One of the slower Hot Stoves in recent memory has been highlighted by the excitement over “the Japanese Babe Ruth,” Shohei Otani, deciding to continue his growing legend over in the Major Leagues. The enigmatic Ohtani has been one of the more distinct players available in recent memory due to his persona, age, and of course, two-way talent as both a pitcher with a 100-mph heater and a strong hitter with power ability he has displayed in Japan.
With Othani falling under the current international signing pool restrictions, and total money not being the leading factor in where the phenom would intend to sign, all 30 franchises were able to take a look at signing Ohtani — and dream about what the future could hold for a protege player still developing.
Sandy Alderson never made it clear to the media and fanbase that the Mets had a shot at signing Ohtani — which lead to no surprises for fans of New York when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed the “Japanese Babe Ruth” with full intention of deploying him as both a pitcher and batter.
While the Mets haven’t taken a run at new Japanese imports since the signings of Ryota Igarashi and Hisanori Takahashi in 2010, the team has employed a healthy supply of former NPB players, including most recently outfielder Norichika Aoki and former pitching sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka. Since the arrival of Hideo Nomo in 1995, the Mets have had 13 former NPB players suit up for the club; and while the Mets missed out on Ohtani, who has a real chance to change the face of the MLB, who of the former NPB-playing Mets had the greatest impact while with the organization?
Using WAR* (Wins Above Replacement) to rank the overall impact of position players/pitchers under a unified metric, fan favorites such as Takahashi and Tsuyoshi Shinjo graded out well. Still, the player who had the greatest success as a Met was right-handed pitcher Masato Yoshii.
Signed on January 13, 1998 to a contract with a base salary of only $200,000, 33 year old righty Masato Yoshii did not arrive in New York to the fanfare of a Nomo, Matsuzaka or Hideki Irabu. Nevertheless, Yoshii brought a solid resume and stabilizing presence for a Mets team looking to quickly bolster its rotation in support of a developing offense.
Drafted by the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the second round of the 1983 NPB draft, Yoshii would make his debut in 1985 at the age of 20, though it was not until the ‘88 season that he would become a reliable bullpen arm. That year, Yoshii would put up a 10-2 record and 2.69 ERA along with 24 saves in 80.1 innings pitched, en route to a 1.282 total WHIP and Pacific League Relief Pitcher Title. He would remain a force in the Buffaloes bullpen until a shortened 1992 season, during which he would pitch only 11.2 innings.. In 1993 Yoshii would return to action, transforming into a starter for the Buffaloes, though putting up pedestrian results before being traded to the Yakult Swallows in 1995.
From ‘95-’98 Yoshii would go on a run of three straight 10-win seasons. In ‘95, Yoshii would begin his ascent to becoming a top-flight starter, posting a 10-7 record in 22 starts, with a 3.12 ERA and a 1.127 WHIP. This put him only behind pitcher Terry Bross, who debuted in MLB with the Mets in 1991 with 10 innings pitched (the most he would have in a MLB season), and 21 year old lefty Kazuhisa Ishii (who would go on to pitch for the Mets in 2005) in ERA and WHIP among the teams’ starting pitchers. In ‘96, Yoshii would replicate his 10-7 record, but this time around he would become the leader of the Swallows pitching staff; throwing 33 more innings to a 3.24 ERA and 1.242 WHIP. The 1997 season would be Yoshii’s best season in the NPB as a starter. He amassed a 13-6 record to go along with a 2.99 ERA and 1.130 WHIP — only failing to outperform Ishii (who made only 17 starts) and Kazuya Tabata (who Yoshii still pitched to a stronger WHIP).
While Yoshii was coming into his own as a starter in 1997, the Mets had just finished their season 88-74 — a record good enough to win the division had they been in the NL Central, but not good enough to get past the perennial division champion Atlanta Braves or the eventual World Series Champion Florida Marlins. But with Edgardo Alfonso, Brian McRae and John Olerud returning for the ‘98 season to carry the offensive load, the team was looking to bolster a rotation which featured Rick Reed, Bobby Jones and Dave Mlicki. The addition of Yoshii, along with Al Leiter from the Marlins, (who were having a firesale) provided the team two arms capable of throwing stabilizing innings.
Debuting on April 4, 1998, Yoshii pitched a gem against the Pittsburgh Pirates that earned him praise from both Pirates manager Gene Lamont and Mets manager Bobby Valentine for his composure and compete level. Yoshii pitched to a line of 7 IP, three hits, one walk and seven strikeouts in a shutout performance that included throwing first-pitch strikes to 20 of 25 batters. It was the stabilizing performance the team needed behind Reed, Jones and Leiter to keep momentum going through the bottom of the rotation. While Yoshii had an offer of four years at $2 million a season to continue pitching in Japan, he had come over to the Mets to continue to challenge himself — taking a contract which didn’t guarantee him a roster-spot. For a team looking to take the next step in challenging for a playoff spot, an established but hungry pitcher was just the kind of 4th starter the team needed.
