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11/23/2002 Archived Entry: "Season Wrap Up Special"

The Best and the Brightest

Alex Cabrera made the biggest mark on the Japanese game this season with his record tying 55 homers, 37 of those in the second half, and more than a few earning the attention of NASA as they made for the stratosphere. In fact, he carromed one sure homer off of the roof at Tokyo Dome for probably the longest single in the history of Japan and it prevented him from passing up Sadaharu Oh's single season dinger standard.

Contrary to reports in the U.S. press, including one particular work of fiction by ESPN's Jim Caple, the last week of the season, the big Venezuelan began muscling up in the hopes of attaining immortality. But much akin to Alfonso Soriano and Vlad Guerrero's pursuit of the 40-40 figure, muscling up will dull your bat speed and thus Cabrera didn't detonate any bombs in his final 23 at bats, so the 55 club is now three deep.

If, as Caple conveyed, Cabrera is asserting that he wasn't given a chance to break the record, he is in danger of traversing into Jose Canseco territory. Canseco, big muscles and talent with a pea brain running the show, became one of the jokes of baseball. Let us hope that Alex comes to his senses and doesn't become more well known for his mouth than what he does with his bat.

Ignoring the purported verbiage by the ex-Diamondback, though, Cabrera was the epitome of an MVP. Not only does his power scare the opposition, but just his presence in the lineup gives his teammates a big shot of confidence. If there is one player who exemplifies the word "daikokubashira"---literally big black pillar, a word that usually connotes a family breadwinner in Japan, Cabrera is it. He is the big kahuna, the man, the be all and end all of the Lions, even with the presence of Little Matsui on that team. If Cabrera, a fan favorite, were smart, he would keep his mouth shut and have his agent work more on getting him endorsement deals in Japan rather than spend his time angling for another shot at MLB. It's perhaps not really my place to tell Alan Nero, a guy with a long history in placing players with Japanese teams, what to do, but in this case, he needs to give some better advice to his client, who is killing his marketability.

Now that we're past that, the guy who had perhaps the best all around season ever in Japanese baseball history was Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who set records for homers in a season by a one hole hitter (36), most homers by a switch hitter (ditto) in a season, and most extra base hits in a season (88), the latter shattering a 52 year old record. His other accomplishments? How about a .332 average, 193 hits (yep, more than Rose and only 17 off of Ichiro's Japan record), 359 total bases, 33 stolen bases, and 119 runs scored while setting a new PL record for consecutive games played and making a mere nine errors. Matsui has only 18 miscues in his last 280 contests. Too, he destroyed MLB pitching, homering twice in one game and driving in seven runs. The two blemishes on all this is that he basically disappeared in the Japan Series and he struckout 112 times (17.2%, which is high for a number one hitter) in 651 plate appearances. His OPS was 1.006. When he leaves for MLB next season, he will command a fat multi-million dollar salary, as his performance against the MLB contingent opened a lot of eyes.

Hideki Matsui, who you are all no doubt no tired of hearing about by now, cannonaded 50 homers, but drove in only 107 runs, thanks to having Nioka in front of him and being pitched around when anyone was on. My impression of Matsui this year was that while it's nice to have someone who hits like that on your team, by the same token, if you look at the big hits factor, Nioka or table setter Takayuki Shimizu was perhaps more valuable than Godzilla. Kazuhiro Kiyohara was the player that everyone on the Giants looked to as the big man on campus they wanted around as a pure power threat. This isn't to diminish Godzilla's stature, but in no way was he able to compare to Alex Cabrera.

The same is true if you compare the managers of the two pennant winners. Haruki Ihara had a lot less to work with than Yomiuri skipper Tatsunori Hara did. Wada was reclaimed off the scrap heap, as was DH specialist Toshiaki Inubshi, another catcher who had spent 12 years toiling in the minors, who was inserted against lefties and ate them alive. One thing Seibu has always done well, though, is obtain athletic players and their outfielders Tatsuya Ozeki, Kazuhiko Miyaji and Susumu Otomo are just that, even if they aren't particularly world beating hitters. Second baseman Hiroyuki Watanabe won a Gold Glove and was a solid contributor with the bat, especially with runners in scoring position. But he lacks the pop of a Toshihisa Nishi. Ihara did a fine job handling an okay bullpen, though he was blessed with one of the best closers in the game, Kiyoshi Toyoda, who set a PL record for saves and save points.

