The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday announced the winners of its annual ballots, and the hall’s reputation as a popularity contest was confirmed for another year.
For the first time since it was created in 2008, the player’s division voters failed to elect anyone as last year’s runner-up, Shingo Takatsu, fell seven votes short of selection. Popular DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, the only imported player with 2,000 hits shot up the leaderboard to finish second in the ballot with 233 of the 266 votes needed for selection.
Tuffy Rhodes, easily the best player on the player’s division ballot, took a slight step backward. A year ago, he was named on 29.6 percent of the ballots, this year on 28.8 percent.
Ramirez is a deserving candidate and this is not a slur on his reputation, but as a player, he didn’t have as big an impact as Rhodes. Ramirez was a popular player with the Giants, while Rhodes’ time with the Giants was curtailed by injury and marred by an argument with a coach.
HOF Players Division results 2020
Career Win Shares
Two longtime inoffensive shortstops Masahiro Kawai and Shinya Miyamoto continued to build support, being named on 61.6 percent of the ballots and 58.2, respectively.
At the other end, Akinori Iwamura and Makoto Kaneko both dropped off the ballot on their first try, having failed to be named on 2 percent of the ballots.
HOF Experts Division Results 2020
Career Win Shares
In the expert’s division, slugging catcher Koichi Tabuchi got his overdue reward, while another popular former Hanshin Tiger, two-time triple crown winner Randy Bass, moved to the top of the division’s pecking order with 65.9 percent of the vote.
The good news from Japan’s equivalent of the veteran’s committee was that Masayuki Kakefu moved up from an embarrassing 30.8 percent of the vote last year to 45.9 percent and will be poised to go in after Bass is elected a year from now.
By this time tomorrow we’ll know whether or not a large majority of voters for Japan’s Hall of Fame have stepped up to the plate and done their job or are still in need of a spine transplant.
I’ve written at length about the players division and Tuffy Rhodes, who I rank as the 31st best player ever to lace up his spikes in NPB. Rhodes was left off over 60 percent of last year’s ballots to finish ninth behind eight guys who are in most ways less qualified then him.
Former White Sox reliever Shingo Takatsu, who was runner-up in last year’s players division ballot, and has an argument for selection in that he was for a time NPB’s career saves leader. He and Hall of Famer Kazuhiro Sasaki were really the first two Japanese closers who were effective year after year at a relatively high level. They were both eventually surpassed by Hitoke Iwase, but their achievements still deserve some recognition.
The experts division, however, is more interesting. Last year’s runner-up with 64.7 percent of the 75 percent needed for induction was slugging Hanshin Tigers catcher Koichi Tabuchi. Right behind him, however, was Tigers first baseman and two-time triple crown winner Randy Bass.
I’ve written about Bass a bit. His career profile would have been better had he played in Japan longer, but he had to return to America when his child needed cancer treatment and that was that.
In my book, Venezuelan first basemen Roberto Petagine and Alex Cabrera had better careers in Japan than Bass, but neither were particularly well-liked by the media, almost a prerequisite for selection by baseball writers. Tom O’Malley, too, probably had a better career here, but the likable Bass’ claim to fame as the MVP on a historic franchise’s first Japan Series championship team — and two triple crowns — carries more cache.
By my count, Tabuchi is the third greatest catcher to ever play in Japan, behind Hall of Famer Katsuya Nomura and the recently retired Shinnosuke Abe. I also think Tabuchi is the second-best candidate on the expert’s division ballot. The best, and I have him as the second greatest third baseman of all time, is yet another Tiger, Masayuki Kakefu.
Kakefu was a distant third in last year’s ballot. Behind Tabuchi’s 64.7 percent and Bass’ 63.2 percent, Kakefu mustered only 30.8. But if Bass and Tabuchi go in this year, Kakefu is sure to shoot up in the voting.
My ballot, in the order I believe they deserve to go in is:
Mind you, Tuffy was fond of saying about long home runs, “If they go in (the seats) that’s all that matters.”
Takashi Saito, who finished his pro career in 2015 with his hometown team, Sendai’s Rakuten Eagles, will be back in Japanese baseball next season after spending the past three seasons working with the San Diego Padres.
The 39-year-old will serve as pitching coach for the Yakult Swallows, who will be managed by another former big league reliever, Shingo Takatsu. Until that news surfaced last month, it seemed Saito was on track for something bigger, a top job in a front office either here or in the majors because he thinks big.
