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Sadaharu Oh and Cooperstown, Part I

After the article estimating the number of career home runs Sadaharu Oh would have hit in the major leagues was posted on this site, a serious debate on whether or not Oh deserves a plaque in Cooperstown began on the listserv for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.  As good a forum as the listserv is, space is still limited.  The Oh debate became more complex than the listserv could handle.  Indeed, it will take us two articles to address all the evidence involved in Oh’s case and to address the issues involved in his induction.  Once it became clear the issue had outgrown the listserv, we decided to do as comprehensive an examination of the evidence regarding Oh’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame as we could, and then report the findings together with our conclusions based upon those findings.

The evidence is divided into three parts:  1) the actual Japanese record, 2) the subjective record, and 3) projections from the statistical record.  Strong cases for Cooperstown will be supported by the weight of the available evidence in all three categories.  This is especially important because despite the fact statistical equivalents of the type done in part two of this discussion have frequently been done by renowned analysts like Bill James and Clay Davenport, and such projections have proven at least as useful in projecting future performance as actual major league performance, there is significant reluctance to accept such evidence.  It is likely that many who oppose Oh’s candidacy would readily accept a negative projection because it supports their position, but would refuse to accept such projections when the projections are at odds with their previously derived conclusion on the matter.  Nonetheless, it is unwise to permit a statistical analysis, no matter how carefully done, to be the sole means of determining whether or not a candidate in circumstances such as Oh’s is worthy of Hall of Fame induction.  However, analyses of this sort are valid when they are properly done.  Thus, if a properly done analysis indicates a candidate such as Oh is unworthy, we choose to respect such evidence.  Therefore, anyone who categorically denies the usefuleness of projections still has two bodies of evidence upon which to base his decision.  Those bodies of evidence are the actual record, and subjective evidence from knowledgeable persons as to what the actual record means.

We rarely if ever have had a sufficient statistical base to do proper statistical projections for Negro Leaguers.  Therefore, we have in fact relied heavily on anecdotal evidence to choose Negro Leaguers for induction to the Hall of Fame.  We will examine the statistical evidence for Japanese players because good statistical evidence exists.  However, this is no reason to abandon the subjective record, especially when that record clearly points in one direction or the other.  The facts  will show why all three categories of the evidence point in favor of Oh’s induction to the Hall of Fame.

I.   The Actual Record

A.   Regular Season

It is clear that any candidate from a league which is of less than major league caliber must be dominant in his own situation to even be considered for a plaque in Cooperstown.  That is because Cooperstown is properly for those who show they were able to dominate major league caliber opposition for a sufficient period of time to be considered great players.  While not all of Cooperstown’s existing inductees meet this standard, we have no desire to add to the number of mistakes made in the ranks of Hall of Famers.

Oh was quite dominant in his own time and place.  He won two consecutive Triple Crowns in 1973 and 1974.  He won 9 MVP Awards, and was named the best first baseman in his league at the end of 18 seasons (the award is called the Best Nine), he was named an All-Star in 20 of his 22 seasons, and he won the first 9 Gold Gloves awarded in the last nine years of his career.  He led his league 5 times in batting average, 15 times in runs scored, 3 times in hits, 15 times in homers, 13 times in RBI, 18 times in walks, once in doubles, and 14 times in slugging percentage.  The triple crown categories are the only ones we have complete top five finishes for, and Oh was in the top 5 11 times in average, 20 times in homers, and 19 times in RBI.  Another way to look at his seasonal marks is to count how often he met certain standards:

Batting average times      on base percentage    times
>=.300 13 >=.400 17
>=.320 10 >=.450 11
>=.340  2 >.500  2
. . . .
slugging percentage    times homers times
>=.500 18 >=30 19
>=.600 14 >=40 13
>=.700  9 >=50  3
. . . .
RBI times runs scored times
>=100 14 >=100 10
>=120  3 . .

Don’t forget that these standards were achieved in seasons of no more than 140 games, and usually of 130 games.

