Where EAST meets the Northwest
LEGEND RETIRES. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners runs to first base
after hitting a two-run single during a spring training baseball game on
February 22, 2019, in Peoria, Arizona. On the night of March 21, Ichiro ó a
player who defined baseball at its very best on two continents for a generation
ó took his final swing at the Tokyo Dome in front of a sellout crowd of 45,000
people. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
TOP TALENT. Ichiro Suzuki, left, and pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle
Mariners leave a press conference in Tokyo. The Mariners played a two-game
baseball series against the Oakland Athletics to open the Major League Baseball
season at the Tokyo Dome. (AP Photo/Toru Takahashi)
Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels takes a swing during an
MLB game on September 22, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
PLAY BALL. Jung-ho Kang of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws out Roeman Fields of
the Toronto Blue Jays during a spring training baseball game in Bradenton,
Florida. Kang is a native South Korea. (AP Photo/Chris OíMeara)
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #07 (April 1, 2019), pages 1, 7 & 8.
A legendís retirement kicks off a season packed with Asian
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Just like the sound of "Play Ball!" and the smell of fresh-cut outfield
grass, our annual look at the best Asian players in Major League Baseball (MLB)
signals the start of the baseball season. While there are one or two position
players, most of the high-impact eastern imports are pitchers, many among the
best in the game. And the top Asian baseball player right now, Shohei Ohtani,
can pitch and hit with the best ó though this season, he will be doing just one
Ohtani joined the Los Angeles Angels in 2019, drawing even more notice than
other superstar Japanese pitchers because of his abilities on both offense and
defense. Ohtani had previously spent five years playing Nippon Professional
Baseball (NPB), where he logged a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA (Earned Run
Average) and a 1.08 WHIP (Walks & Hits per Innings Pitched) while clubbing 48
home runs and 70 doubles in 403 games.
In 2018, Ohtani won the MLB Rookie of the Year award after hitting .285 with
22 home runs in just 114 games while notching a 3.31 ERA and striking out 63
batters in 51.2 innings. No player since Babe Ruth has made 10 pitching
appearances and hit more than 20 home runs, and Ohtani didnít even play a full
Last October 1, Ohtani went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, and the
resulting rehabilitation will limit him to designated hitter duties this season.
His true value to the Angels wonít be realized until he returns to the mound in
2020, when he should be able to build on whatever advances he makes at the plate
Hot on the heels of Ohtani, the latest pitching sensation to make the leap
from the east is coming to a familiar Pacific Northwest destination for Japanese
players: the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have had a Japan-born player on
their roster every season since 1998, but theyíve never signed a NPB pitcher
with the talent of Yusei Kikuchi, who inked a four-year, $56-million contract
with Seattle before this season.
In Kikuchiís eight seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions in NPB, he had a
record of 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. In 2017, his best season, he went
16-6 against a 1.97 ERA and a dominating 0.91 WHIP, striking out more than a
batter per inning for the first time in his career. He joins a Mariners team in
rebuilding mode, but he will make a great foundation around which to create a
Many other Asian MLB players will try to make their mark this season, each
with his own great storyline. Slugging third baseman Jung-ho Kang will return to
the Pittsburgh Pirates after almost two years off due to injury and legal issues
in his native South Korea. Yu Darvish, once the top Japanese pitcher in
baseball, will look to redeem himself after a lost first season with the Chicago
Cubs, while starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees are
favorites to win the World Series.
But any catalog would be incomplete without celebrating the retirement of
Ichiro Suzuki, the best Asian baseball player to grace an MLB diamond ó and one
of the best ever to play the game. Without him, itís likely that few, if any, of
these other Asian players would be on an MLB team today.
Looking back now, itís hard to remember the skepticism that greeted the
arrival of Ichiro. The Seattle Mariners signed him in 2000 to a three-year,
$14-million contract ó a bargain, even when you factor in the $13.1 million fee
that Seattle paid for the right to negotiate with him. Back then, that was a lot
of money to pay a player, and his price tag and Asian heritage meant that Ichiro
arrived with a target on his back.
Outside the organization, his talent was often underrated. Mike Hargrove,
then the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, opined that Ichiroís arm and speed
might earn him a bench spot, but not a starting job. A former major-league
infielder who had played in Japan, Randy Johnson, said, "I didnít think the
Japanese style of hitting would work."
Even Ichiroís supporters were skeptical. His manager, Lou Piniella, said
"Itís a tough adjustment, because big-league players throw harder." Jim Colborn,
who had prepared a comprehensive scouting report on Ichiro, wrote, "No one is
expecting him to hit .350, which was his career average in Japan."
Ichiro hit exactly .350 in his first MLB season, becoming the second player
ever to be named both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. His average
would reach a league-leading .372 in 2004, the same year he broke George
Sislerís record by collecting 262 hits in one season.
Sislerís total of 257 had stood for 84 years, and some thought it would never
be broken, but Ichiro did a lot of things people thought nobody else could do,
let alone a Japanese player. He set a new MLB record with 10 straight 200-hit
seasons, and he tied Lou Gehrigís record of eight consecutive seasons with 200
hits and 100 runs scored.
In the first ten years of the new millennium, 2000-2009, Ichiro collected
2,030 hits, the most of any player over that time, becoming the fourth player
ever to top 2,000 hits over a ten-year span. And Ichiro did that in just nine
seasons, having joined the Mariners in 2001.
In his career, Ichiro amassed 3,089 hits in MLB and 1,278 in Japan, giving
him 4,367 hits, the most ever for a player at the top professional level and the
21st most in MLB history ó again, all the more impressive because he started his
MLB career at age 27.
More than this, Ichiro did it with class, style, and grace. He was thrown out
of a game just once, in 2009, and he was modest and avoided the limelight,
asking the Japanese reporters who trailed him everywhere to stay out of the
locker room during his rookie season.
And he paved the way for Asian players who followed. Though none have reached
his level of achievement, the flood of players from across Asia owe their MLB
careers to the player who proved to everyone that baseball knows no nationality
or birthplace ó just great players.
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