Top Guns

Today’s list focuses on catchers throwing out would-be base stealers.

The list of the 10 catchers with the highest caught-stealing percentage is dominated by catchers from the 1950s and 1960s, when, home runs were less frequent, speed was a bigger part of Japan’s game and nearly a fifth of the runners on first base were trying to steal as opposed to less than a 10th in the 1990s.

Of the 10 catchers on the list, four first appear in the data in the 1950s and four in the 1960s and are heavily represented by Osaka area teams.

Best career CS percentages 1950-2021

NameFromTocareer attemptsCS Pct.League Pct.
Yasuhiko Kawai19521967771.468.343
Atsuya Furuta19902007926.462.330
Jun Matsui19501958599.437.334
Akihiko Oya197019851170.435.365
Yasuhiko Tsuji19631984632.431.375
Yoshinori Tsuji19631975729.429.355
Koichi Tabuchi19691984766.422.387
Junzo Ando19541970798.422.341
Tetsuya Yamamoto19531964572.414.349

Yasuhiko Kawai

Kawai rose to prominence as a 16-year-old left fielder at Gifu High School when it reached the final of the national summer championships, who was later converted to a catcher. He signed as an amateur with the club from neighboring Aichi Prefecture, the Dragons, who wanted him in the outfield, a decision that didn’t last long.

In 1952, Kawai appeared in six games for the dragons, five behind the plate, becoming the only first-year pro to catch for the team for the next 66 years. In 1954, the Dragons won the pennant. Although Kawai was the team’s reserve catcher behind aging veteran Akira Noguchi, the youngster often found himself working that year with the team’s ace, Hall of Famer Shigeru Sugishita, who won his CL MVP that year and his third Sawamura Award, which was until 1990, only awarded to CL pitchers.

When Noguchi retired, he became manager and promoted Kawai to the No. 1 slot, but Kawai, his arm, and his career .212 batting average were sold after the 1958 season to the Nishitetsu Lions, where he contributed to that team’s l1963 pennant, that franchise’s last in Fukuoka.

Atsuya Furuta

A Hall of Famer and an MVP, Furuta is No. 2 on the list of caught-stealing percentage of catchers who faced 500 or more attempts, but would be No. 1 if we measured by the gap between his percentage and his leagues’.

Tutored by Hall of Fame catcher and manager Katsuya Nomura, Furuta was taken in the second round of the 1989 draft. He wanted to play in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and announced he would only turn pro out of university in the 1987 draft if he were selected in the first round. The Swallows had him on their draft list but instead spent their No. 1 draft pick on the entirely useless Kazushige Nagashima, whose father, Giants legend Shigeo, the team was courting as their next manager.

There is a story about how when asked why Yakult picked Kazushige over the bespectacled Furuta, Yakult’s scouting director Hiroo Kataoka, a former Yakult catcher and a friend of the elder Nagashima’s since their days at Rikkyo University, supposedly said, “Because of his glasses.”

Furuta’s arm was so good, that teams more-or-less stopped trying to steal against him, which ironically hurt the Swallows to a small degree because it deprived their pitchers of all the extra outs other CL teams were running into against other teams’ catchers at the time.

Although this is about their arms, Furuta was considered the top defensive catcher of his era, Bill James’ Win Shares assigns more peak defensive value during his career to Akihiro Yano and Kenji Jojima. One of the knocks a Japanese former bullpen catcher and later MLB scout told me was that Furuta’s concern for injury kept him from taking chances on bouncing pitches.

In perhaps the only conversation I had with Furuta, from the spring of 2021, I recall, I asked about the Swallows’ leading the league in wild pitches three times between 1995 and 2000. Furuta blamed it on the difficulty of catching Kazuhisa Ishii’s slider. Ishii threw 11 in 2000, while the Swallows staff uncorked 13 more than Yano’s Tigers, who were second-worst in the CL that year.

