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)

14 December 2006

NPB Notes:::Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Founded: 1938 as the Nankai Hawks, changed name to Kinki Nihon in 1944, Kinki Great Ring for '46 and '47, back to Nankai from '47 to '87, Daiei Hawks in '88 and, from '89 to '04, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks until Softbank bought the team and changed the name for the 2005 season.
Owner: Softbank Corp., a telecommunications and media corporation.
Home base: The Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, the first retractable dome in Japan -- the Hawks are the southern- and westernmost NPB team and are based on the south island of Kyushu. The Hawks began play in Fukuoka in '88 (after moving from Osaka) and moved into the dome in '93. It's modeled after SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) in Toronto and is noted not only for its bars and restaurants but also for its 18-feet-high walls, spaciousness and unfavorable sight lines for fans.
Titles: 15 league titles (13 Pacific League titles), 4 Japan Series titles (1959, 1964, 1999, 2003)

With Kyushu Island all to themselves for major league baseball action in Japan since 1988, the Hawks have proven to be one of the more popular teams in the NPB. The Hawks have had a storied history since being founded in 1938. The early years through 1944 were rough for Hawks fans as the team had only 1 winning season early on and it was 2 games over .500. With the hiring of Kazuto "The Godfather" Tsuruoka (1916-2000) for the 1946 season, the franchise's fortunes turned, however, as, when the dust settled on Tsuruoka's managerial career in 1968, he was (and still is) the all-time winningest manager in NPB history with a record of 1,773-1,140-81. He led the team to 2 of its 4 Japan Series titles (another legend would help guide the team to the other 2) and, in his early days as a player-manager, was a three-time MVP ('46, '48, '51) with a Best Nine in '51. He led the Hawks to 21 straight non-losing seasons from '46-'66 (spoiled only by a 67-67-1 season in '49) as part of his run, including a team-record 99 wins in 1955 with the dream season spoiled by a loss to Yomiuri in the Japan Series in 7 games. Series titles would also elude Tsuruoka and his Hawks in a 91-win 1954 and a 96-win 1956 as Nishitetsu (now Seibu) took the league title in those years. It wouldn't be until a ho-hum 88-win season in 1959 that the Hawks would first taste victory in the Japan Series.

Six different MVPs would play for Tsuruoka over his tenure but all were one-season winners other than C Katsuya Nomura, who would end up as Tsuruoka's greatest player. Nomura overcame a poor childhood after his father died while Katsuya was a youth to beat out nearly 300 other competitors in a Hawks tryout and begin a legendary career that spanned a record 26 seasons (all but the last 3 with Nankai) and 3,017 games from 1954-1980. His 657 career homers (second all-time in NPB behind Sadaharu Oh) include a then-PL-record 52 in 1963, four straight seasons of 40 HR or more ('62-65), seven straight 30-HR seasons ('62-68), eight straight PL HR crowns ('61-68), a record 11 sayonara (walk-off) homers, and 12 grand slams (5th all-time in NPB). His Triple Crown season in 1965 (.320, 42, 110) was the first in NPB after WWII. He batted .287 for 21 All-Star teams, including qualifying for his final one at the age of 45 in 1980. Nomura was a 5-time MVP, 7-time PL RBI champ, was named to 19 Best Nines and won a Gold Glove in 1973. After ending his career with a BA of .277 and 1,988 RBIs, Nomura continued a managerial career that began as a player-manager in 1970. He managed the Yakult Swallows in the '90s and Hanshin from '99 to '02. Nomura took over as manager of Rakuten in 2006 and guided them to a lowly 47-85-4 record.

It would be another MVP that would lead the Hawks to their first Japan Series title in 1959. With Tsuruoka in the dugout and Nomura behind the plate, SP Tadashi Sugiura would follow up a 27-12, 2.05 ERA Rookie of the Year season in 1958 with an even better 1959. He went an astonishing 38-4 in that season with a 1.40 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP with 336 K and only 35 BB in 371 1/3 IP in a lockdown MVP and pitching Triple Crown season. Meanwhile, 1B/OF Kohei Sugiyama nailed down the batting title at .323, Nomura hit 21 HRs, future HOF IF/OF Yoshinoro Hirose hit .310 and OF Shigeo Hasegawa hit .302 for his only season above .300. In the Japan Series, Sugiura pitched 32 of 37 total innings in winning all 4 games of a series sweep over Yomiuri to capture the series MVP. Offensively, three Hawks hit over .400 in the series led by 1B Yosuke Terada at .467. Sugiyama batted .429 in the series while 2B Isami Okamoto hit an even .400.

