Baseball

[NPB NOTEBOOK] Triple Crown Winner Munetaka Murakami Has MLB Aspirations

But the Tokyo Yakult Swallows standout, who is still only 22, may have a long wait ahead before he has an opportunity to test his talents in MLB.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows star Munetaka Murakami attends a news conference at the Japan National Press Club on November 14 in Tokyo. (KYODO)

Like many of his countrymen, Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami has expressed an interest in moving to the major leagues.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger told reporters earlier this month that he would like to test his talents in MLB while he is still in his prime.

"Of course, I want to try," the 22-year-old Murakami said during a news conference on Monday, November 14 at the Japan National Press Club. "I don't know how old I'll be, but I'm still young, so the sooner the better."

Murakami has only played four full seasons for the Swallows. So he has a long way to go before achieving international free agency status.

For him to go sooner, the Swallows would have to be open to making him available through the posting system. Some teams in NPB are more open to posting than others.

The record of Japanese position players over the years in MLB has been spotty. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui thrived in the majors. But many more failed or had only modest results. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, formerly of the Chiba Lotte Marines, comes to mind.

Generally speaking, MLB teams are more interested in Japanese pitchers. Hitters like Murakami are considerably easier to find than quality pitchers.

Murakami became Japan's youngest Triple Crown winner this past season when he hit 56 homers to surpass all-time great Sadaharu Oh's previous record for a Japanese-born player of 55. He also had a Central League-leading .318 batting average and 134 RBIs.

He said trying to make it in the majors is something that has been on his mind for a long time.

"Since I first joined [Yakult], the challenge of going is something I have eventually wanted to take on if given the opportunity," Murakami stated.

Yamamoto Honored

Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto earned his second career Best Nine Award on Thursday, November 24.

The right-hander led the Pacific League in wins (15), ERA (1.68) and strikeouts (205) for the second straight year.

"I'm very honored to be selected," said Yamamoto, who received 260 of 263 votes in the Pacific League. "I will do my best to raise my level so that I will be picked again next year."

Yoshida Pursuing Move to MLB

Another Japanese position player who wants to go to the majors is Orix Buffaloes outfielder Masataka Yoshida.

Widely considered one of the best hitters in Japanese baseball, along with Murakami, Yoshida will try to move to the majors this offseason through the posting system.

The Buffaloes agreed to post the 29-year-old Yoshida, who is a two-time Pacific League batting champion. 

Yoshida, who also won a Best Nine Award, helped the Buffaloes win their first Japan Series championship in 26 years in October.

After Orix applies to post Yoshida by December 15, the left-handed hitter will be made available to major league teams. If signed, the Buffaloes will receive a transfer fee based on the value of his major league contract.

Yoshida has a .327 career batting average with 133 homers and 467 RBIs in seven seasons with the Buffaloes. He was a member of Japan's gold medal-winning team at last year's Tokyo Olympics.

Kondo on the Move?

Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters hitter Kensuke Kondo has decided to exercise his free agency rights and is eligible to talk with all NPB clubs as of November 11.

Kondo has played 11 seasons all with the Fighters since turning pro in 2012.

He has 1,016 hits, 52 homers, 446 RBIs and a career .307 batting average over 11 seasons.

The 29-year-old outfielder was also a member of Japan's gold medal-winning team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Several teams, including the Marines and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have reportedly expressed an interest in the veteran player.

Hammies' New Home Gets Green Light

As reported in a previous edition of NPB Notebook, the new home stadium of the Nipponham Fighters, ES CON Field Hokkaido, has faced some regulatory issues ahead of its first season next year.

The net in front of the first row of seats behind home plate was three meters too close to the base.

Fortunately, Nippon Professional Baseball decided on Monday, November 14 to allow games there next season. But it asked the Fighters to make renovations ahead of the 2024 season.

Koji Kawamura, Nipponham's top executive, apologized for the club's insufficient communication with NPB.

Speaking of the Fighters' new yard, the team will begin their 2023 season there on March 30 against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

That is one day before all the other NPB teams open their 2023 campaign. The Fighters have traditionally played home games at Sapporo Dome and several other parks in Hokkaido. But next season all home games will be at the spectacular ES CON Field.

Other season-opening games in the Pacific League will see the Saitama Seibu Lions host the Japan Series champion Orix Buffaloes on March 31, while the Marines visit PayPay Dome in Fukuoka to face the Hawks.

Sarfate Tribute

Dennis Sarfate, one of the greatest closers in NPB history, will get a well-deserved retirement ceremony from his former team, the SoftBank Hawks, Nikkan Sports reported.

Sarfate retired from NPB with 234 saves, fifth on the all-time list. If all goes according to plan, Sarfate will be honored before a Hawks preseason game next March (2023).

Sarfate first came to Japan in 2011 and pitched for the Hiroshima Carp and the Seibu Lions before moving to SoftBank.

He posted three straight seasons of 40-plus saves after he went to the Hawks in 2014.  In 2017, he notched 54 saves, smashing the record for the most single-season saves (46) in Japanese professional baseball history.

Nicknamed "King of Saves," Sarfate was an average reliever in MLB. But he became one of the greatest closers in Japan.

Sarfate was a three-time NPB All-Star and a five-time Japan Series champion. He won the Japan Series Most Valuable Player Award, the Pacific League MVP Award and the Matsutaro Shoriki Award. 

In 2018, after appearing in just six games, Sarfate underwent hip surgery.

On November 30, 2021, Sarfate announced his retirement from professional baseball, having missed the past three seasons due to injury. Because it was in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he couldn't have a proper retirement ceremony.


Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.

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