Climax Series Preview
The Swallows are about to open their playoff journey by traveling down to Nagoya to play a best-of-3 series against the Chunichi Dragons in the Nagoya Dome. We’ll make a comprehensive comparison of both teams and see how we stack up to our Nagoya counterparts. For American baseball fans joining us for the first time, let’s quickly go over the rules of the first round.
- Best-of-3 series.
- Home and away will not alternate between the teams. All games will be played at Nagoya Dome with the Dragons as the home team.
- The three-and-a-half hour rule limiting the start of extra innings WILL NOT be in effect during the Climax Series. HOWEVER, games that cannot decide a winner after 12 innings will still end in ties.
- If a series goes 1-1-1 or 0-0-3, Chunichi will advance to the next round. If a series goes 1-0-2, the team with the win will advance to the next round.
- Starting pitchers will not be announced in advance like in the regular season.
Now that we got the boring rules stuff out of the way, let’s examine the upcoming match up in various ways.
Regular Season Stats and Stadium Effect
The Swallows went 13-8-3 overall against the Dragons, with a 6-3-1 record in the Nagoya Dome. 8 of those Nagoya Dome were decided by 2 runs or less, and although the Swallows outscored the Dragons 24-13 in the Dome, 9 of those runs came in a single game in July. The Nagoya Dome is a notorious pitchers’ park that has caused problems for many teams in the past, but this season the Swallows were the only Nagoya visitors to come away with winning records. While past success is not an indicator of future return, at least the Swallows can go into the weekend with the psychological edge of believing they can win in the Dome. The Dragons will of course get the psychological edge of a loud playoff crowd amplified by playing in a concrete dome.
Advantage? We give the Swallows a slight advantage.
In a best-of-3 series, depth of starting pitching is not a factor. As long as you have 2-3 solid arms, no one cares about your other options. The Dragons are missing 2 of their top starters for the series against the Swallows. Kazumi Yoshimi, probably the best pitcher between the two teams, and Enyelbert Soto will not be available for the series. Which would probably put the ball in the hands of Kenshin Kawakami (3-1; 2.83 ERA), Kenichi Nakata (7-10; 2.83 ERA), and Soma Yamauchi (10-7; 2.43 ERA). Shinji Iwata (5-5, 2.74 ERA) is also another candidate to start. While all of the aforementioned pitchers are good, they do not inspire the same kind of fear that Yoshimi and (now Baltimore Oriole) Wei-Yin Chen posed last year.
Shohei Tateyama (12-8; 2.25 ERA) the best available pitcher on either team will definitely take the mound in the series. Masanori Ishikawa (8-11; 3.60 ERA) will probably also get a start due to experience and seniority. Ishikawa hasn’t started a game in Nagoya this season, but has a 1-1 record in 3 starts with a 2.05 ERA against the Dragons this year. The Swallows’ options for third starter will probably come down to Orlando Roman (9-11; 3.04 ERA) and Kyohei Muranaka (10-7; 3.88 ERA). While Muranaka has been less consistent of the two, the young lefty has had some of his best games this season against the Dragons including back-to-back shutouts. While it would be imprudent to look past the Dragons, we also note that Roman has had much better numbers against the Giants with pedestrian numbers against the Dragons.
Beyond Tateyama, neither team’s starters have been very consistent and come out quite equal.
Advantage? Again, we give a slight advantage to the Swallows, mainly for having Tateyama.
Here, the Dragons have the Swallows beat quite handily. The Dragons have 3 pitchers with 50+ appearances and under-2 ERAs. Daisuke Yamai (56 G; 1.43 ERA), Shinji Tajima (56 G; 1.15), and Jorge Sosa (53 G, 1.83 ERA) all no doubt have had their numbers boosted by playing in the Nagoya Dome, but it doesn’t change the fact that all three will be hard to hit in the Dome this weekend. The Dragons also have CL saves co-leader Hiroki Iwase (54 G; 2.29 ERA) and 2011 CL MVP Takuya Asao (29 G; 1.50 ERA) to round out their reliever relay. While Asao has spent some time out injured this year and has not returned to his other worldly form that won him the MVP last year, he has been consistent in his appearances in the end of the season. 47 year-old uber-veteran and radio-controlled car enthusiast, Masa Yamamoto (3-2; 2.94 ERA) will be available out of the pen for long relief, if necessary.
Meanwhile on the Swallows side, the only two consistent relievers for the team have been CL saves co-leader Tony Barnette (57 G; 1.82 ERA) and Tetsuya Yamamoto (50 G; 1.21 ERA). Ryo Hidaka (66 G; 2.98 ERA) has also ended the season strong and lead the team in appearances this year. Takehiko Oshimoto (65 G; 3.62 ERA) has also been one of the first men out of the bullpen but has lacked the consistency he’s shown in past years giving up a whopping 9 homeruns in his 59 and 2/3 innings. Kenichi Matsuoka (7 G; 0.00 ERA) has managed to keep his ERA at zero since returning in October, although he has allowed baserunners in all 4 of his October appearances. If last season is any indication, Ogawa will be willing to use starters in this series regardless of the consequences for the potential next round. Don’t be surprised to see Katsuki Akagawa (8-9; 3.79 ERA) or Muranaka make appearances from the pen in the series.
If the Swallows crack the Dragons’ starters they may have a harder time getting insurance runs against this bullpen. While the Dragons may have an easier time catching up/extending a lead if we have to reach deep into our bullpen.
Advantage? The Dragons bullpen get a big advantage for depth and consistency, two things the Swallows pen have lacked this season. But that deficit can be negated if our starters pitch deep and hand the ball off to Barnette and Yamamoto.
