The lucky ones and 2 unlucky ones

Yesterday, I mentioned some of Japan’s best minor league hitters and the (perhaps) surprising fact that Ichiro Suzuki was the best 19-year-old minor leaguer NPB has ever had. Suzuki reached that dubious pinnacle because A) He was really, really good, and B) Then Orix BlueWave manager Shozo Doi didn’t think he could hit. Because of the lack of belief in him, Suzuki was able to establish in the minors what a good hitter he was.

Had Doi continued to manage the BlueWave for several more years instead of being replaced in 1994 by Akira Ogi, Suzuki’s career might easily have looked more like — Teppei Tsuchiya’s. Teppei, as he became known after he was sold to Rakuten, had proved on the Chunichi Dragons farm club at a young age that he could hit. Once he got a chance in Sendai, he became one of the Eagles’ best players.




Because Suzuki’s manager didn’t believe in him, he spent an inordinate amount of time proving how good he was down there. While there are precious few players as good as Ichiro wasting their time on the farm, there are lots of real good players who never get half a chance.

If you look at all minor league hitters since 1991, who were: under 27, with an offensive winning percentage of.700 or better over two seasons in a minimum of 400 plate appearances, and who had at least 400 PAs in one of their next two seasons with the first team, you get the following players sorted by their second big year. Note that Kensuke Tanaka and Akinori Iwamura each had a third big year in the minors…

  • Ichiro Suzuki 1993 Orix, 19.2 years old – MVP (3)
  • Katsuhiro Nishiura 1996 Nippon Ham, 21.1
  • Akinori Iwamura 1998 Yakult, 18.9
  • Nobuhiko Matsunaka 1998 Daiei, 24.0 – MVP(2)
  • Akinori Iwamura 1999 Yakult, 19.9
  • Shogo Akada 2002 Seibu, 21.3
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2004 Nippon Ham, 22.6
  • Kensuke Tanaka 2005 Nippon Ham, 23.6
  • Yoshio Itoi 2007 Nippon Ham, 25.4
  • Tomotaka Sakaguchi 2007 Orix, 22.5
  • Kazuhiro Hatakeyama 2007 Yakult, 24.3
  • Ginji Akaminai, 2011 Rakuten, 22.8
  • Katsuya Kakunaka, 2011 Lotte, 23.6
  • Akira Nakamura, 2012 SoftBank, 22.2
  • Yuki Yanagita, 2012 SoftBank, 23.2 – MVP(1)
  • Itaru Hashimoto, 2013 Yomiuri, 22.7

Most of these guys need no introduction, most of them have won Best IX awards. In addition to the actual MVP winners, Iwamura deserved to win win one, while Yanagita was robbed in 2014. Two players who might be less familiar are Katsuhiro Nishiura, and Itaru Hashimoto.

Nishiura had one shot at regular playing time in 1998 and hit 20 homers and stole 18 bases but batted .245. The next year, the Fighters gave his playing time to Michihiro Ogasawara. Hashimoto has played well, but he’s had injury problems and the Giants have rarely given regular jobs to guys to low draft picks out of high school.




The list of minor leaguers who are just as good offensively as these guys, but who get far fewer opportunities at the first team is HUGE.

I’ll assume few of you know about Yukio Kinugawa, whose first-team career consisted of 53 at-bats over 50 games with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yakult Swallows. He was a slugging catcher who was converted to an outfielder-first baseman. For three seasons, from the age of 23 to 25, he was a minor league terror. The only player in his age group who was AS good as Kinugawa was Takeshi Omori, a famous minor league slugger and first baseman in the same generation whom the Giants gave up on after a handful of games. Ironically enough, for 1-1/2 years, before his trade to Yakult, Kinugawa and Omori were teammates on the Buffaloes Western League club.




Kinugawa in the minors was similar to Kazuhiro Hatakeyama and Ryota Arai — in his days with Chunichi — years before Hanshin showed the Dragons Arai was a pretty good hitter. Kinugawa was better at his age than Tomoaki Kanemoto and better than Nobuhiko Matsunaka. This is not saying Kinugawa could have been better, but neither Kintetsu nor Yakult seemed very interested in seeing how good he could be.

