When I saw Masataka Yoshida hit for the Boston Red Sox for the first time, it was an eerie reminder of another hitter from decades ago - Pete Runnels.
Neither Yoshida nor Runnels will be located on any home run lists, and both were lefty hitters, had questionable defensive liabilities, and would be considered table setters for the Big Boys following in the lineup to drive home.
For Runnels, I will remain on his Boston years (.320) and not his pre-Boston years with Washington (.274) nor his post-Boston years with Houston (.246).
Runnels had a stellar debut season for the Red Sox in 1958 and almost won a batting title that went to Ted Williams - a well-known hitter if my memory serves me. Runnels eventually slighted that wrong and won two crowns - 1960 and 1962.
Yoshida did not win the title in 2023 but did have two in Japan. Are they even? Digging deeper into the metrics vault, Runnels had 13.1 BB% and 7.4 K% that first season and Yoshida had 5.9 BB% and 14.0 K%, which could be classified as disappointing. Overall, Runnels came in with 136 wRC+, and Yoshida came in at 109 wRC+. An edge to Runnels.
Runnels' first season in Boston was symptomatic of all five years he was with them. The statistical line barely moves over those five years, so the edge at this point is in favor of Runnels.
Yoshida had some quite respectable power, and it showed with 15 home runs, 33 doubles, 72 RBI, .445 slugging, and 239 total bases. Runnels can counter with eight dingers, 59 RBI, 32 doubles, .438 slugging, and 249 total bases. That would give Runnels a slight edge, or does it?
Yoshida has the ability to be an AL batting champion
So I returned to the table setting, and Yoshida scored just 71 runs, and Runnels scored 103. However, Runnels had batting champion Williams, MVP Jackie Jensen, and hard-hitting Frank Malzone following him in the lineup.
A measure is both hitters know how to hit, with special emphasis on Fenway Park. Runnels hit .365 at Fenway and just .279 on the road. Yoshida was .306/.273, so a slight edge to Yoshida.
What about facing lefties? Runnels' splits against righties/lefties is .335/.244 and Yoshida .293/.273, so Yoshida is more balanced in facing pitching. Again, a slight edge to Yoshida. Now comes the defensive aspect.
You can examine rudimentary metrics and traditional measurements with Runnels, but I was never impressed with his glove work. Eventually, Runnels was moved to first base after the arrival of Chuck Schilling, and his defensive liabilities were minimized.
Yoshida was not a disaster in left field, but the Red Sox will undoubtedly try to limit him to more reps as a DH. If Yoshida was a slugger, the Red Sox could accept what it is and enjoy the long balls and RBI. He is not—a slim defensive edge to Runnels.
Based on their first season, this throwdown goes to Runnels, but the future may change that. Yoshida has a five-year deal, and as mentioned, Runnels played five years in Boston. Can Yoshida win a batting title? Yoshida has the park to do it in, and Boston is working on building a lineup where he can score more runs and get some lovely cream puffs to hit.