As the month of June portended the warmest part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, three of the Japanese import players in Major League Baseball correspondingly heated up.
In the month just passed, two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and pitchers Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres and Hirokazu Sawamura of the Boston Red Sox statistically had their best months of the season thus far.
As a pitcher, Ohtani began the month by allowing eight hits, four runs, and three home runs in a June 2 outing against the New York Yankees, but he was transcendent after that. In four subsequent starts, he gave up just one earned run and 14 hits while striking out 36 batters in 26.2 innings. He did not allow a run in his last three starts against Seattle (a game that the guests of JapanBall’s USA West Coast Tour attended), Kansas City, and the Chicago White Sox. Against the White Sox, he pitched 5.2 hitless innings and extended his scoreless-innings streak to a career-high 21.2. In that game, he walked just one batter and struck out 11.
For the month, Ohtani-the-pitcher was 4-1 with a 1.52 earned-run average and a 0.98 WHIP. In comparison, he had a 4.19 ERA in April and a 2.88 mark in May. He finished June 7-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. At this point, his WHIP is the lowest of his career, while his walk rate is lower and his strikeout rate higher than in 2021. Additionally, he hit 10 batters in 130 innings in 2021 but has beaned just one in 74 innings so far in 2022.
We’re not forgetting, of course, that Ohtani is also a force at the plate. As a hitter, he posted a .298/.398/.574 slash line in June, with six home runs and 17 RBI. He had hit .247 in April and .250 in May, with corresponding slugging percentages of .427 and .510.
His highlight game was against Kansas City on June 21 when he went 3-4 with two home runs and eight RBI. Through the first three months of the season, Ohtani had a slash line of .265/.350/.505.
Ohtani’s batted-ball metrics show that his success with the bat the last couple of years corresponds to elevating the ball much more than in the first part of his MLB career. In his first three seasons with the Angels, his groundout-to-flyout ratio ranged from 1.16 to 1.51, but it was 0.91 in 2021 and is 0.93 so far in 2022. The “launch angle revolution” has not evaded “ShoTime.”
Switching now to Darvish . . . he went 3-1 for the Padres in June with a 2.52 ERA and a microscopic 0.84 WHIP. He gave up just 25 hits and five walks in 35.2 innings. He also was an innings-eater, lasting between six and eight innings in all five of his starts.
Darvish continued his trend of striking out fewer batters, with 31 in 35.2 innings. Reportedly, he is relying less on his breaking pitches and concentrating more on locating his fastball in spots that induce weak contact. This efficiency-over-strikeouts approach is not the norm in MLB, but Darvish is proving it an effective approach with a strong defense behind him that will soon be improved when Fernando Tatis, Jr. comes off the injured list. For the season, Darvish has a 7-3 mark, 3.26 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 75 strikeouts, and walks in 88.1 innings.
On the opposite coast, reliever Sawamura of the Red Sox continued to be quietly effective. In eight outings, he posted a 2.16 ERA, giving up seven hits and one walk in 8.1 innings. His 0.96 WHIP was his best monthly figure so far this season. He finished 2021 with a high 1.45 WHIP, and Boston wanted him to improve his command. He posted a 1.29 WHIP in April of this year, then lowered that to 1.00 in May and lowered it further in June, so he’s on the right track.
The only backslider in June among the import players was starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who continued to display the inconsistency that has been a hallmark of his time in the majors, first with the Seattle Mariners and now with the Blue Jays. He was winless with a 5.52 ERA in April, followed that by going 2-0 with a 2.36 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in May, and then fell back in June.
Though he finished the month with a strong performance against Tampa Bay (one run, four hits and one walk in six innings), his overall June numbers were not good. In six starts, he was 1-3 with a 7.17 ERA and 1.83 WHIP. He allowed 27 hits, 12 walks, and 10 home runs in 21.2 innings.
Turning to the position players, there isn’t much to report, as both Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs and Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the injured list.
Suzuki, who signed with much fanfare to a five-year, $85 million contract following the lockout, suffered a sprain of his left ring finger after an awkward slide and went on the 10-day IL May 30. Speculation has it that he may return during the first half of July.
Suzuki began well, batting .354, as of April 24. But pitchers then adjusted, and his average stood at .245 at the end of May. Suzuki got just two hits in his last 20 April at-bats and averaged just .211 in May with a .278 on-base percentage and .338 slugging mark. In contrast, he was known for getting on base and for not striking out much during his nine seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, posting a career OPB of .414 and averaging one strikeout in every 5.2 times at bat. To this point with the Cubs, he has 49 strikeouts in 139 at-bats, an average of one for every 2.8.
Tsutsugo has yet to be reinstated to the Pirates’ active roster after going on the 10-day IL on May 26 with a lower lumbar strain. He had averaged only .177 with a .538 OPS before the injury. He began a rehab assignment at AAA Indianapolis on June 22 and had five hits and six walks in 17 plate appearances through June 29.
NOTES: Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Kenta Maeda, who hasn’t pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery last September, has been throwing off flat ground and may start throwing off the mound soon . . . Outfielder Shogo Akiyama, whom the Cincinnati Reds released just prior to the start of spring training after two disappointing seasons, has returned to Japan by signing a three-year deal with the Hiroshima Carp. After his release on April 5, he signed a minor-league deal with the San Diego Padres on May 9 and was doing well at AAA El Paso (.343/.378/.529, 3HR/21RBI in 16 games). But when he did not engender interest from any major-league teams, he turned to Hiroshima. The former Saitama Seibu Lions star, 34, slashed .304/.379/.836 in nine NPB seasons and was a six-time all-star . . . Pitcher Kohei Arihara, who had an injury-plagued season with the Texas Rangers in 2021, has appeared in 12 games for AAA Round Rock (TX), posting a 2-4 mark and 5.36 earned-run average (12 games, eight starts).