Munetaka Murakami of the Yakult Swallows hits his 56th home run of the season in the seventh inning of a Central League baseball game against the DeNA BayStars on Oct. 3, 2022, at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
By Matthew Tallarini
World Baseball Network
The 2023 season is the 73rd campaign in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s top professional baseball league, and regular season games began March 30, the same that Major League Baseball starts the regular season in the United States.
The Central League consists of six organizations: the Yomiuri Giants, Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers, Yokohama DeNA BayStars, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
As the 2023 NPB season kicks off, let’s take a glance at each team’s history, and players to look out for this year.
Yomiuri Giants (1934-Present)
The Yomiuri Giants have the most championships in Nippon Professional Baseball, with 22 Japan Series titles, the most recent coming in the 2012 season. Starting pitcher Shosei Togo will be a key hurler for the Giants this season. Last season, he went 12-8 in 171.2 innings pitched and recorded a 2.72 ERA through 25 games, throwing three complete games with one shutout. Togo allowed 146 hits, recorded 154 strikeouts, and walked 51 batters during the 2022 season, and fans should expect improvement for the Giants pitching staff. Togo also pitched well in the World Baseball Classic out of the bullpen, appearing in two games and recording a 1.80 ERA through five innings of work, allowing two hits, walking three batters, and striking out nine.
Manager Tasunori Hara will a solid offensive lineup with shortstop 13-time NPB All-Star Hayato Sakamoto and corner infielder Kazuma Okamoto, who had the third-most RBI (7) for Japan in the World Baseball Classic. The Giants didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season, as they went 68-72, just a half-game behind the Hanshin Tigers.
Hanshin Tigers (1936-Present)
The Hanshin Tigers only have one Japan Series championship in their franchise’s history, and it was during the 1985 season. Last season, the Tigers made the playoffs by just a half game, earning the third seed in the Central League. The Tigers beat the Yokohama DeNA Baystars during the first stage of the Central League playoffs, winning a deciding game three, but were swept by the Tokyo Yaukult Swallows in the Central League championship series.
After replacing Akihiro Yano, the Tigers hired back manager Akinobu Okada for the 2023 regular season. Okada managed the Tigers from 2004-08 and will look to help them reach not-so-familiar heights in their franchise’s history. Starting pitcher Koyo Aoyagi can potentially have a great 2023 season. Last year, Aoyagi pitched in 26 throwing four complete games and recording a 2.55 ERA. Aoyagi pitched a 169.1 innings allowing 130 hits, giving up eight home runs, walking 34 batters and striking out 132 last year.
Outfielder Koji Chikamoto can have a big impact this year offensively. During the 2022 season, Chikamoto played in 132 games and hit .293 with 580 plate appearances. Chikamoto recorded 154 hits with 16 doubles, driving in 34 RBI’s and swiping 30 stolen bases during his 2022 campaign. Third baseman and outfielder Yusuke Ohyama will also be a threat this year for the Tigers. Last year, Ohyama played in 124 games with 510 plate appearances he batted .267 putting up 23 home runs, drew 60 walks, hit 18 doubles, drove in 87 RBI’s and recorded 117 hits for the season. Ohyama will have to keep up with the same production to help the Tigers offensively this year. The Tigers will have to keep up with the pack this year if they want to see a deep playoff run during the 2023 season.
Yokohama DeNA Baystars (1950-Present)
The Yokohama DeNA Baystars have two championships in their franchise’s history, one in 1960 and the other in 1998. The Baystars went 73-68 last year in the regular season to earn second place and a spot in the Central League first stage series, where they lost to the Hanshin Tigers in the best-of-three set.
Daisuke Miura is in his third season managing the Baystars. The Baystars have to leverage the depth on their roster. Starting pitcher Shoto Imanaga can big a part of the Baystars pitching staff. Last season, Imanaga went 12-4 with a 2.10 ERA and pitched three complete games and three shutouts. In 158.2 innings pitched, he allowed 111 hits, 14 home runs, walked 32 batters, and struck out 151.
