With six weeks of the 2012 Major League Baseball (MLB) season in the record books, it looks as though the gamble of the winter – the Texas Rangers’ investment in Yu Darvish was a wise one. Through seven games, Darvish is 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA. He is among the league leaders in Wins and Strikeouts. Major offensive achievements by his teammates (Josh Hamilton’s torrid April) and other rookies (the national obession with Nationals’ teen phenom Bryce Harper), have taken headlines away from Darvish, but his MLB career is off to a promising start. The Rangers remain prohibitive favorites to win the AL (for the third straight season), giving Darvish an opportunity to prove his value on a national stage.
As Darvish’s MLB stock rises, elsewhere in the AL West another talented Japanese player is playing out the last year of his contract. Ichiro Suzuki came to the Seattle Mariners in 2001, becoming the first everyday Japanese position player to make it in MLB. In his first season, he took the league by storm, leading his team to a mind-blowing 116 wins and the playoffs. All he’s done since then is pile up hits, records, and trophies – 10 all-star game appearances, 10 gold gloves, 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, a single season hit record (262 in 2004). Unfortunately, the Mariners have not mirrored Ichiro’s success. They have failed to make the playoffs since 2001 and have undertaken several unsuccessful roster rebuilds.
Though Ichiro is still a well above average player, his production has tapered off over the past two seasons. A free agent to be at the end of 2012, Ichiro’s future is uncertain. Will Seattle extend their aging star? Could he be traded to a contender at the deadline? Will he pursue one more contract in MLB? Will he return to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)? Or will Ichiro walk away from the game forever?
Whatever he decides, Ichiro should eventually end up in Cooperstown – both for his on-field achievements and for paving the way for Japanese position players. Certainly, much credit is also due to pioneers like Masanori Murakami and Hideo Nomo, but it was Ichiro’s meteoric rise that brought a wave of Japanese players across the Pacific. Ichiro’s MVP rookie season proved that Japanese position players could be competitive in MLB and made scouting Japan a necessity.
Of the twelve position players who followed, only Hideki Matsui became a star. Some of them were spectacular failures (Kazuo Matsui), but others played key roles on winning teams (So Taguchi, Tadahito Iguchi, Akinori Iwamura). Most of that first wave of players have since returned to Japan or retired from baseball altogether. Hideki Matsui is playing for a Tampa Bay Rays minor league affiliate, leaving Ichiro with only four other position players in the majors – none of whom play major roles with their respective teams. On the pitching side, Daisuke Matsuzaka has not lived up to the hype and Hiroki Kuroda is a third starter. There are a few capable bullpen arms (Koji Uehara had a great 2011), but no superstars.
His games already appointment viewing in Japan, Yu Darvish could very well become the next Japanese national hero. As Ichiro’s career winds down, it will be Darvish who takes over Japan’s national consciousness. Hopefully, there will be more than one season in which they go head to head.