By Zach Bernard
Here in the good ol’ United States, fans from Queens to Wrigleyville to the Chavez Ravine are enjoying the exciting drama of baseball in October. 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean, fans in Japan are gearing up for the final stage of Nippon Professional Baseball’s annual postseason, known as the Climax Series.
While the final stage of the Climax Series can be viewed as the equivalent to Major League Baseball’s Championship Series, there are several inherent differences worth noting. For those without Japanese baseball acumen, here’s a breakdown of the process:
- The best records in the Pacific and Central Leagues (essentially Japan’s version of the National and American League) have a “bye” from playing in the first stage.
- The second and third best records in each league square off in a three-game set for the first stage of the Climax Series.
- The winner of the first stage advances to the final stage, where that team will face the team with the best record in their league for the championship.
Similar to the MLB’s structure en route to the World Series, the winners of the “final stage” in the Pacific and Central Leagues will face off in the Japan Series for the top prize. The final stage is a best-of-six series; if there is a tie, that team with the best record and the first stage “bye” is granted a one-win advantage and moves on. Ties in the final stage have been uncommon since the inception of the Climax Series in 2007.
Another advantage given to the team with the best record is full home-field advantage for the entirety of the series, which is almost unheard of in the United States given our emphasis on home-field in any series, regular season or playoffs.
This year, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (76-65) and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (90-48) held the top spots in the Central and Pacific Leagues, respectively. In the first stage of the Central League playoffs, the Yomiuri Giants topped the Hanshin Tigers, while the Chiba Lotte Marines advanced past the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the Pacific League. The stage is set for a superb final stage across the pond, but who stands the best chance at reaching the Japan Series?
Yomiuri Giants @ Tokyo Yakult Swallows – Meiji Jingu Stadium
This is a compelling matchup in the Central League due to the Giants sitting only a game-and-a-half behind the Swallows at season’s end. And it features the league’s most explosive offense and most dominant pitching staff.
The Swallows put together an impressive offensive aggregate during the regular season, posting a fine .259/.321/.378 slash, all league bests in the Central League. They also struck out only 866 times, the third lowest sum in the entire NPB, and their 3.92 runs per game were also almost half a run higher than second best in the CL.
Leading the offense for the Swallows has been 23-year-old second baseman Tetsuto Yamada, who followed up his outstanding 2014 regular season with an even better 2015. Yamada posted an astounding .329/.416/.610 line in all 143 games, hitting 38 home runs and driving in 100 while collecting 340 total bases. He also swiped 34 bases in 38 attempts, giving him a stolen base efficiency of 89-percent. The scariest thing about Yamada is his age, and how much better he is going to become with time.
Yamada isn’t the only guy that can handle a bat in the Swallows lineup. Third baseman Shingo Kawabata won the Central League batting title with a .336 average during the season while showcasing some pop, hitting eight home runs and collecting 34 doubles. Kazuhiro Hatakeyama also provides an additional power threat, hitting 26 homers and driving in 105 runs. His .344 on-base percentage also provides a threat to opposing pitchers.
Tasked with shutting down this prodigious offense was the NPB’s most dominant pitching staff in the Yomiuri Giants. The rotation was led by 25-year-old ace Tomoyuki Sugano, whose 10-11 win-loss record could be very deceiving to the untrained eye. Sugano posted a 1.91 ERA and 1.056 WHIP across 179 innings in 25 starts. He limits baserunners to 7.4 hits per nine innings and posted a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015. He pitches to contact, so keeping the Swallows off the basepaths will be no easy task.
The remainder of the Giants rotation remains strong, as no regular starter (10 or more starts) posted an ERA higher than Toshiya Sugiuchi’s 3.95, and the entire staff’s 1.155 WHIP is an astounding testament to their ability to prevent baserunners, and undoubtedly correlates to the staff’s minuscule 3.08 runs allowed per game.
