From this point on, I'd like to recap the last month and a bit with some player highlights. From this point on, apart from keeping an eye on the remaining games, I will be preparing for October's draft and will hopefully have some previews for you. I also have a couple of bigger projects that I've had shelved that I can hopefully bring to you in the off-season.
First of all, to current events.
After being in CS contention until the final 9 games of the season, the Dragons essentially choked, losing 4 on the trot to fade out of a possible miracle return to playoffs baseball. While not mathematically impossible at this stage, they would require a lot of results to go their way.
I find myself reflecting on September 3rd's game against the Giants, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been nothing short of surprisingly reliable this year, got a shellacking by the Giants, particularly Kazuma Okamoto. The Giants would pile up 11 unanswered runs before a Dragons late surge put them within 2 run of equalizing but it wasn't to be.
In a way, this result is almost an analogy for the season. The bats have actually been pretty good this year. With the exception of Yota Kyoda, all of the regular's are putting together above average years with Ryosuke Hirata and Dayan Viciedo showing they're absolutely on fire with .330+ averages and medium-low power numbers. The pitching side of things however has been the main theme again this year with no semblance of continuity. Matsuzaka, still being wrapped in cotton wool between starts, only throws once every 10 days or so, Ogasawara has injured himself and won't be back until next year, Yanagi has not lived up to his billing, Shota Suzuki has vanished into thin air and it really has only been Onelki Garcia and Kazuki Yoshimi who have more or less been in the rotation all season. Shotaro Kasahara has been good in spurts, 20-year old Kento Fujishima has gone from long-relief to spot-starter and looked like a fighter and Ryosuke Oguma has looked good in patches as well, particularly against the Baystars. The team also stunningly persist with spaced out starts for Yudai Ono as well who has failed on every occasion to make something of his chances.
There's a lot of "not good enough" in the rotation and they haven't been helped by a revolving door bullpen. Daisuke Matsuzaka may have given up some runs on September 2nd, but Yusuke Kinoshita didn't do much better in relief. The only pitcher to keep a scoreless frame was Takuya Asao who has surprisingly looked okay since coming up in late August. By my count, the Dragons have use 18 different relievers this year and get this, 4 different "closers." There are currently only two relievers with a sub 3.00 ERA, Yu Sato and Joely Rodriguez. There are only 2 relievers with a sub 4.00 ERA. Something is awfully rotten in the bullpen. If you've read the interview with Mori and Kyoda in my last post you can see Mori highlighting his disdain for the relievers he has, but they weren't this bad last year and I can't see why they should be that bad this year. Mainstays like Shinji Tajima and Katsuki Matayoshi have been found out this year and have lost their effectiveness. Hiroshi Suzuki has a great start to his NPB career and even took over the closer's role from Tajima but his leash was short and he was sent down to 2-gun after a blown save and 3 ER against Yakult on August 12th. He came back up just in the last weekend only to give up another 3 runs and be sent back down immediately.
The Dragons will probably be looking for pitching at the draft again as a result of current woes but there are some other tasty carrots to look at as well, but I'll get into that in a different post. For the moment, we look bad and feel bad. Battered and bruised and aren't looking much better.
There is still however some light left in the season with Yohei Oshima having a Golden Glove year while Ryosuke Hirata and Dayan Viciedo are well in the running for the batting title this year.
Oshima hasn't excelled with the bat this year. He started the year leading-off with Kyoda and Almonte after him. In the past month however he has slipped back into the #3 slot where he spent much of the latter half of last season while Almonte has slipped down to #5 and the on-fire Hirata has been promoted to lead-off.
Oshima however has not struggled with defence. Data released by DELTAGRAPHS has Oshima on top of UZR rankings in the NPB by more than 10 points ahead of the second placed Baystars centre-fielder, Masayuki Kuwahara. I don't know how much NPB pays attention to UZR particularly with Yoshihiro Maru of the Carp doing so well in offensive categories, but I think given the dominance Oshima has in the state he is on his way to a 6th Golden Glove Award.
"The Tank" also reset the Central League record for hits in a calendar month in August after mashing 47 hits, breaking Shuichi Murata's 2013 record of 46 but falling just one shy of equalling Ichiro Suzuki's NPB record 1998 mark.
Viciedo currently leads the league in average and hits (176) while ranking second in RBIs with 98 behind Yakult's Coco Balentien.
Viciedo is in the final year of a two-year deal but it has already been reported that the team are readying a new deal for the Cuban slugger on the back of the trauma of losing 2017 homerun champion, Alex Guerrero to the Giants this year. Deals are also being prepared for Zoilo Almonte and Onelki Garcia which will vary based on what Viciedo's demands are.