On the other hand, Hara inherited a club full of stars. He made what turned out to be some good decisons from the outset when he gave Takayuki Saito more playing time and he put Shimizu in against all comers in the one slot. He lucked into the Nioka growth after contemplating putting him in left (to dire results). Hara also put Kuwata back in the rotation in spring training after two horrid seasons as a reliever. But having a core lineup that already included Godzilla Matsui, Kiyohara, and Yoshinobu Takahashi and a developing Abe, not to mention the great veteran southpaw Kimiyasu Kudoh, lent him raw material the quality of which far exceeded the hand that Ihara was dealt. Mind you, Hara was a big improvement over the bumbling Shigeo Nagashima. But he started out with the baseball equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth. So even if both men set rookie manager records for wins in their respective leagues, Ihara gets the edge here.

Back from the Dead

Coming into this season, righthanders Keiichi Yabu (Hanshin) and Masumi Kuwata (Yomiuri) were looking as if they were washed up. Indeed, the Giants made noises at the end of the season about giving Kuwata the old heave ho. But being put back into the starting rotation, he won the ERA title and may sign a new multi-year deal so that he can reach 200 career victories.

Yabu, 34, only threw 55 innings last season with a 4.09 ERA. This season, he went 10-6 with a sweet 3.14 ERA in 131.2 frames, averaging just over six innings per start. Now the question is, can he repeat that in 2003., We shall see.

Japan's answer to Eric Davis, Hiroshima Carp rightfielder Tomonori Maeda, gingerly trod on his surgically repaired Achilles tendon this year and had a solid season, as he wacked hits at a .308 clip with 20 homers and 59 RBIs. It will be interesting to see if his heel holds up in 2003, when he will likely be moved to leftfield. He had only been able to appear in a combined 106 games across 2000 and 2001 and he was no doubt perhaps looking at the terminus of his playing days. He's still just 31, so he may have another five or so good runs around the track if he can stay off the disabled list. Don't forget, this is a guy who has a lifetime average of .304, including one stretch of seven out of eight seasons where he hit better than .300.

Otsukaresama Deshita (Thank You for Your Hard Work)

At the end of the 2002 march, six foreign fixtures in Japan were handed their walking papers, mostly due to injuries.

After six seasons and 119 homers in Japan, including a historic four in one game while he was with Nippon Ham, the amiable Nigel Wilson couldn't overcome injuries and was released by Kintetsu. Nigel learned Japanese while he was in the country and someone might want to interview him for an international scouting position, if he isn't doing that already.

The pride of Panama, Sherman Obando, was released by the Fighters after his fourth year in Tokyo, as he pounded 26 homers this season while often playing hurt, with a fracture ultimately putting him on the shelf for the last month or so of the schedule. Obando drilled 91 out of the park during his time in Japan, his best effort being in 2000, when he went yard 30 times while batting .332 and driving in 101 runs. The ex-Oriole got some revenge, perhaps, for his ouster, as he helped the Panamanian contingent to a win over Japan in the Intercontinental Cup in Havana.

Bad knees and age ultimately did in the Chunichi Dragons Leo Gomez, 36, who blasted 153 dingers in six Japanese seasons. Gomez had talked about entering the priesthood once his career was over.

Panic attacks snuffed out Gomez' teammate Melvin Bunch's Japan career, as he finished with a 31-23 record in three seasons in Nagoya.

Injuries and age also showed their effects on 36 year old Lotte DH Frank Bolick, who got real gone 92 times in four campaigns in Chiba.

38 year old Hiroshima Carp first baseman Luis Lopez started the season blazing hot, but after a run in with teammate Tomonori Maeda, he went right down the tubes, batting just .245 with five homers and 33 RBIs in 80 games. For his five years as part of the Red Hell and one spent in Fukuoka with Daiei, he batted .303 with 129 homers.

Players Who Turned into Pumpkins

Unfortunately, two of those were with my boys, the Yakult Swallows, Hirotsugu Maeda and Satoshi Iriki. Iriki, 35, had easily his best season in 2001, when he posted a 10-3 2.85 after being released by Yomiuri. Unfortunately, he never really even got out of the starting gate this time around, going 1-3 with a 6.66 ERA in 25.2 innings, earning him his release.