Another way of looking at things is to consider career marks.  Here Oh is 14th in batting average, 1st in runs scored, 3rd in hits, 1st in homers, 1st in RBI, 1st in walks, 3rd in doubles, 4th in at bats, 1st in slugging percentage, 1st in total bases, and 2nd in plate appearances.  Not only that, but his first place finishes are often by large margins:  311 runs scored, 211 homers, 182 RBI, 547 total bases, 43 points of slugging average, and 915 walks.  On base percentage would also be among the firsts if only the Japanese baseball encyclopedia listed it, but it doesn’t.  However, a .445 on base percentage is an excellent mark in a good professional league.

If you want to check out Oh’s actual record, whether it be in regular season, the Japan series, all-star games, or in exhibitions against major leaguers, you can do so here.

B.   Japan Series

Oh’s dominating regular season performances helped his teams win the Central League 14 times, thereby earning a berth in the Japan Series against the best team from the other Japanese league, the Pacific League.  Oh’s teams won 11 of those series, and he was the MVP of the series once.  He played in 77 Japan Series games and hit .281 with 29 homers in 242 at bats with an on base percentage of .465 and a slugging percentage of .665.  He scored 58 times and drove in 63 runs.  Clearly, his performance against the best teams the Pacific League had to offer in those 14 seasons was dominant as well.

C.   Japan’s All-Star Games

Japanese baseball has a two or three game All-Star format.  Oh was in those series in 20 of  his 22 seasons for a total of 58 games.  While he was the MVP of three of those 58 games, his performance in 188 at bats in those games was not Hall of Fame quality.  We only have aggregate totals for his All-Star games, and he did hit 13 homers with 33 walks with a slugging percentage of .463.  However, his batting average was only .213, though the walks got his on base up to .330.  This performance is one piece of evidence weighing against Oh’s candidacy for Cooperstown.  However, it is only 188 at bats in an average of 11 plate appearances per year.  Also, it seems that All-star games favor pitchers, because in the major league all-star games the hitters have averaged under .250 despite being undeniably much better than that against normal opposition.  All things considered, this single piece of evidence does not deserve great weight.

D.   Exhibitions Against Major Leaguers

Oh played 110 exhibition games against major leaguers, either in October or November or during spring training.  He had 338 at bats and hit for a .260 average with 88 walks for a .413 on-base percentage.  He also slugged 14 doubles, no triples and 25 homers among his hits, for a .524 slugging average.  (I’ll list the pitchers he took out of the park below). These numbers include a 6 for 54 in 1971 against the Orioles, and an 0 for 12 in 1960. We won’t make any discount for the 1971 performance, as it may or may not represent a slump, but it would be appropriate to eliminate the 1960 results, since we do not project Oh to have been ready for the majors at that time.  If you eliminate the 1960 results, his average will rise to .270, his on base percentage to .414, and his slugging percentage to .543.  It is likely this performance came at least mostly in parks which were not of major league dimensions.  However, it is a dominant performance against pitching which appears be above the average of pitching he would have faced in the majors, for reasons which will be demonstrated when we list the MLB pitchers Oh hit his homers against. 

The pitchers (and the year) Oh hit his homers off of were (lefties are denoted with an asterisk [*], and if a pitcher gave up multiple homers to Oh, the number appears in parentheses):  Hank Aguirre, 1962*; Nick Willhite, 1966* (2); Alan Foster, 1966; Joe Moeller, 1966; Jim Brewer, 1966*; Steve Carlton, 1968*; Dick Hughes, 1968; Nelson Briles, 1968; Ray Washburn, 1968; Larry Jaster, 1968*; Wayne Granger, 1968; Frank Reberger, 1970; Frank Linzy, 1970; Pat Dobson, 1971; Jim Palmer, 1971; Dick Hall, 1971; Jerry Cram, 1974 (2); Jerry Koosman, 1974*; John Matlack, 1974 (3)*; Tom Seaver, 1978; and Tom Hume, 1978.  Further, the same data tells us Oh was pulling even this group of pitchers:  4 to left, 1 to left center, 3 to center, 5 to right center, and 12 to right. 

