Shohei Ohtani and the Best Japanese Players in MLB History

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2021

Shohei Ohtani and the Best Japanese Players in MLB History

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    Johm McCoy/Associated Press

    Outside of Major League Baseball, Japan boasts the strongest league in the sport. Many terrific players spend their entire careers in Nippon Professional Baseball, but a few will occasionally head to the U.S.

    Right now, the headliner is Shohei Ohtani.

    The two-way superstar has become one of the sport's greatest talents, joining the likes of Ichiro Suzuki to hold such a distinction. Several more Japanese players have become long-term fixtures in a lineup or rotation, sometimes earning All-Star nods or finishing as a top contender for other individual honors.

    While the list of players is subjective, considerations include both traditional and advanced stats. The order is alphabetical.

Yu Darvish

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    Before the 2012 season, the Texas Rangers committed more than $111 million to sign Yu Darvish. They paid a $51.7 million posting fee to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and immediately signed Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract.

    In short: Worth it.

    Sure, his career hasn't gone exactly to plan. Tommy John surgery sidelined Darvish in 2015, and he struggled for a couple of years, too. But he's a five-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young runner-uponce in Texas and once with the Chicago Cubswho holds the MLB record as the fastest pitcher to 1,500 strikeouts.

    Darvish, who turns 35 on Monday, should have at least a few more seasons to pad his MLB resume.

Hisashi Iwakuma

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    In the same season Darvish headed to Texas, Hisashi Iwakuma joined an AL West rival in the Seattle Mariners.

    As a rookie in 2012, Iwakuma split time as a starter and reliever. He entered the rotation in 2013 and enjoyed the best season of his MLB career, notching a 14-6 record and 2.66 ERA. Iwakuma made the All-Star team and finished third in AL Cy Young voting.

    Iwakuma played three more healthy years before a shoulder injury in 2017 ended his time in Seattle.

    Overall, he started 136 games and posted a 63-39 record with a career 3.42 ERA. Iwakuma is the only Japan-born player other than Hideo Nomo to throw a no-hitter in the majors.

Hiroki Kuroda

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    Hiroki Kuroda never had an overpowering year, but he was about as consistent as a major league pitcher can be.

    From 2008 to 2014, the right-hander spent four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and three with the New York Yankees, starting at least 31 games in six of those years. His ERA ranged from 3.07 to 3.76, and according to Baseball Reference, his FIP never strayed from between 3.26 and 3.86.

    Kuroda's reliability is especially striking because he debuted for L.A. at 33 years old. Few pitchers ever sustain that level of performance in their prime, let alone at the back end of their playing days like Kuroda.

    Among MLB pitchers from Japan, Kuroda ranks fourth with 986 strikeouts in his career.

Hideki Matsui

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    Shohei Ohtani seems destined to own this title, but for now, Hideki Matsui is Japan's most prolific MLB power hitter.

    During a 10-year career spent largely with the Yankees, Matsui slugged 175 homers and drove in 760 runs. Ichiro Suzuki is the only player with more RBI (780), and he logged more than twice as many plate appearances (10,734) as Matsui (5,066).

    The 2003 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up registered five 20-homer and four 100-RBI seasons. He landed two All-Star nods and the 2009 World Series MVP, becoming the firstand still onlyJapan-born player to earn the latter award.

    Matsui retired after the 2012 season and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.

Hideo Nomo

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    Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

    As the first Japan-born standout in MLB history, Hideo Nomo is remembered as a trailblazer for his country.

    In 1995, he won NL Rookie of the Year after leading the league in strikeouts with 236. Nomo continued mowing down batters in the next two seasons, whiffing 234 and 233 batters. He finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting in both 1995 and 1996.

    During his lone season (2001) with the Boston Red Sox, Nomo struck out an AL-high 220 batters. He then returned to the Dodgers and recorded a 3.24 ERA in 67 starts from 2002-03.

