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Ranking the Best Rookie Seasons Among Japanese Players to Join MLB

These are the best rookie seasons for pitchers and position players who left Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball to play Major League Baseball.

Shohei Ohtani surprised much of the baseball industry—and the SI baseball staff—by choosing the Angels over the other six finalists on Friday. The team's initial plan is to use him as a starting pitcher as well as an occasional designated hitter, possibly with some outfield play as well. Given his ability to reach triple digits with his fastball and hit tape-measure home runs, he should be a sight to behold.

Ohtani is following in the footsteps of several Japanese players who came over from Nippon Professional Baseball to the majors at some point. Though pitcher Masanori Murakami was the first, back in 1964-1965, it took another three decades for the second, Hideo Nomo, to come along. The combination of Nomo’s success and the precedent he set opened the floodgates, as over 100 Japanese players have since come stateside to test their skills in MLB.

Not all of them have succeeded, of course, and some haven't lasted for very long. What follows here is a quick look at the 10 who had the greatest impact as rookies, five pitchers and five hitters, in the spirit of Ohtani’s dual skill sets and hoped-for impact. Within each group I’ve ranked the five, using WAR as a guide but taking into account other considerations as well


Hideo Nomo, Dodgers, 1995

After starring for the Kinetsu Buffaloes from 1990-94, Nomo was rebuffed in his attempt to secure a six-year extension, so he and his agent, Don Nomura, decided to test a contractual loophole. By retiring, he could become a free agent, depart NPB and head stateside without restriction, thus becoming the majors' first Japanese-born pitcher since Murakami.

Signing for just a $2 million bonus with LA, the 25-year-old righty with the distinctive corkscrew windup and bedeviling forkball made a solid April showing, then posted a 1.31 ERA with 119 strikeouts over his next 13 starts. Japanese media and fans flocked to wherever he pitched, producing "Nomomania," which brought back reminders of Fernando Valenzuela's ascent and landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated the same week that he started the All-Star Game. Nomo finished the year 13-6, with a 2.54 ERA, an NL-high 236 strikeouts and 4.7 WAR while helping the Dodgers win the NL West for the first time since 1988.

Yu Darvish, Rangers, 2012

The son of an Iranian father and Japanese mother, Darvish debuted in NPB before his 19th birthday and spent seven years (2005-11) starring for the Nippon Ham Fighters, winning three strikeout titles, two MVP awards and the Eiji Sawamura Award, Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young. When he was posted in the winter of 2011-12, the Rangers bid a record $51.7 million to secure his rights, then signed him to a six-year, $56 million deal. While faced with the difficulties that come with pitching half the time at the Rangers’ hitter-friendly ballpark, Darvish nonetheless turned in an impressive season, going 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA (112 ERA+) and 221 strikeouts (fifth in the league) in 191 1/3 innings, good for 3.9 WAR. He made the All-Star team, finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and ninth in the Cy Young voting.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox, 2007

Six years before Darvish became a teenage star, Matsuzaka did so with the Seibu Lions, for whom he starred from 1999-2006, leading the league in strikeouts four times, winning the EijiSawamura Award in 2001. He also won MVP honors in the inaugural World Baseball Classic while leading Japan to victory (he would do the same in 2009 after coming stateside). Before he came to MLB, a great deal of hype centered around a pitch of his called the gyroball, but it turned out to be a myth.

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The Red Sox won the posting rights to Matsuzaka with a $51.1 million bid, then signed him to a six-year, $52 million deal. As a rookie, Matsuzaka went 15-12 with 201 strikeouts but a gaudy 4.40 ERA (108 ERA+), still good for 4.1 WAR. He placed fourth in the AL Rookie of the year voting, and while he struggled in his first two postseason starts, he gutted out wins in the ALCS against the Indians and in the World Series against the Rockies, a series the Red Sox ultimately won. 

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees, 2014

As an 18-year-old, Tanaka threw even more NPB innings (186 1/3) than Matsuzaka (180) or Darvish (94 1/3), kicking off a seven-year run with the TohokuRakuten Eagles that ended with his otherworldly 2013 season (24-0, 1.27 ERA, 7.8 K/9).  During that run, he brought home the Pacific League's Rookie of the Year, MVP, and EijiSawamura Award (twice) while making six All-Star teams. The new posting system, a flat fee of $20 million, allowed Tanaka to negotiate with every team; ultimately, he signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees, with an opt-out after 2017 (which, it turns out, he did not exercise).