Ichiro Suzuki, Akinori Iwamura & other NPB minor league stars

Ichiro Suzuki is some day going to be the first player to begin his career in NPB and end up in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Akinori Iwamura won’t make it, but people familiar with his career in Japan know what a good ballplayer he was.

I recently re-added the minor league batting and pitching data from 1991 to 2001 to my data base — I lost my originals about 20 years ago in a hard disk crash — and asked which under-20 minor league hitter (minimum 200 PA) had the best seasons with offensive winning percentages over .700.

  1. Ichiro Suzuki (19.2 years old), Orix 1993, 214 PA, .883
  2. Akinori Iwamura (18.9), Yakult 1998, 430, .810
  3. Seiji Uebayashi (19.4), SoftBank 2015, 332, .799
  4. Akinori Iwamura (17.9), Yakult 1997, 297, .785
  5. Ichiro Suzuki (18.2 years old), Orix 1992, 270, .784
  6. Kensuke Kondo (19.4), Nippon Ham 2013, 227, .781
  7. Tomoya Mori (18.4), Seibu 2014, 257, .755
  8. Hisashi Takayama (19.1) Seibu 2001, 343, .708





Suzuki took a nice jump forward in 1993 and the next year took another when he won the first of his three straight PL MVP Awards. Most of the rest of the guys you know, although some of you may have forgotten Hisashi Takayama. He was an outfielder without outstanding speed or power and had one chance to play regularly at the age of 28 in 2010, when he played quite well, but was otherwise a guy on the fringe. Takayama’s minor league season at the age of 20 was the 10th best by a player aged 20-21 since 1991, so it’s fair to say Seibu REALLY missed the boat on him.

When Hisanobu Watanabe was promoted from farm manager in 2008, Takayama was one of the guys he gave a shot to in the spring, but at the age of 26 he needed an ally and didn’t have one. Then batting coach Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, wasn’t a fan of Takayama’s and insisted on keeping hustling and likeable-but-underqualified Kenta Matsusaka as his right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder.

Uebayashi, who is mentioned here, is someone who lacks some plate discipline but who does everything else fairly well but has yet to break into SoftBank’s regular lineup. Had he played for Nippon Ham, however, like Kensuke Kondo, he’d no doubt have a job by now. Mori, it seems is caught in a crunch as well, he’s probably a better hitter than the other guys who are taking his playing time, but he needs to go out and prove.

The best minor league season for a player aged 20 was by Lotte’s Toshiaki Imae in 2004, a year before he became the Marines’ regular third baseman for a decade. At age 21, the best was by Ken Suzuki of the Seibu Lions in 1991. Suzuki went on to be a DH-third baseman for the Lions pennant-winning teams in ’97 and ’98 and a corner infielder with Yakult in 2001.







Welcome to Npbspeak

The Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984 has  Newspeak as its official language which is used to transmit to the proletariat the wisdom of Big Brother. Japanese professional baseball in a nifty parallel, has Npbspeak to guide fans according to the will of its shogun, former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe.

Take Tokyo Dome and its infamous official capacity for baseball of 55,000. Through 1984 — oops 2004 — reporters obligingly include references to crowds of 55,000 at the park in their Npbspeak. In the 28 Japan Series games — when attendance is actually counted, crowd figures ranged from 43,848 to 48,342, yet nobody in the mainstream media noticed anything unusual about that. Except for Robert Whiting and a few others, no one was publicly saying: “Hey this place looks full, how come it’s not 55,000?” Because  Watanabe said, “Tokyo Dome’s capacity is 55,000,” where they thinking, “hmm must not be a sell out.”?





At Game 2 of the 1996 Series against Ichiro Suzuki’s Orix BlueWave the place was jammed and sounded like you were inside a jet engine, but somehow nobody mentioned anything incongruous about an announced crowd of 45,806 without any empty seats at a park reported as holding 55,000.

About that time I called the Seibu Lions to ask how come Seibu Stadium could hold 50,000 fans for a holiday sellout against the Kintetsu Buffaloes, but max out at just 31,883 against the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. It sure wasn’t the cost of tickets, because at that timea Lions Series game ticket cost only 50 percent more than for a regular season game. The Lions answered: “During the Japan Series, the fire department prevents us from seating proles — fans — in the aisles.”

