Japan's most influential MLB players
Ichiro, Ohtani among bevy of stars from Land of the Rising Sun
Japan was a land of mystery to American baseball fans for many years, but it's safe to say the perception has changed. The success of many players from the Land of the Rising Sun -- from Hideo Nomo to Ichiro Suzuki to Shohei Ohtani -- has proved that Japanese players have what it takes to excel in America's Major Leagues.
Here's a reverse chronological look at some of the most significant Japanese players who have come to MLB:
Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, 2018-present
Ohtani arrived in America with plenty of hype as he aimed to be the Majors' first full-time two-way player since Babe Ruth a century earlier. After a tough Spring Training, Ohtani proved doubters wrong with brilliance on the mound -- including a one-hit outing in his second MLB start -- and massive power at the plate.
The Japanese sensation finished his 2018 American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning campaign as the first player since Ruth to pair 20 home runs as a hitter with 10 appearances as a pitcher.
Injuries hindered Ohtani's two-way prowess over the next two seasons. He underwent Tommy John surgery at the conclusion of the '18 season, which made him a full-time designated hitter the next year. Ohtani tried to return to the mound in 2020 but made only two starts before a forearm strain shut him down as a pitcher.
But then came a healthy 2021 campaign, which became one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history -- Ohtani was named AL MVP after posting a .965 OPS with 46 home runs at the plate, while also pitching to a 3.18 ERA with a 29 percent strikeout rate in 23 starts on the mound.
Kenta Maeda, RHP, 2016-present
After eight seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, Maeda jumped to MLB, signing an eight-year deal with the Dodgers that began with his age-28 season. Maeda finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year race after posting a 3.48 ERA over 32 starts in his debut campaign.
After three more solid seasons in pitching-rich L.A., Maeda was traded to the Twins in February 2020. Although his first year in Minnesota was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Maeda took his game to another level, going 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA and AL-best 0.75 WHIP over 11 starts. He then finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, 2014-present
Tanaka was brilliant over seven NPB seasons with Rakuten, including sterling 1.27 ERAs both in 2011 and '13 (his ERA in '12 was an also-good 1.87 ERA). The Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $155 million contract in '14 after paying a $20 million fee under a revised posting system.
That contract, which expired after the 2020 season, mostly worked out well for New York. Tanaka went 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA over those seven years, while making 173 starts. Tanaka was an All-Star twice in that time, including in his rookie season, when he posted a 2.77 ERA.
Tanaka also has been successful in the postseason. In his first seven MLB playoff starts, spanning 2015-19, he went 5-2 with a 1.32 ERA, never allowing more than two runs. However, in what could have been his final Yankees outing, he took the loss in Game 3 of the 2020 American League Division Series.
Yu Darvish, RHP, 2012-present
Darvish became one of the greatest pitchers in NPB history during his seven seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters. In 2012, a year before Ohtani would make his debut for the Fighters, Darvish made the jump to MLB after the Rangers made a record $51.7 million posting bid. Texas signed the right-hander to a six-year, $60 million contract.
Darvish didn't disappoint, posting a 112 ERA+ and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his rookie season. The next year, he struck out an MLB-best 277 batters and finished as the AL Cy Young Award runner-up. Darvish was an All-Star for the third straight year in 2014, but his season was cut short due to an elbow injury. After missing the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, he returned midway through the '16 season and pitched well.
In 2017, Darvish was again an All-Star and reached the 1,000-strikeout plateau faster than anyone in MLB history (812 innings). Texas traded him to Los Angeles at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he helped the Dodgers reach the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
Darvish then went on to sign a six-year, $126 million free-agent deal with the Cubs. His tenure in Chicago began poorly, but Darvish found his groove during the 2019 season and in '20 finished as the NL Cy Young Award runner-up after generating a 2.01 ERA over the course of the shortened schedule.
