Welcome to a very special installment of our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, a series in which we recognize the athletes who won’t make their sports’ Hall of Fame but still deserve accolades for their talent and influence. And with the 2020 Olympics officially underway in Tokyo, we need to pay tribute to a pitcher who once represented Japan at the Olympics before becoming one of the first — and best — players from his country to ever star in the U.S. major leagues. We need to talk about Hideo Nomo.
|Category||Value||Avg. HOF P|
|Peak 7-year WAR||22.7||50.0|
|Black Ink Test||11||40|
|Gray Ink Test||88||185|
|Years on ballot||1||—|
Nomo’s basic stats (12 MLB seasons, a 4.24 ERA and a 123-109 career record) paint the picture of a solid pitcher, though not necessarily a spectacular one. And it’s true that Nomo’s career had its share of ups and downs. But those overall numbers miss exactly how much of a cultural phenomenon Nomo was, and they don’t capture how dominant he was at his peak with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
First of all, Nomo was an undeniably cool pitcher. With his trademark “tornado” delivery, developed at a young age, Nomo confounded batters by turning his back entirely to the plate, then whirling around to unleash a 94-mph fastball or a devastating forkball that tended, in the words of L.A. Times writer Jim Murray, “to disappear on the way to the plate.” His pitching style was often imitated by those of us who grew up in the 1990s — though few pitchers have ever replicated the results Nomo saw early in a career that catapulted him to worldwide fame.
Before playing in America, a 20-year-old Nomo pitched for the Japanese team that finished second to the U.S. at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, winning a silver medal (despite the fact that, as a demonstration sport, the medals did not count toward Japan’s official total). It was a springboard to even greater success in Nippon Pro Baseball, where as a rookie in 1990 he led the Pacific League in wins, innings and strikeouts en route to the NPB’s versions of the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. With his star on the rise, Nomo began to contemplate playing in the U.S., even though no player born and raised in Japan had debuted in MLB since Masanori Murakami in 1964.1
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And so it was that Nomo eventually joined the Dodgers several years later, thanks to a loophole his agents found in the standard NPB contract. That document contained a reserve clause that restricted active players’ ability to go overseas, but it featured no such provision for players who retired and then subsequently returned to the game. Using this technicality, Nomo “retired” from the Kintetsu Buffaloes and signed with Los Angeles as a free agent on Feb. 8, 1995.
As Nomo stepped into a Dodgers rotation that had just lost franchise icon Orel Hershiser to the Cleveland Indians, no one knew what to expect from the major league rookie. (Before the season, Sports Illustrated called Nomo “promising” but also noted that he had “one of the strangest deliveries in baseball.”) He showed signs of things to come in his first start, however, striking out seven Giants — and allowing just one hit — in five innings of work, though he also walked four and L.A. lost the game. After a rough outing against Colorado in his second appearance, Nomo’s season began gaining steam: He struck out 14 Pirates in his fourth start, on May 17, and narrowly missed double-digits on May 28 against the Montreal Expos.
Then, in June 1995, Nomomania truly commenced.
That month, Nomo won all six of his starts, allowing a .143 batting average and posting a 0.89 ERA. He struck out 60 batters in 50⅓ innings and went at least eight innings in every start, recording two shutouts. It was one of history’s greatest single-month performances by a starting pitcher, and as a result, Nomo was selected to start the All-Star Game for the National League when Atlanta’s Greg Maddux pulled out with an injury. Naturally, Nomo struck out three of the six All-Star batters he faced, allowing just one hit.
By season’s end, Nomo would lead the NL in strikeouts, shutouts and fewest hits allowed per nine innings, finishing second (behind only Maddux) in ERA. He placed fourth in Cy Young voting and won the NL’s Rookie of the Year award over future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones — and he deserved it, too. (Nomo had 4.1 wins above replacement to Jones’s 2.7.) In a flash, Nomo had become one of the most popular players in baseball, even credited for helping excite baseball fans again after the bitter MLB labor war that had canceled the World Series in 1994.
