On Friday, Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame will announce its class of 2015. There are currently 184 members enshrined. Of those 184, roughly 73 are there because of their pro playing careers, while another 15 are there primarily as pro managers. Instead of launching into a rant, I’ll just say that the breakdown of those enshrined as pro players fairly reflects Japan’s lack of defensive considerations when it comes to giving out the big honors to position players.
The 73 guys who made it as players break down as follows:
- 32 pitchers
- 20 outfielders
- 8 first basemen
- 7 middle infielders
- 4 third baseman
- 2 catchers
The irony is that Japanese baseball puts so much emphasis on defense within its game. As for the pitchers, Japan loves its aces — although there are two relievers in the Hall, Tsunemi Tsuda – who was quite good and who died very young, and record-setting closer Kazuhiro Sasaki.
While browsing the list of Hall of Famers, the inscriptions for Sadao Kondo, a pitcher and manager, caught my eye. Kondo is described as the man who “introduced the division of labor on pitching staffs.” It’s a pretty cool thing to be known for, especially if it’s true.
There certainly is some truth to it, but as usual there’s more to the story than the simple description that makes up the popular record.
What is known is that Kondo was the pitching coach for the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons in 1961 when 22-year-old rookie Hiroshi Gondo took the league by storm. Gondo started 44 of the Dragons’ 130 games, completing 32 of them, and pitched 25 times in relief, finishing the game 24 times as Chunichi finished one game behind the Giants in the Central League race. Gondo was the Sawamura Award Winner, rookie of the year and won the league’s Best IX Award for pitcher – a consolation prize since players on second-place teams rarely win MVP awards. Gondo won 35 games as a rookie and 30 the next but his shoulder was shot and he retired at the age of 30 after giving it a go as an outfielder.
While Gondo’s career crashed, manager Wataru Nonin was fired after the 1962 season and for reasons I’m not clear about, pitching coach Kondo left, too. Kondo, however, returned a year later in 1964, and it was from that point that he reportedly put his stamp on the game, pushing former high school legend Eiji Bando further on the course toward becoming a relief specialist. Bando had relieved a little more often than he had started over the first five years of his career, had a 31-35 record and was finishing about half the games in which he relieved. After Kondo returned as pitching coach, Bando started 19 more games the remainder of his career, yet he is not known as Japan’s first star relief pitcher.
That fame goes to Yukinori Miyata of the Yomiuri Giants, who was successful in relief as a rookie in 1962 and pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the rest of an eight-year career that ended at the age of 29.
One report says Kondo’s system of clarifying pitching staff roles contributed to the Dragons pennant in 1974, but his big starters still worked in relief and his closer, Senichi Hoshino, started 17 games. Kondo did, however, have three guys who relieved in more than 90 percent of their games and only one other club had that many.
That other club was the Pacific League’s Nankai Hawks. And in almost every part of the transition from the old role of ace pitchers to a division of labor between specialized starters and relievers, the Hawks, under Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka, were there before anyone.
The first front-line starter who relieved in fewer than 10 percent of his starts? Hawks right-hander Joe Stanka in the early 1960s.
One of the first prototype relief specialists — even before Miyata? Hawks right-hander Ichiro Togawa. Togawa went 12-5 as a sophomore in 1955 and was honored as the Hawks’ best player in their seven-game defeat to the Giants in that year’s Japan Series.
Who was the first bullpen tandem? Hawks lefty Tadashi Sugiura and Japan’s first major leaguer, Masashi Murakami after his return from the San Francisco Giants.
When it comes to the use of the bullpen, Tsuruoka certainly deserves as much of the credit as Kondo.