Right.





Then in 2005, after the players went out on strike and the proles stood behind them in their fight against the owners, Nippon Professional Baseball teams decided to announce attendance figures that “approximated reality,” whatever that means. In Nagoya, the Chunichi Dragons apparently only admitted fans in blocks of 100 that year, since all their announced attendances that season ended in “00.”

On Opening Day, April 1, 2005, the automatons who had been dutifully reporting Tokyo Dome had been filled with 55,000 fans, reported a full house of 43,684. Since that day, the highest announced attendance has been 46,831.

“Tokyo Dome’s maximum capacity is 46,831. It has always been 46,831.”

SO when NPB announced there would be new rules this year — NPBspeak grammar required at least one “new” rule be an existing one. Baseball has prohibited catchers without the ball from obstructing runners for over 150 years. Yet the practice was accepted in both MLB and NPB despite clearly being against the rules. Rather than admit it hadn’t been enforcing the rule, which is an NPB tradition, a rule — a redundant duplication of the old one — was included in the new package so that it could be called “new” so the proles wouldn’t notice.




NPB’s all-time fielding team: shortstops

This is the third part of a series on the best fielders in Japanese baseball history. Today will cover the shortstops, and ask what happened to most of the guys who played the position before 1980?

Hall of Famer Yoshio Yoshida is an easy favorite as the best-fielding shortstop to ever play in Japan. The shortstops are another odd list in that after Yoshida and Kenji Koike, the remaining eight are all contemporaries who have recently retired or will in the next few years. If one were to rank them only by fielding win shares,  only four of the top 10 would have careers that started before 1989.

If one ranked players by the number of times win shares considers a shortstop the best gold glove candidate, Yoshida dominated the Central League in the ’50s, Koike dominated the Pacific League in the ’70s. No one has really dominated a decade like they did, but most of the guys on the list had a stretch of four or five seasons when he was either the best in his league or a close second.

The numbers given with each player are: career fielding win shares at shortstop, total fielding win shares per 27 outs, WS golden gloves, actual golden gloves. These were first awarded in 1972 , so neither Yoshida nor Koike ever won one.

  1. Yoshio Yoshida, Tigers, 1953-1969: 106-.547, 8,*
  2. Kenji Koike, , 1961-1974: 90-.668, 7,*
  3. Hirokazu Ibata, Dragons, 1998-2015: 84-.480, 6, 6
  4. Takuro Ishii, BayStars, 1989-2012: 91-.439, 2, 1
  5. Kazuo Matsui, Lions-Eagles, 1994-present: 88-.473, 4, 4
  6. Makoto Kosaka, Marines, 1997-2010: 76-.597, 5, 4
  7. Makoto Kaneko, Fighters, 1994-2014: 70-.509, 5, 1
  8. Takashi Toritani, Tigers, 2004-present: 83-.483, 4, 1
  9. Masahiro Kawai, Giants, 1984-2006: 69-.498, 4, 6
  10. Shinya Miyamoto, Swallows, 1995-2013: 73-.412, 2, 6

Three of the players on this list spent significant time at other positions. This is the normal practice for good offensive players at the end of their careers, but it only applies to No. 10, Shinya Miyamoto, who won three Golden Gloves at third base.

No. 4, Takuro Ishii, began his career as a pitcher, before becoming a Golden Glove-winning third baseman, before being converted to short. Makoto Kaneko was a rookie of the year and golden glove winner at second before being moved to shortstop, where he appears to have been undervalued in the voting.

Kazuo Matsui is now an outfielder, and he forfeited his chance to move higher in the rankings by spending seven years in the States. Matsui earned 23 fielding win shares in the majors, mostly at second, but add that to his NPB totals at all positions and he would shoot past Yoshida in terms of total fielding win shares in his career.

Another player who has been undervalued in the voting is Takashi Toritani of the Tigers. Toritani, however, was hurt two years ago and his range went from really good to really poor and if he keeps playing short, he might drop off the list. He’s going to keep playing somewhere because he’s a great hitter, but his range appears to be a serious issue.

