When rushing to cast my Hall of Fame vote, I admit only glancing at the ballot’s pitchers on the ballot and may have underestimated what good arguments some of them have for inclusion. Yet, there was little doubt in my mind Matsunaka was the best choice of the bunch, a guy the Players’ Division voters should have intentionally walked into the Hall of Fame.
When I saw the story about Matsunaka, however, it reminded me that he was named on a piddly 17 percent of the ballots, and the way voting can be skewed by how “journalists” see a player. That’s because Matsunaka was complicated.
It wasn’t just his triple crown stats that made him such a strong candidate. There are players who are always alert on the field, who over and over make good decisions on tough plays. That was Matsunaka — at least the part of his game that constantly amazed me — his ability to advance on fly balls that many faster players would never have risked.
He is a big guy who was never overly fast, but I never saw a player so good at scoring from third on flies hit so shallow into the outfield. Matsunaka was, for a while at least, the team’s unofficial morale officer. When Julio Zuleta first arrived with the team, he told me Matsunaka took him under his wing to provide some of the extra support that new guys — particularly new imports — often need.
Trey Hillman said Matsunaka was one of the two players, the other was Takeshi Yamasaki, who always greeted him at the start of a series, showing him the kind of respect players often give to opposing Japanese managers.
So that was one side. Matsunaka’s other side was that he could be prickly. Once at spring training, while wandering through the Hawks’ indoor practice facility, I decided to break the ice with him with humor. My Japanese then was pretty crappy, but I don’t think it would have mattered. I asked Matsunaka, who was wearing a phiten necklace the size of an ox collar, if it was big enough for him. He said something under his breath and stalked off. That was the last time he spoke to me.
A year or so later, a colleague who’d covered the Hawks for years with their local paper, Nishinihon Sports, told me that Matsunaka was no longer the big guy, that he was overrated and all the young players saw shortstop Munenori Kawasaki as the team leader.
I don’t know if it’s related to anything, but Matsunaka signed a six-year contract with the Hawks before the 2006 WBC. When Japan advanced to the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, he told reporters that nobody on the team had better dare see it as a chance to show off for major league scouts.
Years later, when Zuleta joined the Marines, we talked about Matsunaka again, but his opinion of his former teammate had shifted. I mentioned his hustle and judgment on the bases, and Zuleta rolled his eyes and said, “You better look again.”
As injuries took their toll, Matsunaka became a bench player after the 2009 season and wasn’t productive after 2011. The team would have loved to dump him but those things involve huge PR hits, so they hung with him.
As a player, the only possible cloud on Matsunaka’s legacy was his complete inability during his best years to perform in the postseason. At the very end, he snapped out of it. But it was painful to watch the country’s best hitter do so badly when everyone was watching. It didn’t help that the Hawks during those years were managed by Sadaharu Oh. Oh is one of the people I admire most in the world, but he was a terrible manager in big games.
Oh and Matsunaka were an interesting combination. Oh told me he relied on the slugger to be the warm and friendly face of the team to newcomers because his own phobia about being too close to the players. The skipper, now the SoftBank Hawks chairman, is so well respected that I wonder if some players wanted to win big games so badly for him that they tightened up. I could certainly see that happening with Matsunaka.
My point is that if you look at what Matsunaka actually did, be the best player on a team that won three Japan Series, and led the PL in regular season wins five times, that’s plenty. I’m guessing that in addition to his ability to play baseball, he also had a talent for pissing people off, but that’s just a guess.
I wrote in this week’s newsletter that unlike America’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan’s doesn’t have huge elephant-in-the-room issues balancing players’ PED use, domestic violence and sexual assault with their career value to determine their worthiness. I mentioned Craig Calcaterra, who has had enough of the whole exercise and decided he doesn’t care anymore about what being a Hall of Famer means.
“if one does not need the Hall of Fame to assess baseball greatness, and if the Hall of Fame is hopelessly ill-equipped to assess the character of players, why should anyone care about an institution that not only tries to do both of those things, but tries to mash them together into a single assessment?! “
–Craig Calcaterra in his Dec. 31, 2020, “Cup of Coffee” newsletter.
We do things much more simply in Japan, at least for now.
It seems to me that Japan’s standard is to vote for players who were kind to you and don’t vote for those who told you to piss off.
