clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Filed under:

The Most Interesting Man in Baseball Has an Equally Interesting Teammate

Japan’s Shohei Otani has become an international fascination. His fellow Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter Takuya Nakashima isn’t widely known, but he’s an utterly captivating player without a comp — at home or abroad.

On Tuesday, Japanese pitcher/hitter/superhero Shohei Otani and his Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters manager, Hideki Kuriyama, disappointed people on both sides of the Pacific by announcing that Otani won’t pitch in next month’s World Baseball Classic. On Friday, a second blow landed: Otani, the best pitcher and best hitter in Japan, won’t DH, either, as the right ankle injury that prevents him from pitching also ended his chances of one-way play. For Japanese fans, Otani’s absence is a big blow to a team whose success is a source of significant national pride. For American fans, it means missing an up-close glimpse of the most interesting man in the sport, whose debut on an American mound (and batter’s box) might be a few years away.

Days earlier, one of Otani’s Fighters teammates had sent his own regrets to Japan’s fans, unbeknownst to North America’s. Takuya Nakashima, Hokkaido’s 26-year-old shortstop, became the only player to decline an invitation to join Japan’s national team, opting to focus on his health and preparation for the upcoming Nippon Professional Baseball season rather than return to the international stage. Nakashima is not well known outside of Japan, nor should he be, based on the standard stats: He’s a subpar hitter, less valuable than Otani is as a DH alone. He probably won’t ever be posted or play in the majors, and no, you shouldn’t stash him in your super-deep dynasty league.

If not for Otani, though, Nakashima might be Japan’s most remarkable, improbable player. Last year I labeled Otani a 10-tool player: His abilities broadcast that he’s too good to stay. Nakashima’s success depends on an equally freakish but singular skill, a "one weird trick" that actually works — as long as he doesn’t depart.

It’s easy to forget that Japan plays its own brand of baseball; players flit back and forth between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, and NPB’s talent exceeds Triple-A’s. But if its level of play can be comparable to the majors’, its style is far from the same. And no player drives home the difference more plainly than Nakashima, a dead-ball-era artifact extracted from amber and brought back to life.

An American League team scout who used to evaluate Japanese players describes Nakashima to me as a "quintessential spark plug." Think of every slight, speedy, make-contact-and-run type you’ve ever loved or loathed — Gary Pettis and Tom Goodwin, Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre. Nakashima is like them, but perhaps even closer to the spark plug’s Platonic ideal.

As an undersized and underskilled high school player, Nakashima caught the eye of only one scout, who happened to work for the Fighters. Even now, he’s literally light on his feet. Listed at 5-foot-9, 151 pounds — the "1" makes his listed weight seem more credible at a time when every big leaguer’s bulk ends in a multiple of five — Nakashima tipped the scales more softly than all but one MLB player in 2016, 150-pound Ronald Torreyes.

Kazuto Yamazaki, a writer and consultant to NPB statistics site Deltagraphs, says he’s clocked Nakashima close to 3.9 seconds from home to first, a Hamiltonian time that grades out as elite even for a left-handed hitter. Every year, Nakashima’s speed helps him to a handful of runs on the bases; on defense, it makes him a star. According to Deltagraphs, Nakashima led all NPB shortstops with a 15.9 UZR in 2016, and if you’re the type to trust the eye test, both Jason Coskrey of The Japan Times and Jim Allen of Kyodo News confirm that he should have won a Gold Glove last year. That explains most of why Nakashima was worth a few wins in each of the past two seasons.

It’s his hitting, though, that makes him stand out — particularly relative to American players, but even compared to his NPB peers. Although other Japanese batters employ a vaguely similar style, none takes it to the same extremes. Explaining Nakashima takes 10 inconceivable stats.

1. Home Runs: 0

Nakashima, who never cleared an outfield fence as an amateur, has yet to snap his homerless streak after 2,033 NPB plate appearances. Only five MLB players have amassed more plate appearances than Nakashima and finished with no home runs; three of them played in the 1870s, when the baseball became a blackened lump after being battered around for a few innings, and the most recent played almost exclusively when the good players were away at World War II. You can keep your Jason Tyners and Ben Reveres: No MLB player in the post-integration era has started a career with as many homerless plate appearances.

In Japan, Nakashima’s homerless state doesn’t stand out as much: Among active players with zero round-trippers, his PA total trails Yoshifumi Okada, who has him by 400. But don’t worry; we’ve only just begun our descent into Nakashima madness.