The Hawks would fall prey to the Giants in the '61 series but would return triumphantly after an 84-win season in 1964 thanks to the pitching of 6-5, 211-lb. Oklahoman Joe Stanka, who entering the season had won 54 games for Nankai since 1960 before putting together a 26-7 record with a 2.40 ERA in an MVP season in '64. His numbers weren't phenomenal otherwise but it was enough along with a batting title from Hirose at .366 (his last season over .300 included a 27-game hit streak and the second highest BA for a righty in NPB history -- he also threw in 72 SBs) to get Nankai to the Japan Series. Hirose would later cap a long career with the Hawks by taking over for Nomura as manager in 1978. Nomura also played his part in '64 with a PL-leading 41 HR and 110 RBI while Sugiura enjoyed the last 200 IP season of his HOF career at 20-15 with a 3.02 ERA with 162 K in 270 2/3 IP. Stanka proved his worth in a 4-3 win over Hanshin in the Japan Series as the Hawks fought back from a 3-2 deficit behind two Stanka shutouts in games 6 and 7 to win their second series title. Stanka was 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA in the series to earn MVP honors and Hirose batted .345 to lead the team on offense. Nomura cracked 2 HRs but hit under .200 as he did in the '59 series.

The winning would continue two more seasons under Tsuruoka but Yomiuri took the titles in '65 and '66. Tsuruoka would be gone by 1969. There would be six more winning seasons before the losing started in 1978 when Hirose took over as manager. The Hawks ran off a string of 16 straight losing seasons that ran into the '90s after the team had moved south to Fukuoka. American Don Blasingame took over the team for two seasons in the early '80s while Sugiura couldn't get a winner either in four years as manager in the '80s. The bright light in these relatively dark ages for Hawk baseball was the emergence of OF Hiromitsu Kadota, who from 1970 to 1992 racked up 567 HRs (third all-time) for the Hawks and Orix Braves. His hitting exploits included 16 homers in the month of July, 1981, en route to a HR title with 44 jacks as the first Hawk since Nomura in '68 to take a longball title. He added a second with 40 HR in 1983 and, at the age of 40 in 1988, added HR and RBI titles with totals of 44 and 125, respectively, along with an MVP award (again, the first since Nomura in '73) in the team's last season in Osaka. The 14-time all-star and seven-time member of the Best Nine mainly DH'ed after an achilles injury in 1979. P Michio Sato racked up a ROY in 1970 and two ERA titles in the '70s for the Hawks but the team's dark ages continued until the coming of a legend in the 1990s.

The team showed signs of life in 1994 by finishing the season at 69-60-1 under Rikuo Nemoto but Sadaharu Oh would come in to manage in 1995 and follow up three losing seasons with a return to the Hawks' winning tradition. The most famous Japanese player prior to Ichiro, Oh hasn't won less than 73 games in a season since 1999, which also marked the team's return to winning with the first PL title since 1973. Leading the way for the now Fukuoka Daiei Hawks was veteran P Kimiyasu Kudo, who had an MVP season with an 11-7 record, ERA title at 2.38 and a 0.90 WHIP in 196 1/3 IP. C Kenji Johjima hit .306 with 17 HR and 77 RBI in his third full-time season for the Hawks and first Best Nine and Gold Glove season. Also emerging that season were 1B Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who hit .268 and slugged .514 in hitting 23 HR for the Hawks and would go on to do bigger and better things in more recent years, and 2B Tadahito Iguchi, another soon-to-be Japanese export, who hit only .224 in 1999. Texan RP Rodney Pedraza debuted with a 1.98 ERA and 27 saves in 59 IP and RP Takayuki Shinohara posted a 1.25 ERA and 14-1 record in 79 1/3 IP. The Hawks took down Chunichi, 4-1, in the Japan Series for their third series title. OF Koji Akiyama was MVP after hitting .300 with 2 HR overall in the series and a great defensive play in game 3. Matsunaka and Johjima had 4 RBI each in the series win. Iguchi hit .286 in the series.

