A new season has already put three weeks into the books. Many new surprises, stories, and fabulous performances are already playing out, such as:
- Tight competition for Azua in the USA
- Pacora proving they have 2nd tier chops
- A 7-way race in Cuba (sorry, Lagunillas!)
- Mao leapfrogging ahead in the Dominican LOD.
- Cangrejeros hitting team .301 & running away with South Korea
- Gila Monsters off to a good start in Venezuela
- Is 2023 the long-awaited Year Of The Rally Cat?
These and other hilarities after the jump…
The start of 2023 is looking a lot like the start of 2022 in the USA. Azua faces what looks like strong competition in the early months, while San Lorenzo flies far enough out in front to leave the LOD fighting amongst themselves for the right to not sink in 2024.
Last year’s early competition for Azua was in the form of Oaxaca. This season it’s the new guy: the Taegu Black Bears, who are continuing what they did best in Cuba last year – destroying all comers from the pitchers’ mound. In 18 starts the Taegu starting staff has a ridiculously low 1.94 ERA – including In-kwon Yi, who has yet to give up an earned run in 3 starts. Mind you, Azua is not exactly “stumbling” out of the gate; they sit 1 game ahead of Taegu, and were crippled by the loss of the Reptile, but he’s back from his injury and already hitting .400 in the last 6 games.
San Lorenzo, meanwhile, is 16-2, and on an 11-game winning streak. Last year, you could have gotten away with blaming San Lorenzo’s 73-47 finish on weak competition in the LOD, but the current win streak includes a 3-game sweep of Azua AND Taegu, which so far is the best the LAD has to offer as well. Hanging tough in 2nd is Akashi and Nagasaki, tied at 8 games behind. The Nagasaki offense has shown its predicted potency in the USA league (team OPS: 789, a good 3o points higher than anyone else in the USA), but the pitching is getting killed – only 3 of the Blues’ 8 wins belong to their starters (Shinada – 1-0, 1.16; Underhay, 2-1, 3.21). The Fordians meanwhile are getting by on much worse pitching (team 5.30 ERA versus the Blues’ 4.76) but have the advantage in the standings due to a 2-1 series win vs. Nagasaki. Toa Baja meanwhile is in the doldrums – they were without star catcher Damiao Courinho to start the season, and the heart of the order collapsed around the hole…their offense stats (led by their .241 team average) trails the entire LOD in almost every category, and they’re 3-15 because of it.
Star of the Week: Zai-shuo Lok, Taegu Black Bears (2-1, 0.96 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 22 K, 28.o IP)
Goat of the Week: Ho-win Shi, Nagasaki Blues (0-2, 17.76 ERA, 2.92 WHIP, 4 starts, 12.2 IP)
Forget the new guys making a splash in the Japan LAD. Nagasaki and Toluca departed in 2022, replaced by the Erie Sea Wolves and the Colon Cougars respectively. Both are 5-13 to start the season. Erie seems to be getting decent starting performances but disastrously bad offense, although Yakamochi “The Mayor” Maekawa is back in the lineup after a spring training trip to the DL, and that may help improve things. Colon’s struggles come as no real surprise to anyone who watched them celebrate their advancement to Japan by letting In Hwang walk to free agency along with the core of their pitching staff. The Cougars have a 6.52 starters’ ERA to go along with a 5.17 bullpen ERA.
As expected, the LAD story will be played out by the Santiago de los Caballeros, whose championship was stolen by Nagasaki’s late surge, and the Barquisimeto Obeliscos, who paid big for Ricardo Visoso and other team improvements in the offseason which so far are paying off. Visoso sits as the #3 slot in the heart of an order hitting well above .300 and contributing to a team .797 OPS. Bullpen pitching appears to be the weakness of the Obeliscos (5.45 ERA) and that’s why they sit 2 games behind Santiago in the standings.
Those of you who were expecting a Moca-Tocumen rematch in the LOD probably weren’t expecting the conditions of that rematch to be “who’s going to be in 2nd place?” The Pacora Jaguars, last year’s runaway Venezuela champions, are back in Japan and appear to be staying this time around – their crack pitching staff has allowed a measly 58 runs (49 earned) in the last 18 games – the Machine has allowed exactly double that amount (118 runs) which is why they and their 5.85 team ERA are in a virtual tie for last place with Tocumen (already shallow pitching depth getting slammed by injuries) and Cancun (terrible offense – team .217 batting average).
Star of the Week: CF Bob “Whitey” Hyde, Barquisimeto Obeliscos (.313 AVG, 1.052 OPS, 4 HR, 15 RBI).
Goat of the Week: LF Tejano Jacome, Colon Cougars (.093 AVG, .235 OPS, 54 ABs).