If you looked at the teams Oh played against, you’d think he should have faced some pretty good pitching. The teams Oh and the Giants faced, when their various records are weighted by games against Oh and the Giants, is 92-70 when projected to a major league schedule.  They had three league champions among them.  The list of pitchers Oh homered off of supports the belief he was facing good major league pitching.  For those of you who need more proof, let’s look at the median (the middle of the group) pitchers Oh homered against.   Since we don’t have the full record, it only seems fair to be conservative in our estimate.  We’ll use the pitcher’s ERA the actual year the homer occurred unless the pitcher had less than 50 IP.  In that case, we take the ERA for both the season the homer occurred and the next season as well.  Oh hit two against guys with ERAs of 5 or more, and there were only 4 more homers off of a pitcher with an ERA over 4. Anyway, the median lefty yielding a homer had a 2.92 ERA, the median righty yielding a homer had a 2.80 ERA, and the overall median pitcher yielding a homer had a 2.85 ERA.  The average ERA was 3.55 in the majors during the period 1962-1975, and the lowest it got for any season for the whole majors was 2.98 in 1968.  Thus, one can reasonably say in the exhibitions against major leaguers, Oh got his homers off a better than average group of major league pitchers.  When all factors are considered, this segment of data outweighs the All-Star data and keeps Oh’s record the way we would expect a HOFer’s record in his circumstances to be.

II.   The Subjective Record

Oh’s critics cannot reasonably deny that he was dominant in his own place and time.  The usual approach of the critics is to downplay those accomplishments as having come against inferior pitching and/or in small ballparks.  All but Oh’s most ardent advocates will concede there is some truth in those statements, and also that even such dominance of, for example, competition as weak as American high schoolers, would not make a player worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown.  However, Japanese baseball is a good professional league.  Therefore, there are two questions we must try to answer:  1) how good was the quality of play in the Central League in Oh’s time, and 2) how does Oh’s performance stack up against the level of greatness one needs to achieve to merit induction into Cooperstown?

There are two ways to address this issue in the case of Japanese baseball.  The first is the one we’ve relied upon heavily for Negro Leaguers, which is the subjective record, namely what people have said about Oh. It is only appropriate to limit the discussion to people who should know what they’re talking about, namely, Oh and major league scouts, players and managers who actually saw Oh play.  The second method, which will come in the second part of this two-part presentation, is a statistical projection of Oh’s record to a major league equivalent.  This section will also address certain other subjective issues pertaining to Oh’s case for enshrinement.

Before discussing any further what the average quality of play in the Central League in Oh’s time was, there are several crucial points that must be made.  First, the average quality of opposition is only relevant to help assess the quality of Oh’s play.  This point cannot be overstressed, because there is a suggestive, intuitive, and yet seriously flawed logic which operates in situations where a player played in a league described as having less than 20th century major league quality of play on average.  The logic I refer to runs something like this:  1)  “less than 20th century major league quality on average”  means minor league, 2)  therefore, a star in such a league is a minor league star, and 3) minor league stars do not make the Hall of Fame.

The problem with this logic is when it is applied to leagues such as Japan, the Negro Leagues, or 19th century baseball is that in each case, there was no major league calling up the best players to play in the majors, thereby skimming the cream of the crop.  In each of the three situations named above, no matter the exact quality of play, were the pinnacle of competition the players in those leagues could reasonably aspire to compete in.  The stars of the Negro Leaguers were almost invariably major league quality players, and often even Hall of Fame quality.  Perhaps the Japanese stars do not have so many of Hall of Fame quality, but their stars were of major league quality as well.  In each case, the stars of those leagues were denied the opportunity to perform on a major league stage through no fault of their own.  In short, the average quality of such a league cannot be used as a shorthand method for evaluating players.  The entire available record must be carefully examined to properly evaluate the players from such leagues.

