Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hell Yeah!!!

According to Chunichi Shimbun, Kenshin Kawakami has reached out to Dragons management and the two sides are discussing a deal.
Update: Looks like a one-year deal for not a lot of money.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Shuhei Takahashi

Birthday: January 18, 1994 (Age: 18)
Height: 180cm
Weight: 85kg
Hometown: Kanagawa
Blood Type: O
Hobby: Shopping
High School: Tokai University Kofu H.S.
Uniform #: 31
Throws: Right
Bats: Left
Position: Infield

Baseball Highlights: 2012 NPB First Round Selection, Most Valuable Player of the 2011 Asian 18U Baseball Championship, hit 71 home runs during his high school career

Easily the most exciting addition so far to the 2012 Dragons is first-round pick Shuhei Takahashi.  He appears to be the most coveted position player in this past years draft.  He was selected on draft day by Orix and Yakult as well as the Dragons.  Chunichi just happened to win the rights to Takahashi via a lottery between those three teams.  The only other position player taken in the first round was college outfielder Hayata Ito by Hanshin and the Tigers were the only team to select Ito.

Takahashi signed with the team in November, which isn't always a sure thing in the NPB.  Nippon Ham was unable to sign their first-round pick this year and there is a long history of picks refusing to sign because they would prefer to play for a different team than the one they were drafted by.  Takahashi's contract for the upcoming season is worth 12M yen with a 100M yen bonus.

Chunichi's new manager, Morimichi Takagi, announced Takahashi would be attending Ichi-gun spring camp prior to the season. Takahashi has since reported to rookie training camp which began last week and will move on to Ichi-gun camp once that begins.

I haven't seen anything resembling a scouting report on Takahashi in English, but here are some details translated mainly from Japan high school baseball writer Soichi Kawashima and some comments from NPB team scouts:
  • Takahashi has extremely good bat speed and can cover both the inside and outside of the plate
  • He is seen as having more of a line drive producing swing at this point, but has been able to hit for power using it, including some tape-measure shots and opposite field home runs
  • Needs to improve pitch recognition and thinking ahead while batting, is mostly an instinctual hitter at this point
  • Played shortstop in high school, but scouts project him as third baseman professionally
  • Has a strong throwing arm, but needs to improve his routes to groundballs (charge them more) to have a chance to play shortstop at higher levels
  • Below-average footspeed, needs to improve awareness during baserunning
  • Has shown team leadership skills in high school, as well as unselfishness in interacting with teammates
  • Has a strong will and work ethic, works hard at following coachs' directions, but isn't the most intuitive at understanding his own faults as a player
  • Had some trouble adjusting to using a wood bat during U18 Asian Tournament, though still won the Most Valuable Player
Clearly he has shown a lot of power in high school and international competition.  He has also shown some good contact skills beyond that, all of which Chunichi desperately needs right now.  It sounds like the team is looking at him as their future third baseman.  That position is currently held by Masahiko Morino, he is coming off of a sub-par season, but is still one of Chunichi's best hitters.  Morino has also spent time recently at first base and used to be able to play the corner outfield positions.  Not sure if he is still a viable option in the outfield, but I think there is a good chance he will be the team's full-time first baseman by the time Takahashi is ready.  The scouts' opinions are somewhat mixed on when they expect Takahashi to be ready to be a Ichi-gun regular.  All of the ones we saw expect him to be a starting everyday player within five years, some said if he works hard it will be closer to a couple years, and a couple said his swing his is ready for the middle of an NPB batting order right now.  Still I wouldn't expect Takahashi to play much this season with the Ichi-gun club.  I'm sure that will depend on how he performs in the pre-season and in Ni-gun to start the year.  Even as bad as Chunichi was last year offensively, it is hard to believe that an 18-year old would be able to step in and improve the team right away. 