2. Isolated Power: .025

This is Bartolo Colón’s career isolated power (batting average subtracted from slugging percentage). It’s also Nakashima’s from 2016, which was in line with his earlier performance: His 2015 ISO was even lower, at .023, and his career mark is .026. Nakashima’s ISO figures from the past two seasons rank fourth lowest and sixth lowest among qualified hitters in NPB history, which dates back to 1950.

Colón, of course, has hit a home run. Nakashima, who hit .243/.333/.268 (81 wRC+) last year and owns a .247/.327/.273 career slash line, is the sort of singles hitter we haven’t seen in the majors since Félix Fermín in 1989. More than 90 percent of Nakashima’s hits last season were singles, and while the overall singles rate was much higher in Japan than it was in MLB (73 percent vs. 65 percent), Nakashima’s still led all qualified hitters in both NPB leagues, the Pacific and the Central.

It’s also strange to see a slash line whose last leg (slugging) is so much lower than its center (OBP). To find a major league hitter who made at least 2,000 plate appearances and retired with a Nakashima-size gulf between his career slugging percentage and career on-base percentage, we have to go back to Floyd Baker, who last played in 1955. The last MLB player with a single-season SLG-OBP gap as large as Nakashima’s in 2016 was an aged Rickey Henderson, who walked his way to a .410 OBP with a .344 SLG in 1996.

3. Ground Ball Rate: 74.4 Percent

Here’s where Nakashima really starts to separate himself from the rest of the known baseball universe. The Pacific League’s ground ball rate (47.5 percent) in 2016 was only slightly higher than MLB’s (44.7 percent). But no one in either burns worms like Nakashima, who produced grounders on nearly three-quarters of his balls in play last season. He’s Willie Mays Hayes after the push-ups plan.

The biggest MLB ground ball guys — Revere, Castillo, Derek Jeter — all topped out in the mid-60s; Revere’s 66.9 percent in 2012 is the highest grounder rate by a qualified hitter in FanGraphs’ batted-ball data, which covers 2002 to 2016. The two qualified relievers with the highest ground ball rate induced over the past three seasons are Zach Britton (77.9 percent) and Brad Ziegler (66.7 percent). Nakashima’s normal is the same as the typical hitter’s production when facing a ground ball god.

Deltagraphs’ data goes back only to 2014, but in that time, the closest any other qualified NPB hitter’s ground ball rate has come to Nakashima (who’s led both leagues in all three seasons for which we have data) is 63.8 percent. We’re already into extreme outlier territory, and the stats only get stranger from here.

4. Pull Rate: 16.2 Percent

Elevating the ball less often than anyone else is only one of the ways in which Nakashima’s spray pattern is strange. On average, major league hitters pull about 40 percent of their batted balls; NPB hitters pull about 35 percent of theirs. Here are the rates at which Nakashima has pulled his batted balls in each of the past three seasons: 17.0 percent, 13.0 percent, 16.2 percent. All three figures are lower than the lowest single-season MLB pull percentage at FanGraphs (Castillo’s 19.3 percent in 2009) or the lowest rate recorded by Deltagraphs for any qualified NPB batter (20.3, by Takero Okajima in 2014). Jim Allen, who’s been collecting NPB play-by-play data from a separate source since 2006, puts Nakashima’s career pull rate almost eight percentage points lower than the closest active NPB player’s.

Now we know why Nakashima has never homered. It’s not just that he lacks power, although that’s part of it. It’s also that his approach almost completely precludes power. He can’t really "run into one," because he’s already running toward first, having choked up, swung softly, and slapped a grounder to the opposite side. As baseball writer/historian Steven Goldman said when I sent him a video of Nakashima in action, "This guy looks like a photo from 1910."

To a degree, Nakashima’s batted-ball distribution is tailored to his native environment. Transplant him to the States, and it would leave him very vulnerable, like an underwater extremophile dropped into a temperate pool. Former major league pitcher Anthony Bass, who played for the Fighters last year, tells me, "Takuya has an advantage in NPB because a majority of playing surfaces are turf, so the ball is like a trampoline." The average BABIP on ground balls was 10 points higher in the Pacific League than in the majors last season, even though the typical Japanese player probably hit balls less hard. The same change in surface that makes it difficult for Japanese middle infielders to adjust to the majors on defense might also steal some of Nakashima’s singles.

