The first month of the 2023 Major League Baseball season was a mixed bag for the eight Japanese import players – some outstanding, some average, and some just plain difficult.
Shohei Othani of the Los Angeles was his usual all-world self; pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays teased that he might finally be fulfilling the potential that his stuff has always promised, and outfielder Masataka Yoshida of the Boston Red Sox did a course correction midway through April and finished with a 10-game hitting streak.
Pitchers Kodai Senga of the New York Mets and Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, along with outfielder Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs, had some shining moments, as well as some not-so-bright and shiny.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, pitchers Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins and Shintaro Fujinami of the Oakland A’s struggled.
Following is a more detailed look.
Through his first five starts, Ohtani was virtually unhittable. He gave up just eight hits in 28 innings while striking out 38 batters and posting an earned-run average and WHIP of 0.64 and 0.82, respectively. Opposing hitters averaged .090 against him during April. The only hiccup was in his last start on April 27 vs the Oakland A’s when he gave up five runs, including two home runs, in six innings.
For the season, he is 4-0 with a 1.85 earned-run average and a 0.82 WHIP, and he has struck out 46 batters in 34 innings. The only blemish on his overall record thus far is his total of 17 walks, an average of 4.5 per nine innings.
On April 11, he passed Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan to set an Angels franchise record with his 10th consecutive game of allowing two or fewer runs per start.
He is said to have mastered the “sweeper,” a trendy spin-off (pun intended) of the slider that has more horizontal movement than a traditional slider. Ohtani’s sweeper has been the second-best pitch in baseball since the start of last season based on the number of runs it’s saved his team. His now-legendary WBC-tournament-ending strikeout of Mike Trout came on an 87-mph sweeper that broke 17 inches.
And one more point is that Ohtani has shown admirable adaptability to MLB’s new pitch timer. He has the third-largest reduction in time between pitch releases (6.4 seconds) – from an average of 21.7 seconds last season to a 15.3 average this year. Only Michael Kopech (eight seconds) of the Chicago White Sox and Tanner Houck (7.2 seconds) of the Boston Red Sox have made greater reductions.
In his designated-hitter role, Ohtani was a bit inconsistent. He endured a 3-27 stretch from April 19-25 but then got nine hits in his final 22 at bats to raise his average to .294 and his OPS by more than 100 points to .896. He continues to be a steady power threat: at the end of the month, he had seven home runs and 18 RBI.
After three inconsistent seasons in Seattle and another in his first year with the Blue Jays, Kikuchi gave reason for optimism in the first month of the 2023 campaign. In five starts, he was 4-0 with a 3.00 earned-run mark and 1.11 WHIP. In contrast, his career ERA is 4.92, and his career WHIP is 1.41.
Reportedly, Kikuchi adjusted his arm slot during the off-season to gain more consistent command of his fastball, and that may be making a difference. In seven spring outings, Kikuchi struck out 31 batters in 20.2 innings with an 0.87 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. In the regular season thus far, he’s only had one poor performance in his six outings – nine hits and six runs in 4.1 innings on April 9 against the Los Angeles Angels. So far, he’s walked just six batters in 27 innings, a rate of 2.0 per nine innings that is significantly better than his career mark of 3.59 per nine.
“He’s more comfortable and more confident now,” Toronto manager John Schneider said.
It should be noted, though, that Kikuchi has shown flashes of effectiveness before in his career and then regressed. Last season, for example, he was good in May but struggled the rest of the season and was moved to the bullpen in August.
Yoshida signed a five-year, $90 million contract during the off-season – not to mention the Red Sox also paying a $15.4 million posting fee – and there were differing opinions on whether he would be worth it. So far, the signs are encouraging. After going hitless in four games, he was batting .167 on April 18 and had just three extra-base hits. In the 10 games after that, however, he was 16-39 to raise his average to .276 and his OPS to 833. He has hit four home runs and driven in 16 runs.
The real breakout came against Milwaukee on April 23 when he hit two home runs in the eighth inning, including a grand slam, as the Red Sox scored nine times to win 12-5.
“Intent,” Boston Manager Alex Cora said when asked about Yoshida’s approach. “Staying the other way. He swings at the right ones, obviously. There are some adjustments, and there are things that he knows he needs to do to start hitting the ball hard in the air. He got two pitches [in the two-homer game vs. Milwaukee]. The second one, that was fun to watch.”
Yoshida mentioned an adjustment to open his batting stance slightly to help see pitches better.
Darvish showed some inconsistency in April. His best game came against Milwaukee on April 16 when he gave up just a run in seven innings on four hits while striking out 12 batters. And he got his first victory on April 23, throwing 5.2 innings and giving up just two runs against Arizona before leaving with a cramp in his right leg.
