I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
Who Are The Greatest MLB Players From Japan?
From a no-namer in 1964 to "Nomo-Mania" of the mid-'90s to Ichiro Suzuki's Hall of Fame career to Shohei Ohtani's current status as a full-time starting pitcher and designated hitter, there is a rich history of Japanese players defecting to Major League Baseball. A total of 61 players have come from Japan to play in MLB, and that includes nine on current rosters. Three of those players debuted for the 2020 season.
In 1964, the San Francisco Giants promoted Masanori Murakami, who was one of three players on loan from the Nippon Professional League, to their September roster. After some controversy surrounding whether the Giants could purchase Murakami's contract, the leagues signed an agreement that essentially barred MLB's teams from negotiating with NPB players. That changed three decades later, when Hideo Nomo's agent found a loophole in the agreement that allowed Nomo to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Three years later, a posting system, which is still in place today, was adopted, forcing MLB's teams to pay their Japanese counterpart a fee to enter contract negotiations with a player seeking to come to America. Meanwhile, Japanese veterans with at least nine seasons in the NPB are eligible to become international free agents.
In the 2020 offseason, standout pitcher Kohei Arihara chose to be posted and signed with the Texas Rangers, and the Boston Red Sox signed Hirokazu Sawamura. The bigger story from 2021, however, has been the emergence of Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles, who was named an All-Star as a pitcher and a hitter.
Despite the posting rules, MLB's teams have found plenty of star power from Japan. In this article, I'll count down 10 of the best players to transition from Japanese baseball to Major League Baseball. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments!
**Rankings do not reflect 2021 MLB stats**
10. Nori Aoki
- NPB Years Played: 2004–11, 2018–present
- MLB Years Played: 2012–17
- Path to MLB: Posting system (2012, Milwaukee Brewers for $2.5 million)
- Position: Outfield
- MLB Accolades: World Series champion (2017, Houston Astros)
When Nori Aoki signed with the Brewers in 2012, he was the only player in NPB history to record two seasons with 200 hits and was a career .329 hitter in Japan. The 30-year-old outfielder never became an elite contact hitter in MLB, but hit a respectable .285 over six seasons with seven teams. He was most productive as a rookie, when he hit .288 with 10 home runs and 30 steals, and finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting. After two seasons with the Brewers, Aoki spent time with the Kansas City Royals (132 games), San Francisco Giants (93), Seattle Mariners (118), Houston Astros (70), Toronto Blue Jays (12) and New York Mets (27).
9. Hiroki Kuroda
- NPB Years Played: 1997–2007, 2015–16
- MLB Years Played: 2008–14
- Path to MLB: International free agent (2008, Los Angeles Dodgers)
- Position: Starting pitcher
After 11 seasons in Japan, Hiroki Kuroda decided to make a move to MLB, and while he didn't have as much star power as some other Japanese pitchers, he was a durable starter for seven seasons. Kuroda, who came to the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 32, started more than 30 games in six of his seven seasons (four with the Dodgers and three with the New York Yankees). He finished his career in America with a 79–79 record, 3.45 earned-run average and 986 strikeouts, and when he returned to Japan, he eventually became the NPB's highest-paid player in 2016 at age 41.
8. Daisuke Matsuzaka
- NPB Years Played: 1999–2006, 2015–present
- MLB Years Played: 2007–14
- Path to MLB: Posting system (2006, Boston Red Sox for $51,111,111.11)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- MLB Accolades: World Series champion (2007, Boston Red Sox)
Daisuke Matsuzaka was perhaps the most-hyped Japanese player ever to make the jump to MLB. At 26 years old, Matsuzaka was already an eight-year veteran and he and his "gyroball" were brought in to help the Boston Red Sox get back to the postseason. Matsuzaka did his part—he had 201 strikeouts in the regular season and won Game 3 of the 2007 World Series, which saw the Red Sox sweep the Colorado Rockies. Matsuzaka went 18–3 in 2008, but injuries began to pile up after that and he was never the same. In six seasons with Boston and two seasons with the New York Mets, Matsuzaka went 50–37 with a 4.52 ERA and 720 strikeouts.
