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Monday, April 6, 2020

Latest News & 2020 Position Player Outlook: Catcher

Latest News

As of last week, the NPB has had it's first confirmed cases of coronavirus, that of Tigers trio, Shintaro Fujinami, Hayata Ito and Kenya Nagasaka. Not only this, but overall infection numbers for COVID-19 are climbing everyday in Japan with a 1-day record high of over 130+ cases on Saturday in Tokyo alone. As such, the NPB has put the the season, understandably, on indefinite hold saying that they will be "flexible" with the opening day dates. 

As a result of the Tigers cluster of COVID-19 cases, a number of Dragons players were put into self-isolation as it came on the back of a practice game played at Nagoya Dome. Ryosuke Hirata apparently reported to having a fever that died down pretty quickly. Given Hirata is a high school sempai of Fujinami's from Osaka Toin, it would be no surprise if they were in close contact during the series. 

Dragons players/staff were wearing masks in the
locker room last week. C/- 中スポ
Nagoya Dome staff have gone into disinfectant overload as well is wiping down any areas the Tigers players may have been in contact with. 

Between the 4th and 7th of April, Dragons players and staff will be avoiding the Nagoya Dome and Nagoya Stadium facilities while also self-isolating. Players and staff have also been asked to avoid eating-out for this period of time. From the 8th, players will train at Nagoya Stadium in staggered time periods with smaller numbers of players to avoid infection. As players from both 1-gun and 2-gun will be training in the same place, it is expected training sessions will be more compact with more frequent rest times.  Unsurprisingly there are no practice games with other teams planned for the month of April. 

During his short time away from training, 2019 #1 pick, Takaya Ishikawa has said he will work on the mental side of this game with a tennis ball in his room with a view to increasing his focus. Yota Kyoda, Dragons player rep, has asked for players to take care of themselves during this downtime in an effort to avoid infection by COVID-19. 

Position Player Battles

With the season being put on hold, there's still a lot of room for speculation as to whether or not we'll have a season. The chance of a shortened season seems increasingly more likely with suggestions for a reduced Climax Season or Interleague series floated as ideas for keeping the same regular Pacific-Central League games as in previous years. Whatever the case, we will probably see some form of baseball this year, albeit in a very shortened form. As such, I'd still like to take time to look at some of the battles in the field for regular positions. Some are quite intriguing battles and some are utter cluster cookies in terms of same-same but different. I'll be kicking this off with catcher and then further looking at the outfield and infield in separate posts.


Perhaps the most intriguing battle is the one that has been ongoing for the best part of 6 years. After Motonobu Tanishige's retirement and general wind-down, the Dragons have been in search of a regular catcher behind the plate. There have been a few pretenders over the past few years with two of the more "regular" catchers now no longer with the club. Shota Sugiyama looked like he was going to stake a claim in 2016 with a team-leading OBP, but new management saw his stocks dive with investment going into Masato Matsui and the free-agency signing of Shota Ono. Shigekazu Mori leaned on his veteran catchers, but since the introduction of Yoda's new Jedi Council, a shift toward a younger player that can do it all has been the focus. As such, Matsui was traded to the Orix Buffaloes mid-season last year while Sugiyama was released from the team. Ono has had a reduced role and due to injury concerns may never be the player the team had hoped for. 

Matsui and Sugiyama start in greener pastures in 2020.

From last year, Yoda and his team have sought to give experience and auditions to a number of catchers. Last year, Takuma Kato saw the lion's share of attention behind the plate but his blocking, game-calling and hitting tools are all suspect. The team were however to keep opposition runners at bay with few wanting to game Kato's bazooka arm. With the 3-catcher system the Dragons carry, Takuya Kinoshita the aforementioned Ono and Kota Ishibashi all saw some time behind the plate with no one player standing out. Kinoshita has long been billed as a solid catcher that can hit, but hasn't shown he can hit, while Shota Ono is the last of the experienced catchers with the team that has seemingly missed the boat on the fight for the regular catcher's mask. Kota Ishibashi, is, quite frankly, a bit too young to be considered a full-time regular, but showed great promise in his first season in professional baseball with leadership skills beyond his tender 19 years. 

