Today's the last game of the season for Chunichi who will finish the season in 4th place with their first losing season in over a decade. Depending on how the last game goes they will lose either 23 or 24 more games than last season. That's a significant difference, especially for team with nearly the same roster, so let's take a look at that factors that added up to a very mediocre season:
Every team has injuries, and Chunichi had their fair share last year and was able to maintain, but major injuries to the team's best players this year had a clear impact on their their record. The Dragons lost their ace, Kazuki Yoshimi, early in the season. He pitched in only 36+ innings prior to opting for season-ending arm surgery and the innings he did pitch were negatively impacted by his worsening elbow injury.
Takuya Asao, arguably the team's best reliever and go-to guy to get an out in clutch late-inning situations wasn't available for the first half of the season. During that time the bullpen was a mess, with several players including last year's rookie stud, Shinji Tajima, struggling to get outs and the Dragons lost a bunch of close games because of it. In the past the bullpen was the strength of the team, bailing out an average to below-average offense.
Chunichi lost league leading hitter Hector Luna for the second half of the season due to a knee injury and like Yoshimi his play was starting to be affected by the injury prior to calling it quits for the season.
The Dragons were also without the services of useful starting pitchers like Kenshin Kawakami, Soma Yamauchi and Junki Ito for the majority of the season.
Top of the Batting Order
Yohei Oshima took a step back this year. He was an all-star last year and great all-around player. In 2012 he hit .310 with a .376 OBP as the full-time leadoff hitter. This year his defense was still good but he struggled at the plate hitting only .249 with a .307 OBP. He eventually lost his job to Atsushi Fujii, but got it back when Fujii got hurt.
Hirokazu Ibata's production dropped significantly this year as well. He was unable to carry his hot hitting in the WBC to the NPB regular season and his participation in the WBC may have had a negative impact on his year as he battled nagging injuries all season. His BA dropped by .048 and his OBP dropped by .033 points in 2013.
As mentioned previously the bullpen was a mess early in the season. It was one of the main contributing factors to the Dragons digging themselves a hole in the first month. It was failure by committee as it seemed like no one could get the lead to Iwase in the ninth. Tajima struggled horribly and Mutoh, Yamai and the rest did as well. Kenichi Nakata was eventually converted to a reliever and did well in that that role. When he stabilized the bullpen the Dragons were finally able to crawl out of the cellar. As the season went on the bullpen got stronger. Asao returned, foreigner Warner Madrigal was added and Hitoki Iwase was solid all year long. At the end of the year the bullpen was a strength of the team again but a lot of the Dragons lack of success this year can be attributed to how many games the bullpen kicked early in the season.
The Overall Pitching Staff / The New Ball
Chunichi's Team ERA rose for the second straight year from 2.46 in 2011 to 2.58 in 2012 to 3.82 this year. A lot of that has to do with the injuries and the new ball, but the Dragons ERA didn't rise proportionally with the rest of the Central League. They led the CL in Team ERA in 2011, were second in 2012 and are fourth this year. Overall they just haven't pitched that well this and that's what the Dragons prior success has been based on. It's possible that the new ball affected them more than other teams, as most of their starters pitch to contact, but I don't really like that argument. I think it was something that all of the NPB pitchers had to deal with this year. I would say that the injuries had a bigger impact on where they ranked, but it will be interesting to see how they do next year. I'm pretty sure the league won't secretly introduce another new ball again next year.
Offensive Production at First Base?
Most will probably say that Chunichi shouldn't have let Tony Blanco go last offseason, and that is probably true but I don't really see that as a major factor in the difference in success of last year and this year. Had Matt Clark done more damage at the plate it may have helped to change Chunichi's fortunes this year, but in the end they got about the same production from Clark that they got from the combination of Blanco and Morino last year. If you look at Clark's numbers this year he hit .238 with 14 doubles, 25 HR, 70 RBI, 49 BB and 130 SO in 467 plate appearances. Last year Blanco was injured for a portion of the season and had only 359 plate appearances, but if you add 108 of Morino's plate appearance and prorate Morino's numbers you get .249, 15 doubles, 25 HR, 76 RBI, 51 BB and 99 SO for the combo. Clark did strike out more often than the Blanco/Morino combo, but the production is about the same. This comparison doesn't account for this year's juiced ball but I still don't think it would be a dramatic difference. Chunichi should still look to get more from the position next year.
The Old Guys?
Did age catch up to the Dragons' veteran players this year. Ibata did take a step back and Araki hasn't been any good in a while, but most of the other vets had solid years. At least about as good or better than last year.
Kazuhiro Wada 2013 .275, 21 2B, 18 HR, 76 RBI, .371 OBP, .435 SLG
Wada 2012 .285, 32 2B, 9 HR, 63 RBI, .370 OBP, .409 SLG
Motonobu Tanishige 2013 .217, 12 2B, 6 HR, 34 RBI, .306 OBP, .296 SLG
Tanishige 2012 .228, 14 2B, 5 HR, 32 RBI, .324 OBP, .303 SLG
He's a career .241 hitter and still good defensively.
Masahiko Morino 2013 .287, 20 2B, 16 HR, 51 RBI, .369 OBP, .463 SLG
Morino 2012 .249, 23 2B, 6 HR, 50 RBI, .327 OBP, .348 SLG
Hitoki Iwase 2013 ERA 1.86, 36 SV, 0.513 BB/SO
Iwase 2012 ERA 2.29, 33 SV, 0.433 BB/SO
You could make a case that the hitters should have done even better with the new ball, but these are still solid numbers and Iwase's numbers were better when they should have gotten worse.
It's hard to say much about what's really going on in a team's clubhouse, but there did appear to be some rifts this year between Takagi and some of his players. This being Takagi's last year may have also had some impact. I do give Takagi some credit, though I'm happy to see a new manager coming in. He wasn't dealt a full hand this year and in some cases was able to tinker with things and find some success. It was far from a great season, but Chunichi was at least in the race until the final week.
While the season overall was unsuccessful there were some positives. After getting off too a slow start Ryosuke Hirata came back to have his best season yet. He seemed to square up more good fastballs this year and looks like he could become a full-time corner outfielder moving forward.
Shuhei Takahashi is looking like he's closer to becoming a regular though he's still very young. He's looking more comfortable and had some big hits, but is still understandably inconsistant.
Masahiko Morino's bat showed some life with the switch to the juiced ball, he also showed he could be a capable second baseman.
Atsushi Fujii did well with more playing time and looked like he may be a bit more than just a late inning defensive replacement.
Daniel Cabrera did pretty well, he certainly didn't walk as many guys as I thought he would. The team hasn't decided yet whether he will be back for next year.
Yudai Ono in the rotation and Toshiya Okada in the bullpen were both solid this year and can hopefully improve on that next year.