In the States, Nakashima would also be susceptible to another mainstay of modern major league life: unorthodox defense. In Japan, "shifts are exceedingly rare, with anything more than five steps considered extreme," Allen says. The only team known to move its outfielders much, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, is managed by a foreigner, former major leaguer Álex Ramírez. "Japanese baseball is conservative, orthodox, and tends to stay within its own M.O.," Robert Whiting, author of the classic book on Japanese baseball and culture, You Gotta Have Wa, tells me via email. "It takes a while for new wrinkles from MLB to catch on in Japan."

In 2015, I cowrote a book about running an independent league team that occasionally employed a five-man infield against a batter who hit tons of grounders and rarely pulled flies. The alignment was adventurous, but it made mathematical sense: Why waste a fielder on a spot where the ball isn’t going to go? In the majors, candidates for five-man infields are scarce, but Nakashima could hardly be a better fit for an overloaded left side, as his spray chart reveals.

(Courtesy of Deltagraphs)
(Courtesy of Deltagraphs)

Last year, he hit only a quarter of his batted balls in the air. Of that subset, he pulled only 13.7 percent of his flies and 2.8 percent of his liners, which would suggest that he hit only a few balls in the air to right field all season. Sure enough, Allen’s data includes only 14 air outs to right field in Nakashima’s six seasons, a sign of inefficient fielding. With two widely spaced outfielders and an extra glove in the infield, opposing teams would have been better positioned to snare some of his …

5. Sacrifices: 62

Discredited and endangered by the spread of sabermetrics, the sacrifice bunt has never been less common in the big leagues. Hamilton, the major league leader among position players last year, had only 11. Nakashima, it seems, has been trying to pick up the United States’ slack.

"Japanese baseball has always been a team sport," says Whiting, who notes that NPB teams put a high "value on harmony, everybody contributing." He estimates that from the high school level on up, Japanese players employ the sacrifice two to three times more often than their American counterparts. (Last year, the NPB:MLB sacrifice ratio was actually closer to four.) In Japan, Whiting says, "it’s encouraged and the players who are good at it do it more often."

Nakashima does it really, really, really, ridiculously often. After dropping down 35 in 2014 and 34 in 2015, he got more sacrificial in 2016, leading both leagues by 24 sacrifices. According to Whiting, there’s no point at which sacrificing would be considered excessive; "the more the better," he says.

Only one major leaguer has surpassed 62 sacrifices in a season: Ray Chapman had 67 in 1917, a few years before he was fatally beaned by a pitch, but he posted his total in 93 more trips to the plate. Even in sac-obsessed Japan, only two players have ever topped 62 in a season: Shinya Miyamoto (67 in 2001) and Masahiro Kawai (66 in 1991).

"Most guys in the two-hole have high sac rates just because they bunt every time someone is on base in front of them," says Dave DeFreitas, a writer and former MLB scout for Pacific Rim players. "So the rate isn’t high because of the skill necessarily, more just because of the large number of opportunities."

There has to be some skill at play, though, even if it’s an anachronism that most sabermetricians would sneer at. Nakashima batted second in only 50 of his 143 games, and no other player came close to his sacrifice total. And we know he’s no stranger to bat control, because of his …

6. Foul Balls: 759

Now we’ve arrived at Nakashima’s signature skill. Former major league reliever Chris Martin, who played for the Fighters last season, says that because the language barrier prevented him from getting to know Nakashima well, "[the] only thing I can really say about him is he likes to foul a lot of pitches off." Bass says the same: "He prolongs baseball games because he fouls off more balls than anyone I’ve ever played with."

There’s a book — actually, two books — called The Kid Who Batted 1.000, in which a teenaged nonathlete discovers that he has an ability to foul off any pitch in the strike zone. He does this over and over until the pitcher inevitably walks him; the 1.000 average comes from a single hit at the end of the season. That’s not Nakashima, who batted .243. But the pesky real-life shortstop is as close as it comes.

Nakashima starred in last year’s Japan Series, singling twice and walking three times in the climactic sixth game, which the Fighters won to take the title. But he set the tone for his series in his second plate appearance of Game 1 (after a first-inning sacrifice, of course), against former major leaguer and Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kris Johnson, who during the regular season walked only 2.4 batters per nine en route to a 2.15 ERA. Nakashima fought Johnson to a 12-pitch plate appearance, including eight fouls, before finally working a walk — one of only two Johnson allowed in 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball.

