The Yomiuri Giants were supposed to blow the league away from Day 1. Instead, manager Tatsunori Hara's team has struggled. Despite getting good results from a trio of big foreign acquisitions, the Giants have floundered.
It's not hard to see why. Although the news has been about the large number of position players felled by injury or simply out of form, the real story is simply rotten starting pitching.
Many assumed ace Koji Uehara's return to the rotation after a stellar season in the bullpen would, combined with the acquisition of Seth Greisinger, make the starting pitching a force to be reckoned with. Uehara's 0-4 record and 6.75 ERA instead earned him an extended stay in the Eastern League.
Hara's rotation has a 4.55 ERA--the worst in Japan. As bad as the offense has been with numerous players out and or injured, the pitching has been worse.
Greisinger has performed as advertised with a 5-1 record and a 2.93 ERA since coming over from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. But only two other starters have carried their weight: Tetsuya Utsumi (2-3, 3.35) and Hiroshi Kisanuki (3-2, 3.48). Kisanuki, however, has allowed eight homers in 41-1/3 innings and wore out his skipper's patience last Sunday by leaving too many pitches up in the zone.
Lefty Hisanori Takahashi has struggled since having a career season in 2007 with a 14-4 record and a 2.75 ERA. In the three years before that, his best ERA was 4.47.
Our expectations for Uehara were probably too high, as well. Although his 32 saves in 2007 were a team record, the right-hander hasn't had a winning season as a starter since 2004--although his ERAs have been solid.
Takahiko Nomaguchi appeared ready after being a dynamo last autumn, but he needs to make a serious adjustment. In his last two starts, the right-hander was dominant from the windup. But when scratch hits and walks forced him to work from the stretch, Nomaguchi's forkballs and sliders hung up, and he got lit up.
Lefty Norihito Kaneto could be of use, although he has struggled so far. If Nomaguchi gets it together and Uehara comes back and posts an ERA around 3.50, the Giants could have a good rotation.
The bullpen is solid, with Kentaro Nishimura getting steadily better, while Kiyoshi Toyoda is back to work eighth innings and Marc Kroon to close in the ninth. As long as Hara can resist his urge to keep Kroon in the bullpen with games tied in the ninth so Ken Kadokura can blow them, the relief corps will be fine.
As much as the offense has struggled, the Giants still have three MVP-caliber stars in the field: left fielder Alex Ramirez, corner infielder Michihiro Ogasawara and catcher Shinnosuke Abe. Even without Nioka, Lee and right fielder Yoshinobu Takahashi, the production at the other positions is good enough to support the big bats.
Abe and Ogasawara both had sluggish starts to the season, combining for a .279 on-base percentage and a .345 slugging average before May. With the league norms for starting position players at .332 and .403, respectively, one can see why these two were attracting their share of the blame for the Giants' early failings.
Since May 1, however, both have been vastly better (.419 OBP, .565 slugging average).
At second base, Luis Gonzalez's healthy .307 average in 32 games makes that position one of the two where the Giants are producing more than a year ago. The other position is in left field, where Ramirez has been on a rampage.
The former Swallow has been quite a bit better than advertised. His numbers for Yakult the past three seasons suggested a .283 hitter with 20 home runs at Tokyo Dome. Instead, Rami-chan is striking out less and driving the ball better than ever, batting .320 and leading Japan with 16 home runs.
When Kroon joined the Giants, he was endlessly quizzed about the failures of previous foreign stars in Yomiuri uniforms. Foreign players are often in a no-win situation with the Giants. If the team wins, their contributions are often overlooked. If the Giants lose, they make handy scapegoats.
If the club fails to meet expectations, it won't be these foreigners' fault, but rather that the expectations for the starting pitching were simply too high in the first place.