, Akiyama has grabbed headlines, but Softbank Hawks center fielder Yuki Yanagita, also a left-handed hitter, has held his own in the PL batting race with the two battling neck and neck. At the end of June, Yanagita was batting .381 to Akiyama’s .382. Because Yanagita bats third instead of first and walks much more often, it will be harder for the Hawks star to break the hit record.

Akiyama turned 27 on April 16, and although he began getting regular playing time in 2011, he was held back against left-handed pitchers his first year, when he posted a .403 OPS against southpaws. It’s an area where he has shown steady improvement, but this year Akiyama has taken a huge step forward against both lefties and righties with a .922/.962 left/right split.

Against the best pitchers in either league as measured by earned run average, the top 19 among pitchers with 74 or more innings pitched through July 4, Akiyama is 14-for-49 with four doubles, no homers, two walks and five strikeouts for a an OPS of .710 – impressive in that it is close to his career norm against all pitching.

However, against this same group of Japan’s best pitchers, Yanagita is 23-for-60, with six doubles, three homers and 10 walks against 12 strikeouts for an impressive OPS of 1.112 – impressive in that is as good as he is against everyone this season.

The Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita

Yanagita is six months younger than Akiyama and a rare type of hitter in Japan, a player who hits home runs, while frequently hitting the ball on the ground. If his past performance is any indication, he may be a better first-half hitter. If any of that was due to conditioning or fitness issues, then new Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s aggressive efforts in the area of fitnesss and conditioning may help that.

Akiyama has so far tended to get a little better as the season goes on, yet he is so far ahead of his past performance that it is hard to see him having a second half that is even as good. But even so, as of Sunday, July 5, Akiyama was 84 hits shy of Murton’s 214, and he had been collecting hits at an average of 1.65 per game. He can break the record even if that rate falls off by nearly 20 percent to 1.33 hits per game and he plays every game, so his fitness is going to be a huge issue.

Yanagita would have to improve his hit rate by 20 percent, which doesn’t seem likely. But if he were to hold steady – which seems possible, Yanagita would have a shot of breaking the single-season batting-average record of .389, set by Randy Bass in 1986.