There were eight Japanese import players in Major League Baseball this season, but fans could be forgiven for thinking that Shohei Ohtani was the only one. The two-way superstar’s impending free-agency and, more recently, elbow and oblique injuries that sidelined him for virtually the entire last month of the campaign garnered an inordinate amount of attention all year.
Ohtani’s was a season for the ages, albeit clouded by the significant injuries that, presumably, will impact his negotiations with suitors to one degree or another.
As a pitcher, he was 10-5 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He struck out 167 batters and gave up just 85 hits in 132 innings, while allowing a career-best .184 batting average against.
In his designated-hitter role, he batted .304 – his first time over .300 in his six-year MLB career – and had career highs in on-base percentage (.412) and slugging percentage (.654). His slugging percentage, along with an OPS of 1.066, led both leagues, while his OBP and 44 home runs both led the American League and were second- and fourth-best, respectively, in MLB.
Ohtani’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as figured by Baseball Reference, was 10.0 in just 135 games played. That’s the fewest games played in a 10-WAR season in American or National League history, excluding full-time pitchers. The previous low was Mookie Betts’ 136 games played in a 10.7-WAR season for the Red Sox in 2018.
Despite missing Angels’ last 25 games, he has a very good chance of winning his second Most Valuable Player award. If he does, his number of games missed would be the largest ever missed by an MVP at the end of the season. Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout missed the final 19 games in his 2019 MVP season. Not surprisingly, the global superstar even was a league-leader off the field, as he had the most popular jersey in MLB this season.
With the Angels not making the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, Ohtani now will focus on rehabbing his right (throwing) elbow after undergoing surgery September 19. And, of course, on deciding where he will play next season. The current expectation is that he will be only a designated hitter in 2024 and be ready to both hit and pitch in 2025.
Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, said that the procedure was done with “a heavy emphasis on the big picture” of his career. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the surgery, added, “The ultimate plan after deliberation with Shohei was to repair the issue at hand and to reinforce the healthy ligament in place while adding viable tissue for the longevity of the elbow. I expect full recovery, and he’ll be ready to hit without any restrictions come Opening Day of 2024 and do both [hit and pitch] come 2025.”
To say the very least, it will be an interesting off-season. As The Athletic noted, “This will be the most-watched free agent in baseball history, and the most watched in sports since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010.”
Now to the “other guys” – the remaining seven import players. Fortunately, fans will be able to watch three of them – starters Yusei Kikuchi of Toronto and Kenta Maeda of Minnesota, and Baltimore reliever Shintaro Fujinami – in the playoffs.
Let’s go into more detail.
Kikuchi has had bouts of inconsistency this season, and he went 2-2 with a 5.02 ERA in September after posting three consecutive solid months for the Blue Jays. In six starts, he had two good outings, three not good ones, and one so-so one. Still, his overall season performance represented a step forward.
In his first four seasons in MLB – three with Seattle and one with Toronto – Kikuchi had not been able to harness his elite stuff, posting a 5.02 ERA. By the end of the 2023 regular season, however, he was 9-4 with a 3.63 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, the latter significantly lower than his career mark of 1.38. In addition, he had an average walk rate of 2.59 per nine innings, compared to his career mark of 3.39 and last season’s bloated 5.19. In short, he has been better than expected.
Senga has been another with inconsistent performances, but he has proven in his first MLB season to be a valuable performer and a bright spot in what has been a very disappointing season for the New York Mets. In fact, some think he should get Cy Young Award consideration.
Senga finished at 12-7 during the regular season with a 2.95 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, striking out 202 batters in 166.1 innings. He was 2-0 with a 2.10 earned-run mark in September.
During much of the season, he had problems with his command and with getting ahead in counts, but he did better in the latter stages of the campaign. From April through July, he averaged 4.6 walks per nine innings. He lowered that to an average of 3.52 over August/September.
Senga ranked second in the National League ERA standings, and he tied for eighth in strikeouts.
