20 December 2006

NPB Notes:::Yakult Swallows

Founded: 1950 as the Kokutetsu Swallows, became the Sankei Swallows in 1965, the Sankei Atoms in 1966, the Yakult Atoms in 1970 and, in 1974, the name changed to the Yakult Swallows. They now go by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, which started in 2006.
Owner: Yakult Corp., a beverage company. Yakult, the drink, is a "probiotic yogurt-like beverage" that has a citrus taste and is said to be good for the digestive system. That's according to its Wikipedia page.
Home base: Meiji-Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, one of the oldest parks in Japan. The park was built in 1926 and renovated in 1982. The Swallows moved in in 1964.
Titles: 6 Central League titles, 5 Japan Series titles (1978, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2001) -- at 5-1, the Swallows have the best Japan Series winning percentage of any team with at least 6 appearances.

The Swallows are perhaps most comparable as the Mets to the Yomiuri Giants' Yankees, only without the big spending habits of the Mets. They share Tokyo with the Giants but have comparably little TV exposure other than games vs. Yomiuri and have a smaller base of fans. Most seasons have been losing ones for the Swallows, but when the team has won it has cashed in and won big. From 1950 through 1976, Kokutetsu/Yakult had one winning season -- 67-60-3 in 1961. Some other seasons saw the team close to .500 through that time but always under the break-even point. The team's .468 winning percentage through 2006 is third-worst among active teams. The first breakout player for the Swallows was OF Yukihiko Machida, who cranked 31 homers as a 21-year-old in 1955. He only hit 129 in his career, so it was a big year for the OF. He was a three-time all-star and was also the first Swallows player to hit for the cycle in 1959. The '55 season was his only Best Nine year and he also took the HR title that year. The first great Swallows pitcher is one of Japan's greatest, if not its best pitcher ever. P Masaichi Kaneda's NPB record 400 career wins included 14 straight 20-win seasons and 2 30-win seasons. In three of the 20-win seasons, though, he didn't even have a winning record. He pitched 6 seasons for Kokutetsu in which he posted a sub-2 ERA and his last 20-win season in 1964 was also his last season for the Swallows as he finished his career with Yomiuri. When the dust settled on Kaneda's career after the '69 season, he had amassed 4,490 Ks, 82 shutouts, 365 complete games, 5,526 2/3 IP, 1,808 walks and 298 losses, all of which are records except for his shutout total. At the plate he also hit 36 homers to lead Japan's pitchers for a career. He pitched 34 complete games in 1955 for a NPB record and also won a NPB-record 10 K titles. Kaneda holds the Hershiser record in Japan with 64 1/3 consecutive shutout IP in 1958. His 16 Ks in a game in 1967 is a CL record. Kaneda was a 17-time all-star and took all-star MVP honors three times. He finished his career with a 1.07 WHIP overall, pitched a no-hitter in 1971 and a perfect game in 1957, won 3 Sawamuras but was named to only 4 Best Nines, perhaps because of his walk totals. Despite Kaneda's exploits the Swallows couldn't piece together a winner, as even in 1961 the team still finished 5 1/2 games back of first as Yomiuri ruled the CL.

The losing continued after the move to Meiji-Jingu Stadium in '64 and Yakult took over in 1970, but the team's arguably best position player ever was on the horizon. OF Tsutomu Wakamatsu had a solid rookie season in 1971, including a record 3 sayonara homers, and would spend his entire career with Yakult before retiring in 1989. Over that time, the "Little Big Hitter" as the 5-6, 162-lb. Wakamatsu would come to be known, would lead the team to its first Japan Series and Central League title, and compile lifetime numbers of .319 (league record)/.375/.481 with 220 HR and 884 RBI and less Ks (463) than walks (574). He won 2 Gold Gloves and set a record in 1980 with 11 outfield putouts in a game. Consistency was a key for Wakamatsu as he finished in the top 10 in batting nine years in a row and 12 years overall. He hit for the cycle in '76, hit 8 sayonara homers lifetime for a CL record, was the MVP of the team's first Japan Series run (and first Kokutetsu/Yakult MVP ever), was named to 11 all-star teams and won 2 all-star MVPs. Wakamatsu won two batting titles ('72, '77) and was named to 10 Best Nines. The Swallows' steady losing came to an end with a 62-58-10 season in 1977 under manager Hiroshi Arakawa but Yakult finished 15 games back of the Giants for second in the CL. The Giants would sink, however, in 1978 and the Swallows would be there to take advantage with a 68-46-16 record that was good for a 3-game hold on the CL title.

