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 Hideji Kato, former first baseman for the Hankyu Braves, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Kintetsu Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants, and Nankai Hawks, and coach for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. He is 32nd on the all-time NPB List with 347 Home Runs.
Kato hit 30 or more home runs two times and batted .300 or better nine times in his career. He was an 11-time NPB All-Star. Kato won the Most Valuable Player award in 1975 and was named “Best Nine” five times in the Pacific League. On defense, he won three NPB Golden Gloves. He played 19 years in NPB and compiled a career .297 batting average with 347 home runs, 2,055 hits, and 1,268 RBIs. Kato was named to the prestigious Golden Players Club (Meikyukai) for reaching the 2,000 hit milestone.
His peak years were 1973-1977 when he dominated in the regular season and led the Hawks in a mini-dynasty of three consecutive Japan Series Titles. In ’73, Kato won the Pacific League batting title with a .337 batting average. After a productive-but-not-dominant ’74 season, he busted out in 1975. Kato won the MVP by hitting .309 with 32 home runs and led the Pacific League with 97 RBI and 261 total bases. He also won the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves. Kato continued his offensive dominance for the Braves in 1976, when he batted .300 and led the league in RBI (84), total bases (239), and OBP (.376). In 1977, he again led the league in OBP (.401) and won the third of three consecutive Gold Gloves.
In the postseason, Kato was one of the Braves’ top hitters and fielders and was the main cog in their run of three Japan Series titles from 1975 to 1977. In that period, Hankyu defeated the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 1975 and the mighty Yomiuri Giants in 1976 and 1977.
After playing 14 years with the Braves, Kato would spend the next five years playing for a myriad of teams, including the Carp, Buffaloes, Giants, and the Hawks. He then would coach the Nippon-Ham Fighters before going into broadcasting.
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