Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is entering his fifth year on the ballot for Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and presents something of a dilemma.
He entered the ballot with a very healthy 35.2 percent. Since then he’s increased every year and last year finished with 65.8 percent. It was his third straight year with over 50 percent. Over the past five years, there have been three other players who were still on the ballot after receiving 50 percent of the vote the first time in the previous year. All three were elected. Only Tatsunami seems stuck in limbo, taking baby steps.
Tatsunami was the Central League’s rookie of the year and won a Golden Glove at shortstop for the Chunichi Dragons in 1988. His 2,480 career hits are eighth-most in NPB history. No player with that many hits has failed to make the Hall of Fame, but none of the players in that group are remotely similar to Tatsunami, who was a singles and doubles hitter and finished with 171 home runs.
He won three straight Golden Gloves at second base from 1995 to 1997, and another in 2003 at third base.
But playing in the same league with Yokohama’s Bobby Rose, Tatsunami only won one Best Nine Award at second base and one at third. He twice led the league in runs scored, but that’s it.
Tatsunami was a terrific, consistent productive player but never the best player on his team, never a candidate for an MVP award, rarely considered the best player at his position. His claim to fame is that he is among the first of the current generation of more durable players. Playing well for 22 seasons enabled him to amass a huge number of hits, which is his primary claim for entry into the Hall of Fame.
Bill James’ win shares credits him with 302.4, which is 23rd all time among position players who’ve been retired for five years or more. Of the 22 ahead of him, 19 are in the Hall of Fame. But again, most of those players are different animals. They were far more productive hitters, making one think that Tatsunami doesn’t really belong in the Hall of Fame. With the exception of Japan’s stolen base king Yutaka Fukumoto, they were all power hitters.
But there is another side to that story. Except for Fukumoto and Katsuya Nomura, the seven players with more hits were all corner infielders and outfielders. Sure Tatsunami ended up at third base, but nearly three quarters of his career was spent at second or short, making him an outlier. Tatsunami was a good second baseman and a good hitter for a long time
Outside the entrance to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the wall is adorned with a relief of about 20 to 30 ballplayers. I doubt if anyone intended it, but it is a microcosm of the Hall of Fame membership. Sixty percent of the guys are swinging a bat. There is one fielder, one base runner, and the rest are pitchers. Defensive value is something that doesn’t get a lot of play.
These are the most similar players who have been considered for the Hall of Fame. All of them were really good players. The current Hall of Famers are marked with an asterisk:
- Hiroyuki Yamazaki
- Morimichi Takagi*
- Tsutomu Wakamatsu*
- Taira Fujita
- Isao Shibata
- Takuro Ishii
Wakamatsu and Shibata were outfielders of similar quality. Shibata was a superb fielder and base stealer. Wakamatsu a better average hitter. Why one is in and the other out is a mystery to me.
The other guys were all middle infielders of similar quality. Takagi was probably not as good a player as Tatsunami but was a better fielder as was Ishii, who is currently on the ballot last year, and was named on 19.3 percent of the ballots. There’s not a lot separating him from Tatsunami, although Ishii got a slower start, since he turned pro as a pitcher and is one of two players in Japanese pro ball history to win a game as a pitcher and collect 2,000 career hits.
Why Takagi is in the hall of fame and Yamazaki and Fujita are not is, again a good question. It’s a borderline group not in that they are not worthy, but in the sense that the Hall of Fame voters have chosen to overlook most players like them.