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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Dragons slow out of the blocks; 2 scoreless draws a historic first

If you've been watching the Dragons this season you have probably come to one conclusion. The hitting is dire, homeruns are as hard to come by as sober salarymen in Shimbashi on a weeknight, and the pitching is just about the only thing that's been pretty good this year. This has all culminated in the second scoreless draw of the season for the team since the introduction of the 2-league system. A good pitching team keeping the other side out, but a poor hitting team ensuring that a win is out of grasp.

Much has to be said for the Dragons line-up. Apart from Yohei Oshima and Dayan Viciedo, the line-up has been quite slow to take-off and put runs on the board. Perhaps the most alarming part of this is the fact that slugging is just about the worst in the NPB and the team have only hit 2 homeruns in 17 games. Compare this with the high flying Tigers, who hit 5 homers in one game against the Giants on Tuesday, it's hard not to feel a little bit deflated about the state of the team. 

Much has been said around the fans as to where the blame lies. Some point the finger at Kazuyoshi Tatsunami who was brought in as a coaching attache during Spring, some point to Kenta Kurihara and Alonzo Powell, the first team hitting coaches. In the end though, how much weight can you really put on the coaches? I know Japanese baseball coaching tends to be a lot more in depth than what you might expect in the MLB, so perhaps this is an element of the hitters getting confused about their approach or having too much information going on in their heads to process. What I would suggest however is that coaching, while perhaps part of the issue, is not the main issue. I will essentially break this into two parts, but they are essentially interconnected. 

The Overarching Spectre of Vantelin Dome Nagoya. 

Since the dome was opened in 1997, the Dragons have had one of the biggest parks in Japanese baseball with some very high outfield walls. Seen as a "pitchers heaven" by most in the media, the Dragons have focused heavily on having strong pitching teams that can make the most of that home advantage. Many great pitchers have benefited from this arrangement and historically, the Dragons generally have had strong pitching staffs possibly because of this. However, the unfortunate part about the sheer size of the dome, is that it has made many Dragons staff, managers and front office people very scared about hitting for the fences. 

Compared to the hitting paradises that are Meiji Jingu Stadium, Yokohama and to a lesser extend Tokyo Dome and Mazda Zoom Zoom, the Dragons do have one of the toughest hitting parks. Similarly, the Tigers also suffer from having a large ballpark where hitting homers can be challenging. My concern is that because Nagoya Dome is perceived as this unconquerable behemoth, that the Dragons have specifically institutionalised a small ball style of baseball to fit into the dimensions in front of them rather than try to push further to conquer those boundaries. 

One also needs to look at the way players have developed. Shuhei Takashashi and Ryosuke Hirata in particular were billed as power hitters coming out of high school and while I understand mechanics don't always translate to the big leagues, both of these players have been developed into line-drivers that may or may not hit double digits in homers in a season. Dayan Viciedo is another that seems to have fallen into this "way of the Dragon" as his approach has changed from power-hitter to more of an average-hitter that can spray the ball around the park with average power. Viciedo has more or less hit 20 homers a season since joining the team in 2016. While he is still an excellent player and has fit extraordinarily well into life in Japan, one wonders if we could have had someone better that could hit closer to 30 homers...

In the Golden Age of the Dragons (2003-2012) the team were perceived to play a kind of creeping kind of baseball certainly bordering on what might be called small-ball. Hiromitsu Ochiai was an apt tactician that did play relatively defensively. He however was backed up by some excellent hitters who could hit 20+ homers in a season like Kosuke Fukudome, Tyrone Woods, Masahiko Morino, Nori Nakamura, Kazuhiro Wada, Alex Ochoa and Tony Blanco. This was not a toothless era for the team. You could also perhaps not blame Ochiai for playing defensively when you had the best defensive inflied pairing in modern baseball between Masahiro Araki and Hirokazu Ibata, not to mention excellent outfield defense from guys like Fukudome and Ochoa. In the end though, all these guys hit the ball with some efficiency. 

A curious observation perhaps, but the majority of the "core" players from this era were drafted under former manager Senichi Hoshino, while early 2000s manager, Hisashi Yamada also brought in key personnel like Motonobu Tanishige that formed the spine of the team for much of this golden era. Araki, Ibata, Fukudome, Morino and Kazuyoshi Tatsunami (who also played a key role in this period) were all draftees from the Hoshino regime. Since then, it appears the Dragons have been fearful of drafting "good" hitters in the top rounds of the draft, and this is showing through today. 

Dragons Don't Draft Dinger Doers

If you browse over the last decade or so of Dragons drafts, you can see only 3 position players have been drafted in the top spot. Shuhei Takahashi in 2011, Akira Neo in 2018 and Takaya Ishikawa in 2019. The team seem oddly afraid to chase after talented hitters. The 2017 draft was one where Shigekazu Mori was angling for Shosei Nakamura, a catcher who starred at Koshien, but ended up taking Hiroshi Suzuki, a reliever, as a back-up option.