In 2000 it was Matsunaka's time to shine as he posted an MVP campaign of .312/.387/.582 with 33 HR and 106 RBI. Johjima hit .310 in a second-straight good season for his second Best Nine and Gold Glove but Iguchi hit a lackluster .247. His BA was on the rise, however. Pedraza posted the first of his two straight Fireman of the Year awards and save titles with 35 saves and a 2.15 ERA in 50 1/3 IP and 3B Hiroki Kokubo hit .288 with 31 HR and 105 RBI. A significant Hawk would serve his first full season for Daiei in 2000 in the form of Kazumi Saito, who put up a ho-hum 4.13 ERA in 22 games. The Hawks made it back to the Japan Series but lost to nemesis Yomiuri, 4-2. Johjima hit .348 and Akiyama hit .333 in the losing effort but Iguchi hit only .200, Kokubo hit .143 and Matsunaka hit .053. It wouldn't be until 2003 that the team made it back to the Japan Series. Johjima, Matsunaka and Saito would lead the way. Johjima was MVP by hitting .330/.399/.593 with 34 HR and 119 RBI for his 3rd Best Nine and 4th Gold Glove, Matsunaka hit .324/.429/.573 with 30 HR and 123 RBI, Saito was 20-3 for his first Sawamura with a 2.83 ERA (league leading) and 1.24 WHIP in 194 IP, Iguchi hit .340/.438/.573 with 27 HR and 109 RBI, Puerto Rican import OF Pedro Valdes added numbers of .311/.397/.545 with 27 HR and 104 RBI and another import, Julio Zuleta, hit .266 with 13 HR and 43 RBI in 67 games. P Toshiya Sugiuchi emerged on the mound with numbers of 10-8 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.25 WHIP and 169 K in 162 2/3 IP and '03 Daiei #1 pick P Tsuyoshi Wada debuted with a 14-5 record, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 195 K in 189 IP. The Hawks came back from a 3-2 deficit in the Japan Series once more, this time to defeat Hanshin in 7 games. Sugiuchi was the MVP with 2 wins and a 0.60 ERA and WHIP in 15 IP. Wada won another game and had a 1.50 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in 15 IP. Offensively, IF Munenori Kawasaki, who had hit .294 in the regular season, led the way with averages of .391/.462/.609 in the series, Matsunaka and Zuleta both hit .333, Valdes hit .321 with 3 HR, Johjima hit .241 with 4 HR and Iguchi hit .231.

Despite winning records the last three seasons, the Hawks have failed to return to the Japan Series. Matsunaka, Wada, Sugiuchi and Saito continue to produce for Softbank, as the name changed to in 2005. Iguchi and Johjima have crossed the Pacific to play stateside, Oh had serious stomach surgery in 2006 to leave his future up in the air and Kawasaki and P Nagisa Arakaki stepped up their games. Matsunaka won the Triple Crown and MVP in 2004 with numbers of .358, 44 HR and 120 RBI, and Sugiuchi won the MVP in 2005 with an ERA title at 2.11, a wins title at 18 and second place in Ks at 218 behind newest Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. It was Saito's turn in 2006 as he won the pitching Triple Crown in the PL with a record of 18-5, a 1.75 ERA and 205 Ks in 201 IP. Matsunaka hit .324/.453/.528 with 19 HR and 76 RBI in his 10th season, Kawasaki hit .312 and Zuleta led the team with 29 HR and 91 RBI. Wada was 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 136 K in 163 1/3 IP, Arakaki was 13-5 with a 3.01 ERA and 151 K in 155 1/3 IP and RP Takahiro Mahara saved 29 games and posted a 1.65 ERA and 62 K in 54 2/3 IP. With Matsuzaka now in the MLB, Saito assumes the throne as NPB's best pitcher.

Bob Bavasi's JapanBall Hawks site

08 December 2006

Ask and ye shall receive

Wow, the day after I griped about the Royals being irrelevant this off-season, they do a 180 and have generated some buzz over the past 48 hours. First, the signing of Gil Meche to a 5-year, $55 million deal. Meche has had stints in which he's been solid and others where he has been rocked in the last couple seasons coming back from arm surgery. My first impression is, that's a lot of money to risk on a ho-hum pitcher, but he's better than anything the Royals trotted out there last season and before the ink is dry on his contract he's the best pitcher on the staff going into '07. The money goes along with the market, and I honestly think he won't pitch horribly enough the Royals can't trade him down the stretch to a contender or in the off-season one of the next few years. Here's a link to his Baseball Reference page. Fairly average ERAs for the league, not so good WHIPs, but a good K rate. Comparable to guys like Adam Eaton and Jason Marquis, who aren't superstars but have had their share of good starts. I'd give this deal a B to B-.