Now that those necessary cautionary notes are out of the way, the most common assessment of the quality of Japanese baseball is it is equal to the highest level of the minors, perhaps even a tad better.  For examples of this assessment, see Bill McNeil’s Other Stars book, page 113, Fred Ivor-Campbell, page 35 of the 1992 edition of National Pastime,  Jeff Scott, St Louis Cardinals director of international scouting, in an chat here, Baltimore area sports personality Phil Wood here  , and Clay Davenport at here  .  Oh himself provides one of the best quotes for critics of Japanese baseball, though it came after or during his 6 for 54 performance against the Orioles: 

When the Dodgers came here in 1966 and the Cardinals in 1968, I felt I could play with the Americans. But after facing the Orioles, I think it would be difficult. They are very, very strong . . . . It will be a long time before we reach the level of the Americans . . . . Maybe never. Physically, they are stronger than we are. We are trying to close the gap, but it is very wide yet.  (Sports Illustrated, page 31, December 15, 1971)

Unfortunately for Oh’s critics, Oh has made numerous other statements which indicate he feels he would have performed well on the major league stage, though in his typically very understated manner.  Listen to this one, made in the August 14, 1997 edition of Baseball Weekly:
If I had had the chance, I would have wanted to [play in the majors]. But I couldn’t . . . .[responding to a question of how many homers he would have hit in the majors]  I don’t know . . . .  I think (the pitchers) would have challenged me more.  So I probably would have had more strikeouts, but would have hit more homers.  I wouldn’t have reached 755, though.

For those who denigrate Oh’s accomplishments based upon the quality of play and/or the short fences, it is important to understand just how drastically one must discount Oh's actual performance to drop him below the level of certain HOFers.  For instance, everybody in the majors who scored more than 1643 runs is in the Hall.  Oh has more than 20% more than that.  Everybody with 465 or more homers in the majors is in the Hall.  Oh has 187% of that total.  Everybody with more than 4787 total bases in the majors is in.  Oh has 122% of that total.  Everybody with more than 1628 RBI in the majors has a plaque.  Oh has 133% of that total.  In short, one must heavily discount Oh’s actual performance to get him out of HOF territory.> 

An even bigger problem for Oh’s critics is that he accomplished his actual record in far shorter seasons (an average of over 20% shorter).  Commonly, those critics would argue that players wear down in a longer season.  On the whole, that is a correct statement.   However, this does not deal with Oh specifically, nor does it deal with the fact that the Japanese of Oh’s time trained at a level major leaguers of the same era would have regarded as fanatical.  It is important to note that Oh was frequently singled out as being especially hard-working, even among the hard-working Japanese.  How hard did the Japanese of that time and/or Oh train?  Listen to this from William Chapman, who wrote this for page G1 of the July 13, 1978 Washington Post:
[Charlie Manuel, yes, the recent MLB manager] said . . . . “First I lift weights.  Then there’s batting practice.  Then base running.  And then there’s jogging, we run an awful lot.  I’m worn out before the game even starts.  It is the common complaint of . . . . Americans who play baseball in Japan:  Fatigue.  Japanese players train like demons the year round and the . . . . foreigners must keep up . . .  A 6:30 p.m.  . . . game is preceded by five hours of exercise, practice and team meetings.  It is the greatest shock for American players who come to Japan accustomed only to shagging a few fly balls and belting a couple of practice balls before game time.

Or this, from the same article, quoting pitcher Clyde Wright: “ Spring training is four times as tough as in the States . . . . They go to the park at 10 and finish at 4:30 and then run 3 ½ miles back to the hotel.  And everybody does it.”