Jun Matsui

Matsui was the Nankai Hawks’ regular catcher for three seasons from 1953 to 1956 but was lost his job at the age of 31 to the 21-year-old Nomura, who wrote in 1995, “Defensively, he (Matsui) was many times better than me. I was always deathly afraid that if some injury affected my offense, the manager would say, ‘There’s no mistaking that we have to make a change.'”

Akihiko Oya

Oya, a pitcher and catcher for iconic Tokyo high school Waseda Jitsugyo, was rejected as a pitcher by Waseda University despite throwing a no-hitter in his senior year in the Tokyo qualifying tournament for the summer nationals. Instead, he went to Tokyo’s Komazawa University as a catcher and was the seventh-round pick of Yakult, then called the Atoms, and caught a break as a rookie, getting into 93 games when Yakult’s established catcher Toshio Kato, was suspended indefinitely and eventually released for being for, either driving without a license or being involved in a traffic accident.

Although not much of a hitter, Win Shares rates Oya as succeeding Hanshin’s Koichi Tabuchi as the CL’s top defensive catcher in the late 70s.

In 1972, when Japan’s annual fielding awards were first handed out and originally known as Diamond Gloves, Oya was the CL’s first winner at his position, and won six in his career, tying him for fourth all-time with Motonobu Tanishige behind Hall of Famers Tsutomu Ito (11) and Furuta (10), and Kenji Jojima (8)—who should be in the Hall of Fame.

Yasuhiko Tsuji and Yoshinori Tsuji

These two were not related but were Tigers teammates between 1963 and 1969, with Yoshinori as the regular and Yasuhiko as his backup until 1967. The stocky 1.71-meter Yasuhiko was christened “Dump”–the Japanese word for dump truck—by then battery coach Takeshi Doigaki, who just missed this list at No. 11.

Yoshinori earned the No. 1 spot despite a weak throwing arm because of his extremely quick release, his accurate throws, and being the only Tigers catcher with an affinity for catching Gene Baque’s knuckleball.

 He became known as “Mustache Tsuji” when he showed up at Hanshin’s autumn minicamp one year wearing one and reportedly became the first Japanese pro to break an unwritten rule against facial hair. The story goes that he was so impressed by Dodgers catcher John Roseboro in their 1966 postseason tour, that he adopted the mustache Roseboro was sporting at the time.

Yasuhiko won the No. 1 job in 1968, and with Tabuchi joining Hanshin in 1969, Yasuhiko went back to being No. 2, while Mustache asked to be traded and was packed off to the PL’s Kintetsu Buffaloes. The trade request came after former ace Minoru Murakami was named manager at a time when former pitcher Yutaka Enatsu has said the team was divided between supporters of Murayama and coach Yoshio Yoshida, the club’s former shortstop, who quit the team despite being asked to stay on. Moustache, the story goes, was a Yoshida guy.

In 1971, with Tabuchi out hurt, the Dump Truck caught every Tigers game, but in 1975, he was traded to the Taiyo Whales, for his former teammate, Mustache, who returned to Hanshin for one final season.

Koichi Tabuchi

An often-injured slugger, Tabuchi ranks fourth among catchers in total career value, behind Nomura, Shinnosuke Abe and Furuta, but caught 100 games in just five seasons, from 1972 to 1976. He is second in career home run frequency among players with 300 home runs, with one homer per 12.41 at-bats, behind Sadaharu Oh’s 10.66 and ahead of Wladimir Balentien’s 12.49. In 1975, Tabuchi’s career-high 45 homers ended Oh’s streak of 14 consecutive seasons as CL home run leader.

In the winter of 1978-1979, after the Lions were purchased by the Seibu group and were headed from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, just west of Tokyo, Tabuchi was part of a six-player deal that brought slugging outfielder Akinobu Mayumi, one of the stars of the Tigers’ 1985 Japan Series championship team, to Hanshin.

With the Lions, Tabuchi became primarily a first baseman and DH, and became the model for the comic strip “Ganbare Tabuchi-kun.”