The 1978 run saw Wakamatsu and three other Swallows named to the CL Best Nine. American OF Charlie Manuel, in his third season with Yakult, hit .312/.372/.596 with 39 HR and 103 RBI and tied a NPB record with hits in 10 consecutive official ABs in '78. Fellow import 2B Dave Hilton, in his first year with Yakult, hit .317/.381/.509 with 19 HR and 76 RBI while cracking 37 doubles and 8 leadoff homers. Joining them was Gold Glove C Akihiko Oya, who hit .268/.316/.362 so apparently did a great job behind the plate in earning his first Best Nine. Wakamatsu, meanwhile, hit .341/.408/.539 with 17 HR and 71 RBI with a Gold Glove in the OF to take CL MVP honors. Doing the job for the Swallows on the pitching mound was career Swallow Hiromu Matsuoka, who went 16-11 with a 3.75 ERA and 4 shutouts in 199 1/3 IP and captured his only Sawamura. He would be instrumental in the Japan Series with 2 wins and 2 saves but another player would win MVP honors for the series. 1B Katsuo Osugi had a fine regular season in hitting .327/.391/.558 with 30 HR and 97 RBI but stepped it up in the 7-game series win over the Hankyu Braves by hitting .310/.355/.724 with 4 HR and 10 RBI. The performance included 2 game 7 homers with the first setting off a 1 hour, 19 minute tirade by Hankyu manager Toshiharu Ueda, who claimed the ball was foul. The homer stood and Osugi crushed another one in his next AB that left no doubt to be fair. Wakamatsu would hit .333/.438/.444 in the series while Manuel clubbed 3 homers. Hilton even had a day in the sun in the series with a clutch 2-run homer late in game 4 to keep Yakult in a game it eventually won, 6-5, to even the series at 2 games each. Yakult returned home with a 3-2 lead in the series but got clubbed, 12-3, in game 6 before Matsuoka shut the Braves down in game 7 as Osugi did the rest (Manuel also homered) for a 4-0 clincher.

The good times were somewhat short lived for Yakult fans as the team completed a first-to-worst turnaround by finishing 48-69-13 in 1979. The Swallows bounced back to second in 1980 but wouldn't enjoy another winning season in the '80s. The retirement of Wakamatsu in 1989 and the hiring of Fukuoka legend Katsuya Nomura as manager for 1990 would close out a bleak 1980s for the franchise and usher in a great decade for Swallows baseball that would see Yakult take home 4 CL titles and 3 Japan Series crowns. Signs of life began in the late '80s with the emergence of SS Takahiro Ikeyama, who was named to consecutive Best Nines in 1988 and 1989. Ikeyama, known to fans as "Boom Boom Maru", spent his entire career ('84-'02) with Yakult and wrapped up his career with a .262 lifetime BA, 304 HR and 898 RBI. He would become the first Japanese shortstop with 4 straight 30-homer seasons and posted a record fielding percentage for CL shortstops at .994 in 1991. He hit for the cycle in 1990 and was the 24th NPB player to 300 career HR. American 1B Larry Parrish came to Yakult for the 1989 season and left with 42 HR for the HR title and a Best Nine season. He would be gone to Hanshin for 1990 but would mark the first of several foreign exports to slug for the Swallows. OF Katsumi Hirosawa also emerged in the late '80s as a standout player for Yakult. He played in every game from 1987 to 1993 for the Swallows and was named to 4 Best Nines for Yakult while capturing RBI titles in 1991 and 1993. C Atsuya Furuta would also debut in 1990 and prove to be one of the franchise's treasures as he started his career with an all-star selection and became player/manager for Yakult in 2006 (the first since Nomura in 1977) at the age of 40. More on his numbers later.

