The exhibition season is well under way in Japanese baseball, with most teams already five or more games into spring training games.
The defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (6-1) are currently atop the spring standings, while the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (0-4-2) are bringing up the rear. That does not, however, mean Hawks fans should be overly enthused about the upcoming season, nor does it suggest Fighters supporters should brace for the worse.
The standings at this time of year have proven to be fickle when it comes to determining which club will be the last one standing in the fall.
The Hawks reached and won the Japan Series after finishing with the best spring record last year, but the team they beat in the Japanese Fall Classic, the Hanshin Tigers, was the second-worst team in Japan last March.
There have only been three teams since 2005 (the Seibu Lions in 2008, the Giants in 2013 and last season’s Hawks) that have even reached the Japan Series after posting the best spring record, with the Lions and Hawks winning the title. Among teams finishing in the top three during the exhibition season since 2005, six, including the aforementioned trio, have made it to the Japan Series.
The results at the other end of the standings are similar. The Giants reached the Japan Series in 2008 after coming in dead last during the spring, while the 2010 Chiba Lotte Marines won it all after finishing 10th.
Even though having the best record during the spring hasn’t always translated into success during the season, teams that have played well during the spring have generally done well during the regular season over the past 10 seasons.
Six of the last 10 Central League pennant winners had a winning percentage of at least .500 during spring training. In the Pacific League, nine of the last 10 pennant winners exited the spring with a winning record, though PL teams beating up on their CL counterparts may have given Pa League clubs a boost.
It’s more important to play well than to have a good record during this time of year. Running through Japan in March isn’t always a precursor to bigger things while falling flat isn’t necessarily a harbinger of doom.
Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. This is the time when players get their minds and bodies ready for the long haul and get live games under their belts before the contests start to count for real. Veterans get a chance to work on certain aspects of their games and rookies are able to get a glimpse of what it’s like to compete against pro ballplayers. Players attempt to stand out in position battles, and managers tinker in hopes everything will coalesce by opening day.
It’s tempting for fans, especially of teams coming off poor seasons, to look at a strong spring as reason to believe brighter days are on the horizon. What’s equally important, however, is remembering to judge the preseason games for what they are, and remember it’s far better to be first in the fall than in the spring.