Put the 2010 Chiba Lotte Marines season down as something I was wrong about. In a year when I thought they'd be mid-division at best, Lotte has by many measures been the best team in the Pacific League this year. They lead the league in team scoring with 370 (SoftBank is next with 323), run differential at a whopping 106 (Seibu has a 32), batting average (.284), and home runs (72). The pitching staff has done its job too, holding the opposition to 264 runs in 67 games. Lotte has fallen behind Seibu in the standings, but if they keep this up, as they have through the first three months of the season, they'll be in the race all year.
I've only watched two Lotte games this year (a Yuki Karakawa start against Seibu early in the year, and a game against SoftBank prior to interleague), so I'm not the best guy to analyze Lotte's success (I would recommend this guy, actually), but I won't let that stop me. Here are a few observations.
In the lineup...
- Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Toshiaki Imae are healthy and hitting like the Tsuyoshi and Imae we all know and love.
- Takashi Ogino was having a great rookie year until he went down with a knee injury that required surgery.
- Everyone's getting on base: Lotte has five of the Pacific League's 10 best OBP's lead by Tadahito Iguchi with a robust .450. Iguchi is leading Japan in walks with 59; no one else has more than 42 and no one else in the Pacific League has more than 35.
- With a .290/.372/.524 slash line, Kim Tae-Kyun has been the best Korean hitter we've seen in NPB since Lee Seun-Yeop's heyday, and has already given Lotte more production from their foreign hitter slot than they got from anyone they had last year.
On the mound...
- Yasuhiko Yabuta has put up outstanding numbers in his return engagement, and SoftBank castoff Akichika is looks like an inspired pickup.
- Bill Murphy has moved into the rotation and won all six starts he's made so far. I'm trying to think of the last time a suketto had any success as a starter with Lotte... Dan Serafini maybe?
- Yoshihisa Naruse is off to a strong start, with 95 K's in 104.1 innings so far to go along with a 2.95 ERA. I could see him setting new career highs in innings and strikeouts this year.
- Hiro Kobayashi has made a successful transition to the closer role, picking up 12 saves so far this season.
There are a few minor question marks...
- Ogino won't be back until the All-Star game, in late July. His return should be a huge boost.
- Yuki Karakawa has been out since taking a line drive off his right hand on May 13, and his return is unclear.
- Without Karakawa, a rotation front three of Naruse, Murphy and Shunsuke Watanabe is a shade below the front three's of Seibu, Nippon Ham, and Rakuten.
- Spare a thought for Shunichi Nemoto, who was replaced in the lineup by Iguchi despite a solid 2008 season, and has fallen into no-man's land.
The Pacific League is pretty well-balanced this year, so you never know what will happen, but Lotte's chances look pretty good.