Category Archives: History

articles about Japanese baseball history

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

Baseball’s Narcischism

Players in new countries often suffer a kind of culture shock when immersed in another country’s baseball culture. Latin American players sometimes comment on the lack of joy in Japan’s game, while many from North America find the endless meetings to discuss opponents’ tendencies and weaknesses mind-numbing.

Japanese describe western baseball as a game of speed and power. What sounds like praise is also an opaque slite that says Americans attempt to physically overpower baseball in a way that lacks the science, art and discipline revered in Japan.

Former Seibu Lions manager Haruki Ihara was fond of saying Japan had nothing to learn from MLB. This was an extreme example of the kind of misinformed nationalistic dogma that sports sometimes encourages, where it’s us versus them. Ihara is proud of the effort Japanese put into the game, and rightfully so. But to be dismissive of other styles and ways of thinking is to restrict what one can learn.

Baseball is parochial at heart. As much as sports can bring people together, it can also highlight minute differences in approaches, and to fans of the local game, that can mean a constant critique of the way others play. What are unwritten rules but an effort to assert that one set of behaviors is the “right way” to play the game and that conflicting views are “wrong?”

You see this as much off the field as on, where social Darwinism seems to steer much of the discussion of what baseball is towards those with the most influence and money.

Within any league you can name, because of owners’ wealth and their power to gift a region their brand of the game or take it elsewhere, they sometimes talk as if their businesses grant them a degree of ownership of what baseball is.

Owners and team executives are also sources for stories about policy, so it’s very easy for us in the media to be swayed by their point of view that baseball is a business. It’s one thing to explain why teams and leagues make decisions that adversely affect their customers, by using blackout rules or by manipulating service time. It’s another to argue that fans should accept that behavior.

Arguing that teams should manipulate service time to lengthen the time prospects need to reach arbitration is akin to arguing that political office holders should give sweetheart deals to big donors because “that’s how the system works.”

Although people make money off of baseball, it isn’t itself a business, it’s a game, and how it’s played, watched, and marketed as entertainment varies a lot. Just because Major League Baseball attracts more of the best players in the world, doesn’t make MLB synonymous with baseball or give its owners the power to decide what baseball is and isn’t even if they talk as if it does.

When people refer to “baseball” they so often mean “their baseball,” the game they grew up with and the way it is played by the teams they follow. For most modern American fans, social Darwinism is really part of their baseball, since MLB essentially lords it over its imperial colonies in the minor leagues. These people tend to see baseball as a kind of order of quality, with the quality of a league defined by its location in the world hierarchy.

With MLB nowhere near starting in the current coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked at other leagues and some desired to know where they fit in their stratified social Darwinism models. How good a league is CPBL? Is it better than Double-A? How about KBO? To answer that question, someone published a graphic that had MLB at the top followed in descending order by NPB, Triple-A, KBO, Double-A, CPBL, and so on down to rookie ball. I don’t remember if it had the Mexican league or not, which MLB has nominally labeled as “Triple-A.”

But Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are different animals that aren’t organized by the same principles that govern talent within MLB’s imperial structure. In this regard, they are something like how minor league ball was in the United States, Canada, and Cuba before Branch Rickey and the Cardinals ruined it by spreading their tentacles across the continent much as the British Empire had around the globe in the preceding centuries.

By amassing resources, the Cardinals were able to compete at a high level and forced other teams to mimic them at a great cost to baseball across America. The creation of farm systems was a form of baseball eugenics to achieve efficiency at the cost of variety.

Pro leagues outside the majors’ imperial sphere aren’t “levels,” they are leagues, were like the majors, teams keep their top talent in order to win games. That makes their leagues vibrant sources of variation that enrich baseball as a whole. I believe baseball was better before MLB turned minor leagues and their teams into the baseball version of chicken houses, where poultry is grown to order in unhealthy conditions because they aren’t any part of a real ecosystem.

Baseball needs to grow and be part of places and cultures. And deciding where those cultures and their baseball ranks, as many baseball fans do around the world, is a vile, narcissistic exercise.

Takashi Kashiwada’s Story

Pitcher Takashi Kashiwada turned 48 on Thursday. In 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, the lefty went 4-2 with 1 save in 203 career games. More interestingly, he spent the 1997 season with the New York Mets, where he went 3-1 with a 1.69 WHIP in 35 games.

