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International Free Agent Profile: Takashi Toritani

The former Hanshin Tiger shortstop is an unrestricted free agent who seems intent on playing baseball in the United States. Would he be a fit for the Mets?

Takashi Toritani
Takashi Toritani
Adam Pretty

Born June 26, 1981, in Hamura, Tokyo, Japan, Takashi Toritani would grow up to become one of Japanese baseball's iron men, currently possessing the Nippon Professional Baseball record for most consecutive games played without missing an inning at shortstop (398). He began his foray into the baseball world playing for the Junior Mets during his Little League days, and then played for Seibo Gakuen High School as a shortstop and a pitcher. In 1999, during the 81st Koshien Tournament, the youngster logged a few innings in relief of his school's starter, but because Seibo Gakuen High School lost, the young Toritani never got to forge a ‘Koshien moment'.

After high school, Toritani attended the prestigious Waseda University, home to the finest uniforms in all of baseball. He excelled in college ball, helping Waseda win four consecutive league titles. In the eight seasons (four semesters, spring and fall) he played, he won the Tokyo Big6 Best Nine Shortstop (awarded to the best overall player at every position) five times. Touted as a five-tool player, the defending 2003 champion Hanshin Tigers snatched up the young shortstop in the 2003 NPB Draft thanks to a pre-draft agreement that the team worked out with him.

The 23-year-old made his much-hyped debut in 2004, being handed the starting shortstop job over incumbent Atsuchi Fujimoto, who hit .301/.343/.376 the year before. After the first few games of the season, manager Akinobu Okada—himself a rookie—switched their roles, giving Fujimoto the majority of playing time at short and Toritani time at third. When Fujimoto left the team to participate in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the rookie was slotted back in at short and wound up playing out the rest of the season there, as the veteran struggled after returning. All in all, Toritani hit a disappointing .251/.320/.354 in 261 plate appearances.

In 2005, Fujimoto was moved to second base permanently, making shortstop Toritani's position to lose. This time, the Waseda graduate took the ball and ran with it, hitting .278/.343/.376 in all 146 games of the season—a trend that would continue for roughly the next decade. Toritani began the year hitting near the bottom of the lineup, but by the end of the season, his name was penciled in near the top of it. Even though the youngster began to manifest his potential, the year could be considered somewhat of a disappointment, despite Toritani's All-Star nomination. The Hanshin Tigers won the Central League pennant, but were swept by Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines.

Established at this point as a quality shortstop, Toritani would go on to become one of the mainstays of the Hanshin Tigers—figuratively and literally. He began a playing streak that stands to this day, playing 398 consecutive games without missing an inning at shortstop, from 2005 until 2007. On September 29, 2007, he was pulled from the game early when an injury he had sustained a few days earlier began acting up. Between 2006 and 2010, Toritani hit .286/.364/.431, getting at-bats all over the lineup card. During that period, he won two Best Nine Awards (2008 and 2010), was elected to another All-Star Game (2006), and won the Mitshi Golden Glove Award (2010).

In 2011, Nippon Professional Baseball introduced a new, standardized ball to be used in all official contests. Offense, across the board, dropped precipitously. In 2010, the Central League—composed of the Hanshin Tigers, Yomiuri Giants, Chunichi Dragons, Yakult Swallows, and Yokohama Bay Stars—compiled an average batting line of .267/.330/.410, with a league average ERA of 4.13. In 2011, the average batting line dropped to a paltry .242/.303/.340, with a league average ERA of 3.06. In 2010, 19 players hit .300 or higher; in 2011, five players did. Toritani's ability to hit was largely unaffected by the change to the regulation ball. He was among the lucky five, hitting exactly .300 with a league-leading .395 OBP. His power, on the other hand, fell victim to the new offense-dampening ball. Toritani's slugging percentage fell from a career-high .475 to .414, while his home run totals fell from 19 to five. According to a National League scout at the time, "[Toritani]'s patient, he has some plate vision, but I don't see him stinging the ball like he used to. The ball doesn't jump off his bat like it did three or four years ago...and in my opinion his bat speed is falling off a little bit." Despite the lesser numbers, the shortstop won his second Best Nine Award.

The lefty's batting average and slugging percentage fell even further in 2012, dropping to .262 and .375, respectively. Despite his regression in these two categories, the middle infielder retained most of his value thanks to a career-high 94 unintentional walks. His .373 on-base percentage was good for sixth-best in the Central League.

