Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Stars switching numbers, changing names becoming staple of NPB offseasons

by Jason Coskrey

Offseasons in NPB are about change, just not exactly the type that immediately springs to mind.

Japanese baseball has seen some big-name players change teams this winter. Two-time reigning Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru is suiting up for the Yomiuri Giants next season and All-Star second baseman Hideto Asamura is now part of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Still, on the whole, there’s usually less player movement in Japan than in MLB. What does keep fans, and jersey makers, on their toes during the offseason is all the players who change numbers — a few even change their names — each year.

Most of these players aren’t even changing teams, when choosing a new number would be expected or necessary in some cases.

This year alone, there are 32 players (so far) who will be in the same uniform but wearing a different number in 2019, per a list on Full-Count.com. The Yomiuri Giants lead the way with 12 such changes.

The Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano, who won his second straight Sawamura Award this season, is going from the No. 19 he’s worn since 2013 to No. 18. The number is considered as Japan’s ace number and has often been worn by a team’s best pitcher, with former NPB greats such as Masumi Kuwata, Masahiro Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka among those to wear the number.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks All-Star third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda went from No. 5 to No. 3 for 2017 and will be returning to his old number, which he wore from 2006-2016, next season. SoftBank’s Kenta Imamiya is moving from No. 2 to No. 6, and the list goes on.

The reasons for all the moving around vary from player to player.

Some want to wear a more prestigious number. The Hiroshima Carp’s No. 1, for instance, has been in a state of semi-retirement since Tomonori Maeda stepped away from the game in 2013. Now the revered number is being brought back, with Maeda’s blessing, as All-Star outfielder Seiya Suzuki trades in his No. 51 for it.

The Seibu Lions feel similarly about the No. 3 uniform, which has been worn by Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Hiroyuki Nakajima in the past. With Asamura leaving, that number opens up until, presumably, another star rises to the level of wearing it. Asamura, meanwhile, will carry on with No. 3 for Rakuten.

In Tokyo, Maru will take over No. 8, which doesn’t carry the same weight, but was the number of his new manager, Tatsunori Hara.

Other players simply want to make a fresh start and see switching numbers as a symbolic gesture toward that ideal. Additionally, some younger players (or vets who have a breakout year) who have shown their worth will move from a higher number to something in the single digits when possible.

Chihiro Kaneko, who moved from the Orix Buffaloes to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this offseason, took the symbolism a step further and changed the characters in his registered name (though the reading and pronunciation remain the same as his actual name).

“I’m on a new team, starting from the beginning,” Kaneko said during his introductory news conference. “I changed it because I want to show everyone a new Chihiro Kaneko.”

Kaneko isn’t the first to go this route. Toshiaki Imae did the same one season after moving from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Eagles in 2016. In 1994, an outfielder from the Orix BlueWave changed his registered name from Ichiro Suzuki to simply Ichiro. Hiroshima Carp great Koji Yamamoto changed the characters in his name after the 1974 season. As fate would have it, in 1975 he had a huge year which really got the ball rolling on a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame.

The numbers game has become a staple of NPB offseasons, although it’s not as common as in the U.S. to see a player shelling out exorbitant sums of money to “encourage” a new teammate to give them the number they want.

For some, a jersey number is something to be burned along with everything else as they make a fresh start. For others taking on prestige numbers, it’s an honor that comes with a new challenge to be met.

Or maybe, for everyone, it’s just a little fun with numbers each offseason.