Going through all drafts, barring development picks, from 2011-2020 we can see that only one position player has been selected in the second round at that was 2017 ROTY, Yota Kyoda. Aside from this, I know luck is a factor, the Dragons have only drafted 5 of what I would consider hitters with 'pop' in this time period as well (Takuya Kinoshita (2015), Masami Ishigaki (2016), Kota Ishibashi (2018), Takyaya Ishikawa, Yuya Gunji (2019)). I would say that under Yoda, the team appears to be moving to get more hitters that can slug in the draft and this is a positive sign, but the age old question of the outfield still remains a problem. 

Out of the 5 players I've just mentioned, none of them play outfield by trade. The last time the Dragons drafted an outfielder in the higher rounds was was Kei Nomoto way back in 2008. You could make the argument that a higher drafting does not a player make, but your chances of getting someone of good quality is higher with a higher pick, one would assume. A high-class corner outfielder needs to be a key acquisition for the Dragons at the 2021 draft. Yuki Okabayashi at least looks promising as a centre-fielder that could eventually take over from Yohei Oshima. The corners however look a lot more dire. Even if you bring back Gerber next year you still need to fill somewhere and personally, I don't really want a light-hitting Takino or Neo being the main guys to rely on everyday in the outfield. I'm not sure who is out there, but a college grad that can hit the long-ball should be a top-2 pick this year. If not, I'll be pulling my hair out with even more alacrity. 

The Dragons have shied away entirely from drafting big hitters instead relying on foreign players to fill in. That's perfectly fine, but when you can only jam as many as 3 import hitters in the line-up at one time, you still need a good supporting cast. The Dragons also like to have an import starter or reliever (and they have three good ones in Randy Rosario, Yariel Rodriguez and Raidel Martinez) so the importance of having that good supporting cast becomes all the more of an issue. 

Mike Gerber could well become the saviour of the team. He seems to sing the same tune as Alonzo Powell which I think could reap dividends. If you then place Gerber in the #3 slot with Oshima up the top, whoever at #2 and Viciedo and Shuhei behind then it starts to look like a much healthier looking line-up. That being said, some production from 6-8 would be nice. Someone like Hirata actually becoming some semblance of his old self would make a big difference too and we can't rely on Kosuke Fukudome to be an everyday player whatever the state of the team is.

On the Farm

Somewhat of a juxtaposition is the state of the farm team. The manager, Toru Nimura told his hitters to let fly at the beginning of the year and they did just that. Slugging on the farm hasn't appeared to be much of an issue and that's even with the absence of Takaya Ishikawa from the line-up who has been away with injury. Masami Ishigaki has been hitting well, while Yuki Okabayashi continues to show his quality. There's a lot to be positive about when you look at those that are trying to come through, but unfortunately many are either behind players that are actually not the issue on the top team (Ishigaki has mainly played third, while Okabayashi mainly and centre) or simply a bit too young to be considered for full-time roles. Kota Ishibashi is another that lit-up the farm team in pre-season leading to a call-up to the first team where he has remained as back-up catcher. He is another behind one of the better players, Takuya Kinoshita, which has led to calls of trying him out in left-field to aid the ailing line-up. 

It's unfortunate logjam. Okabayashi I feel could easily play a corner outfield role if the team wanted him there, while Ishigaki I feel also could have the positional flexibility to play across the diamond or even in left. The Dragons apparently have different plans for these younger players. 

There's still a long way to go

We are only 17 games into the season. There's many more games to play for the law of averages to even things out. Gerber could come up to the top team at any given time as the team sees fit now that he's cleared quarantine and this, hopefully, will give the team a morale boost if nothing else. The team seems flat and in the short-term a little shot in the arm from Gerber having a hot streak could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Structurally however, things need to change. In my opinion, the confines of the dome should be a challenge to hitters not a hinderance. Hitting the wall is still going to result in getting on base even if you don't clear it. You may not get 40 homers a season like you might at Jingu or in Yokohama, but that's not to say that players can't hit 25-30 with some regularity. The Dragons play half their games at home yes, but they also play half their games on the road, with all but 25 of them in relatively hitter friendly parks. Don't fear the dome. Don't think the long ball is out of reach.  If we merely look at the Tigers who have two homegrown sluggers doing damage (Yusuke Ohyama and rookie, Teruaki Sato) then there has to be some optimism about the ability of the Dragons to do the same thing. 

The pitching has been a delight to watch with both Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Yuya Yanagi seemingly stepping up a gear this year. Add into the fact that Kodai Umetsu, Yariel Rodriguez and Tatsuya Shimizu are still waiting on the farm and it's hard not be optimistic about the rotation. The bullpen similarly is solid. Randy Rosario being available only strengthens the floor of what already has a number of a reliable arms. 

If the team can start slugging with a little bit more frequency, who knows where this team ends up at the end of the year. At least it'll be above the Baystars.

As a more positive addition, please enjoy this video of Mike Gerber, Randy Rosario and Luke Wakamatsu being introduced to the media and their first training session at Vantelin Dome. 

Finally, if you didn't know, I have returned to Twitter (@dragonsoulblog) where I often live tweet about the game or tweet out any relevant news, gifs or other relevant rants about the Dragons first team. The blog will be more or less restricted to the occasional feature like this.

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