When the 2016 season took place, the Satiama Seibu Lions were already down and out before the All-Star break. Playing in the All-Star game was just a formality and all this team could look forward to was the draft and young players developing.
Last year's record was 64-76-3 while the 2017 Lions are currently 77-57-3 and have already clinched A-class. How did all of this change with a new manager? Here's some factors and reasons:
First and foremost, the Lions let Norio Tanabe go as manager with someone else taking over. They initially had Tetsuya Shiozaki lined up to be the team's manager, but some poor defensive blunders through most of the season forced a change.
Management saw how the Lions had 101 errors in 2016 and there needed to be a change. Tanabe was a hitting coach before his promotion in the middle of the 2014 season and by hiring Tsuji, it was the opposite with someone who is defensive minded. Tsuji was remembered as a great defensive 2B during his time as a player in the Lions golden era, but it also helped that he was active as a coach most recently with the Chunichi Dragons.
The Lions still have several errors, but we're seeing less gut-wrenching errors than before. Through 137 games in 2017, the Lions only have 55 unearned runs compared to the 70 in 2016.
Tsuji entered the Lions with an obvious focus on defense and the team has lived up to it. Even Tomoya Mori has developed on the defensive end as a catcher in his short time as his arm look accurate. Tactically, he'll put players with better range or arm in the outfield compared to normal and for a few plays, they live up to the hype. Tsuji also puts in a stronger defensive replacement team for the late innings.
The Lions weren't far away from having a complete lineup. Everyone knew about their hitting, but Genda's defense has also been huge. The Lions were arguably a shortstop away, a position they've lacked in 2016 where it was a revolving door. With Genda taking out of the industrial leagues, he was ready from Day 1 and his defense has hid any issues with the bat. He leads all shortstops in errors, but does plenty of other fielding plays that would normally take away base hits.
His speed has also been vital, where not only does he steal bases, but get an extra base off several hits. He can advance 90 feet, but opposing fielders have also been forced to make a play faster than normal due to his presence. With all the statistical franchise records he has reached as a rookie (stolen bases, hits, triples), he should be a lock for Pacific League rookie of the year.
Continuing from Genda, the Lions are more than just a power hitting team. Adding Shuta Tonosaki as an everyday position player and Yuji Kaneko to the outfield, they will each have 20 stolen bags a piece. No one else in the Pacific League has 100 stolen bases and the Lions have 118 as a team through 131 games. A balance of speed and power? It's a fun combination.
|Yusei Kikuchi's 2017 season has been a breakout year. The 覚醒 kanji translates to "awakening" while his name is also included on the sign with the year 2017.|
This probably goes in the books as the largest surprise, where most pundits said the Lions had no depth in their rotation. Yusei Kikuchi was unproven because he wasn't healthy for a full season. Everyone else was either injury prone or viewed as a back end starter at best.
With a team ERA of 3.54 through 137 games, it's more than adequate as the third best in the Pacific League. The resurgence of Ryoma Nogami and Ken Togame have been the largest factors, where the latter began the year in ni-gun and came up as a 6th starter. Neither pitcher is fancy, but they've been solid at drawing contact and keeping the ball in the park.
Even the spot starters have been respectable, as Yosuke Okamoto and Yasuo Sano would have outings of four or five innings each. Sano could be a future starter when healthy, but the Lions management has to like what they saw before his injury took him out.
First and foremost, Yusei Kikuchi has been an ace and healthy for the year. Before the season, Wes wrote a piece saying the Lions have no pitcher who can get to the 160 inning benchmark, indicating a top pitcher. This season, Kikuchi reached this with several complete games without issue. With Kikuchi staying healthy and being in the conversation for the Sawamura award, we could talk about his future in MLB if he has a similar season in 2018.
Okawari-kun is struggling? No problem. The Okinawan had a similar start to the 2016 season where he was deactivated early on. However, Yamakawa was called up earlier rather than later and emerged as a strong hitter while playing meaningful baseball. Last season, he was called up in August when the Lions were all but dead.
Yamakawa was named the August Pacific League MVP and already has 20 home runs through 72 games. In a strange sample size, Yamakawa gets on base, hits home runs and can make important hits. When the Lions didn't have Mori for most of the season and Ernesto Mejia struggling, Yamakawa picked up the slack and has boosted the HR total to 145, the highest it's been since 2010.
Akiyama is arguably an MVP of the league where he has 24 HRs as the team's leadoff hitter. With a slashline of .321/.400/.523, we're seeing a former cleanup hitter in college take his game to another level. He will always be remembered for his record-breaking season of 2015 with 216 hits, but Akiyama has shown in 2017 that he can do more than slap singles. From walks to doubles and now HRs, Akiyama can do it all and should receive MVP votes behind Yuki Yanagita.
This year, he has no trouble batting as low as third in the lineup and has picked up several RBIs due to Kaneko, Tonosaki and even Genda batting behind him. Taking Akiyama off the team would have a different dynamic offensively, making him the team's MVP.
An argument can be made for the bullpen, but it's really the defensive emphasis which has helped Brian Schlitter, Tatsushi Masuda and Kazuhisa Makita on the back end. The goal has been to keep the ball in play and let the defense do the rest. For Schlitter in particular, he lacks strikeout and has been the most dependent on the Lions defense to bail him out.
It only took a few changes to the roster, but this Lions team remains fun and exciting to watch with both power, speed and a solid defense to back up the pitching staff. They also have a future where the development of Tatsuya Imai, Kona Takahashi and Shinsaburo Tawata will be vital for the long run.
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