Maeda was 7-10 last season with a 3.93 ERA, which was good enough to at least keep a team that emerged offensively in every game. But he got hammered in spring training and opened the year in the minors before being called up and notching a deceptive 3-1 4.19 record in 32.1 innings.. Why he wasn't released is curious.

Pleasant Surprises

Every season has its share of pleasant surprises and 2002 was no exception. The nine leading ones, in my estimation, were Kevin Hodges (Yakult), Jeremy Powell (Kintetsu), Hisanori Takahashi, Tomohiro Nioka, Takayuki Shimizu, and Shinnouske Abe (all of Yomiuri), Kosuke Fukudome (Chunichi), Kazuhiro Wada (Seibu) and Koo Dae-sung (Orix).

The former Mariner Hodges came on board at Meiji Jingu midway through 2001 and fashioned several solid outings despite an abysmal K/BB ratio and throwing more pitches per inning than was really desirable. However, he really turned those figures around and it got him a 17 win season, tying him with Koji Uehara for the Central League lead. With a disappointing tear from Shugo Fujii that wasn't anywhere near as good as one might think by gazing at ghis raw numbers, Hodges really saved the birds' bacon and became their ace.

Jeremy Powell was the picture of mediocrity last season and he got tattooed pretty good his first few starts in 2002, but then between May and July, he was basically unbeatable, winning ten in a row and grabbing 17 victories himself. He seemed to really get a handle on his breaking ball and Pacific League hitters had a hard time dealing with it.

Takahashi, in two previous seasons, had won nine games in each of his first two campaigns as a Yomiuri Giant, but had an ERA of almost 4.00 last time around and seemed headed for mediocrity, However, adding a cut fastball in spring training that proved to be a very effective pitch for him, he rebounded with a 10-4, 3.09 showing, all career bests.

Wada's career was going nowhere before Haruki Ihara took over in Tokorozawa. He originally came up as a catcher and had a mere 496 lifetime at bats in five previous seasons, His above average wheels saw him converted to an outfielder and, this season, Ihara handed him the starting leftfielder's job. He took full advantage of the opportunity, as, despite suffering a hairline knee fracture running into a wall chasing a fly ball halfway through the schedule, he still cracked 33 homers and sent 81 runner across the plate while batting .319. Even with those stellar regular season numbers, though, he was still left with a bad taste in his mouth after going basically zero for the post season (the Japan Series and the NPB-MLB set to). He will be seeking a shot at righting that disaster in 2003.

Fukudome had a lifetime average of .265 in his three pro seasons, but he came out of the gate a real live one this season and really put the pedal to the metal the last month and a half of the season to overcome Hideki Matsui's lead in the circuit batting race to claim his first batting crown, though he tainted it by sitting out the last three games of the year. He was also outstanding in the field, leading the CL in outfield assists. Fukudome then torched MLB pitching to cap it off and raise his profile. Now let's see if the 25 year old can replicate that kind of display of all around skills.

Next on the list of surprises was Yomiuri shortstop Tomohiro Nioka, who set a team record for a player at his position with 24 homers, and he did it in only 398 at bats to boot while hitting .281. Nioka's biggest problem in his career has been injuries, limiting him to 86 games in 2001 and hindering him again this year. In some ways, he was Yomiuri's most valuable player, not Hideki Matsui, providing pop and clutch hitting in the number two hole to exploit the career year of our next surprise.

That, of course, would be Takayuki Shimizu. Coming into this season, he had the reputation of not being able to hit lefthanders and was platooned most of his career. Manager Tatsunori Hara made him an everyday player and he responded by amassing 191 knocks, just one off of Bobby Rose's league record, in the leadoff role. His 14 homers were also a lifetime best. So let's see if he can approach that again.

I don't want to turn this into a Yomiuri love fest, especially since I am firmly in the "anti-Giants" camp, but second year catcher Shinnosuke Abe's sudden growth at the position in the wake of a painful and disappointing 2001 has been remarkable. He won a Gold Glove (which he didn't deserve) and earned a lot of respect from around the league for calling games. Moreover, he missed by just two points became the first Giants receiver to bat .300 in a season. Furthermore, with a natural uppercut swing, he is a potential 30 homer guy, though at 23, it might take him a couple more seasons to reach that, but there is no reason why he couldn't do it consistently from there on in.

