- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 5' 11", Weight 171 lb.
Choji Murata was a three-time ERA leader in the Pacific League and the winning pitcher in the game that handed the Lotte Orions their only Japan Series title. He never threw a no-hitter, but tossed five one-hitters. He was the first Japanese star to have major arm surgery and the first pitcher in the history of Nippon Pro Baseball to become a four-decade player. His top pitch was his forkball, which was deemed impossible to hit by some Major League Baseball players who saw it. His fastball topped 90 mph, hitting as high as 96 mph. He employed an unusual windup involving a high kick. Murata was voted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
1967-1974: Early years
Choji played the outfield in high school due to poor control but began pitching regularly in high school. A first-round pick of the Lotte Orions in 1967, Murata was 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA in three outings in 1968. In 1969, he became a regularly used member of the Orion staff, posting a 6-8, 3.58 line. He led the Pacific League in walks (80, despite working 146 1/3 innings, many less than the leaders) and wild pitches (5). While he frequently would lead in wild pitches, it would be the only time he led in walks.
Murata had a 5-6, 4.78 line in 1970 then became an All-Star for the first time in 1971, going 12-8 with a 3.34 ERA for the year. He led the PL with nine wild pitches. He only pitched 46 innings for the 1972 Orions and his record read 3-3, 6.46 for that year, allowing 56 hits and 22 walks.
In 1973, Murata was 8-11 with a 3.21 ERA and his six wild pitches led the loop. The next year, he had his first big year, finishing 4th in the league in ERA (12-10, 1 Sv, 2.63) and making his second All-Star team. His 11 wild pitches led the league for the 4th time. In the 1974 Japan Series, Choji lost game one in relief, saved game four, then worked a 10-inning complete game, 3-2 victory in game six to give the Orions their lone Series win. He had a 1.76 ERA in the Series and fanned 17 in 15 1/3 innings while only walking four.
1975-1981: The big years
In 1975, Murata did even better. His record was only 9-12 but he led the league in saves (13) and ERA (2.20), edging Keishi Suzuki. He failed to lead the PL in wild pitches for the only time from 1973-79 and allowed only 128 hits in 191 2/3 innings pitched. The '76 season was another dazzling one. He again led in ERA with a 21-11, 4 Sv, 1.82 line and won 20 games for the only time in his career. He struck out a league-leading 202 batters in 257 1/3 innings, led in wild pitches (13) for the fifth time, made his fourth All-Star team and tied Hisashi Yamada for the shutout lead (5).
The 27-year-old fell to sixth in ERA in 1977 with a 17-14, six save, 2.68 season. He made his fourth straight All-Star team and led the league in strikeouts (180) and wild pitches (10). In 1978, he again was sixth in ERA (2.91), was an All-Star and led in wild pitches (10) while winning 14, losing 13 and saving 3.
The Orions' workhorse led the 1979 Pacific League in innings (255), batters faced (1,035), complete games (21, tied with Naoki Takahashi), shutouts (3, tied with three others), wild pitches (10) and strikeouts (230). On June 8, he struck out 16 Kintetsu Buffaloes, a career-high for Ks in a game. He made his seventh All-Star team and was 4th in the league in ERA. He was not as productive in 1980, going 9-9 with two saves and a 3.89 ERA, though he made his 7th All-Star roster in a row.
The 1981 season was another fine one. Choji went 19-8 with a 2.96 ERA, though he faded as the year progressed; he won his first 11 starts then split the remainer of his decisions during the year. He tied Yutaro Imai for the win lead, the only time he had a share of that title. He led the PL in wild pitches (6) for the 9th time, made his 9th All-Star team, won his 4th and final strikeout crown (154) and made the Best Nine for the only time in his career.
1982-1984: Injury, failed treatments, Tommy John surgery
Murata went 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA in six games in 1982 but hurt his right elbow. When the team doctor said that nothing could be found that was wrong, Murata figured he would work his way through the pain. He had followed a typical Japanese pitcher workload for the era, one considered abusive by American mindsets. On off-days, Murata would throw 100+ pitches in practice instead of taking time off from hurling. After his elbow problems began, he threw a ball against a wall every day to try to pitch through the injury, but the problems did not get any better. His wife and American teammate Leron Lee advised against it but Choji persisted and got to the point where he could not raise his arm above his shoulder. Electrical shock, massages and accupuncture did not help. A Japanese-American fan sent a letter advising Tommy John surgery and Murata's wife encouraged this, but Choji did not take the option. He would not have been the first Japanese hurler to have the surgery, as Masaharu Mitsui had it in 1979. Choji kept trying out different medical centers, including the Tokyo University Medical School, considered the best in Japan. All the doctors told him "there is nothing wrong with your arm." Through it all, Murata continued to try to pitch. When a Lotte club official told him to rest, Murata said "a man should pitch until his arm falls off." The team finally barred him from pitching.