Takashi Kashiwada

There was nothing overly special about Kashiwada except that through the 1999 season, he was 1-4 over 80 games in Japan. His lone major league season was the result of Bobby Valentine making a point.

The experiment

Kashiwada went to the Mets because Valentine wanted to demonstrate that the talent level in Japan was much higher than people — even Japanese baseball people — believed. He wanted to show that even players who were not valued very highly here could contribute in the majors. To pull this off, he went to Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima and asked him for some surplus talent whom he had no expectations for in 1997.

“He suggested three guys, and I thought Kashiwada had the best chance, so we borrowed him for a year,” Valentine said a few years later. “I used him in situations where I thought he could succeed and he did well for us.”

Kashiwada returned to the shadows the following season, although between 1999 and 2000 he did pitch in 85-2/3 innings over 102 games for the Giants.

The story

But for years what I remembered about Kashiwada was that he won one game in Japan before going to MLB, where he won three. After being ignominiously fired from as manager of the Lotte Marines after a successful 1995 season, Valentine kept coming back to Japan in the offseason. On one of those trips, I mentioned to him, incorrectly that Kashiwada still had only one win in Japan but three in MLB.

When Valentine held a press conference after returning to Japan to manage the Marines for the 2004 season, he made a point of repeating the erroneous story I’d passed to him to make his point about the quality of Japanese talent. When I realized my error, I made a point of apologizing for making him look like a liar the next time we spoke.

“Don’t worry about it,” Valentine said. “It was a good story.”

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.

War orphans

This is part 3 of the testimony of Susumu Noda, whose life as a junior high school student in the Japanese colonial outpost of Dalian in occupied Manchuria came to a jarring halt when World War 2 ended on Aug. 15. Although his family was able to stay together and make it back to Japan intact, other families were not so lucky.

Many children were left behind to be adopted by Chinese families. Mr. Noda witnessed this and told his side of the story — quite a different one from the popular account.

Part 3: The battle for family survival

100 years and counting

Six years ago, Nippon Professional Baseball tooted its horn about the 80th anniversary of pro baseball in Japan, citing the December 1934 organization of the Greater Japan Tokyo Yakyu Club, the team that was to play visiting major leaguers and become the founding member of Japan’s first pro league.

All of that is true, except for the part about 2014 marking 80 years since the start of pro baseball in Japan. But when the Yomiuri Giants say there’s something to celebrate, NPB organizes a party.

And because Japan’s baseball media suck up so much to the Giants that they create a vacuum, one rarely hears anything to the contrary. Thus it was a great surprise recently when I saw a headline referring to this year as the 100th anniversary of pro ball in Japan, marking the 1920 founding of Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Japan Athletic Association, also known as the Shibaura Association.

Not surprisingly, the story came from outside the mainstream baseball media, on FNN Prime, the website of Fukuoka broadcaster TV Nishinihon. The station has been championing the campaign of Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh to push for NPB to expand to 16 teams.

It’s said history is written by the winners but in this case, history was written by the survivors. The Shibaura club had no pro league to play in, although a second team was formed in 1921 in Seoul, the capital of Imperial Japan’s colonized Korean peninsula. On June 21, 1923, the Shibaura Association, while on tour on the continent, played the Tenkatsu Baseball Team in Seoul. The hosts won Japan’s first pro baseball game 6-5.

The Shibaura Association won the other two games played between the clubs, the last in Tokyo on Aug. 30. Two days later, the Seoul club lost its equipment in the Great Kanto Earthquake, when much of Tokyo was reduced to ashes. That was more or less the end of the Tenkatsu team, although a kind of Tenkatsu cover band toured the United States the following year.

The Shibaura Association’s ground survived the earthquake but was mobilized for relief efforts after the earthquake and was never returned to the team, which officially folded the following January.

The news was not lost on Ichizo Kobayashi, the owner of the Osaka-based Hankyu railroad, which services the area between Osaka and Kobe. In 1923 he had proposed a league sponsored by private railroads in the region in order to attract riders to the lines serving the clubs’ ballparks. Perhaps with an eye on realizing that dream, Kobayashi formed a new team out of the remnants of the Shibaura Club and located them in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, a hot spring town near Osaka.

A financial panic in 1927 forced the Osaka Mainichi Newspaper to fold its corporate team, costing the Takarazuka Association its principal rival, and the Association folded for good two years later when the Great Depression hit Japan.

