With the second month of the Major League Baseball season completed, the general overview of the eight Japanese imports is thus: hitters – encouraging; pitchers – less so.
On one hand, outfielders Masataka Yoshida of the Boston Red Sox and Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs turned things completely around in May. On the pitching side, though, Yusei Kikuchi of Toronto, Kodai Senga of the New York Mets, Yu Darvish of San Diego, and Shintaro Fujinami of Oakland had their ups and downs, while Kenta Maeda of Minnesota missed the entire month to injury.
Even two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels was inconsistent on the mound and did not have a good month as a hitter. Of course, it’s unfair to expect him to be Superman every night, but he’s set the bar very high.
After being virtually untouchable in his first five starts of the season, Ohtani appeared more human in the next four, giving up 17 earned runs and eight home runs over 25 innings.
Then he emerged from the phone booth with is cape on in his two most recent outings – victories over Kansas City and Oakland – allowing just eight hits and two earned runs while striking out 19.
For the season, his pitching line is 5-1, with a 2.91 earned-run average and a 0.95 WHIP. He has struck out 90 batters in 65 innings pitched, and walked 28 batters.
In his designated-hitter role, he slumped in May. His batting average reached .308 on May 4 but has since steadily decreased to .269, as he hit just .243 in the month, though he did hit two home runs against the Chicago White Sox on May 31 to finish May with eight homers and 20 RBI.
He also had a huge game on May 15 when he went 4-5, including a 456-foot home run to a part of Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark not often reached. He was a double shy of hitting for the cycle. Had he hit for the cycle, it would have been the first by a player who also was his team’s starting pitcher in the game.
Nonetheless, he became the first starting pitcher to reach base safely five times since the New York Yankees’ Mel Stottlemyre had five hits in a win over the Washington Senators in September 1964.
During the first two months, he has hit 15 home runs and driven in 38 runs, which puts him on pace for a 45-homer/114-RBI season. That would leave him one shy of his career-high home run total and easily surpass his career high of 100 RBIs in a season.
After a slow start, Yoshida is starting to prove the doubters wrong. Signed by the Red Sox in the off-season to a five-year, $90 million contract (plus a $15.4 million posting fee to his Japanese team, the Orix Buffaloes), he received wildly divergent predictions. Some thought he would do well, while others thought Boston vastly overpaid for him.
In his first 14 games, it seemed as if the doubters might be correct, as he batted .189 with a .581 OPS. However, he has steadily raised his performance since April 20. He finished May with nine hits in his final 14 at-bats and averaged .354 with a .962 OPS for the month. For the season, he is averaging .317 with an on-base mark of .391 and a slugging percentage of .508. He has seven home runs and 31 RBI.
He credits a change in his batting stance and a greater understanding of pitch patterns for the improvement.
His agent, Scott Boras, said, “Flat bat swing and zone management. Those were the two biggest factors [in Yoshida’s favor], and then you put him at Fenway, where he can stay inside the baseball. You’ve seen it all now. It’s like, I just felt he was the perfect fit. I give [Red Sox chief baseball officer] Chaim [Bloom] and his staff credit because they certainly agreed with our assessment.”
Like Yoshida, Suzuki also seems to be finding his way. In the second of a five-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, Suzuki batted just .254 in April but, like Yoshida, finished May strongly with five hits in his final 10 at-bats. He averaged .319 in the month while hitting five home runs and driving in 13 runs.
Encouragingly, he posted an on-base mark of .417 in May. His ability to get on base at a high rate was one of the qualities that had originally caught the Cubs’ eye, but he had yet to show that in MLB until now.
Cubs Manager David Ross said, “He just seems like he’s in a real comfortable place this year. Now that he’s got some at-bats under him, he’ll continue to have the ups and downs like everyone else. But he’s looked really consistent and is one of the better hitters that we have. Such a good presence in the middle of our order.”
Hitting Coach Dustin Kelly added, “He hits the ball really hard and his swing path is incredible. He’s going to find hits even when he’s off the barrel a little bit because his swing is really good.”
Darvish, unexpectedly, has been a model of inconsistency during the first two months of the season. In fact, San Diego’s rotation, in general, has been inconsistent. Darvish was decent in April, but posted a 5.74 earned-run mark in May. He began the month well with a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers and a no-decision against Minnesota but then allowed 19 hits and 14 earned runs over 14 innings in his next three starts.
He lasted just 2.2 innings against the Yankees on May 28, giving up seven runs and seven hits during that time. He was knocked out of the game after allowing five consecutive hits in the third inning.
