Spring always seems short to me. One minute I’m calculating the thickness of jacket I’ll need for my daily bike ride to work, then there’s the week when the cherry blossoms erupt in great bright pink explosions raking Japan in a north-bound pattern, baseball starts, I wear long sleeved t-shirts comfortably, and then just like that spring is over. Layers of humidity roll in, the rivers and canals swell with rain water, the sun stretches long into the evening past supper and the pinks and reds are slow to drain from the night skies.
June. One third of the 2016 season is over. The Hawks have lost six times since my last article, but sit comfortably in first place with a win percentage around .700. Rick van den Hurk’s consecutive streak was promptly broken after I wrote about it and, even though I do love to look at baseball from a statistical approach, I can’t help but feel guilty for jinxing him. But in reality the streak meant little to me as win-loss records are an archaic statistic for measuring the value of a pitcher. You’ve probably noticed I don’t really talk about how many wins pitchers have, and that’s because pitchers don’t control if their team wins or loses, they contribute to it of course, but there are way too many variables in the course of a game for the starting pitchers to shoulder the outcome individually. Wins are the MOST important statistic for TEAMS, but while van den Hurk picked up the first loss of his short career here, it’s really not a big deal.
Talking about pitching, the Hawks are giving up the long ball at a noticeably higher rate than last year surrendering 1.1 home runs per 9 innings of play. That’s the highest in the league by quite a bit and they are the only team to allow more than 1 per game on average. Despite that the Hawks still have the league’s lowest ERA (earned run average). This is possible because the Hawks pitchers are aggressively attacking hitters, peppering the strike zone and forcing batters to put the ball in play. This speaks to the confidence of the team as a whole. The pitchers aren’t afraid of letting batters put the ball in play, trusting the defense behind them, and have given up the fewest hits per game and the fewest free passes as well. Their mistakes are getting hit far and hard, but because they don’t allow many baserunners, the damage is minimized.
Another reason the pitchers can afford to give up long balls is because they trust their offense that has shown no signs of slowing down outscoring their opponents by more than 75 runs this year. The Hawks aren’t the biggest sluggers in the PL (Pacific League), but they are the best at two very important things, getting on base and getting runners to score.
Yuki Yanagita – He’s been heating up with the weather and his batting average is steadily advancing towards .300. His OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) is up close to 1.000 and pitchers still would often rather just put him on base than give him something to hit. He’s up to 7 long balls and 8 stolen bases so projecting a 20-20 finish is reasonable, but his true value lies in just how often he reaches first with a .471 OBP (on base percentage) that leads the league along with 37 runs scored that is also best in the PL.
Akira Nakamura – He already is halfway to last year’s total BB (base on balls/“walks”) number. And I know that base-on-balls aren’t the most exciting thing about a game, but the ability to draw walks is important. Batters’ ability to get on base is the single most important task they have. An increase in walk rate means Nakamura is being more selective, which makes pitchers throw more pitches, which lets everyone observe the pitches and pitching motion more times and fatigues the pitchers: there is a cascading effect from increasing walk rates. Nakamura remains one of the Hawks premium batters, but he’s maturing as a hitter which is exciting to see.
The catchers – Three catchers have been used so far this season, Shinya Tsuruoka, Hiroaki Takaya, and Ayatsugu Yamashita. Together they are hitting over .260 on the season with very little power and they aren’t drawing many walks. Easily the weakest point of the lineup on any given night. But they’re doing much better than last year. Last year five backstops combined to hit .160. Their walk rate was better, but they managed just 65 total hits over the entire 2015 campaign. This year they’ve already accrued 42 hits. While they don’t generate many runs or RBI (runs batted in), their combined batting average is above league average.
Nao Higashihama – I mentioned this young pitcher last time with interest in what he could provide. So far it’s been great. In 6 games, 5 starts and one relief appearance, he has a 2.52 ERA (earned run average) and a .785 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). He’s not striking out many batters, but he’s not walking many or allowing many baserunners.
Dennis Sarfate – Recently hit 150 career saves. Sarfate is the best relief pitcher in the PL and it’s not even close. Saves is another one of those stats that you can’t lean on completely to measure the value of a relief pitcher. Saves are fickle things and require the team to a) win and b) not win by too large a margin and c)… well, I won’t get more technical than I already have. BUT, there is a very healthy debate about the 9th inning of a game. By the numbers (looking at spreadsheets), pitching the 8th inning versus the 9th inning of a game shouldn’t really be any different. But it is. There’s more tension, there’s more noise, there’s more gravity. Not every great relief pitcher can be a closer. Sarfate is an ace in the 9th inning.
Dog days of summer
Summer is long and hot here in Fukuoka. The Central League is coming to town with interleague games this month. The Hawks have been very strong in interleague play, but there is a bit more tension in the air this year.
The difference between the Central League and our Pacific League is the use of the designated hitters. Unlike the PL, pitchers must bat for themselves in the Central League. Games played in the CL home stadiums will use no DH and games played in Fukuoka will use DHs. Looking at the Central League from a statistical point of view there’s not many surprises, they have a lower overall ERA, strike out more, and score less runs per game than the PL, and that all makes sense because the lineups are weakened by the pitcher’s batting. The hiccup is the CL hits more home runs which, as I’ve gone over, is something the Hawks are struggling with.
The ace pitchers of the CL have also been putting up amazing stat lines like the Giants Tomoyuki Sugano, who has a 0.56 ERA has walked only 7 in ten games and given up 5 earned runs. Yuta Iwasada of the Tigers has a 0.88 ERA. Chris Johnson of the Dragons has three complete games and two shutouts already.
The Hawks will be put to the test and further thrust into the spotlight as all the teams, big bats, and ace pitchers of the Central League look to face off versus the team that has won 70% of it’s games so far. Will the CL pose a challenge for the Hawks or will our big hometown birds prove that they can fly high against all Japan has to offer?
Text: Matt Schuellein for Fukuoka Now