Player A is well-paid and is a core team member. This year, though, he is hitting under .250. While he has never been known for his power, he certainly can do better than the single home run he has produced thus far. He has somehow gone from reliable hitter to double play maker. Not only that, but his defensive play, once a non-issue, has stood out glaringly on several occasions – many of which do not show up in the record book as errors, but hurt the team nonetheless.
This description of Player A sounds hauntingly like Matt Murton circa 2015. Murton’s struggles overflowed into the media, and coupled with his flare ups at home plate, had fans and media alike calling for his benching or even farming. Eventually, the day came. Toward the end of June with the team playing poorly and the onset of the hot, sticky Japanese summer upon us, manager Yutaka Wada made the decision. Murton would sit out the last two games of interleague play before spending extra time practicing his form and talking to the coaches at length, and performing extremely well over the next two-plus months of baseball. (We won’t talk about his September, which was somewhat forgettable – but then so was that of the entire team.)
In any case, Player A is still on the team, and still plays every day. His name? You guessed it. Shortstop and captain Takashi Toritani. Despite a great on-base percentage thanks in large part to his keen eye at the plate, drawing him 25 walks, his performance is underwhelming and definitely reminiscent of a player who not only got benched last season, but was sent packing, in part because his salary was viewed as too high for the amount of production he gave the team. That having been said, Toritani’s 400 million yen is quite close to the estimated 450 million Murton received in 2015. And yet his numbers are not much better.
He is hitting just .235 on the year, which is well below his career average of .285. It’s a career-worst, in fact. Among qualified batters in the Central, only two non-catchers are hitting worse than Toritani, and both of them are considered power hitters. Toritani is on pace for just 4 home runs and 51 RBIs with 7 stolen bases. Worse, at this rate he will hit into a total of 30 double plays on the season, and commit 19 errors. Obviously, these are “pace” numbers and assume there will be no improvement as the season goes on. However, they also assume things will not get worse – a strong possibility as fatigue sets in and injuries accrue.
The question, then, is this: should new manager Tomoaki Kanemoto give his captain the same treatment as Wada did to Murton last season? After all, he is severely underperforming and even hurting the team in crucial situations (see last Wednesday as a prime example). A lot of times, his poor defense has cost the team runs, despite not showing on his record (on Friday night, he dropped an easy throw from catcher, later resulting in a run, but no error against). He does not appear to have much of a positive effect on his teammates, either. In the offseason, Kanemoto told his captain, “You need to change more than anyone else on this team.” The skipper also gave his team a new slogan in the offseason: Ultra Reform (超変革 – cho-henkaku). The term has been thrown around with almost too much liberality so far, as newcomers Shun Takayama, Yutaro Itayama and others have gotten a lot of playing time from very early in the year. Two players (including super catcher Fumihito Haraguchi) have gone from development (育成 – ikusei) status to first squad roster spots. There have been much fewer sacrifice bunts, including none in the first inning through the season’s first 39 games. He has changed the batting order often, sent several players down to the farm while giving several others chances to perform on the big stage. Names and reputations seem to have little value under Kanemoto’s regime.
What would make a bigger statement than benching his underperforming captain? Yes, he has an incredible ironman streak going (1648 games and counting, including 614 straight without missing a single inning). These are prestigious individual accomplishments that deserve recognition and honor. But should they supercede the priority of team success? As a player, Kanemoto set the bar high for future iron men by playing in a ridiculous 1492 consecutive games without missing a single inning of action. But fans will also recall the days before the streak was halted (by Kanemoto himself, when he pulled himself from the starting lineup) – poor production, terrible fielding, and frustration building among teammates and fans alike.
Wada did not have the courage to bench Toritani and put team above player. Does Kanemoto? It’s time to show the world how serious he is about winning and about putting the health of the team first.