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, 2012-18
Iwakuma played 11 NPB seasons between the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Rakuten Golden Eagles before joining the Mariners in 2012. Over his first four MLB seasons, he was a very dependable starter for Seattle, posting an ERA no higher than 3.54 each season. In 2013, Iwakuma was an All-Star and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting, posting a 2.66 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in 219 2/3 innings. He also threw a no-hitter against the Orioles on Aug. 15, 2015. Iwakuma opted to return to Japan after a shoulder surgery sidelined him for the entire 2018 season.
Koji Uehara, RHP, 2009-17
Uehara spent 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants before signing with the Orioles in 2009 at age 34. His finest season came in '13 after signing as a free agent with the Red Sox. Uehara appeared in 73 games and posted a 1.09 ERA. He also struck out 101 batters and walked just nine, becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out more than 100 while walking fewer than 10 in a single season. Taking over the closer role after injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, Uehara was named the 2013 AL Championship Series MVP, and he struck out the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter to end the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park.
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, 2008-14
After a long stint with the Hiroshima Carp, a 33-year-old Kuroda signed with the Dodgers before the 2008 season. He didn't miss a beat. Kuroda wound up spending seven seasons in the Majors with the Dodgers (2008-11) and Yankees (2012-14) before returning to Hiroshima for two final seasons. He had an above-average ERA+ in all seven of those campaigns and finished with a career mark of 115, while averaging 188 innings.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, 2007-14
Matsuzaka dominated NPB from 1999-2006 with the Seibu Lions before the Red Sox signed him in December 2006, a signing that included a then-record $51.1 million posting fee. "Dice-K," as he came to be known, turned in a strong rookie campaign in 2007 with 201 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings. In the postseason, he helped Boston win its second World Series title in four years, becoming the first Japanese-born pitcher to win a World Series game (Game 3 at Coors Field against the Rockies).
In 2008, Matsuzaka finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting, posting a 2.90 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Though he wouldn't be able to emulate his early success thereafter, he was named MVP of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, his second consecutive Classic MVP Award.
Kazuo Matsui, SS/2B, 2004-10
Kaz Matsui (no relation to Hideki) hit .291 over nine seasons with the Seibu Lions, amassing more than 2,000 hits, 201 homers and 362 stolen bases before signing a three-year, $20.1 million contract with the Mets. He homered on the first pitch of his MLB career, but he never developed into an All-Star stateside, although he was a key cog on the 2007 National League pennant-winning Rockies.
Hideki Matsui, LF/DH, 2003-12
A star for 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Yankees as a free agent. Following an All-Star rookie campaign, he posted a .298/.390/.522 slash line with 37 homers in 2004, again earning selection to the AL All-Star team. In seven seasons with New York, Matsui hit 140 home runs and was named the 2009 World Series MVP after hitting .615 with three homers against the Phillies.
Matsui played for the Angels, A's and Rays before retiring in 2012.
Ichiro Suzuki, RF, 2001-19
Ichiro became the first position player to make the transition from NPB to MLB when he joined the Mariners in 2001. After becoming a superstar in Japan with the Orix Blue Wave, he proceeded to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award and the AL MVP Award that season, posting a .350/.381/.450 slash line, with an MLB-leading 242 hits and 56 steals. That season marked the first of 10 consecutive All-Star selections for Ichiro, as well as 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards in right field.
Ichiro would amass 200 or more hits in each of his first 10 MLB seasons, and he set the single-season hits record with 262 in 2004. In '12, he was traded to the Yankees, for whom he played through the '14 season. Ichiro signed as a free agent with the Marlins, and on Aug. 7, 2016, he became the 30th member of the 3,000-hit club, tripling off the right-field wall against the Rockies at Coors Field. He transitioned to the Mariners' front office midway through the 2018 season, and returned for two final games with Seattle in the 2019 Opening Series in Tokyo where he made an emotional farewell to the game he loved.
