Friday, January 27, 2017

2017 NPB Four Man Cores

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo was part of a Core-4 ranked dead last in 2016. Where do the Baystars end up this time?
Since I had so much fun doing this post last year and it created a nice little discussion among fans from different NPB teams, I figured it would be a fun thing to do again this year. If you haven't read last year's edition, please do so here so you can get the premise behind this post and also read how wrong I ended up being.

Admittedly, my rankings were absolutely shredded pretty quickly and a lot of the guys I had tabbed ended up letting me down, but that's okay. I'm willing to be wrong.

This year, we'll have a space for each team and I'll show the 2016 core next to the 2017 ones for comparison. I'll explain why I have omitted players and added others. The rankings will follow at the end of the post.

Note: This year's edition has completely avoided using closers or relievers as part of the Core-4. 

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Yomiuri Giants


Kazuto Taguchi makes the cut for the Giants.

2016
C/1B Shinnosuke Abe
SP Tomoyuki Sugano
SP Miles Mikolas
SS Hayato Sakamoto

2017
SS Hayato Sakamoto
SP Tomoyuki Sugano
SP Kazuto Taguchi
SP Miles Mikolas

There is only one change for the Kyojin and that is the omission of Shinnosuke Abe. He still had a decent year when he was on the field for 91 games (mostly as a 1B in cleanup), but after the offensive year that the Giants had, I'd probably be best-served to be including more pitchers.

Sakamoto will probably make this list for the next several years since he seems to be one of the top 5 best players in all of NPB. The new addition to the list is Kazuto Taguchi. At 20 years old, he's already throwing 160+ IP and dominating Central League hitters by striking out 7.00 per 9 innings.

Despite only making 14 starts in 2016, Miles Mikolas retains his place because he's still only 28 and when he was on the field, he was still blowing away more hitters this past year than his incredible 2015 season.

A narrow miss is Shuichi Murata who had a great offensive season for the Giants, but defensively, Murata was more of a field goal kicker than a third baseman as he posted a -11.8 UZR according to 1.02. Murata is also 36 years old, and there are doubts whether he can have another season like this in 2017 as his track record doesn't show he can put two seasons together.


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Hiroshima Toyo Carp


Yoshihiro Maru is added after a strong 2016
2016
SP Kris Johnson
SP Hiroki Kuroda
2B Ryosuke Kikuchi
1B Brad Eldred

2017
RF Seiya Suzuki
SP Kris Johnson
2B Ryosuke Kikuchi
CF Yoshihiro Maru

The Central League Pennant winners finally realized their offensive potential and as a result, they see two position players added to this list, while Kuroda leaves the list due to retirement. Brad Eldred only played in 95 games last season and though he still performed well when he played, he is now heading into his age 36 season and looks to be more of a role player as time goes on. Seiya Suzuki had a breakout offensive season and he will probably compete with Yamada and Sakamoto for the Central League MVP for the next several years.

Admittedly, I probably missed the mark on leaving out Maru on last year's core, but since he missed 2015 with an injury, it was probably a good idea to leave him out anyway. Maybe Kris Johnson will come back down to earth, but he'll still be 32 and the defending Sawamura Award winner will likely make it again next year as long as he has a halfway decent season. Ryosuke Kikuchi's defense alone will probably make him a lock on this list and his offensive explosion last year makes him an automatic entry. Takahiro Arai, the reigning Central League MVP, will likely not repeat a season like 2016 and father time will eventually take over. However, he should still be a solid role player.

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Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars


Takayuki Kajitani (left) retains his spot while Kenta Ishida (right) is a new addition)
2016
OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
OF Takayuki Kajitani
CL Yasuaki Yamasaki
1B Jose Lopez

2017
LF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
SP Shota Imanaga
OF Takayuki Kajitani
SP Kenta Ishida

Last year, I ranked the Bay Stars dead last in terms of their core and I got ridiculed for it. I can assure you that they won't be ranked last this year. 