That’s not because Japan doesn’t or didn’t have those same problems, but because Japan’s problems are not well known. That’s how things work. Abuse is a huge problem in societies, but many assume that because it rarely makes the news in Japan, it doesn’t exist. In a kind of Trumpian chauvinist bravado, use that lack of reporting as the reason to praise the Japanese for their innate moral character.
Former Japan Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu once told his South Korean counterpart that no Koreans had been brought to Japan to serve as forced labor during or before World War II because there was no record of such a thing. This prompted a flood of 50-year-old documents from Japanese companies confirming their rosters of conscripted Korean laborers. Kaifu then committed political suicide by issuing an apology to South Korea.
Times change, and it’s hard to predict when information that had been hiding in plain sight will flood the landscape and force a reckoning or at least encourage people that a reckoning is in order.
Before long Japan will no doubt catch up in its awareness of claims of sexual assault and domestic violence — even against ballplayers. At some point — and we might already be there without my knowing it due to the lack of public dialog about the voting — voters may ask “How good does a player have to be to get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer despite credible allegations of domestic violence?”
Beat writers know a lot more about players’ lives than guys like me who poke around and talk to people on different teams when I have time. Who knows? Perhaps some players’ poor performance in the voting is due to beat writers expressing their wrath about things that aren’t public knowledge.
Before writing this, I was optimistic Japan’s voters will find a better solution to the problem than those in the States have, but four years ago I also held some naive sliver of hope that Donald Trump wouldn’t be a total dumpster fire as president.
Having thought about it again, @craigcalcaterra may be right.
I have a message for some of my fellow voters in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame’s players’ division, and I’d like you not to take it the wrong way: Get your heads out of your asses.
I wish I knew what was up with some Hall of Fame voters because if it was simply a matter of looking at 30 former players and choosing the seven you think are most qualified, we wouldn’t get the dog’s breakfast we saw from the 2021 players ballot.
To be fair, it was a packed ballot, with a lot of solid candidates, but for the first time since 1987, none of the new Hall of Famers were former pro players. The Hall said it was the first time since 1998 that no former players were elected, but the Hall doesn’t count former players elected by the special committee, which inducted 209-game winner Hiroshi Nakao that year.
With a slew of solid candidates on this year’s ballots it’s easy to see how big candidates can split the ballot. Shingo Takatsu led the players’ division vote with 72.3 percent, coming just 10 votes shy of induction. I didn’t vote for him this time, but he’s an OK choice.
But if quality of the player matters, then perhaps voters should ask themselves these questions, lifted from Bill James’ old abstracts:
Was this player ever considered the best at his position in his league for any length of time?
Would you expect a team to be a pennant winner if he was its best player?
Shingo Takatsu? He was one of the better relievers for an extended period, but if he was your best player you wouldn’t win a pennant.
No. 2 on this year’s players’ ballot was lefty Masahiro Yamamoto, who I did vote for. He was considered one of the CL’s better starters for a long, long time. He won a Sawamura Award. So obviously, his best was pretty darn good. The same could be said for No. 3, Alex Ramirez. He won two MVPs and four Best Nines.
After that we get into a shit show. I don’t mean to disrespect the substantial quality of all the guys on the ballot. Fifty-eight percent of the voters named Masahiro Kawai on their ballots. He was a terrific player, but if he’s the best you’ve got, you’re not going to win a pennant.
Two hundred and eight voters named him on their ballot. These are people who have been covering pro baseball for established outlets for over 15 years.
I love Kawai. He was a really good player who I thought was underrated during his career, but if you voted for him, I would appreciate it if you take your vote more seriously. If in your carefully considered opinion, you really think Kawai belongs in the hall, then your considered opinion needs a hell of a lot of explaining.
Norihiro Nakamura, a player who deserves serious consideration, got none. He received four votes, and will not be eligible to be reconsidered for another 14 or so years when he can get onto the experts’ division.
Hirokazu Ibata, a much better player than Kawai, got 1.8 percent of the vote. Kenshin Kawakami, perhaps a good candidate, got 1.4 and he’s gone, too.
It’s like there was a rebellion and voters decided that after voting in Kazuyoshi Tatsunami a year ago, and putting strong support behind Yamamoto this year, that no other former Dragons deserved support, since Kazuhiro Wada barely survived the first cut.
