Top 10 Asian MLB Players of All Time
Asian Major League Baseball players have made an indelible mark on the game over the past generation. Bringing their accomplished skills and grace to the highest level, new stars from the East are seemingly born every year.
Their presence sprung from a base of zero representation two decades ago. Since then a constant wave of Asian players have added their unique flavor to America’s baseball diamonds.
Primarily from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Asians still only account for a tiny minority of MLB players. Despite this fact, there seems to be a disproportionate number who excel in the majors.
After success in their home countries, many Asian imports arrive in America boasting mighty reputations. Bidding wars between MLB teams, followed by the inking of multimillion-dollar contracts, often set the bar of expectation sky-high.
Not all of them have prospered in the MLB pressure cooker. Some have shown flashes of their talents but ultimately fallen short of expectations—Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu spring to mind. Others, such as Kei Igawa, have been abject failures.
However, many Asians have thrived in MLB and lived up to their hype. Some have even managed to exceed the lofty expectations.
After years of being treated to their immense talents, it’s time to celebrate their achievements. The following slides will recognize the 10 Asian players who have made the most profound impact on MLB.
10. Hisashi Iwakuma
After winning over 100 professional games in Japan, Iwakuma moved to Seattle in 2012. Initially pitching out of the Mariners bullpen, he switched to the rotation at midseason and has not looked back.
Using his distinctive pause and leg flicks during delivery, Iwakuma has performed exceptionally over the past three seasons. His career ERA (2.82) is the lowest of any current AL pitcher with over 50 starts.
The right-hander’s efforts last year earned him third place in the AL Cy Young award voting. His ERA (2.66), WHIP (1.01), innings pitched (219.2) and batting average against (.218) all ranked third in the league.
With four wins in his first seven starts so far in 2014, Iwakuma has brought this momentum into the new campaign. At 33 and still in his prime, the Tokyo native may yet prove that No. 10 was too conservative on this list.
9. Hiroki Kuroda
Third in wins among Asian players, Kuroda has had a very fine MLB career. His lifetime MLB ERA (3.45) is also third all-time among Asians with over 50 starts.
Despite turning 39 this year, Kuroda remains a durable big league player. He has pitched over 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.
If he continues delivering high-quality pitching there’s every chance that he can repeat his years of Japanese big league victories in the United States.
8. Shin-Soo Choo
A minority position player among the Asian MLB elite, South Korean Choo is one of the finest all-round players in the game.
Unlike imports from Japan, the Texas Rangers outfielder earned his stripes by progressing through the minor leagues. Now with his fourth MLB team, he has developed into baseball’s premier leadoff hitter.
A combination of excellent hitting and patience makes him an ideal fit for the top of a lineup. Ranking first in the NL in walks last year, Choo’s 112 free passes were 34 more than the next highest player. His OBP (.423) was also second in the NL.
Not just content to walk, Choo has plenty of pop in his bat too. Last year his 57 extra-base hits ranked him sixth in the NL. Also, the left-handed hitter has blasted 110 home runs so far in his career.
Speed is another big dimension of Choo’s game—totaling 20 or more stolen bases in a season five times. Choo’s arm is also a big asset, which he demonstrated by recording a league-leading 14 outfield assists with the Cleveland Indians in 2010.
7. Masahiro Tanaka
A newcomer to the United States, Tanaka arrived this year with an awesome reputation. A perfect 24-0 season last season in Japan had expectations raised for his switch to MLB. So far he has not disappointed.
Tanaka is a potentially controversial choice given his modicum of MLB service. However, after only two months in a Yankee uniform he has already stepped up to be the ace of their esteemed pitching staff. The following tweet sums up how important he has been to his team.
Yankees are now 10-2 (.833) when Masahiro Tanaka starts this season and 20-27 (.426) when any other pitcher starts.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 5, 2014
Through 12 starts he ranks first in the AL in ERA (2.02) and WHIP (0.96), second in wins (9) and fourth in strikeouts (92) and batting average against (.218). His incredible winning streak has been snapped, but at 9-1 he is off to a terrific start.
Tanaka may yet prove to be the most talented Asian player to reach American shores. At only 25, he has many years ahead to unleash his impressive pitching arsenal—including a deadly split-finger—on major league hitters.
6. Yu Darvish
Now in his third MLB season, Darvish has quickly established himself as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. His strikeout total (277) led the AL in 2013. He also finished runner-up to Max Scherzer in the CY Young voting.
In 2014, his game has risen to an even higher level. His fluid delivery and varied pitching repertoire has the Japanese player once again amongst the AL’s best pitchers. He currently ranks third in ERA (2.36), fifth in strikeouts (91) and batting average against (.220) and sixth in WHIP (1.14).
