As they watched the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ground the Yomiuri Giants into dust during the Japan Series, fans of the other five Pacific League teams might have been home asking themselves the same question: Could we have done this?
The answer is probably not. The Hawks are in a class of their own.
But it’s certainly not a stretch to imagine that the Chiba Lotte Marines or Seibu Lions wouldn’t have also beaten the Giants — just not as thoroughly. The Pacific League, once the little brother in NPB’s two-league hierarchy, is now head and shoulders above the Central League.
The Japan Series — where the Hawks outscored the Kyojin 26-4 in a four-game sweep — drove the point home further, but the differences have been laid bare for over a decade.
The PL is 13-3 in the Japan Series since 2005 and has won all but one (2012) since 2010. Five of the six PL clubs have won at least one title in that span.
The Hawks, with seven titles since 2011, have been at the forefront. After being taken to seven games by the Chunichi Dragons in 2011, SoftBank is 24-5-1 in Japan Series games since 2014, with Alex Ramirez’s Yokohama BayStars the only team to win twice in one series.
It’s been the same in interleague play, where PL teams have finished on top in 12 of 15 seasons. The league has posted the most wins overall 14 times.
The PL is also out front off the field of play.
The league was the first to set up a postseason, which served to keep more fanbases invested deeper into the season and was probably also financially beneficial.
It also started Pacific League TV to broadcast games online in one place, and has marketed its brand on YouTube and social media domestically. Pacific League Marketing has also made inroads in Taiwan and, this year, in the United States.
While the PL has worked to build expressways away from the diamond, the CL has been content to motor along on dirt roads.
But what has created the gulf on the field? Ramirez, at least, thinks pitching is a major factor.
The former BayStars manager appeared on NHK after the Japan Series and opined that the presence of more pitchers who can throw over 150 kph (93 mph) is a big reason for the inequalities on the field. Ramirez, during his appearance, also said the PL was “five years ahead” of the CL.
“The hitters are used to seeing those kinds of pitchers, so they can hit fastballs, they’re very good,” Ramirez said. “But in the Central League on the other hand, we only have three, four, maybe five pitchers who can throw over 150.”
If Ramirez is right, PL hitters have simply grown accustomed to a higher quality of fastball and become better because of it. So they’re going to be able to handle most CL velocity and have an easier time getting their timing down and making good swings.
Conversely, those things would be more of a challenge for CL hitters against PL hurlers who are throwing harder.
That could’ve been the case in Game 1 this year. Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who actually averaged over 150 with his fastball this year, wasn’t quite at his best but he was able to keep the Giants off balance.
The Kyojin batters seemed to have trouble with Senga’s fastball, which then opened them up to his forkball, which is already an awesome pitch on its own.
Koji Uehara, a former Giants great, also commented after the game about the trouble the Giants had with Senga’s fastball, and the lack of issues the Hawks seemed to have against Tomoyuki Sugano.
Ramirez also feels PL hurlers have a different approach to games.
“Most of the Central League, the strategy is they think, ‘ok, I’m gonna pitch seven innings today, eight innings today, so I’m gonna pace myself,’ he said. “So they start throwing 144, 145, 146. The Pacific League pitchers, they’re throwing 155 first pitch of the game. They're not thinking about that. They're thinking about each inning. Each inning I want to throw the best game I can pitch."
Ramirez feels the CL is lagging behind on the mound.
"We need to build up to catch up with them," he said.
Some have also pointed to the PL using a designated hitter while pitchers hit in the CL. Giants manager Tatsunori Hara is said to have been among those who have lobbied for the CL to add the DH in recent years.
The DH could possibly help the CL in some ways, but doesn’t completely account for PL clubs losing the DH and adding a pitcher to the lineup when playing in CL parks during interleague and the Japan Series, or for the years when the CL was winning its fair share of Series.
Terrmel Sledge played in both leagues. While with the BayStars in 2011 — when the PL was already dominating interleague — he said he thought part of the difference was PL teams just expected to win. He said PL clubs viewed the interleague schedule as a time to go grab some wins.
“When I came over here (to the CL), it was the opposite,” he told The Japan Times in May of that year. “It was, we were facing better pitchers over there so ganbatte, fight through it. I think that right there, psychologically, is the biggest difference.”
Sledge also, almost a decade earlier, foreshadowed Ramirez’s thoughts, saying in the PL, “you’re going to see a lot more hard stuff.”
Whatever it is, it’s been enough for PL teams to dominate their CL brethren.
The Pa League is winning the arms race in NPB and right now it’s not even close. The Hawks beat the Giants in four games. The Marines or Lions or Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles may have needed six or seven, but the result might have been the same. The PL is also trying to move its brand forward off the field, while the CL is often left running in place.
The CL has a PL-sized problem on its hands right now, and unless something changes PL clubs will continue taking turns bludgeoning CL squads whenever they meet.
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