Japanese stars have had mixed MLB success

Japanese stars have had mixed MLB success

Japanese stars have had mixed MLB success
Now that we're getting to know Yu, it's a good time to consider how yakyu and its English translation of baseball have intertwined over the years.

A quick history bite: For 30 years after Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese player to play in the Major Leagues, not one single player from Japan followed him until Hideo Nomo burst on the scene in 1995.

But with the pending arrival of pitching sensation Yu Darvish with the Rangers as part of a mini-wave of players from Japan this winter, more than 50 players will have made the translation from yakyu to baseball at the highest level.

Since Nomo brought his whirling windup to the States, racking up 12 years for seven clubs while twirling two no-hitters, there have been some great success stories on this side of the Pacific, none more profound than Ichiro Suzuki's amazing run of hitting prowess.

Of course, not all of the players who famously made the shift to MLB had great success. The late Hideki Irabu managed just 34 victories and a 5.15 ERA in 126 outings over six seasons, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo couldn't make his success in Japan translate well for the Mets and Giants. And, after a strong first few years, Daisuke Matsuzaka -- who fetched the biggest posting bid in history before the Rangers topped it with $51.7 million for Darvish -- has struggled the last three seasons and is out into 2012 with Tommy John surgery.

Even Murakami, who earned a promotion to the Giants in 1964 after an impressive U.S. debut in the California League, only built a resume of a 5-1 record, 3.43 ERA and nine saves in 54 appearances before heading back to Japan -- leaving a legacy that, after a three-decade gap, has him as the godfather of Major League players from Japan.

With Japanese players in the Majors common now -- leading a Far East wave of players from South Korea and Taiwan the last two decades -- one of the most anticipated arrivals is in the works. Already, the Yankees have laid claim to Hiroyuki Nakajima, and the Brewers have posted the winning bid for outfielder Norichika Aoki, two of as many as a half-dozen players making the jump to the Majors. But, obviously, it's the 25-year-old Darvish who figures to become the next really big thing from Japan, as long as he and the Rangers can come to terms by Jan. 16.

With that in mind, here's a look at some of the great success stories who have made the shift from Japan to the U.S. in the last 17 years since Nomo's arrival:

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: From the moment of his arrival in 2001, when he was a dual winner of the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards, Ichiro has established himself as one of the Major Leagues' top talents, regardless of country of origin. By stringing together 10 consecutive seasons of 200 or more hits, including a Major League-record 262 in 2004, he made Major League history. Well on his way to Cooperstown and with 3,000 hits, Ichiro had a down year in 2011 and is heading into the final year of his contract with the Mariners in 2012.

Hideo Nomo, Dodgers, etc.: Perhaps the first time Nomo, the 1995 Rookie of the Year, really showed he had remarkable stuff was when he notched his first no-hitter in 1996 -- at Coors Field. It was and remains the only no-hitter ever thrown at the Mile High hitting mecca, and it was a good indication of how his "tornado" pitching motion was going to make some waves in the Majors. Granted, he became somewhat of a journeyman in the Majors, but 123 wins and a second no-hitter while with the Red Sox left a pretty strong impression on the Majors.

Hideki Matsui, Yankees, etc.: Godzilla jumped right into the fire, going from historically the most successful Japanese team, the Yomiuri Giants, to the vaunted Yankees. And he didn't really blink an eye, heading to the World Series after playing in every single game in the 2003 season for the Yankees. He ran into injury issues later in his Yankees tenure, but he got his ring in 2009 with a World Series MVP performance, fueled by three homers. After a year with the Angels and another with the A's, Matsui remains the most productive Japanese hitter not named Ichiro. Others such as Kaz Matsui, who went to the World Series with the Rockies, and Tadahito Iguchi, who did the same with the victorious White Sox in 2005, and outfielder Kosuke Fukodome have made impressions as hitters in the big leagues, but none as much as Ichiro and Godzilla.

Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers: After Nomo, it's hard to pick one pitcher who has made the best impression in coming from Japan to the U.S., but Kuroda at least provides a fresh example of mound success over a solid four-year term. Currently a free agent at age 36, Kuroda hasn't had the slide like Dice-K, and has 41 victories, just 10 shy of Tomo Ohka (10 seasons) as No. 2 to Nomo among Japanese players. Others like Kaz Ishii have had their moments, but Kuroda's 3.45 ERA through 114 starts make him stand out as perhaps the best post-Nomo starter from Japan, pending his next contract.

Kaz Sasaki, Mariners: He actually preceded Ichiro's arrival in Seattle by a year, posting 37 saves for the Wild Card winners, earning Rookie of the Year honors. Once Ichiro reached Seattle in 2001, the Mariners went all historic with their 116-win season, with Sasaki closing out 45 with saves, second only to Mariano Rivera for the AL lead. He had an ignominious end to his career in the Majors in 2003, as his going on the DL for two months after fracturing two ribs while falling on a suitcase opened the door for Shigetoshi Hasegawa to be the next M's closer. More recently, Takashi Saito has posted 84 saves (all but three with the Dodgers) and a 2.18 ERA as a reliable late-innings reliever, now moving from the Brewers to the D-backs.

Many others have made the transition and translation from yakyu to the Major Leagues, but true success has been spotty and often fleeting.

Whatever happens with Yu Darvish, though, he still has some big shoes to fill to become among the best of the players who have jumped from Japan to the Majors.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.