NPB games, news of June 29, 2019

On a rainy day in eastern Japan, all 12 teams were in action for the first time since interleague’s final scheduled day last Sunday. The Swallows hosted the Giants in Akita and in a holdover from the old days, when playing in remote parks often involved uncertain travel connections by train, games played more remote locations often involve an extra day for travel.

Saturday’s highlight was an inside-the-park home run. By their nature, these are fluke plays, but I doubt you’ve seen one like this and it proved to be the decisive play of the game.

Pacific League

Hawks 5, Fighters 4

At Sapporo Dome, Nippon Ham’s understudy closer, Naoya Ishikawa, came within one strike of nailing down his third save. But Seiji Uebayashi followed Seiichi Uchikawa’s two-out, two-strike single with a strange home run in SoftBank’s come-from-behind win.

With one out, Fighters right fielder Taishi Ota robbed Nobuhiro Matsuda of a one-out single only for Uchikawa to lob 1-2 pitch off the end of his bat into right for a single. Then a little craziness ensued as Uebayashi’s drive bounced on the top of the wall and stayed in play, forcing him to speed up as he rounded third for a half-trotting, inside-the-park homer.

Here’s a clip of Seiji Uebayashi’s game winning inside-the-parker.

“With two outs, I had to be looking for extra-bases,” Uebayashi said. “I didn’t think I could hit a home run there, but I’m happy I did.”

“I wasn’t certain it went over, but (when I got around second coach (Arihito) Muramatsu was frantically waving me in, so half-way through I had to run for real.”

Fighters starter Toshihiro Sugiura, looked sharp through four innings, and Ryo Watanabe overturned a 1-0 deficit with a three-run, fourth-inning homer after Hawks starter Kotaro Otake walked a batter and surrendered a flare single off the end of Wang Po-jung’s bat.

Remember the line in Bull Durham, where Tim Robbins said a guy hit a pitch, “like he knew I was going to throw a fastball”? That’s what Ryo Watanabe’s home run looked like. The Fighters’ 1.78-meter second baseman stayed back on a first pitch curveball on the outside part of the plate and leaned into it, driving it out to distant left center.

Manager Hideki Kuriyama pulled Sugiura after two hard-hit balls to open the fifth, but reliever Kazutomo Iguchi hit a batter and missed with a high 1-0 fastball that was smoked for a two-run, game-tying single.

The Fighters retook the lead on a leadoff double in the fifth, a drag-bunt sacrifice and a sacrifice fly by Ota. After using four pitchers to get through the fifth inning, Kuriyama, who appeared to be practicing his scowl for most of the game needed four more to get his team within one strike of a victory.

The game highlights are HERE.

Eagles 2, Marines 2, 6 innings, rain

At Rakuten Seimei Park, the Rakuten Eagles hit a pair of leadoff home runs, but stranded seven runners over five innings before their game with Lotte was called due to rain.

For the life of me, I don’t understand Japan’s aversion to suspended games. In a country that deals with high school pitching marathons in the blistering heat of summer, one would think they could suspend those games, but perhaps that would violate some unwritten rule that says if you start a game today, you have to finish it today.

For years, the high school federation’s answer has been to take games that go past a certain number of innings and, wait for it, replay them from the start — ostensibly to spare the pitchers’ arms, when so often it is the same guy who just threw 12 innings who will have to start from scratch.

The game highlights are HERE.

Lions 7, Buffaloes 0

At MetLife Dome, Lions starter Keisuke Honda located his little 140-kph fastball and his changeup well, and was spared when the Buffaloes failed to do much with his mistakes as he struck out five and walked two over six scoreless innings.

Buffaloes starter Tsubasa Sakakibara, looking to throw his 11th straight quality start, gave up two runs in the first before striking out cleanup hitter Hotaka Yamakawa with no outs and a runner on third and getting an inning-ending double play.

Chris Marrero, who had been cooling his heels on the Buffaloes’ farm team since the start of June drove a hanging changeup foul before striking out in his first at-bat and drilled a hanging slider for an out in his second, but was hitless.

