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Nippon Professional Baseball: Guide to Opening Day 2021

The 2021 Nippon Professional Baseball season is upon us. As we get ready for the 2021 season, we must revisit what transpired in the 2020 season, how NPB intends to keep the season intact, and players to keep a close eye on.

Recap of the 2020 Season

Fukoka Softbank Hawks won their fourth straight Japan Series in 2020
Fukoka Softbank Hawks won their fourth straight Japan Series in 2020 – Credit: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2020/11/26/baseball/japanese-baseball/softbank-hawks-fourth-japan-series-win/

In the event you missed it, the 2020 Nippon Professional Baseball season was postponed three months due to concerns about the coronavirus. Opening Day was scheduled for March 20, 2020, though the season ultimately didn’t begin until June 19, 2020.

Sadly, the season also kicked off with no fans in attendance, though this changed on July 10 when the league began to admit a limited number of fans into ballparks. The number of fans was initially limited to 5,000, though as the season continued, the league announced on September 19 they would permit up to 50% capacity into stadiums, with a maximum of 20,000 fans per game.

A traditional Nippon Professional Baseball season consists of 143 games, though the 2020 season was shortened to 120 games. With this decision, the league also chose to cancel the first leg of the Central League Climax Series to help with scheduling difficulties to stretch the season to 120 games. With this arrangement, as the Yomiuri Giants were the top team in the Central League’s regular standings, they received an automatic berth to the Japan Series.

Unfortunately for the Yomiuri Giants, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks defeated the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Pacific League Climax Series. They then knocked off the Yomiuri Giants to capture the 2020 Japan Series.

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks had the best overall record in the regular season with a 73-42-5 record amidst a .635 winning percentage. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks were led by the Pacific League MVP Yuki Yanagita, who hit 29 HRs and slugged 86 RBIs along with a .342 batting average and .623 slugging percentage. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ pitching dominance came from Koudai Senga on the mound, who carried an 11-6 record with a 2.16 ERA and tossed 149 strikeouts over 121 innings.

The Design of the 2021 Season 

MAZDA Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima
MAZDA Zoom Zoom Stadium in Hiroshima

The Nippon Professional Baseball league has applied protocols for the 2021 season to ensure the season runs smoothly. To guarantee the safety of the league as a whole, NPB players and media members will undergo PCR tests regularly.

Spring Training began on February 1, though games have been held without fans. It is expected that Opening Day will feature fans in attendance. Like the 2020 season, the most fans allowed in attendance at each game will be fixed at 5,000 fans. Though, the NPB has asked government officials if they can loosen restrictions and allow larger crowds to support each of the 12 teams after significant financial losses last year.

The 2021 NPB season will feature expanded roster sizes for each team. A typical NPB game has 29 first-team players on the active roster with 25 players on the bench, though these have increased to 31 players on the first-team active roster and 26 players on the bench. 

In another move, the league is permitting up to five foreign players on each team, which is one more player than allowed previously. Of the five players on the active roster, four are eligible to play each game, with a maximum of three foreign players on the field at a time. 

While the NPB implemented the same rule last season to help reduce each game’s length and preserve the players, each game in the 2021 NPB season will not surpass 10 innings.

2021 All-Star Festivities

Shohei Otani batting in the 2013 All- Star series
Shohei Otani batting in the 2013 All- Star series – Credit: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2013/07/22/baseball/japanese-baseball/otanis-presence-hard-to-ignore-during-npb-all-star-series-2/

The inaugural Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1951 and has been played every year up until the 2020 season. The NPB All-Star Game, which is typically held in mid-July, was canceled last season because of the coronavirus and the three-month delay to the season. Rest assured, the 2021 NPB All-Star Game will occur, as the league’s best players can once again showcase their talents on the league’s most prominent stage.

The annual series is played between the finest players in the Central League and Pacific League, determined by fans, players, coaches, and managers. The Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Game highlights either 2 or 3 games, which is different from Major League Baseball, where they play just one game.

Foreign Players Face Significant Obstacles

Colin Rea signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on January 7th 2021
Colin Rea signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on January 7th 2021 – Credit: https://cubbiescrib.com/2020/08/13/cubs-news-colin-rea-showing-promise/

20 foreign players have signed to play in the NPB for the 2021 season, which is astounding for the league’s outlook. However, Japan’s borders have been closed since January 4 to control the coronavirus, which has kept those foreign athletes briefly stranded outside of Japan.

On top of border concerns, players are also concerned about their ability to obtain a visa. After the country ultimately opens, players will need to wait five business days before securing their visas. If that weren’t enough, players might also be required to a two-week quarantine before joining their respective teams.

With the 2021 Nippon Professional Baseball league on the horizon, some players will likely miss Opening Day. What is more, these foreign players have yet to participate in spring training to prepare for the season, and some have yet to meet their teammates, hindering their capacity to build team chemistry.

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

Tomoyuki Sugano
Tomoyuki Sugano

Major League Baseball teams will have their sights on several players this year, including Masahiro Tanaka and Tomoyuki Sugano.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles have welcomed back Masahiro Tanaka, their former ace, into the starting rotation after seven major league seasons with the New York Yankees. Tanaka has remained in a close relationship with his former club and has trained at the Rakuten Gold Eagles training facility over the years. Even though Tanaka has returned to the NPB, he has yet to close the door on a Major League Baseball return in the future.

Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants tested the waters this offseason and garnered interest from many Major League Baseball teams, though he has returned to the NPB for the 2021 season. Sugano is a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, presented to the Nippon Professional Baseball league’s most valuable pitcher. While receiving the Sawamura Award in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, his resume also includes a Triple Crown Award from the 2018 season while leading the Central League in wins three times, possessing the lowest ERA four times, and owning the most strikeouts twice in his eight-year NPB career.

The 2021 NPB Season Won’t Disappoint

Hanshin Koshien Stadium
Hanshin Koshien Stadium

The 2021 Nippon Professional Baseball season looks promising from the outset. With the potential for packed stadiums, a complete regular season, including the thrilling All-Star Game, the 2021 NPB season has all of the ingredients to be exceptional.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Question about the All Star Game; Do they have skills competitions , such as, running the bases, throwing, and homerun derby?

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