Take our user survey and make your voice heard.

Here
and
Now

opinions

4 burning questions for 2024 Nippon Professional Baseball season

3 Comments
By Todd Wojnowski
Image: iStock/takasuu

Spring is upon us, and more importantly than blooming flowers or warm sunshine, that means the 2024 Nippon Professional Baseball season is underway.

The defending champion Hanshin Tigers are looking to repeat, and the Orix Buffaloes are chasing “dynasty” status. But beyond the top-flight teams, here are four burning questions to be answered this year:

1. CAN FIGHTERS MANAGER SAVE HIS JOB WITH SUBSTANCE IN ADDITION TO STYLE?

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo is fighting for his career.

The flamboyant manager’s self-promoting antics are well known, but last-place finishes in each of his first two seasons have put him on the hot seat. With his contract up at the end of this year, it’s time for the man who once renamed himself “Big Boss” in the official league registry to show he can make headlines for more than his stunts.

There is hope, with signs of things starting to come together.

It starts with Chusei Mannami, 2023’s breakout star who launched 25 home runs and won a Golden Glove for his defense in right field. Mannami is an exciting player that the Fighters will build around.

The lineup also includes 2022 Pacific League batting champion Go Matsumoto, although expecting the outfielder to replicate his .347 average from that year would be unrealistic.

Hiromi Ito and Takayuki Kato capably lead the way on the mound, and ex-Orix Buffalo Sachiya Yamasaki was a very good offseason acquisition to solidify the starting rotation.

The team has some talent and is pointed in the right direction. But ownership likely wants to showcase a winning team in its picturesque new stadium that opened just last year, and Shinjo has yet to prove that he can take a team to the next level.

Ownership might be wise to exercise patience, but when you stylize yourself as a rockstar, expectations go up accordingly.

2. WILL THE REAL SWALLOWS PLEASE STAND UP?

At first blush, the projection for the 2024 Tokyo Yakult Swallows seems simple: a stacked lineup plus miserable starting pitching equals a lot of high-scoring games and a middle-of-the-league result.

But the Swallows are in strange times, and even the dependable parts of their roster now come with question marks.

Yakult won back-to-back Central League titles in 2021-22, and then, despite having few notable changes to their roster, followed that up by losing more games than any team in the country in 2023.

The media’s refrain has been to attribute the collapse to the team’s many injuries. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Two-time league MVP and Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami seemed to spend the entire season in a daze, unable to hit the ball, and unable to explain why. Japan’s “next big thing” slumped early in the year and struggled to recover. From the previous season, his home runs dropped by 25, his RBIs by 50, and his batting average fell 62 points.

Murakami wasn’t alone. Pitcher Keiji Takahashi had seemingly emerged as an ace during the team’s championship runs. But he was outright bad in 2023. His ERA ballooned from 2.63 to 4.60, and he gave up more than double the number of home runs from the previous year.

To top it off, team captain Tetsuto Yamada looked hopelessly washed at the not exactly-ripe old age of 31.

If their core can recover from its inexplicable 2023 meltdown, the Swallows have enough firepower to carry them to a playoff berth. But their mysterious one-year champs-to-chumps disintegration means that fans have to be ready for anything.

3. WILL THE LIONS’ PITCHING ASCEND TO JAPAN’S BEST?

The Saitama Seibu Lions have an outside chance at supplanting the Orix Buffaloes as the NPB team with the best starting pitchers this season. Beyond their two established stars, Seibu is armed with a stable of young pitchers who may be coming of age in unison.

The twin pillars of Seibu’s pitching staff are Kaima Taira and Kona Takahashi, each among the favorites to win the Sawamura Award as the league’s top pitcher. The Okinawan Taira boasts a mean 1.95 ERA over his entire career. Meanwhile, Takahashi has posted back-to-back 2.20 and 2.21 ERA seasons, after improving his velocity and employing a somewhat unorthodox pitch selection to minimize runs.

Beyond them comes the fresh intrigue.

The Lions’ starting rotation includes two recent highly-prized and contested first-round draft picks: Chihiro Sumida (2021) and Natsuki Takeuchi (last October). Sumida has shown steady improvement, and the lefty’s curve has turned into a real weapon. The rookie Takeuchi impressively earned a spot in the rotation right away, and his very first start put opponents on immediate notice: seven innings of no-run, one-hit, seven-strikeout ball, all in 85 pitches.

Not to be overlooked, fastball fireballer Tatsuya Imai seems to finally be putting things together, improving his command and recording two straight seasons with a sub-2.50 ERA after an unremarkable start to his career.

If the Lions’ young pitchers can fulfill their potential, this rotation will be a lot of fun to watch. Their bats will likely be a disaster, so Lions fans may be in for some low-scoring affairs this summer at Belluna Dome. And that should excite them.

4. HOW MUCH ROKI WILL WE GET TO SEE?

Roki Sasaki has been a magnet for attention since entering the pros. The 22-year-old pitching phenom has exceeded sky-high expectations during his limited career. But complications have persisted, keeping the Iwate native under the magnifying glass.

After selecting the much-hyped Sasaki in the 2019 draft, the Chiba Lotte Marines barely permitted him to play during his first two seasons, to aid in his physical development.

Roki emphatically emerged in 2022, dazzling the baseball world with his command, velocity and brilliant strikeout rate, proving himself to be one of the very best. However, his innings were reduced during the second half of the season, leading to speculations of fatigue.

In 2023, an oblique injury limited him to just 91 innings total.

Sasaki’s lack of consistent innings across an entire season is beginning to raise questions about his strength and durability. Those questions may continue, because the Marines have indicated they’ll manage his load once again this year, though without specifying the extent.

These questions are especially pertinent considering Roki’s interests across the Pacific. Sasaki is eager to play in MLB, reportedly as soon as possible, although Lotte is yet to give approval for it.

Providing evidence that he can not only stay healthy over a full season (or more) with the Marines would drive up Roki’s price when he eventually becomes available to MLB teams.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

3 Comments
Login to comment

The real question is what has caused the collapse in offense across both leagues, which seems to have accelerated so far this season. Murakami’s drop off last year (and having only one home run so far this year) seems like part of a general trend.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Just because someone was a good player doesn't necessarily make for a good manager. Shinjo's a good example.

Sasaki Ryo is gonna bolt to MLB as soon as he can.

Seeing how good he was when he was finally able to pitch regularly, made me wonder what the hell the Marines were thinking limiting his pitching the first two years.

I'm sure seeing Yamamoto's $300,000,000 contract has Sasaki salivating.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Are the Dragons for real and who signs Tsutsugoh.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites