The performances of San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish and Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani were far and away the best among the Japanese import players in Major League Baseball during the 2022 season.
Darvish was a huge factor for the Padres as they made the playoffs for the first time in a full-length season since 2006 and posted their first winning record in a full regular season since 2010. At the other end of the spectrum, the Angels again underperformed with their eighth consecutive losing season, but it was hardly the fault of Ohtani.
Consistent throughout the year, Darvish finished at his best, posting a 5-1 mark over 39 September innings with a 1.85 ERA and microscopic 0.79 WHIP. He finished the regular season at 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA and 0.95 WHIP that was the lowest of a major-league career that began in 2012. He pitched 194.2 innings, his second-highest total, and his 26 quality starts tied Houston’s Framber Valdez for the most in MLB.
Darvish had not only an excellent regular season, but also an effective postseason, helping the Padres reach the National League Championship Series before falling to the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the NL Wild Card Round, he earned the win against the Mets by allowing six hits and just one run while not walking a batter over seven innings. Against the powerhouse Dodgers in the NLCS, he was less sharp but still kept the Padres in a game they went on to win: he gave up solo home runs in each of the first three innings, but the Dodgers got nothing after that, and San Diego eventually took a 5-3 victory.
In the NLCS opener versus Philadelphia, Darvish allowed just three hits and one walk in seven innings, but two of the three hits were home runs (by Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber) that proved the difference in a 2-0 Phillies victory. In the decisive Game 5, Darvish and opposing starter Zach Wheeler each allowed two runs and a homer and left after six innings with the score tied 2-2. Harper’s two-run homer in the eighth inning made the difference and sent Philadelphia to the World Series.
Darvish, the only Japanese import to see action in the postseason, posted a 2-1 playoff mark with a 2.88 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and a .217 batting average against. He allowed seven home runs in 25 innings, but kept the damage to a minimum by limiting baserunners.
Moving now to Ohtani . . . The Angels, who last made the playoffs in 2014, posted a 73-89 record that left them 30 games behind the division-leading Houston Astros. Ohtani, though, was among the league leaders in hitting and pitching the entire season and finished it pretty much the way he began it – with an impressive performance.
Though he took the loss in the season’s final game against the Oakland A’s, he allowed just one hit, one run, and one walk in five innings before leaving because of a blister on his finger. And he managed to make history yet again – becoming the first player in the World Series era (since 1903) to qualify for the leaderboards as both a hitter and pitcher in the same season. He exceeded the necessary 162 innings to qualify as a pitcher, and he’d already surpassed the 502 plate-appearance mark to qualify as a hitter. Ohtani led his club in both innings pitched, pitching starts, games played, and plate appearances as a batter.
He finished the season by posting a 4-1 mark and 1.20 ERA in September and early October to conclude 2022 with a 15-9 win/loss record, a 2.33 ERA, 219 strikeouts in 166 innings, and a very low 1.01 WHIP. That is thanks in part to an improved walk rate – he walked 44 batters in 166 innings, while he walked the same number in just 130 innings in 2021.
In his designated-hitter role, Ohtani batted .291 in September/October to finish with a slash line of .273/.356/.519. He compiled 34 homers, 30 doubles, 11 stolen bases, and 95 RBIs in 157 games. Among American League pitchers, he finished the year third in strikeouts, fourth in ERA, and tied for fourth in wins, while he ranked fourth in homers and fifth in OPS among AL hitters.
He may not repeat as the league’s Most Valuable Player – the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge will be tough competition because of his American League-record 62 home runs – but Ohtani had a number of firsts and other highlights in 2022. Such as:
- In the season-opener, became the first player in AL/NL history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and face his team’s first pitch of the season as a hitter.
- Versus Houston 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 lefthanded batter since Statcast began tracking this in 2015.
- At one point in June/July, he struck out 10 or more batters in six consecutive games, leaving him one game shy of tying Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan for the Angels’ franchise record. He also took home a couple of awards, winning ESPYs for Best Male Athlete and Best MLB Player.
