Keen to support our hometown heroes the SoftBank Hawks, but don’t know much about baseball? Never fear! Matt Schuellein is here to give you the lowdown on our Pacific League Champions, including the key players and the team’s prospects for 2016.
The time is now for the SoftBank Hawks. With a core of young and talented players headed by 2015’s MVP, Yuki Yanagita, and a slew of smart front office decisions in the last few years, the Hawks are strategically poised to dominate the world of Japanese baseball for years to come.
Back in 2010, I wrote a piece likening the modern day Japanese baseball player to the feudal day samurai. It’s no stretch though to look at most of the popular modern day sports and draw a direct comparison to war. You see it all the time in print and on TV. “Clash”, “battle”, “showdown”, “destroyed”, “defended”, “attack”, “champions”, “revenge”: the sports lexicon is littered with the same descriptive phrases that we use for the annals of epic battles and romanticized duels. Modern man acknowledges that war is a horrible thing, but in the sporting arena we can take those competitive instincts that helped us survive in less civilized eras and let them run rampant.
In sports, a dynasty is loosely interpreted by a prolonged period of success for a single team over the course of at least five years, but they must be able to stand atop their sport more times than not during that span. In the modern age of free agency, dynasties aren’t an easy thing to build as players have the freedom to pursue the contracts and opportunities they desire. The window that teams have to control players is limited and there must balance between the acquisition and development of young talent, the retention of key players, and the signing of players from other teams or international free agency.
The development of the Hawks that I’ve observed since I arrived in Fukuoka in 2009 point towards extended success. After winning the Japan Series in 2011, the team floundered for two seasons trying to reinvent itself after losing three of their top starting pitchers to free agency. After missing the playoffs in 2013, the Hawks changed their approach in 2014, going with a younger more up tempo team accompanied by a deep and talented bullpen to chew up the late innings. They continued to build on this success in 2015 and became the first team in over a decade to win back-to-back championships.
The Hawk’s are the clear favorites heading into 2016. The offense has lost veteran clean-up hitter Lee Dae-Ho, but it’s not a significant concern. The young talent on the team has been improving each season and the loss of Lee’s production might not be noticed much by season’s end. His departure frees the DH spot so some of the veteran’s like LF/1B Uchikawa and 3B Matsuda can be cycled through the position giving them rest and keeping their legs fresh through the long season. Ultimately this has added flexibility to a team that will still have the most potent and relentless offense this season.
Starting pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada has returned from America with a new cut fastball added to his arsenal. But my favorite pitcher is Kodai Senga. He was passed on by every team in Japan, and went undrafted. The Hawks picked him up and now their small investment looks like it could pay very large dividends. He throws hard and comes with a secondary pitch that has been described as a “ghost pitch” by his catcher. Senga highlights the Hawk’s true strength. Someone in the organization has an impeccable eye for talent and the Hawks are committed to spending the time and resources to develop their young talent, both the heralded and the overlooked.
All eyes are on the Hawks this season and with scrutiny comes pressure. Can the team live up to their potential? While the team smashed the preseason, they’ve not rocketed out of the gate with three wins, four losses, and a tie in their first eight games. But baseball is a marathon not a sprint. The season is long and exciting. Track the team’s progress and check back with Fukuoka Now for regular updates and outlooks.
Text: Matt Schuellein for Fukuoka Now