A message from a fan was relayed to Saitama Seibu Lions pitcher Kona Takahashi during his hero interview following a win over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Friday night.
The fan praised Takahashi for his nice pitching and for showing the skill of an ace for the way he got himself out of jams. The message ended with a request: “don’t cut your hair just yet.”
Takahashi gave a smile and reached back to touch the hair jutting out from underneath his hat. He’s declared he won’t cut it until he loses and through nine starts in 2021, this lion’s mane remains intact.
“I want to keep growing it longer,” Takahashi said.
Whether he comes out with long flowing locks, a buzz cut or a blue mohawk, as long as he keeps pitching the way he has to start the season, no one is going to have any qualms about how he wears his hair.
Friday’s game was Takahashi’s latest encouraging outing in a year full of them. He didn’t have his good fastball early, but his slider and forkball helped him persevere until he started getting more life on his heater. He ended up holding the Fighters to a single run on six hits and three walks and struck out six in seven innings.
“I was a little uneasy at the beginning,” Takahashi said. “But I was able to hang in there.”
Takahashi has pitched well enough this year that Lions fans might wonder if this long-haired 24-year-old is the pitcher they were promised seven years ago. He’s off to the kind of start worthy of the first-round pick the Lions spent on him in the 2014 draft.
Takahashi is 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA — eighth among qualified NPB starters — in 62⅓ innings. He also has a 1.12 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) and is tied with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Shuta Ishikawa for the NPB lead with eight quality starts.
In short, Takahashi has been pretty good. He is filling the void created by Yusei Kikuchi’s departure to MLB — albeit two years late.
This is good news for Seibu fans.
The Lions have lacked really good starting pitching recently — aside from Kikuchi’s starts and Zach Neal’s dynamite 2019 campaign.
There isn’t much separation in the Pacific League standings right now and the race could very well remain tight throughout. So Seibu is going to need pitching and there’s no time like the present for Takahashi to lead by example and step into the ace’s shoes.
His hot start, though, comes with a question of sustainability. Takahashi has been good for sure, but has he also been a little bit lucky?
He has a 2.45 ERA, which is among the best, but his 4.03 weighted fielding independent pitching (xFIP) ranks 18th among NPB’s 24 qualified starters per DeltaGraphs. He also has a left on base percentage of 88.8, compared the PL average of 74.1. His career average is 71.7%.
Takahashi is stranding runners now, but he’s far enough above the league average to wonder if a regression, even slight, is on the horizon, meaning more runners may score against him.
Of course, that may not happen at all and he may keep pitching himself out of trouble at the same pace. But Takahashi isn’t a power pitcher who racks up strikeouts — his strikeout percentage is in the lower half of qualified starters — and anything can happen when the ball is in play with traffic on the bases.
He’s also never finished with an ERA below 3.74 in a season in which he surpassed 100 innings pitched.
Which is to say, it’s hardly far-fetched to wonder if he can really keep this up.
What Seibu is hoping, of course, is that Takahashi’s strong start is the foundation of a breakout campaign. He has a 3.92 ERA in 90 career appearances — 87 starts — since 2015. He’s changed things up a little with a cutter he started throwing more last season and is throwing more sliders than he did in 2020. He’s also getting batters to chase more this season and getting more strikeouts compared to earlier in his career.
Only time will tell if Takahashi’s start is just the good beginning or the start of something bigger.
If it’s the latter, he’ll be helping his team with performance on the mound and helping himself with the money saved by cutting out trips to the barber.
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