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Old 10-02-2018, 10:46 PM
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Default Tetsuya Yoneda

Tetsuya Yoneda spent 22 years pitching, mostly for the Hankyu Braves. He broke in as an 18 year old in 1956, and pitched until 1977. Only the last couple seasons did he appear for any team besides Hankyu. Over the course of those 22 years he managed to become one of Japanís winningest pitchers (#2 in fact, behind Kaneda), with a career record of 350-285. (I assume heís also one of Japanís losingest pitchers.) As one might expect from someone who pitched for 22 years and won 350 games, his career innings pitched total is quite impressive, at 5130. That figure would put him 11th all-time in MLB, between Grover Cleveland Alexander and Kid Nichols. Incidentally, his win total would put him 10th in MLB history, below Roger Clemens and above Tim Keefe. Early in his career he was a strikeout monster, but dropped to only above average in K rate shortly thereafter. His raw totals make it look like his ability to strike out batters steadily degraded as he got older (which wouldnít really be a surprise), but this is actually an artifact of changing context. Apparently batters just started putting more balls in play. Due to an above-average ability to strike out batters, and an extremely long career, he is second all-time in strike outs (although he is way behind Kaneda for the lead).

One thing that he canít blame on league context is his reduced workload over the years. Early on he was pitching ~300 innings per year, but 1970 was the last season in which he threw more than 200 innings, and he was largely a relief pitcher for his last couple seasons.

Seaver-like his career started with controversy. The Tigers signed him out of high school, but Hankyu complained that the contract was invalid (on grounds that are unclear at the moment). The league ruled in their favor. And so although the Braves missed out on Seaver, they did get Yoneda. Or something like that.

Probably the biggest problem that Yoneda ran into is that Hankyu was not especially competitive for the first half of his career. Despite good pitching, the offense couldnít hold up their end of the bargain. In 1959 he had a 2.12 ERA and still lost 24 games. In the mid-60s they had something of a rebirth, however, and he ended up appearing in the Japan Series five times. They lost all five.

Albright has him ranked as the 15th greatest Japanese pitcher, and 75th greatest player over all. Iím inclined to think that he rates peak performance too highly, thereís a huge amount of value in being a good pitcher for 5000 innings. Now, my inclination is not exactly dispositive evidence, but if I was starting a team and had to choose between a pitcher that would go on to have Yonedaís career, and one that would go on to have Hideo Fujimotoís career, itís not obvious to me that I would pick Fujimoto. Now, Fujimoto was clearly the more talented pitcher, but he also pitched only half as many innings as Yoneda. The MLB pitchers that Albright lists as comps are: Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Early Wynn, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Tommy John. This is a pretty good list. Before reading Albrightís article I had Niekro and Blyleven picked out as comparable major leaguers.

Everyone who writes about Yoneda mentions his prowess with the bat. So I guess that I will too. Now, itís not that he had a very refined hit tool. He seems to have been a ďswing hard at anything near the strike zoneĒ kind of hitter Ė the pitcher version of Adam Dunn Ė but he did (like Dunn) have good power (for a pitcher). He totaled 33 home runs, including multiple seasons of 4 and 5, to go with a Dunn-like .171 batting average. His bat was sufficiently well-respected that he made 22 appearances at positions other than pitcher.

The card is a menko from 1960. The set is JCM 12e.
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Old 10-07-2018, 03:28 PM
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Default Junzo Sekine

Junzo Sekine was a two-way player. Early in his career he was a pitcher; from 1957-on he was an outfielder. From 1950 to 1964 he played for Kintetsu, 1965 was the last year of his career, and he spent it with the Giants. The switch to the outfield was probably a good idea. In 1957 his OPS was 100 points above league average Ė thatís 16%. It would be like having an 850 OPS in todayís American League. Basically, in 1957 he was Nelson Cruz. He totaled 1137 hits, 59 home runs, and a 279/336/372 slash line. As a pitcher he had his moments, but was really only above average in 1954; the rest of the time he was a middle of the road starter.

Sekine was a star at Hosei, and was recruited to play for Kintetsu by their manager (and his former manager at Hosei).

One of his claims to fame is that he was selected to the all star game as both a pitcher and an outfielder. Albright does not rank him on his list of the top 114 Japanese players, and says that he thinks that he doesnít belong in the hall of fame. I agree. Because he was a two way player there really arenít any American comps. Heís no Babe Ruth, and even John Ward was better than he was. He had one above average season as a pitcher (and a bunch of average-ish seasons), and then a run as Nelson Cruz. Thatís a nice career, but it really doesnít add up to being a hall of famer.

