I am not an expert on Japanese baseball, but after watching most of the World Baseball Classic games, conducting a little research and reading coverage on the internet -- including English-language coverage from Japan -- I’ve come to the following conclusions:
1. I have no idea whether this Japanese team is as strong as the teams that won the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009.
2. This team absolutely can win its next two games and go undefeated in the tournament, as the Dominican Republic did in 2013.
Japan went 6-0 in the first two rounds, joining those Dominicans and the 2006 South Korea squad as the only teams to enter the semifinals without a loss. That’s impressive, but Japan played in two weak groups, with a Cuba team that has hemorrhaged talent to the major leagues in recent years, and caught a break when South Korea was knocked out in the first round. How good is Japan as we look to Tuesday’s semifinal game against the United States at Dodger Stadium? Team Japan keeps winning, but other than Nori Aoki, we can’t name a player on the team.
My hunch is that this team isn’t as good, based on a few factors:
Aoki has been hitting third: No offense, but Aoki is only a fringe MLB regular at this point, hitting .283/.349/.388 for the Seattle Mariners last season. If Aoki is hitting third, what does that say about the rest of the lineup? The 2006 and 2009 lineups featured an in-his-prime Ichiro Suzuki, former Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura and a 20-something Aoki instead of a 35-year-old Aoki. The 2009 lineup added then-Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. All those players had some level of success in the U.S. -- not that playing in the U.S. is the sole indicator of ability, but it does give us a better read on those players.
Is there an ace? The 2006 team featured Daisuke Matsuzaka, who allowed one run in four innings in the championship game against Cuba, a performance that helped lead to a big contract with the Boston Red Sox the following season. Matsuzaka’s career in the U.S. is viewed as a disappointment, but that’s a little unfair. Although he was infuriating to watch as he nibbled at the corners, he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 (worth 4.1 WAR) and helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He followed that with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA in 2008 (5.3 WAR). Matsuzaka got hurt in 2009 -- after throwing 4 2/3 innings to help knock out the U.S. in the semifinals of the WBC -- and was never really healthy again. Koji Uehara, then a star starter in Japan, had pitched seven scoreless innings to beat South Korea in the 2006 semis.
Hisashi Iwakuma started the 2009 final against South Korea, allowing two runs in 7 2/3 innings, but that team also boasted a young Yu Darvish as its closer, and Masahiro Tanaka pitched an inning in relief against the U.S. With Matsuzaka, Darvish and Tanaka, the team had three pitchers who could match the best major leaguers in velocity -- again, not that velocity is everything, as Uehara and Iwakuma have had plenty of success in the U.S. while living off mediocre fastballs and great splitters.
Quality of competition: In the first round, Japan beat Cuba, Australia and China. In the second round, Japan beat the Netherlands, Israel and Cuba. That isn't exactly murderers' row. It took Japan 11 innings, with help from the extra-inning rule, to beat the Netherlands, the one team with some legit major league talent on the roster, and Cuba scored 11 runs in its two losses to Japan. This team simply hasn't faced a team that comes close to the depth of the U.S. lineup and pitching staff.
OK, enough with the negativity. Here are a few reasons Japan can win this thing:
Tomoyuki Sugano: Regarded as the second-best pitcher in Japan (behind Shohei Otani) after posting a 2.01 ERA for Yomiuri and striking out 189 batters in 183 1/3 innings, Sugano will start against the U.S. Although he struggled against Cuba in the second round, allowing seven hits and four runs in four innings, his track record in Japan is strong. The 27-year-old right-hander once clocked in the mid-90s, but he now sits at 91 with his fastball and reportedly throws seven pitches, including the proverbial forkball/splitter that so many Japanese pitchers possess.
Bullpen depth: The pen has allowed eight runs in 30 innings, with right-handers Ryo Akiyoshi, Yoshihisa Hirano and Kazuhisa Makita appearing in five of the six games so far. Manager Hiroki Kokubo will undoubtedly have a quick hook on Sugano if he isn't sharp and can mix and match out of the pen. He has submariners, sidearmers, junkballers, fireballers and everything in between to give the U.S. a variety of looks.
Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh is the big slugger in the lineup: Tsutsugoh is coming off a 44-homer season in the Nippon League, and his major league translation, courtesy of Dan Szymborski, is .284/.349/.498. He has been playing left field for Japan, though he might come out for defense late in the game. While I have no doubt that he can hit in the U.S., he looks very slow and might not have a position (he came up as a third baseman), so he probably isn’t a strong bet to come to MLB at some point. He does, however, have three home runs in this tournament.
Tetsuto Yamada at second base: Yamada is coming off a season in which he hit .304 with 38 home runs, 30 steals in 32 attempts and 97 walks in Japan. He has been DHing and leading off, with Ryosuke Kikuchi playing second and batting second. If Yamada can play second base -- he made just four errors in 141 games last season -- he looks like a player who could cross the Pacific with great success.
In Japan, the WBC is almost viewed as a national holiday. If Japan can win for the third time in four tournaments, you know they’ll be celebrating in the streets of Tokyo.