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Top Japanese MLB players of all time
Apr 21, 2022, 5:06:00 AM

Top Japanese MLB players of all time

There is no denying that the United States made baseball tremendously popular worldwide. In fact, the Japanese also love baseball just as much as Americans do. It came to a point that the Nippon Professional Baseball team is edging closer to popularity alongside the Major Baseball league.

There have been quite a few Japanese players who played in MLB. In fact, these players are among the best in the history of the league. Baseball fans have been watching these players go to the World Series and a couple of All-Star games. Like most sports, baseball became a global phenomenon where every fan is tuned in.

Believe it or not, several Japanese baseball players certainly add excitement to the baseball industry. They have made a positive impact on the league that fans can’t get enough of. Here are the best Japanese baseball players of all time.

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Ichiro Suzuki

One of the first Japanese MLB players who became wildly successful in the league is Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro played 28 seasons across different professional baseball leagues and represented two teams as a pro outfielder.

A Mariner Legend

After his stint with the Orix BlueWave from 1992-2000, Ichiro joined the MLB and became an iconic player for the Seattle Mariners. As a Mariner, he won multiple awards like the AL Rookie of the Year and an AL MVP in the 2001 season.

As a rookie, he posted a great statline of .350/.381/.450 and an MLB-leading record of 242 hits with 56 steals. That season also had him win his first of 10 straight All-Star selections and 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards as a right fielder.

What made Ichiro an incredible player is his consistent display of greatness like amassing over 200 hits. In fact, he achieved a record of 262 hits in 2004.

Yankees stint

Ichiro started his official baseball career in 1994 when he was still playing in the NPB. Based on the year that he was traded to the Yankees, he has already played 18 years of baseball and is past his prime.

Even though he was no longer an All-Star at that point 2001-2010, he was still a crucial player to the Yankees’ roster and helped them during the playoffs where they were swept by the Detroit Tigers 4-0. Despite the loss, Ichiro played well and helped his team rally in the World Series.

Free agency move: His Marlins run 

During the twilight years of Ichiro’s career, he signed with the Miami Marlins where he played for three seasons from 2015-2017. During his stint with the Marlins, he became the 30th member of the 3,000 hit club as he tripled off the right-field wall against the Colorado Rockies. 

Going back to Seattle 

Before retiring, Ichiro went back to the Mariners and closed out his career with his final two opener games where he poetically ended his incredible baseball career.

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Daisuke Matsuzaka

Daisuke Matsuzaka is one of the world’s most famous Japanese players of all time, having played for great teams and making the sport more popular not only in Japan, but also the rest of the world.

From Lions to Red Sox

From 1999 to 2006, Daisuke dominated the Seibu Lions before joining MLB’s Boston Red Sox. His signing with the Red Sox was considered a record-breaking signing that posted a fee of $51.1 million. 

His nickname, ‘Dice-K’, was made up by his fans because of his strong rookie campaign in 2007. It is where he scored 201 strikeouts and was named as one of the best Japanese baseball pitchers of all time.

As a professional MLB player, he achieved a number of accolades that make him a Japanese legend. During his stint with the Lions, he won the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 1999 and became a three-time NPB win leader from 1999 to 2001. 

He is also a seven-time NPB All-Star which partly persuaded the Red Sox to draft him. In Boston, he didn’t quite have the same accolades as he had when playing for the Lions. However, what he can boast of is a title with the Red Sox in 2007 where he helped Boston take the championship during the World Series.

Aided Boston on their 2nd World Series championship run 

The World Series win over the Colorado Rockies marked the 2nd championship of the Boston Red Sox’s franchise, and Daisuke played a huge part in that. Daisuke became the first Japanese MLB pitcher to win such a World Series. 

Furthermore, he plated two runs with a single in Game 3 that made him a legendary player for the Red Sox. 

2009 MVP World Baseball Classic season 

In the vote for the American League Cy Young Award in 2008, Matsuzaka finished fourth with an earned run average (E.R.A.) of 2.90 and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Even though he was not able to repeat his initial success, he was selected World Baseball Classic MVP for the second year in a row.

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Shohei Ohtani

Since Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani aims to become the first full-time two-way player as the American crowd cheers and expects a lot from the young Japanese player. After a hard spring training, Ohtani proved his brilliance and that the hype for him is not a waste. 

A superstar in the making

With a record of 20 home runs and 10 relief appearances, the Japanese prodigy became the first player since Babe Ruth in the American League's Rookie of the Year Award-winning 2018 season.

Over the following two seasons, injuries hampered Ohtani's ability to be a two-way threat. During the 2018 season, he had Tommy John surgery and became a full-time hitter. However, a forearm injury ended Ohtani's pitching career in 2020 when he attempted a comeback.

In the next year, Ohtani had a healthy season and was voted the American League's MVP after a .965 on-base percentage (OPS) and 46 home runs at the bat. He also achieved an impressive 3.18 E.R.A. and a 29 percent strikeout rate in 23 starts on the mound helped him win the award.

The new Babe Ruth?

Dubbed as ‘the 21st century Babe Ruth’, Shohei is often compared to late baseball legend, Babe Ruth, because of his two-way prowess in the baseball field. To give you a little perspective, Babe Ruth was also a full-time starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox while he occasionally got a pinch-hit while hyping the crowd on the stands.

He was 23-12 leading the league in E.R.A. of 1.75 in 1917 and was 24-13 the following year. While the Sox won the 1915-1918 World Series, Babe Ruth’s pitching started to garner attention due to multiple wins during his seasons as a full-timer.

