Kyuji Fujikawa is dominating in the Cactus League play for the Chicago Cubs so far. In four innings of work, the former NPB superstar hasn’t given up a single run or walk, and has allowed only two hits. These add up to a 0.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, opponent’s AVG of .143, and 5 strikeouts as an added bonus. To make things even more impressive, Fujikawa is yet to pitch a ball in a Chicago Cubs uniform; he has 24 strikes and 24 pitches in 4 innings.
Among Japanese relievers from the NPB who have ended up playing several years in the MLB, there is a lot of precedent for pitchers carrying over their previous successes. A handful of pitchers have managed to actually have better numbers in the MLB than they had in the NPB, including recently acquired Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara, whose ERA was 3.01 in the NPB and is 2.89 in the MLB despite not coming to the MLB until his mid 30s. Hisanori Takahashi came to the MLB at around the same age, and has gone from a 3.70 ERA and a 79-66 record in the NPB to a similar 14-12 record with a 3.97 ERA in the MLB.
Others with similar success are players like Shingo Takatsu, who came to the MLB as a 12 year veteran of the NPB and pitched for a 3.38 ERA after posting a 3.11 ERA in his career in Japan. Akinori Otsuka was another case of relief pitching becoming equally successful after the jump, as he boasted a 2.39 ERA in 305 games in the NPB and a 2.44 ERA in 236 games in the MLB.
It’s hard to project exactly how well Kyuji Fujikawa will do in the MLB long term, but the fact is that he is the highest caliber reliever to ever come across from Japan. He is in the prime of his career at age 32, and in 562 appearances in NPB his career ERA is an astonishing 1.77 and his WHIP is an almost unbelievable 0.96. He was a four time All-Star in the league, most valuable closer once, and twice the most valuable setup pitcher. If he has a similar amount of transitional success as other veterans of Japanese baseball, Kyuji Fujikawa will be among the best closers in the league. Even if his ERA goes up by 30% in the MLB, which would be a considerably higher jump than many of his fellow Japanese imports, he’d still be boasting a 2.30. Batters may be harder to judge when they move from Japan to the US, but pitchers have a history of keeping their quality. With any luck, Kyuji Fujikawa will be the next in a line of great pitchers from Japan who stayed great pitchers in the MLB.