Even if he doesn't spend much time at Ichi-gun this year it is nice to know they have one of the top prospects around, because the average age of Chunichi's starting position players is near 33.  The current players will need to pass on the torch to younger players sooner rather than later and at the moment I'm seeing a lot more potential holes than I'm seeing capable young players to fill them.  Hopefully Takahashi can get things moving in the right direction for the young players and the Dragons have in him a future team leader, it is certainly too early to tell, but it will be fun to see what he can do.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Round 1 and Japanese Batting Centers

One of my new favorite places is Round 1.  The first time I saw one was in 2010, but I wasn't able to go until a couple weeks ago.  There are a lot of them in Japan and according to their website there is one in City of Industry, CA near L.A.  The one we went to had four floors:  the first floor looked like it had slot machines and pachinko, the second floor had an arcade and karaoke, the third floor had a full-sized bowling alley, and the fourth floor was dedicated to spo-cha (sports challenge).  We paid for 3 hours that gave us access to a portion of the arcade, karaoke and spo-cha.  The price was also very reasonable before 4 P.M. for families.  I spent a majority of my time in the spo-cha area, which was half inside and half open air.  They had five batting cages, a pitching challenge machine, mini-golf, basketball courts, tennis courts, ping-pong, volleyball and a bunch of other things too.  I was somewhat concerned about how good the batting cages would be, because it wasn't a baseball specific place, but I was pleasantly surprised.  All of the machines had a LED screen of the pitcher winding-up and throwing and then release the ball as if it had been thrown by the on-screen pitcher.  They were also pretty roomy, with enough space to not hit the side of the cage with my bat on the follow through.  The max speed of any of the machines was 130km and had a setting to change speeds between 130, 110, and 90km.  So there was definitely enough there to keep me challenged and interested for awhile and no limit to how many rounds I could play.

The cage

My nephew punishing the 90km
In general Japanese batting centers are superior to any cages I have ever been to in the U.S.  On my first visit to Japan I went to two batting centers in the Tokyo area, the best one being near Jingu Stadium.  Those had full video screens where you could bat against your favorite NPB pitcher, I remember hitting against Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara.  I don't remember how fast the machines were throwing, but I remember some had a setting that allowed them to throw a variety of breaking balls, which were impossible for me to hit.
I have also been to another local batting center in Toyohashi several times.  They have about eight machines, but only one is a LED machine.  One thing they do have is a 150km machine.  It has something similar to an ice cream scoop that holds the ball and whips it at you at 150, and if it's not 150 it's damn close.  You definitely want to wear a helmet for that one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2012 Japanese Beer List

Nothing goes better with a ballgame than a cold one, but there wasn't any games to go to on this vacation (except for little league) so I had to live with just beer on it's own.

Here is a list of beers I tried on our recent trip to Japan, by brewery and ranking in order of my enjoyedness:

Echigo Brewery; Niigata:
Red Ale

Ise Kadoya Brewery; Ise:
Kumano Kodo Ale
Shinto Beer (Sinto)

Kinshachi Brewery; Nagoya:
Okazaki Miso Lager
Nagoya Akamiso
Red Label Alt
Matcha Draft (Green Tea)

Suntory Premium Malt's
Suntory Premium Malt's Kuro
Sapporo: The Winter's Tale

First of all, to me there aren't too many bad beers.  Beer is like music, everyone has their own preference and taste, and there is usually a time and place for every beer or song (maybe not every song). 
Of the beers listed I would have to recommend the Ise Kadoya brews the highest, the Kumano Kodo Ale especially.  They currently only sell this beer in the Ise Shima area or online, but if you are ever visit Oharaimachi, they have a bar open to the street that looks really cool.  The Kinshachi beers were good too, definitely out of the ordinary and worth a try, I don't know if I would go for a Matcha Draft again though.  The others were good, but nothing too exciting. I know you can get Echigo beer in the U.S. but I wouldn't recommend it for the price it goes for in Seattle at least.  The only beer I was little dissapointed in was the Sapporo, it was pretty much a standard Sapporo with a bit more alcohol content, basically Sapporo Ice.  Probably not bad on a cold Hokkaido night, but I would suggest it as more of a third or fourth beer of the night rather than the first.

