With the hype surrounding Japanese pitching phenomenon Diasuke Matsuzaka as he prepares to make his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox this spring, it’s worth noting the accomplishments of Japanese baseball players in Major League Baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in total, there have been 27 Japanese ballplayers who have worn an MLB uniform. The first such player was Masanori Murakami, who debuted at the age of 20 in September of 1964 for the San Francisco Giants; he would pitch one full season the following year before contractual obligations forced him back to the Nankei Hawks of the Japanese League, where he pitched another 17 seasons.
It wasn’t until thirty years later that another Japanese ballplayer, Hideo Nomo, would take the field with a Major League club. In 1995, “The Tornado” (named so for his winding delivery style) made his first start for the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Giants in May of that season; at season’s end, he was 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts, beating future NL MVP Chipper Jones by 14 points for Rookie of the Year honors. Six years later, in 2001, he would spend his first and only season in a Boston Red Sox uniform. The year began well for the then-32-year-old veteran; making his first start of the regular season in Baltimore, Nomo pitched the first official no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher since Dave Morehead no-hit the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park in 1965. Having thrown a no-hitter against Colorado in 1996, he became the fourth pitcher in major league history to throw a no-hitter in both the American and National Leagues. He would finish the season at 13-10 in 33 starts with a 3.09 ERA and 220 strikeouts and then return to the Dodgers in 2002 as a free agent.
Nomo was actually the second player of Japanese descent to play for the Red Sox; in July of 1999, Tomokazu Ohka made his MLB debut for Boston and would remain with the club until 2001 when he was shipped mid-season to Montréal in exchange for fellow pitcher Ugueth Urbina. Ohka began his baseball career in Japan with the Yokohama Giants of the Central League, where he was 1-2 in 34 appearances over four seasons. Starting at Double-A Trenton to begin the 1999 season, he went 8-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 starts; he was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket and went 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA in 12 more starts. He soon made his major league debut as a mid-season call-up on 19 July; unfortunately, he lasted just one-plus innings in his first start, giving up five runs on five hits and a walk. He did not fair any better in his second start and was sent to the bullpen for the rest of the season.
The following spring, Ohka again started the year in the minors with Pawtucket and enjoyed another fast start, beginning the season with a 9-6 record and a 2.96 ERA in 19 starts, which included a perfect game against the Charlotte Knights on 01 June 2000. Once more, the Red Sox promoted him mid-season and, after saddling two more losses in starts with Boston, he finally earned his first major league win on 13 August in Texas against the Rangers, the first of three straight wins; at season’s end, he was 3-6 in 12 starts but with a respectable 3.12 ERA. He would begin the next season with Boston, winning two of his first three starts, but those would be the last wins for Ohka in a Boston uniform before the deadline trade. In total with the Red Sox, he compiled a 6-13 record in 25 starts and 33 total appearances with a 4.61 ERA.
Only one other Japanese-born player has worn a uniform for the Boston Red Sox, though many fans may not be familiar with this player’s heritage: Dave Roberts, one of the heroes of the 2004 World Series champions. Forever remembered in Boston lore for his stolen base in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, now often referred to as “The Steal,” his father, Waymon Roberts, was a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan; his mother, Eiko, is of Japanese descent. However, despite being born in the Land of the Rising Run, Roberts spent most of his youth in San Diego, CA. In total, counting players with other heritages, there have been 34 players born in Japan to don a major league uniform.