For the season, Darvish is 3-4 with a 4.61 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
After a very good April performance, Kikuchi fell off in May. He was 2-2 with a 5.83 ERA in his six May starts and posted a bloated 1.67 WHIP (36 hits and 13 bases on balls in 29.1 innings). He had good outings on May 7 (no runs, four hits in 6.1 innings versus Pittsburgh) and May 30 (three hits, two runs in five innings in a victory over Milwaukee, though he did walk five batters).
There is still optimism, though, that Kikuchi can become more consistent and harness his ability. The home runs allowed continue to be an issue, as he gave up nine in 29 May innings. He is more consistently in the strike zone than he has been, but that leaves him more vulnerable to the long ball.
“I’ve been continuing to attack the zone and sometimes when you attack the zone, you get hit,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “We’ll go back and check the data and all of that, but I’ll continue to attack the zone moving forward.”
For the season, Kikuchi is 6-2 with a 4.47 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, the latter almost identical to his career mark of 1.42.
Senga, in his first MLB season, has been another with on-again/off-again performances. In five May starts, he had two good ones and three not-so-good ones. Those ranged from a seven-inning/one-hit/no-run outing against Philadelphia (a victory) to a five-inning/eight-hit/five-run effort in a loss to Cincinnati. Overall, the good outweighed the poor, as he posted a 2-2 mark with a 2.79 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in May.
He has had problems with poor command and getting behind in counts, particularly in road games. His record at home is 3-1 with a 1.20 ERA, but his corresponding marks in road games are 2-2 and 6.12. He allowed 18 bases on balls in 26 innings during April and 13 in 29 innings during May. He has walked 17 batters in 25 innings in away games.
“If he can just tighten up on the walks…” Mets’ catcher Francisco Alvarez said through an interpreter, when asked about the experience of catching Senga, who is in the top-five in the National League in both walks and wild pitches.
“I’m hoping that happens when the weather warms up a little bit,” Mets’ Manager Buck Showalter said after Senga’s loss to the Cubs on May 24. “His stuff’s good enough to get deeper into games.”
For the season, he is 5-3 with a 3.44 earned-run mark, and a 1.35 WHIP. His five wins and 70 strikeouts both rank in the top-ten in the National League.
Maeda has had a difficult time in his first season back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2021. He was 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA and allowed 23 hits in 16 innings in his four April starts. Then he went on the 15-day Injured List on April 29 because of a triceps strain in his right (pitching) arm. The injury was reported not to be related the Tommy John surgery.
He was sent to the Twins’ St. Paul minor-league affiliate on May 30 to begin a rehab assignment. In his first appearance there, he pitched two innings, allowing no hits and a walk, and striking out four batters.
According to one report, “some of [Maeda’s] pitches have been stellar, but his fastball has bitten him hard this year . . . The splitter and slider are not the cause of Kenta’s poor start, but his fastball is looking a little suspicious . . .
“[Maeda’s] fastball is slow and with low spin, so it’s best located low in the zone where it would excel at inducing ground balls. He’s done exactly that for his whole career, while throwing high concentrations of his fastball low. [But] his fastball’s hiLoc% (location high in the zone) is 50.8 this year, with typical numbers for him being in the mid-30s. Once again, he’s seeing far too much hard contact (36% compared to 31% MLB average) on it.”
Fujinami, who signed a one-year contract with Oakland prior to the season, was hit hard in his first four outings – all starts – and was moved to the bullpen after giving up eight runs in just 2.1 innings against Texas on April 22. However, things haven’t gone much better since.
His long-standing issues with command have continued, as he issued eight walks over 12 innings in May. His stuff is there, as he struck out 15 batters during those 12 innings, and he allowed just one home run, so it’s a matter of harnessing his sometimes-triple-digit fastball and throwing more strikes.
For the season, Fujinami is 2-5 with a 12.00 ERA in 30 innings of pitching and very high 1.97 WHIP.
As Oakland General Manager David Forst said bluntly, “When we signed [Shintaro] Fujinami and Drew [Rucinski] this offseason, we thought their experience elsewhere would translate here, and it hasn’t.”
NOTES: Here are updates on some Japanese imports who played in MLB last season: Yoshi Tsutsugo, last with Pittsburgh in 2022, is hitting .233 with a .739 OPS with the Texas Rangers’ AAA affiliate in Round Rock, TX . . . Former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama is slashing .358/.397/.508 after 47 games with the NPB’s Hiroshima Carp . . . Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, who played with Boston the last two seasons, is 3-1 with a 4.67 ERA in 18 appearances (16.1 innings) with the NPB’s Chiba Lotte Marines . . . Kohei Arihara, formerly a starter with the Rangers, is 2-0 with a 3.83 ERA in eight relief outings (42.1 innings) with the farm team of NPB’s Softbank Hawks.