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.

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