As the Major League Baseball regular season came to its end Sunday, two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels was the lone Japanese import player who finished with somewhat of a bang.
Unfortunately, Ohtani won’t be making any noise in the playoffs, as the Angels missed the postseason for the seventh consecutive year. In fact, only one of the imports will have a chance to perform in the postseason – reliever Hirokazu Sawamura of the Boston Red Sox.
But we must start with Ohtani. He made four appearances on the mound in September, with three strong efforts and just one stumble — a loss to the Houston Astros in which he allowed nine hits and six earned runs over 3.1 innings. However, in his other three outings, he gave up just five runs while striking out 28 in 22 innings.
Ohtani finished the season at 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He struck out 156 batters in 130 innings and allowed just 98 hits.
Ohtani’s production at the plate continued to slow in the season’s final month, but he still hit four home runs and drove in 10 runs from September 1 through October 3, while posting an .840 OPS during that span. His batting average dropped to .207 in August and .231 from September 1 – October 3; he finished with a .257 average on the season.
For the year, he led all of MLB in triples with eight and finished in the top five in the American League in the following categories: home runs (46; 3rd in MLB), RBI (100), total bases (318), OBP (.372), SLG (.592), OPS (.965), stolen bases (26), and walks (96). Ohtani became the first player in Angels’ history to hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 20 bases in a season and had a legitimate shot at becoming MLB’s first-ever 50/30 club member.
Evidence of the threat Ohtani poses at the plate were the 11 bases on balls he earned over three straight September games. That tied a record set by Bryce Harper in 2016. Harper and Barry Bonds were the only other players in the last 50 years to have had at least 10 walks in three consecutive games. Ohtani also became the first player since Bonds in 2003 to have been issued at least three walks in each of three straight contests. The 20 intentional walks issued to Ohtani in 2021 were the most in the American League.
Ohtani, whose 9.0 WAR was the highest amongst MLB players in 2021, has a convincing case for being named the American League MVP. There has never been a two-way player of his stature in Major League Baseball – not even Babe Ruth.
When asked after his last start of the season if he wanted to stay with the Angels over the long term, he said through an interpreter, “I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team, but more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’ll leave it at that.” Those comments sparked the interest of the baseball world – does Ohtani want out of LA? On the final day of the season, though, he told reporters that he would be open to a contract extension with the Angels.
Ohtani, 27, has played four years with the Angels but is not eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season.
Aside from Ohtani, the only other Japanese import who had a decent final month was Yoshi Tsutsugo, who got off to a strong start with the Pittsburgh Pirates last month and continued to produce through the end of the season
For most of the past two years, the former Yokohama DeNA BayStars fan-favorite hasn’t come close to matching his NPB production. However, that changed once he was outrighted to AAA Oklahoma City by the Los Angeles Dodgers in July. He found his stroke in the minors and then then the woeful Pirates (61-101; last in the NL Central) signed him on August 15.
He had somewhat of a renaissance in Pittsburgh, averaging .290 the rest of August and .260 in September with a .770 OPS. After striking out in more than a third of his at-bats with the Rays and Dodgers, he made improvements in that area too, with 36 in 134 at-bats.
Over the entire season, Tsutsugo averaged .217 with a .689 OPS. He also showed good defensive versatility (something that MLB teams value today more than ever before), logging innings at first base and both corner outfield spots.
With his contract expired and finally some evidence that he can perform in the U.S., the 29-year-old Tsutsugo will at least garner minor league offers from MLB teams this offseason – something that wasn’t a certainty until these last two months. It will be interesting to see if the 29-year-old Tsutsugo signs another MLB contract or decides to return to the comforts of Japan, where he was a reliable middle-of-the-order bat and a more lucrative contract is all but guaranteed.
Let’s turn now to starting pitchers Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners, Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, and Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins.
After solid May and June performances, it looked as if Kikuchi, 30, was finally paying dividends on his contract after disappointing in 2019 and 2020. But he slumped in July and August and then posted an 0-2 mark with a 7.82 ERA in September. He gave up 20 hits and walked nine batters in 12.1 innings during the final month, and he did not pitch after September 23, though the Mariners’ playoff push went right down the wire before falling just short on the season’s final day.
Kikuchi finished the season with a 7-9 mark, 4.41 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP. He gave up 27 home runs and walked 62 batters in 157 innings.
According to Spotrac, the Mariners can option a 4-year, $66 million extension from 2022 – 2025 after the 2021 season at $16.5 million per year. If the club extension is declined, the 2022 season becomes a $13 million player option, and Kikuchi would have until the fifth day after the 2021 World Series to exercise it.
As for Darvish, he was 7-2 with a 2.44 earned-run average at the end of June. But his ERAs for July, August, and September ballooned to 7.36, 6.32, and 6.21, respectively. He also allowed 18 home runs during the season’s final three months after allowing only ten April through June. He finished the season with an 8-11 record and 4.22 ERA, playing a role in the Padres’ collapse from a strong contender for the National League West title to finishing with a losing record and missing the playoffs completely.
Darvish completed the season with an 8-11 record and a 4.22 ERA. His 28 home runs allowed represents the second-highest mark of his career.
Turning to Maeda, he went on the 10-day injured list on August 23 because of forearm tightness and was transferred to the 60-day IL on September 1. He finished the season with a 6-5 mark, 4.66 ERA, and 1.30 WHIP. He walked 32 batters and gave up 16 home runs in 106 innings.
The playoff-bound Sawamura, in his first season with Boston, made five appearances after being activated from the injury list on September 15. He was 1-0 during that period, though he gave up eight hits and three walks in just 6.1 innings. In 54 appearances overall, he was 5-1 with a 3.06 ERA but had a high WHIP of 1.45. He struck out 61 batters in 53 innings but allowed 45 hits and 32 bases on balls.
Sawamura will face the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS after Boston beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game. We look forward to seeing if he can play an integral in a Red Sox playoff run, as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideko Okajima did in 2007.
Also among the group of import players was outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds, who had a difficult time this season. A hamstring injury suffered in spring training kept him out of action until May 7, and he again went on the injured list on September 16 with a hamstring injury. He never got going when he was healthy and played less and less as the season went along, finishing with a .204 batting average and .535 OPS.
Akiyama, 33, has one year remaining on the three-year contract he signed before the 2020 season.
The final import to mention is starting pitcher Kohei Arihara. He had a tough season – his first in the major leagues – after signing a two-year, $6.2 million contract with the Texas Rangers. He had early troubles and then went on the 60-day injured list following shoulder surgery. He made three appearances in September after being activated, going 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA and allowing four home runs in 12 innings.
The 29-year-old Arihara was designated for assignment on September 21 and accepted an assignment to the AAA Round Rock Express. He made three starts for Round Rock, giving up 12 hits, five walks, and 12 earned runs in 11.2 innings.
With the Rangers in 2021, Arihara was 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, gave up 11 home runs in 40 innings, and posted a 1.426 WHIP.