Why Aren't More Japanese Sluggers Hitting the Big Time?

Why Aren't More Japanese Sluggers Hitting the Big Time?

Shohei Ohtani (No. 17) of the Los Angeles Angels bats against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum on March 29, 2018, in Oakland, California.

SourceEzra Shaw/Getty

Why you should care

Because the language of baseball gets lost in translation. 

Japanese pitching phenom Shohei Ohtani made his Major League Baseball debut on opening night, March 29. But the 23-year-old flamethrower didn’t take the mound until Sunday. Rather, in his first big league at-bat, the Los Angeles Angels’ new designated hitter yanked the first pitch he saw for a single into right field. And with that, American baseball fans were treated to the rare two-way player sighting.

After debuting in Nippon Professional Baseball as an 18-year-old in 2013, “the Japanese Babe Ruth” became one of Japan’s top all-around prospects. Dominating on the mound with his triple-digit-tickling fastball, vicious slider and hard-tumbling splitter, Ohtani also hit .286 with 48 home runs in 403 games at the plate. So it’s no wonder that the Angels were quick to pay his old team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, $20 million to part with their star. But if it weren’t for his pitching prowess, Ohtani might not have been brought over. Besides future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, the American transition has not been kind to Japanese hitters.

Only 14 of the 56 Japanese players to reach the MLB have been hitters, and no Japanese position player made the MLB before 2001.

Suzuki set a high bar as the first Japanese position player to cross the Pacific with an MLB contract, in 2001. The international hit king went on to slap 3,080 major league hits through last season and ranks third all-time with 4,257 total. Before Suzuki, only pitchers — 10 in all, the most successful being 1995 National League Rookie of the Year Hideo Nomo — had made the move. And after Suzuki, only Hideki Matsui and Nori Aoki lasted more than five seasons in MLB. Meanwhile, scouts continue to drool over Japan’s top pitching prospects. So, does American baseball culture present inherent hurdles to Far East sluggers? Short answer: yes.

According to former MLB and NPB manager Bobby Valentine, “the finite art of hitting” is a skill much more difficult to convert than pitching. “A hitter’s success depends on knowing the opposition,” says Valentine, noting that good pitching translates across continents. “But hitters have to decipher the pitch and then complete the incredible feat of hitting a baseball.”

With just two leagues of six teams each, NPB hitters can more easily learn the tendencies of a small pool of pitchers — most of whom they’ve “competed against since high school,” says Valentine. But in the U.S., the few Japanese hitters who have made the move face 300-plus unfamiliar major league arms — roughly double the number in the NPB.

One positive for Japanese hitting prospects is that the cultural gap may be closing.

And ignorance isn’t the only puzzle to solve for players like Ohtani. For one, a long-running philosophical divide in plate approach separates American and Japanese hitters. American hitters prefer to take pitches, working the count deep as they search for pitch to drive. Increased strikeouts are accepted in return for more extra base hits. But in Japan, most pitchers feature a devastating “out pitch” — like Ohtani’s nasty splitter — that’s often saved for two strikes. As such, hitters avoid deep counts at all costs. But when they reach the States, says Valentine, “that approach is frowned upon.”

Perhaps the most interesting challenge that Japanese pitchers encounter stateside deals with pregame preparation. In-depth scouting reports are certainly common in the U.S., but NPB teams take preparation to another level. Hours of classroom study lead into batting practice, with more group study before the game. American players study opponents, but it’s largely a solo responsibility. And while hours of pregame study might be overkill, the lack of routine and regimented preparation can adversely affect the confidence of Japanese hitters in the MLB. And, according to Rick Peterson, longtime MLB pitching and performance coach and co-author of Crunch Time, confidence is paramount at the plate. “Most players dwell on the the negatives,” he says. “This leads to doubt and a failure to recognize our strengths.”

One positive for Japanese hitting prospects is that the cultural gap may be closing. After NPB stints in 1995 and again from 2004 to 2009, Valentine brought the in-depth game-prep tactics to his MLB locker rooms. And as American baseball players grow increasingly obsessed with sports science and analytics, perhaps Japanese hitters will attain a greater entry level of comfort — and confidence — in the years to come.

Or maybe they just need to see more Ichiros. Batter up, Ohtani.

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