The Best MLB Players from Japan

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Perhaps one of the best things about Major League Baseball is the racial and cultural diversity within the league. Baseball, while dubbed “America’s Pastime,” truly knows no bounds in terms of where it is played around the world. Among the countries with their own burgeoning leagues is Japan, where the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) organization is chock-full of both native Japanese and international players with insane talent. America's league has been graced by countless great MLB players from Japan.

Currently, one of the most captivating players in the league is a Japanese native by the name of Shohei Ohtani, a player who seems to get better by the day.

In no particular order, here are some of the most memorable players from Japan.

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1. Shohei Ohtani

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Los Angeles Angels
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2017-Present
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher/Designated Hitter

Shohei Ohtani was a five-time NPB All-Star before he signed with the Los Angeles Angels in 2017. He is truly a once-in-a-generation talent, who has been so much fun for baseball fans of any team to watch. Ohtani has a rare ability to be both a top-tier pitcher and a designated hitter, leading the field in both domains, which is a ginormous asset for the Los Angeles Angels. 

As a pitcher, Ohtani has a practically un-hittable fastball and splitter. At the plate, he is a power-hitter who is currently leading the league in home runs. On top of it all, he’s very quick, making him a threatening baserunner. In his short time in the MLB, Ohtani has wowed his colleagues, coaches, and fans, all of whom are excited to continue to watch him smash records and push the limits of baseball.

2. Ichiro Suzuki

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, Miami Marlins
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2001-2019
  • Position: Right Field

Ichiro Suzuki is a beloved player who had successful careers in both the NPB and MLB. After seven All-Star seasons playing in Japan, the Seattle Mariners were intrigued by Suzuki, despite some concerns about his strength and size and how this would affect his ability to hit in Major League Baseball. He joined the Mariners in 2001, which was a dominant year for Seattle. Ichiro hit consistently for the entire season and despite the Mariners getting eliminated from the pennant race in the ALCS, Ichiro solidified himself as a player who was going to have a massive impact on the team.

In his first four seasons in the MLB, Ichiro broke the record for number of hits in a four-year span. The hitting machine then went on to break his own record from 2004-2007. Suzuki continued to be a consistent force for the Mariners through the start of the 2012 season.

At the end of the 2012 regular season, Suzuki requested a trade, claiming that his first choice would be to play for the Yankees. He signed with New York in 2012, and remained on the team until 2014. During his tenure there, he hit his 4000th career hit. Suzuki then went on to play for the Miami Marlins for two seasons, before a quick farewell tour with the Mariners until 2019. Suzuki’s number is in the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame. He is widely expected to be the first Asian player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible in 2025.

3. Kenta Maeda

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins
  • Years Active: 2016-Present
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Kenta Maeda played eight seasons for the Hiroshiima Toyo Carp of the NPB before he came to the U.S. to play in the MLB. In 2016, the right-handed pitcher signed an eight-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maeda’s recorded winning percentages above .500 in five of his first six seasons. He was traded to the Minnesota Twins prior to the 2020 season. In Augsut of 2020, Maeda threw a no-hitter through eight innings which was spoiled  by the first batter he faced in the ninth inning, but was a spectacular outing nonetheless. He was the runner up for the Cy Young Award in the 2020 season. 

Maeda did not play in the 2022 season due to injury. The first half of the 2023 season has been a rough start for Maeda, but appears to be finding his form again.

4. Masahiro Tanaka

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  • MLB Teams Played For: New York Yankees
  • Years Active: 2014-2020
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Prior to Masahiro Tananka’s memorable career as New York Yankee, he was a standout for six seasons in the NPB. Tanaka was one of the most consistent starting pitchers in recent Yankees history, ending his MLB career with a 3.74 ERA, 17.3 WAR, and a career record of 78-46. Tanaka was an All Star in his first MLB season in 2014, and again in 2019. He did not record any losing seasons during his seven years as a Yankee. Tanaka is currently back in Japan playing for a NPB team.

5. Yu Darvish

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres  
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2012-2014, 2016-present
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Yu Darvish was highly desired by many Major League Baseball teams after catching wind of the numbers he was putting up as a pitcher in the NPB. After a series of bids by different teams in 2011, Darvish accepted an offer with the Texas Rangers. His first three seasons with the Rangers were All Star seasons. During the 2017 season, which was another All-Star season for Darvish, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went on to play for the Chicago Cubs for three seasons before being traded to the San Diego Padres, with whom he is still a starting pitcher.

