Stuck in Neutral: Shisa Year in Review

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Updated: July 14, 2016

Shiba Taguchi, Ryukyu Sports News

Naha, OkinawaNovember 5, 2023: Shisa fans could be forgiven for supposing that 2023 might be year in which Okinawa finally played winning baseball. While the Shisa did begin the season with a payroll that ranked 26th out of the 32 PEBA teams, one place lower than the previous season, expectations for the team rose a bit following a better than expected 78-84 finish in 2022. Team executives took a low key approach this year, spending less time talking up their team, and more time working on their new stadium deal (which may be more important to the health of the club long term). A consensus pick to finish third in the Rising Sun Division, Okinawa delivered, managing to be mediocre in a league where teams seem to be either outstanding or abysmal. The 2023 record of 77-85 is one win less than the 2022 edition of the Shisa. In a season when the team gained no ground on the field, the top story in Naha was instead the move to a new stadium, Shisa Stadium II, slated for 2025.

As was the case in 2022, the team had plenty of room to improve up and down the roster. The club kept its revolving door turning, acquiring twelve new players in the offseason to replace ones that it let go, but probably made its biggest acquisition in June. As Shisa fans are growing accustomed to seeing, the new arrivals were a mixed bag and not everyone would stick. There were again some solid performances by new position players. Even a couple of new starting pitchers had good, though partial, seasons, a new trend that might give fans hope for the near future, but there was a decline in power hitting and bullpen performance that no doubt held the team back in 2023.

The season began in familiar fashion, with the team going 12-13 in its first 25 games. Okinawa would not quite play itself out of contention through May and made a curious move in mid June. In an attempt to bolster its rotation, something the Shisa have had no luck doing in the offseason, Okinawa traded its 2024 first round pick (twelfth overall, as it turned out) along with some cash to Reno in exchange for starting pitcher Félix ‘Cyclone’ Maese. The team’s performance subsequent to the Maese acquisition showed improvement (the Shisa went 15-10 in July), but injuries to an infield that lacked much offensive depth would help prevent any sustained success in the stretch run. Okinawa would finish 26 games out of first place and 14 back in the wild card race.

Position Players

Offensively, the Shisa finished 10th in the SL in runs scored with 709. A significant drop from the 766 runs the team scored the previous year. A decline in production that can be almost entirely attributed to a severe power shortage that saw team home runs fall from a league leading 208 home runs in 2022 to a mere 164 home runs in 2023, 9th in the SL. Unlike in 2022, which saw star turns by Scott Morris and Mario Martínez, no Shisa hitter was able to post a WAR above 4.0 in 2023.

One of the front office’s best moves of the offseason was the acquisition of free agent Chris ‘Trapper’ Holmes. While the team initially employed him as a second baseman during the spring, he moved to shortstop is fairly short order. An adequate defensive shortstop, Trapper proved to be well above average at the plate, posting a slash line of .277/.321/.466, giving the Shisa some punch at a position where they had been running up the white flag for their first two PEBA seasons. Holmes’s WAR for the season (4.0), was far better than the second best contribution by an Okinawa shortstop during the PEBA era (1.3).

The most surprising performance by a newcomer would have to be that of Bobby Watson. While injuries limited him to just 95 games on the season, his production when in the lineup was amazing (.330/.391/.541). He put up a career best WAR of 3.3, fittingly, at the age of thirty-three, playing primarily as a designated hitter. Shisa fans and executives can only imagine what might have been had he managed to stay healthy all year.

A hamstring injury cut Shisa third baseman Scott Morris’s season short as well, and likely ended his stay in Okinawa for good. The thirty-four year old faced some declining production at the plate this past year, his OPS dropping from .847 to .779, though he could still play well in the field. Morris’s WAR in 2023 also fell from last season’s 5.2 to 3.3.

At first base, Red Hook could not quite match the numbers he posted towards the end of 2022 (.982 OPS). It became clear that SL pitchers had figured him out during the offseason and he got off to a slow start in 2023. While Bothwell led the team with 34 home runs, he remained defensively challenged despite all the work he supposedly put in over the winter. So, while he finished with a respectable first baseman’s slash line of .274/.335/.473, Red Hook could only muster a WAR of 2.4. His future role with the team looks to be primarily as a designated hitter.

Tellingly, no other position player put up a WAR of 2.0 or better and the outfield simply played no significant role offensively in 2023, with Martinez hampered by injuries.

