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THE HOT CORNER: Introducing Pandora's baseball

by Jim Allen (Jul 28, 2011)

The principle difference between this season and last was expected to be the ball. For once, all of Nippon Professional Baseball's teams would be using the same one all season, and the new one would be harder to drive.

According to NPB official Katsuhiko Nakamura, the current ball reduced driving distances by 2.3 percent when tested last autumn.

As a result, drives that once just cleared the fence would no longer do so. The ball's tackier cover and wider seams also put more bend into breaking balls.

A slight decrease in driving distance and somewhat wider seams may not seem like a big difference, but sometimes small changes can trigger far-reaching and unintended consequences.

Batting averages across NPB are down by 20 points, home runs down by 26 percent and runs down by 23 percent. Low-scoring games are everywhere.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Tokyo Dome--where home runs this season have dropped by more than half.

When a very lively ball was in play, Tokyo Dome, with Japan's shortest distances to straight-away left and right (110 meters), was home run heaven. Last season, 210 homers were hit there in 73 games.

Prior to Tuesday night's game between the Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama BayStars, 37 homers had been hit in 31 games.

Through their first 74 games last season, the Giants had scored 371 runs and had hit 121 homers. Compare that to this season, when they managed 224 runs and 52 homers over the same number of games.

Over the years, playing at home had been a huge advantage for the Giants, but this year it hasn't been. With a lineup packed with power hitters, the Giants had been extremely adept at hitting high flies that carried into the first few rows of the outfield seats.

But because the new ball doesn't carry as well, those homers have all but disappeared--particularly those to the opposite field. Tokyo Dome used to see more opposite-field homers than any other park in Japan. But of the 37 home runs hit there this season, only one has gone out to the opposite field and none to center.

The new ball left a gaping hole in the Giants' old battle plan for Tokyo Dome. This has been further exacerbated by the lack of production from star slugger Michihiro Ogasawara.

A career .314 hitter, the 37-year-old has missed 19 games and batted just .220 with one home run. He Yomiuri went into the All-Star break batting just .224 at Tokyo Dome with a 12-15-1 record there. The Giants home park has gone from a house of pain for opponents to a house of plain.

"Psychologically, games here [at Tokyo Dome] are completely different this season," Tokyo Yakult Swallows skipper Junji Ogawa said last week. "You don't have that constant fear of three-run homers.

"That changes the way you play. That changes everything."

Unfortunately, happy days for visitors at the dome may be over. Ogawa's Central League-leaders lost two of three games in that series to the Giants, who have been turning things around.

Even from the start of the season, some Giants hitters have had little trouble adjusting. Hisayoshi Chono is a great example. In his rookie year, Chono hit five of his seven Tokyo Dome homers to the opposite field.

This year, the right-handed batter has continued to spray his hits to all fields, but is hitting his homers out to left instead of right--all while maintaining his .300 average.

It is only a matter of time before more Giants make the necessary adjustments.

Indeed, after scoring 24 runs and hitting five homers with a .216 average in their first 14 Tokyo Dome games this season, the Giants have started to punch up to their weight at home.

In their last 14 games at the dome before the All-Star break, the Giants were 8-5-1 and scored 46 runs.

Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara said his club was on track. After a recent win, Hara expressed satisfaction with his batters' progress and his club's prognosis.

"We are scoring more consistently," he said. "Four runs yesterday, three today. It's not where we want to be, but we're getting there."


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