In April 2016, Matt Schuellein reported that the SoftBank Hawks had the potential for great things (read the report here). But are our local heroes living up to expectations? Matt’s back to give us an update on this season so far…
Current Pacific League Standings (May 9, Mon.):
When I started writing about the Hawks this season the team was greatly heralded… but of course was suffering from a case of small sample size after the first two weeks of the season. After twelve games the team had only four wins and my talk of dynasties seemed like it could be an overreach at best or Greek-level tragic hubris at worst. When asked if I was worried though, I replied honestly: “No.”
When the Hawks went on an eight game winning streak shortly after the metaphorical ink of my first article had dried on Fukuoka Now, it didn’t surprise me and it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. As of today the Hawks are in first place and they’ve lost a grand total of twice in the last four weeks. Baseball is a grueling endurance test in the sports world. The numbers typically regress to the mean. Regression usually sounds negative, but the Hawks regressed to first place, and that is where they should stay.
The offense has been led largely by the veteran Seiichi Uchikawa. His .339 batting average is second in the PL (Pacific League) and he has had some key hits late in games, including a walk-off home run against the Fighters in a dramatic come from behind victory I watched in person. His five home runs tie for the team lead and he’s nearly halfway to his season total from 2015 of 11. Uchikawa has never been a big power threat, but his hot streak this last month has helped fill in the lost power production from last year’s batting champ Yuki Yanagita. Yanagita’s average earlier this month dipped below .250, but his on base percentage was and is still well over .400. This could be the result of his incredible MVP (Most Valuable Player) season last year. Pitchers are probably being very cautious with what they throw him. That would explain his high walks and low average and only two home runs.
The Hawk’s have had a shakeup in their rotation with Tadashi Settsu dropping to the farm team after struggling through three starts. Settsu has been a favorite of mine for years because of the success he had despite not having the pedigree of an ace. His velocity has been on the decline for some time now and teams were hitting him hard. The Hawks will look to fill the rotation from within. I want to pay attention to Nao Higashihama. He was a number one draft pick out of college by the Hawks. He’s not been able to stick in the rotation yet, but in his first start this season he allowed one run in 6 ⅓ innings scattering three hits and two walks. I’m honestly not sure what to expect, but it’s always exciting to see what bluechip prospects are capable of doing. And with the performance of Rick van den Hurk, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Kodai Senga, Higashihama doesn’t need to be anything more than league average and eat up innings… but he could be more.
Seiichi Uchikawa – .875 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage, anything over .800 is pretty good). Leads the team in hits, home runs, and RBIs (runs batted in).
Yuki Yanagita – .869 OPS. Yes, I said his production is down, but his down production still is good enough for second highest OPS on the team. He leads the team in walks, runs scored, and doubles. Those doubles could start turning into home runs.
Akira Nakamura – .832 OPS. Always among the team leaders in hits, Nakamura has been drawing more walks this season and has already hit two home runs. His game has never been about power, but an increase in patience at the plate often does equate to a small bump in power as well. He’s also 26 years old and is entering the prime playing years of his career. He could very well set a career high in power and on base percentage.
Yuya Hasegawa – .827 OPS. He should see more playing time with his current level of performance, he’s currently 4th on the team in OPS. I still love his approach and compact swing with surprising power.
Rick van den Hurk – 2.14 ERA (earned run average) is second in the league. He boasts a .738 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched); for reference a 1.20 WHIP is considered good, 1.00 WHIP is elite, I don’t even know what to call a .738 WHIP.
Tsuyoshi Wada – 2.92 ERA. His 1.25 WHIP is a little high, but he has thrown the team’s one shutout this season. His 32 strikeouts are third on the team.
Kodai Senga – 2.86 ERA. This is the young player I told you to watch at the beginning of the season. Overlooked by every team during the draft Senga has been stretched out from a relief pitcher to a high level starter. His .977 WHIP through five starts is impressive and he leads the team with 40 strikeouts. He is only 23 years old and has lots of potential for growth.
Dennis Sarfate – 1.00 ERA. He is the league’s top closer and it’s not even close. He has 10 saves and 5 holds already in 18 innings of work. And he’s struck out 21 batters to the tune of a 10.5 K/9 rate (strikeouts per nine innings pitched).
Interleague is fast approaching. The Hawks have dominated interleague play for the last decade, but the Central League has some pitchers putting up shocking statistics like ERAs south of 1.00 and K:BB (strikeout-to-walk ratio) rates over 9:1. The Central League pitchers don’t have to pitch to the designated hitter which helps pitching and weakens offense, but as of today the strongest offensive team in the Central League, the Hiroshima Carp, is averaging more than half a run better per game than the Hawks. Watching the elite pitching of the Central League clash with the Hawks’ relentless offense will be exciting.
Yanagita’s main contribution has been his on base skills. It’s nice to see that he is succeeding in that regard despite struggling with his average and power. He’s been running less, but that isn’t surprising with hot hitting Uchikawa batting after him. I have to suspect at some point he will have a monster month though, and the rest of the league knows it as well.
Starting pitcher Rick van den Hurk just might be the best pitcher in the league. His 2.14 ERA is second best among qualified starting pitchers right now. His strikeout rate is actually down quite a bit from last season, but I believe that he is taking a more pitch-to-contact approach this season. Maybe most importantly he has walked only 6 batters the entire season. His K:BB rate is over 6:1, best in the league and twice as good as Fighter’s ace Shohei Otani and teammate Kodai Senga. The young Dutchman has been on cruise control since he came up last summer and is emerging as the anchor of the staff. He is a legitimate contender for the Sawamura Award, and maybe more importantly fun to watch.
Closer Dennis Sarfate continues to be automatic in late innings with a 1.13 ERA and 8 saves. There’s nothing else to say about it. You don’t want mystery in the 9th inning. You want a Michael Bay plot, not M. Night Shyamalan. Sarfate doesn’t so much close games as he slams them shut and breaks the key off in the lock.
The season is still young, will the Hawks live up to their potential? Will our hometown birds of prey shred their Central League counterparts? Can the pitching cover the absence of Settsu? Will Uchikawa have a career year at age 33? Can van der Hurk soar to new heights? Can I resist making Flying Dutchman puns?
Text: Matt Schuellein for Fukuoka Now