One of the few highlights that Orix had to brag about was Koo Dae-sung morphing from a mediocre reliever with a yen for giving up the home run ball to a top flight starter. Unfortunately, his record looks unimpressive since he received weak run support before you notice his excellent 2.52 ERA. If he has another season like that, he may decide to take an MLB shot, since he will be 35 in 2004 and doesn't have much time left.

Biggest Disappointments (Non-Cabrera Department)

Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment of the season was Daisuke Matsuzaka's season being torpedoed by elbow and leg injuries. He had finally gotten some consistency of command, radically reducing his walk rate and even if his velocity wasn't what it once was due to the abuse exerted on him by former manager Osamu Higashio, he appeared to be on his way to a dominant year. But that elbow condition, for which he probably has Higashio to thank, really did him in. He never should have been allowed to pitch in the Japan Series. Here's to hoping he can stay healthy in 2003.

Tuffy Rhodes is perhaps the next biggest disappointment, as his power and RBI production really tailed off the second half of the season, preventing us from seeing what could have been an epoch making competition for the PL homer title between him and Alex Cabrera.

Next on our parade of unpredictable mediocrity was Daiei Hawks first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka. He hit 28 homers and drove in 83 runs, but he hit an anemic .260. Considering the ghastly state of the team's starting pitching this past season, any hole in the offense department was going to be magnified and most eyes turned to Matsunaka, a former MVP. He has to absolutely bounce back. Daiei's pitching situation should be much improved next year, but some of their solid hitters (Omichi, Shibahara) slowed down and someone has to pick up the slack if it's time to put those guys out to pasture. Laying off Rodney Pedraza was a blunder. This is a team that could still explode, but aside from the always solid Kenji Johjima and Hiroki Kokubo, the other seven spots in the order right now are looking dubious (yes, even Tadahito Iguchi, who has never hit for a high average and just had shoulder surgery).

Tom Evans came over to Seibu early in the season and gave the club a lift, stepping it up while Cabrera was out with back trouble, producing a 15 homer, 45 RBI campaign in only 242 at bats and playing solid third base. The Lions decided to hang on to Scott McClain and say farewell to the Evans, which I think is a bad move. McClain has more power potential, but he is also not as good defensively and he missed almost the whole season with a bad wrist. Hopefully, Tom can find a spot with another team.

Is Hanshin a Mirage?

While manager Senichi Hoshino is a pleistocene jerk off, he did a tremendous job in getting what had been a pathetic Hanshin Tigers team to within four games of .500 this season despite some critical injuries to catcher Akihiro Yano, who was having a career year at the plate, emerging leftfielder Osamu Hamanaka, and a tibia fracture to starting centerfielder Norihiro Akahoshi. Moreover, Hoshino had to contend with the fact that he doesn't have any viable candidates to become the regular shortstop and free agent signing Atsushi Kataoka was a joke at the plate. George Arias became the first Tiger to jack more than 30 homers since Cecil Fielder, but he had perhaps the most lightweight 32 homer, 82 RBI campaign in Japanese history since he hit poorly with runners in scoring position and he struckout 24% of the time. If Arias stays in Osaka next season, more patience at the plate is an absolute must.

Import Trey Moore did a solid job for most of the season, but ran out of gas the last six weeks and it inflated his ERA. I still think that Moore is better suited for a setup role than as a starter. Hopefully, some youngster will stick out in spring training so that Moore can become a vitally needed left arm in middle relief. Hanshin's bullpen situation is still pretty perilous, though, and their starting pitching is going to have to eat up a lot of innings next season to compensate. Hanshin doesn't have the horses to compete for the pennant in 2002, but they may be able to at least finish above .500.

Yokohama Totally Collapsed

I had these guys pegged as a fourth place finisher, but yet still a possible dark horse if they could put the various elements of their team together. But that wasn't to be and manager Masaaki Mori hit the unemployment line with a month to go in the season as his team fell deeper into last place. To add to the mess, ace Daisuke Miura went down for an extended period with an elbow problem.

