A Young NPB Up-and-Comer
Want to impress your friends with your in-depth knowledge of Japanese professional baseball? Probably not, but if you did, you would want to drop the name Kensuke Kondo on them.
Kondo is a 19 year old catcher playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters’ minor league team (NPB teams have only one minor league team each). Despite being only a 4th round draft pick out of high school in 2011, Kondo played briefly for the Ham Fighters’ ichi-gun (major league) team last season (20 games, 30 plate appearances) and was even included on the team’s post-season roster, getting a single pinch hit appearance in the final game of the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants. For what it’s worth, Kondo hit .279/.367/.355 last year in the NPB minors.
This year back on the Ham Fighters’ minor league squad, Kondo is leading all Japanese minor league hitters by very wide margins with a .460 batting average and a 1.289 OPS. Granted, Kondo has only played 20 games so far this year, but for a player this young his numbers are eye-popping.
Because NPB teams have only one minor league club each, the level of play is high, probably the equivalent of an MLB team’s AA team, at least in terms of the difference between the ichi-gun team and the minor league team. The upshot is that the top hitters in the Japanese minors are usually much older.
In Japan, colleges and industrial leagues serve as the equivalent of the MLB low minors. NPB teams only draft about seven to 12 players each year, and team rosters are huge, so each minor league team has a mix of older and younger players.
Meanwhile, the Ham Fighters have a couple of what appear to be good-field-no-hit catchers in Shinya Tsuruoka and Shota Ono this year, so you’d have to think the parent club would be eager to bring up a catcher who can really hit. I have no idea what Kondo’s defense is like — at his age his defense could be terrible — but professional teams everywhere usually find a roster spot for young catchers who hit like Kondo.
The fact that Kondo was only a fourth round draft pick suggests that the NPB draft is as hit-and-miss as the MLB draft. I couldn’t help but notice that Cincinnati Reds’ rookie hurler Tony Cingrani struck out eleven Nationals in six innings of work yesterday.
Cingrani, a tall left-hander, was a 3rd round draft pick (114th overall) out of Rice University in 2011. He shot like a rocket through the minor leagues, reaching the majors in a year and a half, posting a career minor league ERA of 1.62 with a pitching line of 211.2 IP, 136 hits, ten HRs, 60 walks and 278 Ks. How could more than a hundred players have been selected before him in the 2011 Draft?
Cingrani started his college career at a JC, and didn’t pitch well at Rice until his final college season when he was an old 21. He was incredibly effective that year with a 1.74 ERA and more strike outs than innings pitched or hits and walks combined, but he pitched mostly in relief. The upshot is that you don’t really know how a player will play in the pros until he actually plays in the pros, and there were guys with more impressive college records at the time MLB teams had to do the choosing.
At any rate, keep an eye on Kondo. If he stays healthy, which is always tough for a catcher, he’s on a pace to become a true free agent at a young enough age to make MLB teams highly interested in his services. If Kensuke Kondo makes it to MLB one day, you heard it here first.