Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Greatest Japanese Exports (Part I--Positional Players)

Contrary to what many casual fans might believe, Hideo Nomo was not the first Japanese-born player in the major leagues. Left-handed pitcher Masanori Murakami was twenty years old when he made his debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1964. After injuring his arm with the Nankai Hawks, Murakami was sent to the Giants with a pair of other non-prospects. The Giants and Hawks had signed a development deal prior to Murakami's arrival. To the astonishment of nearly everyone in the Nankai front office, Murakami went 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA in the San Francisco farm system. Called to San Francisco in September, he became a hero and cultural icon when he logged eight consecutive scoreless appearances. Commenting on his success, Murakami said: "In Japan, players only swing at strikes. Here, they try to hit everything out and don't care if you throw a strike or not." The Hawks wanted Murakami back for the '65 slate, but the Giants retained him after a contract dispute. Murakami's second season was not as successful, though he did average 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Murakami's experiences didn't open the floodgates for Japanese players right away. In fact, there wouldn't be another Japanese prospect in the majors until Bobby Fenwick arrived in 1972. Fenwick, who was born in Okinawa, was of mixed Asian ancestry. He lasted through portions of two seasons with Houston and St. Louis. Since then, Japan has sent more than fifty players to "The Show."  The best of them will be discussed in my next two posts. Let's start with positional players.


There is little doubt that Ichiro is the greatest Japanese-born player the major leagues have ever seen. Including his nine-year stint with the Orix Blue Wave of Japan's Pacific League, he collected well over 4,000 hits. More than 3,000 came in major league action, putting him on a trajectory for the Hall of Fame. If a combination of 3,000 hits and 500 stolen bases doesn't justify his enshrinement at Cooperstown, his ten consecutive Gold Gloves will serve as a definitive argument settler. Ichiro was know to literally climb walls to rob opposing hitters of home runs. Only Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were more decorated in the outfield. As of this writing, Ichiro was padding his lifetime hit totals with the Marlins at the age of forty-two.


In Japan, Matsui carried the nickname "Godzilla" for his prodigious home run power. When he played for the Yomiuri Giants, he was given the #55 representing Sadaharu Oh's single-season record for homers. Matsui never broke that record, but he did hit 50 in 2002--his final season in Japan. He was so popular in his native country that his likeness actually appeared on commercial airline jets. The Yankees paid big money to acquire Matsui and, though his home run output dropped considerably in major league play, his RBI production did not. When Matsui fractured his wrist diving for a ball in left field during the 2006 slate, he ended  streak of 1,768 consecutive games that had begun in Japan. He reached the century mark in RBIs during each of his first four full seasons and helped the Yankees to six playoff appearances. His performance in the 2009 Fall Classic netted him Series MVP honors. He was a lifetime .312 hitter in postseason action. Among Japanese-born players who have reached the majors, he is the all time leader in doubles, homers, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.


Taguchi is probably best remembered for his clutch ninth inning homer against the Mets in Game 2 of the 2006 NLCS, which broke a 6-6 tie and held up as the game winner for the Cardinals. In three plate appearances during that series, he was 3-for-3 with 3 RBIs. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Taguchi was in his thirties when he reached the majors and his career was relatively brief. In Japan, he was an All-Star, Gold-Glover and Best Nine Award recipient (a prestigious honor given to the top players at each position). In the majors, he hit his peak between 2004 and 2007, appearing as one of St. Louis's regular outfielders. His batting averages ranged from .266 to .291 in that span and he spent more than 100 games at each outfield station. He captured a World Series ring with Cardinals in 2006.


Fukudome was one of the Japan Central League's most powerful hitters, winning the MVP Award in 2006. Injured the following year, the Cubs decided to take a chance on him, shelling out $48 million to obtain his contract. Great things were expected of Fukudome and, though he didn't exactly tear up the National League, he was one of Chicago's more reliable hitters for three-plus seasons. After finishing among the top ten in Rookie of the Year voting, he had his best season in 2009, reaching career-high (major league) marks in extra-base hits (54) and on-base percentage (.375). Fukudome was a patient hitter, drawing 60 or more walks in four straight seasons. He was solid in right field as well, posting the third highest fielding percentage during the 2010 slate. After a .171 showing at the plate in 2012, he returned to Japan.


Iguchi was thirty years old when he made his debut with the White Sox in 2005. Before then, he was a reliable infielder with moderate power for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan's Pacific League. Iguchi had three decent offensive campaigns in the majors before suffering a statistical collapse in 2008. He was a key member of Chicago's World Series winning squad in 2005. He contributed 9 postseason hits to the White Sox cause that year, scoring 7 runs while driving in 5. He returned to Japan in 2009 and became the fifth player to get 2,000 hits in combined Japanese and major league play. 


For two seasons, Johjima was among the best catchers in the American League. After spending eleven seasons in the Japan Pacific League, he signed with the Mariners. He was the first Japanese catcher in the majors. In his 2006 debut, he slugged 18 homers and drove-in 76 runs while hitting .291. The performance earned him Rookie of the Year consideration. After another highly successful season in 2007, he slumped both offensively and defensively. He opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Mariners before the 2010 campaign and returned to Japan. He had one more great season with the Hanshin Tigers before his inability to hit limited him to second string status. 


Another short-lived Japanese success story, Iwamura left Japan's Central League after the 2006 campaign to join the Devil Rays. He was coming off of his third consecutive season with 30 or more homers before making his major league debut. He hit just 7 long balls with Tampa Bay in 2007, but his 10 triples were second in the league to Curtis Granderson of the Tigers. Iwamura also led AL third basemen in fielding percentage that year. In his 2008 follow-up, he finished third in triples. He also placed among the top ten in putouts, double plays and assists. A knee injury in 2009 limited him to 69 games, but he posted a highly respectable .290 batting average. Traded to Pittsburgh before the 2010 slate, he became the Pirates' highest paid player. He fared poorly that year and never returned to the majors. He continued playing in Japan through 2014.  


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