There are so many players on this ballot who are comparable to guys already in the Hall, but many of them may not get there because votes are being wasted by people who have no respect for their vote.
If that’s you, I’ll be happy to publish your reasoning. The more we discuss our choices and rationale, the better they should get.
Christmas is coming and so is the deadline to submit ballots for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players’ division.
There are 30 players on this year’s ballot and we get to pick seven. This year’s crop of new guys Kazuhiro Wada, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Michihiro Ogasawara, and Masahiro Yamamoto make the 2021 ballot a particularly packed one. In a normal year, three of those four would be candidates to go in on the first ballot. Wada might be one of those guys who has to wait a bit because his career got started so late.
I don’t have any straight-line calculation that says one guy is a Hall of Famer and another isn’t. I can just compare who’s in, who’s out and see if the various accomplishments of a candidate are common to those who get elected. This exercise is not about saying “This guy should be in the Hall of Fame” but rather “How well does this player fit with people who have been voted in before?”
To some degree, the quality of players who get in is somewhat determined by the quality of the players on the ballot. We’ve gone through some fairly slack ballots the past five years. It’s not that the guys who did get in weren’t worthy, but that they were at the lower end of the Hall of Fame spectrum. From this year, we’re going to get a surge of qualified players.
With each player, I’m going to give you three lists of 10 players who have been eligible for HOF voting as pitchers or position players and who are closest in three ratings: Career Win Shares, the average Win Share value of the player’s best five-year period, and the average Win Share value of his three most valuable seasons.
Golden Gloves don’t seem to equate much with Hall of Fame success, although it was cited when Tsutomu Ito won that his 11 awards were the most by a catcher.
Best Nine awards do appear to be a thing, as do MVP awards. Every two-time MVP is in or being voted on, as is every MVP who also won six or more Best Nines with the lone exception of the puzzling Hiromichi Ishige. By those considerations, five guys on this year’s players’ ballot will go in: Alex Ramirez, Michihiro Ogasawara, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Tuffy Rhodes, Kenji Jojima, and Kazuhiro Wada.
Every player with more than seven Best Nine honors is in the Hall except for a pair who must have really pissed some people off in their day, Michiyo Arito (10), who is now in the expert’s division, and Ishige (8). Six and seven is the grey area for those without an MVP in their trophy case.
Twenty-three players whose career ended by 2015 won six or seven Best Nines. Of those, 10 are in, seven are being voted on, three still have a chance to make the experts’ division, and three are in all likelihood out of chances. With five Best Nines, you get in the realm of candidates who only got in through the experts’ division.
The one thing I can’t really measure for is popularity, perhaps the only thing that can explain why Masahiro Kawai was named on 61.6 percent of the players’ division’s ballots last year. I get why Shingo Takatsu got 73.2 percent because after all, he was the career saves leader for a while. Alex Ramirez got 65.8 percent, and it’s not like he’s unworthy but Tuffy Rhodes (28.8 percent) and Kenji Jojima (17.2 percent) have much better credentials.
Here is my ballot for the 2021 Hall in the order I think they should go in:
Nobuhiko Matsunaka 1B
Michihiro Ogasawara 3B
Masahiro Yamamoto P
Kenji Jojima C
Kazuhiro Wada LF
Hirokazu Ibata SS
Tuffy Rhodes CF
A two-time MVP and triple crown winner, with tremendous peak value and a good career. Matsunaka led his league in 17 offensive categories, and virtually everyone who did that and led in one of the triple crown stats is in the hall. He was a Japanese Randy Bass, but with even more peak value. Unlike Bass, he won’t have to wait for the experts’ division to rescue his candidacy from us non-experts who vote in the players’ division.
