Monday, October 9, 2017
2017 Climax Series: Previewing Seibu and Rakuten
The Saitama Seibu Lions will be facing the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at MetLife Dome from October 14-16. For the first time 2013, the Lions clinched A-class and finished second place in the Pacific League. This is also Rakuten's first postseason trip since 2013, when they won the pennant under Senichi Hoshino as the manager and Masahiro Tanaka as the ace.
In our preview we'll break down each position and history on both teams leading up to this point.
As earlier mentioned, the Lions are in the postseason for the first time in four years. The Lions longest stretch of finishing in B-class (Bottom 3) prior to 2014-2016 was 1979-1981, where it was the first three years as Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa. The 1979 Lions were an inherited mess, coming from a team with no identity, scandal and multiple sales in the previous decade. It was also the last year they came in dead last place in the Pacific League.
Coming into the year, Seibu was not a popular pick for A-class under new manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji. There were pitching question marks as well as a poor defense in 2016 that Tsuji needed to fix. The consensus feeling on the Lions was that the could hit at will, but not out-hit their pitching staff.
In the era of the Climax Series (since 2007), the Lions have only advanced to the final round twice in 2008 and 2011.They come in second place three times in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but came up short each time. The Lions did advance as the second place team when the Pacific League exclusively had a playoff in 2004, where that team won the Japan Series.
Rakuten is a recent expansion team due to the merger of Orix Blue Wave and Kintetsu Buffaloes coming the Orix Bufaloes. This is only their third year in A-class and in their last trip back in 2013, they won the Japan Series.
The Eagles were a trendy surprise A-class pick among the three teams who finished in B-class for 2016. They added ex-Lion Takayuki Kishi in the offseason and manager Masataka Nashida had them trending up offensively based on his track record.
In 2009, the first Climax Series appearance for the Eagles, Rakuten came in second place and swept the Softbank Hawks to make the final round. Neither team has faced each other in a postseason series until now.
The Lions are likely to use Yusei Kikuchi, but the question of who comes afterwards is anyone's guess. Ryoma Nogami has done a good job to stay in the rotation for the whole year. Ken Togame was initially the team's 6th starter, but showed he belonged with the ichi-gun.
Brian Wolfe carried the load for most of the first half, but has fallen off on the second half. Shinsaburo Tawata is also intriguing after he had a slow start, but has been respectable in the second half. There are plenty of options, but the decision on who to play after Kikuchi is the question mark.
It was announced that Kikuchi will take Game 1, Togame will take Game 2. Nogami or Tawata could be going if there is a Game 3.
The Eagles three probable pitchers are clear cut in comparison. Takahiro Norimoto is the team's ace and Kishi is part of the 1-2 punch. A potential Game 3 could be an interesting decision for Nashida, but it will likely be Minabu Mima as the third pitcher.
Norimoto and Kishi are a better duo than the combination that the Lions put out on paper and have the experience as well when adding Mima. Eagles get an advantage given the Lions uncertainty.
It was Rakuten's bullpen as one of the biggest flaws in 2016. They would get quality starts only to have the bullpen crumble. This year, Yuki Matsui had a rebound season and Hiroyuki Fukuyama had an unbelievable stretch without allowing a run to begin the year. Frank Herrmann and Yuhei Takanashi are also intriguing options if needed.
Despite the quality and turnaround, the second half has not been kind to the Eagles where Matsui was injured. The rest of the team went through a funk which trickled to the bullpen. Do we get a first half or second half Eagles bullpen in the postseason?
The Lions also had a strong first half where Tatsushi Masuda has remained the closer where there were some hiccups. Tsuji rode Kazuhisa Makita and Brian Schlitter for the 7th and 8th innings where both were solid in the first half. Other options out of the bullpen include lefty specialists Shota Takekuma, Shogo Noda and Tomomi Takahashi, who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
Like the Eagles, the Lions had an awful second half in middle relief where Makita and Schlitter struggled to protect a lead. The Lions were able to win due to blowing out their competition in games, but when everything is on the line, the bullpen is more likely to falter.
Based on "What have you done for me lately?", both sides are an even matchup as they limp into the postseason. However, the Lions have better depth and more options compared to the Eagles.
"Ginji" Akaminai has moved around the infield for his career but will likely start at 1B for the series. He was a clutch player from that 2013 team and has the grit for the postseason with his experience.
Hotaka Yamakawa burst onto the scene in the second half of the year for the Lions and has kept his job at first base. His defense and range aren't as impressive at Ginji, but he has the pop to do damage as he won player of the month for August.
Ginji is the more proven player, but Yamakawa's pop and recent trends give him a slight advantage for Seibu.
