Every once in a while I try to fake being a Real Baseball Writer – I’ll whip out a stat or two, try to argue a point, basically do something other than waste a whole bunch of bandwidth with obsessive amounts of photos and snide comments. (OK – you are now thinking “Yeah right, when did you do anything other than have a 10Mb front page + a bunch of half-assed jokes?” Shaddup, I’m on a roll.) Interleague play is just about upon us – Lotte opens on Wednesday in Yokohama – and the season is ever so slightly past the 25% mark so I figured now would be a good time as any.
If you are a bottom line guy or gal – as I am – you can’t really argue with the form of Chiba Lotte in the first 3/2 months. Currently our guys are just a half game back of (grr) Seibu and half a game up on Daiei. More importantly, all three teams at the top are well separated from the rest of the three teams. Lotte’s form hasn’t been nearly as strong in the past few weeks as the first month but it’s still been good enough to stay in a great position, which is all that counts. The team has the look of a team that will make the playoffs and do some damage, though obviously there’s a hell of a lot of time left between 10 May and the end of the season.
I’m not going to whip up grades for everyone at this early stage, but here’s the players I think most contributed to the team’s success so far.
It’s a tough race – pretty much everyone in the lineup has given a significant offensive contribution at one time or another. The only glaring weak spot has been at the DH position – Fukuura has gotten the bulk of the ABs in this slot and has performed just OK with a .790 OPS in a bit under 90 PAs. Saburo is 4th in the league in Ks and has a pretty woeful .739 OPS.
The rest of the offense has been spectacular. The team leads all of NPB in runs scored and team BA (by almost 25 points). Lotte has 3 of the top 4 in OPS (5 of the top 10), 3 of the top 4 in BA. One player, though, has been exceptional even by the standards of this group – Iguchi. He leads the league in (deep breath): OPS (by over 100 points, 1.002), OBP (by 55 points), walks (by 13), doubles (by 7 – his 18 is on pace to destroy the NPB record for a season) and is third in RBI. It’s indisputable – he’s been the best player for Lotte so far, and is probably the best player in the Pacific League this year (with really only Jose Ortiz in the argument)
This hasn’t been the strong point of the season to date, despite a good early start. Naruse has been nice most of the season, even dominant at times, but he’s been victimized by way too many HRs (13 so far, more than twice any other pitcher in the Pacific League). In fact, if you drop his HR total to the league average (around 4) his ERA drops to sub 2.00. Unfortunately, they do count.
No, the best pitcher so far has to be our newly converted closer, Hiroyuki Kobayashi (doesn’t it seem natural to have a Kobayashi as the Lotte closer?) He’s made 12 appearances and has yet to yield a run, is getting punch-outs at a 12 K/9 clip, and has recorded a RIP of 0.75. He has but 7 saves but quite frankly with the massive run differential in many of Lotte’s games he just hasn’t had that much opportunity. Still, perfection is perfection.
Ah, controversy. Most might say our new masher in the cleanup spot – Kim Tae Kyun – is the winner of this one. It’s hard to argue with him – .929 OPS (3rd), 9 HRs (2nd), 37 RBI (2nd), 6 GW RBI (first, by a bunch) and has played great defense. The other main addition is our first round draft pick, Takashi Ogino. You’ve probably already guessed that I think Ogino is the greater impact addition. Rather than making my case by pointing out holes in Tae Kyun’s game (and they are very, very big holes – the 45 Ks, lackadaisical base running, and the positively gruesome .276 BA with runners in scoring position) I’ll make the positive case for Ogino:
He’s second in the league in BA (.331), first in steals (24) and sacrifices (18) in a largely thankless role in the two-spot. In that spot he has absolutely delivered when he has needed to – look at his .386 BA with RISP for proof. He advances the runners in front of him, given space on the base paths he destroys them ( 4 steals last Sunday!), and he always gets himself in a position to score once he reaches base. I don’t know what the sabermetric stat for on-base slugging is (that is, number of bases added after reaching safely, via steal, taking the extra base, advancing on a sacrifice or passed ball, etc) but he would have to rank insanely high. In my opinion, he’s been the second most important impact player on for the offense this year.
Given Tae Kyun’s huge numbers as of late (his 7 HRs in 7 games streak ended Sunday) he could certainly become the best rookie if not the best offensive threat on the team, but for now it’s Ogino.
What’s not in dispute is the season has been a smashing success to this point. Let’s hope it continues in the interleague series.