Top 9 Japanese Baseball Players in MLB


Having Japanese players in the major leagues is a relatively new phenomenon. Japan has its own major league, and judging by the quality of players who have attempted to make the leap to the more lucrative contracts in Major League Baseball, it’s a very good league that’s probably a little better than Triple-A in its quality. However, not every highly touted Japanese prospect’s skills translate over to the MLB (for example, flops Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kosuke Fukudome).

The first player to attempt playing in the majors was little-known pitcher Masanori Murakami, who went to the San Francisco Giants as a kind of “exchange student” to the minor leagues in 1964. He pitched so well he made it to the majors that September. His Japanese team and the Giants fought over his services in 1965. In a compromise measure, Murakami pitched for one more season with the Giants as a relief pitcher, going 4–1 with a 3.75 ERA and eight saves, before going back to Japan. He pitched there for the next 16 years, winning 103 games.

The second Japanese player in MLB was Hideo Nomo, who started a trend with his immediate success. But MLB teams must often pay exorbitant fees to Japanese teams just for the right to negotiate with players. This keeps the stream of Japanese players at a relative trickle compared to Caribbean countries. Some of MLB’s best players have made it across the Pacific all the same. 

Here’s a look at the nine best players in MLB history to come out of Japan. 

Ichiro Suzuki

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Position: Outfielder

Teams: Seattle Mariners (2001–12, 2021), New York Yankees (2012–14) Miami Marlins (2015– 2021) 

Stats: 17 years, .311, 117 HR, 780 RBI, 509 SB, .757 OPS

Ichiro is already a legend in two hemispheres. He has more than 5,000 hits combined between Japan and MLB, and if you count Japan as a major league, only two other players have more—Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. With fantastic speed and a cannon for an arm, Ichiro is more than just a weapon at the plate, too. He was American League MVP, Rookie of the Year, and AL batting champion in his scintillating rookie season in the majors in 2001, and he hit .372 with an MLB-record 262 hits at age 30 in 2004. He’s a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. In 2021 he didn’t officially retire, just moved to a special assistant role for the Mariners. Whether his role in 2021 will be in the office or on the field remains to be seen.

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

Position: Outfielder/designated hitter

Teams: New York Yankees (2003–09), Los Angeles Angels (2010), Oakland Athletics (2011), Tampa Bay Rays (2012)

Stats: 10 years, .282, 175 HR, 760 RBI, .822 OPS

“Godzilla” came to America and conquered MLB. He didn’t quite match his stats in Japan, but he was a consistent performer in the middle of some potent New York Yankees lineups. He had a big presence in the playoffs, hitting 10 postseason home runs and driving in 39. He was MVP of the 2009 World Series in his swansong as a Yankee, hitting .615 with three home runs in a six-game series against the Phillies.

Jon Soohoo / Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers (1995–98, 2002–04), New York Mets (1998), Milwaukee Brewers (1999), Detroit Tigers (2000), Boston Red Sox (2001), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2004), Kansas City Royals (2008)

Stats: 12 years, 123–109, 4.24 ERA, 1,976.1 IP, 1,768 H, 1918 K, 1.354 WHIP

The original Japanese import, Hideo Nomo was a pitcher for the silver-medal winning team in the 1988 Olympics and won 78 games in Japan before coming to the majors. He was the ​NL Rookie of the Year in 1995 for the Dodgers with his signature tornado-like delivery and devastating forkball. He threw two no-hitters and his 123 wins in the majors are the most by far for a Japanese pitcher, a target for Yu Darvish to shoot for.

Harry How / Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Texas Rangers (2012– 2021) Los Angeles Dodgers ( 2021), Chicago Cubs ( 2021)

Stats through Aug. 20, 2021: 57–45, 3.49 ERA, 872.1 IP, 710 H, 1,070 K, 1.19 WHIP

Darvish is No. 4 because he dominated the competition more than any player lower on this list in just five full seasons. After an incredible seven years in Japan, he came to MLB for a bigger challenge (and huge money), and he became the ace of the Texas Rangers with a devastating array of pitches.

His 2021 postseason performance was marred by the slick ball controversy, effectively taking his devastating slider out of the equation (affecting him and other postseason pitchers who relied on that pitch), as he ended up getting pounded by the Astros to the tune of a 21.60 ERA in the World Series. His Cubs season in 2021 has been more rehabbing than pitching, unfortunately, but the Cubs have done well enough without him.

