Hiroyuki Nakajima may be one of the best candidates for the Pacific League's Most Valuable Player Award and will probably win it tomorrow despite a season that probably wasn't as good as the Orix Buffaloes' Tuffy Rhodes.
Nakajima did everything for the Lions in heart of Saitama Seibu's batting order and in the center of their infield. This year Nakajima led the league in on-base percentage (.410) for a championship team that was not very good in that department, with 21 homers (tied for eighth), 32 doubles (tied for fourth), and was the second-best percentage base stealer in the league (25-for-30).
On the other side of the ledger, Nakajima was the second most valuable defensive player on his team--Lions catcher Toru Hosokawa had a bigger year. It is hard, however, to give Nakajima tons of credit for his defense, when the Lions made more errors than anyone, were below average turning the double play and Nakajima's numbers really aren't those of a top-flight shortstop.
Bill James' win shares formulas rate Seibu's shortstops as below average, largely because their 414 assists ranked fifth in the league despite having an above-average number of innings pitched by lefties. The volume of a team's left-handed pitching is important because the more innings southpaws throw, the more right-handed batters a team will face--and right-handed batters hit more balls toward short then lefties do (in 2008, it was 30 percent more often). The Lions were second in the PL in innings pitched by lefties, making their shortstops' low assist totals a puzzle.
A colleague said Nakajima is the only Japanese shortstop with a major league arm. But if that were the case, wouldn't one expect Lions' shortstops to throw out more runners? Yet every season since Nakajima became the regular in 2004, the Lions' assists at shortstop have been lower than the PL norm.
He could well be Japan's answer to Derek Jeter: a player who looks like a brilliant shortstop but who consistently makes fewer plays than his peers.
Nakajima may be more valuable than his defensive numbers suggest, but it is hard to think he is a lot better.
Nakajima's MVP credentials rest on his being a first-class hitter for a pennant-winning team and a key defensive contributor, but that last component is questionable. The other two PL shortstops on Japan's Beijing Olympic team, Tsuyoshi Nishioka of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Munenori Kawasaki of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, are both much more impressive fielders than Nakajima.
Without more credit for fielding, it is hard to rate Nakajima's season as better than either Rhodes' or Alex Cabrera's.
Because runs are harder to come by in the Buffaloes' home parks than in Seibu's, Rhodes' numbers are not just a little better than Nakajima's--they are a lot better. Cabrera is somewhere in between. His offense wasn't at the same level as his teammate's but Cabrera has defensive value because he sometimes stops balls hit toward him at first base.
Nakajima, however, deserves credit for the 16 games he missed in order to play for his country this summer. If one assumes he would be as valuable then as he was over the rest of the season, his value would have been identical to Cabrera's, although still slightly behind Rhodes'.
The two are close. Since the voters only really consider someone with a pennant-winning team, Nakajima will probably be named MVP tomorrow. Nakajima's not an easy pick, but he's not a bad choice either.
In addition to Alex Ramirez of the Giants winning the CL MVP award, The Hot Corner's other 2008 awards are:
Rookies of the Year
CL: Hayato Sakamoto, Giants, SS.
PL: Satoshi Komatsu, Buffaloes, P.
CL Best IX
P: Kyuji Fujikawa, Tigers.
C: Shinnosuke Abe, Giants.
1B: Michihiro Ogasawara, Giants.
2B: Hiroyasu Tanaka, Swallows.
3B: Shuichi Murata, BayStars.
SS: Takeshi Toritani, Tigers.
OF: Tomoaki Kanemoto, Tigers; Alex Ramirez, Giants; Norihiro Akahoshi, Tigers.
PL Best IX
P: Yu Darvish, Fighters
C: Toru Hosokawa, Lions.
1B: Alex Cabrera, Buffaloes.
2B: Kensuke Tanaka, Fighters.
3B: Takeya Nakamura, Lions.
SS: Hiroyuki Nakajima, Lions.
OF: Atsunori Inaba, Fighters; Takumi Kuriyama, Lions; G.G. Sato, Lions.
DH: Tuffy Rhodes, Buffaloes.