Every analyst knows who the best free agent pitcher is, Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka. Destined to be a star in the United States, nearly every Major League team is pursuing this talent. But, what if I told you that former NFL football players Tony Mandarich and Ryan Leaf were supposed to become superstars twenty years ago; now their names only appear on draft busts charts. However, Tanaka poses a different question, as he has pitched only in Asia. In this article, we take a look at former Japanese free agent pitchers who immigrated to America (Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara, and Hisashi Iwakuma are not profiled).
Hideo Nomo- The second Japanese pitcher to ever play (Masanori Murakami was the first in the 1960’s), Nomo revolutionized the way pitchers began windups. With a delivery no American hitters had seen before, he baffled batters on both sides of the globe with his forkball while winning the strikeout crown with 239, and also clinching a Rookie of the Year award and All-Star berth in 1995. However, after a solid first three seasons and a no-hitter, his performance dipped. Except for 2003, the rest of his eight seasons were slightly better than average. He was still a K machine (he led the AL in strikeouts again with the Boston Red Sox), but he was no longer a foreign mystery and gave up many homers in his career. At this point, Nomo is still the greatest pitcher to hail from Japan, and with a career record of 123-109, several teams would buy into a player with Nomo’s skillset.
Hideki Irabu- After destroying the Japan Pacific League in 1996 with a 2.40 ERA and a 12-6 record, the San Diego Padres signed the free agent, only to trade him away to the Yankees. Expectations were high, especially after the discovery and revelation of Nomo. Unfortunately, the standards were too lofty for Irabu. Over a 6-year career, he was average at best, finishing his career 34-35. Irabu never had the same propensity for strikeouts as his counterpart did, and was never able to become the star the Yankees had hoped he would become.
Masato Yoshii- Around the same time as Irabu, the New York Mets signed this Yakult Swallows product for a multi-million dollar contract. With similar peripherals to Irabu in Japan, he went to America, and and struggled much the same was as Irabu, finishing his 5-year career at 32-47. However, Yoshii was 33 years old when he joined the Mets, unlike Irabu (28) and Nomo (26), starting the trend for more experienced Japanese Pacific League players having difficulty with the hitters in the major leagues.
Kazuhiro Sasaki- The first Japanese pitcher to be used exclusively as a closer, Sasaki generated major buzz when he was signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2000 at the age of 32. Bucking the aforementioned over-30 trend, Sasaki won the Rookie of the Year award with 37 saves, and continued to save a total of 129 in his short four year career. He was also selected for two All-Star games (2001 and 2002), and remains one of the best Japanese closers in the history of Seattle, while also bringing in future Japanese All-Stars Ichiro Suzuki (sounds vaguely familiar) and Shigetoshi Hasegawa to the Emerald City.
Daisuke Matsuzaka(26) and Kei Igawa(27)- Both elite Japanese pitchers entered the United States in 2007, Matsuzaka went to Boston, while Igawa went to the Yankees. Matsuzaka was the number one overall prospect in Baseball America, where as Igawa was not rated but equally as good… in Japan. Matsuzaka had two excellent seasons to start his career, going 15-12 with 201 SO in ’07 and 18-3 with 2.90 ERA in ’08. Back problems have limited his ability, however, and have inhibited his performance. He threw seven games for the Mets last year. Meanwhile, Igawa was a completely different pitcher. In two abbreviated seasons, he finished with an ERA of 6.66 with the Yankees, while finishing his career in the minor leagues in 2011. Two great Japanese pitchers, two completely different outcomes.
There are other Japanese pitchers–some were moderate successes (Takashi Saito, Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideki Okajima) and others were simply not that good (Ryota Igarashi, Masahide Kobayashi, Kenshin Kawakami). Masahiro Tanaka could be the next Yu Darvish… or he could be the next average Japanese pitcher (unlikely). But one fact is certain, when you finish a season 24-0, you know how to win. Hopefully he wins out with the Yankees.