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Itoi fast becoming one of Japan’s best players

by Jason Coskrey

In 2006, at about the same time the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were watching Tomoya Yagi, who would later be named Pacific League Rookie of the Year, and a right-handed fireballer named Yu Darvish develop on the mound, another pitching prospect was at a crossroads.

Yoshio Itoi, once a promising hurler signed in 2002 out of Kinki University, had hit a wall in his quest to pitch in the professional ranks. So in 2006 the Fighters told him it was time for a change, either in position or profession.

Faced with the prospect of being dumped, Itoi set about reinventing himself as an outfielder.

Set off on different paths, Itoi worked on becoming an outfielder as Darvish and Yagi thrived on the mound and helped lead the team to the ’06 Japan Series title.

Nippon Ham’s triumph in the Fall Classic came with a spot in the Asia Series. With the team’s foreign players released from their obligations following the Japan Series, Itoi returned to the top team to help fill out the roster.

He was an afterthought then, a body filling a need. Almost five years later, the wayward pitcher might just be the best all-around position player in the Pacific League, if not Japan.

Even as pitchers dominate this season, Itoi is putting up career numbers and quietly making a strong case he is worthy of breaking the four-year stranglehold pitchers have had on the PL MVP Award.

He leads NPB with a .331 average, with the closest qualified batters, Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hisayoshi Chono and Seibu Lions veteran Takumi Kuriyama, further back at .312.

Itoi also has nine homers, 42 RBIs and 24 stolen bases.

His .897 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is second only to Lions slugger Takeya Nakamura’s .915.

In fact, just three players, Nakamura, Itoi and Tokyo Yakult’s Wladimir Balentien, have at least 340 at-bats and an OPS north of .850. Balentien’s is .859.

Nakamura is far and away the top slugger with 33 homers, but his .397 weighted on-base average (wOBA) slightly trails, Itoi who has a .399 wOBA. Balentien clocks in at .384.

The metric takes all the aspects of hitting — singles, doubles etc. — and weighs them in proportion to their actual run value.

Nakamura’s immense power almost makes him the most valuable hitter in Japan. Itoi, however, gets on base in other ways, namely with more singles and doubles, and is solid enough across the board to make up for his deficiency in homers. It helps point out Itoi is a better hitter and slightly more valuable, even if he’s not a threat to take it deep each at-bat.

Few other position players pose much of a threat to Itoi as the PL’s top star this season.

Nakamura and Fighters slugger Sho Nakata have the power but not the all-around game. Orix Buffaloes leadoff man Tomotaka Sakaguchi is Itoi-esque, but isn’t quite as good.

Given the tendencies of NPB voters, neither Nakamura nor Sakaguchi has a realistic shot at MVP anyway. In the absence of something out of the ordinary — such as 2008 MVP Hisashi Iwakuma’s 20-win season — the winners tend to come from one of the top two teams in the standings.

One non-pitcher who might have a case is Fukuoka Softbank Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, especially if the Hawks win the pennant.

Matsuda has 20 homers and 60 RBIs. He also has a .349 wOBA and plays a more demanding defensive position.

For Itoi, winning the MVP would be the cherry on top of an unlike rise to the top.

Before roaming the outfield for the Fighters, he was a star pitcher at Kinki University in Osaka. He was the team’s ace in his senior year and was named to the Best Nine that year before signing with the Fighters.

Fittingly, it’s a pitcher, Darvish, who might prevent Itoi from capping his rise with an MVP.

Darvish is mowing down hitters and at 15-4 is within shouting distance of 20 wins, making him the likely favorite to win MVP.

Five years isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things. Still, there’s no debating just how far Itoi has come in that time.