Since Masanori Murakami broke in with the San Francisco Giants in 1964, forty-three Japanese-born players have appeared in at least one Major League baseball game. When Masahiro Tanaka signed with the New York Yankees this winter, he became the ninth active Japanese-born player currently on MLB rosters and the overwhelming front-runner to become the 44th to play a game in the Big Leagues.
While likely to be dwarfed by countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, which had 89 and 63 Major Leaguers, respectively, on Opening Day rosters last season, Japan’s representation figures will compare favorably with Mexico, Puerto Rico and, perhaps, Cuba in 2014. A couple things stand out about the current batch of Japanese-born Major Leaguers: a) pitchers dominate the group, with seven of the nine being hurlers and the remaining two outfielders; and b) based on performance, what the list lacks in quantity it compensates for with above-average quality, including three hurlers who finished in the top 7 in voting for the AL Cy Young Award.
Following is a look at the nine active Japanese-born Major Leaguers based on 2014 salary.
9. Junichi Tazawa, Boston Red Sox, $1.275 million
In 2013, Tazawa certainly earned his keep, pitching effectively as Boston’s setup man. The 27-year-old went 5-4 with a 3.16 ERA in a career-high 71 appearances. He also had a robust 9.5 Ks per nine innings. Tazawa was most dominant with men on base, holding hitters to a .143 average with runners in scoring position and .100 with runners in scoring position and two outs. He appeared in 13 postseason games, allowing one run in 7.1 innings.
8. Norichika Aoki, Kansas City Royals, $1.95 million
Perhaps not as well-known as his Japanese brethren who play in more media-friendly environments, Aoki figures to give the Royals, who acquired the 32-year-old outfielder from Milwaukee this offseason, a decent return on their investment. Aoki was considered more of a fourth outfielder when he came over, but worked himself into a regular. The lead-off hitter’s line over his first two seasons in the Majors is .287/.355/.399, and he has 50 stolen bases over that stretch while striking out only 95 times. Last season, the player referred to by some as “Ichiro Lite” whiffed only 40 times in 674 plate appearances.
7. Kyuji Fujikawa, Chicago Cubs, $4.5 million
Fujikawa’s Major League career has been stalled by Tommy John surgery, which he underwent last June. Considered a potential closer in 2013, his first season with the Cubs, Fujikawa appeared in only 12 games and pitching as many innings before injury his elbow. His stat line was not pretty either: 1-1, 5.25.
6. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox, $5 million
The numbers aren’t in Uehara’s favor. He’s about to turn 39, is coming off a season in which he threw a career-high 74.1 innings, more than doubling his output from the previous season, and is lucky to hit 90 mph on the radar gun. That said, Uehara didn’t only solidify Boston’s closer position – it had been in flux since Jonathan Papelbon left – he arguably was the A.L.’s best reliever in 2013. The man standing on the mound for the Red Sox in the World Series clincher, Uehara was so effective during the regular season that he finished seventh in the AL Cy Young voting, the highest placing for a reliever. Uehara chalked up 21 saves (he didn’t take over as the Sox closer until mid-June), and allowed only 33 hits while walking nine for a 0.565 WHIP. He was even more dominant in October, giving up one run in 13.2 innings over 13 postseason appearances.
T4. Ichiro Suzuki, New York Yankees, $6.5 million
Ichiro Suzuki is the standard by which all Japanese-born position players in the Majors will be judged by, until further notice. He made the jump from Japan in 2001 as a 29-year-old, and has compiled 2,742 hits in the Majors and more than 4,000 over his illustrious career. He won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in 2001, and has three other top-10 MVP finishes. He carries a career .319 average – he hit at least .350 four times including .372 in 2004 – with 472 stolen bases. Ichiro also flashed the leather in right-field, winning 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (2001-10). Alas, Ichiro, at 40, is a player with diminished skills and in the final year of his contract. No longer projecting as an everyday player, reaching 3,000 hits in the Majors does not seem likely for him.
T4. Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners, $6.5 million
Felix Hernandez may be the King in Seattle, but Iwakuma has been princely since joining the Mariners. In his two seasons with Seattle, the soon-to-33-year-old is 23-11 with a 2.84 ERA and 1.006 WHIP. Last season, his first as a full-time starter, he hurled 219.2 innings – nearly 100 more than the previous season – allowing 179 hits and only walking 1.7 per nine. He went 14-6 in 33 starts and sported a 2.66 ERA. For his efforts, Iwakuma finished third in the AL Cy Young voting – five spots ahead of King Felix. There’s some evidence, however, that Iwakuma is a beneficiary of his home ballparks spacious dimensions: his strikeout-to-walk ratio at Safeco was 7.85 compared with 2.86 on the road; and his home/road WHIP split was 0.89-1.13.
3. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers, $10 million
Two seasons in the Majors; two top-10 Cy Young Award finishes, including runner-up to the Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer in 2013. Yep, so far the 27-year-old Darvish has been worth every penny the Rangers shelled out in posting fee (reportedly $51.7 million) and contract ($56 million for six years). As good as he was in his rookie campaign, Darvish was downright dominant in his sophomore season. A legitimate No. 1, Darvish led the majors in strikeouts (277) and strikeouts per nine (11.9), and paced the American League in hits per nine (6.2). He sported a 2.83 ERA – more than a full run lower than his rookie season (.390) – and a 1.073 WHIP.
2. Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees, $16 million
The soon-to-be 39-year-old had considered returning to Japan, but opted for one more go-round with the Yankees, inking a one-year deal; lucky for the pitching-starved Bombers. Until he ran out of gas late in the season, Kuroda was more than simply the team’s most consistent starter. He was a bona-fide Cy Young candidate as he kept the injury-plagued Yankees in the race for a playoff spot. His final eight starts, however, were dreadful: 0-6 with a 6.56 ERA. Despite that eyesore of a finish, Kuroda went 11-13, posted a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, and topped 200 innings for the third straight year.
1. Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees, $22 million
A perfect storm – a new posting system that favors the players over their Japanese teams and the Yankees’ desperation for ace-type signing – conspired to move Tanaka to top of this list. If his numbers from Japan can translate, the Yankees won’t complain about the money they had to dole out to secure his services. The 25-year-old is coming off a season in which he went 24-0 (that’s not a typo) with a 1.27 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP, had more strikeouts (183) than hits allowed (168), and led his team, the Tohoko Rakuten Golden Eagles, to their first championship. His numbers over a seven-year career are dominant: 99-35, 2.30 ERA, 1,238 strikeouts and 275 walks. And if the talent wasn’t enticing enough, Tanaka’s 160-pitch performance in Game 6 of the 2013 Japan Series followed by a 15-pitch save in the clincher the next day speak to Tanaka’s competitiveness. They also raise concerns though. Tanaka already has logged 1315.0 innings and his strikeouts per nine innings have decreased each of the past two seasons.
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