10:44 am Apr. 30, 2012
Placing the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda in the context of other Japanese pitchers who have attempted the transition to Major League Baseball, New York magazine's Will Leitch correctly argues against the antiquated, still-prevalent generalization that they don't have what it takes to succeed here.
But he uses former Met Masato Yoshii as one of his throwaway examples of a Japanese pitcher who couldn't hack it here.
The thing is, Yoshii's time in New York was actually a quiet success.
Hiroki Kuroda is the latest in a long line of Japanese pitchers to come overseas to face the highest level of competition, and while some of his predecessors have had success in the major leagues, none seems to have figured out a way to do it in New York. From Masato Yoshii to Kei Igawa (price tag: $46 million) to, most notoriously, Hideki Irabu, the legacy of Japanese pitchers in this town is one of failure and tragedy.
The problem with equating Masato Yoshii to Igawa and Irabu, in an article pointing out that not all Japanese pitchers are the same, should be obvious.
Yoshii pitched two seasons with the Mets after signing in January, 1998. His signing was not the high-profile, headline-grabbing event of Irabu's or even Igawa's. Yoshii's base salary was just under $500,000 in 1998. In fact, he was brought in as a low-cost alternative to bringing back Dwight Gooden.
''He's not a power pitcher with an exploding fastball,'' said Steve Phillips, the general manager at the time. ''He's a pitcher. He throws strikes, changes speeds and mixes up his pitches.''
Yoshii projected as New York's fourth starter, behind Bobby Jones, Rick Reed and Dave Mlicki.
He went on to post an ERA+ of 107 in 1998, and 101 in 1999. He made just over $1 million in 1998, and $2 million in 1999 for that performance. He was worth the money.
He actually matched up against Greg Maddux out of necessity in the 1999 playoffs, keeping the Mets in both Game 1 and, more famously, Game 5, the one the Mets ultimately won on Robin Ventura's Grand Slam single.
The Mets traded Yoshii to Colorado that winter for a pair of young arms, Lariel Gonzalez and Bobby M. Jones (the Jones they already had was Bobby J.). The deal was made while Yoshii remained, according to Phillips, at "peak value."
His E.R.A. climbed to 5.86 in Colorado, but with hindsight we can guess that this had a lot to do with the change of venue, since his ERA+ remained a reasonable 99. The Mets spent much of the 2000 season trying to find a Yoshii replacement at the back of their rotation, with neither Bobby Jones pitching well for much of the season, though Bobby J. rallied late.
Igawa and Irabu were every bit the tragic failures in New York Leitch says they were. But Masato Yoshii, for the Mets, turned out to be just as efficient as advertised.