2016 in Review – Tigers Top 10

Hanshin’s slogan for the 2016 season was 超変革  (chohenkaku) – ultra reform. The idea was that the team’s attitude and atmosphere under manager Tomoaki Kanemoto would change. Gone would be the old way of thinking, of practicing, of reflecting on games won and lost. In would be a new work ethic. Practice extremely hard but with purpose. Build up your physical strength to ensure top playing condition and quicker recovery from injury. And of course, all of this was supposed to lead to the team winning as well. As you already know, their 64-76-3 record was not enough to reach the playoffs, let alone take the pennant. But it was still a year of many big news stories, some good and some bad. T-Ray took some time to consider what stories mean the most to the team’s season and its future as well. Here’s a look at what went down in 2016. (NOTE: Embedded videos may end up being removed by YouTube cops at any time, so if they’re no longer viewable, you missed the window of opportunity…)

Honorable Mention: 7-game winning streak to end season – Thanks to some rainouts, the schedule extended in to October, and the team was able to finish the year with a lot of games at Koshien. They had a poor record on their home turf all year. They were already eliminated from the playoffs, thanks to going 2-13 in their first 15 games after the long August road trip. But the manager made it clear that they were playing for next season, for a better shot at a roster spot, and so on. The final 7 games were: 4-1 vs. Giants, 4-1 @ Carp, 2-0 @ Dragons, 4-1 @ Dragons, 4-3 vs. Swallows, 2-1 vs. Giants, 6-0 vs. Giants. The pitchers put on clinics, the hitters put up a sufficient (though hardly overwhelming) number of runs, and the team was able to claw its way into fourth place on the season’s final day.


#10 – Nishioka Blows Achilles Tendon

On July 19, with the Tigers trying to mount a comeback and beat the Giants at Koshien for the first time on the season, second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka laced a double down the left field line. It ended up as a single, because while rounding first base, he hit the dirt and squirmed in pain. He had to be helped off the field and went directly to the hospital, where he learned that his season was over. Again. So the fragile former all-star puts up fewer than 50 games played for the third straight year. Despite his decent hitting ability and speed and his valuable presence in the clubhouse, he simply has not been able to stay healthy during the vast majority of his time with the Tigers. Here’s hoping when he comes back in 2017, he can play out the year without missing action due to another injury.


#9 – Team Plucks Itoi from Buffaloes

Hanshin finished last in the Central League with just 59 stolen bases. It also finished tied for 4th in batting average and second last in home runs (90 – just one ahead of the woeful Chunichi Dragons). Yes, power takes awhile to develop, and base stealing technique sometimes takes time as well, so the young guys are off the hook. But any way you look at it, the offensive production was, well, offensive. And so the team went after the biggest name on the free agent market: Orix Buffaloes right fielder Yoshio Itoi. The 35-year old had just set a career high in stolen bases with 53 (nearly equally the Hanshin total on his own!) and has constantly hit over .300 in his career while also putting up 15-20 home runs annually. Kanemoto sweet talked him, referring to Itoi as his “first lover” and pursuing him with passion. (In the 2002 offseason, second-year Hanshin manager Senichi Hoshino did the exact same thing to acquire a 34-year old free agent named Tomoaki Kanemoto, and that turned out pretty well for the Tigers.) The end result is a huge contract that makes Itoi the highest paid player on the team, but also gives Hanshin and its fans hope that 2017 will see the team putting up beefier numbers in all offensive categories. We welcome you, Yoppi!


#8 – Fukudome Reaches 2000 and Hits For Cycle

June 25. The Tigers had just completed its interleague schedule and Kosuke Fukudome recorded his 1500th career NPB hit in the team’s final game at Koshien (June 20). Including his 498 MLB career hits, he needed just two more to punch his ticket into Japan’s Meikyukai. Game 1 in Hiroshima was a dud, as the team lost 4-2 and Fukudome went 0-for-3 with a walk. In this second game, in his second at bat, Fukudome clubbed a double to right, leaving him just a hit from baseball immortality. The very next at bat, he hit a sharp grounder to the best defensive second baseman in recent history, Hiroshima’s Ryosuke Kikuchi. The ball was quite a bit to the right field side of the man with the magnet glove. And it was just a little too hard and a little too far right. Kikuchi got to the ball, but could not make a throw to first. Number 8 was in the club.