7. Kazuhiro Sasaki
- NPB Years Played: 1990–99, 2004–05
- MLB Years Played: 2000–03
- Path to MLB: International free agent (Seattle Mariners, 2000)
- Position: Closer
- All-Star Selections: 2001–02
- MLB Accolades: American League Rookie of the Year (2000)
When Kazuhiro Sasaki left Japan, he was the NPB's all-time saves leader, and he showed that same dominance after signing with the Seattle Mariners at age 32. Sasaki set a then-MLB rookie record with 37 saves for the Mariners in 2000, and he followed that up with a since-broken team-record 45 in 2001 and 37 more in 2002. He left MLB after the 2003 season as Seattle's all-time saves leader (129), and returned to Japan with one-year remaining on his American contract. He added 242 strikeouts in 223 1/3 innings and a 3.14 ERA with the Mariners. Sasaki was inducted to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
6. Koji Uehara
- NPB Years Played: 1999–2008, 2018–19
- MLB Years Played: 2009–17
- Path to MLB: International free agent (Baltimore Orioles, 2009)
- Position: Relief pitcher
- All-Star Selections: 2014
- MLB Accolades: World Series champion (2013, Boston Red Sox), American League Championship Series MVP (2013)
Koji Uehara came to the Baltimore Orioles at age 33 as a projected starting pitcher, but the two-time Eiji Sawamura Award winner (Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award) instead found a niche as a reliever in America. Uehara was converted to a reliever in his second season, and after 2 1/2 years with the Orioles and 1 1/2 with the Texas Rangers, Uehara had a breakout season after signing with the Boston Red Sox. At age 38, Uehara struck out 101 batters in 73 appearances, and finished the year with a 1.09 ERA and 0.565 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) while helping the Red Sox win the World Series (and recording the final out of the series win over the St. Louis Cardinals). He'd remain in the Majors until 2017 (his last season was with the Chicago Cubs), and he produced 95 career saves, while striking out 572 batters in 480 2/3 innings.
5. Masahiro Tanaka
- NPB Years Played: 2007–13, '21
- MLB Years Played: 2014–20
- Path to MLB: Posting system (New York Yankees, 2013 for $20 million)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- All-Star Selections: 2014, '19
After being posted at 25 years old, Masahiro Tanaka signed what was, by far, the richest contract ever given out to a Japanese player. The New York Yankees signed Tanaka to a seven-year deal worth $155 million, nearly $100 million more than the Texas Rangers had promised Yu Darvish two years earlier. Tanaka was coming off of a 24–0 season and a championship in Japan, and the Yankees wanted that pedigree after missing the postseason in 2013. He delivered as a rookie in the first half of the season, but missed the majority of the second half due to injury. Tanaka has proven to be steady for the Yankees (including throwing a no-hitter in 2017), but has not produced at the level of his contract. Through 2020, he was 78–46 with 991 strikeouts in 1,051 1/3 innings. He held a 1.76 postseason ERA going into 2020, but struggled in two starts that postseason. He is 5–4 overall with 44 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA. In 2021, he announced he was returning to play in Japan.
4. Yu Darvish
- NPB Years Played: 2005–11
- MLB Years Played: 2012–present
- Path to MLB: Posting system (2011, Texas Rangers for $51.7 million)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- All-Star Selections: 2012–14, '17
Yu Darvish was among the most highly anticipated postings in history, and accordingly commanded a hefty price tag. But once the Rangers worked out a $60-million contract with the 25-year-old, he proved to be a bargain. As a rookie, he struck out 221 hitters and won 16 games, and he followed that up with an MLB-high 277 strikeouts in 2013 to finish as the runner-up in American League Cy Young Award voting. His career has been a bit up-and-down since then due to injuries, but when healthy, Darvish has remained among the best pitchers in baseball—his career mark of 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings is a Major League record. Throughout his career, which has also included half a season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and three seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Darvish owns a 68–54 record, but has struck out 1,343 hitters in just 1,088 innings.
3. Hideki Matsui
- NPB Years Played: 1993–2002
- MLB Years Played: 2003–12
- Path to MLB: International free agent (New York Yankees, 2003)
- Position: Outfield
- All-Star Selections: 2003–04
- MLB Accolades: World Series champion (2009, New York Yankees), World Series MVP (2009)
Known as "Godzilla" for his prolific power in the NPB, Hideki Matsui clearly wanted to come to Major League Baseball. After turning down a record contract in Japan, the 29-year-old Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the New York Yankees and promptly put on a show. Matsui didn't miss a game in those first three seasons, smacking 197 extra-base hits (including 70 home runs), and that led to a $52 million contract that made him America's highest-paid Japanese player. Injuries derailed parts of two of those seasons, but he will always be remembered by Yankees fan for his heroics in the 2009 World Series. As the designated hitter, he went 8 for 13 with three home runs and eight RBI in three games of New York's 4–2 series win over the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the first Japanese player to homer in a World Series game and became the second player to ever win championships in Japan and America (also Dan Gladden). Matsui left New York after that season, finishing his career with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. All together, he hit .282 in 1,036 games and collected 175 home runs. Matsui is also a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
2. Hideo Nomo
- NPB Years Played: 1990–94
- MLB Years Played: 1995–2005, '08
- Path to MLB: International free agent (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1995)
- Position: Starting pitcher
- All-Star Selections: 1995
- MLB Accolades: National League Rookie of the Year (1995)
The player that started it all was Hideo Nomo, who voluntarily retired to get out of his Japanese contract and loophole his way into Major League Baseball at age 26. Nomo was an instant success story, finding a following dubbed "Nomo-Mania" and several endorsements along the way. He recorded three shutouts and led the National League with 236 strikeouts as a rookie, baffling hitters with his "tornado-style" delivery, but by his fourth season, his effectiveness began to wear off and he was traded to the New York Mets. He had a resurgence from 2001–03, leading the American League in strikeouts (220) in 2001 with the Boston Red Sox and then delivering two strong seasons in a return to the Dodgers. He also played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals in America, and finished his career with a 123–109 record over 12 seasons. Nomo added 1,918 strikeouts and nine shutouts.
