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How Many Homers Would Oh Have Hit In the Majors?

Everybody likes to talk about who was the greatest at something, and baseball fans are no exception. When baseball fans talk about home run hitters, one guy who gets mentioned by well-informed fans is Sadaharu Oh and his 868 career homers in Japan. If Oh is brought into the discussion, often his accomplishments are dismissed because of the "poor" quality of Japanese pitching and/or the small ballparks in Japan.

Iím not here to argue that Oh was a greater home run hitter than Aaron, Ruth or Mays (Oh has been quoted as conceding to at least Aaron) and as this article will show, I donít believe he is in a class with these gentlemen. My goal is to provide a reasonable estimate of how many home runs Oh would have hit had he been born at the same time (1940) but had played his career in the majors and minors at that time. Also, he has to be placed in a neutral home run park.

There are several factors to be considered in reaching this estimate. First is the difference between playing in Japanís Central League parks and against Central League pitching versus facing major league pitching in major league parks. Second is the issue of whether or not Ohís home park (Korakuen Stadium) was a good home run park for him and the size of that effect. Third is the adjustment needed to account for the fact the Japanese schedule is shorter than the major league schedule. The fourth is the issue of Ohís playing time in the majors, such as when Oh would have broken into the majors, and how long he would have stayed there.

Major league seasons will be considered to be 154 games in 1959 and 1960, 158 games (halfway between 154 in the NL and 162 in the AL) , and 162 games for the 1962-1980 with the exception of 1972, which will be considered to be 155 games due to the strike that year. I will make other adjustments to Ohís playing time based on his age and performance, but I will discuss those later. I think that so long as Oh was healthy and playing well, it is appropriate to expand his playing time by the ratio of 162 games divided by the actual number of Giant games that year. The Japanese practice far harder than their American counterparts (I have seen it written that Japanese managers donít think their charges have practiced hard enough until they bleed), and there is some discussion about whether or not this tires players out, especially late in the season. Under these circumstances, I think it is reasonable to think Oh would have been able to make the adjustment to a longer season without significant adverse effects. Please note that using this method of adjusting his playing time will increase his time off by the same ratio. Fortunately, Oh never had a season ending injury that I am aware of, so that factor does not come into play.

The biggest single factor in reaching the estimate is the difference between facing Central League pitching in Central League parks versus facing major league pitching in major league parks. Fortunately, there were 66 players who played in the Central League between 1960 and 1980 who also played in the majors. These players provide the basis for determining the size of this factor, because the differences in their home run rates between the majors and the Central League is almost exclusively the result of this factor. I didnít see a strong bias toward good home run parks in the majors nor in Japan among these players. It is true that if one weighted the at bats by age, the players would unanimously be older in Japan. Fortunately, home run hitting is what Bill James has termed an "old playerís" skill, one which seems to decay more slowly in the players who have this skill and will have the greatest effect on the calculation. However, I also endeavored to use a method which would minimize the age issue in order to provide the most accurate measurement possible, since I am not aware of any studies which would give a reasonable estimate of the size of the effects of aging on home run hitting. Also, I wanted to ensure that the quality of players was as close to identical as possible. An example of a situation I wanted to avoid was comparing Willie Mays as a part-time 19 year old in the Negro Leagues to the accomplished Willie Mays of the major leagues. I have seen writers place Willieís totals in both leagues, and make no effort to account for the vast difference between a bit playerís effect on the Negro League total and a Hall of Famerís effect on the major league total. It is clear that such an approach can seriously skew the data.

My solution to getting the best possible comparison between the Central League and major league data was to do the following was first to determine in which league the player had the fewest career at bats. I then entered that leagues at bats and home runs in the columns assigned to it. I then got the same number of at bats in the other league, starting with the nearest season in time, and prorating a the season home run total when I had to use part of a season to reach the at bat total I was seeking. Two examples should help to explain how this works.

Sam Perlozzo his no homers in 26 major league at bats in 1977 and 1979. These were the lower totals, and were entered in the major league columns. He want to Japan in 1980 and hit 15 homers in 473 at bats. I prorated the Japanese figure to 26 at bats, which made his home run total 0.8. Roy White played several seasons in Japan, but 1980 is the only one which qualifies for our study. That season, Roy hit 29 homers in 469 at bats. His nearest season in the majors was 1979, in which he hit 3 homers in 205 at bats. His next nearest season was 1978, when he hit 8 homers in 346 at bats. However, I only needed 264 at bats from 1978 to reach 469, so I prorated the 1978 home run figure to 264 at bats, which gives Roy a major league home run figure of 9.1 in 469 at bats. The man with the largest individual effect on the results is Willie Kirkland, who had 2323 matched at bats with 100.2 homers in the majors and 126 in the Central League. These are the largest totals by any individual in each category . The overall totals are 23,817 matched at bats, 575.0 major league home runs, and 1071.9 Central League homers. Thus, we will multiply Central League homers by 575.0/ 1071.9 or 0.536 to account for this difference.

