Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Fighters hit machine Kensuke Kondo has fans wondering if batting .400 is possible

by Jason Coskrey

There are some who think Kensuke Kondo could’ve hit .400 last season.

That had a herniated disc not sidelined the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters catcher, the position at which he’s listed but rarely actually plays anymore (he’s mostly the DH or in the outfield), for most of the season, he could’ve scaled one of the game’s highest mountains.

It’s a pretty lofty claim, to say the very least. Batting .400 is virtually unheard of these days. Even flirting with it late enough in the year is enough to cause a stir throughout the baseball world.

Still, there is some optimism Kondo, who was often the DH when Shohei Ohtani was out of the lineup the past few seasons, has what it takes. He’s a magician with the bat and possesses good speed and a good eye at the plate.

For his part, Kondo says he’s not aiming to become NPB’s first-ever .400 hitter.

“It’s not my goal,” Kondo told The Japan Times on Saturday. “My goal is just to be the leading hitter.”

That won’t stop the masses from wondering if he can get there. Especially not when the 24-year-old is off to a such a hot start. Kondo is batting .485 through the first nine games of the season. In 41 plate appearances, Kondo, who has a .585 on-base percentage, has also walked eight times with four strikeouts.

“He’s the hitter that everybody sees right now,” says Fighters infielder Brandon Laird. “He’s an unbelievable hitter. He hits all over the field, he hits it anywhere. Breaking balls, fastballs, he’s just a good, raw, natural hitter.”

Kondo played in 57 games last year and hit .413 with a .567 on-base percentage and .557 slugging percentage in 231 plate appearances. Some of that was a .475 batting average on balls in play, but a lot was just Kondo being Kondo.

Only Hanshin’s Takashi Toritani swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone (per Deltagraphs) and Kondo is adept at making contact and doesn’t strike out a lot. Even playing in only 57 games, Kondo was 20th among all NPB hitters with 60 walks.

“I think timing is the most important thing for me,” Kondo said of his batting approach. “I think to some extent, if you have your timing down, you’ll be able to compete with the pitcher even if your form is off.”

His control with the bat makes it hard for opposing batteries to attack him as he sprays the ball to all fields.

“It makes it so the pitcher doesn’t really have anything to get him out with,” Laird said. “Because he can hit anything and wherever you throw, he’s gonna hit it. He’s just one of those guys that you hope when he swings that he misses it.”

In a Feb. 8 ESPN article titled, “Why no one will hit .400 ever again,” journalist Sam Miller listed the key ingredients of a .400 hitter as “the ability to avoid strikeouts, which are always outs; the ability to hit homers, which are always hits; and the ability to turn a big percentage of the rest (balls in play) into hits.”

The only box Kondo doesn’t check is home runs, of which he only has 17 in 1,248 career at-bats.

It’s possible Miller is right. He’s was only talking about the majors, but no player in the top leagues in either Japan or North America has averaged .400 for a season since Ted Williams hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941.

The NPB single-season record is only .389, set by Hanshin Tigers great Randy Bass in 1986. The only other NPB players to even finish above .380 are Ichiro Suzuki, who hit .387 in 2000 and .385 in 1994, Isao Harimoto, who finished at .383 in 1970, and Hiroshi Oshita, who hit .383 in 1951.

It’s far, far too early to tell what kind of season Kondo is going to have in 2018. The only certainty is he’ll have to remain relatively healthy in order to reach hit the mark.

“Your body condition varies from day to day, so I’m always looking for the type of preparation that best suits me,” Kondo said. “Other things, I do with the team’s trainers.”

Of the Fighters’ main designated hitters the last two seasons, the spotlight shone much brighter on Ohtani. But if Kondo is within shouting distance of .400 late in the season, he’ll have everyone’s undivided attention.

“Hitting .400, it’s tough to do,” Laird said. “You know, if there’s one guy on this team that has a chance, it’s definitely Kondo. Look what he did last year in however many at-bats he had. He’s on the right path right now. He’s starting off hot, so hopefully he can keep it going all year.”