You can make the argument that the Bay Stars now have the best core under 25 in all of NPB. Ishida and Imanaga put up insane numbers last year and you have to wonder how they would do in one of the pitcher's parks of the Pacific League. I've left off Lopez and Yamasaki just simply because I think there's some better and younger talent on this team than those guys. Yamasaki is also a closer as Core-4 groups should not include relievers. Kajitani makes the list again because of his solid stolen base percentage as well as his history as a solid outfielder.

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Hanshin Tigers

Yuta Iwasada
2016
SP Randy Messenger
SP Shintaro Fujinami
OF Kosuke Fukudome
SS Takashi Toritani

2017
SP Randy Messenger
SP Shintaro Fujinami
SP Yuta Iwasada
OF Yoshio Itoi

A disappointing year for Osaka's (Kansai's) team sees some changes to this list. Takashi Toritani departs after committing defensive malpractice at shortstop with a UZR of -23.5, while at the plate, his numbers weren't much better. Manager Tomoaki Kanemoto would bench him and his iron man innings streak would come to an end.

Yuta Iwasada takes his place as he forms the last of Hanshin's triumvirate of pitchers who each threw 150+ innings. Iwasada made massive strides in 2016 by posting a 2.90 ERA and an 8.9 K/9 after only making 11 starts prior to 2016. Even though the prodigy, Shintaro Fujinami isn't getting the MLB plaudits that he was supposed to get as a teenager at Osaka Toin, he still put up very good numbers that should give the Tigers a real chance at the playoffs in 2017.

Randy Messenger posted another prototypical workhorse season in 2016 so he easily retains his spot. We'll see whether he'll be on here next year as he enters his age 35 season. Kosuke Fukudome would've retained his spot on this list, but the addition of Orix's Yoshio Itoi spells him due to being younger, his wages after signing him in free agency and better numbers.

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Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Tetsuto Yamada
2016
2B Tetsuto Yamada
3B Shingo Kawabata
SP Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa
OF Wladimir "Coco" Balentien

2017
2B Tetsuto Yamada
LF Wladimir "Coco" Balentien
SP Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa
3B Shingo Kawabata

The names don't change, but the perception does. Last year, I boldly (or naively, if you want to be frank) claimed that the Swallows had the best core in all of NPB. Let's just say that the Swallows won't be number one this year.

Tetsuto Yamada had another year just like 2015 (despite being cold in September) and Coco Balentien returned to form by blasting 31 homers. Yamada figures to be an elite player in NPB as long as he wants to stay in Japan, while father time starts to come into question for Balentien. Balentien had his second highest number of a season's strikeouts with 116 and that could be a sign that he isn't catching up to the pitches that he used to. Even at 32, he can still easily produce and make this list next season, especially with no fringe position players that are jumping out on the Swallows.

Ryan Ogawa had a difficult season as he gave up a career-high in home runs with 22, it must be tough pitching at Jingu Stadium. I'm afraid that Ogawa's 2015 season was all but an outlier, but I'm hoping that he'll bounce back in 2017.

Shingo Kawabata had a "good," year but it was nowhere near what he had in 2015 and if we're being totally honest, his batting average makes his season look better than it really was. Kawabata had a wRC+ of 103, with 100 being league average, while he posted a 134 in 2015. Kawabata also saw his line drive percentage and his hard contact % each drop from their heights in 2015. The moral of the story with the Swallows is that Ogawa and Kawabata can easily be replaced in next year's core.

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Chunichi Dragons

Dayan Viciedo makes the list after a decent 2016
2016
SP Yudai Ono

SP Shunta Wakamatsu
OF Ryosuke Hirata
OF Yohei Oshima


2017
OF Ryosuke Hirata
OF Yohei Oshima
SP Yudai Ono
1B Dayan Viciedo

The Dragons are a team where you can have several different four-man cores, and in this case, it's not a good thing. One thing's for sure: Oshima and Hirata are guys you have to have on there and after that, you can get creative.

You can throw Wakamatsu on there and chalk up his rough season to an outlier that he'll bounce back from since he'll only be 22 this year or you can throw in Naomichi Donoue and I'd accept it, though I don't think he'll have this good of an offensive season again and even this season was not great as it ended up being an 89 wRC+.