Tabuchi was elected to the Hall of Fame by the expert’s committee in 2020, not because the players’ division voters passed on him but because the old system in place until 2007 prevented players from being eligible until they had been out of uniform as players, coaches or managers for five years—creating an enormous backlog of candidates and making it nearly impossible for a guy like Tabuchi who was bouncing from coaching job to coaching job—work which was mentioned in his ultimate selection.

Junzo Ando

A high school contemporary of Kawai’s from Gifu, Ando is the third catcher on the list to play his pro ball in Tokyo, with the PL’s Toei Flyers.

A PL all-star from 1961 to 1963, Ando started the first two games of the 1962 Japan Series against the Tigers, both losses against Tigers ace Murayama. The Flyers’ Hall of Fame skipper switched Ando out for his teammate, Masayuki Tanemo for the remaining five games. The Flyers tied Game 3, before winning four straight with Tanemo, becoming the first catcher to be Series MVP, an award he shared with Flyers ace Masayuki Dobashi.

Tanemo, by the way, went on to be Oya’s PL counterpart as his league’s first PL Diamond Glove winner.

Tetsuya Yamamoto

A two-time all-star, Yamamoto was the Tigers’—yes the Tigers again—No. 1 catcher from 1957 to ’61. In 1959, Yamamoto caught the first game watched live by a Japanese emperor, at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium, that ended on a sayonara home run by Shigeo Nagashima. While Tigers pitcher Murayama argued bitterly that Nagashima’s drive went foul, Hall of Fame Tigers pitcher Masaaki Koyama blamed Yamamoto for not arguing the call, saying the ump only called it a home run because the catcher didn’t argue.

Hisaaki Fukushima

An undrafted free agent, Fukushima spent all but the final year of his career with the Taiyo Whales. A two-time all-star, Fukushima hit 107 career homers and won a minor league batting title. Junzo Sekine became the Whales manager in 1982, and two years before the team became famous for its “supercar trio” of base stealers, Yutaka Takagi, Kazuhiro Kato, and Kaname Yashiki, Sekine inaugurated a “veteran catcher triumvirate of Moustache Tsuji, Fukushima, and Toshio Kato, Oya’s outcast Swallows’ predecessor.

Top 10 catchers’ relative career CS pct

The following table ranks NPB catchers based on the difference between their career CS percentage and the caught-stealing percentages of their leagues while they were playing. This allows three recent catchers to make the grade.

NameFromToSB attemptsCS Pct.League
Atsuya Furuta19902007926.462.330
Yasuhiko Kawai19521967771.468.343
Jun Matsui19501958599.437.334
Kenji Jojima19952011798.383.300
Junzo Ando19541970798.422.341
Takeshi Doigaki19501957845.408.329
Yoshinori Tsuji19631975729.429.355
Akihiko Oya197019851170.435.365
Tetsuya Matoyama19942008639.367.301
Tetsuya Yamamoto19531964572.414.349

And as long as I’m going there…

Here’s a list of the catchers who faced a minimum of 1,000 stolen base attempts with the worst CS pct relative to their leagues. I was kind of surprised to see a Hall of Famer and NPB’s career leader in catchers Golden Gloves, Tsutomu Ito, on the list.

If we extended the list a little further, it would include a few more huge names: Katsuya Nomura, Masahiko Mori, Shinnosuke Abe, Motonobu Tanishige, and Oya, from the main list.

NameFromToAttsCS pctLeague pct
Masato Monzen195019561012.219.308
Isao Ito196119801152.331.387
Takeo Yoshizawa195419691218.316.356
Takeo Daigo195719741454.297.333
Takeshi Yamashita195019641152.318.339
Toshio Kato196719851151.323.343
Motohiro Shima200720211188.265.280
Takeshi Nakamura198720051214.331.330
Tatsuhiko Kimata196419821606.396.385
Tsutomu Ito198220031620.319.307

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