Top 10 time

This is the start of the payoff of something I’ve been working toward for the last 30 years: a comprehensive analysis of players throughout Japanese pro baseball history.

It’s been a hard slog the last month or so, but the efforts have born fruit in a method to put all those seasons into a kind of even basis for comparison through applying Bill James’ Win Shares to old data.

I’ve had broad estimates based, but lacked the data needed to make reasonable run and home run adjustments, as well as catcher’s records against base stealers, and batting records with runners on base and in scoring position to fine-tune them as well as I could.

But with that now in hand, and a new system to generate them that is vastly more efficient, we’ve got some fun stuff.

Although I’ve had a number of people tell me that Ichiro Suzuki was the greatest Japanese player ever, I just have to say the evidence is not in favor of that argument. Perhaps if he’d gone to the States earlier, and faced deeper competition at a younger age, his peak might have been a little higher. But when the No. 1 contender is Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro was never going to climb that mountain.

Now that I’ve got evaluations of 40,810 player seasons from the second half of the inaugural 1936 season (NPB still hasn’t published official records from the first half) to 2021 in Japan’s majors, today will be the start of some lists of win share rankings by Japanese players, combining their MLB and NPB career win shares, with no adjustment for my assumption that MLB’s deeper talent level makes those win shares a bit more valuable.

First up is an easy one, the top 10 career win shares leaders, where, as I mentioned, the Giants’ great No. 1, is indeed No. 1.

NPB-MLB Japanese career win shares leaders

Sadaharu Oh717.0675.441.6
Katsuya Nomura606.8468.6138.2
Ichiro Suzuki535.7462.173.6
Isao Harimoto532.8490.042.8
Masaichi Kaneda526.416.9509.5
Shigeo Nagashima482.4419.662.8
Kazuhiro Yamauchi447.5385.861.7
Hiromitsu Ochiai437.8390.247.6
Hiromitsu Kadota440.8412.128.7
Tetsuharu Kawakami416.2371.411.033.8
Hideki Matsui411.1371.939.2

All the nine batters on the list except Ichiro were big power hitters, although Suzuki showed more power in Japan. Like Isao Harimoto, still the only player with 3,000 hits in NPB, Ichiro shaped his approach to hit for a high average.

I’ll get to the pitchers another time, but now I want to do an unheralded and pretty interesting group, Japan’s leaders in career fielding value.

It’s no surprise that the list is limited to players who spent the bulk of their careers at shortstop of catcher, with Katsuya Nomura taking top billing. The surprise for me is that like lists of pitchers, we probably need to group lists of shortstops by their era.

Of the six shortstops, only one of them is a real old-timer, Tigers great Yoshio Yoshida, whose career wrapped up in 1969. The rest are all contemporaries of two different generations, with Takuro Ishii and Makoto Kaneko at one end, Hirokazu Ibata and Kazuo Matsui dominating in the middle, and Hayato Sakamoto the young kid who appears likely to outdo them all.

I don’t know the reason why this is, but I’ve long suspected it’s because of Japan’s devotion to the idea that middle infielders and center fielders should be glove men first and foremost so that guys who could really hit are often steered elsewhere.

While this is not a measure of offense, it is a measure of durability, and light-hitting glove guys generally don’t play long enough to put up huge career numbers like these guys.

Ishii is still a hugely under-rated player and is one of two pros in Japan who both won a game as a pitcher and had 2,000 career hits, the other being Tetsuharu Kawakami, Japan’s “God of batting,” who is No. 10 on the all-time career win shares list above.

NPB-MLB Japanese career fielding win shares leaders

Motonobu Tanishige298.1156.0142.1
Katsuya Nomura606.8468.6138.2
Atsuya Furuta330.3195.3135.0
Yoshio Yoshida296.6184.1112.5
Kazuo Matsui325.5242.3110.2
Hayato Sakamoto340.1240.499.7
Takuro Ishii285.5184.31.699.6
Kenji Jojima268.7173.994.8
Makoto Kaneko171.677.093.9
Hirokazu Ibata253.9161.992
The top 11 Japanese players in terms of career fielding value in win shares since 1936 from NPB and MLB

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