Many star players from NPB have made their way to MLB to take on a new challenge.
Some of them became household names like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui. Some were consistent and solid players for a long period like Hiroki Kuroda and Koji Uehara. Some failed to meet the hype and lofty expectations like Kei Igawa and Kazuo Matsui. Some became fan favorites like Munenori Kawasaki.
The 2021 AL MVP and two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani headlines the current batch of Japanese big-league players, and rightfully so. These players are a fascinating group that features exciting rookies, experienced veterans, and players looking to make their mark in MLB. Their performances go a long way in promoting the globalization of the sport but also provide fans, scouts, and front offices a better baseline for evaluating future talent from NPB.
How are their respective seasons going? Let’s break it down.
(All stats as of 6/11/2023)
Big surprise, Ohtani is once again among the frontrunners in the AL MVP race with his one-of-a-kind value as a two-way player. At the plate, he is hitting .291/.362/.593 with 50 RBI and an AL-leading 20 homers.
He had a hot start on the mound to start the season, with a 0.64 ERA and a .093 opponent batting average in his first five starts. Since his last start in April against the A’s, Ohtani has really struggled with the long ball. All 11 homers allowed on the season have come since that start.
On the season, Ohtani has a 3.32 ERA in 13 starts, with a 33.3 K% in 76 innings pitched. He has been plagued by shaky control in some starts, and his walk rate is up to 11.1% compared to 6.7% last season.
You can find Ohtani updates, including reports of every start, endorsement deals, and hot stove news on his player page on MLBTR, or shoheiohtanirumors.com.
The Mets signed the 30-year-old right-hander to a five-year, $75MM deal last December. Senga was immediately thrown into the fire in the early weeks of the season as the anchor of a depleted Mets rotation that was impacted by injuries to Justin Verlander and Carlos Carrasco and Max Scherzer’s suspension.
So far, Senga has answered the call and shown the talent that made him one of the most coveted starting pitchers in the 2022 offseason. Senga has a 3.34 ERA in 12 starts and 64 ⅔ innings pitched this season. He had a 4.15 ERA in his first five starts, but he has maintained a 2.79 ERA in his last seven. He is striking out hitters at a strong 28.3% rate, but walking hitters at a 14.3% clip.
Senga’s notorious ‘Ghost Fork’ splitter, which made him a household name in Japan, is no fluke. Hitters are only hitting .108 against the forkball and whiffing at a whopping 59.8% rate, one of the highest in MLB.
The next step in Senga’s transition to MLB is building consistency in control that will allow him to be more efficient and pitch deeper into games. In his final season in NPB, Senga walked 8.6% of hitters, so it’s certainly possible.
The 29-year-old outfielder signed a five-year, $90MM deal with the Red Sox after seven highly productive seasons in Japan for the Orix Buffaloes. The hefty price tag surprised many, given the questions of his slight frame at 5’8″ and power numbers in NPB traditionally not translating well to the big leagues. The ‘Macho Man’ has rewarded the organization’s faith with his patient and disciplined approach, bat-to-ball skills, and sharp swing. Yoshida is now one of the frontrunners in the AL Rookie of the Year race with his borderline All-Star-level production at the plate.
Yoshida is hitting .300/.375/.467 with seven homers, 33 RBI, and a 132 wRC+. After overcoming a nightmarish start (.189/.317/.264 in first 53 at-bats) to his MLB career, he’s been one of the most consistent bats for the Red Sox. Yoshida joined Ichiro as one of only two players this century to have reached base 85+ times and struck out 25 or fewer times in their first 50 career games.
He turned a corner after working with both Red Sox and Orix Buffaloes coaches and making appropriate adjustments, including lowering his hands. He continues to be proactive with his adjustments. After a rare three-strikeout performance against the Diamondbacks, the Sox coaching staff tweaked his approach and Yoshida responded with a .480/.581/.760 line in the next seven games.
Defensively, there is room for improvement for the outfielder. The Statcast metrics are not favorable, as he ranks in the tenth percentile and 12th percentile in outs above average and outfielder jump, respectively. He should be able to make marginal improvements in that area as he continues to familiarize himself with the Green Monster and the unique outfield at Fenway Park. Could he be making his way to Seattle for the All-Star game in July? We shall see.
The 28-year-old outfielder is in the second year of his five-year, $85MM deal with the Cubs. He was limited to 110 games in his first season by injury, hitting .262/.336/.433 along with 14 homers and 46 RBI.
