Alex Ramirez waltzed into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame and was joined by Randy Bass, as the hall’s voters ended a 29-year drought to induct its first import players since Wally Yonamine in 1994.
Ramirez put together a 13-year career in which he won two MVP awards and two Japan Series rings and reached Japan’s iconic 2,000-hit mark, while Bass had a seismic impact in just five-plus seasons, leading the once-mighty Hanshin Tigers to their first Japan Series in 21 years and their only Japan title since the two-league era began in 1950.
It took Ramirez less than 10 years between his last NPB game and his arrival at the Hall, while Bass waited 35 years. The difference in those figures is attributable not just to the length and quality of their careers but also to the horrid selection process that was used until the last decade or so, and the amount of controversy that stuck to the two.
Not only has Ramirez embraced the Japanese way like few others, he has mastered the accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you’ll know I’m convinced that avoiding negatives, or even the whiff of any suspicion of negatives, is a fundamental strategy for advancement in Japan.
Players can have historically brilliant careers here only to be ignored in the Hall of Fame voting if they are not popular enough with the electorate. Sure, there is a line where a player is so accomplished and historically significant that he can get in despite not sucking up to the media in the slightest, see Hideo Nomo, but for most great players, it’s important to appear humble to the point of being obsequious.
Since I cast my ballot for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday, I’ve been going over my choice to write Hiroki Kuroda and Kenji Jojima on my ballot instead of Masahiro Yamamoto.
Essentially, I want to vote for players whose careers best track with players who’ve been selected previously for the honor. I’m not really trying to be a pioneer, although one could argue that trying to be objective in what is an extremely subjective process is radical.
If you look at who’s in and who isn’t, you’ll see that pitchers and position players have been held to different standards. I’ve excluded a handful of players whose Hall of Fame induction would have been unlikely without their managing.
I also excluded players whose careers ended before 1950 since the conditions were so radically different that they’re hard to evaluate with the same criteria. That gives us a pool of 72 players, 31 of whom were primarily pitchers.
So lets for the moment agree that in Japan, position players and pitchers are apples and apricots or whatever.
Kuroda and Yamamoto
Hiroki Kuroda, who joined the Hall of Fame ballot this election cycle, created the equivalent of 244 of Bill James win shares, with his 81 MLB win shares valued at 1.35 relative to the 134 he amassed in Japan.
In terms of raw career value, this ranks him 13th among NPB pitchers, all-time. Of course, pitchers who came along when Kuroda did, have had the advantage of managers who took their starters out before they threw a shit-ton of pitches, and thus have begun to have really long careers.
On the other hand, he ranks 62nd in history in terms of his best five-year span. Of retired pitchers from his era, Kuroda’s best five years are fifth behind Hall of Famer Masaki Saito, Kyuji Fujikawa, Masumi Kuwata, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Toshiya Sugiuchi.
In terms of the average of his three best seasons, he’s eighth behind those five guys, Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara among recent pitchers, but 114th in history, when pitchers were expected to burn out in a few years.
Yamamoto is an interesting comparison but not an easy one. Like his contemporary, Hall of Famer Kimiyasu Kudo, he was a lefty who survived the starting pitcher usage insanity of the 1980s and 1990s when pitch counts were allowed to shoot up in an era of unprecedented offense.
Yamamoto shouldn’t have had a long career but he did. His career value is 14th all-time, his best five-year stretch ranks 91st and his best three seasons 87th — the one area where he has an advantage over Kuroda.
I’m not 100 percent certain I had it right in picking Kuroda over Yamamoto. Yamamoto won 200 games because he played for better teams. If Kuroda had spent his career with an actual offense behind him instead of the Hiroshima Carp, he would have won 200, too.
Jo and Masa
I have Kenji Jojima ranked 38th all-time in position player career value. Some of the guys ahead of him are not in the Hall of Fame mostly because they were unpopular with the writers who put the players’ names on ballots.
His best five-year stretch is currently 19th best in history among position players, and his best three seasons rank 30th all-time.
There’s no doubt to me that he’s a Hall of Famer. I put him on the ballot because I felt he was a better candidate than Yamamoto, but he might not be. They both fit in with the best to ever play baseball in Japan.
The kids in the hall
In the past, I had Tatsunori Hara on this list of “mostly managing hall of famers” because he barely failed to gain entry for 15 years in the player’s division but was a shoo-in when his successful managing was considered in the expert’s division. But Hara had a career as good as many Hall of Famers, so I included him with the third basemen.
The players I excluded are Yukio Nishimoto, Toshiharu Ueda, Rikuo Nemoto, Kazuto Tsuruoka, Masaaki Mori, Yoshiyuki Iwamoto, Takeshi Koba, Akira Ogi, and Katsumi Shiraishi. The last five were all very good players but clearly were helped by having more on their resume than their playing careers.
Regardless of whether I’ve missed a couple of guys, it’s pretty clear that Japanese Hall of Fame voters are in synch with awards voters. We have had 158 MVP awards handed out, and 61 have gone to pitchers or about 39 percent.
It is reasonable to think that about 35 percent of the outcomes in every plate appearance are attributable to the quality of the pitcher and his own glove. In that case, handing out 39 percent of the MVPs to pitchers would make sense–if these MVP winners worked almost all of their teams’ innings.
They didn’t of course. It is also unrealistic to think that 45 percent of the greatest players in history were pitchers. But this is Japan, where pitchers are held in awe, and middle infielders are, for the most part, not expected to contribute offensively.
This, I believe accounts for there being so few middle infielder MVPs and Hall of Famers. Guys who can really hit are moved to less demanding positions because they run counter to the stereotype, and players who are fast and can really pick it, are taught as kids to focus on having small-ball at-bats: to sacrifice, hit behind the runner and hit the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield to make maximum use of their speed.