(photo courtesy of JTB)
It’s the 4th iteration of the WBC, and the first since Japan failed to continue being the only winner of the de facto world tournament. In past iterations, I was able to recognize the names on the roster thanks to kokoyakyu. Matsuzaka (Yokohama) to Ichiro (Aikoudai Meiden), Tanaka Masahiro (Komadai Tomakomai) to Darvish Yuu (Tohoku), and more recently Nakata Shou (Osaka Touin) and Maeda Kenta (PL Gakuen).
So, who do I recognize on the WBC roster? Quite a few. But from following Koushien? That’s another story.
Well, you could have mentioned Ootani Shouhei, but he’s injured and not playing. He’s still the hottest thing since sliced bread, but he will not be aiding Samurai Japan in their bid to retake the title.
With Ootani gone, the #18 is taken by no one, perhaps showing how big of a loss he is to the team. That means that the one to take the mantle as the fireballing pitcher will be the other tall imposing figure, and the one perhaps we’ve all forgot about from the same draft – Osaka Touin’s Fujinami Shintarou. Sure he’s not the two-way player Ootani is, but he has averaged over a K/IP so far in his 4 year career, and did so in the last 3 seasons.
His only downside? Walks. His walk rate is 3.93/9, which is not great by any stretch. Note though that compared to Ootani’s 3.54 BB/9, it’s not all that bad. It’s just Ootani strikes out an extra batter per 9, and gives up about 1.5 hits less per 9. If you want someone under the radar that you could get at a discount because of Ootani perhaps Fujinami (even if inexplicable), could be that guy.
On the backend, their closer is former starter for Toukou Gakuen, Matsui Yuuki. After being a starter for Rakuten in his first year, he was converted to the bullpen where he put up a stellar 2015, striking out almost 13 batters per 9 innings. His 2016 was not as good, but they will lean on his 90’s fastball to try and close out the competition. His bugaboo, as with many is his walk rate, which could make for roller coaster endings. Hopefully for them it’s not the Fernando Rodney Experience.
Probably as a backup catcher is Kobayashi Seiji formerly of Kouryou and the ill-fated game against Saga Kita. He has not found success so far with Yomiuri, but he was their primary C last year.
Then there’s both Tanaka Kousuke (Toukaidai Sagami) and Sakamoto Hayato (Kousei Gakuin) who both went to Haru Koushien in 2006 though that was in my early infancy in following kokoyakyu.
Of course there is Nakata Shou, who returns for his 2nd WBC. He’s still mashing the ball, but needs to rebound a bit after a lackluster 2016. He’ll want to put up a good showing here if he still wants to realize coming to the states.
Then there’s Yamada Tetsuto (Riseisha). It’s surprising that another team has risen to challenge Osaka Touin, especially with PL Gakuen’s rather quick demise, but Riseisha has done it. Yamada was big for Riseisha in 2010, going 4-6 with 3 RBI’s and the only 2 RBIs in the loss to Kousei Gakuin. It took a couple of years to get acclimated, but in his first full season in 2014, he hit 0.324 with 29 HRs and an OPS of 0.941 and so far has not looked back. He’s been shifted to 2B, but if you can get that production off what is normally not a power position, all the better.
Tsutsugou Yoshitomo (Yokohama) was part of Yokohama while they were still in their heyday. He was completely mashing for his team in the cleanup spot going 7-17 with 3 HRs and 12 RBIs before being pitched around by Osaka Touin in their semifinal loss in 2008. Like Yamada, Tsutsugou took a couple of years to round into form, but like Yamada in 2014 he has never looked back, hitting over 0.300 since with 20+ HRs each year.
Everyone else is either from before my time following Koushien, or who never made it. In fact, there are several out there which I never saw but perhaps should be on the radar.
Lost in the 2013 title run for Tohoku Rakuten was Norimoto Takahiro. In fact, he didn’t explode until after Tanaka left for the states. And boy did he ever, leading the league in K’s for 3 straight years, striking out over 200 batters and averaging 9.64 K’s per 9 innings. His main weapon for the K seems to be the forkball, but he does have a slider and change. No splitter though which seems to be all the rage. Still getting the job done regardless. Reports have him coming after the 2019 season which would put him around 30 years old if he comes over.
Then there’s Yomiuri Giants’ Sugano Tomoyuki. While he came out of Toukaidai Sagami he too did not make it to Koushien. And yet, he basically went gangbusters out of the gate. He’s not the strikeout pitcher the other 2 are, but he’s about as stingy with the walks as you could get, walking just 2 batter per 9 innings so far in his career and carrying a whip of 1.07. The question is if it will translate versus non-Japanese competition, but if they’re going to win it all, he has to come through.
The last main key of their starting rotation is Senga Koudai. Drafted out of obscurity from Gamagoori in Aichi, the Softbank Hawks took their time with him, starting him out in the bullpen where he put together a great 2013 campaign before injuries derailed 2014 and 2015. When he did return in 2015 he was a starter, not a reliever. That proved to be the right move because he put up a banner 2016 striking out 9.6 batters per 9 innings. The pitch limits at the WBC will probably help him as he made just 25 starts last year and may still be win the process of getting back to 100%.
Perhaps as an insurance policy to Matsui Yuuki is Hirano Yoshihisa. In his 10 year career he has moved from starter to setup man to closer. He won’t overpower anyone, but he has better control while still striking out over a batter per inning.
Finally, an interesting pitcher to watch is setup man Akiyoshi Ryou, who is a side-armer who can hit 90+. He averages almost a K/IP, and walks less than 3 batters per 9 innings.
I do wonder what it will take for Japan to try and make a run in 2017. 2013 perhaps saw Japan trying to relive some of the olden days and running out an older squad. That’s not the case this time around I think. They’ve certainly gone younger and adding some oomph into their lineup. But the strength of Japan, their pitching, has to hold. If they don’t have that, they don’t have anything.