In 1996, he became the first Japanese pitcher to throw a no-hitter, blanking the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, and in 2001, he fired another against the Baltimore Orioles to become one of five pitchers in MLB history with a no-hitter in each league. In 1998, Nomo also became the first Japanese player to hit home run, and he was later inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
1. Ichiro Suzuki
- NPB Years Played: 1992–2000
- MLB Years Played: 2001–19
- Path to MLB: Posting system (Seattle Mariners, 2001 for $13 million)
- Position: Outfield
- All-Star Selections: 2001–10
- MLB Accolades: American League MVP (2001), AL Rookie of the Year (2001), Gold Glove (2001–10), Silver Slugger (2001, '07, '09), All-Star Game MVP (2007)
Ichiro Suzuki is the greatest talent ever to transition from the NPB to Major League Baseball. After a wildly successful nine-year career with the Orix Blue Wave, Suzuki signed with the Seattle Mariners at age 27 and instantly became a superstar. He led the American League in hits (242), steals (56) and average (.350) as a rookie, starting streaks of 10 straight seasons with at least 200 hits, 25 steals and a .300 average. Suzuki's best season came in 2004, when he smacked an MLB-record 262 hits and closed the year batting .372. But even as he approached his late 30s, Suzuki was seemingly just entering a new phase of career.
Suzuki was traded to the New York Yankees in the middle of the 2012 season, and he remained a regular player with them and the Miami Marlins until he was 43 years old in 2017. He returned to the Mariners each of the next two seasons but saw very limited action. In Suzuki's MLB career, he knocked 3,089 hits, hit .311, stole 509 bases and scored 1,420 runs. Suzuki becomes Hall of Fame eligible in 2025 and is all but certain to be inducted. Combined with his Japanese statistics, Suzuki has the most hits at the professional level (4,367) of all-time, which came over the course of 28 seasons.
While the best Japanese players ever to play in Major League Baseball were featured above, the following are a handful of others who deserve recognition.
A two-way threat, Shohei Ohtani came to the Los Angeles Angels to be a starting pitcher and a regular outfielder/designated hitter. The Angels paid the $20 million posting fee to sign the 23-year-old Ohtani, who could have commanded more money than any Japanese player had he waited until after he was 25 to come to MLB. Tommy John surgery derailed his pitching career in America, but he did win the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year award after hitting .285 with 22 home runs and striking out 63 over 10 starts. In 2021, Ohtani burst onto the scene, earning an All-Star selection as a pitcher and a hitter, and broke the record for single-season homers by a Japanese player before the All-Star break. He will undoubtedly rise up this article's rankings after the 2021 season concludes.
Hisashi Iwakuma's first attempt to come to MLB in 2011 at 30 years old was unsuccessful after he and the Oakland Athletics couldn't come to an agreement through the posting system, but he signed with the Seattle Mariners the next year and began a solid six-year career. Iwakuma was an All-Star in 2013 and fired a no-hitter in 2015. He finished the MLB portion of his career with an 63–39 record and a 3.42 ERA. Iwakuma returned to play in Japan after the 2017 season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers posted $20 million to negotiate with 28-year-old Kenta Maeda before the 2016 season and signed him to an incentive-laden eight-year contract. Maeda posted double-digit wins in three of his first four seasons with the Dodgers, and helped them to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2017 and '18 (both losses). He was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2020 season, and nearly tossed his first career no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers in his fourth start with his new team. Maeda entered 2020 at 47–35 overall with 641 strikeouts.
© 2020 Andrew Harner
James from Nigeria, Lagos on August 26, 2020: