As the start of the 2022 Major League Baseball season opens, the questions facing the Japanese import players are about building.
Can Los Angeles Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani build on his historic 2021 season with the Los Angeles Angels, in which he was voted to the American League All-Star team and earned the league’s Most Valuable Player Award unanimously?
Can Seiya Suzuki build success in the major leagues into his already sparkling resume from nine years in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)?
And can the others pull themselves out of the mire of poor or uneven 2021 performances and build something?
We’ll start getting answers on April 7, MLB’s Opening Day.
The most intriguing of the eight Japanese imports are Ohtani and Suzuki, who left the Hiroshima Toyo Carp to sign a five-year, $85 million contract with the Chicago Cubs in March.
After leaving the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to sign with the Los Angeles Angels in 2018 and earning American League Rookie of the Year in his first season, Ohtani was hampered by injuries in years two and three. He broke through in 2021, though, starring as both a pitcher and designated hitter. Simply put, there has never been a two-way player of his stature.
On the mound in 2021, Ohtani posted a 9-2 record, a 3.18 earned-run average, and a 1.09 WHIP. He struck out 156 batters in 130 innings and allowed just 98 hits.
At the plate, he hit 46 home runs, drove in 100 runs, and posted an .865 OPS. The home run and OPS marks ranked third and fifth, respectively, in the majors. Ohtani became the first player in Angels’ history to hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in a season (including an exciting steal of home against the Yankees).
Eventually, AL pitchers showed that they preferred Ohtani-the-baserunner to Ohtani-the-batter: in September, he walked 11 times over three straight games, tying a record set by Bryce Harper in 2016. Harper and Barry Bonds are the only other players in the last 50 years to have had at least ten walks in three consecutive games. Ohtani also became the first player since Bonds in 2003 to be walked at least three times in each of three straight contests.
The hype surrounding Ohtani helped inspire the so-called “Ohtani Rule,” which will be implemented in the 2022 season and allows a starting pitcher who hits for himself to remain in the lineup as a designated hitter even after he exits as a pitcher.
Ohtani, who will turn 28 in July, is not eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season. When asked late in the season if he wanted to stay with the Angels over the long term, he said through an interpreter, “I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team, but more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’ll leave it at that.” On the final day of the season, though, he told reporters that he would be open to a contract extension with the Angels. So, stay tuned.
Suzuki’s expected signing with an MLB club during the off-season was delayed by the lockout, but he chose the Cubs over several other suitors soon after the players and owners agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
During his time with Hiroshima, the 27-year-old outfielder was a five-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner. Over 902 NPB games, he posted a .309/.402/.541 slash line with 189 home runs and 621 RBIs. Last year, Suzuki had a slash line of .317/.433/.636, with 38 homers, 26 doubles, 88 RBIs, and nearly as many walks (88) as strikeouts (89).
The question is whether he can achieve similar success in the major leagues. Most Japanese players who have done well in the majors have been pitchers, albeit with three very notable exceptions in Ohtani, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui. The Steamer projections have Seiya Suzuki as a 3.9-WAR player — the highest such projection of any rookie – and the Cubs are banking on his plate discipline to help him adjust to the increased velocity of major league pitchers.
Spring training results, of course, can mean everything or nothing. For the record, though, Suzuki hit .235 in his abbreviated spring training with two home runs, five RBIs, and a .938 OPS. He struck out seven times in 17 at-bats with just two walks, but this was obviously a period of adjustment that most likely will continue into the early part of the regular season.
Again, stay tuned.
Elsewhere among the imports, there are pitchers who are looking to rebound. We start with Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres and Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays.
In a sense, the former Nippon-Ham Fighter Darvish had two seasons in 2021 – one good, one bad. He was 7-2 with a 2.44 earned-run average at the end of June. But his ERAs for July, August, and September ballooned to 7.36, 6.32, and 6.21, respectively. He also allowed 18 of his season-total 28 home runs during those three months. He finished the season with an 8-11 record and 4.22 ERA, playing a role in the Padres’ stunning collapse from being a strong contender in the National League West to missing the playoffs with a losing record.
Darvish finished the season with an 8-11 mark and 4.22 ERA. His 28 home runs allowed represented the second-highest total of his career. Nonetheless, he will make the Opening-Day start and is expected to lead what could be a very deep Padres rotation. His spring training numbers were good – a 2-0 mark, 2.38 ERA, 14 strikeouts in 11.1 innings, and a 1.06 WHIP.
