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Future could be brighter for NPB hitters in 2012

by Wayne Graczyk

The 2011 Japanese pro baseball season will be forever remembered as the year of the pitcher. This is due to the new NPB baseball and the slightly darker stadiums because of energy-saving measures implemented following the triple disasters of March 11; earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant problems.

What about 2012, however? Will the confident hurlers continue to dominate frustrated hitters? Will ERAs batting percentages, home runs and game scores remain lower? Or can we see a resurgence of the long ball, higher scoring games and the occasional slugfest?

The lighting problem is expected to be long gone when the next season opens at the end of March, but NPB is not going to change the ball put into play this year. So, can we expect to see a more balanced game in the Central and Pacific Leagues?

Anything like what we saw during the era of the “old ball” used through 2010? Maybe just a little more time is needed before things even out.

Players, coaches and managers commented during the past year about the ball and ballpark visibility, and below are some samples of what they said.

Regarding the lights, you may recall there were no night games in the outdoor ball parks nearest to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in April, after opening day was postponed from March 25 to April 12. Only day games were played in Sendai, Chiba, Yokohama and Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium through Golden Week (April 29-May 6), and no games at all were played in Tokyo Dome or Seibu Dome until May.

At one point it had been feared Tokyo Dome could not be used at all for baseball in 2011, but that turned out to be a false rumor, and the Yomiuri Giants played home games at the Big Egg from May 3. Through the end of August, however, it was said the lighting was reduced to about 80 percent all summer until full power was finally restored Sept. 1.

Yomiuri Giants slugger Alex Ramirez, now with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, saw his offensive production drop from 49 home runs in 2010 to 23 this year, 129 RBIs to 73, and his batting average fell from .304 to .279.

Ramirez said in July he realized there was a “blind spot” between the pitcher’s mound and home plate at Tokyo Dome where the ball seemed to disappear, then reappear, sort of like at an outdoor day game on a sunny day when the pitcher and batter are in the sun, but there is a shadow in between.

Apparently, one of the lights illuminating the path of the pitched ball had been turned off, and that, said Ramirez, caused the hitters to lose it for a split-second, not on every pitch, but on certain deliveries. The problem was gone in September when all the lights were turned on again.

Yakult Swallows veteran outfielder Aaron Guiel, coming back from an injury and making his first 2011 appearance at Tokyo Dome on Aug. 21, emerged from the clubhouse for pre-game practice, took a look at the field and said, “My God, it’s dark in here.” And that was at 11 a.m. for a day game.

Hanshin Tigers player Matt Murton, the Central League batting title runnerup with a .311 average, said about hitting in Tokyo Dome earlier in the season, “Can I see the ball? Yes. Can I see the ball well? No.”

Murton wore yellow-tinted goggle-type glasses into the batter’s box throughout the season when the Tigers visited the Giants but, when Hanshin played its final Tokyo Dome series of the year in October, the eyewear was no longer needed.

So, there should be no lighting problems next season, but what about the ball? The hitters complained all year about it. American infielder Rusty Ryal, released by the Giants after an unproductive season, said, “The ball even feels strange. The seams are too high and it is nothing like the major league ball.”

Lefty-hitting first basemen Brett Harper of the Yokohama BayStars and Craig Brazell of the Tigers both said they changed their hitting styles, aiming up the middle and knocking out more line drives between left-center and right-center field, rather than going for the home run.

Harper hit 19 homers in half a season in 2010 but only managed nine in an almost-full 2011 campaign. Brazell’s long ball total plummeted from 47 in 2010 to only 16 this year.

Ramirez said some Japanese left-handed sluggers such as Michihiro Ogasawara of the Giants and Masahiko Morino of the Chunichi Dragons ruined their swings, because they discovered they could no longer hit the ball over the fence in left field and began to try to pull everything. The ball simply did not carry, but the future may be brighter.

Here is why there is hope for more excitement on offense in 2012. One of the Japanese managers said he heard the ball was being produced better as the year went along. Indeed, it seemed there were more homers hit during the last month of the season, and the improved lighting was not the only factor. There was a semi-joke going around that maybe someone had snuck some of the old baseballs into the umpires’ waist pouches, but that was not the case.

“It’s a Mizuno-manufactured ball, but it is made in China,” said the manager. “At first, the workers were not used to making it but, as they got more experience putting it together, they became more skillful, and the ball was being made as it is supposed to be, and that’s why we were seeing more homers later in the year.”

If the trend continues, we should see a reduction in those low-scoring pitchers’ battles and better run production when the bell rings again in the spring, but only time will tell.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com