The next factor is to consider the effect of Ohís main park, Korakuen Stadium, on his home run total. Japanese teams play a few games each year in parks other than their main park, which complicates the home/road calculation primarily because it is difficult to determine which is the home team in some of these "tour" parks. I contacted Ryuichi Suzuki, an advisor to Japanís Hall of Fame, and he graciously provided me with a page from Tetsuya Usamiís book O.N.:Every Record ( Yomiuri Press, 1983) (or A World of Records) . The data there shows that Oh hit 413 homers in 4232 at bats at Korakuen Stadium, and 455 in 5018 homers in other parks. In order to assess what a Oh would have hit in a neutral park in the Central League, I added one-fifth of the Korakuen figures to the other parks figures so that as close to one-sixth of the games are now in Giant home parks as I can manage. One-fifth of the Korakuen figures are 82.6 homers and 846.4 at bats. When those figures are added to the other parks data, we have 537.6 homers and 5864.4 at bats. Therefore, the estimate of Ohís home run rate in a neutral Central League park is 9.17 % of his at bats. Accordingly, we would estimate that if he had played all 4232 Korakuen at bats in a neutral Central League park, he would have hit 388.0 homers in those at bats. That would give him a total of 843 rather than 868. However, this gives him no home park advantage at all, and in the majors from 1960 to 1980, 29,586 homers were hit by players in their home parks, and 29,213 on the road. Weíll give Oh a similar home advantage, which makes his career total 853.7 homers. Thus the adjustment for Korakuen park is 853.7 /868, or 0.984.

Next, weíll tackle the issue of Ohís career. As noted earlier, injuries arenít a factor in Ohís case, so we donít have to concern ourselves with how to handle them. The issues regarding how much playing time Oh should receive are subjective in nature. I set several guidelines to follow. First, there would be no fictitious seasons unless he needed 10 or less homers to meet to meet a significant milestone (500, 600, 700, 715, or 756 homers, for example ). Since Oh turned out not to meet that criteria, no fictitious seasons were created. Another guideline was that Ohís first solid or better season in Japan would be the one we used as his last year in the minors in our determining when he came to the majors (in real life, he came to the Central League right out of high school, which would not have happened in the majors). The reasoning behind this guideline lies in two facts: first, the major leagues like to have a player have success at the highest level of the minors before coming to the majors, and second, the fact Japanese baseball has long been somewhere in quality between the highest level of the minors and the major leagues. This guideline excluded the 1959 and 1960 seasons (1959: .161 average, 7 HR in 94 games, 1960: .270 average, 17 HR in 130 games). A third guideline was that so long as Oh was a productive hitter for a first baseman, he would have his totals adjusted upward to reflect the longer major league season. This took care of the 1963 through 1979 seasons as far as I was concerned, because even taking away 10% of his batting average as would have happened in real life and going to the major league home run figure he was averaging between .258 and .300 with 21-34 homers and a lot of walks. If there was a question about his productivity, I felt the two best other options were either to give him no playing time at all or to give him his actual playing time. My reasoning behind this was choosing any other amount of playing time was even more subjective than those three choices (none, actual, or adjusted to major league length), and thus less desirable. If I really couldnít decide between two of those choices, I probably would have selected an average of the two. I was able to reach a decision within those three choices for the two difficult seasons, however.

The three hard decisions in terms of how much playing time to give Oh, as far as I am concerned, are 1961, 1962 and 1980. Under my initial guidelines, Oh should have his rookie season in 1961, and even though he slid back from his 1960 marks to a .253 average with 13 homers and 64 walks in 127 games. Until I ran the batting average numbers, I thought that it should be his rookie season, partly because it was an expansion year. When those marks are converted to major league levels, they are not impressive for a first baseman (.228 and 7 homers in his actual playing time). The 1962 season makes a much better rookie year, and although it converts to a .246 average with 24 homers, thatís a solid year for a 22 year old rookie seen as a future star, especially when he throws 72 walks into the mix. That season, when seen as a rookie year, deserved to be expanded to the full major league schedule, in my opinion.

The other hard case is 1980. The situation here is a 40 year old star who has played well every year for the past 18 seasons, but then comes up against Father Time. His major league equivalents for his actual performance (including keeping his number of games at the actual level) are a .214 average with 16 homers and a 72 walks for a .323 on base percentage. I think heís entitled to one off year before being forced out of the game, so itís easy to dismiss the option of giving him no playing time. I think the most likely way this would play out is that at the start, Ohís manager keeps sending him out there to play, hoping heíll come out of his "slump". Eventually, heíll try giving his aging veteran a day or two off in hopes that is the answer. If it worked, you can be sure the manager would do the same thing every time Oh slumped again. This would keep Oh from being an everyday player. If it didnít, the manager would probably realize Oh had gotten old and would want to see what his options were in the organization to replace Oh, maybe even next year. Either way, a proud man like Oh would see the handwriting on the wall and announce his retirement at the end of the season. This would help ensure him a good amount of playing time, because there would be fans in the stands every day thereafter who would want to see Oh play one last time. This would create pressure on the manager to play Oh. Any way you look at the situation, the best of my three favored choices is to give Oh his actual playing time, at least in my opinion. He might play more than that, but it is at least as likely heíd play less. When youíre making an estimate, that sure ought to help you pick that number.

