JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: Hideo Nomo
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
It is easy to forget the extent to which Hideo Nomo changed everything. Before his arrival in the United States with the Dodgers for the 1995 season, the idea of a Japanese star coming stateside to test his mettle in the majors was literally a foreign concept. Only one previous Japanese-born player from Nippon Professional Baseball, Masanori Murakami, had pitched in the majors, and that was back in 1964 and ’65. American fans remember the way Nomo took the nation by storm with the Dodgers in 1995 and ’96, baffling hitters with his unorthodox delivery, though he spent the better part of the next decade bouncing around the majors while struggling to overcome his control issues.
Since Nomo’s debut, the floodgates have opened, and while it would be a stretch to say the arrival of Japanese players has become downright routine, the success of so many has helped to globalize the game, raising MLB’s profile overseas. Wrote Japanese baseball expert Robert Whiting, “The history of the Japan-America baseball relationship can be divided into two eras: Pre-Nomo and Post-Nomo.”
I had initially planned to include my writeup of Nomo among the handful of pitchers who are new to this year’s ballot and have no real chance to be elected. Even if his statistics from Japan could be taken into consideration, he doesn’t have numbers that merit induction in Cooperstown, which is after all the National — not International — Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In the end, he stands as a pioneer of sorts, so I decided to give his career a closer look and a more detailed valedictory.
|Avg HOF SP||72.6||50.2||61.4|
Born in Osaka in 1968, Nomo played baseball at the usual stops while growing up. In an attempt to get more speed on the ball, he developed a distinctive corkscrew delivery — later dubbed the tornado — that Whiting described succinctly: “He would raise his arms high over his head, turn his back on the batter, raise his pivot leg and freeze for a second before throwing.” You can see examples of that delivery from several stages of his career in this tribute video the Dodgers put together earlier this year:
While Nomo’s fastball was impressive, he battled his control to the extent that he was originally passed over by Japanese professional scouts. Eventually he mastered his delivery and added a forkball — a forerunner of the split-fingered fastball — that became his signature pitch. In the 1988 Summer Olympics, where baseball was a demonstration sport, he helped the Japanese team win a silver medal and used his success there as a springboard to NPB. The Kinetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League drafted him in 1989, and he debuted for them the following year.
Nomo was a sensation in 1990, going 18-8 with a 2.91 ERA and 287 strikeouts in 235 innings. The 21-year-old righty won the Pacific League’s Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, and took home the NPB’s analogue to the Cy Young, the Eiji Sawamura Award. He led the Pacific League in strikeouts and wins in each of his first four seasons before shoulder tendonitis cost him almost half of his fifth year, in 1994. Overuse was likely a factor; in one game he walked 16 hitters and threw an astounding 191 pitches.
That winter, Los Angeles-based player agent Don Nomura used Nomo to test a loophole in the standard Japanese player contract. In 1966, in the wake of confusion and conflict over Murakami — a 19-year old Japanese pitcher who signed a contract with the stateside Giants and became the first such player in the majors — officials in MLB and Japan had signed a working agreement in which they honored each other’s contracts and rules. By 1992, a Japanese player needed 10 years of service time before he could become a free agent, but Nomura had discovered a clause via which a player could voluntarily retire, then depart NPB to play elsewhere without violating the conditions of the agreement. Nomo had spent the 1994 season attempting to secure a six-year extension from Kinetsu, but upon being rebuffed went through his “retirement.” In February, he signed with the Dodgers, receiving a $2 million signing bonus while making the major league minimum base salary; the plan was for him to replace departed free agent Orel Hershiser.
Because of the ongoing players’ strike, the 26-year-old Nomo began the year in the minors. He debuted in the majors on May 2, throwing five innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Giants. His early outings were uneven; in one he walked seven while allowing no hits in four innings, in the next he struck out 14 in seven innings while allowing just two hits. Soon “The Tornado” struck; over a 13-start span from June 2 through Aug. 10, Nomo threw 103 1/3 innings while striking out 119 and yielding a 1.31 ERA. Japanese fans and media flocked to Dodger Stadium and opposing parks when he pitched amid “Nomomania,” a phenomenon reminiscent of the way rookie Fernando Valenzuela had similarly captured the attention of Los Angeles and the baseball world in 1981. Nomo landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s July 10, 1995 issue, the same week he started the All-Star Game for the NL.
Nomo finished the year with a 2.54 ERA and a league-leading 236 strikeouts, beat out Chipper Jones for the NL Rookie of the Year award and placed fourth in the Cy Young voting. He was such a sensation that Oscar/Grammy/Emmy award winners Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch collaborated on a song called “There’s No One Like Nomo” for jazz vocalist Jack Sheldon, whose distinctive voice had previously graced Schoolhouse Rock educational clips such as “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
Nomo had another strong year in 1996, turning in a 3.19 ERA while striking out 234 in 228 1/3 innings and again finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. On Sept. 17, he threw the only no-hitter in Coors Field history, a 110-pitch gem in which he struck out eight Rockies. Not only did he defy the park’s offense-friendly nature that day, he also waited out a two-hour rain delay before first pitch, and the condition of the mound caused him to largely abandon his signature delivery and instead pitch from the stretch. For the second year in a row, he also helped Los Angeles reach the playoffs, though he was hit hard in both postseason starts and his team was swept both years.