The game highlights are HERE.

Central League

Giants 6, Swallows 2

At Akita’s Komachi Stadium, Shun Yamaguchi pitched seven scoreless innings i in Yomiuri’s win over Yakult, making him the 353rd pitcher to reach 1,000 innings pitched.

Yamaguchi dueled veteran Swallows lefty Masanori Ishikawa through six innings. Ishikawa left trailing 2-0, only for the bullpen to cough up three more runs in the seventh.

Dragons 6, Tigers 1

At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi lefty Yudai Ono allowed a run on eight hits over seven innings, while striking out five and walking none, while Hanshin side-armer Koyo Aoyagi gave up five runs in the second inning.

Joely Rodriguez pitched out of a one-out, two-on jam in the eighth and Raidel Martinez struck out the side in order in the ninth to close it out.

Dragons catcher Takuma Kato drilled a 2-1 fastball down the line for a one-out, second-inning, bases-loaded double that plated the first two runs in a five-run inning off Aoyagi.

BayStars 2, Carp 1, 10 innings

At Yokohama Stadium, Toshiro Miyazaki’s two-out, bases-loaded single lifted DeNA past Hiroshima to its third straight win. The loss left the Carp 2-1/2 games back of the Giants in second place.

News

Tigers’ Fujinami appears ready for return

In what was billed as his final tuneup before returning to the first team, Hanshin Tigers right-hander Shintaro Fujinami allowed a run over eight innings and touched 154 kph on Saturday in a Western League game against the Hiroshima Carp at Mazda Stadium. He allowed four hits, while striking out eight and walking one.

The Sankei Sports story is HERE.

Blash out of action after Japan-high 10th plunking

Jabari Blash was held out of the Eagles’ lineup on Saturday after being hit by a pitch on the right arm on Friday by Eagles closer Naoya Masuda in the ninth inning. He was removed for a pinch runner.

Blash is leading the team with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs. He has been by pitches 10 times to lead the PL in that category. Chunichi’s Dayan Viciedo leads the CL with 10.

NPB games, news of June 28, 2019

League play resumed in Japan on Friday with four games. All six Pacific League teams were in action, while the Hiroshima Carp, who fell out of first place during interleague were in Yokohama in the Central League’s only game.

Pacific League

Hawks 7, Fighters 5

At Sapporo Dome, Kodai Senga and Kohei Arihara, the two hottest PL pitchers from the start of the season, showed some superb pitches, but were inconsistent in their location in a pitcher’s duel that turned out nothing like the announcers promised in the buildup.

Senga walked four and struck out a season-low five and gave up a bunch of hard-hit balls that allowed him to only give up one run over six innings.

Arihara, who started the season as a machine, getting everybody to swing and miss at his changeup, also gave up some shots while walking three and striking out four as he allowed three runs over six innings.

Here are the Hawks, Fighters highlights.

Marines 6, Eagles 5

At Rakuten Seimei Park, Rakuten had to call on closer Yuki Matsui, who did not see action on Tuesday because they wanted to give him six days off before pitching again perhaps?

Anyway, the lefty couldn’t find the strike zone. He got the first two batters out after falling behind but walked the next three. Afterward he said, “I should have been tougher with the bases loaded.”

Here are Marines, Eagles highlights.

Buffaloes 4, Lions 0

At Metlife Dome, Yoshinobu Yamamoto struck out 11 and walked two to win a tight pitchers’ duel with the Lions’ Tatsuya Ishii, who allowed one run over eight innings. It was the 20-year-old Yamamoto’s first career shutout and his first win since May 28.

Here are the Buffaloes-Lions highlights.

Central League

BayStars 13, Carp 3

At Yokohama Stadium, Jose Lopez and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo ruined my story about Alejandro Mejia’s first big game of the season after getting promoted back from Hiroshima’s farm team.

Lopez and Tsutsugo each belted a pair of homers while headline writers discarded themes such as “BayStars drop bombs on Hiroshima,” while Neftali Soto, last year’s CL champ, hit his league-leading 23rd home run.