Just over a month later, on July 30, Fukudome added even more to his legend. The 39-year old led off the second inning with a solo home run and then dropped a single into shallow right in the fourth. An inning later he slashed a ball over the right fielder’s head and barreled his way around the bases for the most exciting play in baseball – a triple. He was just a double short of becoming the oldest player in NPB history to hit for the cycle. The very next inning, he made no mistake, this time lifting out just out of the left fielder’s reach. He eased into second and waited for his big bouquet. This would be the second time he accomplished the feat in his career, putting him in rarified company and finding his way into even more Hanshin Tigers fans’ hearts. Fukudome finished the season with a team-high average of .311, good for fifth in the league. Not bad for a man turning 40 at the end of April 2017.


#7 – Opening Day Excitement

On March 25, the Tigers opened their season at Kyocera Dome against the Chunichi Dragons. The starting lineup was: Takayama LF, Yokota CF, Hague 3B, Gomez 1B, Fukudome RF, Toritani SS, Nishioka 2B, Okazaki C, Messenger P. Randy brought it right away, getting through the first inning on 10 pitches or so. Then came the first of several adrenaline moments. Shun Takayama went up against Yudai Ohno, who said he was going to challenge the rookie with a fastball on the game’s first pitch. He did. But it was well out of the zone, and Takayama, who had declared he would swing at the first pitch, looked foolish. In the end, he got his first hit of the year with a grounder through the left side of the infield. Then Yokota grounded out but broke up the double play. Stole the team’s first base. Scored the team’s first run on a Hague RBI. Later in the game, Randy broke up a double play with some strong running. In doing so, he collected the team’s second RBI of the season, as Nishioka alertly took off for home when he saw the fielders not paying him any attention. During the next at bat, Messenger saw the fielders also paying him no mind, and he got the team’s second stolen base of the young season. In the end, the team lost 5-2 and Randy was hung with the L, but seeing two stolen bases from guys that had combined for zero up until that point in their careers, seeing Takayama start his career with a hit, Hague start his with a hit and RBI, and even Okazaki getting a hit… it looked like it was going to be the most exciting season in a decade.


#6 – Fujinami Throws 161 in One Game, 160 in Another

July 8. After starting the year with three straight wins, Shintaro Fujinami was struggling mightily on the year. The guy who was expected to be the club’s ace pitcher this year and into the future was looking more like an easy target for other teams, especially in the early going. He also seemed quite nonchalant about it all after the games he lost. Kanemoto had decided that this game would be one that Fujinami would have to establish himself as the ace. Going against the red-hot Carp meant everyone would have to bring their A game if the team wanted a chance at winning. And it would have to start with Fujinami. But he looked every bit as flat early as he had all year. Walk, double, K, walk, K, 2-run hit, double-steal, and the team was in a 3-run hole before they could sit down. Another run in the second, and another (unearned, mind you) in the fourth. The team was down 5-2 in the seventh inning, but instead of pinch hitting for Fujinami in the bottom half – he had thrown 130 pitches already – Kanemoto kept him in there, and even put him on the mound in the eighth. Despite struggles and an obviously gassed right arm, no pitcher was called in to relieve Fujinami. The result was three more runs against and a final tally of 161 pitches on the young arm that was supposed to carry this team for several more years before the MLB serenaded him with large piles of cash. Instead, this particular evening became a media story that wouldn’t go away, as papers wrote about how Kanemoto “wanted to teach his pitcher a lesson” and that he was “out of his mind” and “destroying a young man’s career” and more. (Never mind that Fujinami also told the pitching coach he was still good to go, or that he had thrown as many as 152 pitches under Yutaka Wada previously.)

Fast forward two months, and Fujinami was making headlines again. This time, he threw just 160… not pitches, but kilometers per hour. It was a pitch out of the zone and was not swung at. Fujinami said after the game that he didn’t really care that he was the third Japanese pitcher in history (after Yoshinori of the Swallows and some kid named Ohtani of the Fighters) to throw at least 160 km/h in a game. More important than speed was pitch quality. Indeed. Fujinami took a no-decision on this night (September 14), walking 6 in just 6 2/3 innings of work against those same Hiroshima Carp. This came two weeks after an embarrassing start against the Chunichi Dragons in which Fujinami lasted just one inning, giving up a whopping 7 runs to the league’s worst offensive team. It was certainly a rough season for the towering hurler.