If the past 3 weeks are any indication of the future in Cuba, this is going to be a really great season for baseball fans. The Vancouver Venture Brothers sit in the top spot in the LAD, thanks to the efforts of two key players: catcher Brad Southorn, who’s off to a ripping start (.356 AVG, 7 HR, 20 RBI) and SS Johnny Pomfret, who’s not quite ready to listen to people tell him that he’s washed up at 38 (.364 AVG, 1 HR, 11 RBI). Only a game behind is Santiago de Cuba Rough Riders, who actually aren’t doing anything really well right now and are in fact 2 games above their Pythagorean record already. The Rough Riders have a .239 team average to go along with a deeply flawed bullpen that features three middle relievers with ERAs above 10 (7.42 total bullpen ERA), but they’ve found ways of working themselves to a 9-9 average. Below them are slow-starting Maracaibo, 2 games behind but playing decent ball for an 8-10 team, and newcomers Hukuoka Hawks, who have a division-leading 3.46 team ERA and are just waiting for some offense to go along with it (team .231 AVG is worst in division).
In the LOD, Wuhan sits on top of the standings, with Philadelphia and Incheon 1 game and 2 games behind respectively. Though it’s close in the standings right now, Wuhan appears much more of a clear favorite than the rest. Their 11-7 record is happening at a time when some of their more talented players are slumping. The pitching staff has been dynamite (team ERA: 2.80) except for Er Gai (0-4, 5.14 ERA in 4 starts) – and this is a guy who hasn’t had an ERA above 4.00 (or for that matter a losing record) since 2018. It will not last; he will get better. Also not living up to potential for the Blackhawks yet: leadoff man Luis Sendejas, who’s hitting .159 to start the year, and 3B Shi-kai Yang, who hit .320 with 32 homers last year, but only .227 this year on pace to hit in the low 20s. In short, this is a great team that’s just playing in “good” mode right now.
Star of the Week: CF Javier Chumil, Maracaibo (.391 AVG, 1.210 OPS, 5 HR, 16 RBI)
Goat of the Week: CF Luis Sendejas, Wuhan (.159 AVG, .486 OPS, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 69 ABs)
The Dominican League Latitude division is shaking up to be pretty much like last year. Tokorozawa, Puerto Plata and Sapporo are still lightweight teams with deeply flawed pitching staffs. So it’s not much surprise to see the Toluca Toucans, last year’s Japan LAD relegants, on top by a 5-game margin. The 13-5 Toucans feature the division’s only non-disastrous starting rotation (led by Roldan “Tiog” Molina, 4-0 and a paltry 0.30 ERA in four starts) and just enough slugging power to win ballgames (team .775 OPS is 2nd in division).
The Longitude division is just as surprising as the Latitude is unsurprising. The Tokyo Tankui, narrow losers to Bani for the LOD championship last year, have completely collapsed, with their once-stellar starting core wearing a division-worst 4.28 ERA – contributed in large part to #1 starter Felipe Barrero falling to pieces (0-3, 10.13 ERA in four starts). Worst of all is the loss of perennial Closer-of-the-Year favorite “Dagger” Pak, who will miss the season due to elbow surgery.
The winner out of Tokyo’s fall to last place? The Mao Dadaistas, who are 12-6, a game up on Bani. Mao’s offense is off to a team .286 team batting average, and a team 3.35 ERA second only to the incredible 2.98 ERA put up so far by Bani. The Banshees rotation is getting it done – 9 of the team’s 11 wins belong to starting pitching, while their bullpen is collectively 2-0. You can expect this competition to remain close for a while, but Bani likely hasn’t peaked yet – even though Tauro Gutierrez is hitting .366, he only has 3 HRs so far and when his power swing is fully warmed up, watch out.
Star of the Week: SP Roldan Molina, Toluca (4-0, 0.30 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 4 starts, 29.2 IP)
Goat of the Week: SP Francisco Marroquin (1-3, 9.43 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 4 starts, 21 IP)
South Korea League
Last year, fresh from being relegated from Cuba, the Santurce de Cangrejeros announced that 2022 would be a rebuilding year for the team. Consider the rebuild over. The Cangrejeros are 14-4 to start the season, in the lead in a commanding fashion, hitting .304 as a team and pitching a collective 2.45 ERA. The Blue Crabbies have an embarrassment of riches: a 2B in the 8th lineup slot hitting .415 in 53 ABs, last years ROTY in Korea, 1B Mao Huang, hitting .366 with 4 HRs, and if that weren’t enough, starters #1 through #4 in the rotation are tearing up South Korea batters, with the highest WHIP among them being Gustavo Montealegro’s 1.04!
The Roswell Invasion are running a close second to the surging Santurce squad, although it’s difficult to tell from the standings. They sit tied with Busan for 2nd place at 9-9, although the Invasion is more a victim of bad luck than poor performance – they are a strong 2nd in both pitching and offense to Santurce and have a 12-6 Pythagorean average. The difference maker appears to be Jerrome “Fiasco” Maginn, their strongest pitcher last year, but so far only 1-3, 5.13 ERA in his first four starts. They’re not likely to make a strong move upwards until Maginn straightens himself out.
