The period between the start of the calendar year and the beginning of camp is often wrought with bold proclamations and lofty goals as ambition helps power players through their final winter preparations.
So Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe’s recent declaration that he’s set his sights on a 50-homer season sounds less like a goal and more like the type of wishful thinking a January working out in the Guam heat can produce.
A 50-homer season is not something to be taken lightly in Japanese baseball given the fact it’s something so few have been able to achieve. In the history of Nippon Professional Baseball, only eight players have been able to hit 50 or more home runs in a single season.
Makoto Kozuru of the Shochiku Robins was the first, hitting 51 in 1950. Tuffy Rhodes, then of the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and Alex Cabrera, at the time slugging away for the Seibu Lions, were the last, hitting 51 and 50 respectively in 2003.
Among the eight players with at least one 50-homer season, five are Japanese. Sadaharu Oh had three for the Yomiuri Giants while newly minted Hall of Famer Hiromitsu Ochiai had a pair for the Lotte Orions. Rounding out the list are Kozuru, Nankai Hawks legend Katsuya Nomura and Giants slugger Hideki Matsui, who each reached the milestone once.
Randy Bass is the only other foreign player in the 50-homer club, knocking 54 balls out of the park during the Hanshin Tigers’ magical 1985 campaign.
History suggests Abe’s New Year bluster won’t have amounted to much in the fall. In 10 seasons he’s only surpassed 40 homers once, last year when he hit 44.
Not to mention the last catcher to reach 50 was Nankai battering ram Nomura. Most catchers are significant home run threats, but the beating they take behind the plate isn’t usually conducive to record-breaking campaigns.
The same rings true in the U.S, where the most home runs by a catcher in a major league season is Javy Lopez’s 43 in 2003.
Abe’s grand ambition does beg the question of whether or not it can be done this year and, if so, by whom.
Yomiuri’s Alex Ramirez and Hanshin’s Craig Brazell are candidates, having hit 49 and 47 respectively last season.
Cabrera, who’s done it twice already, and Seibu Lions slugger Takeya Nakamura, who hit 46 in 2008 and 48 in ’09, are also viable threats. Provided they can stay healthy.
The biggest obstacle this year, however may be NPB’s new baseball.
Manufactured by Mizuno, the ball is said to have less carry and is expected to drive down home run numbers.
Sankei Sports mentioned in a recent article that Mizuno produced a similar ball in 2005, which resulted in 247 fewer homers hit than in 2004.
Abe has certainly set the bar high for himself early in the year. As history has shown, it will take a lot more than words to gain entrance into one of the NPB’s most exclusive clubs.