Japanese players on the radar of MLB scouts: Some comments

Nippon-Ham Fighters pitcher Shohei Otani became the first Fighters pitcher to win 10 games in his second season since Yu Darvish. Otani is now 10-3 with a 2.45 ERA. According to the Japanese media, foreign scouts have not only been impressed with his fastball but note the quality of his breaking ball and control. Washington Nationals Director of Scouting Bill Singer commented that watching Otani grow as a pitcher was like watching a movie.

Along with Otani, major league scouts have kept a close eye on Orix Buffaloes pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, Orix outfielder Yoshio Itoi, Seibu Lions pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, and DeNA Baystars pitcher Shun Yamaguchi. However, the only pitcher with a legitimate opportunity to play in the major leagues next season is Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda. The other players are a little on the old side (Itoi (33) and Kaneda (31)) or lack the experience and stats to draw significant interest (Kikuchi).

Although I said Itoi and Kaneko are a little on the “old side,”  they are major-league calibre players. In fact, Itoi would rank among the top outfielders in the world. The only knock on Itoi, besides his age, is his power. Itoi does hit home runs but he’s more of line-drive hitter. Kaneko is no where near the talent level of say a Darvish or a Masahiro Tanaka, but I would take him over most major league starting pitchers. I doubt major-league clubs would be willing to pay millions in guaranteed money for “rookies” in their thirties.

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Former Nippon-Ham star Kensuke Tanaka looking for new club

After finding little opportunity with the Texas Rangers, former Nippon-Ham All-Star second baseman Kensuke Tanaka asked for and received his release. Being unreliable at second base in his first season with the Fresno Grizzlies, Tanaka struggled at Triple-A Round Rock, hitting .258 in 245 plate appearances this season.

Tanaka hopes to sign with a major league club, and he should have no trouble finding a team willing to sign him to a minor-league deal. The problem facing Tanaka is his reputation as a poor defender. In Japan he won numerous Gold Glove titles at second base but in the minor leagues with Triple-A Fresno, he committed 15 errors with a .937 fielding percentage. Granted that Tanaka improved his fielding with Round Rock his reputation, many fans in the US believe Japanese middle infielders are not able to play in the major leagues.


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Shohei Otani: NPB’s brightest star

The legend of Shohei Otani grows with each at-bat with each pitch. From a fan’s perspective, watching Otani is a treat, making Nippon-Ham Fighters games must-see TV. In the second game of the 2014 Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Series, Otani was the starting pitcher for the Pacific League opposite his high school rival Hanshin TIgers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami. It was not Otani’s overall performance that made headlines but it was his 162-km/h fastball, equaling the mark set by former Yokohama Baystars and Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon. To start the game, Otani threw 15 straight fastballs, and it was his second pitch against leadoff hitter Takashi Toritani that was clocked at 162 km/h. Both Fujinami and Otani were throwing some heat to the pleasure of fans–myself included.

Otani is awesome but I’m not sure he’ll play with a major league club. It has nothing to do with his talent–if I had a choice between Otani and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper, I’d choose Otani. He is one of the brightest stars in Japanese professional baseball, and it’s difficult to find a comparable major-league comparison, though Anderlton Simmons of the Atlanta Braves comes to mind (the Braves wanted Simmons to pitch but Simmons was adamant at playing shortstop). He shines bright because he is a candle burning at both ends. I worry that the fans want Otani to do more than what a human body can do over a long period of time. Throwing fastball after fastball is not the best way preserve a Hall of Fame potential player like Otani, not to mention starting in the outfield and batting third between starts.I would like the Fighters to tell Otani that he doesn’t need to pitch 160 km/h each game. I’d also like to see the Fighters have Otani decide which path he wants to take: to play as a hitter or as a pitcher. Either would be fine because he pitches and hits at a high level. At the moment he’s more pitcher than hitter. He pitches when it’s his turn in the rotation and starts one or two games in the outfield or hits as a designated hitter with a few pinch-hitter cameos in-between. If he gets hurt pitching or hitting then the Fighters lose a position player and a pitcher. If he only pitches then the Fighters could give one of their younger players a chance to shine. If he chooses hitter then Otani could focus on hitting, and maybe develop as a player power.

If Otani is throwing 160 km/h fastballs for the sake of the fans,  I’m certain Otani will lose velocity to a point where he’s have trouble reaching 150 km/h with the next three years.

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Orix Buffaloes may part with injured Betancourt

Orix Buffaloes infielder Yuniesky Betancourt is returning to the United States to have his right big toe examined. The Buffaloes will most likely release him. The 32-year-old Betancourt, who played most recently for the Kansas City Royals, hit .141 with a .294 OBS.  During his last five years in the Major Leagues, many considered Betancourt to be among the worst players. As a fan of Japanese baseball I had some serious doubts that Betancourt would find success in Japan.

Players like former Cubs All-Star outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura have had little success in their returns to Japan, despite their past successes both in the Major Leagues and Japan. Although Fukudome and Iwamura could turn their careers around, Betancourt has no chance of finding himself back on a big league roster (By the way, congratulations to Brooks Conrad on his return to the Major Leagues after a terrible year with the Hanshin Tigers)  let alone the Orix Buffaloes starting lineup.

But who knows!