Although members of the Shibaura and Takarazuka teams played leading roles in the organization of the first league five years later, the Giants have nearly succeeded in erasing those teams from history.

During my time at the Daily Yomiuri, I frequently had to argue long and hard to edit out the phrase “Japan’s first pro team” in stories referring to the Giants and change the reference to the “oldest existing pro team,” which the editors could live with. The editors kept wondering why I couldn’t just get with the program and settle for the word “oldest” which our revered Japanese paper treated like a fact.

Asian baseball on American TV

My late pal Wayne Graczyk used to talk about the time he worked on the U.S. TV feed for the 1994 Japan Series alongside Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek when the major leagues were on strike, but otherwise Asian baseball on American TV has been a hit-and-miss affair.

On Thursday, Yonhap News reported that ESPN’s talks with the Korea Baseball Organization to air pro games from South Korea fell through. The report said the U.S. giant wanted the content for free, so that would seem like a non-starter.

South Korea suffered more severe early infections of COVID-19 than the United States. Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, South Korea has done a vastly better job of controlling the coronavirus, and KBO is set to open its season, behind closed doors, on May 5.

Japan follows Trump’s lead

While Japan took some steps in February to stem the spread of infection by asking schools to close and event promoters not to attract crowds, the national government echoed Trump’s line that all was under control so that the Tokyo Olympics could go on as scheduled. Indeed, the biggest concern seems to have been suppressing the number of positive test results so as not to make people think Japan had a problem.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to enjoy being in Trump’s orbit and who owes allegiance to the monied right-wing elites who fund his agenda, has said in essence, taking harsh measures to control the coronavirus is against the law and we lawmakers are helpless to change the law.

So it is that while Japan could have been in the same place as South Korea, with solid testing regimes and aggressive measures in place, it chose to test as few people as possible in order to keep published infection totals low. And while baseball might start here in June, it might not.

When it does, it will be very interesting if U.S. networks have any interest in broadcasting Japanese games. The Central League, where all teams hold exclusive broadcasting rights to their home games, is pretty much a no-go, but the Pacific League, whose clubs can market their rights jointly through Pacific League marketing, might have some attractive options available if baseball is being played here but not in the U.S.

Of course, there is always the chance that Japan, like ESPN, will boot its opportunity.

NPB and the fear of failure

In 2007, if I recall correctly, Bobby Valentine tried to introduce NPB to ESPN for the purpose of airing the Japan Series. The Series rights belong to NPB not to the individual clubs, although they have the right to select broadcasters for their home games in the postseason.

At the time, Valentine was the de facto general manager of the Lotte Marines, and team representative Ryuzo Setoyama — until he engineered Valentine’s ouster in a 2009 coup d’etat — sometimes cooperated with the skipper to pursue reforms. Setoyama broached the idea of having NPB sell the Japan Series broadcasting rights to ESPN, but according to Valentine, the other teams vetoed it.

“They said they were afraid that some kind of mistake might happen that would embarrass them,” Valentine told me at the time.

Of course, weird stuff has happened in the Series. Hall of Fame manager Toshiharu Ueda pulled his team off the field in 1978 to protest a home run he thought was foul. In 2004, accident-prone umpire Atsushi Kittaka’s poor execution of an out call at home plate caused Game 1 of the Japan Series to be delayed for 49 minutes.

And since Japanese baseball is about not losing by making mistakes, there may be some here who would consider vetoing a deal that could expose NPB to ridicule a victory.

What I meant to say about catching

I’ve been going down a rabbit hole the past week or so, trying to identify catchers with substantial careers despite being particularly weak hitters or fielders. After a podcast listener asked whether Japanese teams favored hitting or defense, I tried to identify various kinds of careers.

The question was sparked by the Chunichi Dragons’ inability to settle on an everyday catcher since Motonobu Tanishige stepped away from that role. I believe teams will give playing time more easily to good defensive catchers who can’t hit than good hitting catchers who are poor defenders.

What I found is that teams will give the everyday job to guys who have the physical tools to be good-fielding catchers who are decent hitters and who eventually develop into good fielders. Some of those guys do become better-than-average fielders and some don’t. Sometimes those guys develop reputations as good handlers of pitchers, something that is virtually impossible to quantify with the available data.

I also suspect that a lot of the variability in these careers comes from the frequent injuries that come with catching.