But perhaps there is a silver lining ahead for next season. Without Mori there, former batting champ Tatsuhiko Kinjo may stage a comeback as a second baseman, Katsuaki Furuki showed some promise with a power bat if a tin glove, Domingo Guzman startled everyone with some outstanding starts after being ineffective in relief. and Chris Holt showed flashes of brilliance after coming aboard early in the season. Yuji Yoshimi had a fine second half and finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Along with Miura, that gives Yokohama a solid four starters in the rotation, with 2001 number one draft choice Yuji Hata waiting in the wings and 2002 draftee Ryutaro Doi being billed as someone who can give the Stars some help rightaway. They will then have a lot of questions to answer in a dreadful bullpen, especially at closer, which has been abandoned by Takashi Saito, who is likely to end up in Boston or L.A.

Their main need is for a slugger. Boi Rodrigues proved that he isn't the answer there, so they will have to import somebody. However, they haven't had a lot of success with foreign position players since they let Bobby Rose get away.

Big Tub of Goo

That's what you could call the bottom half of the PL, composed of Nippon Ham, Chiba Lotte, and Orix. Orix at least has some pitching (at least when it's not named Hidetaka Kawagoe), but once you get away from Yoshitomo Tani, the bats are strictly 98 pound weakling. Fernando Seguignol set a record this past year for most games with homers from both sides of the plate, but he only hit .206. Scott Sheldon accumulated 26 homers, but registered just 59 RBIs and hit .256 while leading the circuit in whiffs with 155 in 500 total PLATE APPEARANCES, a staggering 31% strikeout rate. New manager Trey Hillman has his work cutout for him with the Fighters, who have a non-existent bullpen, are only about three deep in the rotation and didn't do much at bat except when Michihiro Ogasawara or Sherman Obando, who is no longer with them, was up. Seeing where these teams will finish in 2003 is like watching how the deck chairs will get arranged on the Titanic and that's the best they will do, barring Hillman working a miracle. This is the skid row of Japanese baseball.

What Was All the Fuss Over Hiroshima?

A lot of the baseball writers in Japan picked Hiroshima to win the CL pennant, but it was hard to see why. This team has some folks who will put up some good numbers when it is all said and done (the now departed Tomoaki Kanemoto, Koichi Ogata, Tomonori Maeda, recently released Luis Lopez and another recent defector, Eddie Diaz), but their pitching sucks and they can't seem to put everything together for a cohesive pennant drive. Their bullpen is a wreck. I picked them to finish fifth and that is where they ended up.

Moron of the Year

It's perhaps too easy to give this to hot tempered Yomiuri Giants Tsuneo Watanabe, for who this prize should be named after, but his diatribe about how MLB was corrupted by socialism is just so monumentally stupid that he has to be spanked. In addition, even though he has a rather jaundiced view of MLB, he concluded an agreement with a team, the New York Yankees, that can most afford to throw money at Watanabe's players and lure them to the states. A lot of that agreement makes sound business sense, but it sure makes Watanabe appear to be incredibly fickle, which hurts his thin credibility even further.

Runner up for this dishonor is now former Yomiuri reliever Hector Almonte, who basically talked himself out of a job by being a petulant, mouthy brat. Third place is ceded to now ex-Daiei hurler Carlos Castillo, a guy who had no success with Boston and should have been glad that he wasn't working at McDonald's, but instead reported out of shape and threw a couple of asinine tantrums upon arrival in Fukuoka.

Interest in Japanese Baseball Grows

With more players coming over to MLB from Japan, it has fueled a building interest in the Japanese game. Some are looking at it from a prospect standpoint, just as there are fans of college and minor league ball for the same reason, Others are curious how such a different culture approaches what is a quintessentially an American game, and there are even some who have started getting into it due to unhappiness over the sometimes childish toing and froing between MLB owners and players as an alternative.

This has also lead to more and more attention from media and academic circles, with Michael Westbay's Japanese site as well as this one being the frequent target of requests for help by college students on pro yakyu related topics. At this point in time, unless you can read Japanese, you will generally have a rough time doing any kind of thorough research into such subject matter. The few people such as myself who have bilingual ability don't have the time to help very many people since we have projects of our own we are working on. But even given that, it is gratifying to be at the forefront of a growing baseball- related field. It's truly been a thrill to serve so many readers over the past year and for that, I thank you.

