The month of June looks very much the same as May as far as the Japanese import players in Major League Baseball are concerned.
A month ago, we talked about how Shohei Ohtani has amazed teammates, opponents, and onlookers. And also about Yu Darvish continuing a streak of excellence that began in early 2020, Yusei Kikuchi finally starting to give the Seattle Mariners a return on their investment, and Hirokazu Sawamura quietly putting up solid numbers. At the other end of the spectrum, some imports struggled, and a couple landed on the injured list (IL).
Now, halfway through the regular season, not much has changed.
Overall, Ohtani, Darvish, Kikuchi, and Sawamura performed well in June. On the other hand, while Shogo Akiyama picked up a bit, Kenta Maeda struggled with inconsistency, and Yoshi Tsutsugo went on the IL with a strained calf. Kohei Arihara is on the 60-day IL, and it is uncertain if he will pitch again this season.
Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels continued to grab much of the spotlight in June, announcing midway through the month that he would participate in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game and then finishing the month as the major-league home-run leader with 28. At the same time, he was second in slugging percentage(.688), third in RBI (63) and OPS (1.149), and tied for fourth in triples (4). He batted .313 to raise his overall mark to .277 while posting a .427 on-base percentage and slugging .900.
He hit the longest home run of his career – 470 feet – against Kansas City. His first hit ever in Yankee Stadium was a solo home run with an exit velocity of 117.2 mph – the hardest-hit homer by an Angels player since MLB began measuring this with Statcast in 2015. Who held the previous record? Ohtani, of course, with a 117-mph reading during a May 25 game against the Texas Rangers. And, for good measure, he went deep twice the next day against the New York Yankees for numbers 27 and 28.
As a pitcher, Ohtani made five starts in June and was very good until his June 30 outing when he gave up seven runs in just 0.2 innings against the Yankees. He was 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts in 20 innings in his first four outings.
He’s even stolen 11 bases this season, with a 78.6% success rate.
Ohtani may be grabbing headlines worldwide, but there were others whose performances rate prominent mention too.
Darvish, for one. The right-hander, who was excellent for the Chicago Cubs in the truncated 2020 season before being traded to the San Diego Padres in the off-season, has been steady and, at times, spectacular in 2021.
In five June starts, he was 2-0 with a 1.90 earned-run average and 1.06 WHIP. He defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 21 with a six-inning stint in which he allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out 11 batters.
For the season, Darvish is 7-2 with a 2.44 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and .194 batting average against.
Then there is Kikuchi, who disappointed in his first two seasons with the Seattle Mariners – with earned-run averages above 5.00 both seasons – but has righted the ship so far in 2021. After an opening month in which his ERA was 4.40, he has steadily reduced that to 3.34, and his WHIP is down to 1.04.
In June, he was 2-0 with a 1.90 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He allowed just 15 hits in 23.2 innings and is now 5-3 for the season.
On the other coast is Sawamura of the Boston Red Sox, an under-the-radar guy who has pitched steadily, if unspectacularly, in middle relief. He was 3-0 in June with a 2.25 ERA and .143 batting average against. The only real blemish was 10 walks allowed in those 12 innings, which give him 17 in 31.2 innings for the season. His high walk rate is balanced with 40 strikeouts for the season.
The other active pitcher among the Japanese imports is Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins. The 2020 Cy Young runner-up has disappointed in 2021. He spent time on the IL because of a right adductor strain and did not pitch between May 22 and June 14, but he was not effective before and has been inconsistent since.
When he went on the IL, he had a 5.27 earned-run average and 1.48 WHIP, and his strikeouts were down to average of slightly less than one per inning. In his first two starts after being reinstated from the IL, he allowed just five hits and three earned runs in a combined 9.1 innings against Seattle and Texas. However, he regressed in his start against the White Sox on June 29.
In three June starts, Maeda posted a 1-1 mark with a 6.43 ERA and 1.79 WHIP and walked nine batters in 14 innings.
That brings us to the two position players among the imports – outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds and Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After a poor start in 2020 – his first in MLB – Akiyama came on strong in the latter stages of the season, and that pattern may be repeating itself. Akiyama did not play until May 7 because of a hamstring injury suffered in spring training in mid-March, and he batted just .194 the rest of May. In June, however, he batted .250 to raise his overall mark to .224.
Tsutsugo was traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Dodgers on May 15, did not improve his game, and then went on the 10-day IL on June 9 with a right calf strain. He has not played since June 5. Thus far with the Dodgers, he is hitting .120 in 25 at-bats, albeit with six bases on balls, after slashing just .155/.256/.194 with Tampa Bay. He has struck out 39 times in 103 at-bats for the full season.
Arihara, a starting pitcher in his first season with Texas, originally went on the IL May 9 because of what was termed 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 is 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.
NOTE: The San Francisco Giants released relief pitcher Shun Yamaguchi on June 3. Yamaguchi signed a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2020 season but had a rough year, and the Blue Jays designated him for assignment before this season. San Francisco picked him during spring training, and he pitched reasonably well but was nonetheless assigned to AAA Sacramento just before the start of the regular season. At Sacramento, Yamaguchi had a 6.17 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He re-joined his former NPB team, the Yomiuri Giants.