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NPB’s last Triple Crown winner hangs up his bat

Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who in 2004 became the seventh batter in NPB to win a triple crown, announced Tuesday that he was retiring after failing to get a tryout with a new team.

Matsunaka won two Pacific League MVP Awards, in 2000 and 2004. He didn’t really deserve the ’00 honor, but won as the premier player on the pennant-winning team–at the expense of Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui. Yet from 2004-2006, Matsunaka was Nippon Professional Baseball’s most dominant player.  In 2005, the award went to Hawks lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi, who went 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA that season. The following year’s award went to Michihiro Ogasawara, who led the Nippon Ham Fighters franchise to their first Japan Series in 16 years.

Matsunaka was complicated. For years, he was the team leader. When Julio Zuleta joined Daiei in 2003, he said Matsuzaka was the one who welcomed him with open arms and helped him a lot. Asked about that, Sadaharu Oh said he was grateful for the veteran’s presence because being chummy with players was something he wasn’t good at. Yet, Matsuzaka appeared to become a polarizing figure and was fairly easy to offend. Individuals who got on his bad side would get shut out.

While stocky and not overly fast, Matsunaka was a superb base runner, who it seems never misjudged his chances of scoring from third base on a fly ball — even though he would often go on fairly shallow flys. He is one of 26 players with 5,000-plus plate appearances who stole fewer than 35 career bases and hit fewer than 20 triples. Among that group of slowpokes, he scored 26.5 percent of the time he reached on a ball other than a home run. That figure is fourth behind LeRon Lee (.278), Masahiko Morino (.272) and Takeya Nakamura (.265). Although he didn’t attempt to steal often, Matsunaka was a 72 percent base stealer.

The second draft pick of the Daiei Hawks in 1996, Matsunaka was a key figure as the club led the PL’s regular season standings for five times between 1999 and 2005. The Hawks went to three Japan Series during that stretch and won two of them. Although he was a superb regular-season performer, Matsunaka always seemed to be pressing in the offseason and accomplished very little. When the PL introduced a playoff system in 2004, the Hawks lost the league title at home for two straight seasons.

NPB’s all-time fielding team: shortstops

This is the third part of a series on the best fielders in Japanese baseball history. Today will cover the shortstops, and ask what happened to most of the guys who played the position before 1980?

Hall of Famer Yoshio Yoshida is an easy favorite as the best-fielding shortstop to ever play in Japan. The shortstops are another odd list in that after Yoshida and Kenji Koike, the remaining eight are all contemporaries who have recently retired or will in the next few years. If one were to rank them only by fielding win shares,  only four of the top 10 would have careers that started before 1989.

If one ranked players by the number of times win shares considers a shortstop the best gold glove candidate, Yoshida dominated the Central League in the ’50s, Koike dominated the Pacific League in the ’70s. No one has really dominated a decade like they did, but most of the guys on the list had a stretch of four or five seasons when he was either the best in his league or a close second.

The numbers given with each player are: career fielding win shares at shortstop, total fielding win shares per 27 outs, WS golden gloves, actual golden gloves. These were first awarded in 1972 , so neither Yoshida nor Koike ever won one.

  1. Yoshio Yoshida, Tigers, 1953-1969: 106-.547, 8,*
  2. Kenji Koike, , 1961-1974: 90-.668, 7,*
  3. Hirokazu Ibata, Dragons, 1998-2015: 84-.480, 6, 6
  4. Takuro Ishii, BayStars, 1989-2012: 91-.439, 2, 1
  5. Kazuo Matsui, Lions-Eagles, 1994-present: 88-.473, 4, 4
  6. Makoto Kosaka, Marines, 1997-2010: 76-.597, 5, 4
  7. Makoto Kaneko, Fighters, 1994-2014: 70-.509, 5, 1
  8. Takashi Toritani, Tigers, 2004-present: 83-.483, 4, 1
  9. Masahiro Kawai, Giants, 1984-2006: 69-.498, 4, 6
  10. Shinya Miyamoto, Swallows, 1995-2013: 73-.412, 2, 6

Three of the players on this list spent significant time at other positions. This is the normal practice for good offensive players at the end of their careers, but it only applies to No. 10, Shinya Miyamoto, who won three Golden Gloves at third base.

No. 4, Takuro Ishii, began his career as a pitcher, before becoming a Golden Glove-winning third baseman, before being converted to short. Makoto Kaneko was a rookie of the year and golden glove winner at second before being moved to shortstop, where he appears to have been undervalued in the voting.

Kazuo Matsui is now an outfielder, and he forfeited his chance to move higher in the rankings by spending seven years in the States. Matsui earned 23 fielding win shares in the majors, mostly at second, but add that to his NPB totals at all positions and he would shoot past Yoshida in terms of total fielding win shares in his career.

Another player who has been undervalued in the voting is Takashi Toritani of the Tigers. Toritani, however, was hurt two years ago and his range went from really good to really poor and if he keeps playing short, he might drop off the list. He’s going to keep playing somewhere because he’s a great hitter, but his range appears to be a serious issue.