On this day (11/6), former Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki won AL Rookie of the Year. Sasaki became the second-oldest major leaguer to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
Once upon a time, the Seattle Mariners were really good… Thinking about Kazuhiro Sasaki brings you back to the early 2000s when the Mariners made back to back playoff appearances in 2000 and 2001. The former Mariners closer, two-time All-Star, and Rookie of the Year, Sasaki was an integral part of the team’s success in those two seasons and had a positive impact on the Mariners despite his short stint.
Sasaki joined the Mariners in 2000 and immediately impressed. In his first season, he saved 37 games, with a 3.16 ERA, and struck out 78 batters in 62.2 innings. This led him to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award and became the second-oldest major leaguer to win the award. The only older player to win Rookie of the Year was Sam Jethroe who played in the Negro Leagues before joining the Boston Braves. Sasaki also became the second Japanese MLB player to win Rookie of the Year after Hideo Nomo.
Sasaki played a crucial part in the 2000 Mariners season where they made the postseason after finishing with a 91-71 regular-season record. The Mariners’ last playoff appearance was in 1997 at the time. Lou Piniella was the head coach and the offense was led by a young Alex Rodriguez, Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Mike Cameron, Jay Buhner, and Dan Wilson. Mariners fans will also remember pitchers such as Gil Meche, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, and Arthur Rhodes. The Mariners swept the White Sox in the ALDS and lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.
Onto the next season, Sasaki continued his excellent pitching as the closer into 2001. He saved 45 games, with a 3.24 ERA, and struck out 62 batters. He would make his first All-Star team which was held in Seattle, at Safeco Field. This was the year Ichiro Suzuki was introduced to the entire MLB. At the time, fans from Japan were going crazy over the fact that Seattle had two big-time Japanese big leaguers. Ichiro would win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, and be the first to ever do it.
Ichiro’s ROY award also meant two Seattle Mariners players won back to back ROY awards, and both were from Japan which is quite the accomplishment. This was a trailblazing moment as Sasaki and Ichiro continued to prove that Japanese baseball players had the skills to play in the MLB.
2001 was a record-breaking year, and Sasaki had a big part of it again. The Mariners won 116 games during the regular season, which is the most wins in a 162-game-season by any team. Seattle no longer had Alex Rodriguez, but the team did not need him in the regular season. The offense was led by Ichiro, Olerud, Edgar, Cameron, Bret Boone, Mark McLemore, and Buhner. In the pitching staff, Piniella had Garcia, Sele, Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Paul Abbott, and Jeff Nelson.
As mentioned earlier, the 2001 All-Star game was held in Seattle and eight Mariners players were selected. Four Mariners players started in the 2001 All-Star game. Sasaki came into the ninth inning to pitch the last inning of the game in front of his home crowd. The 2001 All-Star game will also be remembered as Cal Ripken Jr.’s final All-Star game and where he became the oldest player to hit a home run in the game.
Now back to Sasaki, he would have another All-Star season in 2002 with a 2.52 ERA, a career-best. He would also record 37 saves, with 73 strikeouts in 60.2 innings pitched. The Mariners would begin their playoff drought starting in 2002, despite a 93-69 regular-season record which put them in third place in the AL West. Another Japanese pitcher, Shigetoshi Hasegawa would also join the Mariners in 2002 which created even more buzz in Japan.
Sasaki would only pitch half a season in 2003 after an injury that occurred as a result of drunken horseplay. The Mariners forced Sasaki out after the fallout that occurred and Sasaki would return to play in Japan as a 35-year old. Despite the awkward ending to his career with Seattle and in the MLB, he played an integral part in the two playoff appearances the Mariners made in the 2000s. Sasaki also probably helped with Ichiro’s signing as one of the few Japanese baseball players in the big leagues at the time.
Sasaki will be remembered as one of the best Mariners closers and Japanese closers in the MLB.