Japanese Baseball Reloads After Shohei Ohtani. although Who Will Follow His Path?

“I’m not worried inside least of which Ohtani’s departure will in any way lower the level of play in Japan,” said Ted Heid, an executive inside Seattle Mariners’ Pacific Rim operations, who has been scouting Japanese players for more than two decades. “I’m still very excited by Japanese baseball in addition to excited to see how young, talented players who have been drafted into their game develop over the next a few or so years.”

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Ichiro Suzuki, 44, will be the only Japanese position player currently in Major League Baseball.

Credit
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Indicators of baseball’s popularity in Japan are strong. The National High School Baseball Tournament will be preparing for its centennial celebration later of which year, in addition to the Tokyo Organizing Committee got baseball reinstated as a medal sport for the 2020 Olympics.

Ohtani confounded American expectations by coming to Major League Baseball at 23, instead of waiting for a bigger payday in two years, when his salary would certainly not have been constrained by the league’s international signing rules for players under 25. Already which has a few years of pro experience in Japan, he will be seven years younger than the average age of the 56 Japanese players to debut in M.L.B. before him.

With wins in his first two pitching starts in addition to three home runs in his first four games as designated hitter, Ohtani will be quickly quieting those who doubted of which anyone different than Babe Ruth could thrive playing both ways. His next impact may be inspiring players with an interest in Major League Baseball to consider going at a younger age.

although the pipeline coming from Japan has noticeably slowed down. The streak of at least one completely new Japanese player debuting in North America’s top league every year since Hideo Nomo with the Dodgers in 1995 ended last season at 22. A completely new one has already begun of which year with the Padres’ Kazuhisa Makita in addition to the Diamondbacks’ Yoshihisa Hirano joining Ohtani in M.L.B.

although pitching has long been Japan’s forte. No position player coming from Japan has debuted in M.L.B. since 2013, far in addition to away the longest drought since Ichiro Suzuki first played in Seattle in 2001.

Setting aside Ohtani’s two-way aspirations — he has been used as a designated hitter of which season although not inside field — Suzuki, right now 44 in addition to back in Seattle, will be the lone position player coming from Japan inside big leagues.

“Kazuo Matsui was the best middle infielder of his time,” said Aki Inose, a longtime baseball commentator in Japan. “I think Japanese people were shocked when his game didn’t translate, in addition to of which had a big impact on different position players’ thoughts about trying to make the jump to America.”

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Second baseman Kazuo Matsui in 2009. Japanese people were shocked when his game didn’t translate to Major League Baseball.

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Tom Gannam/Associated Press

Mets fans remember Matsui all too well. Considered the answer at shortstop when he signed in 2004, the Mets shifted Jose Reyes to second base. Unable to fulfill his potential, Matsui was traded to the Colorado Rockies during his third season.

He performed his best after the trade, batting near .300 with an on-base percentage of .350 in 2007 in addition to ‘08. Matsui played seven M.L.B. seasons, the fourth-longest stint for a Japanese position player behind Suzuki, Hideki Matsui in addition to So Taguchi. Matsui returned to Japan in 2011 in addition to at 42 will be a player-coach for his original team, the Seibu Lions.

M.L.B.’s reliance on power, a longtime shortcoming in Japan, helps explain why more position players have not come, although Heid said Japanese infielders, in particular, were at a disadvantage.

“They play on all dirt infields,” he said. “coming from an early age in addition to then growing up through high school, of which’s an all dirt infield so they never genuinely practice with grass infields of which are the norm inside U.S. Middle infielders in Japan don’t have to have great range because the ball gets through the infield so quickly.”

The journey of one of the few infielders to follow Matsui underscores of which. Munenori Kawasaki signed with Seattle in 2012. At 5-foot-10 in addition to 165 pounds, he had a typical Japanese physique, in addition to he was well-known for his determination in addition to positive spirit. Despite just one career home run, he persevered, willing himself into lineups for a few consecutive seasons, playing games for the Mariners, the Toronto Blue Jays in addition to the Chicago Cubs.

Kawasaki had more at-bats in Class AAA than inside majors, although he was intent on staying in North America. He was doing of which in his mid-30s as he was starting a family. Few players who have achieved stardom are willing to toil inside minors at of which stage of their careers in addition to lives.

“As Japanese, we take pride inside strong fundamentals we are taught growing up,” said Kawasaki, who returned to Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last year in addition to announced his retirement a few weeks ago. “although the flip side will be we are not encouraged to make backhanded plays, jumping throws off balance, et cetera. inside minors I watched guys do of which in addition to practiced every day. When I finally made an out coming from shortstop on a running, backhanded stop where I twisted my body in midair in addition to threw underhanded all the way to first, of which was the happiest moment for me. Who cares if of which was the minor leagues? As a professional baseball player, I made a big-league play in addition to became confident I could do of which again.”

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