Slipping through the cracks

As Dragons fans were reminded tonight, Nobumasa Fukuda is a pretty decent hitter. The 26-year-old right-handed-hitting first baseman hit his fourth homer of the season for Chunichi tonight and the question is not when he became good? but rather, at what point did we forget that he was good?

Fukuda’s been playing regularly in the Western League since 2009, and he MUST have appeared somewhere in annual scans of minor league hitters with outstanding results, but somehow he fell off the radar — his results have been consistently good although his OBP had been pedestrian until last year when he drew 34 walks in 334 plate appearances. He had a bad year in 2013 and that might have made it easier to overlook him. He’s not really young any more and he’s a first baseman.

But that being said, the Western League is a tough league to post gaudy batting numbers in and he’s been overshadowed by a barrel full of young Hawks guys who can hammer it, but Fukuda can play.

An injury to Masahiko Morino, one of Chunichi’s better players, and the Dragons are an improved team. Funny how things turn out.

 

Aoki’s streak lost in Japan’s Opening Day myopia

If you’re lucky you learn something everyday.

On Monday, Norichika Aoki hit safely in his 16th straight game, with eight of those coming this season for the San Francisco Giants and eight last year for the Kansas City Royals. Thus it was perplexing that Kyodo News Japanese language stories coming to my desk made no mention of his new record — Aoki had hit safely in 15 games for the Brewers in 2012.

Our diligent MLB desk on the 19th floor surely had to know, so I ran up and was told that of course they knew, but that for them it seems odd to add the previous season’s accomplishments to this year’s streak. And this is coming from a culture that touts Sadaharu Oh’s home run total as the greatest in history and loves to measure career accomplishments by adding NPB totals to MLB totals — which seems odd to me.

This fascination with cutting the cord on Opening Day makes sense in Japan, where the next game is ALWAYS the biggest game of the season and sports editors  put five months of expectation into making Opening Day the biggest game of the season. When at the Daily Yomiuri I was tasked with translating a piece about Ichiro Suzuki opening the 2012 season at Tokyo Dome with the Mariners in which some “reporter” said, “Of course, Opening Day tells you a lot about how the season will turn out.” If my colleague John E. Gibson had written that I would have threatened to knock him upside the head.

So what happens after Opening Day? The hangover hits and everyone admits that it was just one game after all, but the next step is honoring records from the start of the season and that goes on for several weeks.

This season, Japanese readers were treated to the “knowledge” that the Yakult Swallows set a record (to start the season) by allowing three runs or less in 17 games to start the season, breaking the old mark of the 1956 Nishitetsu Lions, who Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast listeners will remember were in the news for having a record “season-opening” win streak — with no mention of how they finished at the end of 1955.

Norihiro Nakamura & the Fab Four

First a little question.

When Norihiro Nakamura announced his retirement on Tuesday, it left Ichiro Suzuki as the only active member of a very exclusive club. Any guesses as to what that group is?

Nakamura leaves after an intriguing career, drafted out of high school in 1991 by the Kintetsu Buffaloes, he left Japan for the U.S. in 2005 after Kintetsu evaporated in its merger with the Orix BlueWave. After a brief spell with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he returned to Japan — where Orix held his rights, but he was not a happy camper. Unable to sign him for 2006, Orix released him, but nobody it seemed wanted him.

The story is that in April 2005, Nakamura was hit by a pitch in interleague play by former big leaguer Masao Kida. Nakamura claimed he was forced to play through pain. He had a lousy season that ended when he was hit again and was capped with September surgery on the wrist where Kida had hit him in April.

Although he played in just 85 games, and batted just .232, Nakamura still managed 22 doubles and 12 homers but Orix, whose grasp of right and wrong at the time was extremely poor — just ask Hisashi Iwakuma — decided to use Nakamura’s poor results as an excuse to cut his salary by 60 percent to 80 million yen (roughly $800,000). Nakamura balked and was eventually released.