Isobe Max 7 - Mets 2

The Isobe Max, my neice's little league team, advanced in the Toyohashi Winter Tournament back on January 8th.  The game took place on one of the City's full-sized fields along with two other games going on at the same time in other corners of the field.  The games don't usually conflict with each other, but one of the Max players did hit a rocket down the third base line that went all the way down to the left field wall, about 100m away, straight through one of the other games.
I'm not sure exactly how representative Max is of other little league teams in Japan, but I think that other teams at least in their area do things the same way.  Isobe is a neighborhood in Toyohashi and the name of the elementary school there.  The Isobe Max baseball club is open to everyone at the school and everyone practices together, but the kids are divided into grade levels for the games.  The lucky little guys and gals get to play year-round and winter there is very dry providing perfect playing conditions.  The practices are a lot more structured than in the U.S. (at least mine as a kid).  They usually let me participate a bit with warm-ups and taking infield and it's a lot of fun, the littler kids don't seem to understand why I don't know what they are saying to me.  Most of the fields in the area are completely dirt without any grass in the outfield and the players rake the field after practice.  They also use rubber balls with seams instead of baseballs until Junior High, they tend to take higher, softer hops on ground balls and throws. 
I didn't notice very many differences in the rules of the games, except that players were allowed to lead off and steal at any time.  In the U.S. players have to stay on the base until the ball crosses the plate.  My brother-in-law also mentioned that the pitcher has to stay set for three seconds before throwing a pitch, I don't remember having that rule when I played.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Victor Diaz to Tryout with Dragons

From Japan's Daily Sports Online via Chunichi will be giving 30 year-old outfielder Victor Diaz a tryout at the end of the month.  He had 485 plate appearances for the New York Mets and Texas Rangers from 2004 to 2007 and most recently played in the Korean and Mexican leagues.  From what I could find about him; he is a guy with a lot of power that strikes out a lot and is somewhat of a liability in the outfield.
While he definitely deserves a look, I'm not sure he solves many of the team's current problems.  The team could use some more power in their lineup, but they also need to improve their ability to get on base (they hit somewhere around .220 as a team last year) and drive in runs.  I was hoping they would be looking at someone more in the Matt Murton mold, there probably isn't anyone of his calibre available, but there must be somebody out there that can handle the bat a bit and not be a liability defensively. 
I not sure how Diaz would fit with this team, they don't have much of a margin for error defensively.  I don't think they could play him in the outfield with Wada, even Oshima can't cover for both of them.  Maybe they are looking at him as a first base alternative, he did play on the infield early in his career.  Blanco is in a make-or-break year, I don't think Chunichi will cut him any slack if he doesn't bounce back and have success early in the season.  Wada I think will get more slack, but they may be looking at him to split time this year due to age and having a rough year in 2011.  So if I had to guess, I think they will sign him and see what he can do with the bat in limited time and then see how they want to proceed with Blanco and Wada.  I'm definitely not seeing a situation like last year where I expected Guzman to play a lot to begin the season.  This also isn't the standard "just add power" situation as for most NPB teams, the Dragons offense is just to deficient for that to work.
They should definitely keep looking to sign other foreign players even if they sign Diaz, if necessary they can keep him in ni-gun as insurance and see how the season progresses.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Uniforms to be released January 30

Management announced today that the Dragons will have new uniforms for 2012 and that the new design will be released on January 30.  There have also been rumors that the new design may be based off of the throwback uniforms they wore last summer. See below:
I'm a big fan of the home uniforms they've worn for the last 8 years, especially the stripeage.  I also like the current hats, with the interlocking C and D, but I wouldn't mind seeing some new design or font for the chest lettering.  Hopefully they will stick with royal blue as there main color, they are the only NPB currently using it (BayStars are currently more black, but that may change) and it's my favorite color for a baseball uniform.
The "Great Central" throwbacks are also a great look.  The sleeve patch is perfect and the chest design is pretty good too.  Not a big fan of the hat, it is the exact same thing that Creighton University wears, the Dragons probably wore it first and I'm sure not many in Japan are aware of that school, but the design is just not very original.  I'm pretty sure the main reason for new uniforms is to make some money off of sales, so why not come up with something that is unique to Chunichi.
The current road uniforms are okay, but could be improved by bringing back the powder blue from the 70's and 80's (no red though, please).  Last year I sent this design to the Uni Watch blog, it's a great blog for those interested in uniforms and uniform history:

