It's not just Judge: Slugger chasing HR record an ocean away

September 13th, 2022

The home run chase has become the subject of national fascination, bordering on obsession. The daily count demands front-page coverage. Adoring ovations are the soundtrack of the season as autumn nears.

Munetaka Murakami is a phenomenon, indeed.

Wait ... you were expecting someone else?

Oh, right. Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols. Both are on the verge of history, and the joyful tension surrounding them has inverted the natural order of September. When pennant races are at their apex, we tend to check the standings first. Now we ask, “Hey, did Judge or Albert homer yet tonight?”

Thanks to Murakami, our friends and fellow baseball fans in Japan can relate.

Murakami, a 22-year-old third baseman, has hit 55 home runs this season for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. With 17 games to play, he tied the legendary Sadaharu Oh's record for the most homers in a season by a Japanese-born player in Nippon Professional Baseball. He stands beside Oh after a two-homer game on Tuesday against the Yomiuri Giants, Oh's longtime team.

“He’s a special human being and everything you want in a superstar,” said Swallows outfielder Patrick Kivlehan, formerly of the Padres, Reds and D-backs. “He’s humble and respectful. He’s still so young, and he’s taken the whole country by storm. There are Murakami jerseys everywhere. People are waiting at hotels just to get a glimpse of him. It’s like playing with a rock star.”

Sadaharu Oh and Ichiro Suzuki at the 2006 World Baseball Classic

Thanks to Murakami, this year’s home run chase is an around-the-clock phenomenon. When Pujols and the Cardinals visit the Padres and Dodgers next week, their games will conclude only a few hours before the Swallows’ typical 5 a.m. ET start time.

Mune, as he’s known in the Swallows clubhouse, is the mirror image of Judge: Murakami bats left-handed. Judge bats right-handed. Murakami plays in Tokyo. Judge plays in New York.

And while one sleeps, the other slugs.

“He’s definitely been hitting Judge-esque tanks,” Swallows starter Cy Sneed, formerly of the Astros, said with admiration. “Neither of them are hitting wall-scrapers.”

And for both Murakami and Judge, the most immediate milestone before them is not the NPB or AL/NL single-season record.

Wladimir Balentien at the 2017 World Baseball Classic

While Judge is within range of Roger Maris’ Yankees and American League record of 61, the overall Major League standard of 73 belongs (controversially) to Barry Bonds. Murakami's 55 homers in 2022 and Oh’s 55 in '64 remain the most of any Japanese player, but Wladimir Balentien of Curaçao hit 60 for the Swallows in 2013.

Oh is a mythical figure in Japanese baseball, comparable to Michael Jordan in the pantheon of American icons. For years, many in Japan believed Oh’s mark would not be surpassed. According to multiple accounts, pitchers were encouraged to pitch around opposing hitters as they approached the record.

Two foreign players -- Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002 -- tied Oh but were denied opportunities to pass him. It took another decade for Balentien to do so, during an aberrational year in which NPB used a more hitter-friendly baseball for a portion of the season.

Now Murakami can author the best power-hitting season of any slugger developed in Japan -- greater than Oh or Hideki Matsui, the longtime Yankee to whom Murakami is often compared. (Murakami wears the same jersey number, 55, that Matsui made famous with the crosstown Yomiuri Giants.)

In his second season playing alongside Murakami, Sneed is increasingly comfortable communicating in Japanese and can recognize some characters in the written language. When he walks by newsstands on Tokyo’s bustling streets, very little interpretation is needed as he scans the front pages of Japan’s six national daily sports newspapers.

“More or less, it’s his picture,” Sneed said. “It’s always a picture of him blasting one into the seats with the number showing where he’s at -- 51, 52 or 53. There are comparisons about where he stands in the record books and who he’s about to pass. Every day, the stories are about the path that he’s on -- and it’s going to continue being that way.”

One measure of the frenzy is seen in the manner in which Murakami’s name is presented in kanji characters. Typically, Murakami is divided into two characters -- one representing “mura” (村) and the other for “kami” (上), the latter of which translates to “upper” or “above” in Japanese.

However, “kami” can also mean “god” in Japanese. The symbol for “god” (神) is different than the customary presentation of “upper” or “above.” Increasingly, newspaper editors have opted to express Murakami’s name with kanji characters that suggest his name is “Mura-god.”

When Sneed arrived in Japan prior to last season, right-hander Scott McGough, a fellow American with Major League experience, told him to keep his eye on Murakami.

“He’s going to be a big leaguer,” McGough told Sneed.

Murakami affirmed McGough’s scouting report with a sensational season that included Central League MVP honors, a Japan Series title for the Swallows and a gold medal with Team Japan at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“Last year, I thought he was great,” Sneed said of a year in which Murakami posted a .974 OPS and hit 39 home runs. “You saw his eye getting better. He was laying off pitches off the plate. You could see the wheels starting to turn. You had to remind yourself that he was only 21 years old.

“This year, it’s been on a different level. You never see him unbalanced. You never see him out front. He’s always on everything. As a pitcher, if I was facing him, it would be difficult to come up with a plan to get him out.”

The Giants, with their 22 Japan Series titles, are the capital city’s more traditionally renowned ballclub, but they no longer dominate coverage in Tokyo. Instead, there are two major storylines to follow: Murakami’s home run chase amid the Swallows’ title defense and Shohei Ohtani’s bid for a second straight AL MVP Award an ocean away.

“I don’t think it’s affected him at all -- if anything, maybe it’s pushed him to focus more,” Sneed said of Murakami’s reaction to the media pressure. “That’s going to be the next stage in his evolution of being a baseball player: being able to deal with that level of attention, day in and day out. He’s such a special player. He’ll have a lot of hype over the next couple years, prior to him being able to go over to the states. Once that happens, he’ll do just fine handling the attention.”

Japanese baseball observers don’t expect the Swallows to make Murakami available to MLB teams through the posting process anytime soon. Therefore, MLB fans are most likely to get their first extended look at Murakami during the upcoming World Baseball Classic. He could play first base or third base for Samurai Japan, which hopes to have Ohtani as a pitcher and designated hitter.

In the meantime, MLB executives and fans can dream on the comparisons Murakami has earned -- to Japanese greats like Matsui and recent MVPs in the Majors. Kivlehan said Murakami’s work ethic resembles that of potential Hall of Famer Joey Votto, his former teammate in Cincinnati.

Kivlehan also sees a Votto-like offensive profile in Murakami because of the way he blends hitting for average and power.

“He’s hitting .340,” Kivlehan said. “He’s really got it all. I played with [Paul] Goldschmidt for a month, too, and the sound off the bat with Murakami is similar to Goldy. He’s on time for every pitch.”

The home run chase has arrived right on time, too. As large crowds return to NPB stadiums after two seasons heavily impacted by the pandemic, they’ve been treated to a story that connects them to the revered Oh. The business of passing a legend isn’t easy, but the response in the grandstand suggests the public is eager to witness history.

“Everyone here is so positive about [Murakami] getting close to the record,” Kivlehan said. “Even if he has a bad at-bat, the fans still give him a standing ovation. They’re really behind him. They want him to break this record. It’s fun to see.”