As Major League Baseball finished the month of May – the one-third point of the regular season – the performances of the eight Japanese import players varied from glittering to tarnished.
On one hand, Shohei Ohtani continued to amaze, Yusei Kikuchi started to live up to his ace potential, Yu Darvish kept up a string of excellence, and Hirokazu Sawamura quietly put up solid numbers.
On the other hand, Shogo Akiyama and Yoshi Tsutsugo underperformed, and both Kenta Maeda and Kohei Arihara ended up on the Injured List after enduring their own struggles.
Let’s start with Ohtani.
At the end of May, the Los Angeles Angels’ star was second in the major leagues in home runs (15), sixth in RBI (40), and sixth in slugging percentage (.597). Though batted just .245 in May, he hit seven home runs and drove in 21 runs. For the season, he is hitting .263 with a .927 OPS.
After a couple of injury-plagued seasons in which the Angels were judicious in their use of him, Ohtani played in 50 of the team’s 54 games through April and May. He even was in the lineup for three of his starts – the first time that has happened in the American League (other than interleague games) since the Designated Hitter was instituted in 1973.
In an Angels’ victory over the Texas Rangers, Ohtani hit a home run that had an exit velocity of 117 MPH, the hardest-hit home run of his career as measured by exit velocity (he hit a 119 MPH double in April, which is the highest exit velocity in MLB of any batted ball in 2021). His previous personal best had been 115.2 MPH.
As a pitcher, he has only appeared in seven games but has a 1-1 mark, a 2.72 ERA, and 50 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. Opposing batters have averaged only .156 against him.
He is only the fifth player in major-league history with at least 60 home runs as a hitter and 100 strikeouts as a pitcher. In addition, he is the first to have a batted ball of 110-plus MPH and a 100-plus MPH pitch in the same game since tracking by Statcast began in 2015.
New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman called Ohtani “a mythical legend in human form,” but Ohtani is turning heads not only in the baseball world. Superstar athletes Kevin Durant and JJ Watt have taken to Twitter to express admiration for their fellow freak athlete.
But if we go back to mere mortals, we’ll see that Darvish and Kikuchi were awfully good, too.
Darvish of the San Diego Padres was solid in four of the five games he started and was 2-0 with a 2.20 ERA and 0.98 WHIP for the month. After an outstanding 2020 season with the Chicago Cubs in which he finished second in National League Cy Young voting, he hasn’t missed a beat so far in his first season with the Padres. He has a 5-1 record with a 2.16 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. He’s struck out 79 batters in 66.2 innings. He’s been so consistent that it’s almost a ho-hum experience when he pitches well.
Not so for Kikuchi, who is in the third year of a four-year contract with the Seattle Mariners. Kikuchi was 8-15 in his first two seasons with Seattle and had earned-run averages higher than 5.00 in both years.
But, following a so-so April, something seems to have “clicked” for the hard-throwing lefthander. He was 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in May, allowing just 21 hits in 32 innings.
A month after taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Houston Astros, Kikuchi flirted with history again. In a victory over Texas on May 30, Kikuchi held the Rangers hitless through five innings. In that game, his fastball was clocked as high at 98.5 MPH and averaged 96.3. He has also improved his slider and his command of it. He pitched at least six innings in nine of his 10 starts through May, and is becoming the type of pitcher who brings no-hit stuff to the mound every fifth day.
The reliever Sawamura was an under-the-radar signing by the Boston Red Sox in the off-season, but he has been a solid performer in the season’s first two months. He posted a 2.16 ERA in May with 14 strikeouts in 8.1 innings, though his 1.56 WHIP was a bit high. For the season, he is 1-0 with a 2.75 earned-run average and 1.32 WHIP. He has struck out 26 batters in 19.2 innings.
Maeda, the Minnesota Twins’ starter who was excellent in 2020 (he also finished second in Cy Young voting, but in the American League), has so far not duplicated that performance. He has a 2-2 record with a 5.27 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP. His strikeouts are down, as well – 39 in 42.2 innings.
Maeda was 1-0 with a 4.19 ERA in May and went on the IL May 23 because of a right adductor strain after throwing just 73 pitches against the Cleveland Indians. Maeda had hoped to play through the injury but had to modify his mechanics to accommodate the tightness and pain. His average fastball velocity was down to a season-low 89.6 MPH — more than three MPH lower than where it was on Opening Day.
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.
Arihara made just one appearance in May, allowing six hits, three walks and five earned runs in a no-decision against Seattle. For the season, he is 2-3 with a 6.59 ERA and 1.53 WHIP and has walked 12 batters in 28.2 innings.
That leaves the two position players among the Japanese import players – outfielder Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds and infielder Tsutsugo of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Akiyama, in the second year of a three-year contract, came on strong in the last month of the truncated 2020 season. However, he suffered a hamstring injury during spring training in mid-March and did not see regular-season action until May 7. In 19 games in May, he batted .194 with three RBI and only one extra-base hit.
It will be interesting to see if he can get back into the groove he was in during the final stages of last season.
Tsutsugo, who is in the second year of the two-year contract he originally signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, was designated for assignment on May 11 and traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers four days later.
After batting .197 for the Rays in 2020, Tsutsugo averaged just .167 this season before the Rays dropped him. After being picked up by the Dodgers, he was hitting just .130 through the end of May. He continues to have problems making consistent contact, especially against high-velcity fastballs, having struck out 39 times in 101 at bats during the first two months of the season.