Saturday, July 14, 2018
Seibu Lions are winning, but bullpen could be downfall
The Saitama Seibu Lions are in first place of the Pacific League, but this season is far from over. Unfortunately, the bullpen blunders could catch up to them.
Rewind to three years ago, a similar thing happened where the Lions looked like a first place team, but a downfall occurred slightly before the All-Star break and led to a franchise record 13-game losing streak. It was the decline of Tomomi Takahashi when the wheels began to fall off when he recorded his first blown save of the season.
In 2018, the Lions have gotten away with the league's highest team-ERA at 4.30, where majority of it comes from the bullpen. Every Lions reliever has been deactivated at least once this year, including the incumbent Tatsushi Masuda.
Here's a brief look at each struggling reliever:
Tatsushi Masuda: Lost closer role in June and continued to give up base runners. In his latest outing against the Fighters in early July, he failed to record an out which led to his deactivation.
Shota Takekuma: Failed to close a game against the Carp when the Lions had a three-run lead in the 10th inning. In low leverage, he continued to either give up home runs or scoring and was deactivated during interleague play.
Katunori Hirai: Was a clear culprit at giving up home runs early, but many of them were with a cushion. Things caught up to him in interleague play and he was deactivated in June. However, he showed a resurgence in July where he struck out all four batters faced in a win against the Eagles.
Shogo Noda: Gave up several home runs early in the year and was deactivated. He was called up recently and helped preserve a one-run lead against the Eagles. Might be the best left-handed option out of the bullpen when the Lions had nearly none at one point.
Naoaki Matsumoto: A 10th round pick in 2015, Matsumoto has received mostly low leverage innings to finish mop up duty. He gives up a lot of loud contact, but not much of it has been damaging the team despite his ERA.
Neil Wagner: Initially thought to be the setup man, he continued to walk batters and everyone was able to foul off his pitches after the first month. A horrible June led to his deactivation. He was later called up after Brian Wolfe wasn't needed for an extended break, but gave up five runs with a nine-run lead in his return, leading to another deactivation. It's likely he won't return to the ichi-gun for the rest of the season with that performance.
Hirotaka Koishi: A pitcher best used in a pinch for a ground ball. Like the rest, he hangs up the pitches which allows contact for doubles and easy base hits.
Tomomi Takahashi: Coming off Tommy John surgery. Lions fans saw a snippet of him in 2017 on the road to recovery. In his only ichi-gun game of 2018, he failed to record an out and didn't look impressive, leading to what is a reported injury. At this rate, he will never return to the form he had in 2014 and the first half of 2015.
Deunte Heath: Heath was given an early audition in Kobe against Orix and gave up some hits, where the Lions chose Wagner over him at the time. He was called up again and has improved after starting this year in Toyama playing in an independent league. Currently the team's setup man.
Fabio Castillo: Initially in the rotation, the Lions made Castillo the closer once Masuda began to struggle. Castillo has done the same, but with walks. In high pressure situations, Castillo's lack of control has hurt him which have led to walked in runs and loud contact. He's better off as a starter, but the Lions prefer his velocity in the 9th inning compared to others.
Tatsuya Oishi: Received limiting playing time after not pitching in a dominant fashion. Capable of doing well against righties with his slider.
Hayato Takagi: Gave up too many hits as a reliever and did better in a starting role for a pinch. Likely not built to be on call as a bullpen guy.
Others like Tadasuke Minamikawa or Sho Ito are not included since they've only been up for a few games.
The Lions have continuously seen a revolving door in the bullpen due to these poor performances and it appears to only get worse with no established closer. Their options are limited, but here are some of the things I'd suggest with 2.5 months left in the season:
Demote Fumiya Nishiguchi, promote Kento Sugiyama
Nishiguchi inherited an ichi-gun pitching coach role due the death of the late Shinji Mori. The 2017 season was his first as a full-time coach at the ni-gun level and he was already seen with the ichi-gun after Mori's death. His experience is minimal as a whole and while he's a great name, it's possible he's not ready to be coaching everyone full-time.
I truly don't know exactly what goes on behind the scenes, but Nishiguchi is the coach who sits in the bullpen on game day while Yoshihiro Doi is in the main dugout and talks to pitchers during the game. Something needs to be done as this bullpen regressed from last year.
On the flip side, Sugiyama has plenty of coaching experience and was even teammates with Nishiguchi at one point during the post-Golden Era 90s. He had a shorter playing career, but coached with the Rakuten Eagles and most recently, the Lamigo Monkeys in Taiwan for 2017.
Rather than handing someone a top job based on their playing experience or even hierarchy experience, the Lions should make a move somewhere.
Move Heath to close, Castillo to the rotation
Heath is by no means dominant, but I think he's the best option given the circumstances. He has shown the ability to strikeout batters despite the scare and has better control than Castillo. At this point, Heath should get a look into the 9th inning. Castillo can go into the rotation again and be able to focus on knowing when he'll start, rather than being on-call.
Make Hirai and Noda the setup men
The Lions are mostly doing this already given how both guys were better in ni-gun. They can easily go by the matchup with Hirai having extreme splits against right handed batters, but both guys could interchangeably take the 7th and 8th.
Give Masuda a look when it's August, but ease him in
Masuda has yet to play a ni-gun game and it's likely that he's just trying to refine his game with Ming-Chieh Hsu and Sugiyama coaching him. The Lions had the right idea to demote him to a 6th or 7th inning role, but even he failed in that department up to this point. If the coaches like what they're seeing later, give him a shot back into the 7th inning for an ichi-gun game, but don't force him as a closer yet.
Sign another import before the deadline
Teams have signed several mid-season imports as the July 31 deadline is coming up. The Lions have room for up to three players with 67 on their 70-man roster. However, two of those spots are reserved for possible ikusei promotions with Wataru Takagi and/or Masato Saito there. One spot is open and the Lions should take a flyer on someone given the glaring needs in the bullpen.
The Lions are fortunate their offense is at the top of the league and hasn't cooled down as a whole, preventing any issues up to this point. However, this bullpen has the makings of a collapse just waiting to happen. August will be a very telling month one way or another if this team can be taken for real or not.
Otherwise, the starting pitcher will be asked to go at least seven innings every time, which is ill-advised in today's game. Do you have alternate suggestions? Let us know.
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Posted by Christian Gin at 2:18 PM