Strong Hall of Fame candidates announced

A group of sure-fire Hall of Famers will join the ballot this month for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame’s next election, the Hall announced Tuesday. Voting will take place in January with the new inductees announced at the museum located at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 14.

A pair of two-time MVPs, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Michihiro Ogasawara, 200-game-winning pitcher Masahiro Yamamoto and one of Japan’s great catchers, Motonobu Tanishige are among 11 new names on the players’ ballot, joining 19 holdovers from last year.

Five new names will go onto the experts’ division ballot, including two greats, shortstop Taira Fujita and third baseman Michiyo Arito, whose failure to be elected through the players’ ballot is an indictment of the players’ division popularity contest. Greg “Boomer” Wells will also join the experts’ division ballot this year.

The entrance of new candidates with strong portfolios means that most players who were making good progress toward election will likely take a step back this year.

New candidates: Players’ division

  • Kazuhiro Wada (C, OF) Wada went to university and then played corporate league ball before becoming a reserve catcher and fifth outfielder with the Seibu Lions and didn’t begin earning anything like regular playing time until he was 29, but became a key producer with the Lions and Chunichi Dragons and finished his career with 2,050 hits.
  • Masahiro Yamamoto (LHP) posted 219 wins for the Chunichi Dragons and was the oldest pitcher in NPB history, and the oldest to throw a no-hitter. He won one Sawamura Award and two Best Nines.
  • Michihiro Ogasawara (1B, 3B) began his career as a catcher to get playing time but was never that good at it. His success as a pinch-hitter in 1998, earned him a starting job at first base the following year. After Trey Hillman moved him to third base in 2003, Ogasawara won back-to-back MVPs, the PL’s in 2007, and the CL’s in 2008 after he joined the Yomiuri Giants. He finished with 2,120 hits.
  • Fumiya Nishiguchi (RHP) was a 182-game winner for the Seibu Lions. In 1997, he was the PL’s MVP and Sawamura Award winner and won two Best Nines.
  • Takashi Saito (RHP) between NPB and the majors, Saito won 112 games and saved 139. The Yokohama BayStars discarded him due to arm trouble, but he caught a break with the Los Angeles Dodgers when closer Greg Gagne was hurt. An NL all-star, he returned to Japan to play for his hometown Rakuten Eagles.
  • Motonobu Tanishige (C) played in a record 3,201 games, which is a huge recommendation. A big hitter as a young catcher, Tanishige developed into a top defender and amassed over 2,000 hits.
  • Kenshin Kawakami (RHP) with 117 wins for the Chunichi Dragons. He was the CL MVP and Sawamura Award winner in 2004.
  • Nobuhiko Matsunaka (1B) a two-time MVP for the Daiei and SoftBank Hawks and was Japan’s last triple crown winner.
  • Yoshitomo Tani (OF) a longtime front-line outfielder for Orix, who played a key role in the Yomiuri Giants’ 2008 pennant and finished with 1,928 hits.
  • Yoshinobu Takahashi (OF) was a big name Yomiuri Giants star, whose career ended slightly prematurely when the Giants pressed him to manage in 2016. He finished with 1,753 hits.
  • HIrokazu Ibata (SS) the linchpin of the Chunichi Dragons’ golden age from 2004 to 2011 as both the league’s best shortstop and a top offensive performer, something that was undervalued because he spent most of his career at Nagoya Dome.

How strong are the new candidates?

Twenty-five players have more than one MVP award, and so far only one of those has been denied induction, pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, who was arrested for drugs after he retired. One is currently on the experts’ division ballot, Atsushi Nagaike, and one is on the players’ ballot, Alex Ramirez. Both are on track to induction.

Ogasawara may be the best-qualified player on the players’ division ballot, or it might still be Tuffy Rhodes, and Wada is then that group as well along with Matsunaka. It’s going to be hard to keep Tanishige out after Tsutomu Ito, who was far less qualified, got in. Ibata is an interesting candidate, while neither Tani nor Takahashi are very remarkable.

Yamamoto’s career fits in nicely in terms of career value with other Hall of Famers, while Kawakami would be a historically weak selection. Last year’s top vote-getter who didn’t make the grade, reliever Shingo Takatsu could get in as one of Japan’s top career relievers and probably would have gotten in next year.

Both Fujita and Arito were outstanding players whose careers fit in very well with other players who’ve been enshrined, making their exclusion somewhat noteworthy. As managers, they were known for being hard-asses, Fujita getting into a very public feud with popular outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Arito’s promise to make superstar Hiromitsu Ochiai toe the line, pushed the Hall of Famer to demand a trade.

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