At a high level, the report card on the performances of Major League Baseball’s Japanese imports during May is pretty simple – Pitchers: good. Hitters: not so good.
Starters Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays and Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, and reliever Hirokazu Sawamura of the Boston Red Sox all performed well. On the other hand, May was a rough month for outfielder Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs and first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it was a mixed bag for the designated-hitter version of Ohtani.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the numbers, starting with Kikuchi, who is in the first season of a three-year, $36 million contract with Toronto. He disappointed in April with a 5.52 earned-run average, a 1.91 WHIP, and 13 walks in 14.2 innings. However, he rebounded in May to post a 2-0 mark with a 2.36 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in five starts. His best outing was May 16 against Seattle when he allowed no runs and one hit in six innings. Overall, he was 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA after the first two months of play.
Darvish also had a sometimes-difficult April, highlighted by a disastrous outing against the San Francisco Giants on April 12. In four May starts, however, he was 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA and 0.99 WHIP to lower his season record to 4-3 with a 4.03 ERA. His only difficult outing was May 13 against Atlanta when he gave up nine hits and five earned runs in 5.2 innings against the Braves. He then turned things around in his next start, shutting out Philadelphia over seven innings while walking no one.
Despite solid results, Darvish’s strikeout rate has dropped this season. Reportedly, he is relying less on his breaking pitches and concentrating more on locating his fastball in spots that induce weak contact. By the end of May, he had struck out 48 batters in 60.1 innings. In 2021, he had 199 strikeouts in 166 innings, and he’s averaged 1.2 strikeouts per inning over his career prior to this season.
Now to Ohtani-the-pitcher. He was 1-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 1.00 WHIP during May. He also struck out 33 batters in 25 innings. The highlight of his four starts was against Boston on May 5 when he pitched seven scoreless innings, walked no one, and struck out 12. For the season, he is 3-3 with a 2.45 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts in 44 innings.
At one point in May, there was a bit of concern about Ohtani’s fastball velocity, which had averaged “only” 93.3 miles per hour in a May 11 start against Tampa Bay. However, he followed that a week later with a start against Texas in which his four-seam fastball averaged a career-high 98.6 mph and maxed out at 100.8 mph. Safe to say that Ohtani remains one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball two months into the season.
Moving to the opposite coast now, we’ll focus on Boston’s Sawamura. In the second year of a two-year contract, he had a 3.60 ERA in May and 1.00 WHIP, with 10 strikeouts in 10 innings. For the season, he is 0-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. The latter is a significant improvement over his 1.45 WHIP during the 2021 season, though he still needs to improve his command.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox optioned him to AAA Worcester on May 28 before recalling him two days later. One report claimed that Sawamura had been “extremely unreliable” this season. Perhaps, though, the brief demotion was the right tonic. The day he returned, he pitched two scoreless, hitless innings against Baltimore.
Now to the hitters, starting with Ohtani. He averaged .250 in May with seven home runs, 21 RBI, and an .858 OPS. That contrasts with his .236 average and .700 OPS in April. For the season, he’s batting .249 with 11 home runs and 32 RBI. On May 14, he became the third Japanese import player to hit 100 home runs in the big leagues, joining Hideki Matsui (175) and Ichiro Suzuki (117) on the list.
Seiya Suzuki, on the other hand, has yet to get on track after a fast start to his major-league career. He signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Cubs in April after starring with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), and he began well, batting .354, as of April 24. But pitchers have since 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 his nine seasons with Hiroshima, he was known for getting on base and for not striking out much, posting a career OPB of .414 and averaging a strikeout just once in every 5.2 times at bat. In his first two months with the Cubs, he has 49 strikeouts in 139 at-bats, an average of one for every 2.8 ABs. Part of the reason may be that he has yet to adjust to the added velocity of major-league pitchers, a problem that continues to plague his countryman, Tsutsugo.
Tsutsugo has averaged just .202 in two-plus seasons in the majors, but a solid performance with Pittsburgh in the latter part of the 2021 season earned him a one-year contract with the Pirates on which he has yet to pay dividends. He batted just .182 with a .608 OPS in May, which actually was a slight improvement over his April performance. For the two months, he averaged just .177 with a .538 OPS.
Tsutsugo was placed on the 10-day Injured List on May 26, though the Pirates have not disclosed the nature of the injury.
NOTES: Outfielder Shogo Akiyama, who was released on April 5 after two disappointing seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, has surfaced again. He signed a minor-league contract with the San Diego Padres on May 9 and was assigned to their AAA affiliate in El Paso. Akiyama batted just .224 with no home runs in two years with Cincinnati, which owes him $8 million for this, the third of his original three-year contract.