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.

Bringing the right shoes to the dance

Remember. When beginning a career in Japan, bring your running shoes.

New Yomiuri Giants first baseman Garret Jones talked on Sunday at Tokyo Dome about the many adjustments he’s had to make since arriving in Japan at the end of January —  many of them learning an approach to a different kind of spring training.

“Just getting used to the daily routine here, getting a flow with everybody, knowing what I have to do, how I should pace myself, what things I need to work on. When to ask for extra work, when to say, ‘I’m good,'” he said.

Jones, 34, got lots of helpful advice from veteran teammates Scott Mathieson and Luis Cruz and from Giants scouts Josh Fields and Adrian Gonzalez.

“Very valuable, those guys helped a lot, just giving tips, and pointers, things to do, what not to do, just prepare more than anything for spring training, mentally more than anything. ‘Hey this is what we’re going to do and don’t be shocked when we do a lot of extra work.’ They prepared me just by letting me know what to expect more than anything.”

“I talked to Josh Fields and Edgar (Gonzalez). They definitely said, ‘Be prepared and bring your running shoes. You’re going to be running a lot.’ It’s good. I don’t mind the work and the running because I know it benefits me in the long run.”

So remember new guys. Bring the running shoes.

On Sunday, the SoftBank Hawks got some good news. Yuki Yanagita, who won last year’s Pacific League MVP and should have won in 2014 as well, was in the lineup for the first time this season following elbow surgery last autumn and tripled.

The Hawks also got three crisp innings out of 25 pitches from former ace Tsuyoshi Wada.

writing & research on Japanese baseball