Second baseman Shugo Maki can also have a productive offensive season for the Baystars if he can stay healthy in his third Nippon Professional Baseball season. Last year, Maki hit .290 playing in 135 games, and through 568 plate appearances, he had 24 home runs, 148 hits, 36 doubles, driving in 87 RBI’s, and walked 43 times. Outfielder Keita Sano played in 133 games last season with 574 plate appearances, batting .306 with 22 home runs, 161 hits, 29 doubles, 72 RBI, and walked 43 times. The Baystars can make noise during the season if they have a consistent all-around offense that can get timely hits at the right time in crucial moments.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows (1950-Present)
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows won the Central League pennant last season. They will likely make a deep run in the playoffs once again, and hope to capture their 10th championship in their franchise’s history.
Manager Shingo Takatsu is entering his fourth year at the helm for the Swallows. Starting pitcher Jari Hara can have a major impact for the starting rotation this year for the Swallows. Hara went 8-7 last season, pitching in 22 games and recording a 4.85 ERA through 107.2 innings, allowing 132 hits, walking 32 batters, and striking out 52. Pitcher Tomoya Hoshi went 3-6 last year with a 3.79 ERA through 59.1 innings, allowing 65 hits, walking 22 batters, and striking out 41. The 2022 home run leader, third baseman Munetaka Murakami, will be expected to be a major offensive contributor for the Swallows once again. The two-time Central League MVP, 2022 Japanese Triple Crown winner, and three time All-Star played in 141 games last season for the Swallows with 612 plate appearances, 155 hits, 21 doubles, 56 home runs, 134 RBI and walked 188 times last season. If Murakami can put the same offensive display as last season, the Swallows can hoist the Japan Series title at the end of the season.
Chunichi Dragons (1936-Present)
The Chunichi Dragons finished the 2022 regular season in last place in the Central League with a 66-75 record. Manager Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is entering his second season with the Dragons.
Starting pitching will be a big question for the Dragons this season. Twelve-year veteran starting pitcher Yudai Ohno will have to keep up with his paceduring the 2023 regular season. Last year, Ohno went 8-8 recording a 2.87 ERA with four complete games and two shutouts in 23 starts. Ohno pitched 157 innings, allowing 126 hits, walking 37 batters, and striking out 108.
In his seventh season in Nippon Professional Baseball, the Dragos will look to first basemen Dayan Viciedo to be a huge spark offensively. Viciedo played in 129 games last year with 532 plate appearances, 142 hits, 14 home runs, 63 RBI, and 40 walks. Outfielder Yuki Okabayahshi played in 142 games, batting .291 in 608 plate appearances with 161 hits, 25 doubles, 10 triples, 32 RBI, 29 walks and 24 stolen bases.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp (1950-Present)
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp finished in fifth place last season at 66-74. First-year manager Takahiro Arai will look to help the Carp win the fourth title in their franchise history as the team tries to end a playoff drought that dates back to 2019 season.
Starting pitcher Hiroki Tokoda will be the key member of the Carp pitching staff. Tokoda posted an 8-6 record with a 2.84 ERA through 114 innings pitched last season, allowing 91 hits, 31 walks, and striking out 74.
First baseman Ryan McBroom could have a breakout year for the Carp offensively. During his first season in Nippon Professional Baseball, he played in 128 games with 508 plate appearances, 57 hits, 25 doubles, 18 home runs, 75 RBI and 52 walks. Outfielder Shogo Aikyama could be a big boost for the Carp offense, as he makes his return to Nippon Professional Baseball after playing for the Cincinnati Reds for two seasons. The Five-time NPB All-Star can bring a huge spark to the Carp offense. He began last season with Triple-A El Paso in the San Diego Padres organization before returning to Japan after being released. Aikyama played in 44 games with 174 plate appearances, hitting .265 with 41 hits, five home runs, 26 RBI, and 11 walks.
Nippon Professional Baseball can be viewed all season long on Bwintv.net, or the Pacific League TV’s Youtube Page including interleague matchups. For more information on streaming NPB games, please refer to our NPB Streaming Guide.