The Top 9 MLB Players from Japan

A look at the 10 best players in MLB history to come out of Japan.

Having Japanese players in the major leagues is a relatively new phenomenon. Japan has its own major league, and judging by the quality of players who have attempted to make the leap to the more lucrative contracts in Major League Baseball, it's a very good league that's probably a little better than Triple-A in its quality.

The first player to attempt to play in the majors was a little-known pitcher named Masanori Murakami, who went to the San Francisco Giants as a kind of "exchange student" to the minor leagues in 1964. He pitched so well he made it to the majors that September. His Japanese team and the Giants fought over his services in 1965. In a compromise measure, Murakami pitched for one more season with the Giants as a relief pitcher, going 4-1 with a 3.75 ERA and eight saves, before going back to Japan. He pitched there for the next 16 years, winning 103 games.

The second Japanese player in MLB was Hideo Nomo, who started a trend with his immediate success. But MLB teams must often pay exorbitant fees to Japanese teams just for the right to negotiate with players. This keeps the stream of Japanese players at a relative trickle compared to Caribbean countries. Some of MLB's best players have made it across the Pacific all the same. 

Here's a look at the nine best players in MLB history to come out of Japan. 

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Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro Suzuki
Jim McIasaac/Contributor/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Position: Outfielder

MLB Teams: Seattle Mariners (2001-12), New York Yankees (2012-14) Miami Marlins (2015-2017) 

MLB stats through May 12, 2017: 17 years, .312, 115 HR, 692 RBI, 470 SB, .778 OPS

Ichiro is already a legend in two hemispheres. He has more than 5,000 hits combined between Japan and MLB, and if you count Japan as a major league, only two other players have more – Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. With fantastic speed and a cannon for an arm, Ichiro is more than just a weapon at the plate, too. He was American League MVP, Rookie of the Year and AL batting champion in his scintillating rookie season in the majors in 2001, and he hit .372 with an MLB-record 262 hits at age 30 in 2004. He's a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Hideki Matsui
Al Bello/Getty Images

Position: Outfielder/designated hitter

Teams: New York Yankees (2003-09), Los Angeles Angels (2010), Oakland Athletics (2011), Tampa Bay Rays (2012)

MLB stats: 10 years, .282, 175 HR, 760 RBI, .822 OPS

"Godzilla" came to America and conquered MLB. He didn't quite match his stats in Japan, but he was a consistent performer in the middle of some potent New York Yankees lineups. He was a big performer in the playoffs, hitting 10 postseason home runs and driving in 39 runs. He was MVP of the 2009 World Series in his swansong as a Yankee, hitting .615 with three home runs in a six-game series against the Phillies. More »

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Hideo Nomo
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Los Angeles Dodgers (1995-98, 2002-04), New York Mets (1998), Milwaukee Brewers (1999), Detroit Tigers (2000), Boston Red Sox (2001), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2004), Kansas City Royals (2008)

MLB stats: 12 years, 123-109, 4.24 ERA, 1976.1 IP, 1768 H, 1918 Ks, 1.354 WHIP

The original Japanese import, he was a pitcher for the silver-medal winning team in the 1988 Olympics and won 78 games in Japan before coming to the majors. He was NL Rookie of the Year in 1995 for the Dodgers with his signature tornado-like delivery and devastating forkball. He threw two no-hitters and his 123 wins in the majors is the most by far for a Japanese pitcher, a target for Yu Darvish to shoot for in future seasons. More »

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Yu Darvish
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Texas Rangers (2012-)

MLB stats through May 12, 2017: 49-32, 3.27 ERA, 397.3 IP, 552 H, 1.158 WHIP

Darvish is No. 4 because he's dominated the competition more than any player lower on this list in just four full seasons. After an incredible seven years in Japan, he came to MLB for a bigger challenge (and huge money), and he's become the ace of the Texas Rangers with a devastating array of pitches. More »