The LOD in Korea is looking more competitive this year for Quebec. The Xi’an Kylin are picking up where they left off last season, finishing a strong second to Quebec. Bolstered by free agent and trade acquisitions, the Kylin offense is hitting a healthy .306 AVG / .893 OPS, but lack of reliable pitching is keeping the squad one game below the Quebec Dragons, who once again are *mostly* executing well on the mound. With Cheju and perennially horrible Thunder Bay well behind, it looks like a Quebec/Xi’an dogfight this season in the Korea LOD.
Star of the Week: SS Seung Yi, Roswell (.444 AVG, 1.154 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 72 ABs).
Goat of the Week: MR Jim Crosby (0-0, 33.75 AVG, 5.00 WHIP, 8 appearances, 4.0 IP)
Eighteen games into the season, the Venezuelan LOD appears to have no clear favorite. Last year’s division champion, the 9-9 Bocas del Toro Ranas Rojas, sits a game behind the Valencia Cerveceros in 2nd place – and are lucky to be there, because the Little Red Frogs are not executing in any meaningful fashion — team .225 AVG, only 7 HRs for the offense, and a division-worst team 4.13 ERA. The Ranas Rojas saving grace? A strong bullpen – 3-1 collectively, with closer Carlos Aguilera pitching 1.69 ERA with 6 saves. Compare that with the Panama City Bull Moose, at 8-10, who have starters firing on all cylinders (3.00 starter ERA) but their bullpen is 0-2 with a 5.21 ERA. Only three games separate division-leading Valencia and bottom-feeder Monterrey, and with all teams showing weaknesses in one area or the other, expect the lead to change more than a few times.
The Longitude division is currently led by the Mexico City Gila Monsters, showing much improvement over last year. The offense continues to lack pop (team .264 AVG and .745 OPS is 3rd best in the division) but the pitching has been first rate – props to free agent acquisition Jose Matos (1-1, 1.96 ERA in 4 starts).
Not far behind however is the Toronto Sting, a relegant from Japan last year who went out and grabbed In Hwang to help bolster the offense. The good news? Toronto’s hitting .292 and scoring a healthy 5.3 runs per game. The better news? Hwang has a total of 2 ABs so far this season and is still a week away from returning from the DL…so they’ve been doing all this damage without the world’s best cleanup hitter. These two teams will be in close competition when Hwang gets back.
Star of the Week: 1B Vernon McConnell, Valencia (.375 AVG, 1.078 OPS, 2 HR, 8 RBI)
Goat of the Week: SP Jago Marrero, Tijuana (1-2, 8.83 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, 4 GS, 17.1 IP)
The Hamilton Steelers and Brooklyn Hot Dogs are tied for 1st at 11-7 in the Latitude division. Hamilton appears to be shaking off their worst season since their initial relegation back to Canada, getting satisfyingly great numbers from RF Steven Templeman (.343 AVG, 6 HR, 17 RBI) and hitting a division-leading .270 AVG/.795 OPS as a team. In the post-Belanger era, their starting pitching is still struggling to hold on (starter ERA is 3.95, 3rd best in division) and that is leaving the door open for the more balanced Brooklyn squad, who isn’t leading in any category but has crushed weaker competition. At 9-9, Suwon is repeating last season’s formula of outstanding pitching but lousy offense, and are currently suffering 6 DL injuries. Meanwhile Seoul didn’t quite make the surge forward that was predicted for the rebuilding squad – they’re hitting .224, pitching 4.39 ERA, and are 6-12.
In the Longitude division things look topsy-turvy compared to last season. The La Habana Los Leones, last year’s division champions, have fallen hard and are at 4-14, having allowed 85 runs versus 51 scored. Before we make jokes about their .239 team average, let’s switch quickly to the new division leader, the Rizao Rally Cats, who lead the division in team offense with…a .242 average. OK…so to say this is a light-hitting division would be an understatement. But looking at the Rizao pitching staff, you can understand how the Rally Cats are 14-4: a team 2.24 ERA, including a bullpen that has given up TWO RUNS in the first 18 games (0.49 ERA).
Quick trade analysis: the Rally Cats traded prospects for three players from Bocas Del Toro: CF Francisco Basano, SP Ricardo Rodriguez, and MR Mendy Albaran. How did that work out? Basano: .290 AVG, 5 HR, 13 RBI. Rodriguez: 4-0, 1.55 ERA in 4 starts. Albaran: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 10 IP.
Star of the Week: Stephen Templeman, Hamilton (.343 AVG, 6 HR, 17 RBI)
Goat of the Week: MR Qui-li Sun (0-2, 17.61 ERA, 3 GS, 7.2 IP)
Stat Line of the Week
Raul Verala, Lagunillas Loros, vs. Philadelphia, 5/19/2023
9.0 IP, W, CG, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 HA, 9 K
Cuba’s best pitcher brings his A-game early in the season, achieving a complete game 2-hitter versus the typically strong Philadelphia offense.