Ken Hirano (平野 ケン)
- Bats Both, Throws Right
- Height 5' 11", Weight 165 lb.
Ken Hirano was a ten-time Gold Glove winner in Japan and made two All-Star teams.
Early life and Chunichi
Both of Hirano's parents had died by the time he was in 6th grade. He was a pitcher in college, winning MVP honors as a senior. Undrafted, he was signed by the Chunichi Dragons in 1977. In 1979, he was moved to the outfield. He made it to the big club in 1981. His first hit came off Kazuhisa Kawaguchi. For his rookie, he hit .236/.263/.291 in 121 plate appearances over 110 games. In 1982, he became a starter and hit .288/.307/.366. He stole 20 bases in 29 tries, laid down 51 sacrifice bunts and only managed 12 walks in 514 plate appearances. He missed the Central League's top 10 in average by 5 points, led the league in sacrifice hits and won his first Gold Glove (then called the Diamond Glove Award). He was 5 for 24 with a double, 2 steals in 3 tries, one run and one RBI in the 1982 Japan Series; Chunichi lost to the Seibu Lions.
Ken produced at a .247/.297/.355 batting line in 1983 with 26 doubles and 14 steals in 25 tries. In 1984, he improved to .291/.330/.349 with 30 swipes while being caught just five times. He led the CL with 36 sacrifice hits. He hit .300/.337/.402 with 26 doubles and 17 steals (in 25 tries) in 1985. His five triples tied Yutaka Takagi, Kaname Yashiki, Hirokazu Kato and Seiji Uekawa for the CL lead. He also won his second Diamond Glove (joining Yashiki and Ryuzo Yamasaki as the CL outfielders picked in '85). He was .004 shy of the league's top 10 in batting average.
In 1986, Hirano fell to .270/.307/.362 but hit a career-high 11 home runs. He stole 48 bases but was gunned down running 21 times. He made his first All-Star team. He tied Yashiki for the most steals in the league while leading in times caught. He, Yashiki and Kiyoyuki Nagashima won the Gold Gloves (now called the Gold Glove and not the Diamond Glove) in the outfield. He put up a similar batting line (.268/.303/.363) in 1987 albeit with less pop (4 HR) and fewer steals (13 SB, 6 CS).
The Nagoya native left his hometown team after the 1987 season, being traded to the Lions for Kazuyuki Ono. Hirano hit .303/.349/.400 with 75 runs and 18 steals in 26 tries in 1988. He made the Pacific League All-Star team, having now made it once in each of Japan's top two circuits. He finished 8th in the PL in average, between Mike Easler and Kazuhiko Ishimine, and was 5th among Japan natives. He not only won his fourth Gold Glove, but made his first and only Best Nine as one of the top three PL outfielders (Koji Akiyama and Hideaki Takazawa were also selected). In the 1988 Japan Series, he was unimpressive as Seibu beat his old Chunichi club; Hirano was 3 for 19 with a double and walk as Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Hiromichi Ishige carried their offense in the Series.
In 1989, Hirano fell off a bit in production to .268/.332/.381. He legged out 7 triples to lead the PL and also won a Gold Glove. His offensive numbers were unimpressive in 1990 (.267/.320/.346, 23 SB, 8 CS, 2 HR) but he set a Nippon Pro Baseball record with 50 sacrifice hits; the mark would stand for six years before Yutaka Wada broke it. He also surpassed Yoshio Yoshida's decades-old record for career sacrifice hits. He won a Gold Glove, joining Akiyama and Norifumi Nishimura in being picked. He had his best postseason stint, going 7 for 14 with a walk, 2 doubles, 3 runs and 3 RBI in four games as Seibu swept the Yomiuri Giants in the 1990 Japan Series. He did not take home Japan Series MVP honors, which went to slugging teammate Orestes Destrade.
The bunting master was up to the same tricks in 1991, laying down another 50 sacrifices. On June 19, he tied a NPB record with four sacrifices in a single game. He put up a .281/.337/.368 line with 6 triples for the year. He won a Gold Glove, as did seven of his Seibu teammates; only Daiei Hawks OF Makoto Sasaki won from another team. In the 1991 Japan Series, he won his third national title, though the Hiroshima Carp took Seibu a full 7 games. Hirano hit just .200/.273/.350 but MVP Akiyama and pitchers like Kimiyasu Kudoh, Hisanobu Watanabe and Takehiro Ishii took over for a stumbling Hirano and Destrade.
In 1992, the Nagoya native had 48 more sacrifices to lead the league for a 7th time. He hit .280/.317/.356 with 15 steals in 22 attempts. He won his 9th Gold Glove. He struggled in the 1992 Japan Series against the Yakult Swallows, going 3 for 20 with a walk, run and RBI as Seibu won in 7 games. He won his last Gold Glove in 1993, but his offensive value by this point was close to nil (.239/.286/.288, 42 runs produced in 100 games). He was 3 for 15 with a double and two walks in the 1993 Japan Series, in which Seibu fell to Yakult.
Released by Seibu on November 3, 1993, he was signed by the Chiba Lotte Marines on December 6. He hit .227/.262/.284 in 1994. In 1995, Bobby Valentine used him as a backup to Kenji Morozumi, Norifumi Nishimura and Mitsuchika Hirai; he hit only .225/.293/.258 in 141 plate appearances over 61 games and was caught stealing in his only two attempts. By 1996, the long-time starter was only 7th on his own club in outfield appearances. He hit .298/.320/.404 in 59 plate appearances to wrap up his career.
Overall, Hirano batted .273/.316/.358 in 1,683 games in NPB. He had 712 runs, 234 doubles, 43 triples, 53 homers, 479 RBI and 230 steals (caught 102 times). He had dropped 451 sacrifice hits, retiring as the all-time leader; Masahiro Kawai has since passed him. Through 2010, he ranked among NPB's career leaders only in sacrifice hits, 82 behind Kawai and 84 ahead of #3 Shinya Miyamoto.
Hirano was a minor league manager and coach for Chiba Lotte after his playing career ended and also was a sports broadcaster. From 2006 to 2008, he coached for the Nippon Ham Fighters. In 2011, he became hitting coach of South Korea's KIA Tigers.