Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mediocrity in Japanese Baseball


I've been quiet for a while for a couple of reasons. One is that I wanted to leave the Japanese women winning the World Cup post on top for a few weeks, the other is that the good feelings from that event left me happy about sports for nearly a month. But as time passed, those happy memories have slowly faded and I've returned to my grumpy sports fan self.

As usual, the target of my rancor is the NPB. Check out these standings below (lifted directly from the NPB's website):

Central League
TeamGWLTPCTGB
Yakult88433312.566--
Hanshin8843432.5005.0
Yomiuri9142436.4945.5
Chunichi8841443.4826.5
Hiroshima8840435.4826.5
Yokohama9130547.35717.0

Pacific League
TeamGWLTPCTGB
Softbank9257287.671--
Nippon-Ham8954323.6283.5
ORIX9242455.48316.0
Lotte9140456.47117.0
Rakuten9340494.44919.0
Seibu9137504.42521.0

Some things to note:
Out of 12 teams, only three are above .500.
Yakult has 12 ties out of just 88 games, so they are leading the league despite winning less than half of their contests.
The third place team in both leagues would make the playoffs despite being below .500.
Only Yokohama is out of the playoff race.

So what is my point? First, this is probably the most parity I have seen in the Japanese leagues since I moved here in 1996. But more importantly, it is how all but two teams are mediocre and how this is actually bad for the game.

Many will argue that it is great that 11 squads have playoff aspirations with a third of the season left, but I can't agree with that. Maybe more fans are more into the end of season games, but I believe that in baseball, it is a division or league pennant that matters. It is a sport that takes a long time to decide the best teams, who should then meet in a playoff. In the Pacific League, instead of a compelling race between two clubs playing great ball, we get a snoozer between 4 crappy teams that can't win half of their games. The Central League is somewhat closer, but this is because all the teams are pretty average. It would be much more interesting to see if one of those trailing teams could catch Yakult, rather than have 4 of them battle for two spots.

The situation is similar to the Wild Card in MLB, where the Red Sox and Yankees are both going to make the playoffs, rendering their AL East pennant race meaningless. But at least those two teams are among the best in baseball and will have their excellence rewarded; in Japan, mediocrity will be rewarded with a playoff spot and a chance at an undeserved title.

As MLB debates realignment and an extra playoff team, they should cast a glance over the Pacific to see how watering down the playoffs might make the regular season less meaningful rather than more.

Best,

Sean

Update: This post serves as an example of what can happen in a short time in baseball. First, Boston collapsed and didn't make the playoffs. In Japan, Seibu went from last to third to secure a playoff spot at the expense of Orix, while Chunichi went wild and took top spot in the CL, knocking out Hanshin.

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