    Nomo's success legitimized the NPB-to-MLB path, and he remains Japan's all-time leader in MLB wins (123).

Shohei Ohtani

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Shohei Ohtani isn't quite yet the best Japanese player in MLB history, but if his performance in 2021 is an indication of long-term success, he's on the right track.

    In 2018, the Los Angeles Angels star secured AL Rookie of the Year honors. Ohtani smacked 22 homers and tallied a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts. The dreaded Tommy John surgery ended his year, but Ohtani returned to the lineup in 2019 and finished another injury-hampered season with 18 homers.

    And after struggling through a pandemic-shortened campaign in 2020, Ohtani's full two-way prowess is finally underway.

    This year, Ohtani became the first player in MLB history to achieve two distinctions. First, he tallied 30 homers and 10 steals in the first 81 games of the season. Secondly, he was selected to the All-Star team as both a position player and hitter.

    Ohtani hopefully has a long career ahead, and so far, he's off to an incredibly promising start.

Kazuhiro Sasaki

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    ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

    Although he only played four MLB seasons, Kazuhiro Sasaki put together an excellent tenure for the Mariners.

    Sasaki, the 1998 MVP of the Central League (one of two leagues that constitute the NPB), made an immediate impression in the U.S. He won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2000, posting a 3.16 ERA with 37 saves, and at 32 years old became the second-oldest winner of the award.

    Then, he landed an All-Star nod in both 2001 and 2002 while collecting a combined 82 saves in those two seasons. Sasaki notched 10 saves in his final year in MLB to end his career with 129.

    Sasaki entered the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.

Ichiro Suzuki

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Ichiro Suzuki is the most accomplished Japanese player in MLB history, and it's only more impressive given his NPB accolades. As a member of the Orix BlueWave, he won three Pacific League MVPs, seven batting titles and seven Golden Gloves.

    He was just getting started.

    In 2001, Ichiro gathered the AL MVP and AL Rookie of the Year honors with a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove. The 27-year-old paced the American League in hits (242), batting average (.350) and steals (56). The remarkable first season set the tone for an incredible career.

    While on the Mariners from 2001-12, the right fielder collected 10 All-Star nods, 10 Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers and two batting titles. He spent two-plus seasons on the Yankees and three with the Miami Marlins before returning to Seattle and retiring in early 2019 at age 45.

    Ichiro totaled 3,089 career hits and 509 steals, which rank 24th and 35th, respectively, in MLB history.

Masahiro Tanaka

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    In the early 2010s, Masahiro Tanaka twice led the NPB in wins and ERA. His dominance led the Yankees to offer Tanaka a seven-year, $155 million deal, which he signed in 2014.

    New York inserted Tanaka into the rotation, and he responded with an excellent first season. Despite a two-month absence due to an elbow injuryone that prevented him from appearing in the All-Star Gamehe posted a 13-5 record with a 2.77 ERA.

    From 2014-16, Tanaka had a 39-16 record and 3.12 ERA with 445 strikeouts to only 84 walks. While that stretch was undoubtedly his best, Tanaka was a serviceable-to-good starter throughout his seven years in the Bronx.

    Tanaka returned to play in Japan after the 2020 season and helped his country win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Koji Uehara

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    Koji Uehara made his MLB debut in 2009 as a 34-year-old, starting 12 games for the Baltimore Orioles with modest success. A switch to the bullpen in 2010, though, proved the right decision for his future.

    From 2010 to 2012 with Baltimore and Texas, Uehara had a 2.36 ERA across 145 appearances as a reliever. He registered an impressive 0.772 WHIP, striking out 183 batters and issuing just 17 walks.

    On the Boston Red Sox, Uehara earned MVP honors in the 2013 American League Championship Series and recorded the final out of the World Series. He made the All-Star team in 2014, too.

    Uehara returned to Japan after the 2017 campaign, ending his MLB career with a 2.66 ERA over 480.2 innings.