Octavio Dotel also inked a 1-year, $5 million deal to bring him in over other teams that wouldn't guarantee the money. That's a risk the Royals are gonna have to take to get some players to KC at this point. Dotel can add another $2 million in incentives. Again, if he shows his good stuff coming off arm surgery this year, the Royals can flip him to a contender for something or maybe he'll re-sign for some kind of small discount since the Royals gave him a shot this season. The team also signed NPB reliever John Bale, who posted good numbers the last two seasons in Japan for the Hiroshima Carp. They got him over the Yankees. He's a low-risk pitcher that, if he's improved from his past MLB experience while in Japan, could be a high-reward guy in terms of holds and, possibly, saves, if Dotel can't cut it. I give both signings a B to B+.

Now if only we can somehow get rid of Berroa, Sweeney, Emil Brown and Sanders....Runelvys is gone, so that's a start.

06 December 2006

Semi-hibernation for Royals

Contract fireworks are exploding around the league, and the Royals haven't been involved to much extent, which I suppose is a good thing when one considers the big bucks being paid to players this offseason. Dayton Moore pulled the trigger on a trade for C Jason LaRue, who at the very least is an upgrade from Bako. Today he also flipped wild but young and fast RP Ambiorix Burgos to the Mets for SP Brian Bannister, which I can see as a wash if not a good deal for KC. We'll see how Burgos is used by the Mets and how he stands up to the New York pressure. Bannister got off to a good start in '05 for the Mets but hurt his hamstring and didn't make it back into the rotation. Hopefully he can fare better than other NL pitchers who have tried to make a go of it in the tougher AL. Moore gave some new guys a shot recently by inviting guys like castoff SP Dewon Brazelton and RP Wayne Franklin to spring training in '07. I don't know whether to be disgusted to see the Royals make no splash at all in terms of a signing or happy to see them not wasting money like in past hot stove seasons. They're still rumored to be after Gil Meche, Rodrigo Lopez and Octavio Dotel, although I'm not sure what the point would be of bringing in a closer when you have trouble getting games for that guy to close because of crappy starting pitchers. Lopez or Meche I could stand to see, but they can save their money on Dotel likely, as well as Miguel Batista if he stays on the radar screen. If Sanders or Emil is included in a deal for Lopez, I can see that as a double bonus. Meche is rumored to be a longshot and is looking to go to the Cubs according to ESPN.com. I gotta say it's hard not to be disillusioned by all the teams in the running for good players and your big names acquired thus far are Jason LaRue and Brian Bannister.

NPB Notes -- Hanshin Tigers

Founded: 1936 as the Osaka Tigers, stayed that way until changing the name to Hanshin in 1940, changing back to Osaka in 1946 and then back to Hanshin Tigers in 1960
Owner: Hanshin Railway Co. in Osaka
Home base: Koshien Stadium, kind of like Fenway, Wrigley and Tiger Stadium rolled into one
Titles: 5 Central League titles, 1 Japan Series title (1985)

Perhaps the second or third most-storied franchise in NPB, the Tigers have been portrayed mostly as the Red Sox to the Yomiuri Giants' Yankees. Hanshin has won five league titles in its history but only in 1985 was the team able to get it done in the postseason with a 4-2 win over Seibu in the Japan Series. Twice in the last four years the team has reached the Series only to fall in 7 games to Fukuoka in 2003 and 4 straight to Chiba Lotte in 2005. The Tigers play in one of the more unique stadiums in Japan -- Koshien Stadium, which also plays host to the national high school championship tournament each year. Here's Bob Bavasi's take on Koshien from his Hanshin Tigers page.

Built in 1924, the aging concrete and steel ballpark features natural grass, an all-dirt infield and visible bullpens. Though a must-see for its history as much as its ivy-covered exterior, Koshien's large foul territory, high chain-link fences and scores of posts hamper visibility."

Like the Red Sox and Cubs in the U.S., the Tigers are also said to be hampered by a curse. This one also is unique. It's the "Curse of the Colonel" -- yes, that Colonel -- Colonel Sanders. After the team's Japan Series win in '85, their fans went nuts in the home city of Osaka. Part of the celebration apparently was to have people dressed like the team's players jump into a canal. None were dressed like Series MVP Randy Bass (pictured above), so the fans grabbed a statue of Colonel Sanders (like Bass, a bearded American) and threw it into the canal, where it was never recovered. Like Babe Ruth's piano with the Red Sox, the failure to recover the statue is said to haunt the franchise to this day. That seems even more of a reach to me than either the Babe or billy goat curses over here.

