Some Thoughts on the 2014 NPB Regular Season That Was

The regular season for Japan’s NPB ended today with four teams playing their 144th and last game of the regular season.  Although it’s a shorter schedule, the NPB regular season usually ends later than MLB due to a greater number of rain-outs during Japan’s summer.

It would not now be too early for my annual post on the NPB players most likely to join MLB next year, but I feel like writing about the NPB regular season that was first.

Yomiuri won the Central League title in a walk with Hanshin and the Hiroshima Carp to play in the first round of the Challenge Series.  In the Pacific League, the Softbank Hawks and the Orix Buffaloes ended in essentially a tie, but since tie games (games that aren’t won in 12 innings become draws in NPB) don’t count in the standings, the Hawks finished two points higher in winning percentage and will thus presumably get a pass on the first round of the play-offs.

It’s a bit unfair for the Buffaloes, but at least they made the play-offs, which was especially important to the team’s parent corporation, which is celebrating its 50th corporate anniversary this year.  The Buffaloes will play the Nippon Ham Fighters in the first round of the Challenge Series.  This means that the two top prospects for MLB in 2015, pitchers Chihiro Kaneko and Kenta Maeda, will both be pitching in the post-season this year.

The batting champions this year were Matt Murton in the Central League and Yoshio Itoi in the Pacific League.  Itoi is probably the best all-around position player in NPB right now.  There was a lot of talk about Itoi coming to MLB for 2014 early last off-season, I don’t see him as a good sign for an MLB team at this point, even with the posting fee now capped at $20 million, because he’s already 33 years old.   In this regard, he shares a lot in common with Takashi Toritani, another terrific NPB player who has been talked about as a potential MLBer but is now too far past age 30 to be good risk for MLB teams.

Well, MLB’s loss is NPB’s gain.  NPB wouldn’t be much of a league if all of its best players went on to the U.S.

On the other hand, I strongly suspect that, with the possible exception of Dae-ho Lee, Matt Murton is the most overrated and overpaid player in NPB.  Obviously, Murton can hit for average, and his power in NPB isn’t terrible.  However, he does very little else to help a team win.

Murton doesn’t walk much (never more than 47 times in any of his five NPB seasons), he hits into a huge number of double plays (19 this year, 25 last year), and I suspect that 2014 was the year he became dead slow.  Murton once ran pretty well, but he hit zero triples and stole only two bases in seven attempts this year.  The fact that he got on base at least 223 times but scored only 58 runs is an indication that he is one of the slower players in NPB.

The slowest player in NPB is probably Dae-ho Lee, however.  Lee has more power than Murton and walks more, but he doesn’t score a lot of runs either, never more than 60 in any of his three NPB seasons, despite being payed like a major star by NPB standards.  He has hit zero triples the last two seasons and has yet to steal his first base in NPB after five attempts.  His RBI count was down this year too, despite playing in all 144 games and hitting in the middle of a pennant-winning team’s line-up. He hits into almost as many double plays as Murton.

Brad Eldred led the Central League in home runs with 37, and Ernesto Mejia and Takeya Nakamura tied for the Pacific League lead with 34, despite the fact that neither one played more than 111 games this year.  Mejia started the year in AAA, before signing with the Seibu Lions and becoming the season’s most exciting foreign rookie.

Nakamura, who is the best Japanese power hitter of the last decade, had his best season since 2011.  He’s a big body slugger who is now 31, and he’s likely to have problems staying healthy from here on out.

I have to think that the Seibu Lions play in a pretty great hitters’ park, because despite having not only Mejia and Nakamura but also the very promising youngster Hideto Asamura, the team finished the season with a record well below .500.

On the subject of Asamura, after having a breakout season at age 22 in 2013, he had a disappointing 2014 campaign due to injuries and the fact that he had to make a position switch, since the team had at least one too many 1B/DH types.  Still, he wasn’t terrible and he remains one of the top young NPB position players to watch.

Supplanting Asamura as the top young position player in NPB is the Yakult Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada, a 21 year old 2Bman.  His .324 batting average was third-best in the Central League and his .943 OPS was fifth best in all of NPB behind only Wladimir Balentien, the man who set the NPB all-time home run record with 60 last year and hit 31 dingers this year in an injury-plagued season, Itoi, Nakamura and Mejia.

The top pitcher in NPB in 2014 was clearly Chihiro Kaneko, who led NPB in wins (16), ERA (1.98) and finished third in strikeouts (199).  The best pitcher in the Central League is a tougher call, with Kenta Maeda, Randy Messenger and Tomoyuki Sugano all having arguments in their favor.

The top young pitchers in NPB in terms of becoming MLB stars one day are clearly 20 year old Shohei Otani, followed by 20 year old Shintaro Fujinami.  Otani finished 6th in NPB is ERA (2.61) and 4th in strikeouts (179), and is actually ahead of both Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka at the same age.  Fujinami’s 3.53 ERA was only 19th best out of 28 qualifiers, but his 172 Ks was fifth best.  20 year old Naoyuki Uwasawa and 23 year old Takahiro Norimoto also deserve mention.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad

2 Comments on “Some Thoughts on the 2014 NPB Regular Season That Was”

  1. Ah, if you’re going to mention nice young pitchers you should mention our Yuji Nishino as well. Nice starter last year at 22, converted to closer this year and ended up with 31 saves with a 0.83 WHIP and 9.78 K/9. He also just got named to Samurai Japan for the Nichibei series.

    If I recall Asamura played quite a bit more than 1B in 2013 – he played ever infield position at one point during the season.

  2. Burly Says:

    Nishino did have fine year at age 23. I guess I just have a prejudice that good starters are better pitchers than good relievers, and thus make the best prospects in terms of future MLB candidates. That said, Nishino looks promising as of this moment.

    I also meant to write something about the fine partial seasons that Cubans Yulieski Gurriel and Alfredo Despaigne had and the possible impact they could have next year if they are allowed to play in more of the NPB season. I guess that’s another post for later.

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