As I write this the Swallows are languishing in 5th place in the Central League, and are generally having a torrid time in the Inter League games this year (though things have been looking up a little during the last few days).
So let’s have a look at the cast of starting pitchers who have climbed the mound so far this year for the Tokyo Birds.
19 Masanori Ishikawa – ????
Aah, little Masanori. Since 2002 Yakult’s Junior High School student look-alike has been the clubs most solid and dependable pitcher, winning 10 games or more for the first 5 of his years with the team. The flipside of that is that he also tends to loose almost as many games as he wins, with an ERA consistently hovering around the 4 mark. So solid and dependable, yes, but spectacular he is not. A pitcher not known for either throwing much heat, or any particularly big breaking pitches, the baby faced Ishikawa has to rely on his solid control and his nous to succeed in the NPB.
With the team’s top two starters from the 2007 season, Kazuhisa Ishii and Seth Greisinger, both heading to pastures new to enjoy baths of asses milk and feasts of money sandwiches while being spanked by a troupe of dancing Geishas new challenges, there was a lot on Masanori’s shoulders this season, as the teams most experienced starter in a very young starting rotation, and the teams recognised “ace”. This combined with him coming off the worst season of his career in 2007 (4 wins, 7 losses with an ERA of 4.38 in just 15 starts) when he was, aside from a masterful outing at Seibu Dome, uniformly terrible, meant that when his name was announced as the starting pitcher for this year’s opening game with the Giants I was more than a little concerned.
I need not have worried though as he won that game, and continued to be sterling, winning the Central League’s MVP award for the month of April. He had a slightly less sterling May due to poor run support from his slumping team mates, but as I write this he has a record of 6 wins and 4 losses in 12 starts, but the big change this year is his ERA, which currently sits at 2.101 – the 3rd best in the CL.
He is the shining beacon of hope in an otherwise inconsistent rotation. Little Masanori – we salute you!
34 Daniel Rios – ????????
Born in Spain, and brought up in the US, Daniel came to Yakult in the same way Seth Greisinger did the year before, as the best pitcher in the Korean league, with a lot of hope that he could emulate the amazing success that Greisinger had had with the Swallows the year before. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. Not. At. All. Though he had a reasonable enough pre-season, when it came to the regular season it became apparent that this was no Greisinger. He was just too hittable and opposing hitters got on top of him with ease, amassing an mighty ERA of 5.456 with 2 wins and 7 losses in his 11 starts.
But what made a pitcher who won 20 games in Korea last season seem so different in Japan? Are the leagues really that different in class? Many theories are abound, from the theory that the Japanese strike zone is narrower than that in Korea, meaning that Rios with his main weapon being his slider, has had more difficulty getting strikes, to the one that due to most of his early starts taking place on the road meant that he couldn’t acclimatise to the new ballparks as well as he would have liked.
Whatever the reason, he’s been a crushing disappointment. And as of early June, he has been dropped to Ni-gun (the farm team) leaving a gaping hole in the rotation. I really do hope he can get it together and I like the guy. He always seems like he’s giving it his all for the cause, but it just hasn’t gone for him so far in Tokyo. Let’s hope he can make it back up from the farm team refreshed and improved and can help the team push on toward a final play-off spot.
15 Kyouhei Muranaka – ????
In what has essentially been his rookie season, it’s been a mixed time so far for Muranaka this year. At a mere 21 years of age he is the youngest member of this year’s rotation and from what we’ve seen so far, he has a lot of potential to become a great pitcher over the coming years. He had a good start to the season, winning his first game against the Dragons at Nagoya Dome, and then faced the Giants at the inflatable balloon that is Tokyo Dome. In that game he showed his mettle, by shutting down the powerful Giants bats despite having given up two solo dingers to the first two bats he faced (Takahashi and Kamei for the record). He took the loss that day but showed great spirit after the terrible start he made in front of the large Tokyo Dome sea of orange idiots crowd. Then in May, he was 3 outs away from throwing a no-hitter at Jingu before fatigue caught up with him (he threw 137 pitches) and a 5 run ninth for the Giants (with a little help from our own sawn-off shotgun Igarashi) handed him his 3rd loss of the year.