Despite a franchise record second only to Yomiuri in the CL, the Tigers haven't had a treasure trove of superstar players over their history. The team was a perennial winner through 1960 and only endured seven losing seasons through the '60s and '70s. Other than the championship run in '85, the team stayed mediocre until putting together a Series run in 2003. The last two seasons have been winning ones for the Tigers.

Only three Tigers have had their numbers retired by the team. One of the earliest Hanshin stars was IF Fumio "Mr. Tigers" Fujimura, who won the first CL batting title at .362 in 1950 and HR and RBI titles in 1953. He played for the Tigers from '36 through '58 and was the first player in Japan to hit for the cycle in 1948. He was the Cal Ripken of Hanshin as he had a games-played streak of more than 1,000 is fifth all-time in Japan. He was the league MVP in 1949 and was named to six straight Best Nines from 1947 to '52. IF Yoshio Yoshida played with the Tigers from 1953 to '69 and, while never posting overwhelming numbers, was a top leadoff man in the league and was named to nine Best Nines over his career before having his number retired. He later spent three stints managing the Tigers with the overall result of a losing record. The franchise's best pitcher was likely Minoru Murayama, who led the league in wins in '65 and '66 with 49 wins combined in those two seasons and racked up 222 wins and a lifetime 2.09 ERA (best in CL history) and 0.95 WHIP for the Tigers from '59 to '72. He took 3 ERA titles in his career, including a 0.98 mark in 156 IP in 1970. Three times he also took the Sawamura Award as top pitcher and took home the '62 MVP with a 1.20 ERA and 25 wins over 366 IP. He is the third Tiger to have his number retired.

Two more Tigers of the past are especially notable. IF Masayuki Kakefu was reportedly Hideki Matsui's favorite player growing up and was also known as "Mr. Tiger". Over his career from '74 to '88, Kakefu hit 349 HR and posted a lifetime OPS of .912. In the championship year of '85 he hit .300/.415/.603 with 40 HR and 108 RBI in 579 PA. He finished his career with 3 HR titles, an RBI title in '82, seven Best Nines and six Gold Gloves. The Tigers also may have had the finest American import in NPB history in the form of the aforementioned 1B/OF Randy Bass, who lit up Japanese pitchers for triple crowns in '85 and '86. The Oklahoma native is the stuff of legend in Japan, where he played for Hanshin from '83 to '88 and posted 3 Best Nines. Over those six seasons (actually 5 and a very short '88) he clubbed 202 HR and hit .337/.418/.660. He set the team hitting streak record at 25 in 1983, hit a ball in 1986 that sailed out of Korakuen Stadium and landed in a fishing supplies store (an estimated 520-feet-plus bomb), was named the MVP in the storied franchise's only title season with numbers of .350/.428/.718(!!!) and hit .392 with runners in scoring position that year while smoking 54 home runs. Think that was hard to top? In 1986 he set a league record with a .389 batting average with an OBP of .481 and record slugging percentage of .777. He threw in 47 homers that year. His .337 lifetime average is second all-time in league history. According to the Japan Baseball Daily web site, Bass' son came down with a brain problem in 1988 and Bass returned to the U.S. Instead of paying for Bass' son's medical care as stipulated in his contract, the club released him to end his reign of terror at the plate in Japan. He was later elected to the Oklahoma state legislature in 2004.

In recent seasons, the Tigers have pinned their hopes on IF Makoto Imaoka, OF Tomoaki Kanemoto and Ps Kei Igawa and Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi. Igawa was recently posted and the Yankees bid the right price to negotiate with him to enter MLB. Imaoka won the batting title at .340 in the Japan Series season of 2003 and hit 29 homers and drove home a league-leading 147 runs in the Japan Series season of 2005. Unfortunately he followed it up by hitting .223 in 57 games in 2006. Kanemoto won an RBI title in 2004 and followed that up by hitting .325 with 40 HR and 125 RBI for an MVP in 2005. He kept up the solid hitting in 2006 with averages of .305/.396/.506, 25 HR and 96 RBI. Igawa led the league in wins and ERA in 2003 in an MVP season and enjoyed a good final year for Hanshin in 2006 with a 3.11 ERA and .236 OAV in 200 IP. Shimoyanagi had a great 2005 for Hanshin with a 15-3 record and 2.99 ERA at the age of 38. This season he had a 3.17 ERA in 150 1/3 IP. Hanshin has also been the most recent team of Americans Shane Spencer and Andy Sheets. Spencer had a dismal '06 while Sheets led the team with a .310 BA in 142 games. The Tigers' 84-58-4 record this season was good for second place in the CL behind Chunichi but well ahead of archrival Yomiuri.