Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Famed slugger Tuffy Rhodes could face long road to Hall of Fame

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

Although he was one of the most productive foreign imports to grace Japanese pro ball, it seems there is little chance Tuffy Rhodes will be inducted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame anytime soon.

In 2001, Rhodes became the second player after legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh to hit 55 home runs in a season. And though he didn’t break Oh’s record, Rhodes accomplished his milestone in the heat of a pennant race, while Oh’s team was well out of it when he hit 55 in 1964.

Rhodes was Pacific League MVP that year and earned seven Best Nine awards during 13 seasons spent with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants and Orix Buffaloes. In 2001, he scored a PL-record 137 runs, six shy of Hall of Famer Makoto Kozuru’s NPB mark set in the 1950 expansion season.

Rhodes has drawn some support from the 300-plus veteran reporters who vote on players division candidates. Rhodes first appeared on the ballot for the 2015 Hall class and received a healthy 25.6 percent, with 75 percent needed for induction. But since then, his support level has barely budged. When the most recent results were announced on Monday, Rhodes received 36.6 percent of the 333 valid votes cast.

Is Rhodes qualified for the Hall of Fame? In terms of the length and quality of his Japanese career, he is. There are 18 men eligible for the Hall with as much or more career value (as measured by analyst Bill James’ Win Shares) who are not yet enshrined. Only one of those, former Hanshin Tigers third baseman Masayuki Kakefu, had 10 seasons as impressive as Rhodes’ best 10. The other 17, including this year’s runner-up Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, just had longer careers.

In this year’s results, Rhodes needed 250 votes to get in but only got 122. Four players who attracted less attention three years ago, pitcher Yoshinori Sato and middle infielders Kenjiro Nomura, Masahiro Kawai and Tatsunami, have all shot ahead of Rhodes in the voting.

Tatsunami this year was named on 65.2 percent of the ballots. That may be a good sign, but a year ago he was neck and neck with new inductee Tsutomu Ito at around 50 percent and failed to build much support despite no new strong candidates. That will change a year from now.

When the players division’s committee meets in November to select next year’s candidates, they will have all players who finished their careers in 2012 to choose from, including overqualified outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto, current Samurai Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo and former major league catcher Kenji Jojima. Kanemoto is a good bet to be elected in his first year of eligibility.

The committee’s real choice will be whether or not to add Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui, who last played in 2012, but officially retired after signing a ceremonial one-day contract in 2013. Like Kanemoto, Matsui should be an automatic first-ballot selection who will take votes away from candidates like Rhodes, Tatsunami, Kokubo and Jojima.

Although this year’s players division inductee, Ito, was clearly qualified with 10 Best Nine Awards and 11 Golden Gloves, it’s hard to argue the other five guys who got more votes than Rhodes are stronger candidates. After all, Rhodes won seven Best Nines, the other combined to win six.

If there is an “X” factor, it may be defense. Although Rhodes was a center fielder, he never won a Golden Glove. The position players now getting more support were middle infielders, with at least one Golden Glove each. That may be an issue since the last three position players to enter the Hall had each won 10 or more.

Rhodes may still be the best candidate currently on the ballot, but his lack of early support suggests he may need time for voters to consider the weight of his offense — and good timing — to get in before he drops off the players division ballot in 2029. After that his candidacy will be in the hands of the experts, and that is an even longer road.

In terms of career quality for a slugger who reached base a lot, Rhodes is comparable to Hall of Famers Noboru Aota and Futoshi Nakanishi, who both played in the 1950s, and Atsushi Nagaike — who is still looking to get in.

Nagaike was a two-time PL MVP and seven-time Best Nine winner for the Hankyu Braves’ dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s. He is still out because old rules prohibited active coaches and managers from being elected. Those rules made it impossible to consider the best players soon after they retired, and the Hall is having a hard time catching up with many well-qualified players vying for attention in the experts division.

Nagaike’s candidature is on the decline after he was on 13.4 percent of this year’s ballots, and it is hard to see him ever making it. And if Rhodes fails to win election through the players division before time runs out on him in 209, experts division limbo will be in the cards for him.