Ryosuke Hirata is the other star of the show at the moment. He started the year under a cloud where he may have had to take a year off and undertake surgery on his back, but he has been a mainstay in the lineup since opening day. Hirata spent the majority of the season batting at #5 and when Almonte had some time out of the team he was tried in the #3 slot. Given that he's been hitting everything and has some decent legs, the current management have put at lead-off which seems to be working as production keeps on happening. Like much of the team there doesn't seem to be as much power in Hirata's game as there was in the past. Once billed as a power-hitter, he seems to be favoring getting on base rather than driving in runs but that hasn't prevented a healthy .344 average with RISP.
Hirata currently slashes .329/.408/.460 and sits 3rd in the Central League batting title standings behind Hayato Sakamoto and teammate Viciedo. Hirata has cooled off a little bit in the last month or so, but he still is certainly up there to make a dash at the batting title.
Speaking of homeruns, the Dragons have the third least in NPB with only the Hanshin Tigers and the Chiba Lotte Marines having poorer records. Dragons also, despite the fast legs in the team, rank last in stolen bases but surprisingly have a better team ERA than 3 other NPB teams including the Pacific League leading Seibu Lions.
There are still some bright spots left to the season. Hitoki Iwase gets closer and closer to 1000 mound appearances, Viciedo and Hirata are racking up the hits and Oshima is making the plays in the outfield. I think we'll see a few younger faces come up from the farm in the latter parts of the season as well as some older ones to help formulate plans for the future.
In other news, the aforementioned Iwase, Takuya Asao, Masahiro Araki and Kei Nomoto will all be retiring at the end of the season. Iwase and Araki are two of the only players left from the 2007 Japan Series winning season with only Daisuke Yamai not yet bowing out. All three are expected to be retained in a coaching capacity. Araki and Iwase's career essentially have run their course after many years of dedicated service.
Iwase made a wonderful return to the first-team in 2016 after a debilitating injury, but the veteran has decided to throw in the towel. It does leave questions as to what the Dragons will do about southpaws in the bullpen, but it's probably a good time for Iwase to move on. Iwase retires the "King of Closers" after capturing several NPB records including most career mound appearances and saves. Up until last year, Iwase also held the record for most saves in a season. A legend of the game that was at his peak for a very long time with a devastating slider and a game-ending aura that helped solidify Chunichi dominance in the mid to late 2000s. Few could forget perhaps his crowning moment of throwing a scoreless frame against the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2007 to seal a combined perfect game with Daisuke Yamai and claim Chunichi's first Japan Series triumph in 53 years.
Araki got a bit of game time last year essentially platooning with Kyohei Kamezawa but Shuhei Takahashi's rise to relevance at second has seen Araki's opportunities cut to few and far between. Araki, like Iwase, was a player-coach this year and will now focus on the coaching aspects which he will hopefully do pretty well at. Araki as a player had many ups and downs, but it was with his quick legs and agility in the field that he won many fans. His pairing with Hirokazu Ibata as part of "Araiba" will be remembered by many a Chunichi fan to come as perhaps one of the most effective defensive infield duos in NPB history. Creative plays and generally good rapport, Araki and Ibata created the building blocks of a stoic, defensively elite Chunichi team.
Takuya Asao was a man burdened perhaps with too large a workload early in his career, but no one can deny his peak as an elite reliever and set-upper. Asao started off in middle-school as a catcher, but started pitching in high school as he had a strong arm. That strong arm would prove to be devastating at NPB level with a strong combination of a slider, palm ball and a fork. Asao peaked in 2011 where he became the first reliever to win the MVP award helping the Dragons to the 2011 pennant. Whenever Asao came to the mound the feeling was that he could get the team out of a jam regardless of how bad it was. A true fireman, the handsome Asao will be remembered by Chunichi fans for years to come despite his firecracker of a career. Truly a case of the light shining brightest burning twice as fast. Asao had some decent appearances in the latter half of this season, but given that the velocity on his fastball had dropped significantly, Asao himself seemed to have recognised his own failings and decided to call it a day.
Kei Nomoto's peak was being drafted 1st in the 2009 draft and helping the team to two consecutive pennants in 2010 and 2011. Nomoto has been on the precipice of being dropped from the team so it's very likely this was a measure of either retire or be retired. Nomoto never lived up to his draft pick billing and never hit about .260 in a season. The 2008 JABA Inter-City Tournament MVP has only really found time in the first team as a pinch-hitter in 2016 and last year.
All these retirements don't have a significant impact to the team however they do open up roster spots for younger players to come in. Once we go through the senryokugai notices we may have even more holes we'll need to plug going forward. This will hopefully allow for a fresh wave of players to come in and do what they need to do. No Asao, Nomoto, Iwase and Araki means hopefully more time on the farm for younger players that need the match practice. It also means more money on the payroll to play with as none of these players were being paid particularly in peanuts. Will these three leaving have an impact on draft targets? Perhaps, it's hard to see just yet, but we might see another dip into the college/high-school group of players to refresh the team.