Japanese baseball is back on Friday, which makes this a great time to single out a few players in the Central League who fans should keep an eye on this season.
Shosei Togo, Yomiuri Giants, pitcher
Togo is the Giants’ future.
If Tomoyuki Sugano had signed with an MLB team over the offseason, it’s likely Togo, despite only having 19 regular-season starts under his belt, would’ve began this year as the No. 1 pitcher.
The right-hander had an impressive showing in his first full season as a starter in 2020, winning nine games and posting a 2.76 ERA in 107⅔ innings. He struck out 106.
Togo doesn’t throw as many pitches as some of his teammates, mainly relying on a fastball that sits in the upper 140s (kph) a slider and a forkball.
He turns 21 on April 4 and has plenty of time and room to grow.
This year he’ll try to give the Giants another quality arm behind Sugano. He should benefit from another year of being around the Giants ace and also from the presence of new pitching coach Masumi Kuwata.
If Togo backs up his 2020 performance, the Giants will be that much closer to a third-straight pennant and feel a little better about the possibility of life without Sugano at some point.
Teruaki Sato, Hanshin Tigers, infielder
Who else was it going to be?
Four teams named the Kindai University product as their top pick in the NPB draft — Hanshin manager Akihiro Yano won the lottery for his rights — and it’s easy to see why now.
Sato tied a record with six home runs during the spring, slugging three in as many games at one point. He was 13-for-43 (.302) overall at the plate and finished with a 1.078 on-base plus slugging percentage.
There won’t be another rookie who generates more attention than Sato early in the season.
The Tigers’ 110 home runs last year were only good for fourth in the Central League, so the club is going to be hoping Sato carries his spring power into the summer and — hopefully — autumn.
Sato, however, is going to face better pitching in the regular season and is going to have to constantly make adjustments to get used to the competition and life as a professional, and do it in the Hanshin pressure cooker.
Shuhei Takahashi, Chunichi Dragons, infielder
The last two seasons have really seen Takahashi begin to hit his stride.
The Chunichi captain made the Central League’s Best Nine team in 2019 and has won the Golden Glove at third base the last two seasons.
Takahashi put up an impressive .305/.368/426 line last year while keeping his defense up. He was a major part of the club securing an A-Class finish for the first time since 2012.
All that’s left is for the 10th-year pro to add some more power to his game.
Takahashi is hardly a banjo hitter with 127 career doubles and 13 triples, but he doesn’t put the ball in the seats. His career high in home runs is 11, which he reached in 2018. He finished with seven in 2019 and 2020 — he played in 108 games during last year’s shortened campaign.
Takahashi doesn’t need to become teammate Dayan Viciedo, but little power would add to his already impressive overall makeup.
Shinichi Onuki, DeNA BayStars, pitcher
Onuki took a pretty big step forward for DeNA last season. He made 19 starts and finished 10-6 with a 2.53 ERA.
He can attack batters with an array of pitches and will try to refine his arsenal under the watchful eye of new manager Daisuke Miura, who was once the franchise’s longtime ace.
Onuki threw seven different pitch types last season and has a varied enough arsenal to keep hitters guessing, which is good as he’s not a hard-thrower.
He has one good season under his belt and serving up an encore would get him started on the path to perhaps being one of NPB’s next pitching stars.
Aren Kuri, Hiroshima Carp, pitcher
Kuri only had eight wins in 2020 but he pitched well. Despite the shortened season, Kuri still made 20 starts and hit career highs with 106 strikeouts and 130.2 innings. He also finished with a career-best 2.96 ERA after never ending a season under 3.51.
Kuri threw more two-seamers, cutters and forkballs in 2020 compared to 2019 while dialing back the usage of his curveball and changeup.
He didn’t pitch particularly well away from Mazda Stadium, however, with a 1.74 ERA at home vs. 4.75 on the road. He was similarly a homebody in 2019, with a 2.59 home ERA versus 4.42 on the road.
Kuri has been getting better and has breakout potential if he can keep improving and figure out what has been going awry away from Hiroshima.
Yasunobu Okugawa, Tokyo Yakult Swallows, pitcher
Okugawa’s NPB debut didn’t go well last year. He made one start and was touched up for five runs in two innings.
There was considerable hype around the right-hander when he came out of Ishikawa Prefecture’s Seiryo High School in 2019 — only Roki Sasaki drew more attention.
He only threw 19 2/3 innings on the farm last year, allowing four runs, but the Swallows are ready to see what he can do. He made three appearances in the spring, allowing six runs in nine innings.
Okugawa is slated to pitch in the club’s opening series and there will be a lot of people watching to see what he can produce this season.
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