Hideto Asamura is coming off another solid season in his first year as the team's captain. Hovering close to .300 and coming just shy of 100 RBI and 20 HRs, Asamura continues to bat in the heart off the order for the Lions with adequate defense.
Kazuya Fujita is a defensive whiz known for his range and fielder. He has an above average bat for a second baseman, but hasn't been healthy for most of the year.
Asamura has the advantage based on the level of his bat alone. Fujita's only argument is what he does with his glove.
Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura has been limited for most of the year and has dropped in the Lions batting order. His defense is decent, but he hasn't hit for average in 2017 with only pop.
Zelous Wheeler is having a good season bumping up his average above .270 while reaching the 30 HR benchmark for the first time in NPB. He's also versatile enough to play in the outfield if the Eagles need him.
Combining the pop that both players provide, there's no question that Wheeler has the edge comparing these two. His defense and batting average are better, no doubt.
Sosuke Genda is likely to win Pacific League rookie of the year by leading the league in stolen bases and having the third highest number of hits for a first year player. His defense has been magical, giving the Lions new life even though he has several errors.
Eigoro Mogi should have won the rookie of the year award last season and had an MVP caliber first half. However, injuries and platooning have limited Mogi's appearances as he wasn't in every game.
Genda is the faster player who is better defensively, but Mogi's bat is stronger without a doubt. When Mogi is healthy, he's a core-four player for the Eagles, giving them the advantage here.
Shogo Akiyama, Yuji Kaneko and Shuta Tonosaki are probably the fastest outfield trio in NPB. All three of them have range, but not the greatest arms. Tonosaki earned his starting job after impressing in left field, which later became right field. Akiyama is coming off a career year with 25 HRs, even though he had 216 hits in 2015. Defending stolen base king Kaneko is still dangerous on the bases as Tonosaki joins him with great speed.
The Eagles used Hiroaki Shimauchi and Carlos Peguero for majority of the season in the OF. Takero Okajima was an all-star for 2016, but had fallen off in 2017. Louis Okoye has been the most intriguing position prospect as a raw talent, but injuries have made his ichi-gun season short.
While Okoye has a lot of potential to do damage, the Lions outfield is more well-rounded and balanced with a proven track record compared to Rakuten's.
Ginjiro Sumitani and Motohiro Shima have both played for Samurai Japan, where the former replaced the latter in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Shima has the better reputation, but had a poor season at the plate.
Sumitani has been smarter as a hitter this year while likely benefiting from BABIP. He hasn't been an everyday catcher with Masatoshi Okada getting some games, but his defense is unquestioned. Based on 2017. Gin-chan gets the nod.
Hatsuhiko Tsuji entered his first season as a manager after spending several years as a coach. He made his goal simple, which was to focus on defense. Obviously has no track record or postseason experience being the man in charge until now.
Masataka Nashida has led the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to Pacific League pennants in 2001 and 2008, respectively. In both outings, his teams would lose the Japan Series. When hired, this was initially viewed as a retread, but it made plenty of sense for an Eagles team who struggled offensively in 2015 under Dave Okubo. Nashida was the predecessor to current Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama.
Under Nashida, the Eagles offense has taken off with less stolen bases, but stronger as a hitting team. Plate discipline and hitting were his strengths at improving the Fighters when Trey Hillman left and it has carried over to Sendai.
With Nashida being more experienced, he has a slight edge over Tsuji, but you can make a good argument for the Lions skipper.
The Seibu Lions went 16-8-1 against the Eagles in 2017, which included a 10-game winning streak in the midst of this. Kikuchi also has an eight game streak of beating the Eagles.
Rakuten was strong in the first half when playing Norimoto and Kishi, but the Lions emerged victorious against the bullpen and back end of the Eagles bullpen.
Nashida's last playoff game was in 2011, which was fittingly against the Lions. It was the last time the Lions won a postseason series and was also the final time Yu Darvish played in NPB for the Fighters. This record means all but nothing as the Eagles will put out their best pitchers and should be a challenge.
The Eagles looked like a pennant winning team in the first half of the year, but fell off the moment Yuki Matsui and Carlos Peguero were injured and the bullpen regressed. The offense wasn't clicking like it was in the first half, while the Lions went on a surge with a 13-game win streak.
Norimoto, Kishi and Mima will still be a tough matchup for the Lions as it is arguably more talented. Does the first half Rakuten team show up or the one we've seen since August?
For the Lions, the bats have been red hot since Yamakawa emerged as the starting 1B and the pitching held its ground. While we can't predict what will happen, we'll find out if the Lions can hit on Norimoto and Kishi. If not, they'll be in for a low scoring affair as the Rakuten starters are capable of stealing one in Tokorozawa.
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Posted by Christian Gin at 10:31 AM