Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Legacy of the Japanese Hurler


Next year will mark 30 years since Hideo Nomo made his debut for the Dodgers, and ushered in an entirely new era of hard-throwing Japanese pitchers. He wasn't the first, as Masanori Murakami made his debut 30 years earlier, but he had the biggest exclamation point attached. A hard-throwing, high-speed ace for one of the biggest teams of the decade, making himself known with every start. Even if his full career wasn't as legendary as his Dodgers years, what Hideo Nomo paved the way for, as far as Japanese pitching in the MLB is concerned, cannot be ignored.

Though I would also argue that somebody like Yu Darvish is just as crucial to the modern standard of Japanese pitchers. Because for a few years back there nothing was really clicking. There were some good pitchers that flamed out, like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, great Japanese league pitchers who were too old to hit prime numbers for especially long, like Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito, Yasuhiko Yabuta and Masahide Kobayashi, and pitchers that just couldn't make things work in the MLB, like Keiichi Yabu, Kei Igawa and Ken Takahashi. 

But the arrival of Darvish, and Hisashi Iwakuma, in 2012 presented a desire for Japanese players to post early enough to experience a fuller, more lucrative MLB career, as opposed to achieving full success in Japan and not reaching worldwide fame. Darvish, to this point, had 7 seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, the final five of which all featured an ERA lower than 2, and four of those featuring strikeouts over 200. And this was just his early 20s. With his prime years coming up, and the clout of JPPL success, he wanted to cross over, and so he signed with the Rangers and went big.

It's honestly fantastic to see Darvish still performing at peak levels, and he may go down as the greatest Japanese pitching export in MLB history. Obviously Nomo and Ohtani would rival him, but nobody has achieved his level of absolute consistency. Darvish will hit 2000 strikeouts this year, a mark that Nomo couldn't even hit in 13 years in the bigs. He also currently holds the record for cumulative WAR for Japanese pitchers, with a 32.62, and next year he will become the longest-tenured Japanese MLBer upon his 13th official season. But also, he's still extremely good, even at 37. Right now he's 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA and 51 Ks in 10 starts, another strong campaign for the Padres. He's signed for the next 4 seasons, and will likely retire as a Padre, and at this rate he'll have been one of their most foundational pieces of the 2020s. 

But what's been great about the rise in Japanese pitchers is that not all of them need to be the hard-throwing ace. We've seen a lot of Japanese pitchers just fit right into a rotation and play a steady role without being the overwhelming favorite. Iwakuma did this during the 2010s with the Mariners. Kuroda did this with Yankees in the early 2010s. And now Yusei Kikuchi's become the patron saint of that with the Blue Jays. He doesn't have to be at the head of the rotation, because there's people like Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman who can do that. What he is right now is extremely consistent. Kikuchi goes 5 or 6 innings every game, keeps his ERA around 3, strikes people out and doesn't do anything flashy. And for the Jays this year, that's the winning strategy, because the flashy guys, Gausman and Manoah, aren't getting the job done. So having someone like Yusei Kikuchi, who just gets the job done without much incident, is really handy for the Jays, especially in a year where so much has let them down.

This season has seen Yoshinobu Yamaoto, Shota Imanaga, Naoyuki Uwasawa and Yuki Matsui all ascend to the bigs and plug in admirably. We will likely see even more going forward, as Roki Sasaki has spoken at length about wanting to come over here. I am 100% fine with this trend, especially if Japan keeps allowing their best and brightest to become efficient, consistent options for MLB teams. It makes the game more fun, and it allows for even more complex stories of heroic players to come from anywhere in the world.

Coming Tomorrow- A starting pitcher who was probably expecting things to be going a bit better about now.

1 comment:

  1. I've been pleasantly surprised at how well Darvish has pitched this season. Hoping he'll get 17 more wins and pass Nomo for that record as well.