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Giants catcher Abe rises above pack

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Shinnosuke Abe perked up at the news the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera had won the Triple Crown.

“He did? I knew he was competing closely (with the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton), and leading by one (home run),” the Giants captain said.

Cabrera’s accomplishment led Abe to assess his own chances at a Triple Crown. Brow furrowed, he thought it over for a second, leaned forward, and laughed before saying, in English, “No chance.”

Abe leads Japan with a .340 average and 104 RBIs, but his 27 home runs are second to Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien’s 31. He won’t equal Cabrera’s feat this year, though he’ll come close, but even that can’t diminish the year he’s having.

“The key, first off, has been that I was able to enter the season in good condition,” Abe told The Japan Times at the team’s practice facility near Keio Yomiuri Land Station. “That was big. Also, we’ve got (strategic) coach (Hideki) Hashigami. He’s told us to be consistent at the plate and that’s really helped.”

Abe has performed at a staggering rate of consistency this year — failing to bat at least .316 during a month only once — and is on course to finish with one of the best seasons ever by a catcher.

On Friday, he was named the Central League Monthly MVP for hitters for the third time this year, joining Masahiro Yamamoto (1993) and Alex Ramirez (2007) as the only CL players to win the award three times in one season. Masahiro Tanaka is the only Pacific League player to have done it, achieving the feat last season.

In addition to his acumen in the traditional statistical categories, Abe has a .994 on-base plus slugging percentage and a .225 isolated power average.

“He’s gotta be the best hitter I’ve seen here in Japan, especially this year,” said Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton. “He has power, he obviously can hit home runs anywhere, and then if you pitch him away, he can hit for singles. He’s just a really complete hitter this year. I’m really impressed. And he catches every day. That’s tough, to get back there and catch and also hit like he does.”

It’s been nearly impossible to get Abe out regularly this year. Pitch him inside, and the ball ends up in the seats; throw him something on the outside of the plate, and he’ll poke it into left field; he’s shown good plate discipline too, walking 69 times with just 47 strikeouts (the fewest among players with at least 138 games played) in 467 at-bats.

“I know I can get him out, because I’ve done it before,” says Yokohama BayStars pitcher Brandon Mann, “but if you make any kind of mistake, he’s hitting it out. He’s having an amazing season.”

Abe says pitchers have tried a number of things, including slide steps and other tactics, to throw him off-balance at the plate.

“I tried to not be upset, yet I had occasions where I would get uptight during at-bats,” Abe said. “But again, it’s best to not be upset. I think I came up with such great numbers because I had more days when I didn’t get upset.”

The 12-year veteran wasn’t nearly this dangerous in prior years.

Before this season, Abe, 33, had batted above .300 while playing more than 100 games just twice, and had only once driven in more than 92 runs.

He hit .292 in 2011, slightly above his .290 career average, with 20 home runs, 61 RBIs, and an .863 OPS. That came a year after hitting 44 homers and driving in 92 runs.

The sharp drop in power can be at least partly attributed to the new ball NPB introduced last year which precipitated a large decline in offensive production across Japan.

That forced Abe to reconsider his approach at the plate and focus more on putting the ball in play, rather than into the seats. The results have been stunning, as he’ll end the year far above the career-high .303 average with which he finished 2003.

“Last year we had the standardized ball, which doesn’t fly as much as before, and you’d try to hit it harder since it didn’t fly,” Abe said. “I think that affected my batting in an adverse way.

“So this year, I reflected on that and, entering the season, erased home runs from my thinking. It (the ball) still goes far when you hit it with the core of the bat, and I came into the season with that in mind. Since I thought I’d hit in the middle of the lineup, I was paying more attention to RBIs than batting average and home runs.”

Abe will be the first catcher to win the CL batting title since Swallows great Atsuya Furuta in 1991. Nankai Hawks legend Katsuya Nomura was the last to do it in the PL, winning the title during his Triple Crown season in 1965.

A catcher winning a batting title remains a rarity in the U.S. as well. San Francisco Giants backstop Buster Posey led the NL with a .336 average this season, making him the fourth MLB catcher to win a batting title — though the Minnesota Twins’ Joe Mauer has won three in the AL.

“It’s something amazing to see a catcher doing that,” Balentien said of Abe’s performance. “It’s hard when you have a guy catching a lot of games. It’s tough to hit and catch at the same time. He’s having a special season this year.”

Abe will almost certainly be named CL MVP and join Nomura (PL MVP in 1961, ’63, ’65, ’66, ’73), the Chunichi Dragons’ Takayoshi Nakao (1982), the Giants’ Kazuhiro Yamakura (1987), Furuta (1993, ’97) and the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ Kenji Johjima (2003 in the PL) as the only catchers to win MVP Awards.

Not willing to rest on his laurels, Abe has already set his sights on helping the interleague and CL champion Giants add another title to their collection when the Climax Series Final Stage begins Oct. 17.

“Obviously, we have this Climax Series before the Japan Series,” Abe said. “So I think we’ll have achieved our real goal when we become the best in Japan. Since we have the postseason now (the CL introduced the Climax Series format in 2007), winning the pennant is only a passing point. So when you win the Japan Series championship, that makes you a real champion.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.