Catchers’ fielding

The first trouble is measuring defensive quality. Bill James’ win shares system gives teams’ catchers a chance to seize a large share of their team’s defensive wins if they are relatively better than the league in the following categories in descending order: Throwing out would-be base stealers, errors and passed balls and opponents’ sacrifice bunts, these last two combine for only 10 percent of the team score. Based on those scores and the scores of other positions, all a team’s catchers receive a share of the defensive wins, these are then split up among individuals based on their respective playing time and achievements.

It is mute on the subject of calling pitches, but if a team’s catchers are good at preventing sacrifices, commits few passed balls, and has a relatively large number of non-strikeout putouts, and assists on plays other than foiled stolen base attempts, they will rate higher. Barring other quality information, the system attempts to measure catchers’ value as fielders rather than pitch callers.

Playing time

Then we have the problem of making a rough estimate about playing time since the number of innings played in NPB has only been published for the past few seasons. If you base it strictly on defensive win shares relative to plate appearances, then good hitters will have their defensive evaluation docked by the virtue of getting more PAs.

I evaluated offense as win shares per 500 plate appearances in seasons spent primarily as a catcher.

So between the fact that we’re only looking at fielding since players’ total defensive value is beyond our grasp and that catchers are extremely vulnerable to injuries that fill their careers with potholes and can wreak havoc on careers, this is at best a tricky exercise. But with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s have a look at some careers.

Long careers despite below-average fielding metrics

Katsuhiko Kido, Hanshin Tigers. Kido was the regular catcher for Hanshin’s 1985 Japan Series championship team. That was his career year both batting and fielding — probably the only year he was above average in his career and when he won his lone Golden Glove. Chronic shoulder issues limited his ability to control the running game as time went on, but he still caught in 943 career games.

Shinichi Murata, Yomiuri Giants. A solid hitter, Murata was the Giants’ primary catcher from 1990 to 2000 despite an injury to his throwing arm as a youngster that nearly drove him out of the game. Surgery allowed him to continue playing, and the Giants won four pennants with him as their main catcher. He was highly regarded by the team’s pitchers and won a Best Nine award and was MVP of the 2000 Japan Series.

Satoshi Nakajima, Hankyu, Orix, Seibu, Yokohama, Nippon Ham. One of those guys who was athletic and could hit as a youngster who became a respectable fielder when he got older. A number of catchers, particularly good-hitting ones, develop into respectable fielders late in their careers, which reminds me of one of John Huston’s great lines:

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

John Huston’s character Noah Cross in “Chinatown.”

Perhaps we can add catchers’ fielding to that group. Late in his career with the Fighters, having earned a reputation as an exceptional handler of pitchers, he would be brought in to catch in the final inning in save situations along with the closer.

Isao Ito, Taiyo Whales, Nankai Hawks. Another good hitter, Ito was the regular catcher for the Whales between 1964 and 1976. He was a five-time all-star playing in a great hitter’s park for a club that during his tenure devolved into one of the CL’s doormats.

Shiro Mizunuma, Hiroshima Carp. Although he does not rate well in overall fielding, Mizunuma was highly regarded for working with the Carp pitchers. He earned his first regular playing time in 1975 when the club won its first pennant. Mizunuma was the regular from 1975 to 1980 before an injury suffered in a traffic accident and the rapid development of Mitsuru Tatsukawa — one of NPB’s best defensive catchers turned him into a backup.

Yoshiharu Wakana, Lions, Tigers, Whales, Fighters. A journeyman who played from 1972 to 1991, Wakana was known for the large number of incidents he was involved in, particularly with foreign hitters. He was an above-average hitter, with below-average fielding numbers. Wakana was the No. 1 catcher for at least one season with three of his clubs. Like Nakajima, he finished with Nippon Ham, developed a reputation as a good defender and had decent numbers to back that up.

He holds the NPB record for passed balls in a season with 17 – the same season he controversially won his only Golden Glove.

As Hawks battery coach, he was credited with turning Kenji Jojima into a solid defensive catcher, but his coaching career ended after the 2001 season. That year Tuffy Rhodes tied Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record when Oh was the Hawks’ skipper. Wakana was not asked to return for 2002 after saying it would have been “distasteful for a foreign hitter to break Oh’s record.”

Of these six, two, only Kido and Ito, appear to have never developed good reputations for their handling of pitchers.

Long catching careers despite below-average offense

Here are the guys who were terrible hitters even compared to his catching peers but still had long careers:

Takeo Yoshizawa, Chunichi Dragons, Kintetsu Buffaloes. Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.