I went with Ono and his track record. As long as he can stay healthy, he should end up here again next season. Dayan Viciedo makes his debut on this list because when he was healthy and hitting, the Dragons were winning ballgames and were in the heart of the playoff hunt (sometimes known as A-claa). For a team that lacks power hitting like the Dragons, Viciedo is an integral part of their makeup.

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Orix Buffaloes


Masataka Yoshida has a small sample size, but the offense will hinge on him.
2016
OF Yoshio Itoi
SP Yuki Nishi
SP Chihiro Kaneko
OF Takahiro Okada


2017
SP Yuki Nishi
SS Ryoichi Adachi
OF Takahiro Okada
OF Masataka Yoshida

The departing Yoshio Itoi leaves a spot to fill in Orix's core and definitely makes it a difficult task to find four men to fulfill this exercise. The guys in the rotation that Orix counts on were not at their best this season, so I just went with Nishi based on reputation and simply just chalking up this year due to bad luck, but you can honestly go with Kaneko, Nishi, or Brandon Dickson. I'm not sure if you can pick two of them, but definitely one of them.

Ryoichi Adachi makes his debut on this list simply because of his plus defense at shortstop where he put up a UZR of 14.8 in 2016. Adachi was even better in 2015 where he had a UZR of 26.2 so there's definitely a track record with his defense. Okada put up a better season in 2016 than he had in 2015, so it seems like he's back to doing what he did in 2014. With the talent of Orix, it's hard to imagine a world where Okada doesn't make this list next year. Mastaka Yoshida only played 63 games in 2016, but the 22-year-old first round pick from 2015 definitely made the most of things with a .854 OPS, which certainly makes him one to watch in his second pro season.

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Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Takayuki Kishi was the biggest addition for Rakuten
2016
SP Takahiro Norimoto
CL Yuki Matsui
IF Ginji Akaminai
3B Toshiaki Imae


2017
SP Takahiro Norimoto
SP Takayuki Kishi
3B/OF Zelous Wheeler
SS Eigoro Mogi

There's only one word to describe Takahiro Norimoto and that word is nasty. If you ever have a chance to watch him pitch, you need to do it because he makes hitters look silly. He struck out 216 batters in 2016 and he's only 26.

Rakuten adds former Seibu Lions ace Takayuki Kishi to their rotation and that automatically makes the team's core shoot up the rankings. On top of that, Zelous Wheeler's second year in Japan went much better than his first year as he led the team in home runs with 27. The next highest home run total was 10, which means their offense is still an issue overall, but at least they'll get a boost in run prevention with the addition of Kishi. It's possible these numbers go up if Carlos Peguero and/or Japhet Amador play an entire full season for 2017.

Eigoro Mogi makes the list after putting up an above average year at the plate and holding his own at shortstop with a -1.6 UZR. Yuki Matsui would probably make this list if they moved him to the rotation, but Rakuten's brass is hellbent on keeping him as a closer so he's left out.

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Chiba Lotte Marines

Hideaki Wakui showed that 2015 wasn't a fluke. There has been a recent revival in his career
2016
OF Ikuhiro Kiyota
SP Ayumu Ishikawa
CL Yuji Nishino
OF Katsuya Kakunaka


2017
OF Katsuya Kakunaka
SP Hideaki Wakui
SP Ayumu Ishikawa
SS Daichi Suzuki

Yes, I definitely got Chiba's 2016 core wrong. Kiyota fell off the earth in 2016 and looking at his career body of work, it looks like his 2015 season was nothing more than an outlier rather than a breakout season. That didn't matter much to Marines fans as Katsuya Kakunaka had a career season to more than makeup for the drop off from Kiyota. Kakunaka also has probably the best ouenka in all of NPB so even for opposing fans, we probably didn't mind seeing him do well.

On the mound, Hideaki Wakui proved that he can still be a solid pitcher without the high strikeout numbers that he had with the Lions. There's probably a good chance that Wakui makes the 2018 edition as well, as I have full confidence in his ability to put together another good season and be that workhorse for the Marines.

