Thursday, May 21, 2015

NPB Interleague Play: Tomoya Mori to start in Right Field?

The Central League cited Travel reasons as a reason to reduce the interleague schedule. Pacific League teams play as far North as Hokkaido and as South as Fukuoka.
The 2015 NPB season is about to take its turn to Interleague play starting on May 26. Before posting about the Seibu Lions, here is a small background to the current Interleague play format.

NPB changed their format to an 18-game interleague schedule with one three game series against each of the six teams in the opposite league. It is very similar to how MLB would format interleague play prior to when the Houston Astros became an American League team and were initially in the National League. Interleague play will be from May 26 to June 14 this year.

Previously, there were 24 games multiple two-game series which would be home and away against each team in the opposite league. This would have four games (two home, two away) against each team for a total of six series. It would also give fans of any team to have the ability to go to see their team at any location at least once during the year.

Now, NPB is on pace to see each opposite league stadium every two years. Today for example, a fan of the Chunichi Dragons living in Hokkaido can see them play in the Sapporo Dome against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters this year, but will not see them locally until 2017 after the series from June 29-July 1.

One fascinating aspect when the leagues crossfire is when the designated hitter is added or subtracted depending on which stadium you are in. Like in MLB, if a game is played in a Central League Stadium, the pitcher must bat. The designated hitter is adopted only in the Pacific League.

The Lions had Tomoya Mori play in right field briefly while in the Eastern League.
Fast forward to the Lions, where their designated hitter is an everyday player traditionally batting sixth in the lineup in Tomoya Mori. Before the year started, some prognosticators thought Mori would cause a catcher controversy with incumbent C Ginjiro Sumitani with his hitting abilities.

With the designated hitter about to be gone for nine interleague games on the road against the Yomiuri Giants (Kyojin), Chunichi Dragons and Yokohama DeNA Baystars, they will need to insert Mori in a different way. 

Kyodo News writer Jim Allen correctly suggested the idea where the Lions needed to put him in the lineup everyday because of his bat and it has paid off. Sumitani is still the catcher for his defense, while Mori can provide protection for Ernesto Mejia batting sixth.

Mori has continued to be on a great pace through 41 games this season, with an OPS of over .900. He is second on the team in home runs with nine, only one behind Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura.

With his power hitting being a factor and a threat on offense, the Lions tried out Mori as a right fielder during a farm game in the Eastern League on Tuesday.

In Japan, no transactions are needed to send a player down to the Ni-gun (second team) as all players are eligible even if they're on the Ichi-gun (first team). There are no waivers or designating a player for assignments, meaning no team can lose a someone if they take him off the 28-man roster for the Ichi-gun. The only way this happens is if a club chooses to terminate his contract, as the Baystars did with Yulieski Gurriel earlier this year.
The Seibu Lions' farm team plays their home games next door (highlighted in green)to their traditional home in the Seibu Dome.
It can be common for an Ichi-gun player to participate in a Ni-gun game in the day time while playing with the top team for the night within a few hours of each other. The Lions ni-gun home stadium is literally right next door to the Seibu Dome, making it even more convenient for a bench player who is seldomly used to get some playing time and prevent rust.

The right fielder position on the Lions has been a revolving door throughout the 2015 season. While centerfield and left field have been consistent with Shogo Akiyama and Takumi Kuriyama, respectively, the Lions have started seven different players at right field. This list includes Fumikazu Kimura, Ryo Sakata, Tomohito Yoneno, Hichori Morimoto, Masato Kumashiro, Shogo Saito and mostly recently, Yutaro Osaki.

They could make Mori the eighth person to start in RF when interleague play starts next Tuesday. He was drafted as a catcher out of high school in 2013, but there hasn't been a large emphasis on playing him in the field with Sumitani behind the plate. Mori has played 10 games for the ni-gun as catcher, but he could take the RF void for interleague play.

So far, they've only inserted Mori for one farm game at RF this week, where he was only in for the first half of the game. If the Lions want his bat in the lineup for games in Central League stadiums, don't be surprised if he becomes the right fielder with his defense being unproven.

As an Oakland A's fan, I was used to seeing multiple catchers in one lineup. In 2014, they often had Derek Norris was behind the plate, John Jaso as a designated hitter and Stephen Vogt playing in RF or at 1B. Former catcher Ray Fosse would applaud the Lions if Mori and Sumitani are in the lineup and both on the field in the coming weeks.

This might have been a one-game aberration for Mori, but with the continuous changes in right field, his chances of playing in the outfield can't be written off.

UPDATE 5/22: It appears that Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times has confirmed through a beat writer that Mori will be in right field for all nine interleague games in Central League Stadiums. 

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