Editor’s note: I’m pleased to present the latest piece from Alex Putterman, a regular contributor here.
Four weeks ago, I unveiled my all-time all-Jewish all-star team. Now, in honor of the $51.7 million bid that won the Texas Rangers the rights to negotiate with Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish, I present the all-time all-Japanese all-star team (of players who played in the Major Leagues). The migration of Japan’s talent to the United States has been a relatively recent phenomenon, so this team lacks much of the depth the Jewish team boasted but, led by future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki, claims some degree of star-power.
C Kenji Johjima – Johjima is actually the only Japanese-born catcher to appear in Major League Baseball (Kurt Suzuki is of Japanese descent but was born in Hawaii and is a fourth-generation American), giving him this spot on the list by default. Johjima broke into the Majors with a bang, batting .289 with 32 home runs in his first two seasons with the Seattle Mariners, before declining in productivity and returning to Japan in 2009, after a four-year career in American baseball.
1B N/A – There has never been a Japanese-born first baseman in the Major Leagues, but Nippon Professional Baseball legend Sadaharu Oh won 15 home run titles in his 22-year career playing first base for the Yomiuri Giants and owns Japan’s records for home runs in a single-season (55) and a career (868).
2B Tad Iguchi – Second base happens to be somewhat of a hotspot for Japanese players, with Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura, and Kaz Matsui all having played the majority of their MLB games there. Iguchi was the only of the trio to play exclusively at second, and so he gets this position, while Matsui and Iwamura find spots elsewhere.
3B Akinori Iwamura – Iwamura played four MLB seasons, three of them in Tampa Bay, and was the starting second baseman on the Rays’ pennant-winning 2008 team. But the infielder performed best during his rookie season, when he posted career highs in home runs, stolen bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and WAR while playing third base.
SS Kaz Matsui – Matsui was, like Iwamura, primarily a second baseman but played shortstop as a Mets rookie (with a young Jose Reyes stationed at second). Matsui initially failed to live up to high expectations, struggling mightily during his time in New York, before reviving his career in Colorado following a 2006 trade.
LF Hideki Matsui – Probably the second most accomplished Japanese-born MLB player, Matsui has batted .285 and knocked 173 home runs in nine seasons with the Yankees, Angels and Athletics. A six-RBI performance in game six of the 2009 World Series earned him Series MVP honors, concluding a successful but somewhat injury-prone Yankee career.
RF Ichiro – The inarguable greatest Japanese Major Leaguer of all-time, Ichiro broke into the bigs with Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in his rookie season. And unlike other Japanese players who began their careers strong and then faded (see: Nomo, Matsuzaka, Fukudome, Iwamura, Johjima, Sasaki, Okajima) the Mariner outfielder built off his initial success and put together a career worthy of Cooperstown. Though his best days are behind him, Ichiro can already claim two batting titles, over 2,400 career hits, over 400 career stolen bases, and the MLB single-season hits record (262, set in 2004).
CF Kosuke Fukodome – A 3-run game-tying home run in Fukodome’s first MLB game and a .337 batting average in his first month in America made the outfielder a cult hero in Chicago, and while that level of success didn’t last long, Fukodome’s career has been a moderate success. He’s hit between .257 and .263 in each of his four MLB seasons and added above-average defense to a solid bat. Although primarily a rightfielder, Fukudome has played enough games in center (138) to warrant this position on this list.
With the dearth of Japanese position players already evident in the starting lineup, the all-time Japanese team’s bench is pathetically shallow. So Taguchi had his moments, contributing to the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series championship team. Beyond that, we don’t have much. There is no second catcher to bring off the bench, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka is the default utility infielder despite a disastrous rookie season in 2011. Outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo was the first Japanese-born player to play in the World Series, appearing in the 2000 Series for the Mets, but he didn’t amount to much thereafter. The only other Japanese Major League position player not yet mentioned here is Norihiro Nakamura, a third baseman, who lasted all of 17 games with the Dodgers in 2005, batting .128. On December 7, the Yankees won the rights to negotiate with infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima, who, if he signs, can round out this woefully unimpressive bench.
SP Hideo Nomo – If the Rangers come to terms with Darvish, they’ll be counting on him to surpass Nomo and assume the title of best Japanese pitcher to cross the Pacific. For now, the 1995 Rookie of the Year tops this rotation, having fooled the National League with an unconventional delivery and posted a 2.54 ERA (150 ERA+) in his first big league season, finishing 4th in Cy Young voting that year.
SP Daisuke Matsuzaka – Like Nomo, Dice-K began his career strong but has fizzled as the league has figured him out. Unlike Nomo, who peaked as a rookie, Dice-K’s sophomore season was his strongest. That year, 2008, the Red Sox righty went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA (160 ERA+) and, like Nomo 13 years earlier, finished 4th in Cy Young voting.
SP Hiroki Kuroda – Kuroda is currently a free agent, with the Red Sox and Yankees considered among the front-runners for his services. The 36-year old has proved a reliable MLB starter, posting an ERA under 4.00 and an ERA+ over 100 in each of his four seasons stateside.
SP Tomo Ohka – Ohka quietly compiled a solid, decade-long MLB career, highlighted by an impressive 2002 campaign in which he won 13 games and finished 7th in the National League with a 3.18 ERA.
SP Masato Yoshii – Yoshii is less remembered than his contemporary Hideki Irabu (who gained his notoriety mostly by pitching poorly and being called a “Fat Toad” by George Steinbrenner), but Yoshii has a better career ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and WAR than Irabu.
Unlike the Jewish all-star team, the Japanese squad is very deep in the bullpen. Akinori Otsuka, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Koji Uehara, Shigetoshi Hasegawaand Kazuhiro Sasaki all enjoyed or continue to enjoy productive careers in the states. Honorable mention to Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese Major Leaguer, who pitched in 54 games during the 1964 and 1965 seasons before a resolution between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball which, for 30 years, kept Japan’s best away from America.