When Seiya Suzuki signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Chicago Cubs on March 18, he became one of the more heralded Japanese imports to ever join a major-league team, given his record of success in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). The question was whether his MLB performance would match what he did in NPB.
After the first month of play, the needle is pointing toward “yes.”
Suzuki was named National League Player of the Week after bursting out of the gates with three home runs and a .412 batting average in the Cubs’ first six games. So much for the “adjustment period” that so many thought would result in depressed numbers for Suzuki in the season’s early days.
Opposing teams quickly caught on to the damage he could do to the plate and started to pitch him more carefully, intentionally walking him twice in key situations after his early-season outburst. They also eventually figured out some of his weak spots, as Suzuki tallied just six hits in his last 29 April at-bats and was hitless in his final 11. The numbers equalized by the end of the month, and he finished April with a .279 average, .405 on-base percentage, and .529 slugging mark. That early performance tracks pretty well with his nine-year record with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, for whom he posted a .309/.402/.541 slash line. He did strike out 23 times in 68 April at-bats – a 34-percent rate, compared to just 17 percent during his time with Hiroshima – but the Cubs are banking on Suzuki’s plate discipline skills to help him through the transitional period and adjust to the increased velocity of major league pitchers.
Elsewhere among the imports, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels did not record the sort of statistics in April that one might expect, but he nonetheless put up some highlights.
Owing mostly to a 3-25 start at the plate, Ohtani averaged only .236 in April with a .700 OPS, while striking out 27 times in 89 at-bats. Despite the slow start, he still showed tremendous power: versus the Houston Astros on April 10, he hit a ground-rule double that ranked as the hardest-hit ball of his career (119.1 mph) and the hardest-hit by a left-handed batter since Statcast began tracking this in 2015. In his last 15 games of the month, Ohtani found more consistency at the plate, averaging .266 with an .829 OPS. In a mid-month three-game series against the Texas Rangers, he was 5-15 with three home runs and seven RBI.
As a pitcher, Ohtani was 2-2 with a 4.19 earned-run average in April, but he did show flashes of brilliance. After losing in his first two outings – the first time in his career that he’d lost consecutive starts – he was dominant against Houston on April 20. He took a perfect game into the sixth inning and eventually allowed just one hit over six scoreless innings while striking out 12 batters and walking just one. He won his next start against Cleveland, too, with a more mundane five-inning, five-hit, two-runs-allowed effort.
Expect more good things from Ohtani the pitcher. Reports have it that Ohtani is throwing his fastball harder, has improved his walk rate per innings pitched (26 percent in April compared to 34 percent last season), and is throwing his slider harder but with the same amount of break. In the first month, he struck out 30 batters in 19.1 innings and had a WHIP of just 1.09.
As an aside, in the season-opener, Ohtani became the first player in MLB history to both throw his team’s first pitch of the season and face his team’s first pitch of the season as a hitter.
A potential issue arose on May 1, though, as Ohtani was removed from a game against the Chicago White Sox with what was described as “right groin tightness.” The extent of the injury has not been determined, and Ohtani said it was just a precautionary measure.
Of the pure pitchers in the 2022 import contingent, the San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish finished the season’s first month with a 2-1 mark and 4.44 ERA. That unsightly ERA is due mostly to a disastrous April 12 outing against the San Francisco Giants in which he lasted just 1.2 innings and gave up eight hits and nine earned runs; in his four other starts, he allowed only four earned runs in 24.2 innings.
Yusei Kikuchi, who signed a three-year, $36 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in the off-season, has yet to give much of a return on the investment. He was 0-1 with a 5.52 ERA in four April starts, giving up 15 hits and 13 walks in 14.2 innings of work for a very high 1.91 WHIP.
He had a good outing against the Boston Red Sox – five innings, three hits, one earned run – but did not last more than 3.2 innings in his other starts.
Hirokazu Sawamura made seven appearances for the Boston Red Sox in April. In seven innings, the reliever posted a 2.57 earned-run mark with a 1.29 WHIP. Six of his seven outings were scoreless, the only exception being a two-inning stint on April 15 against the Minnesota Twins when he gave up two hits, two walks, and two earned runs.
A key area for Sawamura to continue to improve on is his control. His WHIP was 1.45 last season, buoyed by 32 walks in 53 innings. Only 39 percent of his pitches in 2021 were in the strike zone, compared to a league-wide average of 48 percent. As of the publication of this article, he had allowed three walks in 7.1 innings – a slight improvement on 2021.
The final active import, first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a good start to the season but managed only three hits in his final 29 at-bats in April to finish the month with a .172 batting average. Tsutsugo, currently on a one-year, $4 million contract, continued his tendency to strike out, going down on strikes in 33 percent of his at-bats.
NOTES: Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t pitch until at least September, traveled from the Twins’ spring training home of Fort Myers, FL, to Tampa to see his teammates play on April 29. The Twins lost to break a seven-game winning streak. Maeda blamed himself for the defeat, posting a note in the dugout saying that he was sorry. He was around the next day but didn’t show up in the dugout, and the Twins won . . . Kohei Arihara is off to a strong start with Round Rock, AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers. In five starts, he has one win and two losses, but with a solid 3.38 ERA. He is averaging one strikeout per inning, with a 3.43 K/BB ratio. . .The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans reports that the San Diego Padres will sign former Cincinnati Reds and Hiroshima Toyo Carp outfielder Shogo Akiyama (whom the Reds released on April 5) to a minor league contract; more updates on next month’s report. . .And here’s news of a Japanese player who is not an import: After being a second-round draft choice of the New York Yankees in 2013 and toiling in the minor leagues since, 27-year-old second baseman Gosuke Katoh finally reached the majors with Toronto on April 9 against Texas. He got his first MLB hit, a double, against the Red Sox on April 27. A Japanese American born in Mountain View, CA, Katoh lived in Japan from ages three to six and graduated from high school in San Diego.