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Koji Uehara
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Baltimore Orioles (2009-11), Texas Rangers (2011-12), Boston Red Sox (2013-16), Chicago Cubs (2017) 

MLB stats through May 12, 2017: 20-24, 2.53 ERA, 93 saves, 322 H

Uehara followed a similar path as Saito to the majors, except he was one of the best starting pitchers in Japan for a number of seasons for the Yomiuri Giants. He went 20-4 there with a 2.09 ERA in 1999. He became a closer in 2007, then came to MLB as a starter in 2009. He became a reliever in 2010. He made the AL All-Star team in 2013.   More »

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Tomo Ohka
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Boston Red Sox (1999-2001), Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2001-05), Milwaukee Brewers (2005-06), Toronto Blue Jays (2007), Cleveland Indians (2009)

MLB stats: 10 years, 51-68, 4.26 ERA, 1070 IP, 1182 H, 590 Ks, 1.387 WHIP

Ohka's stats in four seasons in Japan's Central League didn't show too much potential, but the Boston Red Sox saw something in him and brought him over on a minor league deal in 1999. After dominating in Double-A and Triple-A – he threw a perfect game in 2000) – he joined the Red Sox's rotation. He was traded to Montreal in a deal that brought closer Ugueth Urbina to Boston and he spent the next four-plus seasons in the rotation of the Expos, who became the Nationals. He bounced around after that before wrapping up his big-league career at age 33 in 2009. More »

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Daisuke Matsuzaka

Position: Starting pitcher

Teams: Boston Red Sox (2007-12), New York Mets (2013-14)

Stats: 8 years, 56-43, 4.45 ERA, 790.1 IP, 721 H, 1.402 WHIP

Aside from perhaps Ichiro, no player from Japan came over with as much hype as Dice-K. The Boston Red Sox paid more than $51 million just for the rights to negotiate for him, then $52 million over six years. But after winning 15 games as a rookie and going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in his second season, Matsuzaka lost his control and then suffered a major elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2011. He came back in 2012 and went 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA. He's came back with the Mets in 2013 and retired after the 2014 season. 

Kazuhiro Sasaki
Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Seattle Mariners (2000-03)

MLB stats: 4 years, 7-16, 3.14 ERA, 129 saves, 223.1 IP, 165 H, 242 Ks, 1.084 WHIP

Another player who came over to the majors later in his career, Sasaki had immediate success as the closer for the Seattle Mariners in the season before Ichiro joined him. He was AL Rookie of the Year in 2000 when he had 37 saves. He was an All-Star in 2001 and 2002 and saved 45 games for the Mariners in 2001, when they won a modern-record 116 games. He returned to Japan in 2004. More »

Shigetoshi Hasegawa
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Position: Relief pitcher

Teams: Anaheim Angels (1997-2001), Seattle Mariners (2002-05)

Stats: 9 years, 45-43, 3.70 ERA, 33 saves, 720.1 IP, 691 H, 447 Ks

Hasegawa came over to the majors two years after Nomo and had moderate success as a setup reliever with the Angels and Mariners. He's remained in the United States where he now has permanent residence. According to an ESPN story, Hasegawa is a real estate agent in California and is a TV commentator for MLB games shown in Japan.

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The Next Five Best Japanese Players

1) Kosuke Fukudome (OF, 5 years, .258, 42 HR, 195 RBI, 29 SB, .754 OPS); 2) Kazuo Matsui (IF, 7 years, .267, 32 HR, 211 RBI, 102 SB, .701 OPS); 3) Hideki Okajima (RP, 6 years, 17-8, 3.09 ERA, 250.1 IP, 228 H, 216 Ks, 1.262 WHIP); 4) Kenji Johjima (C, 4 years, .268, 48 HR, 198 RBI, .721 OPS); 5) Tadahito Iguchi (2B, 4 years, .268, 44 HR, 205 RBI, 48 SB, .739 OPS)