After Nomura guided the Swallows to a 58-72 record in 1990, Yakult moved to third in 1991 before taking the CL title at 69-61-1 in 1992 behind the franchise's second MVP, American 3B Jack Howell. Howell became the first foreigner in NPB history to take the MVP in his first season by hitting .331/.402/.685 with 38 HR and 87 RBI, which was good for 2/3 of the Triple Crown for BA and HR. He hit 13 HR in August 1992 for a team record and was named to his first and only Best Nine in Japan. Furuta followed up a .340/.429/.500, 11 HR, 50 RBI, batting title season in 1991 with his first and only 30 HR season in 1992 by hitting .316/.422/.576 with 30 HR and 86 RBI. He picked up his 3rd Gold Glove and 2nd Best Nine in 1992 and threw in the first-ever cycle in an all-star game in Japan. Meanwhile, Ikeyama threw in his 4th Best Nine and only Gold Glove with 30 HR and 79 RBI and 2B Tetsuya Iida, who had moved from C to make room for Furuta, capped his 2nd of 7 Gold Glove seasons and only Best Nine season with a then CL-record 27 straight steals, league leading 8 triples and .294 BA. Hirosawa chipped in with 25 HR and 85 RBI as well. P Yoichi Okabayashi helped lead the pitching staff with a 15-10 record and 2.97 ERA in 197 IP and P Akimitsu Itoh was 7-5 with a 2.77 ERA in 146 IP. 1992 was also the rookie year of P Kaz Ishii, who would go on to the U.S. in the 2000s but didn't have his first great year in Japan until '95. The Swallows moved into the Japan Series to face Seibu and, after 3 games, were down 2-1 to the Lions. Okabayashi took the tough loss in a 1-0 defeat in game 4 to put Seibu up, 3 games to 1, but the Swallows fought back with a 7-6 win in game 5 and 8-7 win in game 6 with both wins notched by Itoh to force a game 7. In another close game, Okabayashi took his second loss of the series as Seibu took the championship with a 2-1 win. Only Iida produced greatly with the bat in the series as he batted .367. Howell batted only .133 but hit 2 HRs, Hirosawa batted .179, Ikeyama hit .233 with 2 HR and Furuta hit .250. Okabayashi pitched well but got no run support as he threw 30 innings in the series and posted a 1.50 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. Itoh pitched 10 2/3 innings and posted a 3.38 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in the series.

