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Eldred’s bat on fire early for surprising CL-leading Carp

by Jason Coskrey

After years of futility and sub-.500 finishes, it’s possible the Hiroshima Carp, still in first place despite Sunday’s 9-5 loss to the Chunichi Dragons, are actually for real this season.

Much the same can be said about outfielder Brad Eldred, the man helping to power the team’s offensive resurgence early this year.

Eldred is swinging the bat as well as anyone in Japan right now. He has the highest batting average in the Central League at .370 and his 39 RBIs and 1.124 on-base plus slugging percentage are both tops in NPB. Eldred is also tied for the second-most home runs in Japanese baseball with 12 and has an isolated power rating of .333. To put it in more simple terms, Eldred is raking.

The Carp have lacked a discernible offensive presence for years, and are reaping the benefits of the effect Eldred’s play has on the way opposing pitchers have to approach the hitters around him. Baseball isn’t a sport where one player can do it alone — if it were, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows would’ve have had a much happier 2013 season — but Eldred is making an impact early.

The rise in Eldred’s performance and the Carp’s strong start have gone hand-in-hand, and it begs the question of how much longer the Hiroshima slugger can keep this up.

Eldred hit just .254 in his first two seasons with the Carp, and is enjoying a high .464 batting average on balls in play at this point in the year. So it’s entirely possible he’ll fall to earth a bit over the course of the season.

Then again, Eldred’s early results could be the case of a player finally comfortable in a new setting and beginning to put up the numbers he should’ve been producing all along.

Eldred may be in his third season in Japan, but it’s easy to forget that his previous two campaigns were cut short.

He arrived in the middle of the year in 2012 and played in just 65 games. He played in 66 games the next season, in large part due to a broken right hand and his struggle to regain his footing at the plate afterward.

So that’s less than a full season’s worth of games (131, which is 13 short of a full NPB slate) over two years.

Foreign players adjust to the game in Japan at different paces, and if Eldred has simply begun to figure things out, there’s no reason to think he can’t keep up his high level of play — though that .370 average will come down — throughout the year.

His hot streak at the plate isn’t even that recent. Eldred was off the roster for most of July and August last season, but returned Aug. 31, 2013, and hit .329 with six doubles, seven home runs and 16 RBIs over his final 23 games. He’s simply carried that over into this year.

Also, according to numbers compiled by the website baseball data.jp, Eldred is faring much better against fastballs early this season, and punishing sliders.

He’s generally had a decent time against sliders and shuutos in Japan, and if he can keep getting good wood on fastballs, he’ll continue to do well. Although, the big Floridian also leads the Central League with 43 strikeouts, so he’s a bit feast or famine at the moment.

It’s still early for both Eldred and the Carp, and things can still go either way. But just because the calendar still says May, that doesn’t mean one can dismiss Eldred’s play as just a hot start. It may very well turn out to be that, but he could also be on the precipice of something big, not unlike the leaps the Yokohama BayStars’ Tony Blanco and Swallows’ Wladimir Balentien experienced last season.

Baseball is a fickle game, and tough times could be just around the corner. Eldred is playing well now, and Carp fans will remain on the edge of their seats to see whether he can keep it up the rest of the way.