The story in July for the six active Japanese imports in Major League Baseball was one of steps forward for some and steps backward for others.
Minnesota Twins right-hander Kenta Maeda, California Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani, and Boston Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura marched forward, while starters Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners and Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres and outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds regressed.
Let’s start with Maeda.
After an excellent 2020 campaign – he finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting – and then a solid spring training, he went in the other direction once the season began. After three months, he had a 5.56 earned-run average and 1.56 WHIP and was averaging a home run allowed every five innings. He also spent time on the injured list with a right adductor strain.
Then came July, and he turned from Clark Kent into, well, at least the Maeda of old. In five July starts, Maeda was 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. He struck out 36 batters in 29.1 innings and gave up just two home runs. The former Hiroshima Carp ace twice went into the seventh inning of games, something he hadn’t previously done this season. He even got to show off his athleticism, being placed at second base as part of MLB’s new extra-innings rule and scoring the winning run against the Detroit Tigers. Overall, Maeda has righted the ship with a 4-4 record and 4.40 ERA and is primed for a strong finish in the last two months.
Then there’s Ohtani, whose case for AL MVP is becoming infallible. He has delighted fans and amazed teammates and opponents all season, both at the plate and on the mound. As of August 1, he continued to lead the major leagues with 37 home runs and was tied for second in RBI with 82, just three behind Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays.
By the end of July, Ohtani had hit nine homers with exit velocities of 113 mph or better, which led the majors. Near the end of the month, he stole his 15th base of the season, becoming the first player ever to have at least 37 home runs and 15 stolen bases before the end of July.
For the month, he batted .282 with nine home runs (not counting the 28 he hit in an epic duel with Washington Nationals star Juan Soto in the Home Run Derby), 19 RBI, and a .671 slugging percentage. For the season, his slash line is .275/.365/1.039. His only slight blemishes is a relatively high strikeout rate – 124 in 356 at-bats through July.
As a pitcher, he made three starts in July and was 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA and microscopic 0.70 WHIP. Make that four starts – he started for the American League in the All-Star Game and earned the win in the AL’s 5-2 victory (needless to say, he’s the only person to ever participate in the Derby and also pitch in the game). Overall, he’s 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. He’s struck out 100 batters in 80 innings, though he has walked 36.
On the other coast, first-year import Sawamura is quietly having a solid year for the Red Sox. Nothing spectacular, but he’s become someone that first-place Boston can count on regularly.
Overall, Sawamura is 4-1 with a 2.79 earned-run average and 1.29 WHIP. He has had some trouble with bases on balls, having allowed 20 in 38.2 innings through July, but he improved that a bit in July.
Now to those whose performances went backward last month.
Kikuchi had solid May and June performances and, in his third season, was appearing to finally give the Mariners a return on their investment.
However, he regressed after a July 1 victory over Toronto in which he allowed just five hits and one run. Even including his good outing against Toronto, he was 1-3 with a 6.11 ERA during the month and gave up 35 hits and seven home runs in 28 innings. A quick turnaround for him is imperative if Seattle is to have any chance of making the playoffs.
Likewise, Darvish is a critical factor for the Padres, who currently stand third in the National League West Division. Like Maeda, Darvish was a Cy Young Award runner-up in 2020 and began 2021 on the same level. Through June, he was 7-2 with a 2.44 earned-run average and 0.95 WHIP.
Then came July. In five starts, he posted an 0-4 mark with a 7.36 ERA. Like Kikuchi, he had trouble with the home run ball. After giving up just ten homers in the season’s first three months, he allowed nine in 25.1 innings in July. His season earned-run averaged ballooned by more than a run to 3.48.
The remaining active Japanese import is Akiyama, who hasn’t produced as the Reds expected when they signed him to a three-year contract prior to the 2020 season. He came on well during the last month of the 2020 campaign, but suffered a hamstring injury in spring training this year that delayed the start of his season by more than a month.
After batting .194 in May, he appeared to be getting on a positive track after hitting .250 in June. But he averaged just .163 in June and is splitting time with Aristides Aquino in Cincinnati’s outfield rotation. When Nick Castellanos returns from the injured list, it’s likely that Akiyama’s playing time will further decrease unless his performance picks up.
Etc.: Yoshi Tsutsugo, who signed a two-year contract with Tampa Bay Rays before the 2020 season and then struggled at the plate before being designated for assignment and traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in May, has fallen further. After joining the Dodgers, he went on the injured list with a calf strain and then was outrighted off the 40-man roster on July 7 and sent to AAA Oklahoma City. Through 34 games there, he’s batted .233 with nine home runs, 22 RBI, and an .831 OPS . . . No definitive word yet on whether Kohei Arihara, a starting pitcher in his first season with Texas, will miss the remainder of the season. He originally went on the IL on May 9 because of a contusion to the middle finger of his right (pitching) hand. Later, he was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his right (pitching) shoulder, which was said to be the source of the pain in his finger. After surgery, he was expected to be out for at least 12 weeks. For the season, Arihara is 2-3 with a 6.59 ERA and 1.53 WHIP and has walked 12 batters in 28.2 innings . . . Reliever Shun Yamaguchi, who struggled with Toronto in 2020 – his first season in MLB – and then was released earlier this season by the San Francisco Giants, returned to his former Japanese Central League team, the Yomiuri Giants. As of the end of July, he’d made four appearances, posting a 2-1 record with a 2.45 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.