Yakult would have its best year yet at 80-50-2 in 1993 behind Furuta's first MVP season. The C batted .308/.381/.462 with 17 HR and 75 RBI, titles in both hits and runs, his 3rd Best Nine and 4th Gold Glove. Hirosawa claimed his fourth and final Best Nine selection with an RBI title at 94 plus 25 HR and a .288 BA. Ikeyama posted his fifth and final Best Nine as well with 24 HR and 71 RBI and helped lead a team that gave its fans a scare at times but set a record with 9 walkoff homers in the season. Howell followed up his MVP season by hitting .295/.420/.551 with 28 HR and 88 RBI and fellow American Rex "The Wonder Dog" Hudler ended up with a title in his only Japanese season and hit .300/.358/.480 with 14 HR and 64 RBI for the Swallows. P Kenjiro Kawasaki helped on the mound with a 10-9 record and 3.48 ERA in 139 2/3 IP, Itoh was good for a 13-4 record with a 3.11 ERA in 173 2/3 IP and future export RP Shingo Takatsu earned his first 20 career saves in his third season in NPB while putting up a 2.30 ERA and 72 K in 78 1/3 IP. The team would get a rematch with Seibu in the Japan Series and the two teams would clash in another epic battle. Yakult jumped out to a 2 games to none lead and, after Kawasaki and Takatsu shut down the Lions, 1-0, in game 4, held a 3-1 lead. Seibu forced a game 7 by outscoring the Swallows, 11-4, in games 5 and 6 but Kawasaki came out for game 7 ready and pitched Yakult to a 4-2 win and their second Japan Series title. Takatsu picked up his 3rd save of the series in the clincher. Kawasaki earned series MVP honors with a 1.20 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 15 IP, Takatsu was lockdown with a 0.00 ERA and 0.60 WHIP in 5 IP and RP Tsugio Kanazawa pitched well with a 0.96 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in 9 1/3 IP. Iida followed up a poor regular season by hitting .400 in the series while Furuta hit a lowly .222, Hirosawa hit .241 but chipped in with 5 RBI, Howell hit .292 with 2 doubles and a homer, Hudler hit .167 in his lone series appearance, and Ikeyama hit only .217.

The Swallows sank to 4th in 1994 but again rebounded to take a league title in 1995 at 82-48. More Americans would lead the way as 1B Tom O'Malley earned an MVP award and P Terry Bross took an ERA title. O'Malley followed 4 great years with Hanshin by coming to Yakult for 1995 and hitting .302/.429/.570 with a career-high 31 HR and throwing in 87 RBI. The season marked his 4th straight OBP title and only Best Nine selection. Furuta was the team's other Best Nine pick as he followed a poor 1994 with a resurgent .294/.357/.464 season that included 21 HR and 76 RBI. Iida, who by that time had moved to the OF, added a career high 35 SB along with a league-leading 7 triples and his 5th straight Gold Glove, and Ikeyama cranked 19 HR and added 70 RBI. American 3B Hensley Meulens came over from Lotte for 1995 and hit 29 HR with 80 RBI. Bross led a cadre of pitching talent by making a splash in his first season in Japan with a 14-5 record (his only winning season in Japan), 2.33 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 139 K in 162 1/3 IP. Bross pitched a no-hitter against Yomiuri in September to become the third foreigner ever to do so. Ishii broke out with a 13-4 record, 2.76 ERA and 159 K in 153 IP, P Masato Yoshii (future export and Met) came over from Kintetsu to throw 147 1/3 innings for Yakult and posted an ERA of 3.12 in a 10-7 campaign, and Takatsu posted his third straight season with a sub-3 ERA with 28 saves, a 2.61 ERA and 36 K in 49 1/3 IP. The Swallows would face Ichiro and the Orix Blue Wave in the Japan Series but would take the series in 5 games. O'Malley was series MVP by hitting .529/.667/.941 with 2 HR and 7 BB in 5 games. Meulens hit .300, OF Mitsuru Manaka hit .545, Iida hit .261 and Furuta hit only .174 in the series. Bross finished the series 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 11 K in 16 IP and Takatsu was 1-0 with 2 saves in posting a 0.00 ERA and 0.50 WHIP in 4 IP.