Alejandro Mejia

My minor league season records go back to 1991, and during that span only eight players have hit 19 or more home runs in a Western League season. The WL is a notorious pitcher’s league with huge parks and low averages. Of those eight, four have become certified power hitters in NPB, Takahiro Okada, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Kenji Jojima and Xavier Batista. Batista probably had the most impressive run of any of those guys, hitting 21 in 177 at-bats two years ago.

Mejia hit 20 last year in 300 plate appearances and joined the Carp first team at the end of interleague having hit 19 in 201 at-bats this spring in the minors.

In Friday’s game, Mejia, playing third with Batista at first, went 3-for-4 with a home run. So that’s a start after going hitless in three at-bats in Wednesday’s interleague finale against Rakuten.

Filling up with the ‘Gasoline Tank’

Testuya Yoneda, one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s pitching marvels from back in the day, spoke in an interview with the Nikkan Sports. The 81-year-old, who won 350 games in a career mostly spent with the Pacific League’s Hankyu Braves — before they became a dynasty in the middle of the 1960s — is second on Japan’s all-time wins list.

His nickname during his playing days was the “Gasoline Tank,” which Yoneda said Hall of Famer Noboru Aota stuck him with because of how much the pitcher could drink.

The interview is HERE, but here are some snippet translations from this wonderful interview. But first an anecdote…

Oh those foreigners…

I hadn’t thought about Yoneda since Jeremy Powell was roasted in the Japanese media for ostensibly signing contracts with both the Orix Buffaloes and the SoftBank Hawks in 2008. The drift of much of the commentary at the time was that only a foreigner would be so underhanded as to do such a thing.

In fact, Powell had reached an initial agreement with Orix, which then wanted to modify it due to concerns over an MRI of his right arm. He refused to accept those changes and instead signed with SoftBank.

What people neglected to mention at that time was that prior to NPB’s draft, a lot of player signed contracts to play with more than one team, and Yoneda, a Hall of Famer, is the best example. He signed out of high school with the Hanshin Tigers and then had a change of heart and signed with the Braves.

Another famous double contract problem was that of Masanori Murakami, who was obliged to sign with the San Francisco Giants, and who was conned into signing with the Nankai Hawks, who refused to accept that they had forfeited their rights to the young lefty.

The point of those comments is that times change, conditions change, and what’s normal for one player may be alien to another 20 years later.

Back in the day…

The interview is a snapshot of “back in the day” reminiscence that one used to get an earful every October at the Sawamura Award announcements.

Here goes:

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: But it is said that if you pitch a lot, shoulder and elbow troubles will follow…

Yoneda: “It is true that the ball is heavy and if you keep throwing it will put you under a lot of stress. But the answer to that is to build bodies that can bear that stress. If we don’t create pitchers who are able to throw, then the current low level will persist.”

Q: You are dissatisfied?

Yoneda: “Just look it. Everyone stands up straight and basically only uses their upper body to throw.”

Q: Your numbers are just so far beyond those seen today…

Yoneda: “It’s sad. It’s bizarre for pros to think that if you throw too much you’ll get hurt. Everyone is protecting you. What I’d like to say is to try harder.”

Q: Are you opposed to those who say marathon bullpen sessions are unneccessary?

Yoneda: “If pitchers don’t throw, they’ll never master their control. A pitcher’s livelihood is being able to pitch low and also inside.”

Q: So pitchers shouldn’t pitch up in the zone?

Yoneda: “No that’s not the point. The balls pitchers today throw high in the zone are all mistakes. It’s no good doing that unless it is part of your plan.”

Q: So control is essential?

Yoneda: “If you throw 300 pitches in camp, you’ll be able to throw 150 in a game. In my day I threw between 2,500 and 3,000 pitches in camp.”

For the record

Just out of curiosity, I looked up Yoneda’s career pitching logs. He did in fact throw 150-pitch games, 22 to be exact, and another nine of 145-149 during his 22-year career.

As I’ve written before, it is extremely hard to compare pitchers then with those of more recent vintage, because the usage is different. Before the pitch count fever hit Japan about 15 years ago, 150-pitch starts were vastly more common than in Yoneda’s day.