- In a victory over Oakland on August 9, Ohtani got his 10th win of the season for the first time in his major league career. With that, he joined Babe Ruth as the only players in American League and National League history to win at least 10 games on the mound and hit at least 10 home runs in the same season. Ohtani also homered in that game to pass Ichiro Suzuki into second place on the career home run list for Japanese imports. His 127 big-league home runs trail only the 175 of former MLB star Hideki Matsui.
- On the final day of August, Ohtani hit a three-run homer in the sixth inning off Yankee ace Gerrit Cole that was the difference in a 3-2 Angels’ victory. It was his 30th home run of the season, making him the first player in AL/NL history to get 10 wins as a pitcher and hit 30 home runs in the same season.
- He won both the Angels’ Most Valuable Player award and the Nick Adenhart award as the team’s best pitcher.
All that earned him a one-year contract for next season worth $30 million, enabling him and the team to avoid arbitration. At this time, Ohtani remains set to become a free agent after 2023.
Pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays was the only other import to qualify for playoff action, but he did not appear in either of two Wild Card games against his former team, the Seattle Mariners. Kikuchi struggled in the first of a three-year contract with Toronto, with May being his only good month. He was removed from the starting rotation in mid-August and didn’t fare a whole lot better when operating out of the bullpen.
In 12 relief appearances, Kikuchi had a 4.91 earned-run average, allowing nine walks and 10 earned runs in 18.1 innings. He did, however, help his team down the stretch, as he did not give up a run in his last four outings, walking just two batters and striking out 10 over 6.1 innings.
For the season, Kikuchi posted a 6-7 win/loss record with a 5.19 earned-run mark and 1.50 WHIP. He walked 58 batters and hit nine in 100.2 innings.
That brings us to outfielder Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs, who completed his first season in the major leagues after signing a five-year pact right after the lockout ended. Suzuki went through a transitional period after nine seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), with its expected ups and downs.
He had a hot start followed by a lull in April and then a lesser May. He missed all of June while on the Injured List after spraining his right ring finger. Activated on July 4, he rebounded somewhat with a .260 average and .779 OPS in July and then regressed in August with a .252 mark and .697 OPS. His September was abbreviated because his wife gave birth to a child and he returned to Japan to be with her, but he did bat .321 with a .926 OPS in 53 at bats.
Suzuki finished the 2022 season with a .262 batting mark, a .335 on-base percentage, and .433 slugging percentage. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 46 runs. He struck out in 27.7 percent of his at bats, compared to a 17.9 rate during his NPB career, and his 2022 on-base percentage was well below his NPB career mark of .402. Obviously, the Cubs are hoping those numbers will improve in succeeding seasons.
NOTES: Starter Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins did not return to the mound in September, as he had once hoped to do after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2021. However, he is expected to be ready to go by spring training . . . Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura was designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox on August 31, made one appearance for AAA Worcester, and was granted his release on September 11. With his two-year contract with Boston having expired, we’ll see where the 34-year-old ends up next season . . . Pitcher Kohei Arihara had a brief, unsuccessful second turn with the Texas Rangers in August, going 1-3 with a 9.45 ERA and allowing 36 hits in 20 innings. Like Sawamura, his original two-year deal has expired, so the 30-year-old will be looking for work in 2023 . . . Infielder and designated hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo – designated for assignment by Pittsburgh in early August – signed a minor-league contract with Toronto a couple of weeks afterward and posted a slash line of .265/.381/.459 in 29 games with AAA Buffalo. He will turn 31 in late November and may end up back in Japan . . . Outfielder Shogo Akiyama, released by Cincinnati at the end of spring training, signed a minor-league deal with the Padres and went to AAA El Paso before opting to return to Japan. In 44 games with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Pacific League, he posted a slash line of .265/.333/.413 in 44 games with five home runs and 26 RBIs.