“He was told he wasn’t going to be given anything, that he had to earn it. And that was coming after 10 tough years of earning respect in Japan. He just wanted to kind of start all over and prove himself all over again,” Valentine said after Yoshii’s opening start. He would replicate this performance in his next start against the Brewers with six IP, five hits, three walks and four strikeouts, allowing an unearned run in a no-decision Mets victory.
Yoshii would continue to provide quality innings for the season’s first few months, before hitting a rough patch in June/July where he failed to reach 5 innings in 3 starts — allowing seven earned runs in starts against the Expos and Braves. But after a few hiccups, Yoshii returned to form. Over his last nine starts, he failed to go six innings only once, never surrendering more than four runs a start.
The 1998 season would be more of the same for the Mets, once again finishing with a respectable record of 88-74, as they did in ‘97, but ending 18 games back of the Braves in the division. When compared to the rest of the ‘98 rotation, Yoshii finished with very strong numbers. His final stats: a 6-8 record in 29 starts, allowing only 166 hits and 53 walks while striking out 117 batters in 171.2 innings pitched. His overall FIP of 4.47 and WHIP of 1.276, along with 2.8/BB9 and 6.1/SO9 would put him in the middle of the pack of Mets starters. Leiter and Reed would beat Yoshii in all statistical categories, while he was on par with Jones in terms of FIP and WHIP. One of the most notable accomplishments of Yoshii’s rookie season was who he did outperform from the ‘98 starters: fellow Japanese starter Hideo Nomo.
The former All-Star Nomo had been floundering with the Dodgers, carrying only a 2-7 record at the time of the trade, along with continuing control issues that lead to posting a 5.1/BB9 mark. In a trade for Mlicki and Greg McMichael, Nomo arrived on June 4th and would go on to pitch 89.2 innings for the Mets that year. While their arrivals in MLB were polar opposites — Nomo arriving in LA with great fanfare and Yoshii signing a contract which didn’t guarantee him a roster spot — it was the 33 year-old Yoshii out-performing the then 29 year-old Nomo in terms of FIP, WHIP, BB/9 and ERA+. While Nomo would go on to regroup and have solid seasons for the Red Sox and Dodgers again later in his career, it was Yoshii who was the better NPB product in ‘98.
Going into the 1999 season, the Mets added stars in Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson to bolster an already strong offense, while also adding another former Dodgers ace, this time in Orel Hershiser, to round out the rotation. Unlike the previous season however, Yoshii would not come out of the gate strong — struggling in his first four starts, including being unable to reach five innings in starts against the Reds and Padres. But his start on May 2 against the Giants would be a turning point for Yoshii. After spring training advice from Bobby Valentine to change where he was standing on the rubber to the first-base side, the plan was abandoned and Yoshii switched back to his traditional third-base side. The results were instantaneous as Yoshii would turn in 6 innings pitched of no-run pitching, the beginning of a five start string where he would pitch at least six innings per start, never allowing more than three runs.
After his start against the Giants, Valentine was quoted saying, “He made quality pitches, and he pitched in an extremely pressure-filled situation. He knew exactly what was on the line. A lot of people were waiting to cut off his head, and I’m extremely proud of him. His pitches were down in the zone.” But after a strong five-start streak, Yoshii would have a mixed-bag of results after that, putting together strings of 2 to 4 good performances before having an outing where he would get shelled. Luckily though, the team was more prepared for a pitching staff that was not performing at its 1998 level. Leiter and Reed regressed, Jones lost his rotation with rookie Octavio Dotel stepping in, and even acquisition Kenny Rogers would not perform to a sub 4.00 ERA. This season it would be Mike Piazza, Henderson and the Sports Illustrated featured infield who would carry the team, yet Yoshii was saving his best performance for the stretch run.
After getting shelled on July 30th against the Cubs for seven earned runs, and being demoted to the bullpen for two appearances, Yoshii would once again shake off the mid-season slump and put together his strongest string of starts in the majors. In his final nine starts of the season, Yoshii would never allow more than 2 earned-runs a game while never pitching less than six innings in any start. Yoshii would have a winning decision five of those starts, helping propel the Mets to a Wild Card title, beating out the Reds behind Leiter in a one game “Win and you’re in.”
Despite being on a staff with teammates Reed and Hershiser, each of whom had a longer track record of success in MLB, Yoshii would get the start in Game 1 of the NLDS against Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks. Yoshii would turn in 5.1 innings, allowing four earned runs. Yet, Yoshii did what he had to before handing the ball to the bullpen, who kept the D-Backs in check until the Mets could knock in four runs in the top of the ninth for the victory.