NPB’s all-time fielding team: second and third basemen

This is the second part of my look at the top fielders at each position in NPB history. Today, I’ll go through the second and third basemen.

Second base

This list is surprisingly dominated by active players, although there’s no mistaking how much better Shigeru “Buffalo” Chiba was compared to his contemporaries. Chiba’s 1949 season, when he turned a record 128 double plays with just 18 errors for the league champions, ranks as the most valuable fielding year ever for a  second baseman in Japan. Chiba has two of the top-10 seasons and had golden gloves been awarded before he retired, he would have won it every year from 1946 to 1952.

On top of that, when he went to manage Kintetsu, they named the team after him, and he is credited with being the origin behind the popular dish “katsu curry,” which combines what he said were his two favorite foods, Japanese-style curry on rice with pork cutlets (katsu) on top.

As before, the numbers given are: career fielding win shares, and fielding WS per 27 outs & number of “win share golden gloves”:

  1. Shigeru Chiba, Giants, 1938-1956: 63-.500, 7
  2. Yuichi Honda, Hawks, 2006-present: 58-.469, 6
  3. Kazunori Shinozuka, Giants, 1977-1994: 66-.426, 5
  4. Shozo Doi, Giants, 1965-1978: 57-.383, 4
  5. Kensuke Tanaka, Fighters, 2000-present: 46-.377, 1
  6. Minoru Kamada, Tigers, 1957-1972: 50-.369, 3
  7. Chico Barbon, Braves, 1955-1965: 52-.369, 4
  8. Yasuyuki Kataoka, Lions-Giants, 2005-present: 49-.366, 0
  9. Hatsuhiko Tsuji, Lions, 1984-1999, 49-.366, 5
  10. Hiroyasu Tanaka, Swallows: 2005-present: 44-.387, 3

There are some surprises here. Shinozuka was less known for his fielding than his outstanding offense, while Hiroyasu Tanaka has always seemed more solid and workmanlike than outstanding… Yasuyuki Kataoka could easily rank higher because the fielding win shares per 27 outs hurts a player like Kataoka — who makes lots of outs, and helps players like Kensuke Tanaka and Chico Barbon — although Kamada was a good-field, no-hit type…

Third base

When one hears so much about how great a particular player is, it is easy to believe that some of it must be hyperbola, and no one generated more hyperbola than Shigeo Nagashima. But that’s what happens if a charismatic player achieves his peak early and plays consistently well for a fair amount of time. Defensively, he was easily the best regular at third base.

  1. Shigeo Nagashima, Giants, 1958-1974: 76-.342, 9
  2. Hiromi Matsunaga, Braves, 1981-1987: 59-.337, 4
  3. Kinji Shimatani, Dragons-Braves, 1969-1982: 55-.341, 5
  4. Norifumi Kido, Swallows-Lions, 1957-1974: 46-.373, 4
  5. Michiyo Arito, Orions, 1969-1986: 55-.279, 3
  6. Norihiro Nakamura, Buffaloes-Dragons, etc., 1992-2014: 58-.265, 5
  7. Tatsunori Hara, Giants, 1981-1995: 46-.351, 5
  8. Koichi Hada, Buffaloes, 1973-1989: 50-.298, 2
  9. Hideo Furuya, Fighters, 1978-1992: 47-.312, 3
  10. Masayuki Kakefu, Tigers, 1974-1988: 46-.301, 3

Nobuhiro Matsuda, who TALKED about going to the majors this winter, but opted to stay put in Japan will now have the opportunity to crack this list in the next three years.

NPB’s all-time fielding team: catchers and first basemen

Catcher

Atsuya Furuta. Although Motonobu Tanishige caught more games than anyone else (2,964), and has the highest career win share total from his catching, and a certain Hall of Famer, he is in the words of John E. Gibson, a compiler, a quality player with an extraordinarily long career.