Pitching

The performance of the Shisa starting rotation and bullpen needed to continue to improve in 2023, but this was a case of one step forwards and two steps back. Okinawa starters managed a modest improvement in their collective ERA, down to 4.56 from 4.70 in 2022, merely keeping pace with the rest of the league and once again twelfth best in the SL. However, the bullpen struggled at times and the club couldn’t find a reliable closer, with relievers posting a 4.48 ERA, 13th best in the league. The end result was a net increase in team ERA from 4.41 in 2022 to 4.53 in 2023.

The inescapable fact is that Okinawa pitching was putting the ball on a tee for opposing hitters, giving up the second most hits (1535) and home runs (211) in the league. You’re just not going to post a winning record with pitching that generous. In all, the team gave up 777 runs in 2023, 12th in the SL.

The team brought in starter Jorge Jiménez in the offseason to help bolster the rotation. The former Codger utterly failed to earn his $9.5M paycheck. In 148 1/3 innings pitched, Jiménez posted a dismal 5.46 ERA. The situation with Jiménez would get so bad that the club banished him to the bullpen in mid August (only to bring him back again to the rotation in September, there being no suitable alternatives).

The Chris Graves dumpster fire would turn into a full on conflagration in 2023. Shoulder bursitis would sideline Graves in June, though this could hardly have been a great disappointment to the club as he had a 6.79 ERA at the time and had been assigned to the pen two weeks before. When he returned to the club, Graves would continue to ply his trade primarily as a reliever, starting just three more games for the Shisa, going 0-2 in those starts.

Manager Kijuro Yoshida’s favorite, Livewire Hendricks, again failed to justify the faith his skipper seemed to have in him, putting up an even worse ERA in 2023 (5.60) than he had the previous year (5.42). Isei Yamaguchi, who appeared to have figured things out in 2022, saw his ERA balloon from 3.51 to 4.69 this past season, his FIP similarly rising from 4.37 to 5.12. The question of whether his solid 2022 performance could be repeated in 2023 was unfortunately answered in the negative. Tsuginori Honma managed to stay at more or less the same level he left off at the previous year, with his ERA rising slightly from 4.07 in 2022 to 4.13 this past season.

Lest Okinawa fans conclude that the club can’t scout pitching at all, there were two bright spots in the rotation: free agent acquisition Bill Lewis and the aforementioned ‘Cyclone’ Maese. Lewis, sidelined early in the season with a hamstring injury, nevertheless posted the lowest ERA of his career (3.21) in 131 2/3 innings pitched. Maese would stand out for the Shisa in the 17 starts he gave them, putting up a 2.88 ERA in 112 2/3 innings pitched. But neither pitcher could give the Shisa full season (albeit for different reasons), and their contributions were not going to be enough to bail out a sub par pitching staff. Both return to the rotation in 2024, however, so fans can hold out some hope that Okinawa pitching could, with an acquisition or two, turn the corner.

The less said about the bullpen the better.

The Bottom Line

Financially, the team saw its revenue continue to increase, though the pace of revenue growth slacked off in 2023 and attendance dropped slightly to 3,284,644 from the 2022 figure of 3,317,774, a difference of 1%. The club took in $131,254,058 this past season. An increase of $3,615,030 (2.8%) over 2022 figures. Significantly less than the $24.5M (23.7%) increase in revenue seen in the previous year. It appears that the period of rapid revenue growth may have come to an end for this team as it adjusts to operating in the PEBA. On the bright side, Okinawa ran in the black for the first time since joining the PEBA, turning a modest $1,782,117 profit. Given some of the financial troubles of other clubs, Shisa fans can at least be glad that the team has been relatively frugal this season, living within its means. One does wonder, however, for how much longer the fan base is going to put up with sub .500 performances by the club.

Okinawa Shisa Minor League Player of the Year

Third Baseman Eiichi Tanabe, Japan, Single-A Magami. .278/.343/.379, 110 OPS+, +23.6 ZR, 4.7 WAR.

Okinawa Shisa Rookie of the Year

Right Handed Relief Pitcher Ichiyo Nakao, Japan. 3.35 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 119 ERA+, 0.5 WAR.

Okinawa Shisa Reliever of the Year

Right Handed Relief Pitcher Ismael Hernández, United States. 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 118 ERA+, 1.1 WAR.

Okinawa Shisa Starting Pitcher of the Year

Right Handed Pitcher Félix ‘Cyclone’ Maese, United States. 3.22 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 139 ERA+, 2.8 WAR.

Okinawa Shisa Position Player of the Year

Shortstop Chris ‘Trapper’ Holmes, United States. .277/.321/.466, 118 OPS+, 4.0 WAR.