Most baseball fans remember Hideki Irabu as the Yankee’s pseudo-superstar Japanese pitcher who, after playing five years of mediocre major league ball, found himself in the minor leagues before eventually moving back to Japan. He was touted a “Japanese Nolan Ryan” and given a four year contract worth $12.8 million before so much as throwing a baseball in a competitive game on American soil. But the great Hideki Irabu hoax doesn’t begin with him joining the Yankees. It begins with a little known player named Masanori Murakami some 30 years earlier.
Even the most grizzled baseball aficionados would have to think long and hard were you to ask them who Masanori Murakami is. The first Japanese player to play in the big leagues, Murakami’s career has been mostly forgotten. Murakami, which means ‘upper village’ was born May 6th, 1944 in Otsuki, Japan. Murakami first appeared in America in 1964 when he suited up for the San Francisco Giants at the tender age of 20. Over parts of two seasons in the Bay area, Murakami posted the kind of numbers that, although solid, were likely to be overlooked by anyone not named Bill James (unfortunately for Murakami Bill James was only 15 years old at the time and people wouldn’t even consider listening to him for another 30 years). During the 1964 season Murakami also spent time in Fresno with the Giants single A affiliate. He dominated opposing hitters going 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA and 159 K’s in 106 innings. He allowed just 64 hits and 34 walks and posted a 0.925 WHIP.
The left-hander, who was labelled a “soft tosser” regularly baffled hitters with a dazzling array of off-speed junk and pin-point control. All in all he threw just 89 1/3 innings in the Majors, posting a 5-1 record and a respectable 3.43 ERA. During those 89 1/3 innings he allowed just 65 hits and 23 walks (0.985 WHIP) to go along with 100 punch-outs (10.1 K’s/9). His K’s/BB ratio was 4.35. Almost as soon as he had appeared he was gone again, back to Japan to again suit up for his former club, the Nankai Hawks. Why the Giants didn’t put up a fight to retain his services is understandable considering the player evaluation methods of the day. Murakami was unassuming, of slight build and didn’t even throw that hard. Murakami finally retired following the 1982 season at the age of 38.
Following Murakami’s departure in 1965 things on the Japan front went quiet to say the least. For 30 years no Japanese born player would enter the big leagues. That all changed when a lanky, 26 year old with an nasty forkball and a grotesque delivery showed up in L.A. in 1995. Hideo Nomo was initially sent to high A ball in Bakersfield where, during his first game on U.S. soil, he allowed 2 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk in 5 1/3 innings. Early jitters aside, Nomo promptly established himself within the Dodgers rotation going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA in 28 starts on his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award. He allowed 124 hits and 78 walks in 191 1/3 innings while racking up a league leading 236 K’s. All in all Nomo pitched 323 games in the Majors over 12 seasons. He finished his career with a 123-109 record and a 4.24 ERA. Although his career tapered off after that amazing start, he had done something much greater than any stat recorded by Major League Baseball; he had kicked open the door to America.
Perhaps, as a result of teams trying to find the next Nomo, the next eight Japanese players to play big-league ball were pitchers. After Nomo appeared in 1995 there was an influx of hurlers from Japan as MLB teams scrambled to unearth the next diamond in the rough. Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Takashi Kashiwada, and Hideki Irabu all made their Major League debuts in 1997 which begs the question: how much, if any, research went into these signings?
A closer look at Irabu’s NBL stats shows an unsettling amount of walks combined with a lower K’s/9 (9.08) than you’d expect from the “Japanese Nolan Ryan.” From 1988 to 1996 Irabu appeared in 243 Nippon Professional Baseball League games where he compiled a 59-59 record, and a 3.67 ERA. He allowed 924 hits and 507 walks in 1101 2/3 innings pitched. His 1.3027 WHIP was suspect even by major league standards, but in Japan, against has-been major leaguers and never-were minor leaguers, it was downright awful. I mean, Irabu was 27 at this point. It’s not like he was some raw fireballer who had yet to harness his powers (see Expos washout, Randy Johnson). If Irabu was so great, why did the Dodgers choose Nomo? In 1994, Nomo’s last year in Japan, Irabu went 15-10 with a 1.273 WHIP while Nomo went 8-7 with a 1.596 WHIP. Remember all of this was before the creation of the Japanese Posting system, so it’s possible that the Dodgers did want Irabu, but had to settle for Nomo who was able to get out of his Japanese contract when his agent discovered a loophole.
So how did the Yankees get it so wrong? For starters, they didn’t look at Irabu’s stats. Not seriously anyway. If they had they would have seen that despite his low ERA and high K’s/9 he also walked one batter every two innings. Sure he threw gas but what good is that if you can’t throw strikes? In Japan, apparently it’s fine. If Irabu walked a few guys, so what? He’d just strike out the next guy anyway. Some of these hitters were barely good enough to play in the low minors. Some of them couldn’t play in America, period. Irabu’s Japanese stats were inflated because he was pitching against guys the majority of whom were essentially Rookie league and low A ball calibre, at best. Add to that the fact that he was still walking 4.5 guys per game in Japan, where even if he just fired it right down the middle he was unlikely to get hurt, and you had a disaster in the making. Putting a pitcher like that up against MLB hitters, who would not only take the walks Irabu handed them but could actually hit his fastball, was always going to end in tears. In the Show everybody can hit a fastball.
A perfect example is that of Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder. After a woeful 1988 season in which he slashed .230/.289/.431 for the Jays, Cecil knew his days were numbered. Fielder’s ever increasing girth, combined with his shrinking average and diminishing power were responsible for his exile to Japan. Once there however, Fielder feasted (sorry, couldn’t resist) on the sub-standard pitching and began swatting home runs at a rate of one every 10 at bats. In 384 at bats he mashed 38 dingers and drove in 81 runs while slashing .302/.403/.628. What’s the point? The point is Japanese baseball isn’t as good as Major League Baseball and it’s obvious to anyone who looks at the stats for more than 2 and a half seconds. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Steinbrenner didn’t.
In three seasons with the Bronx Bombers Irabu posted a record of 29-20 and a 4.80 ERA. Over 395 2/3 innings of work he allowed 397 hits, 142 walks and had 315 K’s. His WHIP was an under-whelming 1.362. Other stats: 9.0 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, 7.2 K’s/9, 2.22 K’s/BB. He went on to make stops in Montreal and Texas before the league finally wised up and gave Irabu his walking papers. Baseball Reference shows Irabu’s career earnings as $15,550,000.00 and lists Irabu’s top five similarity scores as; Ryan Drese, Brandon Backe, Ray Phelps, Chris Knapp, Geremi Gonzalez. Nope, I don’t remember any of those guys either.
Irabu’s body was found on July 27th, 2011 in his L.A. home. Irabu had hanged himself.