All eight Japanese import players in Major League Baseball in 2023 are now done for the season.
Five of the them were on teams that failed to reach the postseason – two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, outfielders Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs and Masataka Yoshida of the Boston Red Sox, and starting pitchers Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres and Kodai Senga of the New York Mets.
Now the remaining three – pitchers Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins, Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Shintaro Fujinami of the Baltimore Orioles – are finished after their clubs were eliminated from the postseason.
Maeda and Kikuchi appeared in postseason games, while Fujinami was not on the roster for the American League Division Series, in which the 101-win Orioles were swept in three games by the Texas Rangers. Though Maeda and Kikuchi have primarily been starters during their MLB careers, they participated only in relief during the postseason and had rocky outings.
Maeda appeared in relief in just one of his 21 regular-season outings and did not pitch in either of the Twins’ Wild Card Series games against the Blue Jays. However, he has pitched in relief in close to 20 percent of his career appearances (35 of 190), and the Twins had considered using him in the bullpen in part because he had been very successful in that role in the postseason while with the Los Angeles Dodgers. From 2017 to 2019 with Los Angeles, he allowed four runs in 22 innings (1.64 ERA) as a reliever, and he also pitched five scoreless innings in a wild-card series for the Twins in 2020.
However, Maeda pitched in relief in Games 1 and 3 of the ALDS against Houston – both of which the Twins lost – and gave up six hits, three walks, and three runs in four innings. Overall, he posted a 6.75 ERA and 2.25 WHIP. Including one start for the Dodgers in 2016, Maeda’s overall record in 27 postseason games is now 2-1 with a 3.24 ERA, 48 strikeouts, and a 1.27 WHIP in 41.2 innings.
Kikuchi, in his fifth MLB season, made his first career postseason appearance – and his first relief appearance in 2023 – in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series versus Minnesota, which the Twins won to complete a series sweep.
His entry into the game was a surprise, as Toronto starter Jose Berrios had held Minnesota scoreless through the first three innings. But Blue Jays Manager John Schneider brought in Kikuchi after Berrios walked the leadoff hitter in the fourth inning, and the move did not work out well for Toronto.
Kikuchi then allowed the next three hitters to reach base, and the Twins scored two runs that stood up for an eventual 2-0 victory. Kikuchi lasted 1.2 innings, giving up one run on three hits and a walk.
For Kikuchi, it was a disappointing end to what was a renaissance season. In his first four MLB seasons – three with Seattle and one with Toronto – he had not been able to harness his elite stuff, posting a 5.02 ERA. By the end of the 2023 regular season, however, he was 11-6 with a 3.63 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, the latter significantly lower than his career mark of 1.38. In addition, he had an average walk rate of 2.59 per nine innings, compared to his career mark of 3.39 and last season’s bloated 5.19.
NOTES: A story to follow will be that of Rintaro Sasaski, the outstanding Japanese high-school hitter who announced that he will forego the Nippon Professional Baseball draft in favor of attending college in the United States. The six-foot, 250-pound slugger was rumored to possibly be the top choice in the NPB draft, in part because of his Japanese-record 140 high-school home runs and also because he had more than twice as many walks as strikeouts. If he does attend a U.S. university – which one is undetermined at this point, although Vanderbilt is rumored to be a favorite – he would be eligible for the Major League Baseball Draft in three seasons. He could also choose to attend a junior college, which would allow him to be eligible after one or two seasons (his choice), but early indications are that he will attend a four-year university. Were he to enter the NPB draft, he would need to wait for his Nippon Professional Baseball team to either post him to MLB teams or wait until he became a free agent after nine years of service time. Interestingly, Sasaki attended the same high school as Ohtani and Kikuchi – Hanamaki Higashi – and Sasaki’s father was Ohtani’s high school coach.