By Scott Melesky
Statistics are a way journalists and fans can measure the greatness of athletes in sports, especially baseball. In the major leagues in both Japan and the United States, four prestigious statistical clubs demonstrate a player’s greatness: the 3,000 hit and 300 home run clubs for batters and the 300 win and 3,000 strikeout clubs for pitchers.
In a series of articles, I will write stories on each Japanese player in these prestigious clubs. I want to focus on the distinguished players that played in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and highlight their contributions to the game. I am going to start this series by highlighting the NPB players in the 300 Home Run Club.
Next in my series is former Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants third baseman (and current Yomiuri Giants coach) Shuichi Murata. Murata is 28th on the NPB 300 Home Run Club with 360 home runs. In his 15 years in NPB, Murata compiled a .269 batting average, 360 home runs, 1,865 hits, and 1,123 RBIs. Like fellow NPB 300 Home Run club members Michiyo Arito, Kazuhiro Wada, Takahiro Arai, and Hideki Matsui, Murata was lauded by Japanese baseball fans as an amateur baseball player and celebrated as he developed into a professional baseball superstar.
Murata is the first player in the NPB 300 Home Run Club from the “Matsuzaka Generation.” The Japanese media coined this term to describe players in the age group led by former MLB pitcher and current Saitama Seibu Lions pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka became famous when he led Yokohama High School to the 1998 National High School Baseball Invitational (“Koshien”) championship. In four consecutive games, Matsuzaka pitched two shutouts in 26 innings, a scoreless ninth inning for a save, and just the second no-hitter in Koshien history. He went on to have an illustrious career in NPB, MLB, and national team competition.
The “Matsuzaka Generation” age group encompasses players born between April 2, 1980, and April 1, 1981. This generation signified one of the deepest and most talented age groups in Japanese baseball history. A total of 94 professional players belong to this generation, with 53 currently playing. Before excelling in NPB, they started getting attention with their play in the 80th Koshien tournament and in the Tokyo “Big6” college tournament.
Murata was celebrated as a little leaguer with the Seto Bears and continued to get attention from Japanese baseball fans and media alike when he played for the Kasuya Phoenix in junior high school. Murata led Higashi Fukuoka High School to consecutive berths in the spring and summer Koshien tournaments. In high school, at just 17 years old, was already throwing an 89 mph fastball. He led Higashi Fukuoka to its first appearance in the spring high school tournament but was defeated by Yokohama High School and Daisuke Matsuzaka in the second round. Higashi Fukuoka would qualify for the summer high school tournament in 1998 but would lose in the first round to Toyota Ohtani High School. In his high school career, Murata hit 30 home runs.
Murata was the rare athlete who was utterly dominant in pitching and hitting. However, upon graduation from Higashi Fukuoka, Murata gave up pitching and became a third baseman. In an interview with the Japanese media, Murata said that he made this decision when he realized that he would never beat Matsuzaka as a pitcher.
In college, Murata was a prodigious hitter for Nihon University. In his junior year, Murata led his team to the All-Japan University Baseball Championship series. He was a two-time member of the Japanese team that would play the United States in the Japan-United States Baseball Championship in 2001 and 2002. They faced future MLB players Dustin Pedroia, Nick Swisher, Philip Humber, Huston Street, Aaron Hill, and Ryan Garko. In 2001, Japan beat these future MLB stars in three out of four games played in Japan. Team USA would get revenge in 2002, beating Japan three times in five games played throughout the United States’ East Coast. Murata would get five hits against the U.S. collegiate all-stars.
Murata was also a member of the bronze medal-winning BAF World University Baseball team. He tied a Tohto University Baseball League single-season home run record with eight home runs in 2002. In all, Murata hit .275 with 20 home runs, 103 hits, and 70 home runs in his college career, earning the Tohto University Baseball League “Best Nine” Award four times. A prized prospect after his proficient college career, the Yokohama BayStars eagerly signed Murata in 2002.
In his NPB debut, Murata got off to a terrific start against the Yomiuri Giants. He got his first hit off Masumi Kuwata in his debut game and hit his first home run off Hisaroni Takahashi in his second game. In September 2003, Murata hit ten home runs and set an NPB rookie record for most home runs in a month.
In 2006, Murata was chosen to play on a Nippon Professional All-Star team that would tune up the Japanese National team before the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Murata hit a three-run homer run off high school rival Daisuke Matsuzaka to lead the all-stars to a 4-3 win over the national team that featured superstars Ichiro Suzuki, Shinnosuke Abe, Kaziro Wada, Takahiro Arai, and Koji Uehara. At the end of the regular season, Murata re-joined the NPB All-Stars to play the Major League All-Stars in an exhibition series in Japan. In game four of the series, Murata homered off Anaheim Angels pitcher John Lackey. He had four hits and three RBI in the five-game series. Later, he would help Team Japan win the 2007 Asian Baseball Championship held in Taichung, Taiwan.
Murata went 4-for-9 (.444 batting average) and helped Japan qualify for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. In the Olympics, Murata suffered a severe cold, which hampered his play. He just had two hits in the tournament, and Japan finished in fourth place. Murata redeemed himself in the 2009 World Baseball Classic with two home runs in the tournament. In the first seven games, he hit .320 with seven runs before injuring his hamstring in a second-round game against South Korea. Japan went on to win the WBC title in Los Angeles and team officials presented Murata with the gold medal when they returned to Tokyo.
After playing nine years for the BayStars, Murata signed with the Yomiuri Giants in 2012. He would play in two Japan Series with the Giants, in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, Murata won his first and only Japan Series title when Yomiuri defeated the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in six games. In the 2013 Japan Series, Murata hit a home run in Game 1 to give the Giants a 2-0 win over the Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In Game 5, Murata had a home run and two RBIs, but the Giants would fall to the Golden Eagles 4-2 in 10 innings. Despite Murata’s efforts, Hokkaido defeated Yomiuri Giants in seven games to win the 2013 Japan World Series.
In 15 NPB seasons, Murata was a two-time All-Star. In 2007, he was the Central League home run leader with 36. In 2008, Murata had a breakout year, hitting .323 and Bay Stars franchise and NPB league-leading 46 home runs and 114 RBI. Murata became the first Japanese-born player to lead the Central League in home runs for consecutive seasons since Hiromitsu Ochai did it in 1990 and 1991. For his record-breaking season, he was named to the “Best Nine” team at third base in the Central League in 2008.
Murata would retire from the Giants and NPB in 2017. He played with the Tochigi Golden Braves in the Baseball Challenge league in 2018 before returning to the Giants as a coach.