Second basemen in professional baseball are not normally known as cleanup and power hitters, and their names are seldom seen among league leaders in the home run and RBI categories.
However, current Tokyo Yakult Swallows second sacker Tetsuto Yamada, a possible Triple Crown winner this season, reminds me of another heavy hitter who played that position years ago for the Yokohama BayStars — American Bobby Rose. Both right-handed batters wearing uniform No. 23, Yamada and Rose are the also same height at 180 cm.
Rose, then 26, played his first season in Japanese baseball in 1993, the first year of the BayStars, after the team name was changed from the Taiyo Whales.
Yamada, born July 16, 1992, was less than a year old when Rose broke in with Yokohama and just 8 when Rose wrapped up his stellar Japan career following the 2000 season. Now 23, Yamada is playing his second full year with the Swallows and putting up impressive home run, RBI and batting average numbers as did Rose 15-20 years ago.
Rose assumed the No. 4 slot in Yokohama’s lineup after fellow American slugger Glenn Braggs left the BayStars following the 1996 season. The cleanup hitter’s role was one Rose said he disliked so much, but he performed it so well. In 1998, he was a key part of the Japan Series championship team known for its “machine gun” offense that banged out a barrage of rat-a-tat-tat hits every game.
That club included first baseman Norihiro Komada, with Rose at second, shortstop Takuro Ishii (now the third base coach for the Hiroshima Carp) and third baseman Tatsuya Shindo. The outfield had Central League batting champion Takanori Suzuki in left, Toshio Haru (now a Chunichi Dragons coach) in center and Takahiro Saeki (current Chunichi farm team manager) in right.
The catcher was Motonobu Tanishige, now the Dragons player-manager, who recently set the Japan pro baseball record for career games played (3,018).
On a team that had at best so-so starting pitching (however, closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was the league MVP), it was an awesome offensive lineup, and Rose used to say, “We would take the field for a game every night knowing we would get a minimum of 10 hits. We might not win, but we knew we would get the 10 hits.”
Yokohama’s team batting average of .277 was tops in the league, and Rose led the club with 19 homers and 96 RBIs, as they won the CL pennant by four games and beat the Seibu Lions in a six-game Japan Series for their only JS victory in franchise history.
The ‘Stars fell to third place in 1999, but cleanup man Rose enjoyed a career year statistically when he blasted 37 home runs and led the Central League with a .369 batting average and 153 RBIs, the second-highest total in Japanese baseball history. He missed a Triple Crown because Roberto Petagine of the Swallows slammed 44 homers, and Hideki Matsui of the Yomiuri Giants hit 42.
Yamada this season has the CL home run title locked up. Through games of Thursday, he led the league by 10 with 34 home runs, was second to teammate Shingo Kawabata in the batman race, .335 to .328, and he trailed a third Yakult infielder, Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, in the RBI department, 96 to 88. He was also leading the Central division in stolen bases with 31.
For a while this year, Yamada was the Swallows cleanup hitter, but that was short-lived. He had previously been the leadoff man but, when he kept hitting the ball out of the park, and regular No. 4 batter Hatakeyama was injured, Yamada filled in. Since Hatakeyama’s return, Yamada has been batting third in the pennant-contending team’s order.
Yamada took over as Yakult’s second baseman about a third of the way into the 2013 season when he was inserted in the lineup as a substitute for the injured regular second sacker Hiroyasu Tanaka. Yamada started hitting and never stopped. Tanaka, unable to get his job back, has been a utility player and pinch hitter ever since his return two years ago.
In 2014, Yamada finished third in the league in batting average with a .324 average, hit 29 homers and had 89 RBIs. He led in runs scored with 106 and doubles with 39. This year, he also tied a Japanese record by hitting home runs in four consecutive at-bats over two games Aug. 21-22.
Before a recent game, Yamada was asked if he recalls ever having seen Rose play for Yokohama.
“Yes, even though I was a child, I saw him play on TV and at the stadium,” said Yamada who added modestly, “He was a really good player, and I am not sure I should be compared with him,”
One thing Yamada has yet to do since turning professional, at least through games of Sept. 17, is hit for the cycle, something Rose accomplished three times during his career in Japan. Yamada has come close a few times and has two triples this season. He said, “Hitting for the cycle is something I would like to do, if not this season, then some time during my career.”
That career is just getting started and will probably last a lot longer than Rose’s eight years playing for the BayStars.
Yakult fans are excited as the Swallows appear headed for a spot in next month’s Central League Climax Series. Yamada is already a superstar on a team with a consistent lineup and talented hitters, not unlike Rose’s 1998 Yokohama club. If the Swallows win the pennant, though, Yamada would obviously be the top candidate for 2015 Central League MVP.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com