On Sunday night in Hiroshima, the scoreboard looked like it needed correction:
Where’s Takashi Toritani‘s name? This is the man who has played every inning of all of the past 667 games (4th longest such streak in NPB history) dating back to the first game of the 2012 season. Sure, he has hit in every slot but 4th and 9th this season, and has slumped badly all year, but where is he? Has the team finally given up on their ¥400 million man? What caused manager Tomoaki Kanemoto (world best 1492 consecutive complete games played) to finally remove his name from the roster? Here are the facts and some of my own thoughts about the move that made headlines across Kansai on Sunday night and Monday morning.
* Toritani was batting .231 with 6 HRs, 28 RBIs and 10 SBs heading into Sunday’s game. Compare these to his career averages of .285 / 11 HR / 64 RBI / 10 SB and you can see where fans, media and management was getting a little impatient.
* Toritani also had 10 errors on the season, compared with an average of fewer than 8 per year in the last 7 seasons. He has also had many dropped balls this year that were not counted as errors.
* Toritani’s UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric used to measure a player’s defensive ability based on range, strength of arm, runs prevented, etc.) is a league-worst -20.6, where zero represents “average” and his range is an appalling -16.1 (compared with a 12.1 for Buffaloes shortstop Ryoichi Adachi).
* Kanemoto says he did not want Toritani to be called a scapegoat for the team’s losing ways any longer. He had consulted with the captain several times throughout the season about being benched, but did not pull the trigger until Sunday. Kanemoto also said that his reason for waiting so long to bench Toritani had nothing to do with the captain’s complete games ironman streak.
* Earlier in the season, when asked by the media about his continued use of Toritani, the skipper said, “We have no one who can take his place.” Turns out we have had someone all along. Yamato started Sunday’s game, and in fact he was the last man to stand between second and third for the Tigers before the streak began.
* The move had to be approved by the front office.
* Toritani entered the game as a pinch hitter in the 6th and stayed in the field for the remainder of the game. He recorded an RBI infield single and an RBI HPB (in the 8th).
* At the end of Sunday’s play, Toritani’s consecutive games streak (not necessarily playing in every inning) was extended to 1702 games, top for any shortstop in NPB history.
* When Kanemoto’s streak came to an end, he actually approached managed Akinobu Mayumi and requested to be benched – an unusual move for a player who prided himself on playing through countless injuries. However, he says he knew his limits, and even though the manager urged him to get out there just one more game (since the following day was a Monday and meant an automatic day of rest for players) but Kanemoto refused. Kanemoto said he remembered that as he made this decision, knowing that if he “waited one more day” on Toritani then the day of rest (Monday) would likely cause the benching to be delayed even further.
* Kanemoto also commented that he does not consider Toritani “old” or a “veteran” but a player who is mid-career. He still expects great things to come in the future, adding that he is in great physical shape and that he’s “only” 35. (Keep in mind, the skipper played until he was 42.)
* Kanemoto does not think moving Toritani over to third base is an option at this point. If he plays, it will be as shortstop, says the manager.
* Toritani was seen on the sidelines and on the bench, yelling encouragements to his teammates, playing catch to warm fielders up, stretching for when his turn would eventually come. He looked relaxed, even relieved, despite what must have been a hard decision to swallow.
* On Tuesday, Toritani once again started the game on the bench, coming in as a pinch hitter late in the game and then taking Yamato’s spot at short while the latter moved over the second base. He slashed a single to shallow left center, raising his average to .234.
I personally think this move came too late, but as the saying goes, better late than never. I really believed that without benching Toritani and putting his consecutive innings streak to an end, Kanemoto’s slogan “cho-henkaku” (超変革 = ultra reform) could not be taken 100% seriously. Now that Toritani has seen that his playing time and his streak do not come above the team’s success and health, perhaps it will make him a little hungrier. It will also hopefully give the rest of the young players a jolt as well. (“Hey, there’s another position up for grabs!” but also “No matter how good we get, we still have to earn our regular playing time. No exceptions!”)
The end of Toritani’s streak does not in any way diminish his accomplishment or the respect he deserves. He is one of the hardest working players in the game, arriving at the field first and leaving last, keeping his body in extremely good shape and playing through a ton of injuries at the most physically demanding position outside of catcher.
That Toritani has taken the decision as a man, and actually looks more light-hearted than ever in the past few days, adds to my appreciation of him, and I most certainly wish him a long, healthy, prosperous and successful career. Now that there are no sacred players, no pink elephants in the room, we can all breathe a little easier. Kanemoto. Toritani. The media. The fans. You. Me.
Now let’s get the captain back out there (no rush, mind you, but sooner is better than later, is it not?) and turn the season around. It can still be redeemed!