Despite his lack of offense, Yoshizawa played in 1,355 and had 3,876 plate appearances.

Ginjiro Sumitani, Seibu Lions, Yomiuri Giants. This guy is at the crux of the offense vs defense debate behind the plate as he lost his job to a guy who could mash but was still raw as a pro catcher, Tomoya Mori.

Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves and played for the national team.

Takashi Tanaka, Nankai Hawks, Hiroshima Carp. Tanaka had both the rep for being a quality handler of pitchers and solid fielding metrics. He only had three seasons in which he amassed 300 plate appearances but he was the Carp’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1966 and had 3,347 career plate appearances. By my estimation the worst hitting catcher to have more than 1,200 career plate appearances.

The boring stuff

Since expansion in 1950, 48 catchers have had at least 2,500 plate appearances from seasons in which they caught in 80 percent or more of their games, each of those had at least two seasons in which they were primarily catchers with 300-plus plate appearances, a status I’ll label as “everyday.” These are the players I looked at.

The average career defensive value for these players is 1.25 fielding win shares per 100 PA. I estimated that 33 of the catchers fall within one standard deviation of the mean for their careers. Hall of Famer Atsuya Furuta was two standard deviations above the mean. Five were 1 SD above, while two were 2 SDs below average and seven were 1 SD below average.

The catchers whose fielding rated at least one standard deviation above the mean averaged 12.2 seasons as everyday catchers and 6,330 career plate appearances from their seasons when primarily catching. Those who were 1 SD or more below the fielding mean averaged 4.3 seasons as an everyday catcher and 3,239 plate appearances.

Two catchers with substantial careers are more than 1 SD below average offensively, 2 were 1 SD above the mean, while three were 2 SDs above the mean offensively.

The catchers with the longest careers are, not surprisingly, those who are better-than-average fielders and better-than-average hitters. We don’t see any long careers by guys who are really poor hitters, or really poor fielders.

The best hitting catcher in NPB history — at least until the Seibu Lions’ Tomoya Mori gets a few more years under his belt — is Koichi Tabuchi, who did not quite collect 3,000 plate appearances in seasons when he caught in 80 percent of his games because he often played at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. As a fielder, Tabuchi was probably around average.

Below are some of the lists the study produced:

Weakest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1983木戸 克彦Katsuhiko Kido0.674.792538
1984村田 真一Shinichi Murata0.706.933089
1987中嶋 聡Satoshi Nakajima0.883.793870
1961伊藤 勲Isao Ito0.905.663846
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1974若菜 嘉晴Yoshiharu Wakana1.035.124210
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291

Strongest fielding metrics 2,500-plus PA

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1978達川 光男Mitsuo Tatsukawa1.633.984181
1982伊東 勤Tsutomu Ito1.616.228155
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1970大矢 明彦Akihiko Oya1.504.624933
1981田村 藤夫Fujio Tamura1.446.815126
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336
1972梨田 昌崇Masataka Nashida1.376.023058

Weakest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1957田中 尊Takashi Tanaka1.040.733447
1954吉沢 岳男Takeo Yoshizawa1.121.003867
2006炭谷 銀仁朗Ginjiro Sumitani1.331.223593
1954安藤 順三Junzo Ando1.101.572518
2002細川 亨Toru Hosokawa1.111.593906
1978袴田 英利Hidetoshi Hakamada1.241.672538
1999藤井 彰人Akihito Fujii0.961.702709
2003鶴岡 慎也Shinya Tsuruoka1.192.113007
1950山下 健Takeshi Yamashita0.993.513233
1969水沼 四郎Shiro Mizunuma0.943.653387

Strongest offense 2,500-plus PA as catchers

1st SeasonName JName RDef WS 100B WS 500Career C PA
1969田淵 幸一Koichi Tabuchi1.4124.042962
1954野村 克也Katsuya Nomura1.2919.4811747
2001阿部 慎之助Shinnosuke Abe1.5316.556386
1964木俣 達彦Tatsuhiko Kimata1.2513.467131
1990古田 敦也Atsuya Furuta2.0012.077998
1981中尾 孝義Takayoshi Nakao1.2310.052622
1999里崎 智也Tomoya Satozaki1.139.843617
1991矢野 輝弘Akihiro Yano1.438.304934
1967加藤 俊夫Toshio Kato1.057.844291
1989谷繁 元信Motonobu Tanishige1.387.2710336