Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels was the clear standout among the Japanese imports in Major League Baseball during August.
What a surprise, right?
Ohtani has followed his MVP season of 2021 with another outstanding – sometimes awe-inspiring – performance in 2022, and he had an excellent August both on the mound and as a designated hitter.
As a pitcher, he was 2-2 with a 2.20 earned-run average and struck out 31 batters in 28.2 innings. As a hitter, he finished on a high note, going 8-16 in his last four games and finishing the month with a .317 average, 1.039 OPS, eight home runs, and 20 RBIs. That upped his season average from .255 at the end of July to .269. He has 30 home runs and 82 RBI for the year.
In a victory over the Oakland A’s on August 9, Ohtani earned 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; by the end of August, Ohtani had 124 big league home runs, trailing only the 175 of former New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui.
To cap it off, on the final day of the month, Ohtani hit a three-run homer in the sixth inning off Yankees 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.
Ohtani had just one truly bumpy outing, on August 21 against the Detroit Tigers, when he allowed five hits, four walks, and three runs in just four innings. He rebounded in his next start against the Toronto Blue Jays, though, with seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 win. In that game, his four-seam fastball averaged 98 mph – an increase from his seasonal 97.2 mark – and topped out at 99.6. For the season, he is 11-8 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.06 WHIP.
Elsewhere among the import players, outfielder Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs finished August strongly, indicating that he is gradually adjusting to the MLB environment. He was averaging .260 at the end of July but fell to as low as .241 in August. However, he posted a slash line of .288/.381/.438 since August 9 and was 14-34 in his last 10 games of the month to raise his overall average to .258.
In addition, his strikeout rate has declined and his on-base rate has increased. In nine seasons with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Suzuki struck out in just 17.9 percent of his at-bats and posted a .402 on-base percentage. In his first year with the Cubs, Suzuki has struck out in 27.6 percent of his at-bats and has a .333 on-base percentage. However, since August 9, his strikeout rate has been 18% – almost exactly that of his NPB career – and his OPB .381.
His slugging percentage is just .419 thus far with Chicago, compared to .541 during his NPB career. But – again, since that magic August 9 – his average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate have been above league average, though his launch angle still trails the league average, which could be part of the reason his slugging percentage has not improved significantly.
That brings us to Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, who is 11-7 with a 3.41 ERA and an outstanding 0.99 WHIP for the season. August was his poorest month statistically – 2-3 with a 4.05 ERA and 30 hits allowed in 33.1 innings – but he lost a couple of games in which he did not pitch badly. He gave up just two earned runs and walked no one in a six-inning outing versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he later lost to the Washington Nationals, despite allowing just five hits, no walks, and three runs in 8.1 innings. His only mediocre effort was also against Washington when he gave up four runs, and two home runs in six innings.
In his final start of August, Darvish gave up three runs in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals but followed that with six shutout innings in a 4-3 victory.
That sort of August performance, unfortunately, eluded pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of Toronto. Kikuchi, 31, had perhaps his poorest month in a season of them. In the first season of a three-year contract, the lefthander performed well in May but has otherwise disappointed. He began August with three starts in which he gave up 13 hits, five home runs, and 10 runs in 12.1 innings.
The Blue Jays moved Kikuchi to the bullpen on August 18, and he wasn’t particularly effective there, either. In four relief appearances covering five innings, he walked five, allowed two hits and four runs, and hit a batter. He was 0-2 with a 7.27 earned-run mark in August and is 4-7 with a 5.36 ERA and 1.53 WHIP for the season. Reportedly, his fastball has been fine but his slider has often been missing in action. He also has had trouble at the beginning of his starts, with a composite first-inning ERA of 6.86. In theory, at least, finding the right matchups as a reliever could make a difference, and the Blue Jays hope Kikuchi can turn into an effective left out of the ‘pen as they sprint to a playoff spot in the season’s last month.
The “roster” of MLB Japanese imports underwent two subtractions and one addition in August.
First baseman/designated hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo was designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 5. Except for a solid performance in the last month or so of the 2021 season with the Pirates, Tsutsugo never got his bearings in the big leagues after signing a two-year contract with Tampa Bay prior to the 2020 season. His improvement late last year earned him a one-year contract with the Pirates, but he batted just .171 with a .478 OPS this season.
After being dropped by Pittsburgh, Tsutsugo signed a minor league deal with Toronto on August 17 and is playing for the Blue Jays’ AAA affiliate in Buffalo. As of August 31, he had a slash line of 276/.432/.517 in eight games, along with two home runs and six RBIs.
In addition, the Boston Red Sox designated reliever Hirokazu Sawamura for assignment on August 29. The move came after a 12-4 loss to Tampa Bay in which Sawamura gave up four hits, three runs, and two walks in just one inning. That left him with a 4.66 ERA and 1.97 WHIP for the month. For the season, he was 1-1 with a 3.73 ERA – solid numbers, but the Red Sox rarely put him in high-pressure situations, showing they didn’t completely trust his stuff
Sawamura, 34, is nearing the end of a two-year contract signed before the 2021 season. He had issues with consistency both years and had high WHIPs of 1.45 and 1.42, respectively. He was 6-2 with a 3.39 earned-run average over the two seasons, walking 59 and striking out 101 in 103.2 innings. As of this writing, it was not clear whether Sawamura would be traded or released, or accept a minor-league assignment.
On the plus side, starting pitcher Kohei Arihara re-surfaced in August with the Texas Rangers. He had a difficult 2021 – his first year with the Rangers – spending a couple of months on the injured list after pitching poorly, undergoing shoulder surgery, and eventually being sent to AAA Round Rock. He did not make the big club out of spring training in 2022 and was back in Round Rock, where he posted a 3-6 mark with a 4.88 earned-run average.
Nonetheless, Texas recalled Arihara on August 17, and he made three starts in August – one mediocre, one good, and one he’d probably rather forget. He allowed eight hits, three walks, and three runs in a 5.2-inning outing against Oakland, but followed that with six shutout innings against Minnesota, in which he gave up just four hits and walked none. However, he regressed in his next start, giving up eight hits and six earned runs to Detroit in just 3.1 innings. He walked two, hit a batter, and allowed a home run. In his three starts, he is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA.
NOTES: Starting pitcher Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins, who underwent Tommy John surgery last September, had hoped to return this September as a reliever, but it now appears that he will not pitch this season. There is no indication that Maeda has had a setback to his recovery, but the Twins said they felt it’s best not to rush the process. . . Outfielder Shogo Akiyama, who never got going in two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and is now back with the Hiroshima Carp of the NPB, rode a hot streak in August to raise his average to .298 with an .824 OPS. He has four home runs and 21 RBI.