Choji became depressed and the media wrote him off as washed-up. Murata then tried Zen and continued attempting massages. Murata told his wife that she was free to leave him, as he had promised that the marriage could end when he was no longer the best pitcher in Japan. His wife refused to leave and encouraged him to pursue other options. Finally, Murata went to see Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles, CA. Jobe diagnosed him with a severed tendon and offered Tommy John surgery. The surgery was performed in August of 1983. Dr. Jobe told Murata not to pitch as frequently, which Choji found difficult. Jobe asked him to rest six days between games and not throw 100 pitches a day between games as before. Murata returned to the Orions in September of 1984, 1,070 days after his last appearance for the club. He allowed six runs in nine innings spread out over five games that year.
1985-1990: Comeback, rest of playing career, consequences
Murata had a 4.30 ERA in 1985 but this was the peak of an offensive explosion in Nippon Pro Baseball and he missed the top 10 in the PL in ERA by .01. He won his first 11 games, showing he was healed, and finished 17-5. He led the league with 11 wild pitches but also made his 10th All-Star team and won the Comeback Player of the Year award. In '86, Choji had a 8-11, 3.94 line and was an All-Star again. In 1987, the 37-year-old moundsman had a 7-9, 4.34 year and led the PL with 12 wild pitches (the 11th time he led in that statistic). On June 14, he uncorked three wild pitches in an inning, tying the NPB record. After the year, the Muratas returned to Los Angeles to thank Dr. Jobe.
Due to Choji's comeback, some other Japanese players were now opting for arm surgery as well, a far cry from the days before he had become a pacesetter. Murata criticized some of these players for choosing surgery too quickly instead of trying to build character and fighting their way through it, showing he still harbored some traditional beliefs. Had he opted for surgery sooner, as the Japanese-American fan had suggested, he likely would have been back in baseball much sooner. On the other hand, Murata tried to discourage young Orions teammates from throwing as often in practice, but he said "they ignored me. They still think pitching hard every day is the only way to success. Some things are hard to change."
In 1988, the veteran hurler went 10-7 with a 3.89 ERA and made his 12th All-Star team. He followed with a 7-9, 2.50 year and his 13th and last All-Star selection. At 39, he became the oldest pitcher in NPB history (at least to that point) to win an All-Star game when he won the first 1989 NPB All-Star Game. The old-timer also won his third ERA title, though like the first, it came with a losing record. Only one pitcher was under a 3.27 ERA in the 1989 Pacific League.
In his final season, Murata showed some things never change by leading the PL in wild pitches for the 12th time, with a NPB-record 17 wild pitches that year (topping Nobuji Oikawa's 25-year-old record of 14); Kazuhisa Ishii surpassed him eight years later. He was 10-8 with two saves and a 4.51 ERA and became just the second pitcher of 40+ years of age to win 10 or more games in NPB history.
Career Rankings and Quotes
Murata finished his career with a 215-177 record, 33 saves and a 3.24 ERA. He had struck out 2,363 and walked 1,144 in 3,331 1/3 IP over 604 games, while allowing 3,019 hits. He had thrown a NPB-record 148 wild pitches during the course of his career. Through 2006, he is tied for 14th all-time in NPB in wins (even with Shigeru Sugishita and still-active Kimiyasu Kudoh), 13th in losses, tied for 16th in complete games (184), 30th in games pitched, 15th in innings thrown, 9th in strikeouts, 8th in walks, 8th in hit batters (124), 13th in hits allowed and 20th in homers surrendered (304).
Leron Lee said "[Murata] was the best pitcher I've ever seen in my life except Bob Gibson." Lee said he once saw Murata throw a pitchj that broke a bat in half, smacked the batter on the leg, then continued to roll back into fair territory - "It was unbeliebable for a ball to go through a bat and still have enough momentum to hit the batter in the lag and roll forward." Ted Simmons commented that Murata was the best pitcher he had ever faced.
Choji worked as a commentator for NHK after retiring, then became a coach for the Daiei Hawks for a time. Over a decade after he retired, Murata took part in an exhibition against retired American players and struck out all six batters he faced, still throwing 80 mph. In 2005 in Japanese Baseball, he was named to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.