With the NPB season set to begin on March 21, it won’t be long before players are back in uniform and training with their teams in preparation for 2020.
In addition to getting ready for the new campaign, a handful of NPB stars will also be preparing to put the finishing touches on some career milestones.
At the top of the list are Hanshin Tigers veteran Kosuke Fukudome and Yomiuri Giants captain Hayato Sakamoto, who each have a shot to join the venerated 2,000-hit club this season. At present, only 52 players have reached the mark solely in Japanese baseball.
Sakamoto, barring injury, is almost a lock to get there if he has a normal season. The reigning Central League MVP has 1,884 hits and has never finished a full campaign with fewer than 129. Sakamoto, who turned 31 on Dec. 14, has a chance to become the youngest player to reach 2,000. Kihachi Enomoto, who made it at 31 years, 229 days, currently holds that distinction.
The 42-year-old (43 in April) Fukudome, meanwhile, is slowing down despite a late-career surge from 2015-2018. He’d already be well past 2,000 — or maybe retired — if not for his five seasons in MLB, where he was an All-Star in 2008. Fukudome has 1,897 hits in Japan and 2,395 between NPB and MLB.
Fukudome only played 104 games last season and many fans will be eager to see if he can get across the finish line in Japan during the 2020 season.
If Fukudome can sneak 20 balls over the fences, he’d also join the 300-home run club. Though new Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks slugger Wladimir Balentien is a little closer to that goal, with 288 home runs from 2011-2019. Balentien has at least 30 homers in each season when he’s played at least 100 games and seems like a strong bet to reach 300 this year.
Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda is within striking distance with 274 and is coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 30 homers.
Further down the line, Seiichi Uchikawa, another Hawks player, is four away from 200 home runs. The Giants’ Hiroyuki Nakajima only needs five — and some more playing time — to get there.
Yokohama BayStars slugger Jose Lopez, who has hit at least 30 homers in three of the last four years, is 14 off the mark. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles outfielder Hideto Asamura is sitting on 180, making reaching 200 this year well within his capabilities as well.
Uchikawa, who recorded his 2,000th hit in 2018, also has 957 RBIs. So the 37-year-old has a good chance at ending the season as part of the 2,000-hit, 200-home run and 1,000-RBI clubs.
The Seibu Lions’ Yuji Kaneko enters the season five stolen bases shy of his 200th and Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya’s first sacrifice bunt of the year will be the 300th of his career.
One the mound, BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki has a shot at reaching 200 career saves this season, though he’ll have to match his career high of 37 to get there in 2020.
Among starters, the Chunichi Dragons’ Kazuki Yoshmi (89 wins) and the Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano (87) are creeping closer to their 100th victories. Hanshin’s Yuki Nishi is a bit further back with 84 wins.
All in all, there are quite a few benchmarks that can be hit in 2020. The companies who put together the congratulatory flower bouquets might want to ramp up their preparations for the year, just like the players are doing — because they might be fielding quite a few requests this season.
Looking in a mirror
Yokohama BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki met his match early in the new year, and his new rival looked familiar.
The BayStars righty began 2020 by heading to a batting center on Thursday. While there, he stepped to the plate against a virtual representation of himself in one of the batting cages.
What he learned was that he’s pretty tough to face, something Central League batters already knew. Yamasaki posted details about his visit on Twitter, including how an inside shuuto broke his bat.
Yamasaki, the real one, made 61 appearances and converted 30 saves for Yokohama in 2019.
Former Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions pitcher Hayato Takagi made history in Mexico on Saturday becoming he first Japanese player in the history of Mexican League club Leones de Yucatan, the team announced Saturday.
Takagi was 16-23 with a 3.90 ERA in Japan from 2015-19.