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Friday, March 27, 2020

To design a pitching staff: Enough bulls in the pen?

Latest News

More uncertainty has come up regarding the start of the season as Japanese news outlets have reported that 3 Hanshin Tigers players have been diagnosed with COVID-19. There is a very good chance this will impact the start of the season. However, hang all that, we're still going to have a look at the future of the team. Whenever we do start, things probably will remain just about the same.

This also comes on the back of the news that Moises Sierra has signed a fully-rostered deal and was awarded the number 45 for his efforts. He bolsters stocks in outfield and can hopefully cover for or even do better than Zoilo Almonte while he recovers from injury. Sierra needed to be signed by the end of this month or be released by the team due to rules regarding age 26+ over foreigners on development deals.

Bullpen Outlook

As we looked at the starting rotation hopefuls last post, I'd like to talk about the bullpen this time around. It's a bit tricky to see what's going to happen with the pen but the pre-season has given us an idea of how it might shape up. I'm going to give my thoughts on where I see the bullpen at the moment and what might need to happen for it to actually be good enough.
Who will be loosening up in the Nagoya Dome bullpen most this year?
Out of probably anywhere in the team, the bullpen looks shakiest. There's a lot of players that either need to prove themselves, or there's just a bit of uncertainty given the youth and injury history of some of the players. I've put together a couple of lists with how I see our medium/low leverage bullpen arms and our high leverage bullpen arms.

Med/Low Leverage
Daisuke SobueYuki Hashimoto
Keisuke TanimotoTakahiro Matsuba
Shinji TajimaTatsuro Hamada
Yu Sato
Yusuke Kinoshita
Junki Ito
Hiroshi Suzuki
Ryosuke Oguma
Takuya Mitsuma

High Leverage
Raidel MartinezToshiya Okada
Luis GonzalezHiroto Fuku
Kento Fujishima
Katsuki Matayoshi

You're probably going to either be slightly depressed or confused looking at this list. To be quite honest though, the amount of 'proven' high leverage relievers is certainly on the low side. Out of those that I've listed as the high leverage relievers, there's a lot that could go wrong with any one of them. Based on recent form I'd say Fujishima is probably the most consistent of the bunch while Gonzalez has shown himself to be competent. Hiroto Fuku is probably the next best arm with Fujishima in terms of his track record in 2019. Question marks remain over Okada, particularly as closer, and whether or not Matayoshi will find some semblance of form. Matayoshi has looked good in pre-season in his outings and Okada is probably just about good enough.

One area of concern regarding Okada is his home/away splts. At Nagoya Dome, he had a comfortable 1.59 ERA over 22.2 innings. Away from home however, he pitched 27.2 inning for a 5.20 ERA. Ouch. Looking at Okada's splits on counts as well, it's obvious that if he doesn't get on top early, batters have an advantage. Raidel Martinez similarly has 1.00 ERA at home and a 5.93 ERA away. It's needless to say that Dragons pitcher benefit a lot from their home ground. Even while Martinez and Okada have proven to be some of the better arms in the bullpen, are they good enough when they play outside Nagoya? Hiroto Fuku and Kento Fujishima are just about the only Dragons relievers to have better numbers on the road. Fujishima in particular had a 0.56 ERA across 16 innings away.

Are these 3 the best Chunichi has to offer?

On the other side of the coin, there's a lot of mid/low guys that could build themselves into high leverage relievers with a bit of momentum. The key people in those categories for me are Yuki Hashimoto, Takuya Mitsuma and Hiroshi Suzuki. I think these 3 have the stuff to be reliable bullpen arms in the latter half of a game, for them it's just a matter of putting it together. I have perhaps been harsh on Hashimoto, but he is a rookie. He has done well in pre-season but his inexperience is one I'm not happy to bet on just yet.
Can one of this trio be the next arm to rely on in a pinch?

Mitsuma has steadily improved over the past year. Mitsuma had an okay 3.81 ERA over 28.1 innings on the farm, while he improved on that with the top team with a 3.38 ERA over 34.2 innings. He's proven himself in those middle innings. I believe he has the stuff to make it in higher leverage situations as well.

Hiroshi Suzuki probably has the highest ceiling of the three with his fastball that tops out at 156 km/h. He collected 14 saves last season and was dropped for it as he continually gave people heart attacks by loading up bases and otherwise had an ERA unbecoming of a closer at 4.32. Control is still a problem for Suzuki and while he seems to be developing some good secondary pitches with his cutter and what seems to be a slider, there's still some way to go for him to fulfill his potential. He only played in 3 games this pre-season pitching 3.1 innings for no earned-runs but also no strikeouts and 4 free bases given to the opposition.

As the old addage goes, bullpen arms are volatile. To be a good reliever, you need to do it over a number of years and there are few that do. They either flame out or just plain lose it. Anything could happen at this stage but my money is certainly on the 6 relievers I've listed in the high leverage area to be on the roster come opening day. I'll lay down my idea for my ideal bullpen when I go through the possible opening day roster in a future post.

Overall, the outlook for the bullpen I don't think can be as optimistic as with the starting rotation. In saying that however, the bullpen rotation that was introduced last year with Yoda and Hideyuki Awano has been effective so far. A lot of arms were brought up and sent down last year to give variety out of the pen and rest those who needed it. The cool-off times were used effectively and overall I think bullpen management was much better in 2019 than it has been in the past (even if Joely Rodriguez was a BIG part of that bullpen).

How it will all gel together with Okada as full-time closer and Luis Gonzales in his first year in Japanese baseball is yet to be seen, but we should probably temper our expectations if the starter can't go 5-6 innings into a game.

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