After a 5-0 start to the 2023 campaign, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows have gone 12-27-2. As of May 27, the two-time defending Central League champions are winless in their last ten games, putting them just a half-game ahead of the Chunichi Dragons for last place. So, are the Swallows just having a rough stretch, or are the Swallows a bad team?
It’s important to remember that the Swallows were a perennial bottom-dweller in the standings from 2013 to 2020, with the exception of a pennant in 2015 and a second-place finish in 2018. They are not a franchise with an extensive winning record in recent history. As such, it’s reasonable that some fans might think Yakult’s short-lived glory days are coming to an end. But did the Swallows just fluke their way into back-to-back league pennants and a Japan Series title?
From June 9, 2021, to June 30, 2022, the Swallows had a fantastic 99-55-12 regular season record — the best winning percentage (.643) in NPB during that stretch. However, since July 1, 2022, the Swallows have been playing well below .500 with a 47-63-5 record. In other words, the Swallows have not been close to a playoff-caliber team over their last 115 regular season games.
Even at their best, the Swallows have had limited success with their pitching — a byproduct of playing at the hitter-friendly confines of Meiji Jingu Stadium and a failure to consistently produce homegrown talent. In 2021 and 2022, the potent offense was able to transcend the shortcomings while manager Shingo Takatsu pieced together a passable pitching staff with astute bullpenning decisions. However, during their most recent losing skid, the team’s greatest weakness has been exposed further. Of their nine pitchers that have made at least one start this season, only two — Cy Sneed and 43-year-old Masanori Ishikawa — have an Expected Fielding Independent Pitching Minus (xFIP-) better than league-average. The pitching staff collectively ranks last in FIP (4.17) and second to last in ERA (3.83).
To be fair, the team’s two best starters — Yasunobu Okugawa and Keiji Takahashi — have been out of action. The young phenom, Okugawa, is still rehabbing after electing to skip Tommy John surgery last year, while the left-handed ace, Takahashi, is continuing to adjust from a delayed start due to the World Baseball Classic. Once these two stars return alongside foreigners Cy Sneed and Dillon Peters, the Swallows’ pitching should slightly improve.
That said, the lineup — which carried them in previous years — has also struggled this season, as they rank second to last in NPB in team Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). It has gotten better in the month of May, as Yasutaka Shiomi and Tetsuto Yamada returned from injury, and Munetaka Murakami escaped his prolonged slump, but the team is still batting just .196 with runners in scoring position.
Simply put, the Swallows’ formula for success in 2021 and the first half of 2022 was not sustainable. The team is still packed with talent, especially on the position player side, and there’s still reason to believe they can turn their season around and make the playoffs considering how flawed much of their competition is. But their severe lack of pitching depth and inability to hit in clutch moments has put them in a major hole entering interleague play.