Yakult fans would continue their roller-coaster ride as the Swallows dropped back to 4th in 1996 but, as was the custom, stormed back to post a franchise best 83-52-2 record in 1997 for an 11-game margin of victory in the CL pennant race. Furuta was once again the key to the run with his second MVP season as he hit .322/.413/.446 with 32 2B, 9 HR and 86 RBI. The season would mark his 5th Best Nine and 6th Gold Glove. Another American would chip in as OF Dwayne Hosey caught lightning in a bottle by hitting .289/.371/.594 with 20 SB, 38 HR (for the HR title) and 100 RBI. It was his only Best Nine season as his numbers dropped in 1998. OF Atsunori Inaba followed up a good 1996 by experiencing a dropoff in BA and OBP but hit the ball harder with 21 HR and 65 RBI. His impact would be felt even more in the Japan Series. 2B Katsuyuki Dobashi hit over .300 (.301 to be exact) for his first year over that mark and knocked in 61 runs, 3B Ikeyama hit 18 HR and drove home 79 runs in his last 500 AB season, SS Shinya Miyamoto emerged to win his first Gold Glove and hit .282 with 16 SB and American 1B Jim Tatum hit .309/.390/.640 with 13 HR in 51 games in his only Japanese season. The pitching staff was led by Kazuya Tabata, who put up a 15-5 record with a 2.96 ERA in 170 1/3 IP. Ishii recovered from shoulder surgery in 1996 to post a 1.91 ERA and 10-4 record with 120 K in 117 2/3 IP, Yoshii went 13-6 with a 2.99 ERA in 174 1/3 IP in his final season before jumping to MLB, RP Tomohito Itoh usurped Takatsu as closer to earn 19 saves and went 7-2 with a 1.51 ERA and 53 K in 47 2/3 IP, and Takatsu pitched 79 1/3 innings and held a 7-4 record and 2.04 ERA with 68 K. A familiar foe awaited Yakult in the Japan Series as the Swallows had their third run-in with Seibu but this time polished off the Lions in 5 games. Ishii struck out 12 in the opener and combined with Takatsu on a 3-0 shutout in game 5. Furuta was series MVP by hitting .316 with 2 doubles and a homer. Inaba was 10-20 to put up a .500 BA while Dobashi hit .429 with 9 hits, Ikeyama hit .313, Manaka hit .333, Miyamoto hit .313, Hosey hit .200 and Tatum hit .125 with a HR. Ishii was 2-0 in the series in 11 IP with a 0.00 ERA and 0.82 WHIP with 15 Ks, Takatsu was 1-0 with a save with, again, a 0.00 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 5 2/3 IP, and the staff combined to post a 1.59 ERA in the series.

The 1997 Japan Series would mark the team's pinnacle of success with 3 titles in 5 seasons but Nomura would leave after a 66-69 1998 and lifelong Swallows legend Wakamatsu returned to take the helm. The team hung at 66-69 through 2000 with the biggest development being the import of 1B/OF Roberto Petagine, who hit 53 2B, 80 HR and drove home 208 runs combined in '99 and '00. His 44 HR in '99 were good for the league title in that category. He would be the second foreigner to post four consecutive .300-30 HR seasons in the NPB. The 2000s have been kind to the Swallows as the team started a string of 70-win seasons in 2001, which would also reap the team its 5th and most recent title. The Swallows finished 76-58-6 to overcome Yomiuri for the CL crown and Petagine would be the main catalyst. Petagine hit .322/.466/.633 with a league-leading 39 HR and 125 RBI in an MVP season. He drew 120 walks in 138 games and earned the second of 4 Best Nines and 3 Gold Gloves. Furuta supplemented those numbers by hitting .324/.390/.478 with 15 HR and 66 RBI along with his 9th and final Gold Glove and 8th and final Best Nine. OF Inaba added averages of .311/.379/.533 with 25 HR and 90 RBI and led the league in triples with 5 in his only Best Nine year thus far. Despite Petagine's pyrotechnics, Inaba was voted the team MVP at year's end. Another Swallow star emerged in 2001 in the form of 3B Akinori "Gun" Iwamura, who followed a fine 2000 by hitting .287/.329/.452 and clubbing 18 HR while driving in 81 runs. He also won his 2nd Gold Glove. He will be more familiar to American fans in 2006 as the Devil Rays signed him to a contract recently. Miyamoto didn't do a lot at the plate but did win his 4th Gold Glove and Manaka hit .312 to help on offense. Venezuelan OF Alex Ramirez became the most recent hitter brought in to Yakult as he hit .280 with 29 HR and 88 RBI in his first season. Young P Shugo Fujii emerged as the staff ace with a 14-8 record and 3.17 ERA in 173 1/3 IP while Ishii was 12-6 with a 3.39 ERA and 173 K in 175 IP in his last season before giving the U.S. a try. P Satoshi Iriki was 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA in 129 1/3 IP and Takatsu won his 3rd Fireman of the Year award and 3rd saves title with 37 in 51 2/3 IP that included a 2.61 ERA and 39 Ks. The Swallows met Kintetsu in the Japan Series and, for a third time, won it in 5 games. Furuta was named the MVP by hitting .500/.618/.857 with a homer, Inaba hit only .200 but drove home 4 runs, Iwamura hit .450 with 5 RBI in his only series appearance, Manaka hit .316 with 2 HR and 5 RBI, Miyamoto hit .474, Petagine hit .365/.565/.438 with 4 RBI and Ramirez hit only .167 with a HR and 3 RBI. Ishii picked up a win and didn't give up a run while putting up a 0.75 WHIP in 8 IP, Iriki picked up another win and Takatsu saved 2 games while holding his series ERA at 0.00 for the fourth time.

