The annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game is a little over a week away, on July 15 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn.
Maui’s Kurt Suzuki is having the best year of his MLB career playing for the Minnesota Twins. He has an outside chance of getting on the All-Star roster — but only if the stars line up right. He’s batting .306 as of this writing (mid-June). That is 10th best in the entire league and the best among American League catchers.
However, he ranks fifth in the ballot for catchers in the big game. Suzuki needed Hawai‘i fans to vote for him in a big way. Kurt could also use some help from his manager, Ron Gardenhire, who is assisting Boston manager John Farrell. Farrell heads the American League in the All-Star Game. (St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will head the National League.) Baseball fans get to vote on the starting position players for the All-Star Game. However, players, coaches and managers elect the eight pitchers, three relievers and back-up players for each position. The manager will fill his team’s roster up to a total of 33 players. Hawai‘i hasn’t had anyone on the All-Star Game roster since Shane Victorino’s appearances in 2011 and 2009 when he was with the Phillies. Victorino has done very well in Boston, but has been hobbled by injuries and spent a considerable amount of time on the disabled list this spring, so Hawai‘i fans will have to wait another year before we can see him back on the All-Star roster. Ditto Kolten Wong and Brandon League.
But, there will be a couple of big names from Japan on the American League roster this year. At the moment, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish are the two leading pitchers in the AL. Darvish, whose Iranian father and Japanese mother met at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., has been named to the All-Star roster in all three years of his MLB career; however, he has yet to pitch an inning in the classic. After a sterling career with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, he was acquired by the Texas Rangers in 2012 and has been their ace ever since. Darvish finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 2012 and last year finished second in the AL Cy Young Award with 277 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA. This year, his record is 7-3 with a 2.39 ERA, just second to Tanaka. Tanaka is 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, the much-heralded New York Yankees rookie pitcher who is leading the AL with an 11-1 won-loss record and a 1.99 ERA. In Japan, he pitched for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2007 to 2013. Tanaka had won 26 consecutive decisions, breaking a Nippon Professional Baseball record when the Yankees acquired him in a bidding war. He reportedly signed a seven-year contract worth $155 million, and the Yankees think he’s well worth every last dollar of that deal. Tanaka could very well be the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. Keep in mind, however, that Boston’s John Farrell is the AL manager, and he isn’t known to be a Yankee fan. The third Japanese pitcher with a good chance of being selected for the All-Star team is Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, who has a perfect 15-0 save record this year and a miniscule ERA of 0.57. Uehara has been in and around MLB since 2009, but only since joining the Red Sox in 2013 has he blossomed in his role as a closing pitcher. He won the 2013 ALCS MVP Award and was one of the heroes of the 2013 World Series.
So, one would think that should the AL be ahead in the ninth, his manager would want his closer to close, right? There are a number of other Japanese pitchers who are doing quite well for their respective clubs, although their chances of getting on the ballot are probably remote. Junichi Tazawa, another bright light in last year’s World Series, is an excellent set-up man for Boston with an ERA of 2.32. But who ever heard of a set-up pitcher being selected? Hiroki Kuroda spent a decade with the Hiroshima Carp before joining the LA Dodgers in 2008 and then moving to the Yankees three years ago. He’s been one of the team’s more reliable starters, but with only a 4-5 win-loss record and an ERA of 4.12, my guess is he’ll be watching the All-Star Game on TV. No one had a bigger write-up than Daisuke Matsuzaka when he signed a six-year, $52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 after an outstanding career with the Seibu Lions. He did very well initially, ending his first season with a 15-12 record and an ERA of 4.40. Daisuke played a major role in Boston winning the World Series in 2007. In 2008, he had an even better season, with an 18-3 record and a 2.90 ERA record. He then pitched for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and did very well, earning the MVP award with a 3-0 record and a 2.45 ERA. However, he apparently injured his hip preparing for the Classic and his MLB career has gone south ever since. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011, was traded to Cleveland in 2013 and then to the NY Mets later in the season. He’s done fairly well with the Mets, garnering a 3-0 won-loss record and a 2.88 ERA in 29 games. Hisashi Iwakuma played for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles before joining the Seattle Mariners in 2012 with a modest contract. However, he did really well in 16 starts and 14 relief appearances, going 9-5 with two saves and a 3.16 ERA. His 2013 season was better — he got 14 wins, appearance in the All-Star classic and a hefty hike in his salary. He started the 2014 season with an arm injury and delayed his debut until early May. Since then, he has posted a 5-3 record with a 2.59 ERA.
And, how about Ichiro (Suzuki)? The first Japan-born position player in the major leagues is a 10-time All-Star who has won a Gold Glove Award in each of his first 10 years. He has an accumulated .319 batting average over his 14-year MLB career. Ichiro is currently batting .320 for the Yankees, but as a part-time player, he won’t get a chance to show his stuff in the All-Star Game. One would think that his outstanding accomplishments and popularity would be good enough to be a manager’s choice. But, then again, he’s a Yankee. Unfortunately, the same probably applies to Norichika Aoki, an excellent leadoff batter and outfielder for the Kansas City Royals. In his previous two years with the Milwaukee Brewers, he hit .282 and stole 20 to 30 bases yearly. His Royals are doing very well this year, much better than they’ve done in a long while, but not good enough for Aoki to get the recognition he needs. So that’s a quick rundown of the Nikkei and Nihonjin available for this year’s MLB All-Star Game. I’ll say Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish are in, and Koji Uehara and Kurt Suzuki should be. The others? No chance. As always, though, it’ll be a fun game to watch. Dr. Michael Okihiro is a retired Honolulu neurologist and a self-professed “baseball nut.”