#5 – Iwasada Dominates 2016 (Except June/July)

Ah, Yuta Iwasada. Top pick of the Tigers in the 2013 draft. This, of course, only after the team missed out on Daichi Ohsera, who went to the Carp in the lottery draw. The Kumamoto native put up just a single win in each of his first two seasons, fighting injury and inconsistency and looking like yet another first-round bust for the Tigers. But in the 2015 offseason, he went down to the Taiwan Winter League and worked on his game: timing, throwing inside against lefties, and perfecting his changeup. He came back to Japan a changed man. Got married, impressed at spring training, and found himself starting the team’s 8th game of the season. Seven innings, 12 K’s, 0 runs. A week later, 7 2/3 innings, 12 K’s, 2 runs (the reliever allowed one of those to score after Iwasada was pulled). The next week it was 7 more innings with 10 K’s and no runs against. This continued right through the end of May, when the newlywed led the Central with an ERA of 1.00 and the most strikeouts of any pitcher. June was a nightmare of a month (bases loaded home runs in consecutive starts) and July not much better (another grand slam against, then later a 3-run home run in the first inning). But August got him back on track, and September (plus the start in the season finale on October 1) pushed him over the top: 38 innings, 2 runs against, and 5 wins in 5 starts. He would end the year with 10 wins, an ERA of 2.90 (best on the team and fifth in the Central) and the pitcher of the month for September. With all due respect to Messenger, this kid was the team’s best pitcher in 2016, especially if you take away his ugly June and July.


#4 – Development Blue Chip Haraguchi Takes Central by Storm

Even more unexpected than Iwasada’s emergence as a star pitcher was the story of Fumihito Haraguchi. Taken with the Tigers’ sixth pick in the 2009 draft, Haraguchi battled through several injuries and ended up a development (育成 – ikusei) player to start the 2013 season. Three long years went by without any change to his status. But Kanemoto and farm manager Masayuki Kakefu saw something in him, and kept him around for one last year as development player in 2016. Something strange happened, though. He started hitting extremely well on the farm. And then-promising catcher Ryutaro Umeno started looking extremely bad on the top squad. A disastrous outing with suddenly-beer-league-material pitcher Minoru Iwata meant that Umeno was farm-bound. And suddenly, on April 27, Haraguchi got the phone call that changed his life. New contract releasing him from the restrictions of being a development player. Call-up to the top squad. Pinch-hit appearance. He even had to wear Coach Yamada’s #82 uniform because his with the newly-appointed #94 was not ready in time for the game, because his call-up (at which time he was wearing his three-digit development player uniform on the farm) was so sudden.

Long story short, the kid punished nearly every ball he faced in the month of May, and he took home the Central League Player of the Month Award, hitting an incredible .381 with 5 home runs and 17 RBIs: the first player ever to win the award after once being a development player. Let alone having had that status just a week prior to the month in which he won the award! His numbers slowly came back down to earth, but he finished the year just a hair under the .300 mark, was tied for second on the team with 11 home runs, and won over a huge legion of fans who see a potential second-coming of Koichi Tabuchi in this 24-year old.


#3 – Everyone Has Career Firsts

Eleven guys got their first career NPB hits in the same season. Takayama, Yokota, Hojoh, Itayama, Yohkawa, Hague, Sakamoto, Haraguchi, Iwasada, Yokoyama, and Aoyagi. The longest of those “first-career” hits went to Hojoh – a home run on a rope to the left field stands in Yokohama. The shortest of those was by Aoyagi, who on a sacrifice bunt attempt, trickled a ball down the first base line. The other team’s fielders let it roll, hoping it would go foul. It would have, were it not for a chunk of dirt in the Koshien infield that would not let the ball past it. A hit’s a hit, though! Then there were the 7 guys who got their first career home runs. The ones who got their first career stolen bases (including Messenger, as mentioned in #7). Okazaki getting his first extra-base hit and RBI. Araki getting his first RBI. Yokoyama, Aoyagi and Shimamoto getting their first career wins. I wonder just how many baseballs were set aside by the club to commemorate all these achievements? It was a great year to watch a lot of guys take that first step towards establishing themselves in the top league. Hope for the future? Yes, please.