The lefty began the 2013 season playing for Samurai Japan in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In the competition, Toritani hit .267/.400/.667 in 15 at-bats over the course of seven games. In the first round, the middle infielder went hitless in two at-bats versus Brazil and the People's Republic of China, but drew three walks—two against the South American team and one against China. In the second round, he went 3-for-7 with a walk, going 0-for-1 with a walk against Taiwan and 3-for-6 in two games against the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the tournament semi-finals against Puerto Rico, Toritani went 1-for-4, tripling off of Randy Fontanez and scoring Samurai Japan's only run in their 3-1 loss.

The 32-year-old returned home for the 2013 NPB season and enjoyed something of a renaissance season thanks to the league quietly changing the official regulation ball yet again. Toritani hit .282/.402/.410 and led the league in unintentional walks with 104, one more than Wladamir Balentien, whose 60 home runs broke the NPB record of 55, previously set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964.

The shortstop's bat came to life in 2014, as he hit a very respectable .314/.403/.417. But that same year, the unthinkable happened: Toritani played in only 141 games, three fewer than the full 144-game season. He suffered from back pain early in the season, and later in the year was bothered by discomfort in his right knee, causing him to miss three games. With a 75-68 record, the Tigers found themselves in playoff contention, sweeping the archrival Yomiuri Giants for the Central League pennant. Despite the momentum, the Tigers lost the 2014 Japan Series to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

2010 29 144 651 .301 .373 .475 19 66 93 13/16
2011 30 144 590 .300 .395 .414 5 78 72 16/19
2012 31 144 624 .262 .373 .375 8 94 91 15/19
2013 32 144 643 .282 .402 .410 10 104 65 15/22
2014 33 141 631 .314 .403 .417 8 82 79 10/16

At the plate, Toritani stands tall and upright, with his hands set up about shoulder-high away from his body. He gets his arms into better position to hit during his leg kick. Like many of his contemporaries, he is a left-handed spray hitter; but he is more than just a slap-happy singles hitter as he possesses power to all fields. According to Tony Barnette, former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand who has pitched for the Yakult Swallows since 2010, "As a pitcher, you try to mix it up with him. He's a smart hitter who will pick up a pattern. When I face him, I try to give him the best I have to offer and, once I release the ball, I hope he gets himself out. Hitters like him rarely get beat by pitchers. The reason he gets out is because he mis-hits the ball."

Starting in 2010, Toritani made running a more regular part of his game. Before that season, his personal best was seven stolen bases, set in 2007 and matched in 2009, with a roughly 50% success rate. As offense dropped across the board, Toritani began incorporating the stolen base into his game, much like he did with drawing walks. Since 2010, he has successfully stolen double-digit bases, with a personal best of 16 in 2011. In addition to running more, he began picking and choosing his spots better, resulting in a 75% success rate.

Toritani has a reputation for being a very capable defensive infielder. He regularly makes plays from deep in the 6-5 hole, getting to balls with his above-average range and completing them thanks to his strong throwing arm, which is among the best in Japan. Earlier in his career, he was somewhat error-prone and rushed his throws; but after tying for the league lead in errors in 2008, the shortstop shored up that aspect of his game. Since then, he has committed fewer than ten errors per year, averaging roughly six per season. How his defensive numbers would translate to MLB is anyone's guess, as Japanese infielders have historically had trouble adapting to the new league. Working in Toritani's favor is the fact that the Tigers' home field is the storied Koshien Stadium, an outdoor, natural grass and dirt playing field, one of only two in Japan, along with Mazda Stadium (home of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp). Because the transition from playing primarily on artificial turf to primarily on natural grass has been difficult for other Japanese players in the past, Toritani might be able to avoid something that has plagued most of his predecessors. In 2012, a scout who watched the shortstop was unsure about where an MLB team might use him, saying, "If an MLB team does decide to take him, I don't know if he'll be used as a shortstop. Maybe second base, maybe elsewhere."

After the season, it was reported that the left-hander was seriously considering exercising his international free agent option, making him a free agent eligible to sign with non-NPB teams. The shortstop has had his international free agent option since 2012, but has held off on exercising it, likely due to the U.S. market undervaluing him. At his advanced age, it is believed that Toritani sees this as his last chance to play in MLB and could finally pursue the opportunity. As an untested, soon-to-be 34-year-old rookie, it is doubtful that the market would value Toritani very highly. He does have interest from numerous clubs, however, including the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals, Colorado Rockies, and Kansas City Royals. Having made roughly $3 million in the 2014 season, it will be interesting to see how much of a pay cut—if any—Toritani is willing to take. That is, how much is fulfilling a lifelong dream worth?