After retirement he spent a while as a manager, helming the Whales from 1982-4 and Yakult from 87-89. None of his teams had a winning percentage above 500. However, if Wikipedia is to be believed, he was instrumental in helping Sachio Kinugasa develop as a batter. He was the hitting coach for the Carp in 1970 and reportedly forced Kinugasa to practice long after everyone else had left the field Ė including catching him coming home from carousing with his friends at 3am and forcing him to practice until daybreak.

It seems that early pro ball in Japan had no shortage of pitchers who could hit. Sekine and Fujimura are probably the best examples, but Sanada was also a good hitter. This is purely anecdotal of course, but it seems to me that competence on both sides of the ball was more common then than it is now (and than it ever has been in the US). If thatís right, it should tell us something about the level of play in early pro ball in Japan. The skills involved in hitting and in pitching are very different. So the probability that youíre good at hitting, conditional on the fact that youíre good at pitching, isnít much higher the probability that youíre good at hitting, conditional on background conditions alone. And vice versa. So if a player is on the far right tail of the distribution of hitting ability, itís not very likely that heíll be on the far right tail of the distribution of pitching ability. (Nor vice versa.)

Now itís certainly possible that thereís some player who is good at both Ė Babe Ruth did exist. But if there are a bunch of players who are good at both, itís likely that theyíre not being drawn from the far right tail of the hitting distribution, or from the far right tail of the pitching distribution, or both. More likely is that their skill level is closer towards the mean. (I am assuming that these skills are normally distributed, that is that the distribution makes a bell curve. Hence the ďfar right tailĒ is the small number of people who are really good, and the mean is the top of the bell.) Which is all a long-winded way of saying that if a league has a bunch of people who are good pitchers and good hitters, it is likely that the level of play in the league is pretty low. If all this is right, and if hitting and pitching skill is normally distributed, it means that the pipe-line that fed Japanís early pro leagues wasnít very efficient. There were probably guys who were better hitters or better pitchers than the people playing pro ball who, for one reason or another, never got a chance.

The card is from JCM 123. Its date of issue is uncertain, either 1950 or 1951. If the former, then this is Sekineís rookie card.
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Old 10-11-2018, 11:12 PM
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Default Atushi Aramaki

Atsushi Aramaki had a 13 year career, pitching mostly for the Orions. He pitched from 1950 (at age 24) through 1962. While the inning totals that he posted were certainly healthy, he didnít put up the quantity of innings that other star pitchers of his day did. As a rookie he pitched 274 innings, and he never again topped that mark. Several times he would have been among the league leaders in rate stats, but he didnít pitch enough innings to qualify. Nevertheless, he was effectively finished in 1959, pitching a total of ~60 innings during his last two seasons with the Orions, and making two nominal appearances for the Braves. On a rate basis his career numbers are good. Aramaki posted a 2.23 career ERA, which is a very nice mark even in a league with a collective ERA well below 3. (Itís 8th all-time.) Because his career was so short, and his innings pitched per season were not on a par with his contemporaries, his counting stats are unimpressive. He totaled just 173 wins (although he lost barely more than 100 games, so his winning percentage is quite nice), pitched 2200 innings, and struck out barely more than 1000 batters.

In fact, as near as I can tell, Aramaki was a below-average strike out pitcher. That probably means he was a pitch-to-contact type. I havenít (yet) read anything about his arsenal, but Iím guessing that it included lots of slow breaking stuff. His statistical profile is not that of a fireballer. (Ah, and the internet confirms my suspicions.)

Bill Veeck wanted him on the Indians, and gave him a standing-offer of a tryout. Enos Slaughter thought that he was major league caliber. (Despite being just 5í8Ē and 135.)

Injuries must have been a large part of Aramakiís story. Itís hard to believe that the Orions would have coddled him when Inao, Kaneda, and so on, were being forced to pitch 7,000 innings per season (approximately, number may be exaggerated). Itís also the only plausible explanation for the sudden cliff that he fell off. Absent a major injury, players have some ups and downs as they get older, and in general see their production drop off steadily. Aramaki suddenly lost it. Like Roy Halladay. Like Brandon Webb. Like a million other guys who felt something pop in their shoulder and suddenly couldnít get the ball to move any more. This is speculation on my part (although Albright, who ranks him as the 103rd greatest player, thinks along the same lines as me), itís not like I have a report of an injury, but it is also the only plausible explanation.