That was last year, but what about this year? The main thing that has changed has been the addition of Yuya Gunji, Keio University's star catcher in 2019, to the fold. The catching coaches have hailed Gunji as a possible opening day starter and this then throws the competition at the position into disarray. Please note the below ages represent how old the players will be in 2020.

#NameAgeBatsThrows2019 GP
Shota Ono
Takuya Kinoshita
Yuya Gunji
Takuma Kato
Kota Ishibashi
Iori Katsura

Catcher is a position where you have to look at the long term particularly in the absence of a quality first-team starter. The Dragons have rarely had this problem throughout their history with a neat continuation of regular catchers starting with Tatsuhiko Kimata in 1965 and ending with Tanishige in 2015. Given the extraordinary circumstances, the Dragons need to look at least mid-term, by that measure, it's going to be crunch time for one of either Kinoshita or Katsura this year. Katsura in particular will likely get released at the end of the year if he doesn't show some progression this year. The only thing I see as a certainty this year is Ono's veteran presence being used later in games. Other than that, it's very open.

Let's have a quick evaluation of each player and their various skill sets;

#NameGame CallingArmBlockingHittingExperienceOverall
27Shota OnoADADSC
35Takuya KinoshitaBBBCBC
44Yuya GunjiBABC+CC
52Takuma KatoDSCCBD+
58Kota IshibashiAAAC+DC
68Iori KatsuraBC+C+CBD+

These are fairly subjective ratings but I've based in on what I've researched and seen in games. I've assigned values of 1-5 based on the individual skills to calculate and overall score (D=1, S=5). As you can see, there's no one that really stands out based on how I currently view the staff. In terms of roundedness, Gunji and Ishibashi are probably going to be the best choices but both have their limits with experience. Ishibashi has an extra year on Gunji in terms of familiarity with his pitching staff, but Gunji has an extra 4 years of college experience on Ishibashi and also higher leverage experience at the summer koshien as well as in the Big6 University League.

Is the future of the Dragons in the hands of one of these youngsters?

If you want to go with more experienced hands, then Takuya Kinoshita is probably the best rounded. Katsura could yet surprise, but essentially hasn't done anything of note in close to 4 years due to injury and other misfortune. Last season's regular catcher Kato is not without his flaws either and even though he has a rocket arm, he still receives signs from the bench, has difficulty blocking pitches and also can't seem to hit very well (aside from some hot patches, although this isn't exclusive to him). Shota Ono, whom I've touched on earlier, is something that can certainly calm things down, but you can't expect him to hit a go-ahead double or throw-out anyone faster than Kosuke Fukudome. 

The Dragons backroom team really have an unenviable task of choosing where they want to go with this position but so far, Gunji, by some reports, was brought in to be an immediate challenger for Kota Ishibashi. Ishibashi, in my opinion, showed immense potential in 2019 on the farm and with the first team. Given that he's the only catcher of his age bracket, it makes sense to bring in someone closer in age to push him to be better. 

How I see this position to likely play out is, once again a 3-catcher system where we see all 6 guys get some time here and there with the first team. I think it makes sense to leave Ishibashi on the farm for the majority of the year to get as many reps as possible with the odd run of starts in 1-gun when opportunities arise. I think we'll otherwise see a trio of Kato, Gunji and Kinoshita start the season with Ono popping up here and there to provide leadership. Kato could be cut at the expense of that leadership if they start with two relatively inexperienced players and the team have shown they are willing to cast him aside if not doing well, as in spring training this year. 

My prediction this year is that Gunji is going to be the main catcher this year with 80+ appearances. Given his projected and current ability, he has about the same floor as anyone else but with a much higher upside.I also think we'll see more of Ishibashi with around 20-30 appearances behind the plate. The rest I think are divvied up among the other 4.

The only thing preventing Gunji from hitting the ground running is his rapport with his catching staff. Building rapport and a good relationship with his pitchers as well as getting his head around calling games against NPB players will make or break his year. Lucky for him, he's got plenty of time to study video and once training goes back on Wednesday, to work with his pitchers in the bullpen. 

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