As for Oh’s habits, you can read his autobiography, A Zen Way of Baseball for an in-depth view of his practice habits.  Suffice it to say, Oh spends a great deal of time detailing his practicing to perfect his technique, and the picture painted is of a man working even harder than depicted by Mr. Chapman’s article.  Don’t want to read the book or accept our thumbnail review of it on the issue of practice?  Fine.  Listen to Frank Deford from his piece on Oh in the August 15, 1977 issue of Sports Illustrated:

For a 1:30 game, Oh arrives at 10:30; the first scrubs go in the batting cage at 8:30 . . . Oh gets no respite from this enervating routine. After almost a half an hour in the batting cage, he goes to the clubhouse, where, lest he grow rusty, he swings a bat in front of a full-length mirror for another 10 minutes. Then he hies himself back to the diamond, where a coach spends 15 minutes or so slapping hard grounders just past his reach, so that he must run and stretch for every one. Here he is, 37 years old, the finest player in the game . . . being worked over daily in the noon heat of summer. Off days—especially after a defeat—mean grueling two- or three-hour team practices. But every player endures this schedule, and Oh-san endures it best . . . Late every season, when most players’ averages are falling even faster than their weights, Oh finishes with an inhuman rush.

A guy who fits this profile could almost certainly handle a longer schedule and still maintain his level of play, though perhaps he would have had to ease up slightly on his practicing.  It is only appropriate to allow him more playing time when we compare him to major leaguers.  As a result, his already heady accomplishments will be multiplied by over another 120% before we get to the task of making the appropriate adjustments to allow for the smaller parks and the lesser quality of pitching.  Common sense dictates that the difference between the majors and a good professional league cannot be so large as to drop Oh below the level of legitimate HOFers.

Oh wasn’t blooping fly balls over short fences, either.  There is a breakdown which purports to estimate the length of Oh’s homers in the book by Tetsuya Usami entitled Oh and Nagashima:  Every Record, amd it has been translated to English and posted here. According to that chart, 191 of Oh’s homers were hit 394 feet or more, which would have put them out over the fence in straightaway right in almost every major league park of Oh’s time, much less down the rightfield line.  Another 286 were hit 361-393 feet, which means many to straightaway right would have gone out, and virtually all down the rightfield line would have been out of every major league park.  Another 289 would have gone out of most major league parks if they had been pulled to the rightfield corner (361-393 feet).  Only 102 were less than 328 feet, and even a few of those would have gone out down the rightfield line in some major league parks, like Yankee Stadium.  Don’t forget, too, that one of the hallmarks of Japanese pitching of Oh’s time is they didn’t throw as hard as major leaguers.  That means Oh was generating more of his own power to propel the balls that far than he would have to against major league pitching.

Lest you ask where Oh hit his homers, the same breakdown tells us Oh hit 612 to “right” and 140 to “right center”, with the remaining 116 to all other fields.  This breakdown is posted here. In short, Oh was a dead pull hitter.  In fact, the Japanese teams routinely played a shift very much like the one Ted Williams faced in the majors.  Oh managed to drive balls through the small seams presented by such an overshift often enough to average over .300 for his career.  The larger dimensions of major league parks would have ensured that he would have had more outfield room to work with, which would certainly be to his advantage.

According to Deford’s Sports Illustrated article, Oh once said he got four strikes every time up (though he later denied making the statement).  Deford claims that this scenario applied to all Giants, because they were such an important team in Japan.  Another writer alluded to this kind of advantage for Oh, but attributed it to the “Oh ball”, which he wrote was a term used to indicate umpires so respected Oh’s command of the strike zone that if Oh took a close pitch, it must have been a ball and they called it that way.  The same accusation was made about American umps and Ted Williams.  It seems plausible to me that Japanese umps were more deferential to Oh and the Giants than American umps would have been.  However, the Giants did have several players who emphasized patience at the plate (Oh, Shibata, and Nagashima come to mind) during Oh’s time, and doubtless there was some envy of the team which won 9 consecutive championships.   His walk total may be a little inflated, but since he walked over 900 more times than anyone else in NPB, it is clear he deserved his reputation for a fine command of the strike zone.

