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NPB season too young to accurately identify trends

by Jason Coskrey

The NPB season is less than two weeks old, so it’s too early to know if anything we’ve seen so far really has staying power.

Once the year is a few months old, and the picture of the season begins to take shape, it’ll be possible to go back and mine the first few weeks of play for signs of the trends that have taken place.

While getting off to a good start is important, players and teams come around at different times and the picture that’s painted in the beginning of the season isn’t always the one you see in the end.

It’s cliche, but baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are a lot of kilometers yet to traverse.

It’s no surprise the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Yuya Hasegawa, the reigning batting champion, has the highest average in the PL early, but can he do it a second straight year? For that matter, is the start the Orix Buffaloes pitcher Brandon Dickson has gotten off to for real? Only time will tell.

Some things, of course, are easier to quantify than others.

On Friday night, the Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko threw the first real gem of the year, striking out 14 and walking none while two-hitting the Seibu Lions. Two days later, Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda tossed eight scoreless against the Yokohama BayStars, fanning eight. Meanwhile, at the plate, the Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton already has 17 hits and 20 RBIs in nine games.

Looking at past performances, it’s not a stretch to envision that Maeda and Kaneko will continue to be very good-to-great pitchers, or that Murton could be in line for another highly productive season.

Where it gets harder is with cases like the Orix Buffaloes’ Wily Mo Pena.

Pena has been knocking the cover off the ball since the curtain raised on the 2014 campaign March 28, hitting six home runs in his first eight games. Former Hanshin Tigers slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto was the last player to get off to a similar start, slugging seven homers in the Tigers’ first seven games in 2009. Kanemoto, then 41 years old, only managed 14 more the rest of the season.

Pena is seeing the ball well, is taking advantage of pitchers’ mistakes, and has been able to drive the ball far, which is what the Buffaloes envisioned when they brought him in to replace Lee Dae-ho, who joined the Hawks as a free agent this year.

Because the season is barely under way, it’s easy to write off Pena’s performance as an early run of fortune, except that Waldimir Balentien and Tony Blanco were hot at the start of 2013, and both used the early surge as a launching pad to huge years.

Balentien went on hit 60 home runs and break the single-season record,while Blanco hit 41 and drove in 136 runs.

So it’s entirely possible Pena puts together that type of run and down the road has fans harking back to these past 10 days as the start of something substantial. Pitchers will make adjustments, of course, but Pena will do the same throughout the season, and he’s certainly got the power to produce a megawatt year.

Then again, he could taper off and his early triumphs will be regarded as just a really good week.

The point is, no one knows yet.

Pena doesn’t have the equity Kaneko, Maeda, or Murton have built up in Japan to predict that records will fall before his mighty feet.

He hit 21 homers in his first NPB season in 2012 and one in 55 ichi-gun games last year. His season high for home runs on any professional level is 26, which he achieved for the Single-A Dayton Dragons (Reds) in 2001 and the Cincinnati Reds in 2004.

His progress is worth watching to see which way things play out, and if the Orix slugger has defined staying power.

When the dust settles in the fall, fans will either look back at this period as the spark that ignited a blaze or a simple, yet amazing all the same, hot streak.

And really, same goes for the other early-season peaks and pitfalls around the league.