Hayato Sakamoto is the one who stayed.
In the midst of an era of increased player movement and Japanese stars departing for the major leagues, Sakamoto is one of biggest names, among the age group making the jump, to seemingly decide the grass is actually greener on his side of the fence.
While it’s tempting to wonder what the Yomiuri Giants’ star shortstop could accomplish on an MLB field, Japanese baseball fans will still get to watch him on a regular basis.
They saw Sakamoto have one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, one that was capped with him being named the season’s Central League MVP on Tuesday night.
Sakamoto has had couple of MVP-worthy campaigns, but finally claimed the award this season, becoming the first shortstop to be crowned as the CL’s top player. He hit .312 with a career-high 40 homers and 94 RBIs this year. He was fifth in NPB with a 6.6 WAR according to statistics website DeltaGraphs, which also had him ranked second with a .424 weighted on-base average.
He also won a Golden Glove.
“I never imagined I could hit 40,” Sakamoto said Tuesday. His previous career high had been 31 homers way back in 2010.
He was second in the CL in homers and with a .971 on-base plus slugging percentage and played in all 143 games this year.
Sakamoto is a career .293 hitter in 13 NPB seasons. He’s an 11-time All-Star and has made the season-ending Best Nine team five times. He’s won one batting title and three Golden Gloves.
He’s got the physical attributes MLB scouts love and numbers that validate his talent. What he doesn’t seem to have is a desire to head to North America.
If Sakamoto remains in Japan he’ll have a chance to start climbing up the NPB record books and join some of the game’s greats.
Sakamoto turns 31 on Dec. 14 but is already just 116 hits away from his 2,000th. He could get there next season as the youngest-ever to join the club. “Hit-making machine” Kihachi Enomoto currently holds that distinction, reaching 2,000 at 31 years, 229 days.
“First of all, we want to win the league (pennant),” Sakamoto said. “If we can’t do that, it won’t mean anything. Two thousand hits is one goal I have, but up until now, I’ve just been piling up hits one at time. So I want to prepare well and keep going without thinking about what happened in the past.”
With a couple big years, a lot of normal ones and some longevity, a run at Isao Harimoto’s record of 3,085 hits would be well within Sakamoto’s reach.
With 27 more home runs, he’ll join the 250-homer club, which currently stands at 63 members, and still have plenty of time to climb further. He’s 200 RBIs away from 1,000.
Not to mention Sakamoto can go down as one of the greatest to ever play for Japan’s most storied franchise.
So it seems, for now at least, unlikely we’ll ever see Sakamoto in the majors. He completely shot down the idea years ago during a televised sitdown with then-Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda, who was a few years away from moving to MLB himself.
When prodded by Maeda about jumping to MLB, Sakamoto responded, “No, no definitely not.”
That’s not due to a lack of interest from across the ocean. MLB clubs have done their due diligence for years and scouts have been interested. One U.S. media outlet dubbed Sakamoto the “Derek Jeter of Japan.”
But just as Jeter remained with the Yankees, Sakamoto seems content to try and become of NPB’s enduring names.
Which is not a bad gig if you can get it.
Besides, there are enough players jumping to MLB. To see one of the top talents, one who was drawing interest, stick around is a good thing.
Especially for the fans who will get to see just how far Sakamoto can go in the future.