Another issue is whether or not Oh had a real opportunity to come to the majors.  A previous quote from Oh indicates he did not.  A careful examination of the history of Japanese baseball to American baseball shows Oh’s contention is credible, as there was a de facto ban on Japanese players coming to the States during much of his career.  For details, see here.

Now we can look at actual quotes.  The actual quotes are quite impressive, and unless otherwise noted come from an appendix in Oh's autobiography.  What we find even more impressive is the complete absence of quotes by major league types who saw or played against Oh indicating he wasn’t a very impressive player, despite inviting his critics in SABR-L to provide such quotes.  We realize that many of the quotes presented would have been collected by people who would be sympathetic to Oh, like the Japanese press.  However, the Japanese press wasn’t always present for the Americans, and the quotes come from people in some cases who are not exactly known as diplomats (Pete Rose comes to mind).  The most negative quotes from major league players, coaches, scouts and executives who actually saw Oh play we were able to find were statements he was not in a class with Aaron, Ruth, and perhaps Mays.  Since we do not contend he was in that class either, and Oh on numerous occasions indicated Aaron would have had more career homers even if Oh had played in the majors, such statements aren’t tremendously revealing on their face.  If they reveal anything beyond generally accepted wisdom, they can probably best be seen as a backhanded way of saying he was very good, probably even HOF quality.  If you want to say a guy isn’t very good, you don’t compare him to some of the very best guys in the history of the game.  The quotes we have chosen often indicate Oh would have been a star or a HOFer in the majors, or would have achieved standards only HOFers reach.

Davey Johnson (the only man to have been a teammate of Oh and Aaron)[from the Sporting News, January 7, 1978, page 37]:  Oh would have hit 700 homers over here.  He would be a good hitter anywhere in the world.  Quality is still quality.

Davey Johnson again, this time from Deford’s Sports Illustrated article:  You couldn’t find a better [fielding] first baseman

Tom Seaver:  He sure hit me.  He was a superb hitter.  He hit consistently, and he hit with power.  If he played in the United States, he would have hit 20-25 home runs a year, and what’s more, he’d hit .300.  He’d be a lifetime .300 hitter.  He had tremendous discipline at the plate.  He knew the strike zone extremely well . . . .He could pull your hard stuff, and you couldn’t fool him off-speed.

Hal McRae:  Oh had tremendous patience as a hitter . . . He had good power.  I don’t know how many he would have hit here . . . start with 20 (a year) . . . at least.  He was a great all-star.  He’d have been a Hall of Famer.

Pete Rose:  There’s no question in my mind he wouldn’t have hit 800 home runs if he’d played here, but if he played in a park tailored to his swing, he’d have hit his 35 [homers] a year. . .  He’d hit .300, I’ll tell you that.

Don Baylor:  Oh could have played anywhere at any time.  If he played in Yankee Stadium, being the left handed pull hitter he is, I have no doubt he’d hit 40 home runs a year.

Frank Howard:  You can kiss my ass if he wouldn’t have hit 30 or 35 home runs a year and hit anywhere from .280 to .320 and drive in up to 120 runs a year.  The point being, he rates with the all-time stars of the game.

Greg Luzinski:  There’s no question he’d have been a great player in the United States, that he was a super talent.

Brooks Robinson:  He could have played right here in the big leagues with the best players in the world.  He would have hit here.  Not as many home runs, but he would have hit his share and hit for average.  He was just an outstanding hitter.

Frank Robinson:  I’m sure he would have hit in the 30’s (of homers per year) and probably in the low 40’s. . . .  Thirty home runs a year add up to over 600 home runs, and he’d do that if he played the same number of years here that he played there.

Don Drysdale:  He would have hit for average and power here.  In a park tailored to his swing, there’s no telling how many he would have hit. . . . He was always ready for anything we threw him.  We were all impressed.

Any player who gets reviews like this from a group like this and  nobody is willing to say he wasn’t a fine player, well, that’s impressive.  We’re now done with part one of the case for Oh, and part two is here.

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