For much of his second season in MLB with the Chicago Cubs, Suzuki had not had the success he or the team had hoped for, but August and September may have signaled a breakthrough, as he hit .321 with a 1.006 OPS in August and followed that by averaging .370 in September with a 1.019 OPS. In the last month of the campaign, he hit seven home runs, drove in 26 runs, had 11 multi-hit games, and went hitless in just five games. Eighteen of his 40 hits during September were for extra bases.
Previous to that, Suzuki had shown flashes but had not been able to sustain success. Between June 15 and August 7, he posted a .207/.268/.307 slash line in 150 at-bats. Since then, though, he’s been on a tear.
Overall in the regular season, he batted .285 with 20 home runs, 74 RBIs, and an .842 OPS. The only blemish on his late-season run came on September 26 when the Cubs lost a 6-0 lead and fell to the Atlanta Braves 7-6. Suzuki missed an easy fly ball late in the game that let the Braves’ tying and winning runs score, and the Cubs eventually finished just one game out of the third wild card spot. A heartbroken Suzuki owned up to his mistake after the game, hopefully discouraging Cubs fans from blaming the team’s late-season collapse on him. Despite this late-season gaffe, 2023 was a season in which Suzuki made significant strides.
Maeda had a difficult beginning to his first season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2021, but he came back from the Injured List and helped the Twins win the Central Division title. After returning to the team, he had two effective starts in June, a strong July, an up-and-down August, and a solid September.
Maeda was 3-1 with a 2.81 earned-run mark and just a 1.05 WHIP in September. Seasonally, he was 6-8 with a 4.23 ERA, but that includes April when he was 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in four starts before going on the Injured List. He could be a factor in the playoffs, either as a starter or out of the bullpen.
Fujinami, who signed a one-year contract with Oakland prior to the season, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles on July 19 and activated two days later. His performance was spotty, with some good moments mixed with the not-so-good.
He was hit hard at the beginning of the season and moved to the bullpen in late April. He improved significantly in June and July after posting ERAs of 13.00 in April and 10.50 in May, but he remained inconsistent throughout the season. In 13 appearances in August, he posted a 5.68 earned-run mark, though his 0.77 WHIP was by far his best of the season. He allowed zero earned runs in nine of his 13 outings, but, in the other four, gave up eight earned runs in just 3.1 innings. In 11 September appearances, he was 1-0 with a 4.66 ERA.
For the regular season, Fujinami posted a 7-8 mark with a 7.18 earned-run mark and a very high 1.49 WHIP in 79 innings.
In his first MLB season with the Boston Red Sox, Yoshida fell off in August and September. After batting .314 in July, he hit just .261 with a .281 on-base percentage and .359 slugging mark in August and followed that by slashing .250/.268/.388 in September. He was hitless in 10 games in the season’s final month.
The Athletic noted that Yoshida produced only an 0.7 fWAR, has “been one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball this year and hasn’t held up his offensive performance after an early-season hitting streak . . . the Red Sox have increasingly been giving him days off, sitting him against lefties like Framber Valdez and Julio Urías.”
Yoshida has four years remaining on the five-year, $90 million contract Boston gave him last off-season, so the 30-year-old still has time to prove that he can produce consistently over the longer MLB season.
Like San Diego as a team, which failed to make the playoffs despite a talent-laden lineup, Darvish did not live up to expectations this season, particularly in the light of the $108 million contract extension he signed in February. And his season took another hit on August 28 when he was placed on the 15-day Injured List because of right elbow inflammation and later shut down for the remainder of the season.
At the time he was shut down, Darvish let it be known that he’d suffered a stress reaction in his right elbow, though not a stress fracture. He called the injury “pretty similar” to the injury he incurred while pitching for the Cubs in 2018. He underwent arthroscopic surgery that September and was ready to return for the start of the ’19 season. It’s unclear whether Darvish will require a similar procedure this offseason. That likely won’t be determined until after a five-to-six-week rest period.
Earlier, Darvish had revealed that he’d been pitching through discomfort for “a couple months.” He was removed after just 76 pitches against Milwaukee on August 25, and that proved to be his final outing of the season.
Darvish finished the season with an 8-10 mark, a 4.56 ERA, and a 1.30 WHIP. The latter mark is his highest since the 2018 season and the second-highest of his 11-year MLB career.