The Major League Baseball season is at as hot of a stage as it can be. The races for the divisional crowns and the 2021 postseason are at their pinnacle. Meanwhile, the trade deadline is right around the corner. However, the world of baseball and its fans have been dealt another premier event this summer. The baseball tournament at the XXXII Summer Olympic Games gets underway this upcoming Wednesday, July 28th, with the game between host nation Japan and the Dominican Republic.
The format of the sport’s return after a 13-year absence at the Games is quite different than what most Olympic sports have to offer. The tournament is scheduled to feature just six teams battling it out in two stages. Firstly, there will be two groups (or “pools”) of three teams each. Then, the attention will turn to the double-elimination knockout stage. Finally, the tournament is set to culminate with the Gold Medal Game at Yokohama Stadium in Japanese primetime on August 7th.
The presence of just six teams could have a dramatically positive effect on the quality of play throughout the event, despite the lack of MLB players. Nevertheless, the latter factor has another crucial consequence. It establishes the Japan “Samurai” as the front-running favorite to win the first gold medal in this discipline in the home side’s sixth attempt at capturing the title.
And the team’s roster indeed confirms these projections of foreseen dominance. As the country’s biggest professional league, the Nippon Professional Baseball, has instituted a break for the Games, Japan has an opportunity to put together a team of the best players around the NPB. On an interesting note, that league is often called “Quadruple-A” in comparison to the major-league level.
Here is what Samurai Japan will showcase in Yokohama and Fukushima in the following two weeks.
The Japanese ballclub will certainly rely on its biggest star to the biggest extent in their efforts to win it all on home turf. Masahiro Tanaka, amid the first season of his return to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, will enter the Olympics not only as the runaway ace of the Samurai staff but as the most accomplished pitcher in the whole tournament.
Tanaka returned to the NPB in late January. However, his debut for Rakuten was delayed due to an injury and the former New York Yankees starter had to wait about three weeks to hit the mound. Yet, when he finally came back for the Golden Eagles, he picked up right where he left off eight years ago when he departed to sign with the 27-time World Series champions.
The Itomi native has started 13 games this season and pitched a total of 85 innings up to this point of the campaign. His 2.86 ERA is the seventh-lowest amongst pitchers with more than 50 innings pitched in NPB’s Pacific League in 2021. On the contrary, Tanaka has struggled against the home run substantially more than before his US stint. Yet, he is enjoying a shutdown campaign in terms of strikeouts and walks.
Masahiro Tanaka is in the top 15 of the former component. However, he has been even more solid in the ball control department, with his 1.6 BB/9 being the second-best in the league. Furthermore, Tanaka’s addition has improved the Eagles rotation, the ERA of which has fallen from 4.19 in 2020 to 3.56 in 2021. That has given Tohoku a huge boost, with the club now standing just 1.5 games behind the Orix Buffaloes and the top of the Pacific division. It seems like even age cannot become a problem for Tanaka, who has been one of the best pitchers in all of Japanese baseball this year.
However, he is not the best member of the Samurai’s starting rotation. That would be Buffaloes right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who leads the PL in ERA, innings pitched, and is tied for the most punchouts per nine innings. Other prolific throwers around the Pacific and Central Leagues include Yudai Ohno and Masato Morishita, the latter of whom also has a sub-3.00 Earned Run Average. In the meantime, the likes of Ryoji Kuribayashi, with his 0.53 ERA for the Hiroshima Carp, and 2021 NPB All-Star Suguru Iwazaki will defend the stability within the bullpen.
Neither of Japan’s two assets with chances of taking over the catching duties, playing for the Hanshin Tigers and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, respectively, have been particularly successful at the plate in 2021. Both have averaged an on-base percentage near .300. Yet, their defensive performances were enough for both to be voted into the All-Star Series teams of their respective divisions.
The experienced Takuya Kai is likely to star over Ryutaro Umeno, respectively known as “The Cannon” and “The Bazooka” due to their arm strength. Kai represented Japan in both of the team’s last two championship-winning campaigns – the 2017 Asia Championship and the 2019 WBSC Premier12. Moreover, he was a member of the team that won six of seven contests against the MLB All-Stars at the Tokyo Dome in November 2018.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows have been the sensation of the Central League. The youngest of the four teams based in the capital has bounced back off a disappointing 2020 season and currently holds a near ten-game lead for the final postseason (Climax Series) spot in the league. Unsurprisingly, their newfound star will be amongst the players to watch this Olympic campaign for the Samurai Japan.
That is, of course, none other than Munetaka Murakami, who is close to the best Japan manager Atsunori Inaba has available in that department. The 21-year-old corner baseman has an OBP of .387 across 357 plate appearances for the YS. This is the seventh-best mark in the Central League. Also, the left-handed batter has thus far ranked third in both slugging and OPS within the CL. In addition, the former NPB Draft first-rounder won the CL Rookie of the Year award back in 2019.
Still, his teammates are not far behind. Tetsuto Yamada is 12th in on-base figure and fourth in on-base plus slugging, bringing light in the darkness for the fifth-place Carp. Moreover, Hideto Asamura has the second-highest OBP in the Pacific League at .427. Ryosuke Sakamoto is slightly behind his CL colleagues with a figure of .367. It is not a secret that the Japan lineup looks beyond consistent and depth-ridden even before adding the outfield group into the equation.
Already mentioned is the fact that Asamura is one of the three best hitters in the Pacific League of the NPB. What has been left out, however, is that the other two players that fit this description are joining him at the Olympic tournament. Firstly, Kensuke Kondoh might be in the middle of his most underwhelming season since 2017. However, that definitely should not disregard the strong performance he has provided for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. The three-time NPB All-Star has posted a .418 OBP, third in PL, and an .448 slugging figure, 15th-best on the Pacific coast.
Yet, Masataka Yoshida might have outplayed both Asamura and Kondoh during the first two-thirds of the NPB league year. The reigning PL batting champion is not leaving any fellow competitor a realistic chance en route to capturing this accolade for the second year on the spin. The Orix Buffaloes star leads the Central League in batting average, OBP, and OPS, and is second in slugging percentage.
As regards power-hitting, he only trails a Hawks veteran who is a familiar face to Team USA and Major League Baseball. Yuki Yanagita was amongst the very high-profile stars of the NPB at the time of the 2018 Tokyo Dome series whitewashing. Consequently of his heroics for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, MLB scouts were rumored to have shown interest in him until he extended his deal with the Hawks for seven more years during the 2018/2019 offseason. The 32-year-old has played in Fukuoka-shi since getting drafted in 2010. Yuki Yanagita’s achievements include six Japan Series titles, four Japan Series Most Outstanding Player awards, two PL MVP Awards, and six Golden Gloves. Furthermore, Yanagita has taken a part in seven NPB All-Star Series and was named the MVP in the 2014 edition.
The former MLB hopeful turned in a magnificent slugging figure of .571 in 88 games before the break. Not only that but this number has been maintained over the .500 mark in seven of his eleven campaigns as a professional.
The roster is rounded off by Seiya Suzuki, who has put on the second-best on-base percentage and the fifth-best SLUG in the CL. In the former component, he only trails former Yankees infielder Tyler Austin. Therefore, Suzuki might very well be the best Japanese hitter in the Central League.
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