Monday, August 29, 2016

The Greatest Japanese Exports (Part II--Pitchers)


Nicknamed "The Tornado," Nomo is the leader among Japanese pitchers in wins, strikeouts, shutouts and complete games. He was a major star with the Kintetsu Buffaloes before exploiting a loophole in his contract and defecting to the majors. He became immensely popular in his '95 Los Angeles debut, capturing Rookie of the Year honors with a 13-6 record and a league-leading 236 strikeouts. His windup included a series of quirky stops and starts that resembled stretching exercises. The right-handed Nomo won 123 games for seven teams during his career, which spanned portions of twelve seasons. He is one of a handful of pitchers to toss multiple no-hitters. They were the only no-hitters thrown at Coors Field and Camden Yards. Nomo has been widely credited for opening the door for dozens of Japanese players who followed.


Saito has the lowest ERA among Japanese pitchers with at least 100 appearances. He enjoyed his peak seasons with the Dodgers between 2006 and 2008, when he saved 81 games and averaged 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Had he not been thirty-six years old when he arrived in the majors, he might have had a longer, more fruitful career. His finest season came in 2007, when he posted a 1.40 ERA while allowing just 33 hits in 64.1 innings primarily as a closer. He picked up a career-high 39 saves and made the NL All-Star team. After falling from the major league ranks at the age of forty-two, he returned to Japan, where he had two more decent seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.


The right-handed Kuroda established himself as one of Japan's best pitchers before he signed with the Dodgers prior to the 2008 campaign. A frequent victim of poor run support, he spent four seasons in Los Angeles and compiled a 41-46 record despite a cumulative ERA of 3.45. In 2011, he posted the best mark of his career at 3.07, but ended up losing 16 games. Traded to the Yankees in 2012, he spent the final three seasons of his big league career in the Bronx--going 38-33. Kuroda appeared in five postseason series with New York. Four of his five outings were quality starts. With a highly effective splitter and sinker, he induced a lot of ground ball outs during his career. In 2015, he returned to Japan for one more season with the team he had left--the Hiroshima Carp.


Sasaki is the all-time leader in saves and closing appearances among Japanese-born players. His nickname "Daimajin," was derived from a series of 1960s movies in which a giant statue bearing that name repeatedly saves a village in response to the prayers of inhabitants. Injured often during his career, Sasaki picked up 252 saves in Nippon pro baseball and 129 more in major league play. His brief big league career lasted just four seasons and ended in 2004, when he decided to stay in Japan. He was Rookie of the Year in 2000 and an All-Star in the next two campaigns.


Nicknamed "Shiggy," Hasegwa spent five seasons with the Angels and four more with Seattle. He served in nearly every capacity during his career--as a spot starter, middle reliever, closer and set-up man. He had compiled a cumulative 30-27 record in the majors before injuring his rotator cuff in 2001. He bounced right back with Seattle in 2002 then posted a career-best 1.48 ERA the following year, earning his only All-Star selection. His appearance in the Midsummer Classic was a disaster as he was charged with 4 runs and a blown save. To date, no Japanese pitcher has matched Hasegawa's total of 517 appearances.

Matsuzaka was one of the most acclaimed players in Japan. Before the 2007 season, several major league teams engaged in a bidding war for his services. In the end, the Red Sox won out with a $51.1 million offer. Matsuzaka got off to a strong start in his major league debut with a 15-12 record. He went 2-1 in the postseason, helping the Red Sox win the World Series. In 2008, Matsuzaka enjoyed his finest campaign, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. His won-loss percentage was second to Cliff Lee of the Indians. Only two AL pitchers posted a lower ERA that year as Matsuzaka placed fourth in Cy Young voting. The rest of his career was marred by injuries and ineffectiveness. The Red Sox finally gave up on him in 2012, when he went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA. He finished his big league career in the Mets bullpen.


There are at least five active Japanese pitchers who are making a name for themselves in the majors. Since the Major League season is much longer, most of them are beginning to show signs of wear. Rangers' right-hander Yu Darvish was off to a 39-25 start in his career before injuries shut him down for the entire 2015 campaign. He has made just 11 appearances so far in 2016. Highly priced Yankee hurler Masahiro Tanaka had a lifetime record of 36-16 at the time of this writing, but has been struck by injuries multiple times. Dodger rookie Kenta Maeda is 13-7 so far this year with a 3.37 ERA for the Dodgers. To preserve his effectiveness, manager Dave Roberts has given him additional rest between starts on several occasions. Koji Uehara--a right-handed reliever--is serving in his eighth major league season. Uehara was 4-1 with a 1.09 ERA in 73 appearances during the 2013 slate. The forty-one year old hurler averages close to 11 strikeouts per 9 innings and is currently second among Japanese-born players in saves. Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners, currently in his fifth season, is poised to win 15 games for the second time in his career. He is on a short list of Japanese hurlers to toss more than 200 innings in a single campaign.  

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