Career Value 310 WS
Kazuhiro Wada 332 – on ballot
Tuffy Rhodes 320 – on ballot
Kazuyoshi Tatsunami 319 – HOF
Hiroki Kokubo 311 – on ballot
Tokuji Iida 310 – HOF
Motonobu Tanishige 308 – on ballot
Norihiro Nakamura 305 – on ballot
Masayuki Kakefu 303 – Experts ballot
Atsunori Inaba 302 – on ballot
Taira Fujita 302 – Experts ballot
5 year peak 31 WS
Katsuya Nomura 34 – HOF
Hiromitsu Ochiai 33 – HOF
Koji Yamamoto 32 – HOF
Kazuhiro Yamauchi 32 – HOF
Tomoaki Kanemoto 32 – HOF
Isao Harimoto 31 – HOF
Michihiro Ogasawara – on ballot
Fumio Fujimura 30 – HOF
Masayuki Kakefu 30 – Experts ballot
Koichi Tabuchi 30 – HOF
3 best seasons avg 36.3 WS
Sadaharu Oh 40.8 – HOF
Shigeo Nagashima 38.3 – HOF
Masayuki Kakefu 38.1 – Experts ballot
Kazuhiro Yamauchi 37.3 – HOF
Hideki Matsui 36.3 – HOF
Tomoaki Kanemoto 35.8 – HOF
Katsuya Nomura 35.2 – HOF
Koji Yamamoto 34.8 – HOF
Hiromitsu Ochiai 34.8 – HOF
Tuffy Rhodes 33.8 – on ballot
Another two-time MVP and a similar player to Matsunaka with only slightly less peak value but better durability. I don’t know if they’re dead even or Ogasawara is behind Matsunaka. If Ogasawara is behind, he’s not behind by much.
The other two-time MVP on the ballot, Alex Ramirez is another step further down. One doesn’t want to compare raw career numbers when talking about imports, for whom it’s ALL about peak value, but Ramirez’s peak value was not in the same neighborhood as Guts’, and not among the seven most qualified this year.
Career Value 335 WS
Kazuhiro Kiyohara 384 – not on ballot
Kihachi Enomoto 360 – HOF
Sachio Kinugasa 344 – HOF
Atsuya Furuta 339 – HOF
Masahiro Doi 338 – out
Yasumitsu Toyoda 334 – HOF
Koji Akiyama 334 – HOF
Kazuhiro Wada 332 – on ballot
Tuffy Rhodes 332 – on ballot
Kazuyoshi Tatsunami 320 – HOF
5 year peak 31 WS
This starts with Koji Yamamoto, No. 3 on Matsunaka’s list, includes Matsunaka at 31 and adds the following two: Futoshi Nakanishi 29 – HOF; Yasumitsu Toyoda 28 – HOF, which is a similar mix to Matsunaka’s group with eight hall of famers, and two guys on the ballot.
3 best seasons avg 31.8 WS
Koichi Tabuchi 32.9 – HOF
Makoto Kozuru 32.8 – HOF
Atsuya Furuta 32.6 – HOF
Fumio Fujimura 32.5 – HOF
Hiromitsu Kadota 32.3 – HOF
Yasumitsu Toyoda 31.8 – HOF
Kihachi Enomoto 31.3 – HOF
Daryl Spencer 31 – out
Atsunori Inaba 31 – on ballot
Futoshi Nakanishi 30.9 – HOF
The Chunichi Dragons lefty won a Sawamura Award and had tremendous career value, Win Shares ranked him 26th all-time among pitchers, although Masahiro Tanaka likely passed him this year. But that is in the range where most pitchers have been elected to the Hall of Fame. His peak value — as measured by the average of his best five seasons, was not great, 95th, although a little better than Kimiyasu Kudo, a player of similar accomplishments who went in easily in 2016.
Kudo, however, won two MVP awards and three Best Nines, while Yamamoto only won two pitching Best Nines. As such Yamamoto may be a borderline candidate and my choice this year more of the heart than the head. But the ballot is in the mail.
Career Value 294 WS
Yamamoto is right on the margin between the haves and have-nots. Four of the next five pitchers with higher career values are in the Hall: Hideo Nomo, Kudo, Mutsuo Minagawa, Yutaka Ono. The next is Hiromu Matsuoka, who is on the experts’ ballot but struggling. Three below him are in the Hall and two of them have MVPs. Another is on the experts’ ballot and also struggling, former MVP Mitsuru Adachi.
5 year peak avg 14 WS
There are three Hall of Famers in this 10-player group, Kudo, old-timer Hiroshi Nakao, and Jyunzo Sekine, who was more valuable as an outfielder than a pitcher. Kazuhisa Ishii, and Shinji Sasaoka, both currently on the players’ ballot are there, too.
