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THE HOT CORNER: High homer hopes lost in translation

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THE HOT CORNER: High homer hopes lost in translation

by Jim Allen (Mar 6, 2008)

Hitoshi Tamura was supposed to hit 40 homers last year in his Pacific League debut season. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh hoped for that many after watching Tamura's fearsome drives in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

So after trading away the unfulfilled promise of pitcher Hayato Terahara to the Yokohama BayStars to get Tamura, the skipper was somewhat disappointed with his paltry .271 average and 13 home runs over a full season--although in hindsight he shouldn't have counted on much more.

In the WBC, Tamura was coming off the first good two-year stretch of his career. It looked like he had finally put his injury-prone past behind him.

Gold medal in hand, his history of playing well when healthy continued. On June 2, he hit a pair of solo homers, a double and a single in a 12-7 beating of Hokkaido Nippon Ham. On track for a third straight 30-homer, .300 season, Tamura's history of injury then repeated itself.

A year after hurting himself crashing his car, Tamura crashed into home plate in Sendai on June 7, 2006, breaking four bones in a collision that cost him nearly 100 games.

In the off-season, fortune smiled on Tamura in the form of the trade that reunited him with Oh. With Tamura on board along with third baseman Hiroki Kokubo, back from two years as a Yomiuri Giant, the skipper predicted a powerful future for his team. But it was not to be.

Both Kokubo and first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka were hurt, while Tamura was, well, Tamura.

"I tore a muscle in my leg," he told The Hot Corner last month at the Hawks' camp in Miyazaki. "I was playing on one good leg."

The remarkable thing is that Tamura still played superb defense in center field. His offense, however, shriveled. Something he attributed to the change in scenery.

"I was not prepared for how much bigger Fukuoka's park is," Tamura said. "I was used to Yokohama. But that was last year. This year, just watch."

But how much can we really expect from Tamura?

When one examines how hitters' numbers are affected by their parks and leagues, one gets the sense that 40 homers as a Hawk is going to be a really tough target for Tamura.

In his two best seasons combined, Tamura hit 71, but those came in a park and a league where home runs are a lot easier to come by.

The BayStars' home parks boost Yokohama's hitters' homer totals by nearly 10 percent a year compared to the rest of the CL, where home runs are much easier to hit than in the PL.

Last year, home runs were 27 percent more frequent in the CL, although in 2004 when Tamura had his biggest year the figure was 17 percent and in 2005, 11 percent. The Hawks' home, Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, then cuts PL homers by 3 percent.

When one takes that into account and adjusts for other influences, one sees how much of Tamura's Yokohama numbers would be lost in the transition to Fukuoka.

His .305, 40-homer year in 2004 looks like a .290 season with 29 homers had he been in a Hawks uniform. In 2005, when he hit 31 homers with a .304 average for Yokohama, his Fukuoka numbers look like a .287 average with 23 over the fence.

Still, these are just ballpark figures derived from the actions of hundreds of ballplayers. They are not models for any one type of hitter, and hitters are affected in different ways. For example, Nagoya Dome robs all players of homers, but players are not hurt equally. Tyrone Woods, who hits them high and far, has homered 18 percent less often at Nagoya Dome the past two seasons. Kosuke Fukudome, who hit lots of liners, homered 29 percent less often in Nagoya.

But players are not computers; they can learn and adjust. Tomoaki Kanemoto did just that when moving from Hiroshima, Japan's best home run park, to Koshien, which drastically cuts left-handed hitters' homers. He hit 19 in 2003, his first year with the Hanshin Tigers, but 74 over the next two seasons.

Tamura is not in the same class as Kanemoto, but he could surprise us and perhaps hit 30 out. Given what he has done in the past, his history of injury and his superb defense, that would be plenty.

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