Arguably the second-biggest name left in Major League Baseball free agency behind Carlos Correa is Seiya Suzuki, the five-time Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) all-star who is set to join MLB after the lockout. Throughout the offseason, his name has been linked to the Red Sox multiple times, and fans have scrutinized nearly every move of his, including whether he is following the Red Sox on Instagram. Today, a report from Yahoo Japan indicates that Suzuki is expected to sign a contract with Boston after the lockout ends. While Suzuki could be the first Japanese position player to play for the Red Sox, he would follow in the footsteps of multiple successful pitchers from NPB.
Beloved Japanese Players from the Red Sox
After brief stints with the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, Uehara inked a one-year deal with the Red Sox for 2013. During his four years in Boston, Uehara was dominant and cemented himself as one of the franchise’s best closers. From 2013 to 2016, Koji threw 226 innings out of the bullpen to the tune of a 2.20 earned run average, earning 79 saves in the process. Perhaps the most remarkable part of Koji’s time in Boston was how efficient he was. Despite throwing a sub-90 miles per hour fastball, Uehara used his split-finger and command to throw batters off. In fact, Uehara was arguably the most efficient reliever in baseball history.
In 2013, Koji had arguably the greatest Red Sox season from a reliever ever, with his unprecedented 379 ERA+ and 3.5 rWAR. When you consider that this was his age-38 season, it ranks as one of the best seasons by a reliever ever. He is one of only 9 pitchers to have an ERA+ of above 200 in his age-38 season.
He is also one of only six players to have a season with at least 70 innings and an ERA+ of 350 or better.
Uehara’s amazing season culminated in a dominant postseason, allowing a 0.66 ERA over 13.2 innings with a strikeout to walk ratio of 16 to 0. It was fitting that after such a historic season Uehara was the one on the mound to make history for the Red Sox.
Uehara’s set-up man in the bullpen, Junichi Tazawa, took a more untraditional route to MLB. Tazawa never actually played in NPB, instead signing directly with the Red Sox and making his debut at age 23.
After shifting to a bullpen role, Tazawa thrived over a three-year stretch from 2012 to 2014, allowing a 2.62 earned run average over 175.1 innings pitched. With a primary mix of four-seam and split-finger fastballs, Tazawa was able to keep hitters off balance and prevent home runs, allowing only 0.77 home runs per nine innings during those three years. He stepped up in the biggest moments during the 2013 postseason, allowing a single run over 13 appearances.
Entering MLB in his age 31 season, Okajima was an important contributor to the Red Sox 2007 championship season. Despite a fastball velocity that averaged under 90 miles per hour, the lefty reliever’s fastball-curve-split-finger mix was very effective, earning him all-star honors in 2007. Over his five seasons with the Red Sox, Okajima threw 246.1 innings out of the bullpen, allowing a 3.11 ERA. He was a clutch performer across three postseasons in Boston, allowing five runs total over 21.1 IP.
Often, teams are reluctant to sign players from NPB, because MLB teams have significantly less data and information about players in foreign leagues in comparison to players in the US. But, all signs point to Seiya Suzuki being a successful major leaguer, with the potential to become a superstar.
Entering his age-27 season, Suzuki is a five-time all-star who is consistently an MVP candidate. On the offensive side of the ball, Suzuki had a higher OPS in NPB than Shohei Ohtani did in his last year in Japan before coming to MLB. On the defensive side of the ball, Suzuki is a four-time gold glove winner and consistently tops NPB in metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating. A full breakdown of all of Suzuki’s traits can be found here.
But, like all international baseball players making the transition to MLB, Suzuki certainly faces a number of challenges. New languages, unfamiliar foods and climates, differences in training schedules and practice regimens, media expectations, and even the design of the baseballs and stadium configurations can all make it more difficult to assimilate.
Even when players are able to overcome all those barriers and succeed, they still face detractors, such as when Stephen A. Smith claimed Shohei Ohtani could not be the face of baseball because he uses an interpreter. But, the collective backlash of the baseball community against Smith proves that MLB is moving in an increasing international direction, as the game is dominated by stars who are not born in the United States.
Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, and Hideki Okajima were all able to overcome their barriers on their way to becoming successful major leaguers beloved by the Red Sox fanbase. If he chooses to sign in Boston, Seiya Suzuki can become the next Japanese superstar beloved by the Fenway faithful, and maybe even win over Stephen A. Smith.
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