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Catchers lacking offensive punch a concern

by Wayne Graczyk

Why don’t we have more catchers in Japan with better offensive skills?

It used to be youngsters were told the quickest way to get to the major leagues (or the upper crust) of Japanese pro baseball is to become a catcher. Put on the “tools of ignorance,” suck up the injuries and be the one who might handle the ball on every pitch.

When you look at the current crop of backstops on the 12 Central and Pacific League teams, you might find some with good defensive skills but, when it comes to offense, there is little or no punch, and it seems players have not recently followed the advice to become a catcher.

There is one guy who is an outstanding hitter, Shinnosuke Abe of the Yomiuri Giants. In fact, Abe is the leading batter in the Central League and, through Monday, was the only player hitting over .300 in the CL. Should the first-place Giants go on to win the pennant, he would be a leading contender for this year’s MVP award.

After Abe, though, the hitting stats of the other catchers in Japanese baseball range from mediocre to pitiful. Chiba Lotte Marines masked man Tomoya Satozaki is arguably the best in the Pacific League, sporting a .260 average with occasional home run pop.

Besides Abe and Satozaki, the only other catcher with enough at bats to be listed among the leading hitters in either league is 41-year-old veteran Motonobu Tanishige of the Chunichi Dragons, hitting .254. Otherwise, you can check the stats of starting catchers on a given night and see what I mean.

Take the games of July 8, for example. Of the 12 catchers in the lineups that day, four of them had batting averages as follows: .208, .194, .192 and .173.

Marty Brown, when he managed the Hiroshima Carp, said in 2009 one of his wishes was for his catchers to provide more offense. He had two guys sharing the job: Yoshikyuki Ishihara who batted .210 that year, and Yoshikazu Kura with a .190 average.

Hanshin Tigers former All-Star Kenji Johjima has knee trouble that will most likely prevent him from ever catching again, and he is probably out for the season anyway. The Tigers recently bolstered their roster by making a trade, obtaining backup catcher Ryota Imanari from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Although Imanari hit only .115 with the Fighters last season, the Tigers might have known something, as the 25-year-old Imanari has been playing regularly as of late and at last look was batting .333.

But, can he maintain a high average as the season moves on and his plate appearances accumulate?

Only five catchers were chosen in the 2011 Japanese baseball draft last autumn, and it does not appear the teams are making it a priority to find good behind-the-plate talent. They should be, and it might be time for the teams to think about the possibility of scouting North America in hopes of finding some good catchers, but even that idea has drawbacks.

Clubs who have experimented with foreign catchers in the past have found that did not pay off, mostly because of the language barrier and basic communications problems. A foreign pitcher throwing to a Japanese catcher is a lot different than a foreign catcher calling the game for a Japanese pitcher.

We have to go back two decades to find the last time an American put on the mask and squatted in the catcher’s box for a Japanese team. That was Mike Diaz who caught a handful of games for the Lotte Orions in 1990. Prior to that, Adrian “Smoky” Garrett caught eight games for the Hiroshima Carp in 1978. Both expressed frustration.

Garrett said, “I kept getting crossed up with the signs to the point where I thought the pitchers were ignoring what I was calling and throwing different pitches on purpose.” He went back to the outfield after that.

Diaz, a utility infielder, said of his time behind the plate, “They had me dancing around, trying to block pitches instead of catching them, until I just gave up.” His manager returned him to first base.

Maybe times have changed, and there is a younger American or Latin catcher or two stuck in the minor leagues who might be so hungry, he could go to Japan, make an adjustment and become a good player on offense and defense.

In any case, the Japanese teams should start looking somewhere for more catching talent. There may not be another Abe, but there must be some players at that position among the ranks of Japanese high schools, colleges and industrial league teams, who can hit.

I asked the 33-year-old Abe when it was he decided he wanted to be a catcher. “It was in my second year of high school,” he responded, following the idea that would be the quickest way to success. But, when asked what advice he would have for a player who might want to become a catcher, his response was one of discouragement.

“Don’t do it,” he said, thinking about his own 12 years of squatting, blocking pitches and the scores of painful foul tips he’s taken off his body in spite of the mask, chest protector and shin guards.

Still, I detected a bit of pride in his voice that indicated he is not 100 percent serious. He’s made a lot of money and won Japan Series championships while taking his lumps behind the plate, and I would bet he would do it all over again.

In any event, let’s hope some young catchers can be found who will be able to make it as regulars in Japanese baseball, hit at least for a .250 average and provide some home run power once in a while.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com