The three best NPB seasons for throwing out base-stealers belong to Furuta. He set the record in 1993, when opponents tried to steal just 45 times against him 45 times in 130 games, and 29 of those paid the price for a caught-stealing percentage of .644. Here’s a list with career total fielding win shares, fielding win shares per 27 outs made and number of years he was probably the best fielder in his league:

  1. Atsuya Furuta, Swallows, 1990-2007: 130-.648, 8
  2. Mitsuo Tatsukawa, Carp, 1978-2002: 72-.639, 3
  3. Tsutomu Ito, Lions, 1982-2003: 126-.575, 8
  4. Fujio Tamura, Fighters, 1981-1998: 74-.545, 4
  5. Akihiko Oya, Swallows, 1970-1985: 75-.526, 4
  6. Motonobu Tanishige, BayStars-Dragons: 1989-2015: 138-.513, 5
  7. Akihiro Yano, Tigers, 1991-2010: 70-.487, 2
  8. Shinnosuke Abe, Giants, 2001-present: 85-5.7-.479, 5
  9. Takeshi Nakamura, Dragons, 1987-2005: 80-.464, 4
  10. Tatsuhiko Kimata, Dragons, 1964-1982: 84-.435, 2

Since we lack counts of defensive innings played in NPB, win shares per 27 batting outs are substituted as a measure of playing time. Because of this, and because Furuta was a tremendous offensive player who made relatively few outs, he gets more mileage in WS per 27 outs. On the other hand, Tatsukawa was an offensive zero for the powerhouse Carp teams of the 1980s.

First base

While the catchers’ list is dominated by recent players, good-fielding first baseman have become something of an endangered species. Out of respect for limitations, I’ll skip trying to pretend I could select a golden glove first baseman…

  1. Kiyoshi Nakahata, Giants, 1977-1989: 28-.221
  2. Tokuji Iida, Hawks-Swallows, 1947-1963: 42-.213
  3. Makoto Matsubara, Whales, 1962-1981: 44-.201
  4. Junichi Kashiwabara, Hawks-Fighters, 1973-1988, 29-.191
  5. Toru Ogawa, Buffaloes, 1968-1984: 30-.170
  6. Tetsuharu Kawakami, Giants, 1938-1958: 27-.165
  7. Kozo Kawai, Braves: 1948-1959: 19-.165
  8. Sadaharu Oh, Giants, 1959-1980: 42-.163
  9. Kihachi Enomoto, Orions, 1955-1972: 34-.157
  10. Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Lions-Giants, 1986-2008: 33-.150

 

Nomu and Tabuchi

There are two players in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame who were catchers and deserved to be inducted regardless of other consideration. They are Katsuya Nomura and Atsuya Furuta. On top of having an extremely long career, Nomura was a great offensive player and would easily have been selected purely for his managing. I wrote about the lack of catchers in the hall in January, and gave some thought at the time to Hanshin Tigers great Koichi Tabuchi.

This morning,  tweeted: “Duration of career aside, am I crazy to think Koichi Tabuchi was a better offensive player than Katsuya Nomura?

Great question. Nomura began playing at the age of 19 with Osaka’s Nankai Hawks and had his first MVP-caliber season at the age of 22. Tabuchi, a university star, turned pro at 22 and began approaching his prime at 25 — ironically the same age at which Nomura began churning out one super season after another. The thing that is often held against Nomura is the conventional wisdom that his club’s home park, Osaka Stadium, was a great home run park and it appears to have favored home runs until 1971, when Nomura was past his prime at the age of 36.

Taking their parks into account as well as we can with the available data, Nomura was probably the better offensive player of the two between the ages of 25 and 29, while he was the undisputed king of productivity afterward. Here is how they compare at those ages using the old version of Bill James win shares:

Nomura won two Pacific League MVP awards during this span, and led the PL in win shares in 1962, while Tabuchi’s career year came at the age of 28 in 1975, when he led the Central League in win shares. When one considers the length and quality of Nomura’s career, it is hard to see any one surpassing him, although even Nomura can’t match Sadaharu Oh in terms of peak value and consistency. Oh’s career win shares total of 722 is far and away the highest in NPB history, with Nomura coming in second at 583 and Isao Harimoto third at 536.