Take Hideo Nomo, for example. Nomo pitched only five NPB seasons and threw 23 150-pitch games, and also had nine more of 145-149 pitches. And we know what happened to his arm after four years, he couldn’t play without pain.

Or take another recent Hall of Famer, Masaki Saito. Perhaps from Yoneda’s view, Saito’s 180 career wins with the best Central League team of his generation must have been disappointing. The big right-hander pitched 18 seasons, although injuries kept him from getting to 200 wins. He threw 21 150-pitch games in his career, and another five from 145-149.

Dayan Viciedo and the zone

My buddy John Gibson interviewed Dayan Viciedo of the Chunichi Dragons last week, which you can hear on the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast.

In the interview, Viciedo, last year’s CL batting champion, said the difference between this season and last has been more balls out of the zone, demanding better plate discipline from him.

According to Delta Graphs, Viciedo has, so far this season, seen a slightly higher percentage of pitches in the zone than he did last season. He’s swinging at fewer of them, and swinging at a few more outside the zone.

His percentage of pitches in the zone this season so far is 41.9 percent, up from 40.6 last year, which was then a career high for him in Japan. This year, he’s swung at 32.6 percent of the pitches out of the zone, and 68.1% in the zone. Last year, those figures were 30.2% and 73.5%, respectively.

The real difference has been what happens when he puts the ball in play. We don’t have exit velocities and Delta Graphs categories the speed of balls of the bat as soft, medium and hard. But those percentages have barely moved this season for Viciedo.

The difference seems to simply that he’s being hurt by more balls in play being turned into outs than he did last season. Last season, his BABIP was .354, this year it’s .335.

I’m guessing that that is partly luck and — because his percent of home runs per fly ball is way down so far this year (to 13 percent after being over 16.8 percent in each of his first three seasons. This could easily be a function of the colder early season weather.

There’s no reason to think that those things he does in the batters box to hit pitches are any less effective than they were a year ago.

2019 All Star Teams

Fan ballot

Here are the fan ballots for the upcoming NPB all-star games (published on June 24)

Central League

★Selected in this ballot / selections by fans (total selections)

  Rank Player Team Votes
Starting pitchers
1 Daichi Osera 1(2) C 257,168
  2 Yuki Nishi T 249,040
  3 Tomoyuki Sugano G 157,176
  4 Shota Imanaga DB 146,931
  5 Juri Hara S 103,046
  6 Koyo Aoyagi T 61,561
  7 Yudai Ono D 57,043
  8 Kazuki Yoshimi D 29,851
  9 Yuya Yanagi D 29,157
  10 Masanori Ishikawa S 22,122
Middle Relievers
1 Pierce Johnson 1(1) T 364,233
  2 Ryuji Ichioka C 209,174
  3 Kota Nakagawa G 181,595
  4 Kazuki Kondo S 166,172
  5 Joely Rodriguez D 98,535
Closers
1 Yasuaki Yamasaki 5(5) DB 394,734
  2 Rafael Dolis T 287,895
  3 Taichi Ishiyama S 137,405
  4 Shota Nakazaki C 122,631
  5 Hiroshi Suzuki D 97,990
Catchers
1 Ryutaro Umeno 2(2) T 420,640
  2 Tsubasa Aizawa C 215,631
  3 Seiji Kobayashi G 212,444
  4 Hikaru Ito DB 133,528
  5 Shuhei Nakamura S 131,872
First Basemen
1 Kazuma Okamoto 2(2) G 308,401
  2 Dayan Viciedo D 189,313
  3 Tomotaka Sakaguchi S 167,186
  4 Jose Lopez DB 158,633
  5 Masahiro Nakatani T 156,304
Second Basemen
1 Tetsuto Yamada 3(5) S 424,435
  2 Ryosuke Kikuchi C 286,976
  3 Kento Ihara T 244,737
  4 Naoki Yoshikawa G 79,507
  5 Neftali Soto DB 67,530
Third Basemen
1 Munetaka Murakami 1(1) S 376,036
  2 Yusuke Oyama T 309,194
  3 Shuhei Takahashi D 216,519
  4 Toshiro Miyazaki DB 117,798
  5 Tomohiro Abe C 106,696
Shortstops
1 Hayato Sakamoto 8(11) G 424,557
  2 Seiya Kinami T 243,398
  3 Kosuke Tanaka C 161,186
  4 Naomichi Nishiura S 115,891
  5 Yota Kyoda D 112,325
Outfielders
1 Seiya Suzuki 3(4) C 485,526
2 Koji Chikamoto 1(1) T 389,868
3 Yoshitomo Tsutsugo 5(5) DB 319,896
  4 Norichika Aoki S 298,738
  5 Yoshihiro Maru G 291,973
  6 Yoshio Itoi T 248,870
  7 Yohei Oshima D 212,562
  8 Hisayoshi Chono C 202,207
  9 Kosuke Fukudome T 185,949
  10 Wladamir Balentien S 182,349