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Notes for June 29

  • Hiroshima Carp slugger Brad Eldred continues to hit the ball with power, hitting two home runs to help beat the DeNA Baystars 7-5. He leads the Central League in home runs (25) and RBI (70).  The only problem with Eldred is that it’s difficult to find a position for him since Kila Ka’Aihue is the team’s regular first baseman and Eldred is a below-average defender in right field. Also, pitchers around the league are well aware of his power and are probably less likely to challenge him.
  • Hanshin Tigers infielder Tsuyoshi Nishikawa, who just returned from injury, is now playing third. He committed errors in his first two games back, though he didn’t commit one in his third game. His replacement at second, Hiroki Uemoto, committed three errors, which is a Central League record with most errors by a second baseman in a game.
  • After a three-hit performance in the previous game, Nippon-Ham Fighters pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani hit his third home run of the season in a 2-3 loss to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Otani is not a power hitter, preferring to slap line-drives to all parts of the field, but his size suggests that his power is going to emerge with age. If he sticks with hitting, he has the potential to hit 15 to 25 home runs in season.
  • Nippon-Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama appears ready to re-sign with the Fighters to manage the Fighters.
  • Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Takahiro Norimoto won his ninth game of the season, which is tops in both the Central and Pacific leagues.  Norimoto, though he has had control issues in the past, is becoming one of Japan’s top pitchers. He continues to show improvement from his strong 2013 rookie season.
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Things that caught my attention

  • The Yakult Swallows are hopeful slugger Wladmir Balentien, who’s out with an Achilles injury, will make his return for the restart of league play.
  • Nippon-Ham slugger and last season’s Pacific League Home Run King Michel Abreu may make his return for the start of the second half. The Fighters have suffered from a string of injuries. Along with Abreu, the Fighters have been without Atsunori Inaba,  third baseman Eiji Koyano, and All-Star center fielder Yoh Daikan. While Koyano is already playing with the nigun team, Yoh and Inaba are not ready to start playing in actual games. Yoh seems to be closer to making his return than Inaba, who still hasn’t recovered from knee surgery. However, these injuries have allowed manager Hideki Kuriyama to play young players such as outfielder Kenji Sato, infielder Takuya Nakashima, outfielder Shingo Ishikawa, outfielder Yuya Taniguchi, and catcher/third baseman Kensuke Kondo. The fact that the Fighters are in third place is an amazing accomplishment considering Kuriyama’s and and the front office’s willingness to give most of their young players a chance to play with the ichigun.
  • While Shohei Otani (W6-L1, 2.61 ERA) and Shintaro Fujinami (W4-L4, 3.09 ERA) are having outstanding sophomore seasons,  “Golden Rookie” pitcher Yuki Matsui (W0-L4, 5.68 ERA), despite a positive attitude, is struggling.  In his last start against the Hiroshima Carp, Matsui, facing former Sawamura winner Kenta Maeda, lasted only four innings, giving up three runs, walking five and commiting a balk. Matsui seems to be a few years away from being a top of the rotation pitcher. At the moment the Eagles can’t even use him as a starter.
  • The Hanshin Tigers have been using All-Star second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishikawa as a third baseman in nigun games. This makes sense as the Tigers current second baseman, Hiroki Uemoto, is batting .310, and Nishikawa has had a couple of bad injuries in the last few years playing second. The Tigers current third baseman, Ryota Imanari, is a catcher with a decent bat but with almost no power. Nishikawa may not have the arm to play third but he should be an upgrade on Imanari.
  • Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura was taken out of a game against the Chunichi Dragons with an elbow problem. The Seibu Lions didn’t think it was serious enough to have him checked out by a doctor and will have Nakamuri ice it. This is something that could affect his play later in the season.
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Some more things that caught my attention

  • DeNA BayStars took slugger Tony Blanco off their first-team roster because of pain in his left thigh. Blanco missed time in April with a left upper thigh injury.  BayStars felt it wasn’t necessary for Blanco to visit the hospital, and manager Kiyoshi Nakahata doesn’t expect Blanco to miss much time. The BayStars also sent pitcher Daisuke Miura, one of their most popular pitchers, down to the second team after losing four straight starts.
  • Seibu Lions infielder and slugger Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura hit his 250 career home run in against against a struggling Hiroshima Carp. His 250th home run came in his 995th career game, making him the ninth fastest to reach that milestone. The fastest to reach 250 career home runs are Ralph Bryant (Kintestu Buffaloes, 1995) and Alex Cabrera (Seibu Lion, 2007) who hit their 250th career home in their 733rd game.
  • Yakult Swallows infielder Akinori Iwamura, who has struggled since returning from the  major leagues, hit four doubles to tie a Japanese record in a losing effort against the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Iwamura is the first player from the Central League to accomplish this feat in 33 years. The last player to hit four doubles was Yoshi0 Itoi in 2011 while playing for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. While eleven players have hit four games in a row, only seven (including Iwamura and Itoi) hit four doubles in a row.

    Ties Japanese record with four doubles in the game.

    Akinori Iwamura ties Japanese record with four doubles in the game.

  • Yakult Swallows announced that outfielder Wladmir Balentien may be out for an extended period following an Achilles  injury he sustained on June 13 in a game against the Rakuten Golden Eagles. The Swallows will take a look at the situation and make a decision about Balentien at a later date, though the Swallows have no plans to have him visit a hospital. In other news for the Yakult Swallows, pitcher Yoshinori,who suffered a shoulder injury, returned to action in a Futures game on June 14. It was the first time he pitched in a competitive game in 792 games. He was clocked at 155 khHe holds the record for the fastest pitch (161 kh) by a Japanese pitcher.
  • The Hiroshima Carp, after a fast start, have lost 9 games in a row. In 2011, they lost 10 games in row. If the Carp lose again tonight they’ll be the first team to have two 10-game losing streaks. I know this is going to sound harsh but the Carp remind me of disgraced Riken Institute scientist Haruko Obokata.  A great start with youthful and stylish vigor that proved to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. I hope the Carp can overcome their current funk, and get a winning streak started again.
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