The pitchers, part I

This is the start of a series trying to estimate Nippon Professional Baseball’s best  players at each position over the past decades, starting with the current 2010-2015. For the players from 1970 to 2015, I’ll be using Bill James original Win Shares — I still haven’t figured out some of the details of his new system. Without any estimates of park effects prior to 1970, I’ll look at other stuff. To avoid too much detail, one win share equals one third of a team win and the two balance out — every team’s individual win share total equals three times its wins. (You may see halves in my figures sometimes — and that’s because I’ll count each team tie as half a win and there are a lot of ties in NPB.)

2010-2015

Although Kenta Maeda has not been Japan’s best pitcher in recent years, his body of work — and the absence of Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, opened the door for him to shoot to the top of the rankings for the current decade. It will take a couple of years for the Orix Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko to pass Maeda — even if the Carp ace moves to the majors this winter.

To be realistic, other than Maeda and perhaps Dennis Sarfate, nobody on the top-10 list can expect to be really better than he is now — although Kaneko will likely rise from the tar pit that sucked the life out of his game in 2015. Giants closer Hirokazu Sawamura and Seibu Lions submarine starter Kazuhisa Makita are a good bet to move into the top 10 next year, while slugging Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani is still two good seasons away.

The table shows each player’s total win shares, the number of times he led his league in win shares, and the number of times he was league MVP.

The No. 4 pitcher on the list, Toshiya Sugiuchi, is 35 and was hurt for most of 2015. After which, he asked to be given the biggest pay cut in NPB history, a 450 million yen drop that saw him go from earning 500 million yen ($4.1 million) to 50 million yen. The lefty, however, has been remarkably consistent. From the age of 27 he had three-straight 17-win share seasons. For the five seasons after that, his season totals ranged from 10 to 12.5, so he was due a bad season I suppose.

Takayuki Kishi is something of a mystery. After his 2008 Japan Series MVP performance, his fitness has been spotty. But when he’s healthy, he’s about as good as they come. But because he misses a few games every year, it is surprising to see him rate consistently so well. Dennis Sarfate, who pitched in relief behind him with the Seibu Lions in 2013, said Kishi is burdened by the sand pile that passes for a mound at Seibu Dome.

Sarfate said the Lions keep it soft for Makita, and said I should take a look at Kishi’s ERA on the league’s hardest mound, at Sapporo Dome. OK, but it’s not just Sapporo Dome, Kishi’s career ERA is 2.63 away from the Seibu Tomb, and 3.72 at home. In the context of the Pacific League, Seibu Dome slightly favors hitters, with a median run adjustment of 1.035 over Kishi’s career, but nothing that should account for being a run better on the road.

Sarfate, by the way, makes this decade’s list as the only reliever, having arguably the best 2015 season of any PL pitcher out of the SoftBank Hawks bullpen. The other day, former Hanshin Tiger Matt Murton mentioned Sarfate as a player who had really benefitted from mastering Japan’s emphasis on secondary-pitch command.

There may be some truth to that. Sarfate was very good in his first season with Hiroshima in 2011, but has surpassed that after joining the Hawks at the age of 33 in 2014. Part of that may be getting away from the Seibu mound and another part may be a better working environment with the Hawks, who have become Japan’s model organization. Of course, Sarfate was able to be the best because 2015 was not a good year for PL starters.

After Sarfate on the list is another Yomiuri Giants lefty, Tetsuya Utsumi, who is two years younger than Sugiuchi, but whose career trajectory and value has been very similar to his teammates. Like Sugiuchi’s 2015 season, Utsumi’s was also a wash due to injuries.

Japan’s MVPs over past 25 years

23-year-old Tetsuto Yamada’s 2015 season may have been Japan’s best over the past 25 years.

Having finally gotten around to calculating win shares in NPB from 1989 to 2015, I might as well use them to ask the question: How often are Japan’s MVP winners actually in the ballpark?

While every system, including WAR is going to catch some flak for its omissions and assumptions, Win Shares is a good match for Japan because a lot of data, particularly UZR for recent players, is not publicly available.

One win share is equivalent to a third of a win and what is really neat is that the win shares for pitchers correspond very well over a period of time with actual pitching wins. Of the 50 MVPs selected over the past 25 years, there have been 15 players selected who were, through this measure, vastly underqualified for the award. Of those 15, it should not surprise anyone who follows Japanese baseball that 12 were pitchers.