3 best seasons 18.5
Yamamoto’s three best seasons are comparable to those of: Sasaoka, Hideki Irabu, Hall of Famer Yutaka Ono, Fumiya Nishiguchi, who’s on this year’s ballot, Hiromi Makihara, Hall of Fame reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki, new players’ candidates Ishii and Kenshin Kawakami, and former Braves workhorse Yoshinori Sato — whom Yamamoto eclipsed as the oldest to throw a no-hitter in Japan.
Jojima is the catcher who should go in next, but I’d bet a thousand yen that Motonobu Tanishige will be inducted first. For a time around 2002-2004, Jojima was arguably Japan’s best player, or perhaps it was Tadahito Iguchi or Alex Cabrera or Nobuhiko Matsunaka.
Jojima won six Best Nine awards to Tanishige’s one, and eight Golden Gloves to Tanishige’s six. Jojima ranks 36th in NPB history in peak value, Tanishige 296th. True, Tanishige faced tougher competition by playing his best years in the same league with Atsuya Furuta, but one has to go a long way to argue that Tanishige was better. Tanishige is, however, probably a lot more popular and that seems to matter A LOT in the voting.
Jojima was truly an elite player, but his tepid performance in the voting suggests that just being better than virtually everybody else is not always a big concern with most Hall of Fame voters.
Looking at the tables below, Jojima looks close to being a lock for the Hall of Fame, because he’s Japanese…
Career Value 294 WS
Michiyo Arito 302 – Experts ballot
HIromi Matsunaga 302 – out
Takuro Ishii 300 – on ballot
Shinichi Eto 297 – HOF
Hiromichi Ishige 294- out
Koichi Tabuchi 292 – HOF
Yoshio Yoshida 290 – HOF
Yoshinori Hirose 289 – HOF
Tetsuharu Kawakami 286 – HOF
Hideji Kato 286 – Experts ballot
5 year peak 28 WS
Masayuki Kakefu 30 – Experts ballot
Koichi Tabuchi 30 – HOF
Futoshi Nakanishi 29 – HOF
Yasumitsu Toyoda 28.3 – HOF
Roberto Petagine 28.1 – out
Tom O’Malley 28 – out
Kazuhiro Kiyohara 28 – not on ballot
Koji Akiyama 28 – HOF
Tetsuharu Kawakami 28 – HOF
Hiroshi Oshita 27 – HOF
3 best seasons avg 30.7
Futoshi Nakanishi 30.9 – HOF
Kazuhiro Wada 30.9 – on ballot
Hirokazu Ibata 30.8 – on ballot
Tetsuharu Kawakami 30.7 – HOF
Kazuhiro Kiyohara 30.7- not on ballot
Hiroshi Oshita 30.4 – HOF
Alex Cabrera 30.4 – out
Randy Bass 30.3 – Experts ballot
Yoshio Yoshida 30.3 – HOF
Roberto Petagine 30.1 – out
Just a reminder, that while the ballot is packed with Hall of Fame quality players, the wonderful Masahiro Kawai got 218 votes a year ago. Here’s how he stacks up:
10 most players with most similar career value (148 Win Shares) : None in HOF. 10 players with most similar value from their best five-year stretch: None in HOF. 10 players with most similar value from their 3 best seasons: 1 in HOF – 2017 inductee Tsutomu Ito.
Recent players with similar career value: Norihiro Akahoshi, Hiroshi Shibahara, Makoto Kosaka.
Recent players with similar best 5-year stretches: Shibahara, Makoto Kaneko.
Recent players with similar 3 best seasons: Ito, Hatsuhiko Tsuji.
During his career, the media voted Kawai the CL’s best shortstop once, but now many of those people want him in the Hall of Fame.
Ito was great but not a Hall of Fame-caliber player in the context of those previously inducted. Instead, the field was a little thin and he got in. The same thing was happening to Kawai, but he’s probably going to start stalling.
Is the best Japanese position player on the ballot to never win a Golden Glove. But with an MVP and six Best Nines, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t make it.
Career Value 332 WS
His career value is smack in between Ogasawara on the high end and Matsunaka on the low end.