Eleven clubs — even those that had vacancies or issues at first or third that Nakamura might fill — showed no interest in even giving him a tryout. The exception was the club managed by Nippon Professional Baseball’s biggest iconoclast, Hiromitsu Ochiai, whose Chunichi Dragons gave Nakamura a tryout and signed him to an “ikusei” developmental contract. When Nakamura tore it up in the spring, he got a standard deal from the Dragons and at season’s end was the MVP of the Dragons’ first Japan Series championship since 1954.

His ikusei contract with the Dragons was for 4 million yen, and he was bumped up to 6 million yen upon receiving his standard contract. NPB rules require players on 28-man active rosters to be paid a pro-rated minimum of 10 million yen, so Nakamura ended up earning close to $100,000 in his first season with Chunichi.

Nakamura played another season for the Dragons, two more for Rakuten, and finished with 2,101 career hits after four seasons with the DeNA BayStars. Because of his longevity,  with 2,267 games and 404 career homers, he is a decent bet to make it into the Hall of Fame, perhaps in the same class with Atsunori Inaba of the Fighters, both of whom had somewhat longer careers than Tatsunori Hara, whose tenure on the players ballot just expired and who barely missed selection.

If Nakamura does make it in, and takes two or three years to get enough votes, there is a possibility that he will go into the Hall in the same class with Suzuki. With Tomoaki Kanemoto and Suzuki both locks as a future Hall of Famers, Nakamura’s induction would give the fourth round of Japan’s 1991 amateur draft three Hall of Famers. The one who won’t make it, although he will get some votes, and the reason I have referred to them as the Fab Four is former Hanshin Tigers outfielder Shinjiro Hiyama.

Atsuya Furuta & Japan’s Hall of Fame catchers

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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.

Japan’s Hall & Sadao Kondo’s claim to Fame

Chunichi Dragons manager Sadao Kondo

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.



How times have changed

It is quite surprising to those of us who weren’t in Japan in the 1970s how different the ballpark experience is now compared to 40 years ago. Combing through newspaper clippings from 1973 and 1974 while looking to document changes within the game, I was struck by what a dangerous place Japanese ballparks were.

I had witnessed some pretty obnoxious behavior in the ’80s and early ’90s when people cheering for the wrong team in the wrong part of the ballpark were punched in the bleachers, but that is pretty rare in my experience here and that also happened sometimes at games I’d attended at Candlestick Park in the 1970s.

The first to catch my eye was a report on May 3, 1974, in which Hall of Fame outfielder Isao Harimoto attacked an opposing player before the start of a game, kicking a member of the Lotte Orions with his spikes, apparently because the guy had been heckling him for a couple of games.

Five days later, Nippon Ham Fighters infielder Toshizo Sakamoto was in the field at his home park, Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium, while Taiheiyo Club Lions manager Kazuhisa Inao had a heated exchange over a called third strike, when a sake bottle came hurling out of the stands. It didn’t hit Sakamoto, but the Fighters shortstop walked toward the stands and said, “Hey, don’t you think that’s dangerous?” Another fan answered Sakamoto’s rhetorical question with an empty beer bottle, that struck Sakamoto in the head.

On May 30, empty beer bottles were thrown at reporters in the press seats at Koshien Stadium,  the Hanshin Tigers’ home park, while several stories in the spring detailed incidents involving Orions manager Masaichi Kaneda’s threatening abusive fans with a bat — after he’d been warned in the offseason to mind his Ps and Qs after calling Pacific League owners cheapskates. The owners were cheapskates, of course, as documented by the union’s demand over the previous offseason that the teams pay for the players’ bats and gloves.

At some point, commissioner Nobumoto Ohama took notice and on May 31 instructed the teams to avoid arguing too much as it would “enflame the passions of the fans” and lead to bad behavior.

Until I came across these articles, I was under the impression the fan riots during the 1975 season at two different games between the Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons were rare and isolated instances.

After storming the field at Hiroshima Citizens Stadium in 1975, Carp fans attacked the Dragons bus and slashed its tires.

writing & research on Japanese baseball

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