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 Hiroshima Toyo Carp and Hanshin Tigers infielder Takahiro Arai. Arai is tied with Kazuhiro Wada for 38th on the all-time NPB list with 319 home runs.
Arai is another NPB star who had success in college before becoming a professional baseball superstar in Japan. In 1998, Arai represented Komazawa University in the elite Tohto University Baseball League, where he led the league in RBIs.
He was also part of a Japanese collegiate all-star team that faced the United States’ best college all-stars in a four-game, USA vs. Japan Collegiate World Series that was held in Tucson and Scottsdale, Arizona. Arai impressed Japanese and American fans alike by going 6 for 12 in the four games. Japan split the series with a team that featured future Major League Baseball players Casey Fossum and Josh Bard.
Arai only homered twice in his college career, but the scouts for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp must have seen some power potential in the young player. To his delight, Arai was drafted in the sixth round of the 1998 NPB draft by the Carp, his favorite team from childhood.
Arai’s career would last 20 years with the Carp and the Hanshin Tigers, in which he compiled a career .278 batting average with 319 home runs, 2,203 hits and 1,303 RBIs.
Arai was quietly steady and consistent throughout his career and improved on his game almost every year both on the offensive and defensive ends. He was a presence on and off the field. In 2008, he served as head of the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association. On the field, he hit 25 or more home runs four times and batted .300 or better four times. In 2005, Arai won the Central League home run title with 43 home runs for the Carp. Arai would hit home runs in six straight games and tied Rick Lancellotti’s team record for consecutive home runs in 2005. He would lead the Central League with 93 RBIs in 2011. Arai was also a two-time winner of the Best Nine Award. This award is given to the best player at each position in NPB. Arai won it in 2005 and 2016 in the Central League.
Arai also earned a Central League Golden Glove Award in 2008, and would follow that up by earning the Central League MVP award in 2016 by batting .300 with 19 home runs and 101 RBIs. Arai was also an eight-time NPB All-Star. In 2013, Arai won NPB All-Star Game MVP honors; in Game 2 of the series, when he drove in the tie-breaking run in the third inning on an RBI single off the Seibu Lions’ Kazuhisha Makita to help the Central League defeat the Pacific League 3-1 in Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.
As a pro, Arai thrived against the world’s best players in international competition, as he did in college back in 1998. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he was part of the gold medal-winning Japan team. In 2007, Arai helped Japan win the Asian Championship by batting .500 with five RBIs in three games. Japan would gain a berth in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with their title win. In the Olympics, Japan finished in fourth place with a 7-4 record. Arai batted .257 with two triples and seven RBIs in the tournament.
In the NPB postseason, Arai helped the Tigers and Carp reach the Japan Series three times, but he failed to win a title. In 2014, The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks defeated the Hanshin Tigers in five games. Arai left Hanshin after that season and returned to Hiroshima, and in 2016, he was a primary catalyst in helping the Carp earn their first Central League pennant in 25 years. Unfortunately for him, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters defeated Hiroshima in six games in the Japan Series. By 2018 Arai was used strictly as a pinch hitter. The Carp would lose in six games in the Japan Series to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Arai would retire after the season concluded.
He was a great and selfless player who put his team’s needs ahead of his own. He did not win a Japan Series title in his 20-year career, but his impact on the game will never be forgotten.
Previous entry: #38 Kazuhiro Wada (tied with Arai)