Call it a bad case of the "dead-ball blues," and it's got some of the best hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball looking downright ordinary.
The numbers tell the story. So far this year, home runs and offensive stats are down substantially while pitchers numbers have vastly improved. Low-scoring games have become the order of the day, and shutouts are a regular occurrence at Japanese ballparks in 2011.
Most point to the new baseball being used this season.
NPB decided to go with one standard uniform baseball this year, as opposed to the four-ball rotation that had previously been in effect.
Mizuno was commissioned to supply the new balls, which are less lively and have slightly wider seams. This combination is a double-whammy for hitters. It means the ball does not fly off the bat with quite the same "pop," and the larger seams allow the pitchers to throw nastier offspeed pitches and breaking balls.
"What it looks like to me, and from what the numbers show, of course something's different," said Yomiuri Giants cleanup-hitter Alex Ramirez, a two-time Central League MVP who belted a CL-best 49 home runs last season. "A lot of the pitchers are doing a lot better, the numbers of home runs and (batting) average are going down. It's kind of hard. Sometimes you're facing guys you've faced three or four times before maybe three years ago, and it seems like now they have better movement on the ball."
His teammate, American pitcher Seth Greisinger, echoes those sentiments.
"If you just look at the numbers, either the offenses in both leagues are having a down year or it's got to be the ball," said the veteran right-hander, the rare pitcher who may actually be a victim of the new ball.
In Greisinger's last three starts, all in interleague play, he gave up one run in seven innings, two runs in five-and-two-thirds innings and one run in seven innings. For his efforts, he was rewarded with two no-decisions and a loss as the once-mighty Giants' offense has dried up.
Ramirez figures 30-40 home runs will be tops in the league this year, and he also thinks you can forget about guys bouncing balls off the large advertising placards that adorn the back wall of Tokyo Dome beyond the outfield bleachers.
"You don't have too many chances (to hit home runs now)," said Ramirez, a career .305 hitter in Japan who was hitting .285 with 12 homers through June 19, the last day of interleague play. "If you hit the ball the other way, it's hard to hit it out. The best chance you've got is probably pulling the ball, making a perfect swing. But there's nothing we can do about it. We've just got to play."
In 144 interleague games last year, there were a total of 283 home runs hit in Japanese baseball. In 2009, there were 249, and in 2008, 245 balls left the yard in the same number of games played. This year, the 12 teams combined to hit just 153 homers during interleague. There have been 368 home runs hit in total since Opening Day this season, which works out to about 30 per team over the first 50 games of 2011.
Pitchers' ERAs are down, too, and Giants slugger Ramirez has speculated that we could see two or three 20-game winners this year. By contrast, there have only been four 20-game winners in all of Japanese baseball since 1991.
Through June 23, there were eight pitchers in the Pacific League sporting ERAs under 2.00 and three in the Central League. In interleague play, the Nippon-Ham Fighters had a team ERA of just 1.35, while the interleague champion Softbank Hawks staff posted a measly 1.75 team ERA against CL batters.
Naturally, while hitters are less than thrilled with the new ball, most pitchers, not surprisingly, have a warm and fuzzy feeling for it.
"I like it," said Yakult Swallows veteran right-hander Shohei Tateyama, who leads the CL with a microscopic 1.26 ERA this season. "It feels more like an MLB ball, a little heavier. It seems a little bigger--pitchers have said that and hitters have said that, too. It's easier to throw effective breaking balls and offspeed pitches, such as a changeup, with the new ball."
NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato hatched a plan to go with one standardized ball after the 2009 World Baseball Classic, figuring familiarity with a ball more similar to the one used in MLB would help Japanese players in international competitions. Besides the slightly expanded seams, the new Mizuno ball has a less "springy" rubber layer around the cork center.
Seibu Lions infielder Jose Fernandez and Yomiuri pitcher Greisinger both said they felt the new ball seemed to stay in the air a little longer off the bat, allowing outfielders more chances to make plays.
"I've hit some balls that would normally drop, line drives, that kind of float in the air, giving the outfielder more chance to get to them," said Fernandez, who has hit 192 home runs over eight-plus seasons in Japan. "Definitely the balls don't carry as much this year."
Adds Greisinger, a two-time CL wins leader: "I've noticed a couple of times where a guy has hit a hard line drive in the gap that I thought was going to be a double and it just seems to hang up there a little longer and the outfielder is able to get under it."
While hitters may have to get used to seeing fewer balls leave the yard, one pitcher says that just means their home runs will actually have to be legitimate now.
"There's times where if a guy gets it, you know that he got it," said Swallows set-up man Tony Barnette. "If he squares it up, there's no doubt about it, whereas last year, there were times when you'd make a really good pitch, the guy would be on his front foot, pop it up, and the next thing you know it's falling into the front row (in the outfield stands). There's times where you'd think, 'There's no way that ball should have gone out.' But this year, you can tell that if a guy messes up at the plate or a guy mis-hits the ball it's not flying nearly as far."
NPB said it wouldn't comment on the new balls during the season. When asked what kind of feedback Mizuno, makers of the new baseball, have gotten so far, the sporting-goods manufacturer said reaction has been muted, to put it mildly.
"Mizuno has never received any feedback from NPB officials or players (on the new baseball)," Tadashi Matsuda of Mizuno's advertising and PR department responded in an e-mail. "We are not surprised with a decrease in the number of home runs. We reduced the impact coefficient for the new ball and, as we saw from test results under given conditions, the flying distance was reduced. Beyond this, we cannot say with conviction that the ball is the only reason for decreased home runs this year because it could be a result of various factors."
While the debate on the new baseball may rage on all season, there is one thing that all parties--hitters and pitchers alike--seem to agree on.
"The good thing at least is that everybody's in the same boat," said Seibu's Fernandez. "Before, you'd go one ballpark and have this type of ball, then go to another ballpark and have a different ball ... oh boy. I was kind of shocked at first. At least now everybody's in the same boat and it's equal for pitchers and hitters."
Barnette says it's nice for a pitcher to be able to work on his mechanics and get a feel for the baseball without having to worry about adjusting to various balls. Greisinger, meanwhile, agrees with Fernandez and says it's good to finally have a level playing field.
"It doesn't matter if the ball doesn't have much life or it's got a lot of life," he said. "I think it's just really important to have a consistent ball all the way through with everybody using the same ball, regardless of whether it benefits the pitchers or the hitters."