Catcher & Infield
The Dragons will probably go with the veteran group of Motonobu Tanishige (C), Tony Blanco (1B), Masahiro Araki (2B), Hirokazu Ibata (SS), and Masahiko Morino (3B) as their starting infield for the series. Ibata will be making a comeback from a minor injury, and has not played since the end of September. Ibata still put up good batting averages, and OBPs. In terms of power, Blanco still managed to jack 24 home runs (only 8 st Nagoya Dome) despite being out with injury. Only Blanco (.851) has an OPS above .700. Defensively this crew has lost a step but can still field difficult balls and aren’t a huge liability.
The Swallows’ starting infield will probably be Ryoji Aikawa (C), Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (1B), Hiroyasu Tanaka (2B), Shingo Kawabata (SS), and Shinya Miyamoto (3B). With the recent injury and unavailability of Ryosuke Morioka, it is likely that Miyamoto will not be given any opportunity to rest during the series. While Yuhei Nakamura may get starts en lieu of Aikawa. Offensively, Tanaka and Kawabata’s numbers compare favorably to their Dragons’ counterparts, while both Aikawa and Nakamura compare well to Tanishige. Defensively Hatakeyama can be slow at times, and Kawabata makes the occasional misstep, but overall group is also not a defensive liability.
Advantage? While on paper the Swallows seem to have the advantage. While the Swallows’ quartet don’t have the power Blanco can bring to the table, they generally do better at getting on base. However, the Dragons aging hitters still can hit gap doubles that can become problematic. In terms of potential, Blanco and the veterans all have the ability to have good games, and we’re weary to write them off. We’ll call this one a push.
The Dragons’ outfield looks like it will be Kazuhiro Wada (LF), Yohei Oshima (CF), and the Ryosuke Hirata/Takehiro Donoue platoon (RF). Wada is not the Wada of old, but the 40 year-old still puts up good numbers with a .370 OBP, a decent SLG% (.409) despite hitting just 9 home runs thanks to his 32 doubles. Oshima has developed into a fine lead off hitter, hitting .310 and stealing 32 bases. The third-year player has a .376 OBP to complement his hits and has hit his fair share of doubles (19). Hirata has gotten more at bats than Donoue largely because of his home run potential, Hiarata’s 11 homers are second to Blanco on the team. Although Hirata hits awfully close to the Mendoza line for a outfielder (.216), Donoue does a better job of hitting (.282) in less at bats and actually has a higher SLG% than his homerun hitting platoon mate (.410 vs. .361). Defensively, Oshima is a gold glover but the rest are average to below-average fielders.
The Swallows outfield has some question marks going into Saturday’s game. Lastings Milledge (LF) will most likely be making a return, but he has not had a chance to get in a game, even a ni-gun game, since mid-September. Wladimir Balentien (RF) will take his usual place in the corner. Leaving a big question mark in center field. Tsuyoshi Ueda, Yuhei Takai, and Kazuki Fukuchi are all possible starters at center field. The offensive bona fides of Milledge and Balentien cannot be questioned. Both have .800+ OPSs, have hit for good average and power. But both come into the game with question marks, Milledge having to do with his recovery from injury and seeing live pitching again, while Balentien is continually plagued with questions of motivation and consistency. On defense, any of the potential center fielders present decent range, and Ueda has a good arm. Milledge has good range and hustle but has occasionally shown bad jumps and decisions in his throws. Balentien has generally short range but has a cannon of an arm, and has shown tremendous hustle to make spectacular plays while giving up on others.
Advantage? If Milledge and Balentien can bring their A-games both players have the game changing potential to win the series for the Swallows. But the consistency of Wada and Oshima cannot be discounted if the Swallows end up struggling. But again we’ll give the advantage to the Swallows.
The Dragons bench is quite thin. Beyond the platoon players mentioned previously, 44 year-old Takeshi Yamasaki and Naomichi Donoue have gotten at bats and both players hit near the Mendoza line. The Dragons don’t have super-speedy pinch runners that are a threat to steal, and generally don’t have too many options to make defensive switches late in games.
The one major benefit of the Swallows’ injury rush this season has been the fact that the team has been forced to distribute playing time amongst many players and many have been very competent. Whoever doesn’t start at catcher, and at center will be ready to come in to at bat. While Masayoshi Miwa and Yoshiyuki Noguchi can provide running options late in the game. The loss of Morioka will hurt the infield depth, but even without him the Swallows will have more depth than the Dragons.
Advantage? The Swallows have the advantage here, but we’re not sure how much it will come into play.
The Dragons will be lead by Morimichi Takagi who looks like an angry old man. Unlike his predecessor, Hiromitsu Ochiai, Takagi hasn’t shown much tactical flair and it’s not clear that the players are behind him. Takagi has vowed to go conservative with a bunt heavy focus during the Climax Series. Hopefully the man is true to his word. This will be the first time Takagi manages a team in the post-season.
The Swallows’ Junji Ogawa is just as much a conservative bunt-loving Japanese manager as any other, but unlike many Japanese managers that use their position of authority to look down on their players, Ogawa is a player’s manager. As a manager that has protected his players, Ogawa has managed to develop the Swallows’ young players while garnering respect from his veteran players, creating a seemingly positive atmosphere. Ogawa made some gutsy personnel moves during last year’s Climax Series, we’ll see how last year’s experience will inform Ogawa.
Advantage? While tactically similar, we believe that Ogawa can probably get his players to play above their ability more so than Takagi and his veteran team.
We like the Swallows chances as evidenced by our predictions above, but small mistakes can become fatal in a best-of-3 series and the Dragons can certainly take 2 games off the Swallows. I would not be surprised if the team that scores first goes on to win the game. Expect close games, but if one team is going to explode it’s probably ours.