After a slow start in April where he hit .254/.333/.373 and just one home run, Suzuki had an excellent month in May, hitting .319/.417/.560 and five homers. On the season, Suzuki is hitting .278/.367/.450 with six homers, 19 RBI, and 124 wRC+ in 50 games.
So far in his big league career, Suzuki has shown fans glimpses of the five-tool skill set that made him an appealing player in the 2021 offseason but has yet to have his breakout moment.
He has shown excellent plate discipline, walking at a 12.1% rate, and ranks in the 92nd percentile on Statcast chase rate. Despite his plate discipline, Suzuki strikes out quite often, with a 26.1 K%. Suzuki seems to struggle against pitches with movement, hitting just .216 against sinkers and .176 against cutters. Four-seamers with “clean” spin are traditionally more valued over moving pitches in Japan, so it is common for Japanese hitters to struggle with movement since they lack reps.
Suzuki has been as advertised on the defensive end, recording two outs above average, thanks to a 98th-percentile outfielder jump and 92nd-percentile arm strength.
The right-hander signed a five-year, $90MM contract extension in February, keeping him on the team through 2028. Darvish had a self-proclaimed best season of his career in 2022, tossing 194 2/3 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 25.6 K%, and 4.8 BB%.
He hasn’t been at his absolute best in 2023, with a 4.30 ERA, 26.3 K%, 7.5 BB% in 69 innings, but is still putting up above-average peripheral numbers on Statcast and still featuring a unique eight-pitch mix. If you remove his May 28th start against the Yankees where he got knocked around for seven runs in 2 ⅔ innings, his ERA would be 3.53.
He reached the 100 wins mark in his last start against the Rockies on June 9, joining Hideo Nomo as the only Japanese MLB pitchers to reach that mark.
In his second season as a Blue Jay, Kikuchi is still navigating his way to be a consistently productive starter. The left-hander had his worst season in the majors since his rookie season, largely due to poor control and a questionable pitch mix.
Coming into 2023, Kikuchi made subtle changes in his delivery and mechanics, while sporting a new beard and swagger. He was off to a solid start, with a 3.00 ERA in April, but had a tough May where he gave up nine home runs and had a 5.83 ERA. On the season, Kikuchi has a 4.34 ERA, 22.7 K%, and 7.4 BB% in 66 ⅓ innings, while giving up an MLB-worst 18 home runs.
The left-hander is throwing harder than he ever has, with average fastball velocity up to 95.3 mph compared to 92.5 mph his first year in MLB. It hasn’t necessarily translated to a high-quality pitch, however. While Kikuchi is getting whiffs at a 29.7% rate with his fastball, hitters are still getting good contact and hitting .315 against it.
Although Kikuchi has improved his walk rate by five percentage points from last season, his bad starts are still marked by control issues and giving up the long ball while working behind in the count. The Blue Jays will need every solid performance they can get from Kikuchi in a competitive AL East, especially with Alek Manoah being optioned to the Florida Complex League.
The 35-year-old Twins right-hander is attempting a full comeback from Tommy John surgery in 2021. The veteran has faced several setbacks in his recovery. He took a 111.6 mph liner off his left foot against the Red Sox on April 20. In his next start against the Yankees, Maeda gave up a career-worst 10 runs in three innings. He was then placed on the IL with a strained triceps.
Maeda completed his third rehab start for Triple-A St. Paul on June 10. He tossed four shutout innings and struck out five, and will be returning to the big league team in the coming weeks. “The (velocity) was good, the splitter was good, the slider was good. Everything was good,” said St. Paul manager Toby Gardenhire (link via Dean Spiros of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press).
The Athletics signed Fujinami to a one-year, $3MM deal in January, with the A’s front office rolling the dice on Fujinami’s 100 mph fastball and potential plus strikeout stuff, despite control issues.
He opened the season in the rotation but was quickly moved to the bullpen at the end of April after allowing 24 runs in just 15 innings and walking 12 batters. It has been more of the same for the 29-year-old right-hander since moving to the bullpen, with a 11.12 ERA on the season while walking 17% of hitters.
It’s been a struggle for Fujinami to throw strikes to say the least. His 29 total walks is the most in MLB for pitchers under 40 innings thrown. When he does find the strike zone, the 6’6 righty is getting shelled. He has a hard hit percentage of 49%, which ranks in the seventh percentile.
Fujinami has dug himself a deep hole in terms of establishing himself as a big league pitcher, but he’s continuing to get opportunities to prove himself on an A’s pitching staff with minimal depth.