6. Hideki Matsui

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  • MLB Teams Played For: New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2003-2012
  • Position: Outfield/Designated Hitter

Hideki Matsui is a New York Yankee legend who played with the Bronx Bombers during their dominant years in the early 2000s. In his first year in New York, the Yankees lost in the World Series, but Matsui had a successful year at the plate, batting .267 with 106 RBIs. He was an All-Star in his rookie season and again in the following season. In 2009, his final season with the Yankees, he won his first and only World Series ring. Based on his clutch hits, Matsui was awarded the World Series MVP. After his time in New York came to an end, Matsui played one season each with the Angels, A’s and Rays before he retired.

7. Hisashi Iwahkuma

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Seattle Mariners 
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2012-2017
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Hisashi Iwahkuma’s career in Japan, though somewhat riddled by injuries, impressed many scouts from America. He ultimately landed with the Seattle Mariners starting in the 2012 season and after a successful full season in which had a 3.16 ERA, Iwahkuma signed an extension contract with the Mariners. In 2013, he finished as the second runner up for the Cy Young Award, which was won by fellow Japanese legend, Yu Darvish. After being reactivated after an injury in the 2015 season, Iwahkuma pitched a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles and went on to record a 3.54 ERA in his shortened season. He decided to return home to play in Japan following the 2018 season.

8. Koji Uehara

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2009-2017
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Koji Uehara was scouted by American teams before his professional career in Japan began. He decided to reject the offers from MLB teams at that time, and opted to play in the NBP for nine years before the Baltimore Orioles scooped him up in 2009. Just before the playoffs in the 2009 season, Uehara was place on the injured list and missed the remainder of the season. When he returned for the 2010 season, the Orioles utilized him as a relief pitcher, recording 13 saves. 

Uehara was traded to the Texas Rangers during the 2010-2011 season, but recorded a rough second half of that season in Texas. He remained with the Rangers for one more season before being picked up by the Boston Red Sox with whom he won the 2013 World Series. Uehara threw the winning pitch of the World Series. He started with the Red Sox for two more seasons before finishing his MLB career with a season with the Cubs.

9. Hiroki Kuroda

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2008-2014

Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

During his 10-year career in the NPB prior to the MLB, Hiroki Kuroda was a five-time NPB All-Star. The Los Angeles Dodgers picked him up before the 2008-2009 season. Kuroda had a hot start to the season before being placed on the injured list for several weeks, but upon his return, he had a series of fantastic games including a one-hit complete-game shut-out against the Yankees. He was selected as the opening day starter for the Dodgers the following season. Through a series of injuries, Kuroda remained with the Dodgers until 2011 before signing with Yankees, with whom he was a consistent starting pitcher.

10. Daisuke Matsuzaka

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  • MLB Teams Played For: Boston Red Sox, New York Mets
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2007-2014
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Daisuke Matsuzaka signed with an agent to pursue a career in the MLB in 2006. The Boston Red Sox won the bidding war on Matsuzaka, and he debuted with the team in 2007. Matsuzaka had a hot start to the season and remained consistent, helping lead the The Red Sox to the World Series that year, which they won.

Matsuzaka's 2008 season was shortened due to an injury, but he ended the season with a 18-3 record and an ERA of 2.90. He remained with the Red Sox until 2012 and battled several injuries throughout that time. He was picked up by Cleveland, but was dropped before Opening Day and subsequently picked up by the New York Mets. He played within the Mets organization for two seasons before returning to play in Japan.

11. Kazuo Matsui

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  • MLB Teams Played For:  New York Mets, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2004-2010
  • Position: Shortstop

Kazuo Matsui was a dynamic and adaptable player in the NPB and MLB. He played with three MLB teams over six years in the MLB. During his MLB career, he had an overall batting average of .267. He had moments of struggle as the Mets shortstop that caused him to become more of a bench player than the starting shortstop before he was traded to the Colorado Rockies. While with the Rockies, he went back and forth between their Triple-A affiliate and MLB team, but eventually found his stride in 2007. He went on to play two years with the Astros, struggling with injuries during this time until he was released and once again picked up by the Rockies for one more season in the MLB.

12. Kazuhiro Sasaki

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  • MLB Teams Played For:  Seattle Mariners
  • Years Active in the MLB: 2000-2003
  • Position: Right-Hand Pitcher

Kazuhiro Sasaki’s career in the MLB was short, but successful. In his first season, Sasaki was named the AL Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star pitcher for two of those three seasons. Sasaki became the top closer for the Mariners. His fastball was consistently tough for opposing hitters at crucial points of the game.

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