Pacific League

  Rank Player Team Votes
Starting pitchers
1 Kodai Senga 2(3) H 260,211
  2 Yoshinobu Yamamoto B 212,451
  3 Kohei Arihara F 73,148
  4 Hideaki Wakui M 67,682
  5 Tatsuya Imai L 65,552
  6 Taisuke Yamaoka B 62,538
  7 Takayuki Kishi E 61,782
  8 Rei Takahashi H 59,080
  9 Naoyuki Uwasawa F 53,367
  10 Kotaro Otake H 38,199
Middle Relievers
1 Naoki Miyanishi 2(3) F 304,380
  2 Hiroshi Kaino H 265,479
  3 Yuki Karakawa M 150,043
  4 Katsunori Hirai L 146,099
  5 Keisuke Sawada B 80,793
Closers
1 Yuki Matsui 3(3) E 337,789
  2 Hirotoshi Masui B 189,452
  3 Yuito Mori H 157,586
  4 Ryo Akiyoshi F 140,160
  5 Naoya Masuda M 118,938
Catchers
1 Tomoya Mori 3(3) ※1 L 425,723
  2 Takuya Kai H 302,332
  3 Tatsuhiro Tamura M 113,138
  4 Motohiro Shima E 67,416
  5 Kenya Wakatsuki B 65,975
First Basemen
1 Hotaka Yamakawa 2(2) L 531,187
  2 Sho Nakata F 172,215
  3 Daichi Suzuki M 153,325
  4 Seiichi Uchikawa H 103,824
  5 Takahiro Okada B 62,836
Second Basemen
1 Hideto Asamura 6(7) E 384,668
  2 Shuta Tonosaki L 214,570
  3 Shogo Nakamura M 176,157
  4 Shuhei Fukuda B 85,634
  5 Ryo Watanabe F 78,811
Third Basemen
1 Brando Laird 1(3) M 431,395
  2 Nobuhiro Matsuda H 259,432
  3 Takeya Nakamura L 173,716
  4 Yuma Tongu B 75,055
  5 Zelous Wheeler E 71,712
Shortstops
1 Kenta Imamiya 5(5) H 348,794
  2 Sosuke Genda L 305,762
  3 Takuya Nakashima F 124,092
  4 Yudai Fujioka M 99,609
  5 Eigoro Mogi E 95,034
Outfielders
1 Shogo Akiyama 5(5) L 514,262
2 Masataka Yoshida 2(2) B 394,866
3 Yuki Yanagita 5(6) H 331,338
  4 Taishi Ota F 318,716
  5 Haruki Nishikawa F 307,047
  6 Takashi Ogino M 259,918
  7 Seiji Uebayashi H 145,392
  8 Katsuya Kakunaka M 129,930
  9 Yuji Kaneko L 128,214
  10 Yurisbel Gracial H 125,451
DH
1 Kensuke Kondo 2(3) ※2 F 287,249
  2 Alfredo Despaigne H 239,339
  3 Jabari Blash E 162,961
  4 Takumi Kuriyama L 151,484
  5 Kennys Vargas M 86,968