Since 2001, the Swallows have competed but have finished between second and fourth each season. P Kevin Hodges led the league in wins with 17 in 2002, Ramirez doubled up with 40 HR and 124 RBI to lead the CL in both categories in 2003 and, most recently, OF Norichika Aoki led the league in batting at .344 in 2005. As 2006 comes to a close, the Swallows enter their second season under Furuta as manager. He hasn't played more than 100 games since 2004 as a stellar career slowly draws to a close. Counting the '06 season in which he hit only .244, his lifetime numbers include a .294 BA, .367 OBP, 217 HR, 1,009 RBI, 367 2B and 111 HBP. Furuta made news in 2004 as the head of the players' union that went on strike for the first time in league history after Orix and Kintetsu merged. The strike led to the formation of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, which began play in 2005. He has been selected to 16 all-star teams, set a CL record with 8 Best Nines at C, set the CL record for most consecutive chances without an error at catcher at 867 in 1995 (the streak ended at a CL record 1,046 in 1996), and is the fourth Japanese catcher to hit 200 HR. He is also only the second catcher to get to 2,000 career hits and sits at 2,091 entering '07. He also holds an NPB record for catchers with 8 seasons of hitting over .300. Iwamura closed out his Yakult career for the time being by hitting .311 with 32 HR and 77 RBI as the Swallows finished 70-73-3 in 2006. Aoki followed up his batting title by hitting .321 with 13 HR in 2006 and IF Adam Riggs joined IF Greg LaRocca as the latest foreign imports to make an impact for Yakult. Riggs has hit .299 with 53 HR and 138 RBI (including 39 HR and 94 RBI in '06) over the past two years and LaRocca hit .285 with 18 HR for the Swallows in '06 before getting released. Ramirez has kept slugging for Yakult as he hit .267 with a paltry .289 OBP in '06 but hit 26 HR with 112 RBI. Miyamoto and Manaka join Furuta as holdovers from the championship years and are still plying their trade for the Swallows. Miyamoto hit .305 in 2006 while Manaka hit only .246. Ishii returned home to Yakult for the '06 season and responded by pitching well with an 11-7 record, 3.44 ERA and 170 Ks in 177 2/3 IP. Two other native sons have returned from MLB as Takatsu picked up 13 saves and went 1-2 with a 2.74 ERA and 31 K in 42 2/3 IP and Masao Kida returned to pitch 58 1/3 innings and post a 3.09 ERA and 3-5 record this season. American Rick Guttormson posted the team's best ERA this season among starters at 2.97 in 166 2/3 IP. He finished 9-10 with 119 Ks but batters hit only .231 off him.

JapanBall on the Swallows
Japan Baseball Daily (great resource)

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