Since that night he’s only picked up one more win, and is now sitting on a record of 3 wins and 7 losses with an ERA of 4.739 in his 11 starts. While he has stuggled of late, I’m willing to give him a pass due to the flashes of greatness he has shown thus far, and feel he’s going to become one of the mainstays of our rotation for years to come.
25 Shouhei Tateyama – ????
Since 2003 Tateyama has been Yakult’s utility man, being used as a starter, reliever and even closer, to varying degrees of success. Sublime one game, ridiculous the next, you never know what to expect from the man. Indeed, his announcement as the day’s starter at Jingu still brings shivers of trepidation as to exactly which Tateyama will show up on the mound. Well, maybe it’s time to change my opinion of the man. With a career ERA of 3.86, it seems his good days do outnumber the bad, so maybe it’s just those bad memories that have been burned into my brain that are clouding my judgement. Because so far this year, the 27 year old has been absolutely invaluable to the cause.
He started the year in the bullpen, but was soon brought into the starting rotation to plug the gap left by Katoh (see below) and has done a great job so far for the team, winning 5 games and losing one with and ERA of 2.905.
So Mr.Tateyama, I’m sorry for doubting you in the past. Keep up the good work and I want to see you cement your place in the rotation and make good on the obvious talent and promise you have shown up until now.
22 Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi – ????
Hard throwing High-Schooler drafted by the Swallows in 2007. He was thrown into the starting rotation by then-manager Furuta and struggled, pitching just 29 and a third innings in 6 appearences. He spent the rest of the year in ni-gun so I did wonder how he had progressed when he started his first game against the Baystars this season. Well, the answer is, he’s improved, but maybe not quite ready for a regular starting role yet. This year he’s won 2 and lost 3 with an ERA of 4.459 and is currently dropped to ni-gun for re-adjustment. Definitely one for the future then, and I’m sure he’ll be back this season to contribute some more.
16 Mikinori Katoh – ??????
Another hard throwing youngster drafted this year from college ball. Only 23 years of age he came to Yakult with a lot of promise for the future, and had a chance to try to realise that when he got a baptism of fire, starting the third game of the season-opening series against the Giants. He did Ok that day, allowing 2 runs in 4 and two thirds innings in a 10-2 rout of Yomiuri. Since then he started just one more game (a 6-3 loss to the Dragons) and made three more appearances in relief while his ERA ballooned to 11.118. Was subsequently dropped to ni-gun and that is where he currently dwells. Another one for the future then.
17 Ryo Kawashima – ???
In his five years with the Swallows Kawashima has established himself as one of the best starters at the club, with an ERA of 3.17 in his time with the team. Unfortunately, as well as being very talented, he is also very injury-prone which has hampered his career so far. He’s managed only two starts thus far this year, giving up just two earned runs for a win and a loss. If he can stay injury free I’ve no doubt he can become one of the best starters in Japan, but that’s a big if judging on his career so far. Let’s pray he can make it back soon as the way this year is going, a pitcher like him could be the difference between 3rd and 4th places.
(Dis)Honourable mention goes to…….
78 – Dicky Gonzalez
Former New York Mets pitcher who came to the birds in 2004. The powers that be saw enough in him in his 3 years from 2004-06 that they signed him to a big money, multi-year deal. He subsequently screwed up his elbow, didn’t pitch at all in 2007, and hasn’t been seen thus far in 2008 either. So where are you Dicky? We could really use you back in the rotation sometime soon to see you repay some of that cash Yakult’s been throwing at you these last 5 years. Any Dicky Gonzalez sighting info, please forward to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So there you have it. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows 2008 starters. With the average age of this year’s Japanese starters at 24, the future for our rotation is certainly full of promise for years to come. Unfortunately the remainder of this season is full of uncertainty with Rios, Masubuchi and Katoh all currently with the farm team. It will be interesting to see what Swallows’ manager Takada will do from here on in. Possibly call up this year’s High School draftee Yoshinori Sato who has been throwing heat down at the farm? Or give one of the bullpen a chance to pull a Tateyama and cement a place as a starter? Maybe we’ll see the return of Kawashima? Whatever happens, it should sure be interesting, if not bad for my blood pressure.
(Note: all stats used in this article were correct as of the end of play on June 6th 2008 )