I like this design, with the block Chunichi, and possibly new royal blue hats for the road uniform.  For the home uniform I would use the current uniform design with the fat blue stripes and the throwback chest design in royal, then find a way to make the sleeve patch work with the blue stripes. Or the sleeve patch could be reworked into a hat logo similar to this:
It will be interesting to see what they come up with, this is a team that has always had pretty good uniforms throughout their history (except for the powder and red) so I'm not too worried.  I just hope they aren't a disaster, there is enough to worry about going into this season and new era for the Dragons.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Wei-Yin Chen to the Baltimore Orioles

A reporter from the Baltimore Sun has reported that Chen reached agreement with the Orioles for a 3-year deal worth around $12 Million.  That's a pretty good deal for him, Baltimore can be a difficult ballpark to pitch in and he may struggle a bit in his first year, but I think he has the stuff to be successful in the bigs.
The loss of Chen will certainly hurt the Dragons.  Pitching is definitely their strength right now and they have some young pitchers that hopefully can help fill that hole, but having two aces last year really helped cover for their inept offense.  I haven't seen anything about them looking at any foreign hitters so far, but they have room for one, they will definitely need to score more runs next year if they want to compete.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Daisuke Yamai and Hidenori Kuramoto at the Toyohashi Zoo

Yamai and Hidenori were at the zoo last Wednesday for a "talk show."  We took our daughter and nieces and got there early to get raffle tickets for a chance to win photos with the players or autographs.  They also said that there would be training sessions for three lucky people.  Before the show we checked out the animals, the current headliner is a baby Asian elephant that is less than a month old. 
There were a couple hundred people at the show, many in Dragons gear or Little League uniforms.  They did the raffle first and we didn't win any of the memorabilia.  Then the show began; the guys came out and introduced themselves and Hidenori presented the zoo with a painting he had done of a rhino (he may be a better artist than a baseball player).  My speaking and comprehension of Japanese is at about a two-year old's level so I didn't understand much of what they were saying.  From what my wife translated to me they talked about the power of Yamai's glasses and how it transforms him, kind of like the opposite of Superman.  When asked what pitcher Yamai admired, he answered with Kazuki Yoshimi because of his control.  He also said that his goal for the season was to stay at ichi-gun all year because he has never been able to do that before. 
Near the end of the show they gave three little leaguers some tips, Yamai gave a boy some advice on throwing and Hidenori demonstrated how to play a groundball and how to swing the bat.  He included a funny imitation of Kazuyoshi Tatsunami in his batting lesson.  I may add some links to video we have of their demonstrations later on.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Iwakuma to the Mariners

A little off topic, but very excited that Hisashi Iwakuma will be joining the Mariners for 2012.  He signed a 1-year deal worth $1.5 million plus significant incentives for starts and innings pitched.  A win for everyone involved, but more so for the Mariners.  Iwakuma will get a chance to establish his value in the Majors in a pitcher's park and the M's will get what should be a good pitcher for 2012 at an excellent price while their young starters develop.  Planning to be at one of his first starts.
Also bought one of his baseball cards from a local store the other night anticipating this signing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dream Match 2012: Tunnels Sports King is Me

There was an entertaining show on the other night hosted by two Japanese comedians, one was Takaaki Ishibashi (of the movies Major League II & III).  It is an annual show that is now part of the New Year's programing in Japan.  On the show the two comedians challenge pro athletes to various competitions within their sports, but add (often hilarious) twists to level the playing field.  The sports included were golf, soccer, tennis and baseball.  The baseball portion came last and featured the comedians' team, with a couple former players, facing off against a team that included the former-Dragon Kosuke Fukudome, Hiroyuki Nakajima, Takeya Nakamura and Hisayoshi Chono.
For the competition the Tokyo Dome playing surface was transformed into a full-sized "baseball pinball" machine, with portions of the field designated as hits or outs based loosely on the original pinball game.
Batters faced a pitching machine that threw multiple pitches and at varying speeds.  The opposing team was allowed to choose which pitch was to be thrown.  The game was originally scheduled for five innings, but the heated contest continued beyond that.  Here is a link if you would like to watch: baseball starts at about the 187 minute mark.
Also Kosuke broke one of his bats during the challenge, it is now signed and available for purchase somewhere, there were phone numbers flashed during the show.