Ranking the Mariners’ Brightest Japanese-Born Stars
By David James
With the Mariners now considered a finalist in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, or possibly a favorite, it’s easy to get excited about the chances of adding one of the offseason’s most sought after players to the Seattle roster.
And if the Mariners do beat out the other West Coast favorites like San Diego and San Francisco, they’ll not only land the most unique players in the game but potentially the latest in an impressive line of Japanese superstars to make a mark on the franchise. Here’s a look at the greatest Japanese-born players to ever suit up for the M’s.
It didn’t take long at all for Mariners fans to see what the front office saw in Kenji Johjima, who took over catching duties in 2006 after longtime fan favorite Dan Wilson hung up the cleats. Johjima would become the first catcher since the 1800s to homer in his first two big league games and quickly played his way into Rookie of the Year contention.
With plenty of pop and an ability to hit for average, Johjima was one of the best-hitting catchers in the A.L. in his first two seasons with Seattle. Even though it was only a relatively brief Major League stint before he returned to Japan to wrap up his career, Johjima finished his time as one of the top sluggers at the catcher position in Seattle history.
After being a star for the Orix BlueWave in Japan, Hasegawa first played in Oakland before coming to Seattle, where he would immediately make an impact as a middle-reliever in 2002. In 2003, Hasegawa would pitch his way to the All-Star Game after Kazuhiro Sasaki hit the D.L., keeping the Mariners afloat on their way to a second straight 93-69 season.
Hasegawa would post a 1.48 ERA and 1.096 WHIP on the season while locking down 16 saves before settling in as an effective reliever for his final few years in the league. More than just a ballplayer, Hasegawa was even known to pitch stock advice in the clubhouse, became a best-selling author, and is well-known as a commentator for pro games in Japan.
Mariners fans weren’t completely sure what they were getting with Hisashi Iwakuma. He lingered in the bullpen for the first few weeks of the 2012 season. He finally got his chance in the rotation. The 31-year-old rookie certainly didn’t disappoint, as he would earn his spot in the starting rotation by going 9-5 with a 3.66 ERA his first year in the U.S.
The rest of the league didn’t have an easier time against Iwakuma the following season either, as Kuma dropped his ERA to 2.66 and hurled the fifth no-hitter in franchise history on his way to the All-Star Game and the Cy Young conversation. Following an injury-riddled 2017 campaign, Iwakuma recently inked a minor league deal with the Mariners and is expected to compete for a roster spot in the spring.
Armed with a split-fingered fastball so good Seattle announcers nicknamed it “The Fang,” Sasaki turned his decade of star-level play in Japan into instant success with the Mariners. After becoming the closer in 2000, Sasaki would help transform a sub-par bullpen into one of the American League’s best. He won Rookie of the Year honors, marking the first time a Mariner won the award since 1984.
With a much-improved bullpen, Sasaki would help guide the Mariners to a record-setting 116 wins his second year with Seattle. He was named an All-Star in both 2001 and 2002, averaging more than 40 saves a season over that stretch. He returned to Japan in 2004. Despite Sasaki brief stint, he was nonetheless instrumental to Seattle’s success in arguably the greatest back-to-back seasons in franchise history.
Some lists are more difficult than others. While the live-ball era was at its peak, Ichiro dinked and dunked his way to 10 All-Star appearances, 10 gold gloves, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and even inspired others in the clubhouse to boast that he could hit 30 to 40 homers a season – if he felt like it.
His right arm also still fills the nightmares of baserunners 16 years after he hosed Terrence Long from sub-orbital space. Not only were the Oakland announcers stunned but so was Mariners third baseman David Bell, who at first didn’t appear to even be expecting a throw as Long tried to go from first to third on a single.
Although he only just entered the game as a pinch-hitter that day, only the eighth game of the season, it soon became extremely clear that Ichiro was a special player destined to become one of Seattle’s all-time greats.
Next: Shohei Ohtani, Seattle Mariners, Collision Course?
The Seattle Mariners have a storied history with Japanese players. Few, if any, franchise can boast the resume of Seattle. Will it help them land Shohei Ohtani? Maybe. Can it hurt their chances? Perhaps. But if Ohtani is open to it, the history of Japanese born baseball players in Seattle is rich indeed.