"The foul thing is a Japanese tradition and is the response to pitchers who can locate their secondary pitches like nobody’s business," Allen says. "But nobody’s quite as good at it as Nakashima." The table below, based on Deltagraphs data, shows that Nakashima hit 239 more fouls than any other NPB player last regular season, slapping almost all of the fouls to the opposite field.

In Japan, videos of Nakashima spoiling pitch after pitch form a whole highlight genre. "It’s definitely comical when he has 8–10 pitch at-bats every time," Bass says. "It frustrates the opposing pitcher for sure."

Opposing pitchers confirm the frustration. "He’s just an annoying hitter, that’s it!" Johnson tells me via email, irritation from facing Nakashima creeping into his punctuation. "A guy that looks to foul everything off [until] you walk him."

Another former major leaguer, Chiba Lotte Marines starter Jason Standridge, faced Nakashima 21 times in 2016. Nakashima didn’t do too much damage at the plate, going 5-for-19 with a walk, a sac bunt, and four strikeouts. But he did leave a dent in Standridge’s psyche.

"I would never be a guy that wanted to bash another player," the former first-round pick says, "but I hate facing the guy. All he wants to do is foul off pitches to get deeper in the count. He doesn’t look to hit, which bothers me. He just irritates me when he comes up to bat. He just fouls off pitch after pitch." After further reflection, he adds, "Like I said, I’m not meaning to bash the guy’s game. But man he’s annoying."

One might think that Nakashima would also annoy the Fighters fans who have to sit through all of those foul balls; if he ever did try to move to the majors, commissioner Rob Manfred might ban him from baseball to improve the pace of play. On the contrary, though: "Takuya is VERY popular," a Fighters fan named Dani, one of the most prolific tweeters about the team, says via Twitter direct message. "I’d say one of the most popular players on the team."

In the majors, those frequent breaks between pitches might be boring, even for lovers of long plate appearances. In Japan, where fans congregate in cheering sections and conduct coordinated chants — and the "Taku-meter Lady" tallies Takuya’s fouls from the stands — the downtime isn’t as dull. "Guys with long at-bats can be a lot more fun for fans [in Japan] because we have so much more to do," Deanna Rubin, another Fighters fan, says via DM. And with fans in the first few rows protected from fouls by netting that extends down the lines, only the paid participants turn into targets. "The camera crew now puts on helmets every at-bat, and our dugout pretty much all have their gloves out to protect themselves," Dani says. "He is fun to watch." The video below shows the dugout fire drill when Nakashima steps up, starting at 2:45.

Nakashima is fan-friendly in one other way: The crowd considers him hot. Dani and Rubin report that Nakashima consistently cracks the top 10 in the attractiveness ratings at the back of Pro Yakyu Ai (loosely translated as Professional Baseball Love), a tabloid-type bimonthly magazine in the vein of Us Weekly or People that’s populated by NPB players. (It comes with collectible cards.) And the Fighters’ female fans have voted him the player they’d most like to date in back-to-back years of the team’s "Best Boyfriend Candidate Contest."

Nakashima’s appeal off the field is almost strong enough for Standridge to forgive all the fouls. "Other than me not liking to face him, I think he’s a solid guy," Standridge says.

7. Fouls/Swing With Two Strikes: 74.7 Percent

The stories say that Hall of Famer Luke Appling could foul off pitches for as long as he wanted to. Maybe he could, but we don’t have the data to prove it. What do we know is that modern major leaguers — even the few purported to possess the skill — show little inclination or ability to foul off pitches more successfully with two strikes. Here are the leaguewide rates from last season:

0 Strikes: 37.6 percent Fouls/Swing
1 Strike: 37.9 percent
2 Strikes: 38.8 percent

That difference between rates in two-strike and non-two-strike counts is negligible, about one extra foul for every 100 swings. Some said Ichiro was an exception who could bear down and spoil pitches with two strikes; if he was, it wasn’t by much. Jason Kendall said he was the same sort of exception; the stats said otherwise. Nakashima, sui generis in so many ways, is an actual exception here too.

Many players say they can flick pitches away at will. Nakashima is the rare hitter whose stats support the claim.

