We're at the All-Star break, and NPB's 12 teams have played through just about exactly half of their schedules. I'd like to take a few minutes to share some observations on the season so far.
I want to start with something about the Great Tohoku Earthquake, but I can't think of anything particularly profound to say about it. The season opened about a month after the quake, but what I'll always remember about the opening of this season was the persistent presence of it: Rakuten opening its season on the road, the day games in the Tokyo area, things like that. But what sticks out the most is the memory a Yokohama BayStars game I was watching early in the season that was delayed for a few minutes because of an aftershock. That just felt... ominous. I guess I probably perceived the earthquake differently because I live in the US, but it was the only extended period over the last three years that I really didn't feel like writing about baseball. Just thinking back to it now has dampened my enthusiasm for writing the next few paragraphs...
The other obvious observation is the affect the new ball has had on the game. Numerous pitchers are posting career-best numbers, and only a few batters, notably Okawari-kun Nakamura, seem capable of cranking out the homers at their respective established paces. Nippon Ham has an absurd 2.08 ERA, while Softbank has a 2.31 mark. I didn't see that coming for Softbank at all, considering that they didn't actually have a rotation last year. The new ball's diminishing effects have been felt around the league, but guys with mid-range gap power seem most greatly affected: Eiichi Koyano, Teppei, Yasuyuki Kataoka, Takashi Toritani... perhaps most concerning is Norichika Aoki, who is still getting on base but has seen his slugging percentage drop to .363 this season after hovering around .500 for the last several years.
Another item of note is that Yu Darvish actually had a bad game this year, giving up seven earned runs in seven innings pitched on opening day. He hasn't had one since though, rattling off a lengthy scoreless streak (mostly) during interleague play, and showing perhaps the best stuff of his career. Maybe it's the new ball, but Darvish seems to be throwing harder this season, routinely over 150 kmph (94 mph) with his four-seamer, with some movement on it. He's also shown a little more polish on his cutter, so combining that with his shuuto he has three pitches with 145 kmph (90 mph) velocity that move in different directions. Throw in a power slider and a slow curve that is basically an automatic strike when he gets it over the plate, and you have a completely dominant pitcher. This is first season I've ever really wanted to see him against more talented competition.
The pennant races are proving interesting through the first half. Yakult has impressively clung to first place in the Central League, somewhat to my surprise. I saw them taking a step forward this year, but I thought the title would come down to Yomiuri or Hanshin. It still might. Hanshin has the only positive run differential in the CL, and Yomiuri leads the league in ERA and home runs, though has scored the fewest runs. The surprise of the season so far is that Yokohama, despite sitting in their typical last place, leads the league in runs scored.
The Pacific is again the more interesting of the two leagues, but it's race is shaping up differently than I had anticipated: it's a two-horse race between Nippon Ham and Softbank, the league's two pitching powerhouses. I had Seibu at the top of my projections, but last year's runners up are in last place, and digging themselves in. I don't see anyone catching up with Softbank or Nippon Ham at this point, but the race for third place should be interesting, as Chiba Lotte, Orix, and Rakuten are on fairly even ground. Personally, I'll be pulling for Rakuten. They have the pitching, and besides, who wouldn't want to see a Cinderella run in Sendai?