5 year peak 27 WS
The top three in Wada’s list overlap with the last three on Jojima’s. After that it’s:
Atsunori Inaba 27 – on ballot
Wally Yonamine 27 – HOF
Tokuji Iida 27 – HOF
Hiromi Matsunaga 27 – out
Akinori Iwamura 26 – out
Makoto Kozuru 26 – HOF
Tyrone Woods 26 – out
3 best seasons 30.9 WS
Ogasawara is the top of Wada’s list, and Jojima is at the bottom. so basically solid candidates, Hall of Famers, troubled star (Kazuhiro Kiyohara) and foreigners.
In contrast to Kawai, Ibata, who was also a shortstop, had something resembling a Hall of Fame career with five Best Nine Awards. He may have to struggle to get in, but he is probably a little better qualified than Ramirez.
Career Value 258 WS
Yoshinobu Takahashi 262 – on ballot
Tomonori Maeda 262 – on ballot
Isao Shibata 261 – Experts ballot
Makoto Kozuru 260 – HOF
Shoichi Busujima 260 – out
Fumio Fujimura 258 – HOF
Akinobu Mayumi 256 – out
Morimichi Takagi 254 – HOF
Alex Ramirez 248 – on ballot
Noboru Aota 245 – HOF
5 year peak avg 26
Tyrone Woods 26 – out
Yutaka Fukumoto 26 – HOF
Randy Bass 26 – Experts ballot
Hiromichi Ishige 26 – out
Akira Eto 26 – out
Norihiro Nakamura 26 – on ballot
Kenjiro Tamiya 26 – HOF
Tuffy Rhodes 26 – on ballot
Atsuya Furuta 26 – HOF
Shigeru Chiba 26 – HOF
3 best seasons 30.8
Ibata’s closest 10 are essentially the same as Kazuhiro Wada’s, which is not an exclusive Hall of Fame group, but is Hall of Fame-like.
I suppose you are all tired of hearing me talk about Tuffy Rhodes. The good news for you then is that for the first time in about three years he is not the most qualified player on the ballot.
Career Value 320 WS
Rhodes’ career value is sandwiched between Kazuhiro Wada and Hall of Famer Kazuyoshi Tatsunami. If you have higher career value than a lot of solid candidates AND you’re an import, then that says something I suppose.
5 year peak avg 26 WS
Essentially the same group as Hirokazu Ibata’s, some guys who are in the Hall and some guys who would be if they were more popular.
3 best seasons 33.8 WS
The top six on Rhodes’ list are the bottom six on Matsunaka’s. And his list starts with Sadaharu Oh and will include Ichiro Suzuki when he’s eligible. So this, and the long career are really Rhodes’ strong suits.
Alex Ramirez and the other strong candidates
For a guy with 2,000 hits in Japan, the total career value should be Ramirez’s calling card, but it’s not as good as Rhodes, who didn’t reach 2,000 hits because he walked so much.
Rami-chan is going to get in because he won two MVPs and he has a ton of support, so I’m not worried enough to vote just to keep him on the ballot this year. He didn’t match Ibata in peak or career value and won two MVPs but only four Best Nines, the fewest of any two-time MVP in contention for the Hall.
Atsunori Inaba, who should have been the PL’s 2007 MVP instead of his teammate Yu Darvish is probably a step ahead of Ramirez in every category except the big hardware. Hiroki Kokubo is about even with Ramirez according to established norms. But if you are voting for Masahiro Kawai then you have to ignore a zillion players who are better than him. I think the world of Kawai, and he was a very good player for a long time.
I voted for Takuro Ishii in the past, but he’s not quite up to Ramirez’s level, so I’m going to have to pass on him. Shinya Miyamoto won 10 Golden Gloves, which is kind of a 50-50 grey area and he was named on 58 percent of last year’s ballots, but he also had less peak and career value than any of the nine Hall eligible players with 10 or more Golden Gloves. Ishii, who got 24.6 percent last year is a MUCH more fitting candidate. Kenjiro Nomura, another shortstop, is about even with Ishii although with a slightly shorter career and slightly more peak value.
I’m conflicted about Motonobu Tanishige. He’s going to get in because he’s on TV all the time, was a productive hitter for a while, and an excellent defensive catcher for a long time because he stayed fit for a long time.