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THE HOT CORNER: Carp don't need that much speed

by Jim Allen (Jan 29, 2009)

There is a popular saying among Japan's baseball commentators that speed never goes into a slump, that it is always an asset. This is true, even though managers and former managers often express this idea as an apology for using speedy guys who can't hit at the top of the order.

We're likely going to hear the expression more often this year as the Central League loses another good hitter's park. In 2007 it was Yakult's Jingu Stadium, this year the change is in Hiroshima.

A year ago, Jingu's distances down the foul lines were increased by 10 meters. The change turned Japan's second-best home run park into a much easier place to pitch: A park that used to boost home run output by 44 percent went from long-ball central to long-ball neutral.

While the foul poles at the Hiroshima Carp's new yard will only be nine meters farther from home, the outfield wall will also be deeper all around: nearly six meters farther to dead center.

With new dimensions similar to those at Jingu and Nagoya Dome, there will be fewer home runs in Hiroshima and in the CL this season, but more room to run.

Manager Marty Brown will certainly need speed, but there's no point trying to transform a baseball club into a track team. That is the lesson to be learned from the Yokohama Taiyo Whales.

After the Whales abandoned tiny Kawasaki Stadium for more spacious Yokohama Stadium in 1979, they bought into the 1970s-era major league hokum that speed was the ticket to victory for teams on artificial turf.

The Whales became addicted to speed and emerged as a base-stealing power in 1984. From then until 1991, they led the CL in steals six times. The one year they finished as high as third, they ended the season 24 games out.

People would talk about the need to keep Yokohama's sprinters off base. But because the flying Whales didn't get on base very often, Taiyo was on a fast track to nowhere.

Although it's not all about speed, the Carp will certainly need more than their old stadium demanded.

The good news is that since Brown took over in 2006, the club has gradually become younger and faster. Outfielders Soichiro Amaya and Masato Akamatsu can fly, as can middle infielders Eishin Soyogi, Akihiro Higashide and Shogo Kimura. Most of Brown's other men in red, however, are not all that swift.

One report last week oddly included Tetsuya Kokubo as being among the Carp's fleet elite. Although he's 23, Kokubo might be the slowest shortstop in Japan.

The Carp may not be extremely fast, but there is still enough speed to go around. The crucial question is about power.

When home runs become scarcer, the guys who can still put them in the seats become more valuable. That is why the Dragons will sorely miss Tyrone Woods' power in 2009. While he homers 19 percent less often in Nagoya, the other Dragons lose a third of their home runs.

The best home run hitter in Hiroshima is Kenta Kurihara, but he will have some serious adjustments to make in his new home.

Over the past three seasons, Kurihara has homered 78 percent more often in Hiroshima than in other parks. Ironically, he was much better on the road in 2008. Who knows, but perhaps he struggled to be the big fish in Hiroshima's little pond last season after Takahiro Arai left as a free agent.

Brown's other big bat is Shigenobu Shima, an outfielder on the slow side who was very well suited to hitting in Hiroshima's old small park.

So it will be understandable if Kurihara and Shima long for a return to the old park. The flip side is that the pitchers will wonder why the team didn't move sooner.

For years, Brown had the unenviable task of coercing and convincing home run shy pitchers to challenge hitters. Over time, the Carp staff has become a somewhat functional outfit that knows what to do. And starting this year, they'll be holding most of the cards.

So while there will be talk about speed this year and how it never goes into a slump, a lot of people are going to be stunned by how good Hiroshima's pitchers suddenly become.


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