By Carter Cromwell
Today is Opening Day for the 2021 Major League Baseball season, and there are clearly three categories among Japanese import players: those aiming to build on strong 2020 performances and again help lead their teams into the playoffs, those hoping to make up for disappointing seasons, and those trying to make their marks in the United States for the first time.
Of the eight imports currently on MLB rosters, pitchers Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres and Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins are the class of the group. Both got strong consideration for Cy Young Awards in 2020, Darvish going 8-3 with a 2.01 earned-run average and Maeda 6-1 with a 2.70 mark. Further, both had great walk-to-strikeout ratios and microscopic WHIPs. Perhaps most telling of their 2020 performances is that both have been given opening day starter duties for their respective teams.
At the other end of the spectrum, and hoping to battle back in the 2021 season, are outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds, infielder/DH Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Tampa Bay Rays, pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners, and two-way player Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels.
Darvish, 34, was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Padres in December. He’s in the fourth year of a six-year, $126m contract with Cubs. He should be a key factor for a San Diego team that made big waves in the off-season and, at the least, is expected to challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers for supremacy in the National League West.
In the Cactus League this spring, Darvish made three appearances, allowing four hits and striking out eight batters in 11 innings.
Maeda, like Darvish, is also under contract for this season and the two following. The 32-year-old was one of the many bright spots for the Twins as they won the American League Central Division title. Based on his impressive spring, he appears to be parlaying his strong, shortened 2020 season into this year: in five Grapefruit League outings totaling 18.1 innings, Maeda struck out 22 batters, walked just one and had an almost invisible 0.49 WHIP.
One of the most tantalizing players going into the regular season is Shohei Ohtani, the talented two-way player limited by injuries in 2019 and 2020 after a rookie-of-the-year season in 2018. He did not pitch in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he made only two pitching appearances last season before shutting down because of a flexor strain in his right elbow. As a designated hitter in 2020, he disappointed with a .190 batting average, seven home runs, 24 RBI and a .657 OPS.
He showed good velocity and movement on his pitches during spring training, striking out 17 and walking just three in 10.1 innings. However, he’s developed a blister on the middle finger of his right (pitching) hand that bothered him in a rough outing March 29 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In that game, Ohtani allowed three homers and seven earned runs in 2.2 innings. Nonetheless, he’s still scheduled to make his first start of the season Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.
At the plate, his bat came alive this spring. Of course, one never knows how much importance to attach to spring-training statistics, but Ohtani nonetheless batted a promising .548 in 31 Cactus League at bats with five home runs and a monumental 1.604 OPS.
Last year’s newcomers had bumpy introductions to MLB, made more difficult by the unusually short 2020 schedule and abrupt start to the season caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Of those, Akiyama did the best, improving in the latter stages after a very slow beginning. The first Japanese player in Reds history, he batted just .192 in August, and his average stood at .196 on September 7. After that, he hit .339 (18-53) to finish at .245. He helped the Reds win 11 of their last 14 games to earn a playoff spot, and Akiyama was a finalist for a Gold Glove award as a left fielder.
Unfortunately, he strained his left hamstring in a spring-training game on March 13 and will begin the regular season on the 10-day injured list. Up to that point, he had been hitless in seven at-bats. At age 33, he has two years remaining on his original three-year contract.
Tsutsugo batted just .197 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs during the 2020 regular season, and had appeared to have trouble with the increased velocity of MLB pitchers. He averaged a strikeout every 3.14 at bats, compared to one per 4.11 at bats during his 10-year career in Japan. His slugging percentage – .511 in his NPB career – was just .395 in his first season with the Rays. His overall WAR was 0.0, and his defensive WAR was 0.3.
Reports out of training camp were that Tsutsugo had shortened his swing and modified his approach at the plate to better deal with fast balls. However, he still struck out 16 times in 38 spring at bats and batted just .211.
Kikuchi, 29, is starting the third season of a three-year contract, though the Mariners do hold team options on him through 2026. In 2020, he was 2-4 with a 5.17 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. That followed a rookie season in which he was 6-11/5.46/1.52, so he and Seattle are hoping for improvement this season. For what they’re worth, his spring stats show an improved 3.24 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and nine strikeouts in 8.1 innings.
The two first-year MLB players, of course, have some adjusting to do – to the culture inside and outside of the clubhouse, language, style of play, and much more.
Arihara, 28, signed a two-year, $6.2 million contract after going 60-50 with a 3.65 ERA and 1.195 WHIP in six seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. His best year was 2019, when he was 15-8 in 24 starts, posting a 2.68 ERA and a strong 0.92 WHIP. With the Rangers this spring, he pitched 14 innings over four starts with a 1.07 WHIP.
Sawamura, 33, spent virtually all of his nine-year NPB career with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. He began as a starter, then shuttled between starting and relieving, and began pitching solely in relief 2015. He had a 48-52 overall NPB record with a 2.77 earned-run average and 1.182 WHIP. In five spring outings for Boston, he had six strikeouts in 4.2 innings but walked eight batters.
Notes on a few of last year’s Japanese MLB players: Pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Yoshihisa Hirano returned to Japan, signing with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Orix Buffaloes, respectively. The NPB season began March 26, and Tanaka was scheduled to pitch the Golden Eagles’ second game, but he injured a calf muscle and is expected to miss the first three weeks of the season. Hirano has made one appearance for the Buffaloes, pitching a scoreless inning . . . The last of the 2020 imports, reliever Shun Yamaguchi, was re-assigned by the San Francisco Giants to their minor league camp near the end of spring training. Though he was effective at times, the 33-year-old Yamaguchi often struggled during his first MLB season with Toronto in 2020. He had a 2-4 mark, 8.06 ERA, 1.75 WHIP and 6.42 FIP – allowing 28 hits and 17 bases on balls in 25.2 innings. He was signed by San Francisco on February 21 and posted a 1.50 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in four spring appearances. He has a year remaining on the two-year contract he originally signed with the Blue Jays. Reports indicate that he may be tried as a starter in the minors, a role he filled during part of his career in Japan. We’ll keep you posted on his status in subsequent columns.