Friday, May 5, 2017

Rotation Conundrum: Lions don't have a pitcher who can eat innings

On Thursday, May 4, Ken Togame was tagged with seven earned runs over 4.2 IP in a 9-6 Lions loss that gave the Hawks a sweep over the boys from Tokorozawa. The start is the latest in another poor performance from the back end of the Lions rotation and it got me thinking about a point I brought up during our season preview podcast where I questioned where the innings were going to come from in the Lions rotation?

So I decided to go back and see what was the lowest innings pitched leader from a Pacific League playoff team since the year 2010. The results were for the most part, exactly what I expected.

Kohei Arihara 156.0 IP, 2016, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
Shohei Otani 160.2 IP, 2015, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
Luis Mendoza 162.0 IP, 2014, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters

It's quite interesting that all three players are from the Fighters over the last three seasons. Before I discuss Arihara, I'll add that the 2015 Fighters also had Mitsuo Yoshikawa put in 159.1 IP and Luis Mendoza putting in 148.2 IP to give three strong innings eaters to Hideki Kuriyama in 2015. In 2014, a 19-year-old Otani put in 155.1 IP in support of Mendoza while Naoyuki Uwasawa tossed 135.1 and Hiroshi Urano logged 115.0 IP.

The most interesting case is that of Arihara last season because the Fighters in 2016 were the only Pacific League playoff team to not have at least one pitcher reach 160 IP. Instead, in addition to Arihara, the Fighters got five different pitchers over 100 IP to make up for this extreme outlier. All this just adds to the resiliency of last year's Fighters run to a Japan Series title and it also says a lot about the ability of manager Hideki Kuriyama to get the most out of his pitching staff.

With all this information that's been presented, it seems pretty clear that in order to be a Pacific League playoff team, you need at least one starter on your team to make the 160 IP plateau and preferably you need two pitchers to at least break the 150 IP level. Run prevention is another matter, but this is the problem that the Lions rotation in 2017 must deal with. Now let's take a look at the Lions pitchers on their roster and see the who has the highest single-season innings total at the ichi-gun level.

Kazuhisa Makita 178.0 IP 2012
Ken Togame 164.1 IP 2013
Ryoma Nogami 152.2 IP 2013
Brian Wolfe 150.0 IP 2011
Yusei Kikuchi 143.0 IP 2016

Makita's strictly a bullpen arm in 2017, so he's eliminated from contention. Ken Togame now looks like he's nothing more than a ni-gun pitcher at this point while Ryoma Nogami has looked good in the early going, but whether he can keep up this form is unlikely and the Lions would probably be happy if he reached 130 IP. Then there's Brian Wolfe, who hasn't thrown over 130 IP since 2013, so that's probably an unlikely occurrence given his injury history.

Then we get to Yusei Kikuchi where he certainly would've hit at least 160 last season if he hadn't gotten hurt in June and missed a few weeks, so he's the most likely guy to carry the load with innings. Kikuchi can certainly get to 170 IP, let alone 160 IP if he stays healthy, but that's the question, will he stay healthy? I think it's fair to say that last year's injury might've been a freak accident, but until he hits 160 IP, I have my doubts.

I will add that the Lions do have a strength in their bullpen of having 5 pitchers in the bullpen who logged 50+ IP last season, which can help ease the gap in theory, but history says otherwise.

Looking outside of the Lions, the three teams that I expect to be competing with the Lions for an A-class spot don't really have to worry about this particular problem. The Eagles for example have Takahiro Norimoto who's thrown 190+ IP the last three seasons and they have Takayuki Kishi who if healthy, can easily toss 160 IP.

The Orix Buffaloes have Chihiro Kaneko who threw 160+ IP last year and has a large track record of doing more of the same. They also have Yuki Nishi who has thrown 150+ IP in the last four seasons as well as Brandon Dickson who threw 170+ IP last season. If Takahiro Matsuba is healthy and stays in the rotation all season, he could easily be a fourth.

The Marines have Ayumu Ishikawa and Hideaki Wakui who eat innings year in and year out, though the former has been struggling and went to ni-gun. Sure, those teams all have questions about whether they'll score enough runs to make the playoffs, but they all will surely make the prerequisite of having at least one pitcher throw 160 IP in 2017.

Let me know if there are any Pacific League teams who have made the playoffs without a pitcher throwing 150 IP prior to 2010, I doubt that there are any considering the larger workloads for NPB pitchers in the past. This will be an issue that I'll definitely be revisiting as the season goes on.


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