The most egregious selection since 1991 was left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, the Pacific League’s 2010 MVP, whose 13 win shares were the fewest of any winner since then. The player with the most win shares that season (34) was the first shortstop to win a batting championship and a Golden Glove in the same season, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Of the 50 actual MVPs, 31 either led their league in win shares or were within 3 win shares and have to be considered really good candidates. Since I first wrote this, I have extended my win shares calculations to 1970, and Wada’s MVP stands as NPB’s worst choice in 46 years.

If MVPs were decided by an objective estimate of contributions to wins and losses, who in the past 25 years would have won the most MVP awards? If you guessed Matsui, you would be correct. You can go with Hideki Matsui or Kazuo Matsui, both led their league in win shares five times. Hideki actually won two, while Kazuo won one.

Which player in Japan was most poorly represented in MVP awards? That title might go to Hirokazu Ibata during his heyday as the defensive leader of the Chunichi Dragons. Ibata led the Central League in win shares in 2004, ’07 and ’09, although he did so with fairly modest totals of 24, 24 and 26, respectively.

Who has had most valuable season over the past 25 years? One wouldn’t have to look far for that one. After a year in which he led the CL in seven offensive categories, including being the second player in NBP history to surpass the runner-up in runs scored by 30 or more (and the one not named Sadaharu Oh) , Yakult Swallows second baseman Tetsuto Yamada raked in 47 win shares in a 143-game season. Although the schedule has increased over this period from 130 games to as many as 146, Yamada’s 2015 season can arguably called the best in Japan in the last 25 years, narrowly beating out Ichiro Suzuki’s 1995 MVP season for the Orix BlueWave.

The other three in win shares per game top five are: No. 3 Yuki Yanagita 2015; No. 4 Ichiro Suzuki 1996 and No. 5 Tom O’Malley 1993. But O’Malley’s Hanshin Tigers finished fourth that season, and Atsuya Furuta, the catcher for the CL pennant-winning Swallows, was a fairly deserving winner with 32 win shares to O’Malley’s 34.

Here are the WS MVPs and actual MVPs in each league for the past five seasons with the win share totals of league leaders bolded and actual MVPs italicized:

 

Where second base and the outfield converge

Yamato Maeda played his 16th game of the season at second base on Sunday  as he continues to fill in for Hiroki Uemoto. Maeda, who won his first Golden Glove Award last season for his work in center field, has played 75 games in the outfield this season, earned his first playing time in the Central League as a utility infielder (playing primarily at second).

But there is nothing new or unusual about a star center fielder playing second in Japan. A number of players have shifted back and forth between second and the outfield, mostly center and right. The champion of the second baseman-center fielders is Keiichi Hirano of the Orix Buffaloes, who had seven seasons in which he played a minimum of 35 games at second base and the outfield. Hirano first accomplished this in 2004, when the infielder was asked to play in the outfield as well. He shuttled back and forth a bit until current New York Mets manager Terry Collins took over the Buffaloes in 2007 and planted Hirano at second.

Collins returned for his second season to find Orix had traded Hirano, the club’s fastest player, for aging and often-injured Tigers slugger Osamu Hamanaka. Down the road at Koshien, Hirano became the Tigers’ center fielder-second baseman of choice for five straight years before he returned to Orix as a free agent in 2013 and continued to divide his defensive duties.

Next on the list after Hirano, is the late Takuya Kimura, who after his trade to the Hiroshima Carp, inherited the outfield-second base role that current Carp skipper Koichi Ogata vacated when he was made a full-time outfielder. KImura shuttled back and forth for five seasons. If all this is confusing, just think that while Ogata was shuffling around with the Carp, the Yomiuri Giants also had  second baseman-center fielder, and also named Koichi Ogata, who was a frequent contributor at both positions from 1990 to 1994.

The other name pair among the double-duty men are the Tomashino brothers, Seiji of the Seibu Lions and his younger brother Kenji of the Yakult Swallows.

The table below shows the guys who had multiple seasons in which they played 20-plus games at second base and in the outfield. Notice that this started in the ’70s with John Sipin and HIrokazu Kato, it was primarily a ’90s thing.