Ayumu Ishikawa retains his spot from last year as he had an even better year in 2016 than he did in 2015 and he did so with less strikeouts than the year before. He's not the most overpowering guy, but he uses his defense and it seems to work quite well for him. Daichi Suzuki makes the core this year, but not because of his faulty defense that has brought questions about why he hasn't moved to third or second base yet. With that said, Suzuki still put up a 118 wRC+ and that was enough to put him on here, especially with the departure of Alfredo Despaigne.

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Saitama Seibu Lions


Hideto Asamura is now the team's captain, wearing No. 3 and representing as a premier hitter.
2016
3B Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura
CF Shogo Akiyama
SP Takayuki Kishi
1B Ernesto Mejia


2017
CF Shogo Akiyama
2B Hideto Asamura
SP Yusei Kikuchi
3B Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura

Kishi's departure has a changing of the guard with Kikuchi taking his place. This might be a bit presumptive and it might be acceptable to put Ernesto Mejia in here for that reason, but I'll go with Kikuchi since I think he's more important to the Lions' success in 2017. Kikuchi will need to throw more than 150 innings next year if he is to retain his spot and that's something he has not done in his career.

Okawari-kun had a down year in 2016 but when he's on the field, he provides solid defense at third and with his body of work, there's no reason to think that he can't bounce back. Another subpar season will likely see his spot on here in jeopardy. Hideto Asamura's complete season last year is likely a sign that he'll be part of this post for years to come along with Shogo Akiyama, who had another good season. It must be said that if any of the Lions young pitchers like Kona Takahashi or Shinsaburo Tawata take the next step in 2017, they can easily jump into the core for 2018.

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Fukuoka Softbank Hawks


Kodai Senga is already great, can he even be better?
2016
CF Yuki Yanagita

3B Nobuhiro Matsuda
SP Shota Takeda
CL Dennis Sarfate


2017
OF Yuki Yanagita
SP Shota Takeda
SP Kodai Senga
3B Nobuhiro Matsuda

Yuki Yanagita missed the last month of action for the Hawks in 2016 and it might've been the difference between the Hawks going for a 3-peat and getting eliminated. Yanagita was magic once again as he got all sorts of love with a 6.9 WAR despite missing 23 games of action. Barring injury, there's no way he doesn't get penciled in for the Hawks' 2018 core as well.

The two 24-year-old starters for the Hawks join Yanagita and it can't be understated how impressive they were in 2016. The real debate is who's better? It was Senga's first full year as a starter and he probably put up better numbers than the more experienced Takeda. Senga's path to this point in time is even more impressive given the fact that he's a former Ikusei player which provides a nice feather in the cap of the Hawks' development system.

Nobuhiro Matsuda had a good season, but it was nothing like the one in 2015, as always he provided solid defense at third and it just says a lot when he is probably their fourth best player. Akira Nakamura's monster 2016 season almost landed him on the 2017 core. If it was any other team, he probably makes it easily. The Hawks as a whole being loaded makes this exercise even more difficult as Seiichi Uchikawa could be there as well.

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Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters

Takuya Nakashima becomes part of the Core-4
2016
SP/DH/OF Shohei Otani
1B Sho Nakata
C/DH Kensuke Kondo

OF/2B Haruki Nishikawa

2017
SP/DH Shohei Otani
LF Haruki Nishikawa
1B Sho Nakata
SS Takuya Nakashima

The defending champions took major steps from their 2015 edition as a lot of their young guys stepped up and raised the team's overall level. In the process, they also made me look pretty bad by calling them overrated the year before on account of their run differential. They were definitely not overrated in 2016 as they earned their way to the title and were quite impressive in the process.

Shohei Otani was a beast on the mound even though he missed a lot of starts due to blister issues. He raised the level of the team's core with his work at the plate and as a result, Otani took home the MVP of the Pacific League. Sho Nakata had a down year by his standards and still took home the Best IX for first base. Nakata will need to draw more walks to get back to the level that we're used to seeing from him.

