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Several NPB pitchers keeping hitters in check despite altered baseball

by Wayne Graczyk

OK, so now we know the ball used in Japanese pro baseball games has been changed again and, in spite of the fact there was no initial announcement by NPB, everyone seems happy about the change — except maybe the pitchers.

Sluggers Tony Blanco, Wladimir Balentien, Shinnosuke Abe, Michel Abreu and Sho Nakata are all on a pace to hit more than 40 homers this season. As of Wednesday, the leading batting averages in both leagues were where they were prior to the deadening of the ball in 2011.

Chunichi Dragons third baseman Hector Luna led the Central League at .369, and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks outfielder Yuya Hasegawa was the Pacific League pace-setter at .357.

There is obviously more offense this season, mostly because of the changed ball. It is not all home runs and high batting averages, though. Statistics are right about where they should be, and that includes pitchers’ won-loss records and ERA.

One of the complaints by the Japanese players association after finding out, as suspected, the ball had been made more lively this season, was that pitchers might have changed strategy and thrown different pitches to certain batters in certain situations, if they knew for sure what was in the ball they are throwing.

However, let’s take a look at the stats the top hurlers have compiled, and you will see many of them are not suffering because of the ball.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is 11-0 and leads both leagues with a spectacular 1.35 ERA. “Ma-kun” is currently riding a 31-inning streak in which he has not allowed a run, and he has not lost since Aug. 19, 2012.

Right behind is Saitama Seibu Lions left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. His ERA as of Wednesday was 1.39, he was 8-3, and on June 12 took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of an interleague game against the Chunichi Dragons at Seibu Dome. Three of Kikuchi’s eight victories have been shutouts.

Chunichi Dragons righty Daisuke Yamai tossed a no-hit, no-run game on June 28 against the Yokohama BayStars at Yokohama Stadium.

Southpaw Takuya Furuya of the Chiba Lotte Marines, making his first start in seven years, threw 8⅔ perfect innings before issuing a walk and did not allow a hit until two outs in the ninth inning of his game at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome on June 26. Orix Buffaloes leadoff man Tomotaka Sakaguchi tripled on a 3-2 pitch to spoil Furuya’s no-hit bid.

Americans Jason Standridge of the Hanshin Tigers and Bryan Bullington of the Hiroshima Carp have had no difficulty keeping down their ERA numbers, but their respective teams’ offenses have had trouble scoring. Through Thursday’s games, Standridge had the best ERA in the Central League at 2.31 but with a losing record at 4-6. Bullington was seventh at 2.81 but with a 3-7 won-loss log. Obviously, most of the games in which they pitched have been low-scoring affairs, proving not every game in Japan this season has been a hit-filled, home-run slugfest. On given nights, the ball does stay in the park and scores are low.

Nine Central League and 10 PL starting pitchers have ERAs under 3.00. Among them are rising-star rookies Tomoyuki Sugano (7-2, 2.65) of the Yomiuri Giants and Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa (8-2, 2.82) of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who leads the CL in wins. Ogawa got his nickname because his high leg-kick delivery is supposedly similar to that of former major league great Nolan Ryan.

With all this in mind, you are not necessarily going to see an offensive show of fireworks next time you attend a game. The pitchers too are having their moments, live ball or not.

Diamond Dust: Rakuten Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said he is extremely pleased with the performances of his two foreign position players this season. Prior to a recent Eagles’ game, Hoshino expressed how much Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee have helped put the club into first place as of Friday.

Said Hoshino, “If it were not for those two, we would be in last place.”

Rakuten (40-31 through Friday) was tied with Lotte (40-31-1) for first place in the PL.


A nice renewal job was done on Kusanagi Stadium in Shizuoka, halfway between Tokyo and Nagoya, where the Swallows and Giants played before crowds of better than 20,000 each day while splitting a two-game series June 29-30.

Kusanagi, site of the famous performance by youngster Eiji Sawamura, who struck out five major league All-Stars including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on a 1934 barnstorming tour, had been one of Japan’s worst ballparks where neutral-site “countryside” games are played. Now it is one of the best.

In keeping with the trends of Japanese stadium renovations, a lot of foul territory has been replaced by “field wing seats” down the baselines, the grandstand was refurbished, fences have been moved back to 100 meters at the foul poles (91 meters previously) and 122 meters (115 before) to straightaway center field, and a new scoreboard was installed.

Looks nice, but they should have put grass on the infield.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com