Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami highlights tough choices for upcoming Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame class

Kyodo

For the first time in two years, there are no slam-dunk candidates on this winter’s ballot for Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, the longtime second baseman and later third baseman for the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons, is best positioned to receive the 75 percent of the votes needed for induction.

This year there are 18 players on the ballot and voters, accredited baseball reporters for at least 15 years, can select only seven.

Tatsunami was named on 65.8 percent of the player’s-division ballots last year, when outfielders Hideki Matsui and Tomoaki Kanemoto were elected in their first year of eligibility.

Tatsunami has 11 years of eligibility left, so it seems clear he will get in and, without any dominant new candidates on the ballot, it looks like this is his year.

“What makes a Hall of Fame player?” is a question open to many interpretations. Changes in voting and eligibility over the years have made it even harder to answer.

Currently, 70 players have been voted in purely on the merit of their playing careers. Thirty-two of these are pitchers and 19 are outfielders. Of the remaining 19, there are seven first basemen, four third basemen, three catchers, three shortstops and two second basemen.

Looking at those figures, one has to ask questions such as, “Why so many pitchers and outfielders, and so few middle infielders and catchers?”

Tatsunami was considered among the best second basemen of his generation, although he won only two Best Nine Awards. He was a key player for the Dragons year in and year out, but never had an MVP-caliber season. His 487 career doubles are a Nippon Professional Baseball record, and his 2,480 hits are eighth all-time.

By being consistently good for a very long time, Tatsunami was not a perfect illustration of greatness, but appears to be a worthy addition to the Hall of Fame.

Reliever Shingo Takatsu, whose 286 career saves are second all-time in Japan, was named on 45.9 percent of the ballots last winter. If elected, he will be the third closer in the Hall after Kazuhiro Sasaki and Tsunemi Tsuda — a solid reliever who tragically died at the age of 32. Like Tatsunami, Takatsu was a solid player for a long time; not a great, but good, candidate.

While there are already a lot of outfielders in the Hall, Tuffy Rhodes’ career fits nicely with those already enshrined.

He won seven Best Nine awards and was MVP in 2001, when he tied what was then Japan’s single-season home run record of 55.

He amassed 18 individual offensive titles after leading his league four times in home runs; three times in RBIs, walks and slugging average; twice for doubles; and once for on-base-percentage.

Rhodes is the only player in NPB history with 16 or more individual batting titles who has been eligible for the Hall of Fame without being elected. Rhodes was named on 22.8 percent of last year’s ballots, down from 39.6 percent the year before.

Hiroki Kokubo, who received 21.7 percent last year, in his first year on the ballot, is another strong candidate. A third baseman and leader of the Hawks dynasty, Kokubo, with over 2,000 hits and 400 home runs, is a much-better candidate than Tatsunori Hara — who barely missed selection in the player’s division but quickly made the grade when his seven pennants as a manager were considered in the expert’s division.

Shortstop Takuro Ishii, who joined the ballot a year ago with 19.3 percent of the vote, is a question mark. An ageless competitor who was a premier defender and solid hitter, his career doesn’t quite match Tatsunami’s, but is not far short either.

Catcher Kenji Jojima also joined the ballot a year ago, and definitely belongs in the Hall. He took four seasons out of his prime to play in the majors, and from 2000 to 2004 was perhaps the best player in Japan.

Among this winter’s five new candidates, outfielder Alex Ramirez may have the best chance at a place in the Hall of Fame as a two-time MVP with over 2,000 hits and 380 career home runs.

Because the voters for the Hall of Fame’s players division are made up of baseball reporters with 15 years in the field, Ramirez’ popularity may give him an edge over Rhodes, whose career was in several ways more outstanding.

Jim Allen has covered Japanese baseball for 25 years. He is voting in the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, as the first English-language journalist to receive a vote.