In March, I spoke with Saito at the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, where he talked about growing up in baseball and his ideas to grow the game.
“I do want to return. I want to be an agent for positive change in as many areas as I can, making use of the things I’ve learned in America,” Saito said. “It wouldn’t have to be in pro baseball. If they let me be commissioner, I’d do it. Whatever I am qualified for.”
“I started playing ball when I was seven, in the second grade of elementary school, but I grew up in a home surrounded by baseball. My father coached youth ball, and both of my older brothers played.”
“My home was really close to the ballpark. Sendai was Lotte’s second home along with Kawasaki. I was a member of their children’s fan club, ‘The Bubble Boys.’ I could ride my bicycle to the stadium. When the games ended we could go on the field. It was so much fun.”
Although he made his mark in baseball on the mound, Saito didn’t become a pitcher until his second year at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University. He spent 14 years in NPB with Yokohama until the team discarded the injured right-hander. In 2006, he went to spring camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up as their closer and a National League all-star after an injury to his predecessor, Eric Gagne.
He returned to Japan with the Eagles in 2013 and was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series.
On setting standards to protect youth players’ health
With various youth bodies in Japan either setting limits on pitchers or considering them in order to protect young shoulders and elbows, Saito said a fight is inevitable between reformers and the old guard but that it is a necessary battle.
“Nobody wants a battle, but it is something we can’t walk away from,” he said. “Ideally, we should protect the health of kids so that they can aspire to play at a higher level.”
“To go back to the issue of pitch counts, there is a huge difference between guys like me, with little pitching experience through high school, and those boys who pitch from junior high aiming to play (in the national high school championship finals) at Koshien Stadium. Because everyone is different, one set of rules is not practical for everyone.”
“Instead, I’d like to see a medical solution. Have every prefecture or city set standards, have doctors orthopedic surgeons examine the boys and set limits. So boys will have sets of restrictions placed upon them based on how physically developed they are. The focus needs to be on health. After that, the competition will take care of itself.”
Saito said that while the national high school federation has opposed pitch limits, it takes no responsibility for players’ health.
“If players get hurt, get hit by a ball, the federation should help with those costs, but they don’t. If players get hurt in their competition, they turn their backs. This is also wrong. If the federation is opposed to pitching limits, say 100 pitches, then it should be held accountable. The federation insists on its rights but doesn’t accept responsibility.”
“These authorizing bodies and that includes schools and the education establishment, insist on their right to enforce even the most trivial rules, but if there is a problem, then they tell you, ‘You’re on your own. The law is on our side.’ It is so Japanese. It’s like they are feudal fiefdoms.”
Leveling the playing field, literally
On the subject of what Japanese baseball and American baseball can learn from each other, Saito said the question is complicated by hardware infrastructure differences.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I watch major league games every day. Their fields are different in size (from Japanese) the mounds are different. That’s the hardware,” he said. “If we standardize the mounds, the balls, the hardware, then we can talk about adapting or modifying things.”
Unfortunately, he said, Japan has serious issues with the concept of standardization.
“If you look at this problem from a Japanese perspective, you realize how hard it becomes. In Japan, amateur baseball lumps the corporate leagues in with elementary school, junior high school and high school leagues, but they are really professionals.”
“Although pro ballplayers’ salaries are paid by teams that are really just subsidiaries of their parent companies. So while there is a large difference in their salaries, there is really no difference between pro and corporate league ballplayers. They are all professionals. Yet, the rules that apply to corporate leaguers are the same as those applied to little kids.”
On the meaning of Koshien
Saito is one of the few people in Japanese baseball to question the relevance of the national high school tournament.
“The teams that go to Koshien get no financial reward in return,” he said. “You’d like them to get something, even if it was just the money needed to buy one new ball. Corporate leaguers are the same. They can play in a big tournament, but there’s no prize money.”
“Without that, one has to wonder what is the purpose of such tournaments. What is the purpose of school baseball clubs? Who are they really for? The kids who make it to Koshien realize their dreams. Everyone else’s dreams are crushed.”
On the manners of Japanese baseball culture
“There are differences in culture, and in education, that produce those kinds of players, with extremely good manners (in Japan),” he said. “Companies say they want former players because of their manners. That says something about Japan. At first, whether one can do a job or not is less important than your ability to greet someone, say the president, formally. That carries a lot of weight.”
