The Nippon Ham Fighters, the reigning Japan Series champions, have been a disappointment so far in 2017. After 55 games, a tad over one-third of the season, they are 11 games under .500 with a -40 run differential and find themselves in fifth place in the Pacific League standings, 15 games back of the first place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
To make the matters worse, Shohei Ohtani, their best player both on the mound and at the plate, has been sidelined due to a leg injury since early April. Takuya Nakashima, their sure-handed shortstop and foul-hitting demigod, has also missed time to an injury. And when he has managed to be on the field, his .160/.219/.189 slash line with a 21 wRC+ is abysmal even by his standards.
However, there has been one sensation on the team. Kensuke Kondo has combined Ohtani's sheer excellence and Nakashima's peculiarity. In the first two months of season, the 23-year old has hit well north of .400 and gotten on base at a near-Bondsian clip.
After his ridiculous .416/.558/.584 April in which he recorded a 225 wRC+, it seemed like regression was due for him. He followed up with a .397/.571/.540 to laugh at our poor predictions. His wRC+ did regress, though, all the way to 221.
Combining those awesome two months with the first week of June, Kondo has slashed .407/.567/.560 with a 226 wRC+ while clubbing three four-baggers. Of course, his stratospheric numbers are fueled by a .472 BABIP, which is almost certainly unsustainable. But he's not entirely a product of luck on balls in play — a.k.a Danny Santana in the 2014 season.
First, he has been hitting the crap out of the ball, though not quite in the fashion of Roy Hubbs in the final scene of The Natural. His hard-hit rate currently sits at 49.2 percent, the highest mark among 66 qualified hitters in NPB. When you hit roughly half of the balls you put in play hard, they will find the holes between infielders or the gaps between outfielders. On top of that, he has a 15.9 percent line-drive rate, fifth-highest among qualified hitters. He also sprays those hard-hit balls, often line-drives, to all fields; he has pulled the ball 29.6 percent of the time, squared up 36.8 percent to the middle, and gone the opposite way 33.6 percent of the time this season.
Even more remarkable is his plate discipline. As of June 8th, Kondo has walked 56 times while going down on strikes just 26 times. Those numbers translate to a 26.7 percent walk rate, highest in the league by a mile, and 12.4 percent strikeout rate, 12th-lowest among qualified hitters. To flabber your innocent gasts, I'll tell you this fact: the second-best hitter in walk rate, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, has walked in 16.1 percent of his plate appearances. The 10.6 percentage point difference between Kondo and Tsutsugo is larger than the one between Tsutsugo and Eiichi Koyano, who is all the way down at 58th on the leaderboard. For comparison, only four times in major league history has a batter walked in more than 26 percent of plate appearances in a full season: Barry Bonds, each season from 2001 to 2004.
As opposed to Bonds, who used his fearsome power to turn every pitcher he faced into Magikarp without 400 candies, Kondo doesn't build his game around long balls. As I mentioned, he has gone yard just three times this season. and his ISO is just 21 points above the Pacific League's average.
Instead, he works on count. He has swung at only 14.7 percent of pitches outside of the zone, the second-lowest mark behind only seasoned veteran Takashi Toritani. In fact, he rarely swings in the first place, as his 30.2 percent swing rate beats that of Toritani for the lowest mark. So, he waits for his pitch, and when he does pull the trigger, he does damage, making contact at a 89.6 percent rate, better than all but 8 qualified hitters.
You can't find any blemish on the offensive side of his game. On the defensive side, however, he's struggled to find home on the field. A shortstop in his early high school career, Kondo moved to behind the plate in his sophomore year. After being drafted as a catcher, where he has battled the suspected yips, the Fighters tried him at third base and in right field, in addition to some second base in spring training this past February. He has shown below-average, if not worse, range and glove in right field. And with Brandon Laird providing sushi after sushi, Kondo won't see time at the hot corner. In Ohtani's absence, Kondo has been Nippon Ham's primary DH, sans few games he has missed to minor injuries. We have a little idea what the Fighters will do defensively with Kondo once their two-way monster comes back.
But until then, nothing prevents him from focusing on the quest to break NPB's all-time OBP record, .487, set by Hall of Famer Hiromitsu Ochiai in 1986. Kondo may see his BABIP go down, but if he keeps respecting walks as much as Pantera did, he'll have a legitimate shot at carving his name into the record book.
Stats are through June 8th, courtesy of 1.02 and DeltaGraphs.