Ohtani’s seasons can be compared to Ruth’s 1918 and 1919 seasons. Shohei’s pitching load was drastically cut in half to 34 combined starts over two seasons compared with his two previous seasons which is 78.

Babe went from 150 plate appearances per season to 382 in 1918. He became a full-time player then where he recorded 543 combined. It was clear from the get-go that he was ready for the next level of play and became the team’s primary hitter. 

While Shohei’s seasons didn’t quite match up with any of Ruth’s early years, he is still pretty close to being as good as Babe Ruth on the job as Ohtani paced to make about 24 starts during the 2021 season, which are fewer starts as Ruth when he was a full-time pitcher. 

Furthermore, Ohtani is on pace to achieve more than 600 plate appearances which are way more than Ruth had during his pitching career.

His growing MLB career

As of this time of writing, Shohei is on his way to becoming one of the most famous and best superstars in baseball which lead to wins for the Los Angeles Angels. The more he keeps up with this performance, the more he’ll be known as a great player which will then lead to hall-of-fame ballots when he eventually retires. 

Kenta Maeda 

After eight amazing seasons as of this time of writing, Kenta Maeda proved why he is a baseball sensation. As a Dodgers’ Japanese MLB pitcher, Kenta is only growing to become one of the top pitchers in the game. 

Star Dodgers pitcher 

Kenta Maeda is an impeccable Dodgers pitcher who finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year race after providing numbers like 3.48 E.R.A. over 32 starts in his rookie campaign. It was clear that he was an integral piece to the Dodgers’ lineup because he is one of the best pitchers in the game that throws off batters during a running play. 

There’s no doubt that Kenta Maeda is one of the most prolific Japanese MLB pitchers. As a star player, he can only go up from this point into his career. 

Solid acquisition from the Twins

Maeda was sent to the Minnesota Twins in February 2020 after three successful seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. However, the COVID-19 pandemic limited Maeda's first season with Minnesota. Fortunately, he still managed a 6-1 record and a league-best WHIP of 0.75. With that, he came in second place for the American League Cy Young Award. 

2020 season dominance 

His 2020 campaign as a young star was also a highlight of his career, a feat where he went strong with a 2.70 E.R.A. What Kenta can prove more is his improvement on pitching to force players out of the offence and increase their defensive line.

Yu Darvish

In the NPB, Yu Darvish became one of the best pitchers of all time during his seven years with the Nippon Ham Fighters. In 2012, Darvish went on to join an MLB team with the Texas Rangers and made a record $51.7 million posting bid during his signing.

A career in Texas 

The Texas Rangers signed him as a right-handed pitcher to another six-year contract worth $60 million. While it may sound like it is worth a lot, Darvish didn’t disappoint when he posted a 112 E.R.A.+ and a 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings during his rookie year.

The following year, he finished with an MLB-best 277 batters and won the AL Cy Young Award runner-up. However, an elbow injury ended Darvish's 2014 season, making him an All-Star for the third year in a row. Before the start of the 2016 season, he was sidelined for the whole year due to Tommy John surgery.

World Series push with the Dodgers 

Once again, Yu Darvish was named an All-Star in 2017 and set a new MLB record for the fastest 1,000-strikeout streak by a pitcher (812 innings). In a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal, Texas acquired him by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he was instrumental in their first World Series appearance in 29 years.

After that, he signed a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs as a free agent. Darvish had a rough start to his time in Chicago, but recovered his stride in 2019 and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2020 after posting a 2.01 ERA on a reduced schedule.

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How a player gets inducted into the MLB Hall Of Fame 

The MLB Hall of Fame is a defining title given to history’s most prominent baseball players who earned a career milestone that gave successful careers to the sport.

In the earlier years of baseball, players were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by being elected by their peers in the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). The options were limited; if the player didn't meet the benchmarks, the Veterans Committee (now called Era Committees) would consider the player or should wait until he was inducted due to other considerations.

Here are the rules of the BBWAA simplified: 


BBWAA is authorised to hold an election each year for electing members to the National Baseball Hall of Fame from the rankings of retired baseball players. 


Only active and honorary members of the BBWAA who have been active writers for at least ten years are eligible to vote. They must be active as baseball writers and members of the organisation for ten years before the date of the election itself. 

Eligible candidates for the MLB Hall of Fame 

Candidates must satisfy the following criteria to be considered. These are:

    •   A baseball player must have played in the Major Leagues for fifteen years before and terminating five years preceding the election.

    •   The player must have participated in each of the ten Major League championship seasons, some of which must have taken place within the period desired by the association.

    •   Players must have retired from professional baseball for at least five calendar years before the election, although they may still be associated with the sport in some other way.

These are the basic qualifications that get retired baseball legends inducted into the hall of fame, and there are quite a few Japanese players in MLB hall of fame that deserve to be there. 

Why pitchers are the most important players in MLB

To put it simply, the pitcher is probably the most crucial player in baseball because they have the most hand on whether or not a team wins or loses. They throw the pitch that batters need to hit for them to score the game. 

The better the pitcher, the better the results on a given game for a particular team. A good pitcher happens to have a strong arm that provides the team with fastballs that puts any team by surprise when they try to score a base during games. 

The best Japanese pitchers and players have made a huge impact on the league as a whole, and they are among the best to ever play the game that accounts for the diversification of players in American sports. 

With Japanese MLB pitcher Shohei Ohtana and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, and among several others, baseball has become more of a global sport that everyone gets to enjoy! 

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Words: Vonn Consul 

Image: Alamy 


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