Nakashima debuts on this list after a tremendous year with his glove at shortstop with a 15.9 UZR. Nishikawa had a complete year with his glove and his bat and with all that he had a 5.8 WAR for the year. Brandon Laird could've easily made the 2017 core, but I decided to leave him out narrowly. Kohei Arihara could've also made it, but I felt it was necessary to compliment the Fighters' tremendous defense by putting Nishikawa and Nakashima on here.

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2016 Core Rankings

1. Tokyo Yakult Swallows
2. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
3. Saitama Seibu Lions
4. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
5. Yomiuri Giants
6. Hanshin Tigers
7. Hiroshima Toyo Carp
8. Chiba Lotte Marines
9. Orix Buffaloes
10. Chunichi Dragons
11. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
12. Yokohama DeNA BayStars

===

2017 Core Rankings

1. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks ^

2. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters ^

3. Hiroshima Toyo Carp ^

4. Yomiuri Giants ^

5. Chiba Lotte Marines ^

6. Yokohama DeNA BayStars ^

7. Hanshin Tigers |v|

8. Saitama Seibu Lions |v|

9. Tokyo Yakult Swallows |v|

10. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ^

11. Chunichi Dragons |v|

12. Orix Buffaloes |v|

My 2016 rankings look quite awful, but hopefully, my 2017 ones look a lot better. I'll first say that the top 3 teams are ahead of the field by a good amount and from there I felt the rest were quite close together until you got to 11-12, where those two cores are a lot worse than everyone else.

I would've put the BayStars ahead of the Marines if their young pitchers had more of a proven track record outside of the 2016 season, so I went with Chiba instead. A team like the Tigers has a lot of upside in their core and they can just as easily jump into the top-5 next year but I'm going to pump the breaks on them for now. I would've put the Eagles right underneath the Lions at 9, but Tetsuto Yamada to me was just too much for the Swallows to be under the Eagles.

I had to think long and hard about who should get number one between the Fighters and the Hawks, a lot of it had to do with how much weight I put into Otani and whether his value climbed over the two young pitchers for the Hawks. I decided to lean toward the Hawks based on more of a track record, but it wasn't by much.

The Lions drop 5 spots due to the departure of Kishi and a down year from Okawari-kun. On top of that, the teams that jumped them seem to do more to improve their stock than the Lions. The Swallows drop 8 spots because 2016 seemed to show that Kawabata and Ogawa had outlier years in 2015 and shouldn't be valued as highly.

What do you guys think? Give me your rankings in the comments section and tell me where I'm wrong.

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5 comments:

  1. Great article! Fun exercise to go through. Any chance you will bless us all with the top breakout candidates from each team ? Young guys ready to break out as a star, maybe top 4 from each? Your articles are great!

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  2. I thought it was good but was surprised you didn't even mention Shun Takayama for the Tigers, or Fumihito Haraguchi either. Not that they could supplant any of the 4 you have there, but they did have HUGE seasons considering it was their first on the field. One of them even won something called the rookie of the year! (And if a rookie of the year doesn't make the core, but the distant runner up - Imanaga - makes the core on his team, how is it the BayStars' core is ahead of the Tigers?)

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    Replies
    1. On Takayama, I like him in the long term but you have to do better than a .707 OPS with mediocre metrics to sway me. On Haraguchi, touché, he probably has an inside track to make it next year and spell Itoi or Messenger. As for Tigers vs Swallows, I admit that I probably read too much into last year's results rather than just basing things on core vs core. Like I said, the Tigers have enough upside to easily have a top 5 core.

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    2. Yeah I'm not saying Takayama or Haraguchi should be in the Core 4 this year, but mentioning them in your reasoning would have been nice. You mentioned Takahiro Arai (MVP) so I thought you might mention Takayama too. But good job. Looking forward to seeing how Hanshin's core changes a year from now!

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    3. I take responsibility for that one. I added Arai when editing just because I figured some Carp fans might say something about it.

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