Each team’s strength is the other team’s weakness in this series. Yomiuri’s offense has been rather pedestrian all year – only a .244/.313/.344 slash was logged as the worst in the CL, and 3.41 runs per game was only better than Hanshin and Hiroshima. On the pitching side, Tokyo Yakult allowed an average of three-and-a-half runs per game and posted a decent 3.31 team ERA, but shoddy starting pitching could hamper them going forward.
Overall, the Swallows carry an edge with their impressive offensive output, even against the Giants’ terrific pitching staff. If Swallows starters can carry the team into the bullpen – which has been impressive late because of Ryo Akiyoshi, Logan Ondrusek, and closer Tony Barnette (who notched 41 saves in 59 appearances with a 1.29 ERA) – the Swallows should manage to defeat the Giants in the Central League’s final stage matchup, but due to each team’s strengths, it should make for a very compelling series.
Chiba Lotte Marines @ Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks – Fukuoka Dome
Unlike the Central League, the Pacific League’s final stage is set to be a lot less intriguing. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks were the NPB’s best team with a 90-48 overall record, and its .267/.340/.409 offensive slash output would make the explosive Tokyo Yakult Swallows blush. They can pitch, too; the staff is allowing only 3.43 runs per game, just less than half a run better than the second-best Orix Buffaloes.
Fukuoka’s game changer is outfielder Yuki Yanagita, who has spent the last several years morphing into one of the NPB’s most impressive players. His age-26 season in 2015 was by far his best, hitting a phenomenal .363/.469/.631 with 34 home runs, 99 driven in and 32 stolen bases. Yanagita’s skillset is so impressive one has to wonder how it would translate on an MLB club, given he just turned 27 less than a week ago.
What makes Fukuoka’s pitching staff so intriguing is the lack of total dominance in the starting rotation. They don’t have a Tomoyuki Sugano or Kenta Maeda, but no regular starter logged an ERA higher than Jason Standridge’s 3.74, and he made 23 starts this season. The bullpen is just as vicious; Dennis Sarfate, Fukuoka’s shutdown closer since last season, posted yet another dominant campaign with 41 saves in 65 appearances, posting a microscopic ERA of 1.11 and WHIP of 0.634. If the offense sets the table with a few runs, there’s no reason to believe the staff won’t hold any opponent en route to a victory.
The Chiba Lotte Marines, impressive as their season has been, finished 18 ½ games behind the Hawks in third place in the Pacific League. Only four games over .500 for the 2015 season, Chiba simply doesn’t appear to have the sort of firepower it would take to topple the mighty Hawks this year.
The Marines rarely ranked higher than third in the Pacific League in any major offensive or pitching categories, failing to separate themselves from the pack with any sort of identity (as the Swallows and Giants did in the Central League). Their most consistent starting pitcher has been 27-year-old Yuta Omine, who went 8-7 this season with a pedestrian 3.17 ERA (for an ace), a rather high 1.402 WHIP, and a dramatically low 1.52 strikeout-to-walk rate. Other starters like Ayumu Ishikawa and Hideaki Wakui posted similar numbers.
Outfielder Ikuhiro Kiyota had himself a breakout 2015 season, with 15 home runs and 67 RBI over 130 games. His .387 OBP and .503 SLG were both career highs as he nearly doubled his career high in plate appearances. If the Marines are looking for an X-factor, Kiyota is the guy.
Still, the lack of an obvious strength or big-time player on the Marines is concerning for them, and their pedestrian regular season numbers should make fans grateful they’re even in the final stage of the Climax Series. Barring any dramatic upsets, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks should be a lock to secure the Pacific League in 2015.
And the idea of a Fukuoka/Tokyo Yakult Japan Series is intriguing, as it would pit two equally offensively sound ballclubs against each other and more specifically bring Yuki Yanagita and Tetsuto Yamada to the center stage as adversaries. It’s Mike Trout versus Andrew McCutchen in the United States, which I’m sure one could imagine as an explosive matchup. But like anything in baseball, the games have to be played, and upsets could be fascinating.