The card is from JCM 129, issued in 1958. Cards from this set generally feature two players, one action shot, and a headshot of a different player. Aramaki is the guy pitching. The headshot is of an unidentified member of the Hawks. The word always used to describe this set is Ďgarishí. And itís the right one. This is one ugly set. The backs are variable, so the set designers werenít making any statement about Aramaki by paring him with the ace of spades and the atomic bomb. One thing that I do like about this set is that itís printed on thick, high-quality card stock. There are lots of ďmenkoĒ cards that are printed on glorified flash cards, you couldnít possible flip them over or flip anything over with them. The card stock on the JCM 129s, however, is more like what youíd find on a Goudey. A very satisfying card to hold. But my most favorite thing about this card is that they were really really really not messing around with that menko number.
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Old 10-15-2018, 10:54 PM
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Default Hiroshi Nakao

Hiroshi Nakao pitched for the Giants for 16 seasons. He broke in as a 19 year old in 1939, missed several seasons for the war, and pitched until 1957. He was great when he was young, but his production quickly tailed off; his last couple seasons were pretty good, but 1948 was the last season in which he was really a star performer. At least season was a good one: he won just the second Sawamura award ever given out in 1948. (Bessho won the inaugural award a year earlier.)

Statistically, what is most noticeable about him was his ability to strike batters out. When he was young his strikeout rate was almost double the league average. ThatísÖ thatís not something you can really do today. To double the league K rate in the 2018 AL you would need to strike out 17 batters per nine innings, which is something that no one has ever done. Gerrit Cole led the AL this year with a mark a bit above 12. Which is remarkable in its own right (especially considering that heís a starting pitcher), but nothing like what Nakao was doing. He finished with a 209-127 record Ė which is good Ė and would have done much better if he hadnít lost the heart of his career to the war. Which, as tragedies resulting from WWII go, is pretty low on the list, but itís still regrettable. He served in the army, but I have been unable to determine whether he ever saw combat. With some very notable exceptions, prominent American ball players mostly did not. Likewise, I have found a suspiciously high percentage of Japanese players that were given not-very-dangerous postings (of course these things are relative, given how thoroughly the Japanese main islands were bombed, even civilians were in considerable danger), so there may have been some element of favoritism going on in the Japanese military as well. Although, as Eiji Sawamura can attest, not as much as in the American military.

As might be expected from an extraordinary strikeout pitcher, he was also extremely wild. He once threw a no hitter despite allowing ten baserunners on walks and hit batsmen. (It was the fifth no hitter in JBL history.) His walk totals were regularly among the league leaders. Nolan Ryan was the Platonic form of this kind of pitcher. Notice that despite all the no-hitters, Ryan never pitched a perfect game. A Nakao/Ryan comparison isnít apt, however, because Ryan was basically indestructible, whereas Nakao was very destructible. His innings pitched totals dropped and his ERA rose dramatically starting in his late twenties, basically the opposite of Ryan. Actually, on second thought, itís Nakao who is the Platonic form of the pitcher with a blazing fastball but no idea where its going. At least Ryan struck out more batters than he walked. Thatís not something that Nakao can say.

After retiring Nakao coached in the Giantsí system. As a coach he subscribed to Kawakamiís intense training philosophy, and he (and Kawakami) came in for criticism when a young pitcher (Toshihiko Yoguchi) had a nervous breakdown, was hospitalized, and died. Officially the cause of death was heart failure, but Whiting reports that an investigation by the Shuken Post concluded that it was suicide.

By 1955 Nakao was the team captain of the Giants. I donít know exactly what this means. In America its an entirely honorary post. In Japan its different than the teamís manager, but I donít know what duties accompany it. Anyway, I discovered this tidbit in the 2/25/55 issue of the Kingston Gleaner. It contained an article about a goodwill tour that the Giants engaged in across South America, Jamaica, the D.R. and neighboring countries.

Fun fact: this thread has made its way into Googleís algorithm. While researching this post I encountered one of my earlier posts in which I mentioned Nakao.

Todayís card is from the JGA 19 set. The picture picked up every speck of dirt on the card, in hand it looks a good bit nicer than this picture. The card was distributed in the 1/1/52 issue of Shonen Club magazine. Originally it was a part of a 16 card sheet that was then cut into individual cards by the kid with the magazine subscription. Engel calls it a game card: above and below the picture of the player are printed the names of baseball plays. It is not clear to me that this is sufficient to make it a game card, how you are supposed to use the names of baseball plays to play a game is not exactly clear. My card is actually cut down quite a bit, as the names of the plays are completely gone.

Engel says that this set has an R4 rarity, fewer than ten of each card known. Now, Engel's rarity classifications are not to be trusted, and I have no idea how many of these cards are out there. But it would make sense if they were pretty unusual. Itís not like you could stop into the store at any point all summer and pick up a wax pack of these. These cards were distributed with one issue of one magazine.
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