Yoshii would again take the ball in Game 1 the ALCS against the Braves, this time not facing a future HOF fireballer like Johnson, but the epitome of a control pitcher in HOFer Greg Maddux. Only going 4.2 innings before handing the ball over to the bullpen trio of Pat Mahomes, Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell, Yoshii did only allow 2 runs, which kept the Mets in the game, but eventually fell in Game 1, 4-2. Down 3 games to 1, Yoshii would again get the nod for a must win Game 5 start, again against Maddux. This time Yoshii would only go three innings before giving way to Hershiser in a 15 inning marathon, allowing two earned runs on four hits in what would be his last appearance as a Met.
The Mets went on to lose Game 6 to the Braves, ending their 1999 postseason run, and that offseason on January 14, 2000, GM Steve Phillips would ship Yoshii to the Colorado Rockies for Bobby Jones (not Bobby J. Jones, who was already on the team) and minor league pitcher Lariel Gonzalez (who would never appear in another major league game).
Despite being shipped away for two uninspiring pitchers, Yoshii’s contribution to the 1999 staff cannot go unnoticed, having helped the Mets come within two wins of a World Series berth. Within the starting staff, Yoshii finished the season with the best WHIP at 1.299, and the third best ERA — trailing Leiter and Rogers (who only had 12 regular season starts with the Mets) and the third best ERA+, while throwing the third most innings on the staff. On a staff with Hershiser, Reed and a young Dotel, Yoshii was not just a steady force who could provide quality innings, but a pitcher who was instrumental down the stretch as the team fought to get into the postseason.
Over his two seasons in New York, Yoshii combined to throw a total of 345.2 innings, starting 58 games over 60 appearances while compiling a 18-16 record and making three postseasons starts in 1999. Posting a WAR of 2.5 in ‘98 and 2.1 in ‘99, Yoshii ranked as the 8th best player in terms of WAR on the ‘98 team and the 9th best on the ‘99 team, above the likes of players such as Wendell, Hershiser and Henderson. Making just $3.075 million over two seasons with the help of performance incentives, Yoshii provided the Mets with tremendous value over two seasons, the greatest of any former NPB player.
Career After the Mets
Yoshii would turn in seasons for the Rockies and Expos before returning to Japan and pitching until the age of 42. While his time in MLB did not last long, his biggest impact on the league has come in his post-playing career as a coach. After finishing his playing career with Chiba Lotte of the NPB, managed by his former manager in New York Bobby Valentine, Yoshii was offered a contract with the Nippon Ham Fighters to become their pitching coach.
Valentine described his second stint with Yoshii saying: “I’ve always seen the way people respond to Yoshii…He came over to our team last year and, although he wasn’t very successful pitching, he was really successful in the dining room and on the bench and in the outfield during batting practice because young guys flocked around him and wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Being the first NPB player to play in the majors and return to coach in Japan is a great achievement in and of itself, yet it is who Yoshii coached that has made a great impact in MLB. In a 2008 New York Times profile on Yoshii, the article mentioned a then Japanese pitching prodigy named Yu Darvish who had just turned in a 15-5 season with an 1.82 ERA at the age of 21, under the tutelage of Yoshii. As the coach of a phenom, it was not Darvish’s talent which Yoshii was concerned with harnessing, but setting him up to have future success, injury free.
“The best thing I can offer him is a way to work out that minimizes the risk of injury. He already understands good pitching mechanics and has impeccable control,” stated Yoshii, a trailblazing and forward thinking remark considering the epidemic of pitching injuries we see in the league today. After Darvish graduated to the majors, hooking on with the Texas Rangers, Yoshii took on a new prodigy over the past few seasons: Shohei Ohtani.
While the Mets have not yet had a dynamic Japanese import perform for them at the caliber of a Nomo or an Ichiro Suzuki during their primes, and have missed out on Ohtani, Masato Yoshii was a great and undervalued success with the Mets critical to their 1999 postseason run; a player who does not get the respect he has earned in Mets history.
Hideo Nomo: 1998: .5 WAR for Mets
Takashi Kashiwada: 1997: .1 WAR
Masato Yoshii: 98-99: 2.5,2.1 WAR
Tsuyoshi Shinjo: 2001,2003: 1.8, .2 WAR
Satoru Komiyama: -.3 WAR
Kazuhisa Ishii: 2005: -.2 WAR
Kaz Matsui: 04-06: .9, -.1, -.3 WAR
Shingo Takatsu: 2005: .3 WAR
Daisuke Matsuzaka: 13-14: -.1, .2 WAR
Ken Takahashi: 2009: .6 WAR
Hisanori Takahashi: 2010: 1.4 WAR
Ryota Igarashi: 10-11: -.9, -.1 WAR
Nori Aoki: 2017: -.3 WAR