As a rookie, Tanaka went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA, 9.3 strikeouts per nine and 3.6 WAR. He made the AL All-Star team but missed the game due to elbow inflammation; a subsequent MRI revealed a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, small enough to treat with a platelet-rich plasma injection instead of requiring Tommy John surgery. Though he pitched a total of seven September innings thereafter, the only elbow surgery he's undergone since was a bone spur removal after the 2015 season.

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Takashi Saito, Dodgers, 2006

Saito spent 14 years in the Pacific League, the last 13 with the Yokohoma Bay Stars, making three All-Star teams as a starter and one as a closer. A free agent, he signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers a week before his 36th birthday. With closer Eric Gagne laid up due to nerve damage in his elbow, Saito began the year as a setup man and by June was closing. On the strength of his 93 mph fastball and devastating slider, he saved 24 games in 26 chances, delivering a 2.07 ERA with 12.7 strikeouts per nine and 3.2 WAR. His performance helped the Dodgers win the NL Wild Card, and he received votes in both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young balloting.

Position players

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, 2001

After making seven All-Star teams and winning three MVP awards during a nine-year run (1992-2000) with the Orix BlueWave, the 26-year-old Suzuki went through the posting system, with the Mariners winning his rights for $13.125 million and signing him to a three-year, $14 million contract. To that point, the only Japanese-born position player who had gotten a foothold in the majors was outfielder Dave Roberts (the current Dodgers manager), who was the son of an African-American father (a U.S. Marine stationed in Japan) and a Japanese mother.

Joining a team that had over the previous three seasons lost Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, the slashing speedster Suzuki became Seattle's next superstar, hitting .350/.381/.457 with eight homers; his batting average, 242 hits and 56 steals all led the AL, while his 7.7 WAR ranked fourth. The Mariners set a record by winning 116 games, though they were knocked off by the Yankees in the ALCS. The slashing, speedy Suzuki became just the second player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season, after Fred Lynn (1975), setting a standard that will be difficult for any Japanese rookie to top.

Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox, 2005

In eight years with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks (1997-2004), Iguchi established himself as a middle infielder with an enticing power-speed combo; in 2001, he hit 30 homers and stole 44 bases, while in 2003 he hit 27 homers, stole 42 bases and batted .340/.438/.573 while helping the Hawks win the Japan Series. He came to the White Sox as a free agent, signing a two-year, $4.9 million deal, and as their second baseman and number two hitter, delivered a very solid rookie season, hitting .278/.342/.438 with 15 homers, 15 steals and 2.8 WAR. The White Sox won the AL Central, and Iguchi hit a decisive three-run homer in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Red Sox, turning a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead. Though he didn't produce much more in the way of dramatic hits, he helped the White Sox sweep the Astros to win their first World Series in 88 years, becoming the first Japanese-born position player to win a World Series in the process.


Hideki Matsui, Yankees, 2003

Matsui's size (6'2", 210 pounds) and power (332 homers with a high of 50) earned him the nickname "Godzilla" during his 10-year run with the Yomiuri Giants (1993-2002). In that time, he made nine straight All-Star teams, led the Central League in homers three times and won three MVP awards.

After spurning a six-year, $64 million deal from the Giants in 2001, he signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Yankees after the 2002 season. He quickly endeared himself to Bronx fans by hitting a grand slam in the team's home opener, and while he only added 15 other homers, he drove in 106 runs while batting .287/.353/435 with 2.2 WAR. He made the AL All-Star team, helped the Yankees win the AL East, and hit .281/.347/.438 with 11 RBIs during the Yankees' postseason run, delivering decisive homers in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Twins and Game 2 of the World Series against the Marlins. He finished a very close second in the AL Rookie of the year vote behind Angel Berroa.

Nori Aoki, Brewers, 2012

A seven-time All-Star and three-time batting champion in his seven full seasons with the Yakult Swallows (2005-2011), the 30-year-old Aoki required just a $2.5 million posting fee and a two-year, $2.5 million contract to land with the Brewers. As a rookie in 2012, he hit a solid .288/.355/.433 with 10 homers, 30 steals, and +5 Defensive Runs Saved en route to a 3.4 WAR season, and placed fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race (the award went to Bryce Harper).

Kenji Johjima, Mariners, 2006

A power-hitting catcher, Johjima clubbed 211 homers during his 1995-2005 run with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, making nine All-Star teams, winning seven Gold Gloves and an MVP award. He signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Mariners in November 2005, joining Suzuki and becoming the first Japanese player to catch full-time in the majors. Playing in 144 games, he hit .291/.332/.451 with 18 homers and 2.6 WAR. He placed fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, losing out to Justin Verlander.