Nomo’s future looked incredibly bright, and in 1996, he followed up his stellar rookie season with an identical 4.6 WAR per 162 team games, allowing a higher ERA but still finishing fourth in the Cy Young race. As part of that campaign, Nomo also threw what is secretly perhaps the greatest game ever pitched, no-hitting the Colorado Rockies during the peak of their fearsome Galarraga-Burks-Bichette-Castilla era, at notoriously pitcher-unfriendly Coors Field. This was a Rockies team that would go on to lead the NL in runs, batting average and OPS, but none of that mattered on Sept. 17, 1996. Over the course of nine innings and 110 pitches, Nomo held Colorado’s scary lineup hitless — still the only no-hitter anyone has ever pulled off in the thin air a mile above sea level.
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Over his first two seasons, Nomo had taken the baseball world by storm. But those would be the best two seasons of his career by WAR, as his ERA began to slip below league average beginning in 1997. The conventional wisdom on Nomo is that his deceptive pitching motion was able to confuse big-league hitters for only so long, and there is probably some truth to that; relative to league average, his rates of hits and home runs allowed rose after those spectacular first few seasons (though he did continue to strike out plenty of people). But Nomo also struggled with control — a longtime problem dating back to his earliest pitching days — and injuries. (A line drive to his pitching arm in mid-1997 led to bone chips that marred the end of Nomo’s first tenure with the Dodgers before he was traded to the New York Mets.) Bouncing around from New York to Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston over the next handful of seasons, Nomo was looking like a flash in the pan whose sizzle ran out much too quickly.
One of the most underappreciated things about Nomo’s career, though, is that he was able to stabilize it after a humbling initial fall from grace with the Dodgers. From 1999 through 2003, Nomo averaged 2.8 WAR per season, which tied him for the 30th-best pitcher in baseball over that five-season span. In other words, he was still good enough to be a No. 1-level starter in the majors long after Nomomania had worn off. And Nomo still had plenty of memorable moments left in his right arm, too. For instance, on April 4, 2001, Nomo joined an exclusive MLB club when he threw his second career no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards:
This wasn’t quite the same Nomo as during the early seasons of his U.S. career. His velocity was down a few ticks, his control shakier, and opposing batters were now familiar with his tornado windup. But when Nomo’s forkball was on, he remained untouchable. “I’ve been in the major leagues for parts of four seasons, and that’s the best split-finger fastball I’ve ever seen,” Baltimore’s Jerry Hairston told the AP after Nomo’s second no-no. “He was throwing 88-89 [mph], but with the splitter it seemed like 95 with some movement.”
After returning to the Dodgers for another tour of duty — pitching well (121 ERA+) during his first two seasons back — Nomo suffered a shoulder injury that would eventually lead to the end of his career. He bounced around from L.A. to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the New York Yankees’ and Chicago White Sox’s farm systems and finally the Kansas City Royals before hanging it up in 2008.
According to JAWS, Nomo barely ranks among the top 500 starting pitchers in MLB history, and Hall of Fame voters signaled their agreement when they let him drop off the ballot after just one appearance, with only 1.1 percent of ballots carrying his name. But that sells short the enormous impact Nomo has had on baseball, which continues to this day. Not only was he one of the game’s most electrifying and imitated pitchers during his heyday, but he opened the door for other Japanese players to arrive in the U.S. and play for MLB teams. The modern posting system — which has been the pathway to America for Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, the great Shohei Ohtani — was instituted in large part as a reaction to Nomo finding that loophole back in 1995.
As Dave Wallace, Nomo’s pitching coach with the Dodgers, put it: “He was the first one. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain. He set the table for a lot of other guys, who are now reaping the benefits.”
And while Murakami was Japan’s first MLB player,2 Nomo was its first MLB superstar. Nomomania was real, and it captured baseball fans’ attention in the summer of 1995 every bit as much as Ohtani’s exploits have enthralled us this year. So now, 26 years later, with all eyes in the sports world on Nomo’s home country, it’s time to remember just how damn good Nomo was as both a player and a baseball icon.
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