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.