Iíll include data for the seasons I didnít make the full adjustment to the major league schedule. In those cases, the adjustment figure I list will be the one I used (0 for 1959, 1960, and 1961 and 1 for 1980) followed in parentheses by the number of games in a major league schedule that season.

One factor which I am aware of that may exist is the possibility that major league pitchers would challenge Oh more than their Japanese counterparts did, leading to less walks for Oh, but more at bats and more homers. The first problem with this factor is that weíve already accounted for the normal difference between the two levels of pitching and ballparks. Thus the only conceivable adjustment to be made would be if the Japanese pitchers were especially careful of pitching to Oh or power hitters in general. It is hard to see such an effect in a quick look at the records of sluggers, so it would likely have to be unique to Oh. Further, I think youíd have to exclude the intentional walks, because the situations in which they were issued would likely dictate that the major league pitchers do likewise. Under the circumstances, it is impossible to make an adjustment for this factor on any basis but a wild guess. Iím not going to do that.

Now we can get to calculating Ohís season by season totals. This is done by taking his actual homers and multiplying it by the 0.536 Central League to major league factor and mulitplying that by the Korakuen factor of .977, and multiplying that by the season adjustment (season games divided by Giant games, unless I overrode that by following my guidelines). The results are as follows:

year HR Central Korakuen Giant games season est HR NL rank AL rank MLB rank
1959  7 0.536 0.977 130 0.000(154)  0.0 n/a n/a n/a
1960 17 0.536 0.977 130 0.000(154)  0.0 n/a n/a n/a
1961 13 0.536 0.977 130 0.000(158)   0.0 n/a n/a n/a
1962 38 0.536 0.977 134 1.209 24.1 14 13 over 20
1963 40 0.536 0.977 140 1.157 24.2 10 14 over 20
1964 55 0.536 0.977 140 1.157 33.3  2  4  6
1965 42 0.536 0.977 140 1.157 25.4 15 18 over 20
1966 48 0.536 0.977 134 1.209 30.4  9  6 14
1967 47 0.536 0.977 134 1.209 29.8  5  5  9
1968 49 0.536 0.977 130 1.209 31.0  4  4  7
1969 44 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 28.7 11 11 over 20
1970 47 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 30.7 12  8 19
1971 39 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 25.4 12 10 over 20
1972 48 0.536 0.977 130 1.192 30.0  6  3  8
1973 51 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 33.3  6  1  6
1974 49 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 32.0  3  1  3
1975 33 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 21.5 11 13 over 20
1976 49 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 32.0  3  1  3
1977 50 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 32.6  6  5 10
1978 39 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 25.4  7 14 20
1979 33 0.536 0.977 130 1.246 21.5 over 20 over 20 over 20
1980 30 0.536 0.977 130 1.000(162) 15.7 over 20 over 20 ove 20
total    868  . . . . 527.0 . . .

Estimated number of times Oh would have: NL AL MLB
finished in the top 20 in HRs 17 17 11
finished in the top 10 in HRs 11 12  7
finished in the top 5 in HRs  7  8  3
led in HRs  0  3  0

The estimate of Ohís homers is 527, which puts Oh well over the magic 500 homer mark. In fact, everyone with 465 or more who is eligible is in. When you add to that a .280 career average and 100 walks or more in most seasons, youíve got a player in the class of Eddie Murray, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, and Willie McCovey-consensus Hall of Famers. In fact, because of the issue of how much the Central League results might be reduced because players were older when they played in the Central League as opposed to the majors plus the speculative issue regarding walks, the estimate of 527 is probably too low if anything. I doubt very seriously that if we could make reasonable adjustments to the data to account for those two issues that the estimated total would exceed 560. Oh deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, too, but that day probably wonít come until or unless major league baseball establishes a permanent presence in Japan. So long as labor strife doesnít kill the majors, I think that day will come, but perhaps not in Ohís lifetime, and perhaps not even in my own, although Iím nearly 20 years younger than Oh. I think it will happen in my young sonís lifetime, though. My hope is that Oh will live long enough to receive an honor he richly deserves.

* * *


By Craig Tomarkin

Sadaharu Oh won the Japanese MVP 9 times.

The Japanese Gold Glove award was introduced in 1972. Oh won it as a first baseman 9 times from 1972 to 1980. Presumably, he would have won it in the years before 1972 as well.

In Japan, they have an award called the Best Nine, which they give to the best player at each position. Oh won it at first base 18 consecutive years from 1962 until 1979. Now that's consistency! Where's Guiness?

Despite his long career spanning twenty-two years, Oh was able to maintain a lifetime .301 batting average.

Mr. October? Oh led his team to the Japan Series 13 times. In the 77 World Series games Oh played, he pounded 29 homers! That's better than his regular season rate. Clutch.

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