On an Asian winter meetings
“These are absolutely necessary. I want baseball people in Asia to look at the winter meetings in America. I want them to realize the potential of what they themselves can contribute (through building baseball) in Asia.
“Asian winter meetings could have a huge economic benefit for Asia, if you imagine all the (baseball-related) products made in Asia on display. Let’s say you have a rundown ballpark in Toyama Prefecture. And you need a new backstop net, and someone quotes you a price of 100 million yen, well you know that (with a better marketplace) someone could do the same thing much more cheaply, say for a fifth of that.”
“That’s a big part of what the winter meetings are, a place to build a marketplace, not just a market for trading players, but a place for people to learn about goods and services. And if people are trying to work in Japanese baseball, they could find job openings there. This is absolutely necessary, but also something Japanese teams are never going to get behind.”
For the third time in recent years, the Yakult Swallows have turned to a man with experience running their farm team to manage their Central League team, according to a story published by Kyodo News.
Fifty-year-old Shingo Takatsu will succeed Junji Ogawa, who called an end to his second stint as the birds’ manager after finishing last this season. Ogawa, a former farm manager, was promoted to manager after Shigeru Takada quit. Ogawa, who led the Swallows to the playoffs three times in seven years, was replaced in 2015 by another farm manager, Mitsuru Manaka, who won the league that year and served for three seasons.
Takatsu becomes the second former Japanese major leaguer to run a top-level club in Japan after Tadahito Iguchi. So Taguchi has managed in the minors for the Orix Buffaloes, while Kazuo Matsui managed the Seibu Lions’ Eastern League club starting this season.
Under Takatsu, the Eastern League Swallows finished fifth in the seven-team EL this season.
Takatsu saved 286 games, second most in NPB, over 17 seasons. He pitched two seasons in the majors, another in South Korea and another in Taiwan. He also served as a player manager in the independent BC League.
Eagles 7, Lions 1
At Rakuten Seimei Park, Takahiro Norimoto pitched well in the season finale for both clubs, and Hideto Asamura hit his 33rd home run, tying Jabari Blash for the team home run lead, and finishing the regular season with 11 homers against his former club and 22 against the rest of NPB.
Sendai native and injury-plagued right-hander Yoshinori Sato finished the game in his debut with the Eagles, his first game since leaving Yakult over the winter.
Junji Ogawa announced Sunday for the second time in six years that he no longer wants to manage the Central League’s Yakult Swallows. The team is in last place and has been eliminated from playoff contention. Ogawa took over last year and led the Swallows to second place. In six seasons over two terms, he has led them to the postseason three times.
Head coach Shinya Miyamoto, who was expected to take over after a brief coaching stint, said he wants no part of the job either. One potential candidate to manage is current farm manager and former pitching coach Shingo Takatsu.
If Takatsu does take over, he’ll become the second Japanese former major leaguer to manage a top-flight NPB club after fellow former White Sox infielder Tadahito Iguchi took over the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines in 2018.
Hawks 9, Marines 6
At Yafuoku Dome, Lotte’s Brandon Laird homered, reached base four times and drove in four runs, but SoftBank came back against starter Atsuki Taneichi to tie it in the seventh inning on a pinch-hit RBI single by Keizo Kawashima. Kenji Akashi’s eighth-inning pinch-hit double put the Hawks ahead in the eighth before Kawashima doubled in an insurance run.
Hawks starter Shota Takeda put the home team in a bind by allowing four runs over four innings. Taneichi allowed six runs in 6-1/3, and the Marines bullpen let the game get away further.
At Sapporo Dome, the future and past crossed paths as former Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko (6-4) matched his season-high of six innings to outpitch the Buffaloes best young pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (6-5), who held Nippon Ham to an unearned run over six innings.
Yamamoto was on the mound for the first time since straining his left oblique muscles on Aug. 3. He allowed three hits and struck out six without issuing a walk.
The Fighters’ future and past also collided as their former closer, Hirotoshi Masui surrendered a solo homer to up-and-coming slugger Kotaro Kiyomiya.
For some reason, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama has decided to ditch the idea of openers and short starters. On Sunday, Chihiro Kaneko worked six innings, marking the first time this season that Fighters starters have worked six innings or more in three consecutive games.
They have also equaled the team’s longest streak of consecutive five-plus inning starts.
Mizuki Hori, who had been dynamite as the opener, has been demoted to the farm, where he is pitching occasionally and striking out batters, something one imagines would be more useful on the first team.