But Darvish also allowed five runs in 6.1 innings against the Mets on April 10, and four runs, nine hits, and three home runs versus the San Francisco Giants on April 30. To be fair, though, the game against San Francisco was played in the high altitude (7,350 feet above sea level), and the teams combined to hit 15 home runs in just two games. Darvish had not given up a home run in his first four starts of the season.
For the season, he’s given up 24 hits in 30 innings and has walked 12, an average of 3.6 per nine innings. Overall, he is 1-2 with a 3.60 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
It was an on-off month for Suzuki. After missing the first two weeks of the season recovering from an oblique injury, Suzuki returned on April 14 and hit a 406-foot home run in his first game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was 10-27 and had three multi-hit games in his first seven.
“It’s exciting. I think that brings a whole different dynamic to the lineup,” teammate Cody Bellinger said after Suzuki’s season debut. Another teammate, Ian Happ, added, “[Suzuki being in the lineup] gives us extra length and pushes everybody down one spot. For him to hit a home and start that way was really awesome.”
However, he then went 5-32 for the remainder of the month and finished with a .254 average and .706 OPS. He has just the one home run, along with six RBI.
He has only six bases on balls in 66 plate appearances and an on-base percentage of .333. Now in the second year of a five-year contract with the Cubs, he has yet to be the on-base machine that he was during his career with Japan’s Hiroshima Carp (.402 OPB).
Senga, in the first season of a five-year, $75 million contract with the Mets, looked good in winning his first two starts – both against Miami – but he slipped a bit in his next two, a no-decision versus Oakland and a victory over San Francisco, respectively. In those two games, he gave up 12 hits, four home runs, and eight bases on balls in 9.2 innings. In his most recent appearance, against the Washington Nationals on April 26, he gave up two runs and five hits over five innings but walked four.
His strikeout rate has been good – 32 in 26 innings, many on his signature “ghost” forkball – but he’s also walked 18 batters, an average of 6.2 per nine innings. Seasonally, he is 3-1 with a 4.15 ERA and 1.58 WHIP.
“There’ve been a lot of new things thrown at him,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He asks good questions, he’s got the alert face, and he’s sharp. He likes to prove people wrong — nobody here certainly doubts him. The stuff is not a question.”
By any standard, Maeda has had a rough start to the season after missing the last part of 2021 and all of 2022 following Tommy John surgery. He was good in his first game versus Miami, giving up just three hits, walking none and striking out nine in five innings. However, he allowed 20 hits in 11 innings and struck out just five batters in his next three starts. In his April 26 outing against the New York Yankees, he gave up 11 hits and 10 runs – all earned – in just three innings.
In his previous game, against Boston on April 20, he had exited after two innings in the wake of being hit on the left ankle by a line drive off the bat of Boston’s Jarren Duran. X-rays showed that there was no break, but the incident left a painful bruise.
For the season, Maeda currently is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. One bright spot in his statistics line is that he’s walked just three batters in 16 innings.
Fujinami, on a one-year contract with Oakland, had a difficult first month, going 0-4 with a 14.40 earned-run average in his first four starts and being moved into a relief role. The 6’6” righthander has excellent stuff, including a fastball that can reach 100mph, a splitter in the low 90s, and a sharp slider. But he has not been able to leverage that successfully so far. In his four starts, he gave up 19 hits and 12 walks in 15 innings and struck out just 12.
He did not show improvement in his first two relief appearances. In three innings, he allowed three runs (only two earned), four hits, and four walks.
Lack of command had been an issue for him when he pitched for the Hanshin Tigers – he averaged 4.2 walks per nine innings over his Japanese career – but he had improved of late, and the A’s were hoping that would continue. He had a decent performance in the spring but has not carried that over into the regular season.
“We’re going to put him in the ‘pen and try to use him in a leverage role where we can watch him throw strikes and get his fastball command back,” A’s Manager Mark Kotsay said. “Not to say, ‘He can’t return back into the rotation,’ but in this short-term period, right now, we’re going to assess him in that direction. The fastball and the split, really those two pitches out of the bullpen could be devastating in a shorter stint.”
NOTES: It’s early, of course, but not too early to speculate on which NPB stars may be the next to jump to MLB. Check out this article . . . And here are the whereabouts of some Japanese imports who played in MLB last season: Yoshi Tsutsugo, last with Pittsburgh in 2022, is playing with the Texas Rangers’ AAA affiliate in Round Rock, TX. He finished April with a .279 batting average and .847 OPS . . . Former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama is batting .405 with a 1.004 OPS after 23 games with the NPB’s Hiroshima Carp . . . Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, who played with Boston the last two seasons, is 2-0 with a 3.00 in nine appearances (9.0 innings) with the Chiba Lotte Marines . . . Kohei Arihara, formerly a starter with the Rangers, is 1-0 with a 1.66 ERA in four relief outings (21.2 innings) with the farm team of the SoftBank Hawks.