Japanese baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki is returning back to his first Major League Baseball team, the Seattle Mariners. The 44-year-old Suzuki officially signed a one-year Major League deal with the Mariners on Wednesday, after spending the last three seasons with the Miami Marlins.
While Suzuki returning to Seattle is a feel-good story in itself, it also has significant implications for the symbolic “passing of the torch” of being the flagship Japanese player in MLB to Shohei Otani.
Many Japanese players have come to the United States since Suzuki’s debut in 2001 – Kosuke Fukudome, Masahiro Tanaka, and Yu Darvish, to name a few – but none with the level of excitement that surrounds Otani.
The Elder Statesman
Suzuki is the second oldest player in the Majors, and the oldest non-pitcher by more than four years, which leads many to believe that his career is the home stretch. He doesn’t think so though, as he told the Miami Herald last year that he wants to play until he’s 50. While many free agents have gone deep into spring training without being signed, Suzuki’s late signing could almost certainly be attributed to his age and declining performance.
Suzuki has posted a career .312 batting average and was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in each of his first ten seasons in Seattle.
His numbers dipped in Miami, where he was forced to share time in a crowded outfield alongside Christian Yellich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton. When he was afforded regular opportunities, he proved to be effective despite his age.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Otani was the hottest name on the free agent market this off-season. He possesses Babe Ruth-like ability to play the outfield and pitch without slouching at either and is also an effective left-handed hitter.
He posted the highest batting average of his Japan Pacific League career last season at .332, but his 2016 season featured 28 home runs and 67 RBI in just 104 games.
As a pitcher, 2015 and 2016 were his best seasons in Japan, with a 1.86 ERA in ’16 and 196 strikeouts in ’15.
He’ll certainly face difficulty this season in managing pitching, playing the outfield and hitting, all while adapting to the Major Leagues.
The Transition Phase
The timing just seems right for Suzuki to offer an outfield assist to Otani on how to carry the weight of a proud baseball nation.
A critical factor is that Suzuki and Otani now both play on the west coast, where California and Washington have significant Japanese populations. According to data from AsiaMattersForAmerica.org, California and Washington had the highest Japanese populations in the continental US at the 2010 census.
Also important is that Otani does not have any Angels teammates who are also Japanese, and the only one who plays across town for the Dodgers is Kenta Maeda.
Ultimately, whether or not Otani becomes the picture of Japanese baseball in America will depend on how he carries himself and how he performs on the field.
His decision process on where to sign this winter showed a lot about his character. His slow start this spring training is not cause for writing him off.
Being the top Major League player from your home country is no light order, but Otani seems poised to assume the role, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities for mentorship from Suzuki this season.