How Japanese Stars Impacted Yankees

ALSO: THIS IS THE 'YEAR OF THE AARONS' IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

When Bowie Kuhn vetoed Charlie Finley’s 1976 sales of Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox, his explanation was that such deals wold upset the game’s competitive balance . . .

Pittsburgh closer Richard Rodriguez will command a king’s ransom at the trading deadline . . .

Detroit manager AJ Hinch says all position players want to pitch . . .

Five of the six players who produced a 25-homer season before age 21 are in Cooperstown, with the other (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) on his way . . .

George Springer, now with Toronto, was the first player to lead off consecutive Opening Days with home runs . . .

The 2018 All-Star Game marked the first contest – regular-season, postseason, or exhibition – in which five different players homered for each team.

Leading Off

During Ohtanimania, Looking Back At The Yankees Who Played in Japan

[Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Paul Semendinger's upcoming book The Least Among Them, which chronicles the stories of the 29 major-league players whose entire career consisted of only one game played as a Yankee.  In that book, Dr. Semendinger also shares many other Yankee and baseball-related stories including this look at the Yankees who also played professional baseball in Japan.  The book, which comes out in October 2021, has been receiving tremendous positive reviews.  Dr. Semendinger, a school principal, is the editor-in-chief of Start Spreading the News, a blog about the Yankees.]  

By Paul Semendinger, Ed.D.

It was a crushing loss to the Yankees and their fans when Shohei Ohtani made the decision to play for the Angels rather than the Yankees.  If Ohtani had become a Yankee, he would have added to the collection of Japanese players who donned the pinstripes.  

The following is a short summary of each of the Yankees who played professionally in Japan.  

The first player to don Yankees pinstripes after a successful career in Japan was Hideki Irabu, a hard-throwing right-hander who began his Yankees career in 1997.

Irabu was called by some “The Japanese Nolan Ryan.” A superstar pitcher in Japan, Irabu was coming off his three best seasons. In 1994, he led the Japanese league in wins. In 1995, he struck out 239 batters in 203 innings while leading the league in earned run average (2.53). In 1996, he again led the circuit with a 2.40 mark. 

Hideki Irabu’s path to the majors in the United States came with some controversy. Following the 1996 Japanese baseball season, Irabu expressed his desire to play in America. Acquiescing, his team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, sold him to the San Diego Padres. This was not acceptable to Irabu, who only wanted to play for the Yankees. The Yankees were eventually able to acquire the negotiating rights to Irabu for a package of players. 

Irabu made his major-league debut on July 10, 1997 against the Detroit Tigers in a game that captured international attention. Over 51,000 fans and an army of media were in attendance at Yankee Stadium and Irabu did not disappoint. He struck out nine of the first 19 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning, allowing just two runs on five hits. Irabu then won his next start, but his big-league star would never shine brightly again. He lost his next two games and was eventually removed from the starting rotation. 

Irabu bounced back to pitch to a 24-16 record over the next two seasons. Yet, throughout these years, he struggled with consistency. Following the 1999 season, the Yankees traded Hideki Irabu to the Montreal Expos. 

The next Yankee who came from Japan was also named Hideki. He too also came with a larger-than-life image and larger-than-life expectations. 

In his 10-year career in Japan, Hideki Matsui hit .304 with 332 home runs. Along the way, Matsui won three MVP awards and led the league in home runs and RBI three times each. Matsui helped lead his team, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, to four Japanese World Series and three championships. He signed with the Yankees for the 2003 season. 

Hideki Matsui, like Godzilla, the fictional character from which he drew his nickname, took New York by storm. On Opening Day 2003, in Toronto, Matsui drove in the first run of the game in his first major-league at-bat. Eight days later, in his first game in Yankee Stadium, Matsui hit a grand slam to propel the Yankees to victory. 

That first season, Matsui was a steady presence on the team and in the field. He played in every game, mostly as the Yankees left fielder. (He wouldn’t miss a game until the 2006 season when he broke his wrist diving for a sinking line drive in a game against the Red Sox.) 

In 2003, Matsui was a clutch presence in the Yankees lineup that won the American League pennant and reached the World Series. On October 19, Matsui became the first Japanese player to hit a home run in the World Series. 

In each of his first four full seasons with the Yankees, Matsui drove in 100 or more runs. Year after year, he was a star. 

Matsui’s greatest moments as a Yankee came in 2009. On July 20 of that year, he hit a game-winning home run that propelled the Yankees into first place, where they remained for the reminder of the season.

Then, after a successful American League Division Series and American League Championship Series, Matsui had an amazing World Series in which he batted a remarkable .615 with three home runs and eight runs batted in.

For his efforts, Hideki Matsui was awarded World Series MVP honors—the second of his career on two continents as he had also won the Japan Series MVP in 2000. 

After later playing for three other teams, Hideki Matsui signed a one-day contract with the Yankees so that he could retire as a member of baseball’s greatest team. 

Kei Igawa was a left-handed pitcher who had success in Japan, but was a bust in New York. He began the 2007 season as a member of the Yankees starting rotation, but success never came. Igawa ended his career with a 2-4 record and a 6.66 ERA in just 16 total games. Most of Igawa’s career in America was spent pitching for the Yankees’ Triple-A team in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In five minor-league seasons, Igawa appeared in 107 games. 

A right-handed pitcher, Hiroki Kuroda enjoyed three very successful seasons in the Bronx after pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, his first team in America. In Japan, Kuroda led the league in wins in 2005 and in ERA in 2006. Kuroda pitched three very successful seasons in pinstripes, each season throwing 199 or more innings. His lifetime record as a Yankee was 38-33, with a 3.44 ERA. After the 2015 season, Kuroda returned to the Hiroshima Carp for the final seasons of his career. 