Jared Wickerham / Getty Images

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Baltimore Orioles (2009–11), Texas Rangers (2011–12), Boston Red Sox (2013–16), Chicago Cubs ( 2021) 

Stats: 22–26, 2.66 ERA, 95 SV, 350 H, 572 SO 

Koji Uehara followed a similar path as Saito to the majors, except he was one of the best starting pitchers in Japan for a number of seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. He went 20–4 there with a 2.09 ERA in 1999. He became a closer in 2007, then came to MLB as a starter in 2009. He became a reliever in 2010. He made the AL All-Star team in 2013, and his last game was in 2021. 

WireImage / Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Boston Red Sox (1999–2001), Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2001–05), Milwaukee Brewers (2005–06), Toronto Blue Jays (2007), Cleveland Indians (2009)

Stats: 10 years, 51–68, 4.26 ERA, 1,070 IP, 1,182 H, 590 K, 1.387 WHIP

Tomo Ohka’s stats in four seasons in Japan’s Central League didn’t show too much potential, but the Boston Red Sox saw something in him and brought him over in a minor league deal in 1999. After dominating in Double-A and Triple-A—he threw a perfect game in 2000)—he joined the Red Sox’s rotation. He was traded to Montreal in a deal that brought closer Ugueth Urbina to Boston, and he spent the next four-plus seasons in the rotation of the Expos, who became the Nationals. He bounced around after that before wrapping up his big-league career at age 33 in 2009.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

Greg Fiume / Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Boston Red Sox (2007–12), New York Mets (2013–14)

Stats: 8 years, 56–43, 4.45 ERA, 790.1 IP, 721 H, 1.402 WHIP

Aside from perhaps Ichiro, no player from Japan came over with as much hype as Dice-K. The Boston Red Sox paid more than $51 million just for the rights to negotiate for him, then $52 million over six years. But after winning 15 games as a rookie and going 18–3 with a 2.90 ERA in his second season, Matsuzaka lost his control and then suffered a major elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2011. He came back in 2012 and went 1–7 with an 8.28 ERA. He came back with the Mets in 2013 and retired after the 2014 season. 

Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Seattle Mariners (2000–03)

Stats: 4 years, 7–16, 3.14 ERA, 129 SV, 223.1 IP, 165 H, 242 K, 1.084 WHIP

Another player who came over to the majors later in his career, Kazuhiro Sasaki had immediate success as the closer for the Seattle Mariners in the season before Ichiro joined him. He was AL Rookie of the Year in 2000 when he had 37 saves. He was an All-Star in 2001 and 2002 and saved 45 games for the Mariners in 2001, when they won a modern-day record 116 games. He returned to Japan in 2004.

Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Anaheim Angels (1997–2001), Seattle Mariners (2002–05)

Stats: 9 years, 45–43, 3.70 ERA, 33 SV, 720.1 IP, 691 H, 447 K

Shigetoshi Hasegawa came over to the majors two years after Nomo and had moderate success as a setup reliever with the Angels and Mariners. He’s remained in the United States where he now has permanent residence. According to ESPN, Hasegawa is a real estate agent in California and is a TV commentator for MLB games shown in Japan. He’s also been qualifying for amateur golf championships with a desire to turn pro.

Shohei Ohtani?

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Positions: Starting pitcher, designated hitter

Team: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ( 2021)

Pitching stats as of August 20, 2021: 4–1, 9 G 3.10 ERA, 49 IP, 61 K, 1.14 WHIP

Batting stats as of August 20, 2021: .268, 13 HR, 38 RBI, .871 OPS

The book is still being written on Shohei Ohtani, being that his first year in the Major Leagues was 2021, but after being touted as Japan’s Babe Ruth for his ability to both pitch and hit skillfully, he hasn’t disappointed the Angels. So far he has a 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 49 innings pitched. The plan at the start of the season was to have him pitch every seven days rather than being on a five-day schedule and have him serve as designated hitter a couple of days between starts. But he missed some starts due to an elbow injury, which is keeping him “only” hitting for now. (He hits lefty and pitches right.)

Keeping the elbow healthy could determine whether he becomes one of the best Japanese players in MLB or just ends up a one-off overhyped wonder, as Tommy John surgery would keep him out of the pitching lineup for years. He had won four out of five decisions before the injury and had been hitting .289, making him one of the best pitchers and hitters in the league. He currently sports a .268 batting average. The Angels are hovering around .500 as a team, though in the bottom of their division, so we’ll likely have to evaluate Ohtani’s effect more next year, especially if he can help them to the playoffs then. Bright spot: He did pitch a simulated game August 20, 2021.

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