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Power-hitting catchers still in short supply in Japan

by Wayne Graczyk

Recall our column from last summer pointing out how there are very few catchers in Japanese baseball who can hit?

One of the suggestions I made to hopefully improve the situation was for the Japanese teams to see if they can find a halfway decent foreign catcher somewhere in the North American minor leagues who has some good offensive and defensive skills.

Now the Yokohama BayStars have acquired, as an ikusei (developmental) player, a young backstop from Venezuela by the name of Kevin Moscatel. He’s just 21 but, having been signed to his first professional contract at age 16, he has four years of experience in the minor leagues in the U.S., playing in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Perhaps, of all the teams in the Central and Pacific Leagues, the BayStars are the one most in need of help behind the plate. Yokohama is listing just five catchers this season on the regular roster, and only three of them saw varsity action in 2012. In CL statistics, the three guys who played slammed a total of one home run, accounted for 20 RBIs and hit for a combined batting average of .167.

So, it will be interesting to see what kind of skills Moscatel can display and how quickly he can develop into a player worthy of being promoted from the training roster, shed his triple-digit (115) developmental player’s uniform number and work his way onto the BayStars farm team and, eventually, to Yokohama Stadium. If his U.S. record is any indication however, he may not be the answer to solving the franchise’s catching corps’ offensive problems.

According to Jewish Baseball News, Moscatel is a “light-hitting catcher” who batted just .211 with one home run and eight RBIs in 2011 with the Batavia Muckdogs in Class A (short season).

His career minor league batting average is a paltry .213, and he hit only two homers and had 41 RBIs in 347 at bats. Still, that is a lot better than the combined numbers of last year’s three BayStars catchers.

While it is doubtful Moscatel will become a “heavy-hitting catcher,” his main positive points would seem to be his young age and the hope he might turn his game up a few notches under the realization this might be his last chance to continue his career as a professional ballplayer.

He must have a reputation as a good defensive catcher, so his goals will be to improve his hitting as much as he can and, of course, to make a smooth transition into the world of Japanese baseball. Most important will be to develop a trust and rapport with the Yokohama pitchers so as to avoid the language and communications problems experienced by the few foreigners who have over the years tried catching in Japan.

Yokohama general manager Shigeru Takada said last October, “I realize we need to improve our catching staff, and we would consider signing a young foreigner who could develop into a top-level catcher in time.” It appears that is just what the BayStars have done.

Developmental players may practice and play in official games with farm clubs in Japan’s Eastern and Western Leagues. All wear the triple-digit numbers until such time as they are given contracts and registered on the regular organizational roster when they change to a double — or single-digit number.

The system is also used by teams to reserve a veteran player who might have to miss most or all of a season with a serious injury and needs to undergo rehabilitation. For example, Yomiuri Giants infielder Ryota Wakiya, a 31-year-old with six years of experience including time on the Giants first team, spent the 2012 season on Yomiuri’s developmental list. His number was changed from 23 to 023. Now Wakiya is healed and back on the regular roster wearing No. 23 again.

So perhaps “developmental” is not a good translation of “ikusei” and, in some circles, the ikusei guys are called players “in training.”

Several players, mostly Japanese, who began the 2012 season with ikusei status were promoted during the year, including Moscatel’s countryman, lefty pitcher Robert Zarate, with the Hanshin Tigers.

Other teams in Japan besides the BayStars might — or should — be thinking about following the Yokohama example and looking into the possibility of acquiring a foreign catcher for development — if not for immediate help.

Except for Yomiuri Giants’ Central League MVP Shinnosuke Abe who belted 27, Chiba Lotte Marines backstop Tomoya Satozaki who hit nine, and Chunichi Dragons masked man Motonobu Tanishige who hit five, no other catcher in Japan socked more than two home runs in the Central or Pacific League in 2012.

The six catchers listed on the Orix Buffaloes roster this year did not hit any homers last season. The Rakuten Eagles and Yakult Swallows catching corps hit three each, while only two were hit by the catchers on the Hiroshima Carp, Hanshin Tigers, Seibu Lions and Softbank Hawks. I’m not even going to go into batting averages here; it’s just too embarrassing.

Whatever happened to those slugging catchers of the past in the U.S. and Japan such as Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Katsuya Nomura, Koichi Tabuchi and Kenji Johjima while he was with Fukuoka Daiei?

Softbank may be trying to find the answer. The Hawks have five catchers (all Japanese) on their ikusei list, ranging in age from 23 to 27.

Is there not one who can step up and help restore the pride to that position?

Will Moscatel make any progress at all toward becoming a top-quality catcher who can hit?

The odds would seem to be against him, but at least it is nice to see a team trying something different.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

  • Edwin

    Oshima of the Fighters, perhaps? He does have a lot of power as seen in his limited videos, though knowing the Japanese baseball culture, being able to lead the pitchers and organizing the fielders are the upmost requirement of catchers there.
    And then there’s Ishimine of the Golden Eagles, i remembered that he was hyped as a strong throwing and strong hitting catcher, but somehow it seems like he would continues playing second fiddle to Shima.