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Rising Sons
Mark Bechtel
April 23, 2001
with timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players
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April 23, 2001

Rising Sons

with timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players

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East wings

HOW WELL has Japanese pitching traveled? Three of the six Japanese-born pitchers who have made at least 50 appearances on both sides of the Pacific, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hideo Nomo (left) and Kazuhiro Sasaki (below), have been successful in North America. Three others, Hideki Irabu, Masao Kida (now back in Japan) and Masato Yoshii, have been disappointments. Here are their numbers through Sunday on both continents, with the pitchers ranked by ERA in the U.S.
—David Sabino

Japanese Leagues Career

U.S. Career

APPEARANCES

W-L, SAVES

ERA

STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS

APPEARANCES

W-L, SAVES

ERA

STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS

Kazuhiro Sasaki

405

42-33, 229

2.31

12.44

70

2-6, 43

3.42

11.06

Hideo Nomo

139

78-46, 1

3.15

10.31

186

71-61, 0

3.92

9.46

Shigetoshi Hasegawa

142

57-45, 4

3.33

5.13

246

26-23, 16

3.93

6.10

Masato Yoshii

310

73-51, 61

3.43

5.58

89

24-31, 0

4.72

5.44

Hideki Irabu

243

59-59, 11

3.41

9.08

85

31-25, 0

5.10

7.13

Masao Kida

299*

54-64, 29

3.81

7.57

51

1-0, 1

6.42

6.68

*Before reaching U.S.

Last Friday night, in what was a less-than-ringing endorsement for Adjustment, Anaheim Angels reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa's 2000 book about adapting to life and baseball in America, Seattle Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki slapped the first major league pitch he saw from Hasegawa—the first big league pitch any Asian hitter had ever seen from an Asian pitcher—for an infield single. "I know he wrote a book, but I haven't read it," Suzuki said of his teammate of five years with Japan's Orix Blue Wave.

It's too bad, because if Suzuki had whiffed on one of Hasegawa's nasty splitters, then the author, who in five years with Anaheim has become the team's premier middle reliever, could point to his tome and say, "Well, friend, you should've shelled out a few yen...." Still, if there's one thing Suzuki showed in his first two weeks with Seattle, it's that a good Japanese hitter need not necessarily change much to succeed in the majors. Doing the same things he did for seven seasons as an icon in Japan—slapping the ball all over the field and wreaking havoc on the bases—Suzuki has more than justified the $13.1 million the Mariners paid the Blue Wave just for the right to negotiate with him in the off-season. (Signing him to a three-year contract set them back another $15 million.)

The 27-year-old Suzuki wasted little time making a good impression Stateside. In the eighth inning on Opening Day at Seattle's Safeco Field, he beat out what had been intended as a sacrifice bunt, sparking a 5-4 win over the Oakland A's. "He's the same type of player as [A's leadoff man] Johnny Damon," says Seattle righthander Aaron Sele. "He's doing a great job getting on base and mixing things up." At week's end Suzuki was hitting .321 as the leadoff man for the Mariners, who had small-balled their way to a 9-3 record and a 2�-game lead over the Texas Rangers in the American League West.

In the season's first two weeks, however, Suzuki had to share the spotlight with other players from Asia. On April 4 Boston Red Sox righthander Hideo Nomo, the second player from Japan to play in the majors when he came up with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, pitched his second no-hitter, a 3-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Suzuki's Mariners teammate and countryman (and last year's American League Rookie of the Year), righty closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, led the league at week's end with six saves. The first 13 batters faced by Arizona Diamondbacks righty setup man Byung-Hyun Kim, a native of South Korea, didn't even put the ball in play (nine strikeouts, four walks). Finally, New York Mets rookie rightfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, late of the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League, was captivating Shea Stadium fans with his bat (.314 average, .385 on-base percentage), his glove and his charisma.

"There are guys over there who can not only play in our league but can also be a big part of it, and you're going to see more and more," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia, for whom Hasegawa led Anaheim in wins last year, with 10. "These guys are going to make their mark in the majors."

This month Suzuki and Shinjo—the first Japanese position players in the big leagues—are the ones under the microscope. Suzuki's Opening Day feat was made more impressive by the fact that it was the first time he had bunted in a game in seven years. "He's probably one of the greatest bunters in the world," says Ted Heid, Seattle's director of Pacific Rim operations, pointing out that Suzuki has been clocked from home to first in a blinding 3.7 seconds. "But people didn't pay to watch him bunt. It would be like Mark McGwire bunting. They came to watch him hit."

Suzuki seldom disappointed them. He had a .353 lifetime average and won seven batting tides in his seven full seasons. "Bottom line," says Heid, " Ichiro is an exceptional athlete. He's a player that any manager would love to have."

The same can't necessarily be said of Shinjo, a flashy righthanded-hitting free swinger with gaudy taste (you could use one of his bright-orange wristbands as a sweater for your poodle) and not-so-gaudy numbers (a .249 career average and 145 homers in 10 seasons with Hanshin) who joined the Mets as a free agent in December. Like Suzuki, he is dangerous on the base paths and has a superior arm, but the 29-year-old left spring training as the team's fourth outfielder. Injuries to Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez, however, thrust him into an every-day role, and a week into the season the city had a full-blown case of Shinjo fever. His homer off Atlanta Braves righty reliever Jason Marquis in New York's 9-4 home-opening win on April 9 was followed by a my-lumber-is-too-hot-to-touch bat toss, just the kind of showmanship New Yorkers love.

With Suzuki and Shinjo off to such terrific starts, the obvious question is, What took teams so long to import Asian position players? "You can judge pitchers with radar guns and watch the drop and movement of the ball and say to yourself, Well, that's major league quality," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan in 1995. "When you watch a hitter in Japan, his abilities are discounted because [people] say he's not hitting against major league pitching."

Americans tend to envision Japan as a land of junkball hurlers, but as Jim Marshall, the Diamondbacks' director of Pacific Rim operations, points out, "At least two pitchers on each [Japanese] staff throw over 90 [miles per hour]." Japanese pitchers, though, do tend to rely more on breaking balls than do U.S. pitchers. Over the winter Mets officials watched a videotape of Shinjo's at bats in which he saw 85 straight off-speed pitches. Heid thinks that playing in a country where the fastball has earned its status as ol' number one should help Shinjo. "He can hit the fastball," Heid says. "If teams start realizing they can get him out with the soft stuff, it's going to be tougher on him." Shinjo's 417-foot homer off Marquis came on a fastball, as did a 410-foot fly-out he hit off Braves righty Kevin Millwood on the same day.

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