LONG STORY SPORT

The Meteoric Rise of Kōji Chikamoto

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

Continuing on with our tour around Nippon Professional Baseball, we're heading over to Nishinomiya to talk about one of my favorite up-and-comers in the league right now, center fielder Kōji Chikamoto. Since he made his debut in 2019 with the Hanshin Tigers, the 27-year-old has grown into a quality player in all aspects of the game. So today I'm going to talk about what Chikamoto has achieved as of writing so that you'll be there to see him develop even more in 2022.


Chikamoto's career in the NPB didn't start with as much fanfare as many of the other players I've written about on this blog. Without going too deep into it, as this post will revolve around his professional run, Chikamoto's road to Hanshin was wrought with many challenges. After completing his collegiate career at the Kwansei Gakuin University, Chikamoto moved on to play for Osaka Gas, a team that competes in Japan's amateur industrial league. Once there, he quickly asserted himself as one of the league's best players, and subsequently was called to play for the Japanese National Team during the 2018 Asian Games where he finished with four hits over 13 plate appearances and stole a base. His team reached the finals where they fell to South Korea.


With his strong play both in amateur ball and in the Asian Games, Chikamoto was selected by the Tigers in the first round of the 2018 NPB Draft, and after dominating for much of spring training, he was named Hanshin's starting center fielder when Opening Day rolled around. Chikamoto made the most of his debut as he whacked a triple off Tokyo Yakult Swallows ace Yasuhiro Ogawa and drove in his team's first run of the season. He would end up having great success during the first half of the season and earned a spot on the Central League roster for the All-Star Game.

Photo Credit: Yoshikazu Tsutaka

Chikamoto's rookie season was filled to the brim with historic milestones. On May 2nd, he set a team record for the longest hit streak for a rookie at 13 games. He set new Central League rookie records in both hits (159) and multi-hit games (42), both of which still stand today. And during the All-Star Game I mentioned earlier, he was voted the game's Most Valuable Player after becoming the second player in history the complete the cycle during the midsummer classic.


On the statistical side, Chikamoto was impressive in some areas but wasn't in others. While he only hit nine home runs and sported a weak 0.28 walk to strikeout ratio, meaning he struck out around four times for every walk, he finished second in the league with 36 stolen bases and shared the league lead with seven triples. By the time awards season rolled around, his strengths propelled him to a second-place finish for the Central League's Rookie of the Year, which was won by Munetaka Murakami, a seventh-place finish for the Central League's Most Valuable Player, and a fifth-place finish for a spot on the NPB's Best Nine. All in all, Chikamoto's rookie season was a blistering success.


Moving on to his 2020 season, Chikamoto showed improvements in practically all facets of the game. The center fielder saw his batting average increase 18 points from .271 to .293, his walk to strikeout ratio increased 0.21 points to 0.49, his WRC+ surpassed 100 to 115, meaning he was 15 percent a better all-around hitter than the average batter, and his WAR ballooned up from 2.3 over 142 games in 2019 to 5.4 over 120 games. Additionally, he became the eighth player in NPB history and the first since 1953, to successfully steal at least 30 bases in each of his first two seasons. Yet it was in the field where Chikamoto arguably found his greatest success.


To illustrate Chikamoto's improvement in this area, we'll utilize the often used UZR statistic. Standing for "Ultimate Zone Rating", UZR quantifies the number of runs a fielder will save over the course of the season by combining his proficiency in a number of areas including their ability to track down fly balls as well as holding runners from advancing to other bases and turning double plays. I'll include a full explanation here. The important thing to know right now is that an average fielder will earn a 0, with good to great fielders tracking up toward 10 or 15, and bad fielders tracking down toward -10 or -15.


Amazingly, while he didn't receive a Golden Glove award, which is given every year to the best fielders at each position, he finished 2020 leading all players in the NPB with an astonishing 19.1 UZR. Not only is that mark simply incredible, but the player who finished in second place, Hokkaido's Taishi Ohta, sported a fantastic 15.5 UZR, a good 3.5 runs fewer than Chikamoto, yet he received a Golden Glove in the Pacific League.


It should be noted that UZR isn't the be-all-end-all of defensive statistics, as nothing really is, but I mention this statistic simply because no one came even close to reaching this total.

Photo Credit: thehanshintigers.com

Heading into the 2021 season, Kōji Chikamoto had already proven himself to be the best player on the Hanshin Tigers, and arguably one of the best in the NPB. Any doubts to the latter assertion were pretty much snuffed out during the season proper, as the southpaw once again improved in just about every category, particularly at the plate.


2021 saw Chikamoto finish with career bests in batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.354), slugging percentage (.441), total extra-base hits (48), runs scored (91), walk to strikeout ratio (0.57), BABIP, or batting average on balls in play (.334), WRC+ (127), and WAR (5.5). Additionally, he led the entire NPB with 178 hits and was voted to play in his second All-Star Game, where he didn't end up hitting for the cycle. While no awards have been given out as of writing, this year could be his best opportunity so far to actually take home some silverware, like a Best Nine.


Chikamoto's success helped thrust Hanshin to their best record (.579 win percentage) since the 2008 season. In fact, they finished one game behind the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who would end up winning the whole Japan Series.


AUTHORS NOTE: One day after this blog post was published on December 1st, 2021, Chikamoto received his first Golden Glove award. Hopefully, this will be the first of many.


While it's next to impossible to perfectly forecast anything in baseball, I don't think I'd be crazy to conclude that Kōji Chikamoto is destined to be one of the most consistently good players in the NPB. He's continued to improve year after year, he's shown strong proficiency in each of the three key aspects to a position player's game, albeit not all at the same time, and he's on a team where he's the star. If he's able to combine all of his strengths; his strong contact-hitting acumen, his speed on the basepaths, and his potentially fantastic run-saving fielding, then we're talking about a potential MVP candidate and piece to a Japan Series-winning club. I personally don't see this guy ever moving to the MLB, but I do see him potentially becoming an NPB great if he continues at his current pace.

 

Special thanks to WhoScored, Transfermarkt, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and 1.02.JP for helping make me a more well-informed fan.


Featured Image Credit - Yoshikazu Tsutaka


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