#2 – Takayama the Golden Rookie

It all started last October, when Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka reached into the lottery ballot box, picked up the remaining card, opened it and mistakenly thought he won the rights to sign Shun Takayama to his team. However, after “video replay” it was revealed that in fact Kanemoto had the winning ballot, and Takayama, the Tokyo Big6 career hits record holder, would be a Hanshin Tiger for the foreseeable future. He impressed in spring training and the exhibition season, winning himself a spot not only on the top squad, not only on the starting roster, but in the leadoff spot on Game 1. He got his first of his 136 hits on the season that day. And now, he holds the club record for most hits by a rookie. He hit his first home run in Game 6 of the season, a first-pitch game-opening blast to the right field bleachers. He hit the team’s only grand slam on the season (and first since 2014) on August 25th against the BayStars. He finished the year with a ridiculous .377 batting average with runners in scoring position: good for second in the league. Takayama only missed a few games, and started 118 times. One of his few knocks this year was his fielding, which definitely needs some work. I believe it will improve over time, but right now what he brings to the field is a bat that has room to grow, and yet he: puts the ball in play consistently, can leg out infield singles, has the ability to put the ball over the fence, and runs the bases reasonably well. Consider that he replaced Matt Murton in left field. Let’s look at Murton’s 2015 numbers beside Takayama’s 2016 line:

Year #9 LF G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
2016 Takayama 134 494 48 136 23 5 8 65 27 109 5 4 .275 .316 .391 .707

 

2015 Murton 140 544 46 150 27 0 9 59 34 77 0 1 .276 .316 .375 .691

Not so different, are they? In fact, Takayama’s numbers are marginally better. Granted, Murton’s year was not representative of his best work… but Takayama was playing his first year as a pro. No wonder he won Rookie of the Year in a landslide. Here’s to many more successful years anchoring the hitting order.


#1 – The Iron Man Rusts

 

“Your numbers last year were pathetic across the board. If you don’t change next season, the team has no hope of changing” (paraphrase of what manager Kanemoto allegedly said to team captain Takashi Toritani). The incumbent shortstop was not only named captain of the team to start the 2013 season (the team’s first after Kanemoto’s retirement), but had put up solid numbers at the dish and played solid enough defense to win the Golden Glove for the sixth time in his career. He also had a very impressive ironman streak going: he has played in every game since the start of the 2005 season, and had played 575 consecutive games without missing a single inning, heading into 2016. His 2015 numbers were off his career mark by a significant amount (his 2015 AVG and OPS were his second worst since 2007). Enter 2016. He looked great in spring training and seemed to be revitalized and certainly more vocal. He was also put in the six-slot on opening day, in an effort to lighten his load (physical and mental) in order to extend his streak and help him bounce back. Unfortunately, he was never able to get the engine going. His average slumped even worse than in previous years, and while his “power” numbers and stolen base totals were near his career norms, the 35-year old was making more and more ghastly mistakes on the field. Dropped fly balls.

Bobbled grounders.

Missed throws from the catcher on stolen base attempts.

Kanemoto tried putting him in different places in the hitting order. Maybe leadoff would spark him. Or hitting eighth. In fact, Toritani batted everywhere in the order but fourth and ninth this year. Finally, on July 24 in Hiroshima, the skipper took action.

Toritani’s name was not in the starting lineup. The consecutive innings streak was over at 667 games. First Yamato played short. But ultimately, the young and ever-improving Fumiya Hojoh took the spot over for good towards season’s end. Toritani was limited to just pinch hit appearances for a stretch, and he looked better in that role, but eventually he was brought back in as a defensive replacement at times and even as a starter at third base. Nothing ended up working in the attempt to restore the team captain to his rightful place as “most dependable player” on the team. And so, heading into 2017, he will have to fight for playing time at short, where he hopes to find himself once again. But no matter how you look at it, the move to remove Toritani from the starting lineup was the greatest reform that took place in 2016.


What plays/games/players would make your top 10 list? What were your favorite moments this season? Leave your thoughts in the comments section. Happy New Year to all!

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.