Though he continued to miss bats in 1997 — 233 strikeouts in 207 1/3 innings — his performance took a downturn that year; his walk and homer rates rose to 1.0 and 4.0 per nine, respectively, and he was hit for a 4.25 ERA.
Nomo underwent surgery to remove calcium deposits in his elbow after the season was over, but it didn’t turn the tide; major league hitters had finally caught up to what was largely a two-pitch repertoire, and he embarked upon a long descent into mediocrity. From 1998 through 2001, he averaged 180 innings per year and 9.1 strikeouts per nine but was cuffed for a 4.66 ERA (96 ERA+). L.A. traded him to the Mets in June 1998; New York released him the following spring, and he passed through the hands of the Cubs (who never promoted him from the minors), Brewers, Tigers and Red Sox over the next three seasons, occasionally flashing brilliance but often frustrating his teams. Pitching for Boston in 2001, he opened the season by no-hitting the Orioles while striking out 11, and on May 25, he whiffed 14 Blue Jays in a one-hit shutout. While he finished the year with a league-leading 220 Ks, some late drubbings inflated his final ERA to 4.50.
Nomo’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he reunited with the Dodgers in December 2001 via a two-year, $13.75 million deal that included a vesting option for the third year. He threw a combined 438 1/3 innings of 3.24 ERA work (121 ERA+) in 2002 and ’03, his first two seasons being better than league-average since 1996. Alas, his performance collapsed in 2004; he battled shoulder tendonitis again and was torched for an 8.25 ERA and 2.0 homers per nine over the course of 18 agonizing starts.
After signing a minor league deal with the Devil Rays that winter, Nomo was similarly punished by AL hitters (7.24 ERA in 19 starts) in 2005 before drawing a mid-July release. While his results improved during a late-season stint at the Yankees’ Triple-A Columbus affiliate, the call to the majors never came. He tried again with the White Sox in 2006 but was stymied by injuries and made a brief return in April 2008 with the Royals, but after three outings totaling 4 1/3 innings and nine runs allowed, he was done.
Nomo doesn’t have anything close to Hall of Fame numbers, but he left his mark on major league baseball. From 1995 through 2003, he averaged 200 strikeouts per year; only four pitchers — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens — struck out more hitters in that span. Nomo’s strikeout rate (9.07 per nine) and hit rate (7.68 per nine) both rank fourth for that stretch among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings, and nobody else threw multiple no-hitters in that timeframe.
More than that, Nomo paved the way for other Japanese players to come to the majors. Circa 1996, his stateside success piqued the curiosity of other major league teams who were suddenly willing to consider Japanese talent, which had generally been considered far inferior. In January 1997, the Padres purchased the contract of Chibe Lotte Marines pitcher Hideki Irabu, but the burly hurler refused to pitch for San Diego and was subsequently traded to the Yankees. In December 1998, after Alfonso Soriano had departed Japan for the Yankees via the same loophole that Nomo used, MLB and NPB officials put in place a silent-auction posting system via which the highest-bidding major league team would win exclusive negotiating rights to a Japanese player for 30 days. If he signed, the team holding his rights received compensation, but if not, he returned to NPB.
The system didn’t apply to free agents with at least nine years of service time, and so NPB veterans began trickling over to the U.S. Pitchers Shigetosi Hasegawa, Masato Yoshii and Kazuhiro Sasaki were among those who debuted in the 1997-2000 span, joining Nomo and Irabu; if they didn’t shine as brightly, they at least held their own. In December 2000, Orix BlueWave outfielder Ichiro Suzuki became the first player of note to go through the posting system and reach the majors as well as the first Japanese position player to arrive. The Mariners won his rights with a bid of $13.125 million, and all he did was go on to win AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in 2001.
Since then, another 40 Japanese-born players have reached the majors, and Major League Baseball has sent teams to Tokyo to open the regular season four times, most recently in 2012. Japan won the first two iterations of the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and ’09, then finished third in 2013. This past season Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma ranked among the majors’ 25 most valuable pitchers in terms of WAR, with Darvish and Iwakuma both selected to pitch in the All-Star Game. Ichiro Suzuki enjoyed a moment in the sun on the occasion of his 4,000th career hit between Japan and the majors, while Koji Uehara nailed down the final outs for the Red Sox in the World Series. This winter, big-spending teams are poised to open their wallets to bid on Masahiro Tanaka just as soon as MLB and NPB officials can agree to revisions of the posting process.
Had it not been for Nomo, all of that might have happened anyway. Another player would have eventually come along to reopen the long-closed baseball pipeline between Japan and the United States. Even so, it was Nomo who went first, the pioneer whose every move was scrutinized on two continents. He showed that Japanese players could do more than survive in major league baseball. They could thrive.