Darvish has the distinction of being the fastest pitcher in MLB history to 500 strikeouts. Only two years older than his fellow countryman, Tanaka, Darvish will surely add abundantly to his tally of 35 wins in the years to come.
5. Chan Ho Park
The South Korean pitcher had a very successful 17-year MLB career. Playing primarily with the L.A. Dodgers, Park’s 124 career victories rank first all time among Asian pitchers.
His best season was in 2000 when he set career highs in victories (18), ERA (3.27), batting average against (.214) and complete games (3).
Park’s pitching arsenal, featuring a high-90s fastball and snapping slider, enabled him to compile impressive strikeout totals during his career. In one five-year span (1997-2001) he finished in the top 10 each year in the NL. In 2000 and 2001 he ranked second and third in strikeouts respectively.
Although his career ERA (4.36) is higher than the others on this list, Park blazed a trail for his Asian counterparts to follow. His accumulated statistics make him the most successful Korean player in MLB history.
4. Koji Uehara
In under a six-year span, Uehara has become Asia’s greatest MLB reliever. Although he has less saves in his career than Byung-hyun Kim, Uehara’s pure dominance over hitters puts him at the top.
His K/BB ratio (8.76) is the best of any pitcher in MLB history (minimum 100 IP). In fact, he is nearly 50 percent better than his closest rival among active players (see below).
Uehara’s quality has also shone through in the postseason. His performance in October last year was astounding. He was 7-of-7 in saves whilst boasting a K/BB ratio of 16.0. The Osaka-born pitcher was also rewarded with ALCS MVP.
This season Uehara has picked up where he left off in 2013. He is the only AL closer still perfect in saves 11-of-11, and his microscopic ERA (0.70) is second among this crop.
3. Hideki Matsui
Matsui had a distinguished 10-year stint in MLB primarily with the New York Yankees. The man known as Godzilla in Japan is the all-time leader in home runs and RBI among Asian players.
Matsui was a rock in the middle of the Yankees batting order who invariably gave his side quality plate appearances. He was also a fine run producer, collecting 100 RBI in four of his first five MLB seasons. Matsui always sold his at-bat dearly and never gave the pitcher a cheap out.
The left-handed slugger also had a habit of coming through in clutch situations. In 56 career postseason games, Matsui had a line of .312/.391/.541. His three home run, eight RBI output in the 2009 World Series earned him MVP honors and a firm place in Yankee folklore.
2. Hideo Nomo
Nomo ignited the trend of Asian players making the move to play baseball in America. Bursting on the MLB scene back in 1995, he immediately began confounding National League hitters with his unique hurricane delivery and devastating splitter.
Winning Rookie of the Year that season, he led the league in strikeouts (236), batting average against (.182) and shutouts (3).
Whilst hitters eventually began to solve Nomo’s deception, he still managed to strike out over 200 batters in each of his first three years. Only he and Sandy Koufax have ever accomplished that feat.
After a dip in performance from 1998-2000, Nomo had a renaissance over the ensuing three seasons. During this span he recorded 45 wins with the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels, including a second career no-hitter in his Red Sox debut.
The right-hander had one less career win than Chan Ho Park, but his impact on MLB was much more significant. His early performances captured the attention of baseball and non-baseball fans alike around the world. His success and fame also paved the way for other Asian players who continue to excel in MLB.
1. Ichiro Suzuki
Simply the best. Not only is Ichiro the greatest Asian MLB player, he is also one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Debuting in 2001, the Japanese outfielder has been a prolific performer ever since he first pulled on an MLB uniform.
Ichiro was a revelation in all facets of the game in his rookie season with Seattle. He won AL MVP honors after leading the league in hitting (.350), runs (127) and stolen bases (56). No slouch defensively, he also played a flawless right field and recorded eight outfield assists.
Using his trademark leg kick and hip uncoil at the plate, Ichiro has been spraying balls all over American ballparks for the past 14 years. Incredibly, Ichiro tallied over 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons. No other MLB player has ever accomplished this feat.
Still performing as a platoon outfielder with the Yankees, Ichiro has put up some incredible lifetime numbers. He leads all Asian players in most offensive categories, including hits (2771), doubles (327), triples (83), batting average (.319), stolen bases (476), runs (1275) and walks (554).
At the age of 40, his sparkling career is now in its twilight. However, the 3,000-career hit plateau is not out of his reach. This achievement would be remarkable considering that his first base knock came at the age of 27.
His aforementioned achievements and list of awards (see below) will result in certain Hall of Fame induction in the future. As baseball fans we can only hope there are a few more great Ichiro moments still to come.
2001, 2007, 2008
Stolen Base Leader
Most Valuable Player
Rookie of the Year
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