After three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Kikuchi signed a three-year, $36 million contract with Toronto in the off-season. Betting that other teams would take a chance on his still-electric stuff, he had become a free agent after both he and the Mariners declined to exercise the option on his contract.
The 2021 performance of Kikuchi, who used to pitch for NPB’s Saitama Seibu Lions, was also a tale of two seasons. After solid May and June performances that earned him an invite to the All-Star Game, it seemed that he was finally paying dividends after disappointing in 2019 and 2020. But he slumped in July and August and was 0-2 with a 7.82 ERA in September. The Mariners chose not to pitch Kikuchi after September 23, showing that they didn’t think he would help in their unsuccessful playoff push that went down to the last day of the season.
Kikuchi finished 2021 with a 7-4 mark, 4.41 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP. He gave up 27 home runs and walked 62 batters in 157 innings. In three years as a Mariner, he was 15-24 with a 4.97 ERA. He put up a 6.48 ERA in three 2022 spring training outings, mostly due to a tough day against the Philadelphia Phillies (2.2 innings, three home runs, five earned runs).
Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins is another pitcher hoping to rebound – at some point. He must first rehab from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last September. It is uncertain whether the former Carp ace will pitch in 2022, though he’s targeted a possible return for September. The inclusion of an internal brace to the elbow, a newer development to the surgery, can cut Maeda’s recovery time down to 9-12 months.
After earning Cy Young Award runner-up in 2020, Maeda struggled for most of the 2021 regular season, save for a strong July performance. He was twice on the injured list and then had the elbow procedure. He finished with a 6-5 mark, 4.66 ERA, and 1.30 WHIP, walking 32 batters and giving up 16 home runs in 106 innings.
That leaves four other imports from last season to discuss. First is Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Tsutsugo had a rough go after signing with Tampa Bay before the 2020 season. The former Yokohama DeNA Baystars standout averaged just .197 in 2020 and .167 in 2021 before being designated for assignment and picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He hit just .120 in 12 games with Los Angeles, spent time on the injured list, and was outrighted to the minors.
Then the Pirates signed him on August 15, and he had a bit of a renaissance that earned him a one-year, $4 million contract. He averaged .268 with an .883 OPS for Pittsburgh and reduced his strikeout rate to 27 percent, compared to 34 percent in his previous major league at-bats.
In spring training, primarily seeing action at first base, Tsutsugo averaged .333 with a 1.050 OPS. He struck out six times in 24 at-bats but also worked six bases on balls.
Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, heading into the back half of a two-year pact with the Boston Red Sox, must focus on regaining the sharp command he used to have with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. In 54 appearances in his first season with Boston, he was 5-1 with a 3.06 ERA and featured a nasty split-finger fastball. However, he had a FIP of 5.00 and a high WHIP of 1.45. Though he struck out 61 batters in 53 innings, he allowed 45 hits and 32 bases on balls. Only 39 percent of his pitches were in the strike zone, compared to a league-wide average of 48 percent.
In the just-completed spring training, Sawamura posted an 11.25 ERA and 2.00 WHIP, but that’s primarily due to a poor outing against the Twins in which he gave up three hits, two walks, and five earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning. He did not allow a run in his other four games.
One import that will not begin the season in the big leagues is outfielder Shogo Akiyama, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds. After two seasons in which he underperformed and a spring training in which he batted just .182 with no extra-base hits or RBI, the Reds announced on April 3 that he would not make the opening-day roster. The team released him two days later.
Akiyama posted a .224 batting average and .594 OPS in his two seasons, with just one triple and no home runs in 366 plate appearances. In 2021, he was out of action until May 7 because of a hamstring injury, and a balky hamstring sent him back to the injured list in mid-September. His playing time steadily eroded, and he finished with a .204 batting mark. Akiyama, who will turn 34 on April 16, averaged just .182 during the just-completed spring training. It remains to be seen whether the former Seibu Lions standout will return to Japan or catch on with another MLB via what would likely be a minor league deal.
The final Japanese player to mention is pitcher Kohei Arihara, who pitched in Japan for the Fighters. After a tough 2021 season, his first in the majors after signing a two-year, $6.2 million contract with the Texas Rangers, he entered 2022 spring training as a non-roster invitee but was reassigned to minor-league camp on March 28.
Arihara, 29, spent much of last season on the injured list following shoulder surgery, made three ineffective appearances in September, and was designated for assignment on September 21. After that, he made two starts in AAA and allowed 12 earned runs in 9.2 innings.