This week, in honor of the World Baseball Classic, we are coming up with “All-Time Teams” for as many of the participating nations as we can. Having already checked out the Canadians and the Italians, we now turn to the Japanese.
Creating an all-time team for Japan is an interesting exercise because many legitimately great Japanese players never had a chance to play in the Major Leagues, but probably still would have performed well in the Majors if they had ever gotten the chance.
Thus, rather than confining ourselves only to Major Leaguers, which would have been quite boring and predictable, we’ve created a combined list which gets much closer to representing a true list of the greatest players at each position ever produced by Japan.
For the purposes of this exercise, we will allow non-Japanese players who were born as citizens of the Japanese Empire, such as Sadaharu Oh, but exclude foreign-born players who played in Japan, such as White Russian ace Victor Starffin or American slugger Tuffy Rhodes.
Here’s how the squad from the land of wind and ghosts shakes out…
Catcher: Katsuya Nomura - Nomura is the second greatest Japanese player when measured statistically. His 657 homers are second all time in Japanese baseball, behind only Oh, and he did it all while playing the demanding position of catcher. Nomura was amazingly durable, catching a ridiculous 2920 games and playing across four decades from the 1950s to the 1980s before becoming a very successful manager.
First Base: Sadaharu Oh - Unquestionably the greatest Japanese player ever, the half-Taiwanese Oh smashed a world record 868 homers, and was so good that even given the difference in league talent levels he would almost certainly have been not only a star in the Major Leagues, but actually a major league Hall of Famer (Baseball Guru estimates he would have hit 527 homers had he played the same number of years in the majors).
Second Base: Shigeru Chiba – Chiba is the greatest second baseman in Japanese Baseball history, renowned for his outstanding plate discipline, his blazing speed on the basepaths, and his slick fielding at second, earning him the nickname “Formidable Buffalo” which was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, given that he was only 5’6″ and 140 pounds.
Third Base: Shigeo Nagashima – Nagashima is the second greatest Japanese player ever when measured by how Japanese people feel in their hearts. A fearsome hitter and an outstanding defensive third sacker, he was Oh’s partner in crime and protection in the lineup when the Yomiuri Giants won 9 Japan Series in a row in the ’60s and ’70s, and with his quirky personality and aura of greatness he remains perhaps the most beloved man in all of Japan to this day, even moreso than Oh.
Shortstop: Kazuo Matsui – Believe it or not, Kazuo Matsui is actually the greatest Japanese shortstop ever. Despite his at times lackluster performance in the majors, the numbers he has put up beat the numbers that could be reasonably projected for other Japanese shortstop greats, and he also enjoyed a fine career in Japanese baseball before coming over.
Left Field: Hideki Matsui - Godzilla’s proven track record of offensive excellence at the highest level playing for the Yankees, in addition to his monstrous production before coming over, make him the choice to play left field, despite his lackluster defense.
Center Field: Ichiro – Ichiro is not actually the greatest Japanese player ever, but he is most certainly the greatest centerfielder, and is well on his way to the Major League Hall of Fame on the merits of his major league numbers alone.
Right Field: Isao Harimoto – A Zainichi Korean (real name: Jang Hoon) and a survivor of the Hiroshima atom bomb, Harimoto is the only Japanese baseball player to record 3000 hits, and he is second in career batting average (by one point) at .319, and third in bases on balls.
Rotation and Closer
Ace: Masaichi Kaneda - Kandeda won an all-time Japanese record 400 games from from 1950 to 1969, averaging exactly 20 wins a year for 20 straight years.
No. 2 Starter: Kazuhisa Inao (pictured) - The Sandy Koufax of Japan, nobody can touch his peak, including 20 wins in a row in 1957 and a Japanese record 42-win season in 1961.
No. 3 Starter: Daisuke Matsuzaka – At age 28, Daisuke is already a living legend and one of the greatest Japanese pitchers ever, and he still has a lot of time left to do more great things.
No. 4 Starter: Eiji Sawamura (pictured) – Japanese pitching legend who once struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer and Jimmy Foxx back-to-back-to-back-to-back. The Japanese equavalent of the Cy Young award is named the “Sawamura Award” in his honor.
No. 5 Starter: Hideo Nomo – Nomo was not necessarily a superstar in the slap-hitting Japanese leagues, but he thrived in free swinging America, where he rode his devastating forkball to a productive and strikeout-filled career.
Closer: Kazuhiro Sasaki – Sasaki is as good a closer as Japan has ever produced, having great success in both Japanese baseball and in the Majors with the Seattle Mariners.
Final Verdict: The Japanese squad is truly formidable across the board, and would match up well with just about anybody.