Let’s begin with a disclaimer. Atsuya Furuta, who was recently voted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, was my favorite player in Nippon Professional Baseball. He was a superb defensive catcher, a heck of a hitter and a leader on the field and for the player’s union as well. What’s not to like?
Furuta and his first Yakult Swallows manager Katsuya Nomura are the only two postwar catchers voted into the Hall of Fame based solely on their playing careers. Nomura is a no-brainer, a catcher who for one season held Japan’s single-season home run record. He holds the NPB record for total games played with 3,017 and is second in career hits with 2,901 and home runs (657).
One of the problems comparing players from different eras in baseball history is the dramatic fluctuation of context. Some of the contextual differences are due to equipment changes (particularly in Japan, the balls) and some to doctrinal changes. In an effort to iron out some of the kinks in order to form a data base for a projection system, I normalized NPB’s postwar data to the 2013 season – when every team was using the same (legal) ball for the first time.
The changes to total career numbers are remarkably small, although players with long, productive careers while playing shorter seasons, will see some fairly big increases. Just to give you some idea of how these work out, Sadaharu Oh’s normalized home run total – which includes transplanting him into a 144-game season after playing 130 games for most of his career – is 916 in 3,086 career games as opposed to the 868 he hit in 2,831 games. The system says he’d hit 4 percent fewer home runs per plate appearance if every year were 2013, but he’d play in 9 percent more career games.
Getting back to catchers, the normalized career data has Nomura as the greatest hitting catcher in NPB history, which is no shocker. But what about Furuta?
The first thing we have to ask is who gets elected. As mentioned in the previous post, there are precious few position players in the Hall and most of those are from the low-value end of the defensive spectrum, outfielders and corner infielders. Of those who have made it from the mid 1960s or later, nobody has gotten in with fewer than 7,500 plate appearances. So if we limit the discussion to catchers with that many plate appearances, there are just three after Nomura and one, Motonobu Tanishige – the current player manager of the Chunichi Dragons – is not eligible.
That’s the catching 22: Because being a catcher is so tough on your body, few catchers can survive long enough to be seen as worthy candidates.
Furuta, with 8,115 career plate appearances, cleared that hurdle and has a normalized career OPS of .775 – not Nomura territory (.922) – but none too shabby. His contemporary and three-time Japan Series counterpart Tsutomu Ito, had 8,191 plate appearances for the Seibu Lions, but wasn’t the hitter Furuta was, with a .642 normalized OPS. Tanishige is a little better off, but not much.
Winning a batting title and a Central League MVP award didn’t hurt Furuta, nor did throwing out 46 percent of the base runners who tried to steal against him. He was also a key player on four Japan Series champions. Ito was a key player on the Lions’ dynasty from the late 1980s through the early 1990s and won 11 Golden Gloves.
Ito, who has been on the ballot for seven years, got 96 votes of the 249 needed in the most recent election to reach the required 75 percent. It’s hard to see him getting more support at the moment.
But are there other candidates besides Ito and the still active Tanishige?
If one lowers the standard for admission for catchers to 6,500 plate appearances, then we get a couple of former players with extremely good credentials: Tatsuhiko Kimata and Koichi Tabuchi.
Kimata, the Chunichi Dragons’ principle catcher from 1965 to 1980, hit 285 career homers with a .782 OPS, while winning five CL Best IX awards and throwing out 39 percent of base-stealers from 1970, when that data is available. Kimata’s normalized career OPS is a few ticks higher than Furuta’s at .790.
Tabuchi, who is still on the “Experts Division” ballot – voted on by living Hall of Famers — and got 22 of the 81 votes needed this year, won two Golden Gloves and was also a five-time Best IX winner, with 474 career homers and an .896 OPS – which is in Nomura territory. Tabuchi, however, only caught 944 career games. He spent a little time at first base, but what the heck: There are six post-war first basemen in the Hall, and Tabuchi’s offensive numbers are as good or better than three of them.
Kimata, who is no longer eligible, and Tabuchi belong in the Hall of Fame. Ito is a maybe as is Tanishige, but voters have been kind to guys with really long careers, and Tanishige has caught 2,938 games. Another catcher who will definitely get in is Giants star Shinnosuke Abe. With a normalized OPS of .866, Abe will be moving to first base this year after catching 1,641 games. He’s won an MVP and should have won two. Kenji Jojima’s name is also worth mention although his offensive numbers were seriously inflated by high-flying baseballs during his best years with the Daiei Hawks and his career was extremely short by Hall of Fame standards.