Top 5: Japanese players in MLB history

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Tanaka

By Chris Olds | Beckett Baseball Editor | Commentary

The final game of the Japan Series is scheduled for Thursday with MLB and Japan splitting the first six games.

That got us thinking — who are the top players in MLB today and in MLB history?

Who’s No. 1? We’ll let you decide … after the jump.

Masahiro Tanaka (click for Beckett.com stats)
Pitcher | Yankees 2014-current | Age 25
Career Stats: 13-5, 2.77 ERA, 141 strikeouts in 136 innings
He was the biggest thing in The Big Apple this past season and his bigness can’t truly be assessed on cardboard because the rookie doesn’t yet have any MLB certified autographs. We’ll have to be satisfied for now with his Relics from Topps and Panini America releases this season. If you want more of a challenge, his earliest Japanese cards from his time in Nippon Professional Baseball are in 2007 sets from BBM and Calbee.

5x7_allstar_DARVISH_000001

Yu Darvish
Pitcher | Rangers 2012-current | Age 27
Career Stats: 39-25, 3.27 ERA, 680 strikeouts in 545 innings
His record may not say it, but the Rangers’ ace has been a dominating arm since coming to MLB. He’s also been a steady source of quality cardboard. His priciest RC is his 2012 Topps Triple Threads card, No. 139, which was issued as a redemption but features an autograph as well as a game-used jersey piece. It sells for as much as $200 and is limited to just 99 serial-numbered copies. His cheapest RC is from 2012 Bowman Draft, which sells for $4 or less. His earliest Japanese cards arrived in 2005 when he played for the Nippon Ham Fighters, while he has 22 MLB Rookie Cards from 2012. There’s plenty to collect here, so once Ichiro Suzuki retires Darvish just might be the go-to guy for many Japanese collectors.

7ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki
Outfielder | Yankees 2001-current | Age 40
Career Stats: .317 Avg. 112 HRs 717 RBI
Without question, the biggest MLB star to ever come from Japan, Suzuki will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he decides to hang them up. He’s got 2,844 career hits and if he gets to 3,000 his career total as a pro would be more than MLB hit king Pete Rose. That should tell you how productive he’s been. On cards, he’s also an unquestioned king among Japanese players with serious interest in his certified autographs and rarer Rookie Cards.

Japan-Matsui

Hideki Matsui
Outfielder & Designated Hitter | Yankees, Angels, Athletics, Rays | 2003-2012
Career Stats: .282 Avg. 175 HRs 760 RBI
He earned the nickname “Godzilla” from Japanese fans during his powerful days as a member of the Yomiyuri Giants before trading in his NPB gear for Yankees pinstripes. As a Yankee, he was a two-time All-Star and he was the 2009 World Series MVP after he hit .615 with three homers and eight RBI in the Fall Classic. “Matsui moved runners when he had to move them, he got big hits, he drove guys in, he wanted to play every day,” Derek Jeter told ESPN.com. “The biggest thing — he never made excuses. Never heard him talk about any injuries, which I appreciate. He’s always been one of my favorite teammates and always will be.”

HideoNomo
Hideo Nomo
Pitcher | Dodgers, Mets, Brewers, Tigers, Red Sox, Rays, Royals | 1995-2008
Career Stats: 123-109, 4.24 ERA, 1,918 strikeouts in 1,976 innings
When “The Tornado” arrived in MLB with his whirlwind wind-up, he took the hobby by storm winning National League Rookie of the Year honors while going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and a league-leading 236 strikeouts in 1995. Nomo never won 20 games in any of his 12 big-league seasons (his best was 16-6 in 2002) but he’s one who is remembered and his autos are chased. Earlier this year, he was the youngest player inducted into the Japanese Hall of Fame — a first-ballot selection and only the third in history.

And a bonus … the first MLB player to come from Japan.

Japan-Murakami

Masanori Murakami
Pitcher | San Francisco Giants | 1964-65
Career Stats: 5-1, 3.43 ERA, 100 strikeouts in 89 innings
Although he shares his 1965 Topps Rookie Card (No. 282) with Dick Estelle, there’s a great story behind Murakami’s card. Long-time collectors may remember him from a 2002 Topps insert set, but his place in hobby history is an interesting and largely unknown one even though he made baseball history way back in 1964. His feat? He was the first player from Japan to play in MLB. He returned home after two seasons and played in NPB until 1982. The Giants have honored him a few times, including a ceremonial first pitch this season.

Who's the best?

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Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball and Beckett Sports Card Monthly magazines. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at colds@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrisolds2009.

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9 comments

  1. Will Gryc 19 November, 2014 at 10:00

    Ichiro is the easy choice for me. He has a very good shot at the Hall of Fame, while the others (at the moment) do not have the accomplishments to merit some consideration. Darvish could eventually get there, but it is so difficult for pitchers to sustain HOF worthy excellence that I would not bet on it.

  2. Aaron S. 19 November, 2014 at 10:31

    Ichiro has to be a clear #1 here. He’s really the only one from the group who is destined to end up in the HOF – both here and in Japan.

    Darvish and Tanaka both bring plenty of hope/potential, but Nomo still likely stands as the best pitcher to date. Darvish will pass him with a few more solid seasons, but he isn’t there just yet.

  3. Mark 19 November, 2014 at 15:07

    Putting the cart way before the horse on Darvish and Tanaka. Tanaka has only played a half of one season for goodness sake.

    There really are only 2 Japanese players that have made a significant impact in the Major Leagues, Ichiro and Matsui.

  4. Jon 19 November, 2014 at 15:34

    Only 2? You can’t say that Nomo did not have an impact on MLB. When his cards came out, this was before ebay and the internet was in early stages, you couldn’t go in a card shop without kids (like myself) spending all there allowance in packs of SP or Select to try to pull a Nomo rookie card

  5. David Johnson 19 November, 2014 at 17:25

    Darvish and Tanaka are fresh faces and have done well so far, but they are still early in the MLB careers and anything could happen…Hideki Irabu and Dice-K were just as big names for a year or so before fizzling out. Hopefully Darvish and Tanaka don’t follow their lead.

  6. Mark 20 November, 2014 at 10:08

    Hideo Nomo’s value as a major leaguer peaked as a rookie. He never made an all-star team, never received a Cy Young vote after his second year, and was 0-2 in his only two post-season starts, also in his first 2 years. He did not make a significant impact in the major leagues. He was just another pitcher. His claim to fame is his NL ROY, but the guy who finished second in that vote is going to Cooperstown.

  7. Charlie 20 November, 2014 at 10:26

    Mark – I’ve got to disagree strongly on Nomo. He won 123 games, struck out nearly 2,000 batters. And he’s one of only 6 pitchers to throw a no-hitter in both leagues. His WAR is actually higher than Mastui’s. I would say his impact was significant statistically, but even moreso when you consider non-statistical things like his unique delivery, the fact that he was the first to pave the way for other Japanese stars, Nomo-mania, etc.

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