Will Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Shun Yamaguchi return to the NPB form that he showed with the Yomiuri Giants? Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

By Carter Cromwell

By any standard, the three first-year Japanese import players to Major League Baseball in 2020 had difficult transitions.  

Outfielder Shogo Akiyama of Cincinnati, infielder Yoshi Tsutsugo of Tampa Bay, and reliever Shun Yamaguchi of Toronto not only had to adjust from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to MLB, they had to do so in a season seriously impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Though it was a season like no other for everyone, it was even more so for them.

Of the three, Akiyama did the best, improving in the latter stages of the season after a very slow start. The first Japanese player signed by the Reds, 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. It was no coincidence that Cincinnati was 13-6 and earned a wild-card spot in the playoffs during that same period. The Reds won 11 of their last 14 games, and Akiyama was a finalist for the National League Gold Glove award for left fielders.  

While never considered a true power hitter, he did have a .454 slugging percentage and .829 OPS during his nine seasons in Japan. However, his corresponding figures this season were .297 and .654, and he hit no home runs. The Reds will be looking for improvement in this area.  

He’ll be 33 by the start of next season and has two years remaining on his original three-year contract. 

Tsutsugo batted just .197 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs during the regular season and had trouble with MLB pitchers’ increased velocity. 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. His overall WAR was 0.0, and his defensive WAR was 0.3.

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.

Though he was effective at times, the 33-year-old Yamaguchi often struggled during his first MLB season, with a 2-4 mark, 8.06 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, and 6.42 FIP. 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.

Of course, their 2020 performances could have been negatively affected by the disruption and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. And the drastically shortened season meant they didn’t have the usual amount of time to recover from lackluster beginnings and make the necessary adjustments that a standard season permits.

So this brings up the question of how the three should be expected to perform in 2021. Will the year of experience in the U.S. make next season go smoother? That’s certainly possible, though history doesn’t show any clear trend on which to base projections.

Fifty-eight other Japanese players have played in the major leagues from the time pitcher Masanori Murakami debuted with the San Francisco Giants late in the 1964 season. 

Of those, 15 performed better in their second seasons, 18 performed worse, and nine played at about the same levels.  

Six of the remaining 16 hardly played at all in their second seasons, leaving no appropriate comparison. The other 10 played just one season in the majors.

The picture gets even murkier upon studying the groups. Of the players who were better in their second go-rounds, some were a lot better, and some were just a little better. Among the ones who fared worse, some dropped off considerably and some only slightly so. 

And there are other subtleties and “alsos” for a lot of the players.  

Let’s start with Murakami. Though his numbers went up in 1965, he was an effective reliever. And the fact that he pitched just 15 innings the year before means that his second (and final) season could almost be considered his first.

Then look at Hideo Nomo. He had worse numbers in his second season (1996) with the Los Angeles Dodgers – but he was still good. He declined after that, posting ERAs of over well over 4.00 for five straight seasons and FIPs of higher than 4.00 during his last seven campaigns.  

Starter Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins was worse in his second season with the Dodgers, better in his third season, a bit worse in his fourth, and then outstanding this season – his first with the Twins.

Pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, currently with the Seattle Mariners, was somewhat better in 2020 than in 2019, but he hasn’t been particularly effective in either of his seasons. The same was true with reliever Keiichi Yabu, who appeared in the majors in 2005 and 2008. 

Pitcher Hideki Irabu, heralded when he first signed with the New York Yankees before the 1997 season, upped his game in his second season but still wasn’t great (a 5.15 FIP, for example), and he fell off after that. 

Some players had injury issues in their second seasons in the big leagues. Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees, for example, was bothered by a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in 2015.  

Ichiro Suzuki, clearly the most successful of the Japanese import, actually had worse numbers in his second year, as well. 

But consider that his rookie season in MLB was transcendent – a .350 batting average, an .838 OPS, 242 hits, and both Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP honors. In his second season, he “slumped” to a mere .321 batting average and an .813 OPS.

Kaz Matsui declined in 2005, his second year with the New York Mets, but he appeared in just 87 games because of injuries. Reliever Akinori Otsuka had poorer numbers in his second season but improved significantly in seasons three and four.

So what does this mean? 

It means history gives provides no firm guidance as to how Akiyama, Tsutsugo, and Yamaguchi will fare in 2021. Only when spring training rolls around and then the new season begins will answers begin to formulate. And even then, it will take a full season to get fuller answers.

We look forward to finding out in 2021 who makes the better adjustment – the sophomore Japanese imports or the rest of the league?

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