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Hisanobu Watanabe

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Hisanobu Watanabe

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[edit] Introduction

One of the top pitchers in Japan in the mid-to-late 1980s, Hisanobu Watanabe was a key hurler on the Seibu Lions during their dynastic period, joining with Kimiyasu Kudoh as a rotation anchor. He was a favorite among female fans due to his fashion sense and legs. Among the clothes he would wear were black leather pants, red blazers, floppy hats and knee-high boots. He threw four pitchers, including a fastball in the low 90s and Brad Lesley is among those who saw him who say he would have done well in Major League Baseball in his prime had he been allowed the opportunity; unfortunately for American fans, no Japanese player was going from Nippon Pro Baseball to MLB at that time.

[edit] The early and great years

The first round pick of the 1983 Seibu Lions, Watanabe went 1-1, 3.93 for Seibu in 15 appearances in 1984. At age 19-20, he went 8-8 with 11 saves and a 3.20 ERA in 1985, making the Pacific League All-Star team and finishing second to Kudoh in the PL in ERA. He was even better the next year, as the young fashion plate was 16-6 with one save and a 2.87 ERA, leading the league in wins, strikeouts (178), walks (86) and innings (219 2/3) while finishing second to Yoshinori Sato in ERA and making another All-Star team. He was 2-1 with a 2.87 ERA in the Japan Series, which Seibu won in eight games (4-3-1); he lost game four but won games six and the finale, game 8.

Falling to 5-3, 8 Sv, 3.08 in '87, Hisanobu only appeared once in the Series, allowing two homers in three innings of work. Rebounding in 1988, he again led the PL in wins at 15-7, 3.60 and made his third All-Star team. He won game one of the Japan Series that year. In 1989, Watanabe had a 15-11, 3.41 campaign, leading the league with 210 hits allowed (he also faced the most batters, 956). He was fifth in the PL in ERA and was an All-Star.

1990 was a great year for Watanabe (18-10, 2.97). Highlights included a ten-inning no-hitter that was stopped in the 11th, his first time as Opening Day starter, his 5th All-Star spot, his third time leading the league in wins, a 9-strikeout, three-hit shutout in game one of the Japan Series en route to a sweep by Seibu and his third #2 finish in ERA (.06 behind Hideo Nomo).

[edit] Fading away

In 1991, Hisanobu again got the opening day call and went only 7-10, 4.40, as the hurler was now on the decline. He did pitch another Japan Series shutout, in game four against the Hiroshima Carp. In '92, Watanabe went 12-12, 3.81 for his last season with double-digit wins in Nippon Pro Baseball and he had a 7.30 ERA in the Series, but he made his sixth (and last) All-Star squad. A 9-14, 3.83 campaign followed in the next year, though he did win his 100th career game and made his third and last Opening Day start.

In 1994, Watanabe went 9-8, but with a 4.37 ERA. During the 1994 strike, the American media focused more attention on Japanese baseball and Hisanobu was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated after winning game one of the Japan Series. He was 1-0, 0.93 in a sweep by Seibu that Series. Making only seven starts and 13 relief appearances in '95, he was 3-4 with six saves and a 5.66 ERA; he finally turned 30 late in the year. In 1996, Hisanobu re-entered the Seibu rotation and had a 6-9, 4.56 season. His usage declined, going 0-2, 4.15 in 1997 and 1-5, 1 Sv, 4.23 in 1998 for the Yakult Swallows. He finished his NPB career at 125-110 with 27 saves and a 3.67 ERA, with 1,609 strikeouts in 2,075 2/3 innings.

[edit] A hero in Taiwan

Released by Yakult, Watanabe joined the Chiyai Braves of the Taiwan Major League and dazzled in 1999, going 18-7 with a 2.34 ERA and 201 K's in 207 innings to take the pitching Triple Crown and the TML's MVP award. He remained effective in 2000 with a 15-8, 2.47 season, finishing third in the league in wins, possibly second in wins and seemingly led with 169 strikeouts.

[edit] Coaching and Managing

After retiring, Watanabe coached in Taiwan. He then managed in ni-gun for the Seibu Lions and developed a reputation for developing young players. He became Seibu's manager in October of 2007, replacing Tsutomu Itoh. He planned to make the atmosphere looser and have his players act more "American" in showing more enthusiasm for the game instead of being as stern.

Watanabe led Seibu to victory in the 2008 Japan Series in a fine rookie season at the helm. Watanabe won the Matsutaro Shoriki Award for his efforts in 2008. He was 431-395 in 6 seasons at the helm, stepping down after the 2013 playoffs; he was replaced by Haruki Ihara.

Sources: You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting, Remembering Japanese Baseball by Rob Fitts, Japanbaseballdaily.com by Gary Garland, 2000-2001 Baseball Almanacs

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