Ryota Igarashi, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who had been a six-time All-Star in Japan, pitched in two games for the Yankees in 2012. Previously he had pitched for the New York Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays. 

Masahiro Tanaka, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees before the 2014 season. In seven seasons pitching for the Tohoku Golden Eagles, Tanaka established himself as one of Japan’s great pitchers. He won the Pacific League Rookie of the Year and the MVP in 2013. A six-time All-Star, Tanaka led his league in wins and ERA twice and strikeouts once. 

Masahiro Tanaka pitched with the Yankees from 2014 through 2020. In that time, he pitched in 174 games, accumulating an impressive 78-46 record with a 3.74 ERA. Tanaka’s star shined brightest in the postseason where, for many years, he seemed almost unbeatable. After his first eight postseason starts, Tanaka had a miniscule 1.76 ERA. Like Kuroda, Tanaka also returned to pitch in Japan following his career with the Yankees.

Find Paul Semendinger on Twitter @DrPaulRSem or at drpaulsem@hotmail.com

Cleaning Up

Baseball Celebrates The Year Of The Aarons

By Dan Schlossberg

Baseball has always been a name game. And for some reason that may never be determined, this is the Year of the Aarons.

Even before the baseball season began on April 1, an Aaron cornered the market on headlines.

Henry Louis Aaron died in January, just short of his 87th birthday, and officially ended the saga of a boy from the segregated south who became the career home run champion, a team executive, and a decorated civil rights advocate.

Hank Aaron had more runs batted in, more total bases, and more All-Star selections than any man in baseball history. He also hit more home runs than anyone else who did not require the help of performance-enhancing substances.

Although pitcher David Aardsma appears ahead of him in the Baseball Encyclopedia, nobody should stand in way of Henry Aaron. He shares records for home runs by brothers (with Tommie) and home runs by teammates (with Eddie Mathews) plus so many more.

A ceremony to honor Hank Aaron as a man and a player would have been the highlight of the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta, where Aaron passed Babe Ruth as the home run king on April 8, 1974. Now that ceremony will take place in Denver, where the All-Star Game will be played on July 13 after political decisions caused a last-minute transfer.

In the meantime, plenty of living Aarons are making their marks in the majors.

The New York Yankees have three of them: manager Aaron Boone, slugger Aaron Judge, and injured outfielder Aaron Hicks.

Hicks, a switch-hitter who began his big-league career with the Minnesota Twins in 2013, has spent more time on the injured list of the New York Yankees than he has in center field. Hicks had career peaks in home runs (27) and games played (137) in 2018 but went down early this year with a torn sheath in his wrist and a date with a surgeon.

Judge, also plagued by injuries throughout his career, is a lifelong Yankee whose 52 home runs and 128 runs scored led the American League during his 2017 rookie campaign. He hasn’t hit 30 in a season since because injuries invariably intervened. The 6-7, 280-pound right-handed hitter should be at the peak of his career at age 29 but would have much better power numbers if he played at Fenway or Minute Maid Park.

Without Hicks, Judge, and other key players, the other Aaron in New York has been a paragon of patience. Boone’s ballclub finished with triple digits in wins during each of his first two seasons and could reach that level again if the starting pitching performs as well as the bullpen. A former infielder-turned-broadcaster, Boone began his managerial career with zero experience in the role.

There’s an Aaron in Cleveland, where Aaron Civale has blossomed into the best pitcher on the soon-to-be-renamed team. He’s hurt now, with soreness in the middle finger of his pitching hand, but should return soon. Just 26, he had a 7-10 record and 3.69 ERA in parts of two seasons prior to 2021.

Aaron Nola, on the other hand, is a 6-2, 200-pound righthander in his seventh season as a starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Nola, 28, has won at least a dozen games in each of the last three complete seasons. A notorious beast at home but bust on the road, Nola needs to put both halves of his season together.

Some baseball Aarons are retired.

Aaron Crow was a former All-Star relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, while Aaron Harang was a starter for several teams. The latter won 128 games in 14 years while dividing his time among eight teams. An equal opportunity performer, he once led the National League in wins and once finished first in losses.

And how about these unforgettable Aarons: Selee, Rowan, Sanchez, and Cook?

Aaron Sele won 148 games in 15 years, finally leaving the game after the 2007 season, while Aaron Rowand was a center-fielder who hit 136 homers in 11 campaigns, including an All-Star season in 2007. Aaron Sanchez, a starting pitcher, has 35 wins in seven seasons and is still hanging on with the San Francisco Giants. He somehow survived a 3-14 season with Toronto two years ago.

Burdened by spending his entire 11-year career in Denver, Aaron Cook went 76-79 with a 4.60 ERA. His last season was 2011.

No matter what they do, none of those with the given name of Aaron will ever approach the exploits of the man with that surname.

Among other things, he had four home run crowns, three Gold Gloves, two batting titles, and one of the first 30/30 seasons. He led his league in slugging four times, runs scored three times, and hits twice.

Even if all the first-name Aarons could pool their accomplishments, they’d be no match for Hammerin’ Hank.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Latino Sports, forbes.com, and Sports Collectors Digest. The author of 38 baseball books, he’s at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Bob Feller pitched the only Opening Day no-hitter in 1940 but Herb Pennock came close. On April 14, 1915, the Philadelphia A’s star blanked Boston, 5-0, allowing only a scratch single by Harry Hooper with two down in the ninth . . .

With a 21-14 win over the St. Louis Browns on April 14, 1925, the Cleveland Indians took advantage of five errors to score the most runs in any opening game . . .

The expansion Montreal Expos beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 8-7, in the first game played outside the United States, on April 14, 1969 . . .

Justin Verlander, then with Detroit, was victimized twice when Pablo Sandoval slammed three home runs for San Francisco in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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