8. Pitches Per Plate Appearance: 4.54

You’re probably not surprised to see this one: Thanks to all those fouls, Nakashima led NPB in pitches per plate appearance last season (by .15 pitches per PA), with a rate exceeded only by Jayson Werth and Mike Napoli among qualified major league hitters. Nakashima’s 67 career plate appearances of 10 or more pitches outstrip all other active NPB players; 41-year-old Kazuya Fukuura ranks second, despite leading Nakashima by 14 seasons and more than 5,500 plate appearances. Last season, Nakashima twice topped out at 14 — not counting an 18-pitch, 13-foul performance in spring training that left everyone laughing when at long last he walked.

Relentless fouling enables Nakashima to draw walks at an above-average rate, even though his complete lack of power negates any fear of leaving pitches over the plate. Some pitchers may have simply surrendered and thrown him ball four just to make the fouls stop.

9. Four-Seamer Percentage: 57.6; Zone Rate: 48.1 Percent

The average Pacific League hitter last season saw pitches in the strike zone 41.8 percent of the time, and four-seam fastballs 46.5 percent of the time. Taken together, Nakashima’s far higher rates tell the story of a hitter who doesn’t scare a soul. Johnson’s prescription for pitchers facing Nakashima is to do what he didn’t at the end of their Japan Series showdown: "Throw strikes." Standridge has reached the same solution. "I’ve started to just tell the catcher to set up down the middle and throw fastballs until he grounds out," Standridge says. "To be honest, he’s an easy out if you make your pitch, but if you make a mistake he can slap it into the hole with the best of them."

Teams tried to take that advice. The hitters who see the fewest pitches in the zone in Japan tend to be powerful foreign sluggers who can crush offerings over the plate: Dayan Viciedo, Wladimir Balentien, Garrett Jones, and Nakashima’s teammate Brandon Laird, who combined for 116 dingers, led the list last year. On the opposite end of the leaderboard? Nakashima, naturally, who saw the most strikes. Power hitters also tend to see fewer fastballs, which are often thrown for strikes; Nakashima faced the most fastballs, by a healthy 4-plus percentage points.

10. Runs Against Four-Seam Fastballs: Minus-20.7

One would surmise that since pitchers were so eager to throw Nakashima fastballs, he must not have done well when he saw them. One would be right. No NPB hitter had worse results against any pitch type than Nakashima did against four-seamers last season. Granted, that’s probably partly because he bunted so often; in 2014 and 2015, when his bunt totals were more modest, his performance against fastballs wasn’t so far below par. Cultural bunting norms notwithstanding, nearly 21 runs below average against a single pitch type is a disastrous sum; in the majors, it would have trailed only 2011 Álex González for the second-worst single-season mark of the PITCHf/x era.

"I think velocity in the States [would] be tough for Takuya," Bass says. Velocity in Japan has been tough enough.

To sum up, we have a hitter who can’t hit fastballs or fly balls; who can’t or won’t pull pitches; and who gives up outs at every opportunity. Despite it all, we also have a beloved and valuable baseball player. By shortstop standards, Nakashima’s offense is adequate, and it wouldn’t be shocking to discover down the road that fatiguing and frustrating pitchers was worth a few extra runs that his slash lines couldn’t capture. This year, he’s aiming for 800 fouls.

Nakashima’s formula wouldn’t work everywhere. "He’s probably a [Munenori] Kawasaki–type guy if he ever were to make the jump to [the States]," DeFreitas says, referring to the Cubs’ karaoke artist/infield reserve. Slower infields, defensive shifts, and harder-throwing pitchers would probably spoil his production the way he spoils strikes.

We could bemoan all of those bunts, many of which must be sapping the Fighters’ win expectancy. We could dismiss Nakashima as not major league material. We could call his half-swinging tipping and tapping a gimmick, or question how well it will age. But we can’t call him comparable to anyone else.

Standridge, 38, has pitched almost 2,500 innings in 20 professional seasons, from the rookie leagues to the big leagues and from the Dominican to Japan. He’s never seen a player who hit like Nakashima. "He’s unique," Standridge says. "I can’t remember anybody else that does or did that."

Thanks to 1point02, Yusuke Okada, and Kazuto Yamazaki for Deltagraphs data; and to Hans Van Slooten of Baseball-Reference, Jason Coskrey, Jim Allen, and Joseph Aylward for research assistance.

The Full Go With Jason Goff

Sometimes in Chicago We Cheer for the Wrong Things

New York, New York

Top Five NY Numbers to Be Retired With Joe B., Plus Yankees Take Two and Mets Struggle

Off the Pike

Celtics Are One Game Closer to History. Plus, Will Flemming on the Sox.

View all stories in MLB