Kenji Fujikawa: Next Great Japanese Import?

By Matt Heckler
Kenji Fujikawa World Baseball Classic
Robert Benson-USA TODAY Sports

Kenji Fujikawa is one of a handful of new pitchers added by the Northsiders in the off-season. The Chicago Cubs as an organization haven’t signed many players from southeast Asia. Kosuke Fukudome was a great defensive player with a good OBP, but is generally seen as a bit of a disappointment due primarily to his inconsistency. Korean first baseman Hee-seop Choi turned out to be a bust for the Cubs, but was traded to the Florida Marlins for the excellent Derrek Lee. Lee, who spent most of his elementary years living in Japan, served as the Cubs first basemen for more than six seasons, winning a batting title and finishing 3rd in NL MVP voting in 2005. Although Choi himself didn’t work out for the Chicago Cubs, those of us who loved Derrek Lee remember him fondly as the guy we traded for Lee.

Theo Epstein has somewhat of a history of acquiring Asian players. Daisuke Matsuzaka was acquired during his tenure as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, and turned out to be a solid pitcher for Boston, with a 50-37 record and 4.52 ERA over six seasons. Hideki Okajima, another Japanese pitcher acquired by Epstein from the NPB, had a solid tenure as a reliever for the Red Sox, finishing with a 3.11 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over five years. Epstein didn’t manage to sign an Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui from the Japanese market, but has done respectably well. Hopefully for the Cubs, Kyuji Fujikawa will turn out to be the star import Chicago needs.

In twelve seasons as a pitcher for the Hanshin Tigers, the majority as a closer, Fujikawa has finished seven seasons with an ERA below 2.00, and in all but one of those seven, his WHIP was below 1.00. He pitched for Japan in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, helping his country win both tournaments. He is described as a pro typical power pitcher, with an outstanding fastball. Fujikawa had an amazing 856 strikeouts in 644.2 innings pitched in his career in NPB.

Whether or not his overwhelming success will transfer over to the MLB remains to be seen. We have seen some Japanese relievers do well, like Okajima. Shingo Takatsu came to the Chicago White Sox very late in his career and managed to have one stellar season before dropping off, but he didn’t play in the MLB until he was 35. Kyuji Fujikawa was a star in Japan, but there’s no way of knowing if he’ll turn out to be the next Ichiro or another Japanese import who is never able to compete at the same level.

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