Baseball / Japanese Baseball | HIT AND RUN

Sakamoto has shot at historic hit total

by Jason Coskrey

It won’t be long before the Yomiuri Giants’ Shinnosuke Abe breaks through the 2,000-hit threshold. Abe has 1,994 now, so it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the 49th player to reach the mark in NPB alone.

Abe should be followed in short order by both Seiichi Uchikawa, who has 1,970 with the Yokohama BayStars and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, his current club, and the Hanshin Tigers’ Takashi Toritani, who has 1,965 at the moment. Further down the line are the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Kazuya Fukuura (who is 41 years old and may run out of time) at 1,950 and Shuichi Murata, who has 1,824 during his career with the BayStars and now the Giants.

While those players are on track to follow Abe into the 2,000-hit club, it’s likely (probable, really) none will be able to take the path Adrian Beltre recently walked in the majors and reach 3,000, an almost-mythical number in Japanese baseball. Further on down the line, however, the Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto is building a case to climb NPB’s Mt. Everest.

In large part because Japanese seasons are shorter than those in MLB, getting to 3,000 career hits is a lot to ask. Thusly in NPB, reaching 2,000 gets the equivalent reverence and fanfare. Isao Harimoto is the only NPB player to reach 3,000 in Japan, amassing 3,085 hits over 23 seasons with the Nippon Ham franchise, the Yomiuri Giants and Lotte Orions (now Chiba Lotte Marines). Katsuya Nomura (2,901) is second on NPB’s all-time list, and Sadaharu Oh (2,786) third. Ichiro Suzuki, of course, left Japan with 1,278 and then made an amazing run to 3,000 in MLB.

Forty-year old Takahiro Arai (2,160) is the only active player with at least 2,100 hits in NPB.

Father Time will catch up to most of the players on the road to 2,000 (Abe is 38, Uchikawa 35, and Toritani and Murata both 36) before they get anywhere near even shouting distance of 3,000.

That’s where Sakamoto comes in. The Yomiuri star is 28 and will turn 29 on Dec. 14.

Sakamoto is in his 11th season and currently has 1,527 career hits. He’s the second-youngest in NPB history to reach 1,500 (which he did July 9), making it at 28 years and six months, behind only Kihashi Enomoto, who made it at 27 years and nine months and later became the youngest to 2,000, according to full-count.jp. Harimoto reached 1,500 at 29 years and two months. He had 1,386 after his age-28 season.

So Sakamoto is ahead of Harimoto at this point, and would seem to be in a favorable spot for a run to 3,000 based on the way his career has gone. He’s shown great consistency at the plate, with at least 129 hits in every full season since becoming a Yomiuri regular in 2008. Sakamoto has also been fairly durable.

But what Sakamoto has done so far has gotten him only half way. He’s several (good) years away from 3,000 and anything can happen. Enomoto was ahead of Harimoto at this point too, and slowed down to finish with 2,314.

Sakamoto’s road will become increasingly difficult as he’ll have to remain at a high enough level to stay on the field regularly while managing the decline that comes with age. That’s to say nothing of the threat of injury. Sakamoto would also give up a shot at 3,000 if he decides to head to the major leagues at some point.

Of the 20 active players with at least 1,255 career NPB hits, Sakamoto is the only one under 30 and still has the rest of this year and his entire-age 29 season ahead of him.

If he can produce a few more strong seasons before his skills start to wane some, Sakamoto would give himself a shot at an achievement that would be among the most impressive in NPB history.