The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks fielded a pitching juggernaut in 2011, the likes of which will be hard to replicate without the help of outside forces.
That team, in fact, was aided by outside forces. That was the year NPB introduced its first standardized ball — which zapped offense at a near-historic level and was later found to have been deadened more than NPB standards allow.
Still, the numbers that group produced. . . they led Japan with a 2.32 team ERA, which entering this year is the second-lowest of at least the last decade, and featured four starters (D.J. Houlton, Tadashi Settsu, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada) who threw at least 170 innings with an ERA under 3.00, Settsu’s 2.79 ERA was the highest by far, and a very good bullpen. Of the nine pitchers to start at least one game for Softbank that year, only one ended the year with an ERA above 3.00.
With Houlton, Sugiuchi and Wada gone since after the 2011 season, the formers to the Yomiuri Giants and Wada to the majors, and the ball back to normal levels last year, the 2013 Hawks were a mere fourth in the Pacific League with a 3.56 ERA — the team’s first finish outside of the top two since 2008 — and had no qualified starters with at least 170 innings or an ERA under 3.00. Settsu, who was 15-8 with a 3.05 ERA in 162⅓ frames, was the only Softbank pitcher to even throw 100 innings.
Eighteen different players got at least one start in 2013 and collectively produced a 39.6 quality-start percentage (according to numbers compiled by the data site Pro Yakyuu NulData), far below the PL average of 47 percent.
So it’s not a great leap to imagine those numbers are part of the reason starters Jason Standridge and Brian Wolfe (and reliever Dan Sarfate) were guests of honor at an introductory news conference on Thursday, and why Kenichi Nakata was in the same role last month.
Despite a backlog of young starers with promise, Shota Takeda, Shota Oba and Hiroki Yamada among them, the Hawks were aggressive about revamping their pitching during the offseason.
What the Hawks seemed to lack most last year were reliable pitchers who could stand behind Settsu and be counted on to deliver consistently week after week, a hole Softbank’s offseason spree seemed aimed at shoring up.
Standridge and Wolfe would’ve slotted right behind Settsu in terms of workload last season, throwing 160⅔ and 130 innings respectively, and both have what it takes to be successful.
Standridge in particular is a high-level hurler when he gets going, and having spent his first two seasons in Japan, 2007 and 2008, with the Hawks should help ease his transition back to the PL after four seasons in the Central League with the Hanshin Tigers.
“I really enjoyed playing here. I enjoyed the fans, I enjoyed the city and I enjoyed my teammates. I’m really looking forward to spending time with new teammates and some old ones as well,” Standridge said during his introductory news conference in Fukuoka, which was broadcast online the Hawks’ USTREAM channel.
Wolfe didn’t set Sapporo ablaze during his tenure with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, but he was steady, something Softbank needed a big dose of last season.
Nakata is more of a puzzle. The former Chunichi Dragons righty hasn’t gone past 100 innings in consecutive seasons since 2007-2008 and his durability might be in question.
His signing also brings to mind Kazuyuki Hoashi, another Kyushu native who came home as a free-agent. In the latter stages of his career with the Seibu Lions, from 2008-2011, Hoashi averaged about 26 appearances and 168 innings per year (he was 40-26 with a 3.17 ERA over that span) before signing with the Hawks for the 2012 season. In two years in Fukuoka, Hoashi has made just 20 appearances, going 8-8 with a 4.81 ERA over 101 innings.
The Hawks broke camp on Saturday with a lot of new arms on the roster. They didn’t come cheap, and Softbank’s chances may hinge on how much bang the team gets for its bucks.