Kazuhiro Sasaki, RHP, 2000-03
Sasaki joined the Mariners as a free agent following 10 seasons in NPB, and he made an immediate impact. With veteran right-hander Jose Mesa struggling, Sasaki became Seattle's closer. He posted a 3.16 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings and saved 37 games, earning the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Sasaki would play three more MLB seasons, being named an AL All-Star in 2001 and '02. For his career, he had a 3.14 ERA and 129 saves for the Mariners.
Hideki Irabu, RHP, 1997-2002
Irabu pitched for the Lotte Orions (who later became the Chiba Lotte Marines) from 1988-96. He then wanted to make the transition to MLB, but he was still under contract with the Marines. So Chiba Lotte sold Irabu to the Padres, with whom the Marines had a working relationship at that time. But he refused to play for San Diego, instead wanting to pitch for the Yankees.
Irabu eventually got his wish when the Padres received two prospects (including outfielder Ruben Rivera, once considered among the top prospects in MLB) and $3 million from the Yanks for the right to negotiate with him. The 28-year-old right-hander signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract with New York in May 1997. Irabu's refusal to play for an MLB team he was sent to without his consent helped bring about the current posting system, whereby MLB teams pay a negotiating fee to an NPB player's club if that player is still under contract in Japan. (Players who begin their careers in NPB can become true free agents after nine seasons.)
Irabu was greeted with much fanfare as the first Japanese player to don a Yankees uniform. Anticipation and expectations were high, and while he showed flashes of excellence, he struggled throughout a six-season MLB career. In three seasons with the Yanks, Irabu posted a 4.80 ERA. He was traded to the Expos, for whom he pitched two seasons and posted a 6.69 ERA in 14 starts. In 2002, Irabu made 38 appearances (two starts) for the Rangers, posting a 5.74 ERA and surrendering 11 home runs in 47 innings.
After his MLB career was over, Irabu returned to NPB and pitched for the Hanshin Tigers from 2003-04. He had personal struggles off the field, and on July 27, 2011, he was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Southern California home.
Hideo Nomo, RHP, 1995-2008
Though Murakami was the first Japanese-born player to play in the Majors, it was Nomo who opened the door to more Japanese players making the transition from NPB to MLB. Following an uneven 1994 season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Nomo found himself in a contract dispute with the club. His agent found a loophole in NPB's rules that said a player who "retired" could become a free agent when he returned to active status, so that is what Nomo did before signing with the Dodgers in February 1995. He made his MLB debut on May 2, 1995, against the Giants at Candlestick Park, tossing five scoreless innings and giving up one hit and four walks while striking out seven. In doing so, Nomo introduced to the Majors a deceptive windup dubbed "the Tornado."
Nomo would go on to post a 2.54 ERA and lead the NL with 236 strikeouts, earning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The next season, he would throw the first of two career no-hitters, blanking the Rockies at Coors Field on Sept. 17, 1996. It remains the only no-hitter thrown in that ballpark.
Masanori Murakami, LHP, 1964-65
Murakami initially reached the Giants' Minor League system in 1964 as part of a player development agreement between San Francisco and NPB's Nankai Hawks. He was one of three Hawks players sent to the Giants and was assigned to San Francisco's Class A affiliate in Fresno. Murakami impressed enough to be promoted to the Major League club in September, becoming the first player of Japanese descent in MLB history at just 20 years old. He struck out two batters in an inning of work in his debut, which came on Sept. 1, 1964, at Shea Stadium against the Mets.
That winter, Murakami was at the center of controversy. The Giants wanted him back because he had pitched so well and claimed they controlled his rights, while Nankai officials had convinced him to return. The dispute was settled by a compromise between then-Commissioners Ford Frick (MLB) and Yushi Uchimura (NPB), who determined that Murakami was contractually obligated to pitch for San Francisco in 1965, but had the option to return to NPB in '66. In 54 appearances (89 1/3 innings) in '65, Murakami posted a 3.43 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings before returning to Nankai for good.