It’s almost as if there was a purge and evidence of the experiment, Hori, has been sent into exile in the team’s Kamagaya gulag.
Dragons 5, BayStars 2
At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi’s Yudai Ono (8-8) lost his bid for a shutout when DeNA’s Neftali Soto hit his 36th home run, a two-run shot in the ninth. The win was Chunichi’s sixth straight after sweeping the league’s top two teams, the Giants and BayStars.
As they have for the past week or so, the Dragons continued to be tenacious at the plate and on the bases. Yota Kyoda legged out a triple in the fourth inning and scored from third on a foul pop down the first base line. With Ono cruising, Nobumasa Fukuda essentially put the game away in the sixth with a two-run double.
Carp 3, Tigers 2
At Mazda Stadium, Hiroshima’s Hisayoshi Chono singled in two runs and made a good catch in left field to help Kris Johnson (11-7) earn the win over Hanshin with six scoreless innings.
Geronimo Franzua entered the game with two outs in the eighth and a runner on second. He surrendered an RBI double to make it a 3-2 game and walked the next batter before retiring the last four he faced to earn his 11th save.
Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette on Friday paid tribute to
an overlooked aspect of Japanese baseball, its passion and fan-fueled
Asked what aspects of the game helped shape him as a player, the former Yakult Swallows closer cited the non-stop cheering and noise-making as more than just a part of the atmosphere, but something that adds to the amount o fight displayed between the lines.
“One thing I haven’t talked about much is the competitiveness
of every single game,” he said. “The fan atmosphere helps with that. It doesn’t
matter if you’re 10 games above .500 or 15 games below, they’re still showing
up. That attitude adds to the competitiveness of the game, because a dead
stadium is a dead stadium. It’s hard to get into it.”
“But as a player, you feel, if they’re still into it, we’re
still into it. They’re not going to quit, we’re not going to quit. The more and
more you win, the better it gets.”
“The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and
hustle is still there. You see the way guys bust it down the line, sliding
head-first. As bad as that is, it’s still there. That’s one of the things that
has stuck with me, is keeping that competitive level all the way through the game
and all the way through the season.”
Pitcher Chris Martin, Barnette’s teammate last season with
the Texas Rangers, said last November, that playing for Japan’s Nippon Ham
Fighters prepared him to play in the majors by getting him used to executing
pitches in high-pressure situations.
“One of the things people don’t give Japan credit for is
it’s a competitive league with competitive players. The talent level may fall
off a bit quicker, but the fact of the matter is guys are out there to win
every single night and it’s good baseball.”
“It’s June and it’s Hanshin and there are 45,000 people in
the stands or it’s July or it’s Tokyo Dome, and it’s the ninth inning and – off
the bench because he was supposed to have a day off, here comes (future Hall of
Famer Shinnosuke) Abe in the ninth inning and that place goes nuts. You get in
that situation in that atmosphere, you’ve got to make a big pitch with 50,000
“That has the big game mentality. Now when you get to the
major leagues, it’s like, I’ve been in a stadium this big before. I’ve been in
a stadium that’s more full than this. It’s a development thing.”
Giving credit where credit is due
On a personal level, Barnette credited one of his managers
and his pitching coaches as huge influences. Manager Junji Ogawa took a team
with promising talent and made them playoff contenders, largely by being
patient. Under him, the Swallows got big seasons out of Barnette, Lastings
Miledge and Wladimir Balentien. All three got big multiyear contracts, and
though Miledge fell off the radar, Balentien went on to break Japan’s
single-season home run record in 2013, while Barnette established himself as an
“Junji Ogawa was instrumental in bringing me back after that
first failed starter year, him and coach (Daisuke) Araki. They brought me
“Araki ended up moving on, but then coach (former major
leaguer Shingo) Takatsu came. He was such a great coach. His temperament as a
pitching coach is just remarkable.”
“And then Tomohito Ito. I played catch with that guy pretty much every
single day for two years. When it came to the development of the cutter, the
split, he’s got his hands all over it. His finger prints are all over the way I
pitch today. I can’t talk about Japan without talking about Ito. I think he’s
phenomenal in his craft and caring about each individual pitcher to work and
get better, that organic way he cares about people. It’s seamless to him. Some
guys have to work at it. It comes naturally to him and it shows. Phenomenal
charisma. He’s a great guy to be around.”