Hot Shots....

The Yokohama Bay Stars are said to be interested in acquiring Brian Daubach, who they plan to bat cleanup and have play first or Sevil Rays first baseman Steve Cox. They have also sent feelers to both the Cubs and Tampa Bay about perhaps forming a working agreement....Nippon Ham is said by Hochi Sports to be pursuing Red Sox outfielder Benny Agbayani, who batted .227 in 61 games this season....Hanshin low round draftee Daisuke Kayashima,22, who was an infielder with the Lawson's recently disbanded industrial league club, reportedly can do 50 meters in a blazing 5.7 seconds....The San Diego Padres are considering signing Yokohama free agent closer Takashi Saito.... Derek Jeter's agent made an offer to Godzilla Matsui, according to Sankei Sports. The same paper also referred to Scott Boras' reputation among some MLB teams as a "blood sucker." Sounds accurate to me....Wacky Shigeo Nagashima quote of the day: "if [Matsui] hits 30 homers in the majors, it will lend credibility to the 50 he hit in Japan. Huh?....Yomiuri is backing away from courting Norihiro Nakamura since they already acquired Roberto Petagine....Yakult Swallows draftee Jun Otsuka, an 18 year old infielder out of Tsuchiura Number Three High School, has a father, Tooru, who played catcher with the Swallows from 1965-1966 before moving over to Nankai. Tooru Otsuka owns a Japanese career record with four bases loaded sayonara walks. What makes that even more remarkable is that he only had 44 lifetime RBIs in 11 seasons. Jun was given his name by former Nankai catcher Katsuya Nomura, who also named the bar Tooru owned after his playing days were over, calling it "The Dugout." Tooru says he let Nomura name his child and the business because the Hall of Fame backstop took Tooru under his wing when he went to Nankai. Two of the walk off bases on balls were off of one pitcher, lefthander Kazumi Takahashi of the Yomiuri Giants. All four game ending walks were on full count deliveries....The Swallows are also saying that they will allow it if number one draft choice Yuhei Takai decides he wants to go to MLB before he is eligible for free agency, as long as he has put up good numbers for the club. Kazuhisa Ishii urged Takai through the press to sign with the Swallows rather than go to Tokai University...Recently retired Dragons infielder Yasuaki Taiho, who was born in Taiwan, has take a position as a scout for the team....Eddie Diaz left a lot of stuff, including workout equipment, in his apartment in Hiroshima and returned to his native Venezuela, leaving the Carp in a quandry since they don't want to pay the estimated $50,000 it would take to have it all shipped to him. Team officials are hoping that he will sign with another Japanese team soon so that they won't incur such a huge expense. Yokohama is said to be interested in him....According to Sports Nippon, in anticipation of Hideki Matsui returning to play in Japan at some point, they will hold his number, 55, for him....Nippon Ham infielder Makoto Kaneko is changing his number to 8 starting next season....Yomiuri fourth rounder Masahiro Nagata says he wants to do a backflip during a game ala Koji Akiyama....Three Japanese teams, Yakult, Hanshin, and Yokohama are interested in Tsuyoshi Shinjo. In addition, the White Sox, Rangers, Dodgers, and Royals have also displayed some interest....So Taguchi hit .301 in the Arizona Fall League, finishing ninth in the league in batting ....Pitcher Go Ono, who was released recently by Yomiuri, has signed with Parma of the Italian pro baseball league. Ono and wife Mikiko are expecting their first child in January.

Macha Welcomes Japan Trip

See story at: Yomiuri Shimbun Article

Matsui Hears from Fourth Team

See story at: Yomiuri Shimbun Article

New Canadian Baseball League to Start in May

See story at:Seattle Times Article

Former Yakult Swallow Parrish Named Manager of Toledo Mud Hens

See story at:Toledo Blade Article

Hey Hockey Puck! Gagne on Playing in Japan

By the way, Eric, Gary Carter was a graduate of Sunny Hills High in Orange County. He wasn't Canadian, so I assume he is alluding to Carter's stint playing for the Expos. See story at: Japan Times Article

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