Wladimir Balentien hit another home run earlier today giving him 51 HRs with 32 games remaining in his team’s (the Yakult Swallows) schedule. 56 HRs would set the all-time NPB single-season record.
Balentien was once a hot prospect in the U.S., but he didn’t make enough contact in 559 major league plate appearances between the ages of 22 and 24. Wladimir then went to Japan’s NPB at the still relatively young age of 26, and it’s paid off in a big way for him.
Balentien hit with power from the get-go in Japan, but with the introduction of new, more resilient baseballs in NPB this year he’s having a season for the ages. While everyone is hitting a lot better in NPB than the previous two seasons, Balentien is still way ahead in this year’s home run race. Former NPB home run leader Tony Blanco is second with 33 dingers, and Shinnosuke Abe, who was far and away the best all-around hitter in NPB last year, is third with 30.
The question now is not whether Balentien can break the single-season home run record; instead, it’s whether NPB will actually let him do it. Since Sadaharu Oh set the NPB single-season HR record with 55 in 1964, a number of foreign players have threatened to break Oh’s record. However, whenever they got close, NPB pitchers simply stopped throwing them strikes.
In 1985, Randy Bass [Bass’ NPB stats are about 3/4 of the way down the page] had reached 54 HRs with one game to play in the NPB season. In the last game which Bass’ Hanshin Tigers played against the Yomiuri Giants (the team Oh had played for and was then managing), Bass was walked intentionally all four times he came to the plate to prevent him from tying or breaking the record. Another source says that the Giants tried to walk Bass every time he came to bat during the three game series, but that Bass got a single hit by throwing his bat at the ball on one of the pitch-out attempts.
Bass got even in 1986, sort of, by setting NPB’s all-time single season batting record at .389. Ichiro [NPB stats about 1/4 down page] came close in 1994 (.385) and 2000 (.387), but Bass’ record still stands.
In 2001, Tuffy Rhodes [Rhodes’ NPB stats about 1/3 down the page] reached 55 HRs for the Kintetsu Buffaloes with numerous games left in the season. While Rhodes had at least a few opportunities to set the record, he was intentionally walked every time came to bat in a late-season three-game series against Fukuoka Hawks, a team managed by Oh. Another Hawks’ coach claimed responsibility, saying he didn’t want a foreigner to break Oh’s record; however, the events speak for themselves.
Despite criticism from NPB’s commissioner over the failure to pitch to Rhodes, the very next season essentially the same thing happened yet again, this time involving slugger Alex Cabrera. Cabrera reached 55 HRs with five games left in the season, when his team, the Seibu Lions, again playing against Oh’s Hawks. Oh claimed to have instructed his pitchers not to walk Cabrera, but most of the Hawks pitchers nonetheless threw Cabrera nothing but balls well off the plate.
Cabrera was later linked to steroids in the Mitchell Report, and it’s entirely possible that Rhodes in 2001 or Wladimir Balentien this year could have used steroids, given that they played or are still playing in the steroids era. Even so, there is something extremely off-putting about denying players the opportunity to break single-season records based solely on the fact that they are foreigners.
The upshot is that we’ll have to wait and see whether Balentien is given a fair shot to break the record. Certainly, the history does not inspire confidence that he’ll be given that fair shot.