By Carter Cromwell
With the Major League Baseball season completed, let’s look back at how the nine Japanese import players performed during the pandemic-shortened campaign.
The players on playoff teams produced more or less as they had during the regular season.
Only one – the Tampa Bay Rays’ Yoshi Tsutsugo – was on a team that advanced past the Division Series. In the four playoff rounds, he was 2-16 at the plate with three strikeouts. His two hits came in the League Championship Series against Houston, and he was 0-3 in three World Series appearances.
During the regular season – his first in MLB – Tsutsugo batted just .197 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs. He had trouble with the increased velocity of MLB pitchers. He averaged a strikeout every 3.14 at-bats this season; during his ten years in Japan (NPB), he averaged one strikeout per 4.11 at-bats. His slugging percentage – .511 in his NPB career – was just .395 this year.
Tsutsugo will be just 29 in 2021 – the second year of his two-year deal – and it will be interesting to see if he can make the necessary adjustments to be more impactful.
Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees was the only other Japanese import on a team that made it past the Wild Card Series, and his playoff performance did not quite match that of the regular season.
He was 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in the regular season. In playoff games against the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay, he allowed 13 hits, four walks, and 11 earned runs in eight innings. He took the loss in the third game of the series against the Rays.
Tanaka’s seven-year contract with the Yankees has expired, and there have been reports that his former NPB team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, may try to lure him back with a significant offer. Stay tuned . . .
Starting pitchers Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins and Yu Darvish of the Chicago Cubs were the standouts of the imports during the regular season. Both pitched well in their single playoff appearances, though neither came away with a win.
Darvish – a clear Cy Young Award candidate after going 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA and 0.96 WHIP during the regular season – went 6.2 innings against the Miami Marlins and gave up just five hits and two runs. However, the Cubs lost 2-0.
Maeda is also in the mix for Cy Young honors after posing a 6-1 regular-season mark, 2.70 ERA, and 0.75 WHIP. He’s also a finalist for a Gold Glove Award.
Against the Houston Astros in the Wild Card Series, he pitched five innings with just two hits allowed, and he left with the game scoreless. But the Astros then scored four runs off relievers to take a 4-1 victory.
Also on playoff teams were left fielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds and relief pitcher Shun Yamaguchi of the Toronto Blue Jays, though Yamaguchi was left off the Wild Card Series roster. Akiyama was 0-5 at the plate in two games against Atlanta.
Akiyama, the first Japanese player signed by the Reds, improved in the latter stages of the season after a very slow beginning. 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. During that same period, Cincinnati was 13-6 and earned a wild-card spot in the playoffs. The Reds won 11 of their last 14 games.
Akiyama is also a finalist for a Gold Glove Award. He has two years remaining on his original three-year contract.
Though he was effective at times, Yamaguchi often struggled during his first MLB season, with a 2-4 mark, 8.06 ERA, and 1.75 WHIP. He allowed 28 hits and 17 bases on balls in 25.2 innings. He has a year remaining on his original two-year contract with the Blue Jays.
The three players not on playoff teams were two-way player Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and pitchers Yusei Kikuchi and Yoshihisa Hirano of the Seattle Mariners.
Ohtani pitched in just two games before shutting down with arm issues and was very ineffective. He was 0-1 with a 37.80 ERA and eight walks in just 1.2 innings. As a designated hitter, he disappointed with a .190 batting average, seven home runs, 24 RBI, and a .657 OPS. Ohtani is under contract through the 2023 season.
In 10 appearances after recovering from the coronavirus, reliever Hirano was 0-2 with a 5.84 ERA and 2.11 WHIP. He was on a one-year deal with Seattle after spending the previous two seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Kikuchi, a starter, posted a 2-4 record with a 5.17 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He has one year remaining on a three-year, $43 million contract. The Mariners have an option to extend after that.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, though he never played in Japan, manager Dave Roberts of the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers was born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother and American father. He is the first Manager of Asian descent to win the World Series.
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